Coach Ted Talk: Five Things I Learned

What I've learned at this years TN Coaches clinic! 

A fairly common characteristic among most track & field coaches is the need to learn more about their sport.  Something else that's common among these coaches is the willingness to share their knowledge and experience with other coaches.  This weekend, I was able to get a very detailed look at just that trait from some very experienced and knowledgeable Track & Field enthusiasts from around the area and across the country.  Olympians, All-Americans, Certified Coaches all sharing and talking about the sport we all enjoy, Track & Field.  And to think, all I had to do was take a quick trip to Franklin TN. 

And in that same spirit, here are a few things I've learned from this past weekend's Track and Field Coaches of TN clinic.  Yea, I know, I said 'five' in the title but just like I might change the number of intervals at a workout, I might just have to change that five because this clinic was that good.   

For starters, I learned that just about everything you're doing for shin splits now are probably wrong.  But it could also be correct.  Medial Tibial Stress Syndrome, or commonly known as "Shin Splits" are a real pain in the.... Yes, I know, in the shins.  But sometimes for track coaches the pain might just be a bit higher. 

So your athlete comes up to you half way through the afternoon workout and says they're having shin splints.  You tell them to ease up a bit and possibly even take the day off. Then you tell them to ice and maybe show them some exercises to do that are specific to 'helping' shin splints.  You know, stretching the calves, maybe picking up a golf ball with their toes, heel toe walks... you get the picture.  Then they go to a doctor somewhere and they come back to you the next day saying they need to get orthotics. 

But is that really what you and they should be doing.  Well, I can honestly say after this weekend that that answer is an absolute: NO.  There is really no substantial proof that supports the fact that any specific issue - let's say, hip strength, ankle strength, pronation, muscle stiffness - actually is a direct cause of shin splints.  But then there is nothing that supports the idea that these don't have some impact on an athlete getting shin splints.  Yea, I know, I'm sounding like a politician not willing to lose votes by straddling the fence on a topic.  So what's a coach to do? 

To begin with, don't think that shin splints are something that is just inevitable and they're going to happen no matter what you do.  I've learned that when someone comes to you with a shin splint complaint, that needs to be "individualized".  Take a closer look at the training, the shoes, the gait, the way the athlete runs, the surface they run on, lateral rotation of the hip, and not only the hip and ankle strength but the hip, ankle and even toe control.  Yea, I said toe control.  Try this: can you put your foot on the flat on the floor and lift just your big toe?  Ok, now foot flat on the floor and lift all your toes except your big toe.  When Chris Wolfe (Board Certified Orthopedic Specialist) talked about this at the clinic, you know everyone in the room was trying it... and yes, I can do it! 

There also is no way to tell if a person is susceptible to shin splints by looking at a static view of the athlete.  You have to watch the dynamics of the athlete to be able to see if anything has a chance of affecting someone's propensity for shin splints.  Watch them as they run, jump, bound, plyometric drills, and other dynamics.  And of course, determine if the workout load has increased suddenly - is that 4:20 miler coming out thinking they have to run the same workout they did at the end of the season so they can have their first race be a 4:20.  Is it your training program?  Yes, I learned that shin splints are a real pain in the.... And you have to be able individualize the possible causes on the athlete to help determine how to really correct and properly train the athlete in the future.  I know, it's a lot of work, but you know it's the right thing to do.

Another thing I learned this weekend was that in the Long Jump, the take-off will almost always dictate the landing.  So when you're teaching the long jump, do your best to start at the take-off point if you really want the landing to be correct.  Yea, a lot of coaches like to reverse engineering the training program for the long jump and focus the training from the landing point back.  That actually can work and although that landing is very important, the take-off is where you want to put your effort to get the most out of your athletes.  Will Jay (Level 2 and 3 certified coach and IAAF Level 5 Academy Coach in Jumps) talked through his down to earth - scientific - look at the long jump. 

As is the case for most jumps, the penultimate step almost always plays a big part in the proper execution.  The long jump requires controlled speed for the high school jumper.  Hitting the takeoff board at the athlete's very top speed will typically result in a foul most of the time.  The recommendation here is to go as fast as you can while still keeping the same form, technique and speed.  The more controlled you are, the better chance of getting in a decent jump and giving you the option of having that last one that you can try to go all out. 

