Conquering the dreaded second time

by Dr. Stephanie A. Burns


The SECOND TIME you have to do something is FAR WORSE than the first time you have to do something. You must conquer the second action or the goal is lost to you. If you don't there will never be a third, fourth ... future.

Horses and sprinting are the two big activities in my life in which I continue to use to improve my understanding of learning and achievement. Pictured here with Kaye Smythe as we warm up at the 2001 World Masters Games.

Boy was it cold and windy that night.




Members of my original squad. Jana Pittman, Mel and Mike Hawthorne

This article presents a very funny look at goal achievement, learning and motivation in the moments after learning that something you want to do is actually not much fun at all!

I have had experiences as a Veteran athlete that throw my knowledge of goal achievement, learning and motivation right in my own face. I most definitely need to call on what I have learned to persist. This article uses an experience I had when I first started training as a 100m sprinter with Jackie Byrnes' squad at the New South Wales Institute of Sport.

To effectively use my own personal experiences as an athlete and those of my coach and the other elite athletes as a source of learning and teaching, it is important to create a little understanding of what this experience is like. Not a lot, but just enought to put things into perspective. Before we get to this lesson on motivation, learning and achievement let me give you a bit of insight.


The members of the squad I trained at the time I wrote this article were elite and developing Australian athletes. They were VERY TALENTED and VERY FAST. They were also very big in size, at least compared to me. If they were any bigger they would be cars. Cars that go very fast very quickly.

I can be given a big headstart (called a handicap!) and sprint as fast as I can and be passed as if I were standing still. That point will help you understand some of the photos you will see scattered around the site.

If YOU are not a sprinter and I give you a headstart and you run as fast as you can I will pass you as if you were standing still. That point is to make me feel better.

The members of the squad I trained with were YOUNG (that's a context thing - me and many of you being the context). The closest in age to me was Melinda (Gainsford-Taylor). She was 15 years younger than I am and has recently RETIRED after 20 YEARS of sprinting. The next oldest(!) was 7 years younger than Mel and they get younger from there! Jackie Byrnes was an elite athlete herself and had been coaching for 30 years - so she was not so young either.

In the 21 months I had been going to the track leading up to this event that I learned that:


Sprinting is VERY HARD on your body no matter what your age.

Almost everyone can walk, an awful lot of people can jog and run, but almost no one can really sprint.

When you run you spend A LOT of time on the ground. When you sprint you are suppose to spend as little time on the ground as possible.

When you are a sprinter you spend A LOT of time in the water (and the gym and the physio).

When you are a sprinter everything you do, think and eat counts.

There is not one thing I know about learning, motivation and achievement that I have not had to draw on to sustain my goals as a sprinter.

There is not one thing I know about learning, motivation and achievement that I have not witnessed every other athlete use in their own training.

For these reasons sprint training is a very good learning experience to use for teaching.


Reflection is a powerful learning tool, but wrongly applied it can undermine progress toward a desire goal.


A very important lesson about the 2nd time you take some actions

As I said in the opening, the SECOND TIME you have to do something is FAR WORSE than the first time you have to do something. You must conquer the second action or the goal is lost to you. If you don't there will never be a third, fourth ... future.

Many things you want to achieve require learning. Many goals in this category have difficult, frightening, confronting, and discomforting actions that we must master in order to learn. Over the course of my career as a learner I have had a lot of first time experience and unfortunately, fewer second experiences. In the past 12 years I have learned how to initiate second actions.

Think about what you don't know the first time you attempt something:

You don't know what is going to happen.

You must TRUST OTHER PEOPLE and are in their hands.

You don't have anything to think, so you just feel and do.

At the end of the first time you do something you usually have no real memory of what you did that worked, you just have vague impressions and a lot of feelings.

The following is a true story about a first time event I experienced at the track not so long ago.

At the end of the story I will talk about its implications for the second time and strategies to override the problem.


Optus Grand Prix

Jackie Byrnes, Ryan Sherry and me at the Optus Grand Prix, Sydney 1999



Yep that's the bear and that is the piano!













There are moments in a 400m sprint that you can see ALL of the colours of the rainbow


Then there are moments that make the whole world disappear!
Where'd it go!!




400m Sprints (I can hear some of you groaning)

There is a notion that running 400m (as Jana, Astrid, Michael, Ryan, Meaghan did on my squad, and Jackie did as an athlete), is the hardest track event of all. It is technically difficult and it is painful. I am not likely going to be suited for 400m sprinting, but they are used in training sessions for a variety of reasons.

In my first year of training (I had been doing a martial art prior to this) my legs were not conditioned for sprinting so my track programs contained only short sprints and longer fitness runs. I did not have my first experience of sprinting 400m in training until much later.

My only experience was having watched others sprint this distance and I learned from these observations what I thought was important information - "It only takes a minute or so to sprint 400m" (well, a little less for a elite sprinter and a little longer for me!). I was encouraged by this information.

