Mental Training of High School Cross Country Runners Michael Spino, PhD & Coach Drew Mearns, JD


In order to introduce mental training to a small group of serious, high school aged female distance runners, their coach Drew Mearns and Dr. Mike Spino designed a protocol utilizing Dr. Spino’s True Champion video and audio resources, combined with weekly group telephone conference calls during the 10-week 2015 fall cross country season.  The goals of the exercise and exploration by Mearns and Spino were two-fold:  first, to provide mental training using an integrated (mind-body) approach to young athletes who had not previously been formally exposed to mental training; and second, to explore the validity of a group training model for the delivery of unfamiliar online resources and tools through these athletes’ coach. This was not intended to be a scientific study, but rather the introduction of a practical, systematic and integrated approach to training young female distance runners during the course of a competitive season. Our goals were simple and modest:

1. practical and objective:   to improve these runners’ performance during a competitive season; 
2. subjective:   to assess and record the athletes’ impressions, compliance and opinions; and
3. developmental: to determine the areas that helped the athletes most, as well as the areas that needed to be added or improved going forward in expanding the availability of the program.

We are very pleased with the results of this initial exercise, as measured against the above goals. All of the runners subjectively reported beneficial “objective” results and “subjective” enjoyment of the training process itself; and all of the runners performed well (earning all-state honors and achieving lifetime personal best times). Considering these young women were all new to this practice, we were impressed to report that all of them attended each of the weekly telephone sessions with Coach Mearns and Dr. Spino, and in addition, they each individually reported compliance (even enjoyment) with their daily/weekly follow-up practice assignments. 

The True Champion Sessions

The practice sessions were selected based on their relative importance specifically to distance running, and were based on and introduced to the athletes according to the five (5) progressive training modules offered in Dr. Spino’s True Champion website platform:  meditation, full-body recovery, soft-eyes and visualization, and race rehearsals. Although the athletes had the opportunity to watch the videos on their own, each module was introduced to the group – as a group – via a series of eight (8) weekly teleconference calls led by Coach Mearns and Dr. Spino on mid-week evenings after dinner time. The calls lasted between 20 and 30 minutes, during which sessions the athletes were provided introductory context for the session, followed by an actual mental training session, and then given specific suggestions for how (and how often) to use the “tools” or techniques they learned in connection with the following week’s group workouts and private time.

Distance Runners 

Cross country running at the competitive high school level tests an athlete’s speed, strength and muscular endurance but with a significant focus on the need for reduction of mental and physical stress in connection with the deployment of energy over a relatively long duration of intense activity (from 15 to 20 minutes in races, and from 2 to 10 to 30 minutes or more in training). In addition, training and competing in long distance running both demand a high level of mental concentration. In other words, “Speed, endurance, strength, attentional focus and cognitive flexibility are all key criteria in determining an athlete’s measure of success throughout the competitive season.” These five are key components of any athlete's overall performance, and Coach Mearns and Dr. Spino (each with more than 40-years of coaching experience at collegiate and high school levels), understand and agree that the combination of physical practices with complementary mental training sessions will consistently produce better performance results and improvement in each of the five domains mentioned above. 

The Growing Runners Athletes

We chose for this project a small group of serious female distance runners from Coach Mearns’ Growing Runners Track Club. These young women were in the age range of 15 to 18, and are among Virginia’s top high school long distance runners (though they were not all from the same high school team). All girls volunteered enthusiastically to participate in these introductory sessions; and all, after completing the initial 10-week project, have requested to continue mental training in the group and with their coach.


The project results showed an overall positive change in the performance of participants and produced an enthusiastic desire on their part to continue and go deeper into mental training for their running. While it was not within the scope of this exercise to draw any conclusions as to whether this specific approach to mental training was the direct (or sole) cause of these athletes’ definite performance improvements, the results of our group work strongly supports the conclusion that a balanced, progressive approach to the training of serious young distance runners – one that includes an integrated balance of physical and mental training – will be more “successful” (objectively and subjectively) and more enjoyable than either approach alone. Furthermore, this initial practical research indeed provides solid basis for further testing and refinement of this approach not only with runners, but also in connection with other athletic and sport activities. In conclusion, let’s let the young women who participated speak for themselves (excerpts from post-session surveys).

