By Greg Laudani, Staff Writer
Runners know themselves extremely well. That’s because while other sports teams like football and basketball spend hours watching opponents’ film, runners like D’mahl McFadden are training for a battle with the man in the mirror.
A junior sprinter on the UNH men’s track and field team, McFadden is a student of running. Every day at practice he works to perfect his form – keeping his knees and posture up, stepping with even strides and relaxing his shoulders.
Even though he dedicates exhaustive attention to mastering the physical art of running, the Penacook, New Hampshire, native said mental preparation is just as crucial in helping him succeed.
“Track is a sport where you’re running against yourself; you’re playing against yourself,” McFadden said. “It’s really a mind game of being able to push yourself when you think your body can’t.”
McFadden said that as a runner, he can’t let himself think about what his opponents are doing. He said his primary concern needs to be his own responsibilities. The sprinter described track and field as the opposite of a team sport for that reason.
“It’s more of staying within yourself than worrying about your competition, while in other sports you’re trying to shut down your opponent,” McFadden said. “When I’m worrying about other competitors, I’m really not into my focus and I’m out of my element.”
Track and field meets often give athletes some time to think, which is exactly what McFadden wants to avoid. The junior usually competes in three to four events at every meet with up to 45-minute breaks between each race. McFadden said that the days leading up to a meet can often make runners start to overthink their technique and their performance can suffer.
“Before each event, there’s a lot of thoughts,” McFadden said. “So during the race, I try to shut all of those thoughts out and keep my mind relaxed so that my breathing is relaxed, my body is relaxed and I’m not tense. I just focus on what I need to do to perform and win.”
McFadden said he was especially nervous before competing in the 60-meter hurdle event during the Indoor America East Championships this past February in New York City.
“We’d never been in that situation before where we were seeded first and we really needed a clean race,” McFadden said. “And the pressure really started to build up the closer it got to the race.”
When it comes to handling his nerves, McFadden said UNH head coach Jim Boulanger makes a momentous difference. McFadden said that Boulanger has a way of adding humor to situations and calming down his players when they feel overanxious.
While McFadden’s mind began to wander before the America East Championships, Boulanger helped refocus his sprinter’s mind.
“I went up to him and he knows me 100 percent, so he knew I was nervous,” McFadden said. “And he just put humor into the situation and relaxed the situation. And that’s when it really hit me that he knows how to help you be at your best not only physically but also emotionally.”
McFadden went on to claim the title in the 60-meter hurdles with a time of 8.19 seconds. Whatever Boulanger said clearly worked.
Coaching in his 31st season with the Wildcats, Boulanger said the key in keeping his players calm is about visualization. He said he encourages his team to have tunnel vision, because according to the Boulanger, that’s the best way to think about sport.
At the Wildcat Invitational on April 11, Boulanger had a conversation with McFadden before he ran the 110-meter hurdle race. The head coach told McFadden that his lane was the only one that counted.
“The key in the 110-meter hurdles is to be totally in control in the lane that is 48-inches wide, and that’s your world for 110 meters,” Boulanger said. “There’s eight guys racing for one goal, but the only one that matters is in your lane.”
McFadden followed that conversation with a career day. The sprinter placed first in two individual events, including the 110-meter hurdles and the 200-meter race. And McFadden contributed as a member of UNH’s first-place 4×100-meter relay team.
Praising his coach, McFadden said he is thankful to have Boulanger at the helm.
“That’s always a great thing to know that you can approach your coach and after you talk to him, you’re stress free and you’re not nervous and you really feel prepared for your race,” McFadden said.
McFadden said there are two sides to Boulanger. The sprinter said that one side is when he demonstrates a tenacious attitude to motivate the team while they are training their tails off. The other side is Boulanger’s calm demeanor before meets that helps keep the athletes comfortable when it comes time to perform.
So how does the coach keep his players relaxed and in the moment?
Well, McFadden said that after a grueling week of practice, Boulanger reminds players of their extensive preparation. The sprinter also said that Boulanger does not state the obvious – which also helps keep players’ minds primed.
“He doesn’t really tell you what you need to do because you already know,” McFadden said. “He helps you just be calm so you feel confident and ready to go out and perform.
“That’s the thing I love about Coach [Boulanger]. He takes off the heavy level of things and just keeps everything nice and comforting and calm so you can stay in your element.”
McFadden said Boulanger’s even temper rubs off on the Wildcats. The junior said he and his teammates model their mental preparation after their coach – only worrying about what they can control.
“We always tell ourselves that it’s about you, and to do what you have to do,” McFadden said. “Don’t worry about what other people are doing. Stay within your head and stay within yourself. That’s a big thing we tell ourselves and that we tell each other as teammates.”
McFadden has a long list of goals for the remainder of his UNH career. He wants to help his team win the outdoor America East title, as well as the New England Championships in early May. Individually, he wants to capture back-to-back 60-meter hurdle conference titles for his final indoor season. He also hopes to win the hurdling crowns at the outdoor conference championship meet on May 2 in Albany, New York.
McFadden also has his sights on finishing a 200-meter race in less than 22 seconds. He came close with a 22.19 finish at the UNH Wildcat Invitational on April 11.
“I’m getting really close,” McFadden said. “I was happy to win the event [UNH Wildcat Invitational] with that 22.19, but I was really hoping to break 22. But we’re getting there.”
Boulanger said McFadden has developed tremendously over his three years at UNH. And the head coach is confident that as McFadden continues to grow, the junior is capable of leaving his fingerprints all over program history.
“I want to help him keep the growing process going for one more year so that when he leaves, he’ll feel good about his performance and where he stands in the spring hurdle history of the University of New Hampshire.”