We’re better together




wrote blogs this week (would like to see the women blogging more, too!), and there was a common theme. The power of the group. It’s a funny thing because running, we’re often told, is an individual sport. It’s true: in the end, it’s just you and the pain. But to get there, you need support. You need your teammates. In theory, it shouldn’t matter if you train alone or with others. Your heart pumps what it pumps; your muscles push how they push. That said, the intangible assets that a group mentality brings can really help a runner take off.

Everyone has a weakness (or two!) and by bringing together a group of runners to train and grow together, people can match up with others who are stronger in one area, and weaker in another, and everyone wins.

There’s an interesting counter to this, which is of course that every athlete is an individual, and the training should be adapted accordingly. That’s a bit of a red herring though, as it does not at all preclude a strong group dynamic. As I’ve said before, the interval workouts are 20% or less of the training. Everyone needs the same physiological stimulations. Some need a little more of this, and a little less of that. So it’s really not hard to coordinate a big group of runners, while keeping individualization. When a decision needs to be made that’s for the benefit of the group, it’s just as beneficial for everyone in the group.

Another counter-point, and a more valid one, is that, in the end, we are all alone. The existential theory of training says that in order to be the best, an athlete needs to be selfish. I think this is absolutely true. I’ve seen it in all of the Olympic-level athletes I’ve ever met. But being selfish does not mean training alone, and it certainly does not mean having the ability to do everything all by yourself. As I said above: everyone has a weakness. To reach their potential, an athlete has to be selfish enough to say: I need to fix my weakness, and to go out and ask for that help. This is where the group comes in. Everyone has something to gain from the group.

The weakness might be physical (like having slow turnover); it may be psychological (like losing focus in races). In the latter case, the selfish athlete needs to have a strong support system in place to allow them to fail, first to identify weaknesses, and second to experiment with solutions to those weaknesses. The support system must allow the athlete to be selfish.

The blogs the boys wrote this week offer a few good examples. Take Didier, who spent about 10 weeks rehabbing a strained calf muscle. He did most of this alone. In the pool by himself, on the bike by himself, at home, in his room, with only a picture of his coach by his bedside (this is true, ask him), doing one-leg squats and other exercises. He was selfish: he took the time to himself. But he had the group’s support. He came to practice on his bike even when he knew he wasn’t going to be running. This is a team player. (You’re welcome UofT Blues)

Dan talked about having people around who will listen. This is hard in a big group. Sometimes, it’s easy to get swept away in the group, and forget the individual variances. Some people don’t like to talk much. They are still valuable members of the group. If you listen to them, sometimes you will hear amazing, surprising things. Remember that everyone in the group—coaches, athletes, medical support, parents, friends—are all equally important to the success of the athlete. A good group will have no more heirarchy than necessary for practical things like organizing trips, race entries, that sort of thing. Even the coach (especially the coach) can learn from the athletes. The coach has a special role because he or she does have some power. The coach is entrusted with coming up with the training to help the athletes reach their goals. The best way to do this is to listen more than you speak. It’s probably the hardest thing for most coaches to do. I know I struggle with it. What does the coach get out of it? Steve Prefontaine said that what he got out of running was a “strong sense of personal satisfaction.” Can we ask for more?

Ryan’s post is also relevant, although perhaps more metaphorically. He wrote of his crock pot. A crock pot is a perfect analogy for the team concept. You put a bunch of good stuff in it, heat it up, and what comes out is better than what went in. Greater than the sum of its parts, they say.