I figured a minute is JUST NOT THAT LONG. (I digress - I once thought I could handle a rollercoaster after sitting on a curb watching it go time after time with all manner and sorts of people. What got me on it was the thought that "It was only 56 seconds from start to finish". You think that experience would have taught me something: 56 seconds of fear is a very long time!).

I had heard and read the stories about 400m races (well, THE STORY as only what is jumping on your back seems to change). I have heard, "It's like a bear jumping on your back at the 200m mark" or "It's like a piano falling on you." This is from the people who do this for a living! But, in many types of learning you cannot know what you have not experienced.

Now I did have some experience. I had been doing 200m sprints. I knew how hard it was to go flat out at the start of the 200m and sustain your sprinting form and speed. Not that I could do it, I just knew that it was hard.

So I strategised (that's my nature). I figured I would go a bit easier for the first 200m than I would normally do to be on the safe side, then I would just hold on. I could not imagine a pain of any type that would be unbearable for 1 minute. (I've been lucky I know).

And, my best strategy was this: I just knew that if it got really bad (not that I could imagine how that was possible in so short a time) I'd just slow down a bit.

So, this is my "first time event" experience.

I've got my strategy in place, so although I am a bit nervous, I am still okay. Felt good actually.

Off I go. First 100m felt good. Form was good and I was runing at a good pace. I wasn't feeling much of anything. Actually quite relaxed.

In the second 100m it comes to me that I am going to have to breathe. It is too far to sprint without breathing. You don't breathe much in a 100m sprint so I don't think about this. Well, oxygen debt sets in. My arms are like lead. I found the bear, and I am carrying him and the piano across the 200m mark.

My internal dialogue starts counting 1, bub, bub, bub, 2, bub, bub, bub, 3, bub - spit is forming in the corners of my mouth, my head is hanging and my legs are screaming. I hear myself question if I am having a stroke - all numb and painful and losing muscle control in my face. Then I remember training with Tani Ruckle (the marathoner) who kept pointing out that less a minute after I was convinced my heart would seize up that I am chatting away like nothing happened. I also keep chanting Tani's mantra, "Pain is only another sensation, the further I go the stronger I get."

The third 100m takes twice as long as the second 100m and I dropped the bear when the plane landed on me. I learned right then that slowing down is not a viable strategy. Why? You are in excrusiating pain now, and you cannot physically go any slower than you are and still be moving in a forward direction.

For me, the final 100m is so slow and long I have what seems an eternity to contemplate how others are seeing me in that moment. Unlike competing in a triathlon where the minute you hit the water with 400 thrashing women kicking, hitting, pulling you under and where surviving far outweighs any sense of looking good, the track is different. You don't do much at the track. Really. Out of a two and a half hour session you might be sprinting for two to three minutes depending upon your program. As I said up front it is very hard and very intense. That means everyone has a lot of time to watch everyone else.

Anyway, I stumble across the line only to learn the final lesson of the 400m. It hurts more during full minute after you STOP than it has at any time while you've been sprinting.

That is an honest recount of my first experience of sprinting 400m. At least the bits I can remember.



I have no doubt that you have many first experiences as dynamic as the one I have represented above. They might include:

First solo in an airplane

First birth

First trip overseas

First university class

First public speech

First date

First grading in a martial art

It could be anything depending upon your personality!


After my first 400m run I was convinced that ALL THESE PEOPLE had NOT told me the whole truth

From left:
Meaghan Starr, me, Jackie Byrnes, Mel, Mike (front), Tristan Conn, Anthony Spooner, Alison Quinn, Anna-Belle Smith


The effect the first event experience has on the second event!

Remember: All learning experiences will require that you survive first events and second events before there is even a chance that you will come to terms with performing more comfortably and more competently.

Here's what you know after your first event and before your second:

You know very well what is going to happen.


Rather than feel and do, you think, and think, and think.

Shortly before the second event you get a flood of previously supressed memories of the first time you did this. This might occur a week, day, hour, minute before - it depends.



Sprinting has its own unique
kind of pain

Running with Mel, Mike and Jana



What did I know after my first event?

Starting sanely and being relaxed over the first 100m does not help at all. Unless I were to jog and that is not the point.

Slowing down does not relieve the pain once it has set in. It only prolongs it.

Pain is so much more than just a sensation.

The goal is not to run pain free.

It hurts more to stop than to keep running and I just cannot get my head around that.

Just because people did not lie about the experience you feel like they did. They did not use all their communication ability to tell you it could be THAT bad. They told you about the bear, but not about the plane.


Your brain is simply amazing and some time every year should be spent learning about it. It is a fabulous tool and the better you learn to drive it, the more fun life gets to be.



The question is this:

Given the lived experience of the first event how do I make the choice to do this again?

