Tim Butler On Mental Toughness And Maintaining A Long Season

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Over a span of over four decades, retired Dana Butler (California) head coach Tim Butler had success at both the cross country and track and field levels before he retired in 2015. During that time the Dana Hills boys and girls cross country teams have made it to numerous Nike Cross National races and state championships. Below, Butler offers advice in some key areas of maintaining a successful program. This interview is recirculated from a conversation in 2015. 

Developing Mental Toughness

What is your approach to developing mental toughness? 

"Getting the kids to ask the right questions when they're hurting. Giving them suggestions about mental training techniques such as affirmation, visualization, or self-talk. Those kinds of things to kind of remind them of because your body does exactly what your mind is thinking. If you say, 'Oh, I'm tired' -- then, okay, you slow down. Instead, 'Oh I'm tired, so what can I focus on so I'm not thinking about how tired I am?' Okay, so let's segment the race, that next tree, then after the next tree, I'm just gonna go to the next tree as hard as I can, or without thinking about the pain or so on. Those are just different techniques that you can use. Just repetition when it gets tough, just remind them, 'Hey this is exactly the way you're feeling in your race, what are you gonna think?'  Start thinking the right stuff right now in your training; apply it right now. How are you feeling? Start thinking about what you need to think about instead of how much you're hurting, and it will translate to your races. Especially when the competitive part comes into it, a lot of kids don't have that much of a problem with that because they're so competitive, and that just completely blurs out any kind of pain. Some of those kids that are sensitive they have a hard time with that, so you gotta toughen'em up. 

Just ask'em, 'Hey you want me to call your mommy?'"

 The Role Of Rivals

So how do rivals play into your training? How do you verbalize that to your team? 

"We talk about that at least twice a week, especially when the harder workouts come, we just ask the question, 'What do you think Great Oak's doing today, what do you think Mision's doing today?' You go, we know what they're doing, they're in 100-degree weather (and) you have 75-80 degree weather here . . . do you think they're having it easier? No way. Don't start feeling sorry for yourself in 80-degree weather here when these guys are running in 100 degrees or 102. Just say, 'What do you think they're doing?'"

Preparing For The End Of The Season 

Considering the highly competitive SoCal racing schedule, how do you prepare your team for the end of the season? It's probably one of the longest seasons in the nation, especially when you count the state meet and into NXN. So how do you prepare for that? 

"Making sure that most of their goals are going to be accomplished toward the end of the season. Making sure that we don't get excited about a good start. A good start doesn't matter; it's how you finish. So you have to be patient, emotionally, mentally, and with your training. So by the time the really important races come along, you're mentally ready, you aren't all in mentally at Woodbridge or at Dana Hills Invitational. Hopefully, that's not when you gave your extra and you're all in the best effort because you want to get a good time or whatever; it has to be later. You just have to be patient. I guess my point is not emphasizing the season before the postseason, not making that a big deal. 'Okay we did this no big deal this is what our goal is.' We have to constantly keep in front of them what our goal is . . . and that's usually what we do in CIF at the state, and at NXN. Having long-range goals instead of being short-sighted.