I’ve been a track coach for more years than I have taught. For the bulk of my coaching years I have focused on sprinters. While I know a fair amount about technique and training, when the athletes are on the track and in the race, there is not very much I can do for them. I do my best to remain present, bear witness, offer support.
That said, I do have one habit I use to boost their efforts. I find a space outside the track where athletes will be able to hear me. Especially for the 400m, I like to stand near the last curve. From there I watch and wait for my athletes to approach. I shout:
“That’s it. Now pump the arms, pump the arms!”
“The arms! That’s it, your arms!”
That’s what I do time and time again.
Why? Because it works.
Any hard-running athlete who hears: “Move your legs faster!” when coming around the bend will unlikely feel helped and might be justifiably annoyed.
But the arms, well, that’s something many athletes can do something about. It may not feel like much, but a little stronger swing of the arms back and forth, elbows bent at 90 degrees – that may just be enough to pull someone through to the finish line faster than they thought possible.
I wonder in school how often we stand by and exhort our students with what amounts to the equivalent of “Move your legs faster”? When what they really could use is a reminder to activate a part of themselves that feels more under their control in that moment. “Stop for a moment. What thought or thoughts just went through your head? Can you remember? Tell your neighbor.” Rather than demanding that students pay attention, why not offer an opening to have them locate their attention at that moment? Acknowledge that thoughts are and may be elsewhere and gradually guide their attention back to the topic at hand.
When we shift the focus onto what students can control, we remind them of their own power.
We do this by asking students about what they can do when they say they can’t.
Or by offering choices within an assignment.
Or by allowing students to come up with a different way that they’d like to demonstrate their learning.
There are many more ways for us to bolster our students’ sense of efficacy than we may recall at any given time. That said, students may well experience more drive and persistence when they are encouraged to focus on the elements of their performance that they feel are actually under their control.
When our students are in the race, let’s find ways to tell them “Use your arms!”