Q. What did you like about the process?
- I liked that it kept us all in check and relaxed mentally.
- I like how a lot of times our mental training was individual (like different race rehearsals).
- It really helped me relax before a race.
- I liked how it didn’t take too much time in a day, just enough.

Q. Which of the particular modules or methods did you use?
- I definitely used the full body recovery after a lot of long runs.
- I thought the visualizations were the most helpful, especially the ones where we imagined ourselves striding in the fields, striding and feeling comfortable and strong.
- I tried all of the methods: the full body recovery after hard sessions; the visualizations when doing lots of striding; and the rehearsals a few nights before big races. 
- I used the visualizations a few nights to help me fall asleep.
- I did the visualizations mostly when I was tired and that seemed to help.
- I liked using the rehearsals even when interval training, to split things up into parts. 

Q. Where do you need more work?
- I need to do more evening meditations to let my mind relax.
- I need to meditate more frequently, regularly and efficiently to avoid distractions.
- I need to work more on pre-race stress reduction so I can enjoy the experience more.
- I need to know how to respond to changes in my race plan, how to adjust to the situation.

Q. Where do you think the process needs to improve or go into more depth?
- More work with event rehearsals, especially around big meets.
- I want to learn what to do when a rehearsal goes wrong in the reality of the race, like when things were not what I had planned or visualized them to be.
- I’d like to do more with positive affirmations, which I really respond well to.

Q. Did you enjoy the process itself and what conclusions would you draw from your personal experience?
- I enjoyed learning about how to realize my strengths and how to address my faults and weaknesses.
- I enjoyed mental training with the other girls, because it helped us all feel like a team and less like we were completely on our own.
- I discovered that this training made me a more consistent, positive and stronger runner and racer.
- I found it to be very beneficial for the past cross country season and prepared me well for track.
- I liked the feeling of closeness and togetherness since it was a small group listening together.

MICHAEL SPINO, PhD has worked extensively in the area of  mental training for over 40 years since teaching and directing the Esalen Sports Center in the 1970‘s. In 1976 he published the best seller Beyond Jogging: the innerspaces of running which helped ignite the Jogging boom of the 1970‘s. Subsequently, Spino has authored  five other books about the mental and physical aspects of sport. In 16 years of coaching at the collegiate and international level in cross country track his teams at Georgia Tech and Life University won 12 national championships, he was named coach of the Year on three occasion.  Following research at Kenyatta University in Nairobi Kenya he received his Ph.D from the prestigious sport research University Lille2 of Lille, France. A founding director of the SEC, Sports, Energy and Consciousness Group,, Spino is the founder and CEO of True Champion: the online mind & body sport training program which is being launched in 2016 after 2 years of development and covers eight different sports. He teaches part-time in the Kinesiology and Health department of Georgia State University, 
DREW MEARNS, JD an accomplished high school, collegiate and international class distance runner (at Yale and after graduation) coached many All-American men and women at NCAA Division I power houses University of Virginia and University of Kentucky. Later, as an attorney Mearns managed Olympians, world record-holders, and many of the world’s top distance including legends, Sebastian Coe, Alberto Salazar, Bill Rodgers, Mary Decker Slaney and Anne Audain. In the 20 years since retiring athlete management, Coach Mearns has helped parents, coaches, high school teams and club programs improve the performance, attitudes and college scholarship opportunities for young distance runners. His GRTC programs recently produced three national champions, many high school and club all-Americans, numerous. Since its inception five years ago, GRTC “graduates” have enrolled at UVA, Columbia, American University, Tennessee, Villanova, George Mason, Northwestern, NYU, CNU, William & Mary, University of Oregon, Georgia Tech, James Madison and West Point.

  • Date added:13 Jan,2016