Avoiding False Starts Leads To False Starts

The easiest way to make a mistake is to obsessively think about not making that mistake.

This past weekend I was helping provide coverage for an AAU Youth track meet here in Savannah. It was a regional qualifier meet, so there were hundreds of kids between the ages of 6 and 19 from Georgia and South Carolina here trying to qualify for the AAU Junior Olympics.

Throughout the first couple of days, there were a few kids that had false starts—meaning they started to take off just before the gun went off. On the third day, I witnessed something really interesting.

Not too far into the preliminary round of 100-meter dashes, someone in lane 3 had a false start. Everyone was sent back to the line for another go around, and this time, they had a clean start. The next group of kids walked up, and the person in lane 3 had a false start. Same lane, different kid. Once again, they all get sent back to the line, and they get a clean start this time. The next group of kids walk up to the line and start getting ready. The starter calls the runners to their mark, they get set, and just milliseconds before the gun goes off lane 3 has yet again another false start. At this point I was already baffled, I had never seen 3 false starts in a row let alone all in the same lane.

When the next group of kids went to the line, it was as if the whole stadium held their breath so not to disturb lane 3. At this point, I’m standing up in the press box, face nearly pressed against the glass, as I watch this race. Finally, the gun is up, and I can sense the nerves running through everyone. My eyes are fixated on lane 3, and before the gun even goes off I see lane 3 hesitate a bit and slip off the line. Another false start! However, this time around it wasn’t purely lane 3.

When looking back at the footage, lane 1 made the initial nudge forward which in turn triggered lane 3. Unfortunately, lane 1 wasn’t given a second chance, and lane 3 was just given a warning. As always, they’re sent back to the line, and like most second go-arounds, they get a clean start.

Why did lane 3 keep having false starts? Was there something wrong with the lane? Maybe the ground was slick or the starting blocks weren’t biting into the ground enough?

Following those four races, the false starts had settled and lane 3’s curse was seemingly lifted. So there must not have been anything wrong with lane 3, but then again, there was also something was wrong with lane 3.

At a qualifier meet like this, especially for kids trying to make it to the Junior Olympics, the pressure is on and the nerves are flowing. In the professional world of Track & Field, false starts occur but certainly aren’t common—this is expected from highly experienced athletes. When it comes to kids, false starts can occur quite frequently.

Throughout the first few days, kids are watching their friends and other competitors race, and when seeing others false start, all that goes through their head is, “I hope I don’t do that.” So when I saw the first kid in lane 3 false start, the next kid to walk into that spot was surely thinking the same. “Please don’t false start. Please don’t false start.” Then by focusing on the fear of making a mistake, there is less focus on what actually matters.

When you focus on potential failure or the possibility of making a mistake, you increase the odds of that occurring. If you become so focused on not tripping when getting on the stage, you’re forgetting to focus on your surroundings, and your determination to not trip leads to exactly what you were trying to avoid.

This is exactly what I witnessed. The first false start in lane 3 caused the next kid to overthink the situation. When two false starts occurred in a row, the third was almost destined to happen.

The way you avoid your own self-destruction is to not avoid it at all. You must trust in and focus on the process. You will make mistakes along the way—that’s inevitable—but it’s as you develop a process of working and learn to trust that process that you work with more success and confidence. Situations can only go wrong if you perceive it as such, instead, you must focus solely on the good so that even your mistakes aid in the process.