Staying in Your Lane:  Locus of Control… What it is and Why it Matters

Kevin ChristianCoaching Blogs, Illinois HS Track & Field, Opinion Leave a Comment

by Jonathan Mahoney, LCSW
Mundelein High School
Social Worker
Assistant Girls’ Track and Field Coach

“A man’s got to know his limitations.”  Harry Callahan, Magnum Force (Clint Eastwood)

Track is a great sport to coach.  With so many events and competitions throughout a season, there is likely a role for every young person on a team and a multitude of opportunities to showcase their abilities and improvement.  As a coach, I always want to find ways to put athletes in a position to do something they have never done before and to surpass their previous best effort.  I attend clinics, read articles, and reach out to experts.  Yet, I know my limits.  It can be easy to get lost in the nitty-gritty details of training schedules and the science behind training.  In the bigger picture, this may not always relate well to our athletes.  All of that technical information also generally comes back to the primary focus of a high school coach… what works for a typical, high school athlete while also respecting the rest of their lives?

Coaches tend to be a paranoid and defensive lot.  On a daily basis, we are confronted by athletes, parents, administrators, colleagues, and many others.  Each wants an answer and each wants results.  As a result of these interactions, coaches tend to try to answer questions before they are even asked.  The value seems to become that the more steadfast a coach is, the better they are.  A coach who appears strong and committed to his “program” is considered a “good” coach with a solid “plan.”  These tend to be the coaches who say, “This is what we’ve always done and it has always worked!”  Plans have a funny way of not always working out though…

Everyone’s got a plan til they get punched in the mouth. Mike Tyson

As coaches, we all want control.  We want an ideal situation where we can control the complete training environment and consistently put our athletes in a position to perform at a high level.  This is a great goal to have, but is it always the most realistic?  For most coaches, especially those of us at the high school level, we are reminded constantly of the various life issues that impact our athletes.

I like to think of an athlete’s typical daily schedule and what they experience each day before they even arrive at practice.  Let’s assume they ride the bus in the morning.

6am – Wake-up… breakfast? (probably not…)

6:40 – Get on the bus

7:10 – Arrive at school

7:45 – 3:05 – 7 X 50 minute classes plus 1 50 minute lunch period (plus 5 minute passing

periods spent traversing the building between classes)

It is within this time that each athlete experiences the demands and challenges of 7 different teachers and subjects competing for their attention and best effort.  It can be during this time that a friendship is frayed because of misunderstanding.  Maybe the athlete gets a frustrating text from a family member in the middle of a class.  Maybe a relationship has just ended.  This is all on top of the continued demands of the day… classwork, assessments, etc.

3:25 – Practice

That’s a lot of opportunities for an athlete’s day to be turned upside down (or punched in the mouth, as Iron Mike might say) before they even say hello to their teammates or coaches.  They are walking into practice having essentially worked a full day.  This is to say nothing of any other commitments or personal or family concerns an athlete may have.  Many coaches will talk about “grinding,” and “out-working” others to improve and be successful.  At the end of a full day, how ready is anyone to start, “grinding”?  Perhaps what is called for is a different way of thinking.

Locus of Control

Every day, we all face a variety of situations.  Some are positive, rewarding, and memorable.  Others are mundane and ordinary.  For some athletes, they go through large portions of their day feeling as though things are happening TO them.  This is where the idea of “Locus of Control” comes into play.  This is a concept from psychology which highlights the degree to which an individual believes they can influence their current situation.  Those with a more External locus of control tend to believe that they can’t control much of their lives or what happens to them.  Those with a more Internal locus of control tend to believe that they can effect change in their lives.  In my work as a social worker, much of my day is spent with people (Adults and Students) identifying what areas of their lives they can actually influence and then working on ways in which they can begin to bring about positive change in those areas.  In short, I want to develop and strengthen the Internal Locus of Control for those I work with.


As coaches, we tend to get hung up on outcomes and rewards.  In the land of Track and Field, this can be a dangerous game to play.  Your team may break every school record at the conference meet, yet still finish 4th in the standings.  Is that a failure?  Focusing so heavily on outcome can lead to massive frustration.  This sets everyone up for an experience related to the External Locus of Control view.  Teams are at the mercy of their competition in some ways.  If the competition is weak, then “success” is more likely.  If the competition is strong… frustration rules the day.

One man gathers what another man spills  St Stephen, The Grateful Dead

Perhaps the better approach is a focus within.  What can we do as coaches to try and create this internal focus for our athletes?  I spend every day at practice trying to simplify the day for our athletes.  The answer to the question of, “What are we doing for practice today?” is pretty much always the same – “Going fast and going home.”  When larger invites and competitive meets roll around, our athletes can’t wait to discuss the other athletes who will be there.  “She’s so good.  Ohhh she’s scary.  That team is stacked.”  My response is always the same, “I’m not going to talk to you about any other team.  This team is the only one that matters.”  If we develop our athletes and they continue to set personal bests, what more could we really ask of them?  Isn’t consistently strong effort and improvement good enough?  Moreover, where do we want our athletes to put their energy and focus–on improvement or place?  Encouraging athletes to think in terms of the pieces of life they can control such as diet, rest, recovery, and effort in practice can take the place of becoming consumed and driven by the outcome or result.  I further oversimplify things with various simple statements… “Do stuff.  Don’t be weird.  Track is fun!”  These are repeated daily.

“Don’t think.  You can only hurt the ballclub.”  Crash Davis, Bull Durham

The simple statements are born out of our human tendency to overanalyze simple, daily occurrences and to try and make connections where none exist.  At times we look too deep into things.  We look for meaning in everything.  Sometimes there is wisdom in simplicity.  It’s the idea of Occam’s Razor (Problem-solving theory).  The simple answer is usually best.  In sprinting, if you are thinking, you are likely going slow.  Faster and simpler tends to lead to improvement.  The simple statements actually begin to represent my idea of our practice plan.  “Do Stuff” – do what works.  “Don’t be weird” – don’t do other stuff that doesn’t work.  “Track is fun” – you’re a teenager… track is likely going to involve stories you tell friends when you are older and your children someday.  Let’s make sure they are good stories.  Let’s influence what we can in the best way possible.  Keeping things simple means only focusing on those aspects that we have control over.

Stay in our lane – control what we can control.  Care about our athletes as people, try to do right by them, and put them in position to be as good as possible.  It doesn’t matter who is in our conference or sectional… just what we do with who we have every day.  Let these words from Barry Temkin (former Sun-Times writer) be our reminder of what is important, “Success, after all, is in the attempt, not necessarily in the outcome. It’s in putting yourself in the position where you might fail. The only failures are those who won’t try.”  Enjoy your team.



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