Thinking on His Feet Places Sprinter in Fast Company : Occidental: Ronnie Cunningham converts his psychology expertise to the track but knows when to let his muscles take over.


Although Ronnie Cunningham speaks of sprinting by using technical jargon such as "mental mapping" and "sensory engrams," he has learned to clear his mind of such complex concepts before a race.

Psychology--Cunningham's major at Occidental College--is trampled at the sound of the starter's pistol. He has found that thinking during competition can be detrimental.

"It's easy to say, 'Oh God! Oh God!' And get really pumped up about it," he said. "I used to get out of the blocks really well, get ahead of everybody, get really excited, and my muscles would freeze."

Those muscles have not only thawed, they have burned an indelible impression on the competition. Cunningham, a senior, has already qualified for the NCAA Division III national championships as a member of the 4x100-meter relay team, and has should earn a berth in the 100. He ran a 10.84-second 100 last year to finish second in the nation.

Cunningham, who also played defensive back on the football team, beat a field that included runners from San Diego State, a Division I-level school, and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, a perennial Division II track powerhouse, in a recent tri-meet. He defeated runners from UCLA and Cal State Bakersfield at another meet. One of those runners was UCLA freshman Bert Emanuel, a redshirt quarterback who ran a sizzling 10.44 in the 100 during high school.

Cunningham noticed his performance was met with raised eyebrows.

"The guys from UCLA were sorta looking at me weird," he said. "If you're at a Division I school getting a scholarship to run, you wouldn't exactly appreciate getting beat by a Division III scholar-athlete. I think they were more surprised than anything else."

Cunningham surprised some folks when he decided to leave Seattle for Los Angeles. He estimates he has 120 relatives who live in Seattle.

"No matter where I am in Seattle, I'm no more than two miles away from a relative," said Cunningham, who was told he would probably have to walk on if he wanted to play football or run track at a Division I school. He headed for Southern California because it was close enough to home, but not too close.

That sounds good in theory, but when Cunningham's mother suffered a stroke during his freshman year, he was ready to move back.

"I wanted to stay home but I couldn't," he said. "My grandmother said that if my mom found out I didn't go back to school, she'd get off the bed and kick my butt all the way back to L. A."

Cunningham says his mother has "recovered completely" after two brain operations. "I just thank my lucky stars," he added.

Cunningham, who was awarded a Ford Foundation grant last summer to study laboratory rats, plans to pursue his Ph.D. in psychology. Now, however, he is concentrating on running. And during the past three track seasons, Cunningham's form has improved dramatically. An overzealous attitude, says Coach Bill Harvey, was once his nemesis.

"He was trying to catch somebody by gritting his teeth," he said. "A lot of people try to strain and it feels like they're going faster, but in reality, they're creating their own resistence in their body."

Or, as Cunningham succinctly explained: "You shouldn't let your head try to do what your body should be doing."

There are things Cunningham's body shouldn't be doing. A lot of running, for instance.

Years of violent pounding from running and jumping--coupled with the abuse of football--have softened Cunningham's knees. By his sophomore season, it became excruciating to sprint. Doctors were initially baffled but eventually determined he had bone spurs and tendinitis in both knees.

Subsequently, last year Harvey told Cunningham to bid adieu to the decathlon and the 200. Letting go, especially of the decathlon, was difficult.

"The decathlon is like messing around with a bunch of toys," he said. "I didn't mind training."

Cunningham qualified in the event for the 1988 nationals, but was ranked last in a 15-man field. At the conclusion of the first day, he was in third place.

On the second day, Cunningham and Harvey argued about the pole-vault height at which he should start. Harvey told him to begin at 11 feet to build his confidence. Instead, Cunningham started at 12 feet and missed each jump.

"I wanted to drop out because I was so disappointed," he said. "But I finished--it's just something you do. You start something and regardless of what happens, you finish it."

The miscue ultimately cost him a bid at the title and he finished 10th. Since that episode, Cunningham has put more stock in Harvey's advice.

"We want to maximize the things he does well rather than get greedy," Harvey said, speaking specifically about the decision to forgo the 200 and decathlon. "Ronnie will state his case, make his argument and listen to what you will say.

"If he understands that rationale, he'll go with it. That type of maturity helps him."

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