Two-time Olympic medallist Nick Willis has learned a lot during his 17-year international career. If the middle-distance runner from New Zealand could send a letter of advice to his younger self, this is what it would say.
I can see, Nick, that you are not always 100% focused on running. You skip the odd training session, preferring to hang out with your mates playing basketball, touch rugby and cricket. You do feel guilt when not training but listen very carefully to what I am about to say: please DON’T feel so guilty. In the bigger picture, the fact that you’re not always fully focused on athletics at your age is irrelevant. You are a late developer and will experience a big growth spurt at the age of 16 and 17, so training hard in your younger years – when the body is most prone to injury – would have potentially damaging consequences.
In fact, by playing a variety of other sports, you are developing a good all-round athleticism which will serve you well in the future.
Based as you are in Wellington, you are surrounded by hills and the city is home to several world mountain running champions – so why then are you so terrified of running hills? You may currently prefer to run in the valley on flat terrain by the river, but as you will later discover under your US college coach, Ron Warhurst, hill running can be hugely beneficial. Hill sprints, fast hill runs and long hill runs all will make you stronger. There is honestly no need to be afraid. Hill training will later form an important component of your training.
Nick, I know that you can become very anxious about the next big race. You will very much have short-term focus during your time at university in the USA when each year you will want to produce your best during the cross country, indoor and outdoor seasons.
But please, don’t worry about every competition. There is always another race; another season. You will still be racing well into your thirties; you have many years ahead of you.
It will take you until probably after the London 2012 Olympic Games to realise the importance of patience. You will discover that cramming three months of training together is not reflective of what you can fully achieve. And you will learn that you can only explore your absolute limits after two years of uninterrupted training.
So please be patient, focus on two years of healthy and consistent work, and you will learn that this is the priority rather than the next immediate race.
Steve Landells for World Athletics