Does anyone know the ideal take-off angle?  It is twenty one degrees.  Yea, I kind of thought you had to put hurdles or big boxes near the take-off board and have your athletes jump as high as they can.  That doesn't help a whole lot.  Although if they are prone to just straight running off the board, that could help give them a feel for trying to get some air.  But it isn't something you want to keep in the arsenal for your more experienced jumpers.  So with that angle, you know the next more important thing to remember - yep, what we talked about earlier, the speed. 

So back to the second to last step.  This is the point where, if you are looking directly from the side, the hips should show a little drop.  Without getting into where the center of gravity should be at any given point, you probably can figure out that point isn't directly inside the athlete's body as their hips drop.  The best advice here to coach this part of the jump is to listen for the change in cadence of the athletes stride.  The run up is steadily increasing and then long short cadence.  Clapping your hands in that way provides a good queue to execute. 

The other thing to look for is that the athlete should be on the way up as their take-off foot hits the board.  Dropping down on the board is going to slow up the athletes approach and hurt their chances of getting out a good jump.  Long drop short jump.  Don't drop the hips too much either.  Athletes in high school aren't exactly developed to the level to be strong enough to handle a deep drop during the penultimate step. 

The third thing I learned this weekend was that when an athlete is coming out of the blocks and going through the drive phase, they should think like an airplane taking off.  Be smooth and don't disturb the passengers drink as you take off.  Just like a pilot isn't going to blast through the throttle and take off like a rocket, they will take their time, be patient, and use all the power from the engines.  Coming out of the blocks, the athlete should be patient.  Stand up too quick and you will be looking at your competition as they cross the finish line, before you do. 

So, hands just outside the hips.  Shoulders even with the hands with little to really no lean.  Consider the weight distribution to be 33% - spread across both hands, front peddle and then the back pedal.  Four to six inch difference from front to back pedal.  Shin angle of front leg parallel to the ground.  There's triple extension coming off the start with the ankle first, knee and hips. 

Coach Stanley Johnson pointed out all these features of a good start and drive phase.  His saying that our sport is a sport of opposites was worth remembering.  You push up to go out.  Then what is it you should do with your hands?  I had one coach show me that it was a good idea to have a ball in your hand and as you come out of the blocks, the ball should be thrown forward.  I had a hard time with that and always would get confused and I actually fell over trying it one day.  I didn't like that idea.  But think about this, we are in the south and it's normally kind of sunny... so as you're driving out of the blocks, bring your arm up in front of your eyes and block the sun.  This I can understand.  I'm going to have to try it.

Now the fourth thing I learned at this clinic was about the high jump.  Rancho Bernardo high school coach, Matt Farmer, showed us a unique way to teach high jumpers how to avoid the lean into the bar.  You know, you teach them to jump up and not into the pit but the athlete throws one arm up in the air and it immediately turns right towards the pit and is basically plowing the way for the athlete to lean into the bar.  What I learned was if you have the athlete practice up against a wall - concrete, brick, hard wall - they will learn not to lean.  I kind of think that could be one heck of a lesson if not done correctly.  But in the end, I'd say that tool should work about one hundred percent of the time! 

Another thing I learned that seemed like it could also be a bit more painful but can get the point across. Let's say your athlete has really long hair... so... they run the J for their technique... hold the athletes hair while they make the turn, of course you are standing firm, then as they are about to get to the pit and hit the penultimate step, you release the hair and they pop up in the air and over the bar and into the pit!  Ok, can't say that is a realistic workout tool, but it certainly can give you a visualization of what the curve and lean during the curve should be.  It also helps visualize, and maybe even feel, the take-off part of the jump as you visualize releasing the hair.  I'm wondering if you don't let go.  Nah... that wouldn't happen. 

And yes, I'm probably way over my five things I learned limit but you can always stop reading now if you want!  Then there's the question about how many times do you jump during practice.  Not very many, that's for sure.  So you practice box jumps.  Stand on an 18 to 24 inch box and back jump into the pit.  Do this ten, twenty times a session and you get the benefit of practicing jumping technique and a good strong leg workout that is specific to the high jump.  That's a good thing to learn. 

So now I know how to get athletes to learn to jump up first before they lean and some technique work on the pad.  Here's something else.  The lean is initiated by the knee.  You get to the pit (coming from the right side) and your right knee is driving up and across your belly button... that turns you.  Believe me, it will.  So bottom line - run fast into the pit (don't slow down), jump up and your knee will turn you and you will end up landing in the pit.  Don't worry about landing in the pit if you do all this right.  You'll get there for sure. 