When it comes time to do the second 400m (which for me was 7 days from the first experience) a few important things start happening. Most important is what will happen cognitively. When I thought about sprinting 400m again the images from the first experience generated very negative feelings and emotions. Those were part of the information sent to the part of my brain that makes decisions about action. If the action I imagined was negative (and it was) my brain naturally tried to sort out how to help me avoid that situation. One of the ways it would do that is to begin constructing a good enough reason or excuse to avoid it. If it is successful at doing that then I can abandon or avoid or delay the second action and NOT FEEL BAD FOR MAKING THAT DECISION. This is your brain doing its job.

This is not bad and this is not weak. This is one of the functions of your brain. To protect you. Pain and discomfort in some situations is considered by your brain to be dangerous and undesirable! We have to teach it that that is contextual - sometimes pain and discomfort is not dangerous and indeed is necessary for growth and learning.

The other thing your brain could do instead of constructing an excuse (and that takes mental work to do) is to use its energy to construct dialogue and images to override the avoidance and get on with the task for the sake of the long term benefit of achieveing the goal at hand.

The strategies for motivating action now are cognitive: creating useful images and dialogue.



Paralympian Meaghan Starr


What kind of messages or images would get you to do the second event?

There are a myriad of thoughts you may have depending upon the situation and your experiences. But they all have common elements and these are important to know if you want to use this strategy yourself (rather than just enjoy my good story).

1. If the thoughts are in images they will be of the future and they will not be restricted to positives.

2. If the thoughts are focused more the present then they will likely be in dialogue and they will strong and commanding.







If I'd never gotten past that 2nd 400m sprint in training I would not have had this wonderful day in Melbourne at the World Masters Games where I made the final ..
which was my goal.


Here is how I applied the strategies to initiate that second 400m run.

In my case, I needed strategies to sprint the second 400m starting shortly after the first. Remember, I am not an elite athlete, I can just go home and take up something else like gardening.

Within minutes, while warming down, I could hear my internal dialogue preparing me for a good excuse to not sprint 400m the next week. I was "seeing" my calender to calculate if Tuesday was a "day 8" (a non-training day), or perhaps I was traveling that day. Nope.

Then the internal dialogue changed to chatting to Jackie about the purpose and timing of these sprints. Nope, not good enough. Noticing internal signals, any sore shins. Nope, not good enough. After all this and more passes through my mind as my brain searches for a good reason I pull myself up.

I stop "seeing" and "talking to my many internal others" and tell myself, "Get on with it, you did it, good job, it gets better with training. Learn from how everyone else is doing. Just get off it." Then a strong commanding voice jumps in, "Put it away. Leave this alone until next week." That was it, I did not think about this again until the following Tuesday.

On the next Tuesday I was aware of the thinking activity of my brain. It was on about this sprint. I was a bit nauseous most of the day. I said over and over, "I don't want to do this." I slept all afternoon. It came time to go. I "fantasised" about arriving and being told my program had changed. When I judged that to be implausible (knowing Jackie), (I can hear the squad laughing here now) I started to internally rehearse a script about convincing Jackie to "change Tuesday and Thursday's sessions" around. On and on.

I consciously made myself stop this. I would have been a mess. I did the following, I said to myself, "Just get to the track." Figure it out then. I figured if I get there and it really is important to do the 400m then something realistic will turn up. What that did was it got me to the track!

Everyone was there and that was motivating. Through out the warm up I just kept saying, "Don't think about it." Then, "It'll be over soon." Then imaging myself at the end of the session, of being home eating dinner, of writing in my journal another 400m time. It is amazing what was going on in my brain. What it was coming up with!

Right before I was about to begin I starting feeling sick. I knew I just couldn't make myself start and run hard. I was wimping out in the end. The only thing that worked just then was the strategy of "just start and decide later". I told myself to "Just start and sprint hard the first 50m, then decide whether to continue or not. If it is bad, just stop." That was my agreement and at 50m I did check in. But, of course, I was in a different state by then!

As any good goal achiever knows changing direction or state is hard to do. At this point it was just plain easier and less effortful to keep going than to stop. And that is how I initiate and sustained a sprint for second 400m.



Melinda in action on the track.


If you want to learn to manage your own actions join a team in the Labyrinth online course.


In closing ...

In this article I discussed facets of learning and goal achievement. The article specifically focuses on the difficulty of taking a second action if the first action was unpleasant. I discussed why this affects subsequent actions and what you might do to overcome the affects. Indeed, this is how you likely initiate and sustain many difficult actions. I have a sense the following question will be asked so I think maybe I shall end with its answer.

Have I come to enjoy the 400m sprints?

No, and that is not the point. The goal for me is not to enjoy them, but to do them for the benefit of my fitness and sprinting ability. If one day I do learn to enjoy the 'sensations' of the 400m that would be great. But that has not happened, nor is that expected.

But I can now do them with less hesitation. It has become doable. And, I am in better shape for doing them. My brain rightfully continues to try to find a good excuse every time these are on my program. It is not easier to do the run, but it is easier and easier to put off the chatter, to be less stressed, and when the time comes - to JUST DO IT!

Don't let the dreaded 2nd event undermine your goal achievement. Get it done!




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