The fifth (yea, its new math so just humor me) I learned this weekend was about meet management.  The Knoxville Youth group - specifically Marty Sonnenfeldt and Chris Kane - run about 42 or more meets each year.  Chris might not be too much on the older side, but Marty... ok, I'm old so I can joke... Marty has thousands of meets under his belt.  These guys know how to run a meet.  I've talked their talents up for years and will continue to do so. 

So what I learned is that there are a couple of important things to have in your focus when considering a meet  - Organization and Safety.  With those two things, you can be successful.  Of course, those are broad terms and the love of the sport is in the details. 

Something these guys went over was about the perception of our sport compared to the 'ball' sports.  Basketball takes about an hour and a half, baseball about two and a half, football about two and soccer just under two hours.  A track meet.... Well.... All day long and sometimes up to two days to get through a track and field meet. Granted, those meets are the larger invitational meets.  But put on a dual meet and some may start right after school at around 3:30 and may not finish till after 8pm.  That's four and a half hours.  Some may finish at 7 and so three and a half hours.  It's long. 

So we have to come up with a few things to make it shorter.  And so like I said, I learned that you have to be as organized as you possibly can... and then improve on that organization some more.  But these guys also pointed out that a trend in our sport is happening a bit more - the boutique meet.  And no, even though the word boutique is French for "shop", a Boutique meet doesn't meet to shop.  It means to break the meet down to a unique event - a distance only meet, a throwing only meet, relay only... you get the idea. 

The Nashville Distance Carnival comes to mind and that is a great event.  There are several Pole Vault only meets around the country.  We do see a lot of invitation "Relay" meets, but in a lot of them there are still open events.  Some of those relays are starting to "add" up the teams marks in field events to make those into relays too.  When you do this, the meet becomes faster. 

The other part is to eliminate the rolling schedule meets.  I think the term was "kill" the rolling meet schedule.  Put specific times for events.  That was something I learned.  That means an event is scheduled for 4:35pm.  The athlete knows when to warm up to be ready by 4:35pm.  The parent - and grandparents - know at 4:35pm their kids event starts.  You don't have to deal with the question we all have heard a hundred times:  Coach... what time do I warm up? 

Oh and safety... keep everyone away from the throwing events.  Close them.  Don't let anyone around those events.  Close them completely.  I suppose you just can't argue with that.

So I learned to define the scope of the meet, set a schedule, set rules, be sure restrooms are available, have a meet director (last choke point), have officials available that know the rules and events, have a starter, clerks, announcer (that knows track), timer, bad weather plan, set assignments way ahead of time, have a helper for the starter, don't allow run-outs at the line (be ready before) and last but always the most important the grunts... um... volunteers.  You can't run a meet without volunteers.  And be sure to spend time with volunteers so they know exactly what you want them to be doing.  Oh yea, get a hurdle crew and be sure they're reliable.  That dreaded announcement - can any athlete or coach not doing an event help with moving the hurdles????   Yuk. 

One suggestion I got out of this was to get parents to take the USATF Rules Officials course.  This seems like it would be a tough sell, but if you can, just think of the possibilities and maybe... just maybe... a trend will be started!  Now wouldn't that be something! 

And the number five thing I learned... hmm... ok, I know I'm over the five but I learned this anyways and it's important.... Track and Field coaches are a unique style of coaches.  We love a sport that doesn't get a lot of popularity in the school, and yet it is sometimes the largest team at the school.  But with that in mind, Track coaches are a breed that will share a workout with anyone that asks... we don't put a clipboard in front of our mouths when we coach at a meet, it's all out in the open.... If somebody steals a workout, it's probably not really stealing, we likely just gave it to them... if somebody asks a track coach to share their experience, you can pretty much guarantee they'll do just that and stick around as long as anyone listens to discuss more details - on pretty much any track topic.  I would be self-serving to say that Track and Field coaches are geniuses, so I'll just say that track coaches are ones that like to learn and share their knowledge with each other.  The number of coaches and the amount of knowledge shared at this clinic was proof positive of that.  Big thanks to Gary for doing this.  But even more so, let's thank all the coaches that came to learn and all the coaches and people that were there to make this happen.  Now... spring track is on us... let's get training!!

See you on the Track,

Coach Ted