Track and field training: Coaching techniques

Track and field training: Technical proficiency is one thing, but coaches and teachers ignore the basics at their peril

The fundamentals of athletics techniques were established almost a century ago: since then, there has been a gradual refinement of these basics, much of it by trial and error.

The beefy Scots agricultural labourers who heaved the 16lb shot to around 15 metres a century or more ago knew well that the aim of the ‘shift’ was to give the shot initial velocity; they knew, too, that any speed gained in the shift was worthless if they didn’t achieve a strong balanced throwing position.

Similarly, 19th century high jumpers were well aware of the advantages of a flat lay-out over the crossbar. Indeed, the great Scottish all-rounder Donald Dinnie reported back on what seems to have been a primitive ‘straddle’ from a US tour in the 1870s. And it is clear from the literature that Victorian jumpers clearly understood the supreme importance of an accurate, vertical take-off.

Thus, by the mid-1920s the American Clinton Larson had cleared over 2m, using a fast approach and a back lay-out ‘scissors’ technique. The curved Fosbury-type approach run had already been in use since the mid 1890s by ‘Eastern cut-off’ jumpers and only rule limitations (on ‘diving’) and the unforgiving nature of the landing areas delayed the appearance of what was to become the Fosbury Flop more than 40 years later.

If we consider hurdling we can see that the hurdlers in early Olympics were using similar techniques to those used by modern athletes. What they lacked were firm take-offs and even surfaces (AAA championships were held on grass into the 1920s) and, of course, they devoted much less time to their training than their modern counterparts. A viewing of the 1936 Olympic 110m hurdles final displays the relatively ragged techniques of the period – a clumsiness magnified by soft cinder surfaces.

From our modern vantage point it is difficult to envisage any major changes in track and field techniques in future, unless there is a substantial change in the rules – such as allowing a two-footed take-off in the high jump. Even increasing the circle size in throws would lead only to a modification of existing techniques, since the basic throwing position would remain the same.

However, our increasing sophistication of technique has brought about its own problems; most notably, it has tended to divert coaches away from teaching basic skills to young athletes.

So, for example, as a National Coach, I might be asked to teach a ‘hitch kick’ to a girl who could barely leap four metres and who lacked the ability to hit a take-off board accurately in a good position; or I might be expected to introduce the ‘O’Brien’ technique to a lad who could barely launch the shot beyond his left foot.

The language of priorities

Aneurin Bevan said that ‘socialism is the language of priorities’; so, too, is coaching, which involves much more than the advanced technical knowledge of the coach. A coach who is working successfully with a shot-putter launching the 16lb ball to over 20m may have little idea of how to introduce the event to 12-year-old novices. This is because he has given little thought to the essential technical priorities or presentation methods at this level. Thus, he will often use the standard shot and attempt a backward shift across the circle or rear-facing standing puts – approaches that are doomed to failure.

So what might the coaching priorities be in such a situation? I would list them as follows:

  1. to use light shots (or stones) which children should be able to launch to respectable distances;
  2. to use simple standing puts, preferably frontal ones’;
  3. to secure the largest possible number of puts in the time available.

The aim of the coach must always be to work from success – from things that children can actually do. Anyone can put a light shot (elbow out, left side high) from a kneeling or standing frontal position with minimum technical errors, which guarantees instant success and rapid improvement. All that needs to be done in the first session is to make small increases in movement range and the shot will automatically travel further. Mission accomplished!

The priorities in such sessions with groups of children are quite different from those applying to mature throwers. The first aim is to allow the novices to experience the sheer enjoyment of launching a shot a fair distance into space; the second is to establish some essential basic techniques, such as hold, elbow position and driving up over a high left side. It will take many repetitions before there is any point in trying to go further.

Warriors with vaulting poles

Sports like gymnastics have always taken this conservative approach to coaching, driven as much by safety requirements as common sense. Athletics, alas, has not always followed suit and thus, in my local schools athletics league, I see under-15s arriving at meets like Samurai warriors, bearing fibreglass vaulting poles that are about as much use to them as lengths of steel scaffolding! When competition starts, none of them has the slightest idea how to hold or plant poles which are, in any case, invariably 10-20kg too stiff for them.

In a sense being ‘technically correct’ is the easy part of the coaching equation. But unless this information can be transformed into something practical, by passing through the sieve of ‘contextual experience’ it is virtually worthless.

Knowledge – about anything – can be divided broadly into four categories:

  1. Basic information;
  2. Knowledge;
  3. Applied knowledge;
  4. Knowledge in reflection.

The coaching world is drowning in basic information and knowledge – the type that describes and analyses training techniques and methods; indeed this type of material accounts for much of the available technical literature.

What we lack are the fruits of applied knowledge, when the coach has deployed this basic information in practical situations and derived something workable from that experience. Even rarer is knowledge in reflection, when the coach has reflected upon the practical application of his knowledge and come up with fresh reworked ideas.

Now such categorisation of knowledge might appear over-academic, and some coaches might argue that good coaching is a totality, encompassing all four categories. I would not argue with this, except to say that the descriptive, ‘technically correct’ approach has tended to hold sway, often devaluing the products of practical experience. Certainly, this was one of the first effects of the development of formal coach education in the second half of the 20th century. Thus, untrained coaches who had coached Powderhall sprint champions did not secure the same respect as less successful men who were able to repeat the conventional technical wisdom, and this led to the impoverishment of the literature and of coach education.

The practical approach is, however, alive and well in some specialisms, notably decathlon, by its nature an event of half-skills. Even at Olympic level we see decathletes using short approaches, with the javelin already in the withdrawn position, simple ‘sail-type’ jumps in the long jump and surprisingly basic hurdle techniques. Although these men represent the world’s physical elite, their techniques are often surprisingly ordinary. Why? Because they don’t have the time to develop sophisticated technical models and therefore opt for less ambitious techniques that confer competence rather than brilliance.

These decathletes have lessons for all of us – and this takes us back to the importance of establishing the fundamentals of technique in young people. We know, for example, that the main aim for 8-11-year-olds is to establish the raw skills of jumping, kicking and throwing, with no need to spend much time on specifics. The 12-15 age group, however, need to master basic technical models – the core skills without which fitness and tactical understanding would have little on which to rest. Anyone watching Korean hockey players, for example, can see that their subtle skills have been established in youth by frequent repetition; it is difficult to graft on movements of such subtlety in adult life.

The problem in athletics lied in deciding exactly what the core skills are and how to present and establish them. It is disappointing to attend an under-15 girls’ club discus competition and see it won with a distance of less than 20m, with the last placer throwing around half that distance. A couple of sessions with any group of 14-year-olds will produce someone who can throw around 20m – some from a standing position.

The same is true of under-15 boys in triple jump, where it is common to see lads landing on the balls of their feet, producing the classic long hop recovery step techniques. Half a dozen training jumps could resolve this problem, yet clearly those jumps have not occurred – and probably never will.

The essence of what I am saying is distilled in figure 1 (below), where the ‘must’ material is absolutely essential, ‘should’ can be left alone for a while and ‘could’ is rarely reached, except by mature athletes.

must - should - could

The problem is in deciding what goes in the ‘must’ box and how to present it effectively. Let me illustrate this by presenting, for example, a coach or teacher taking a group of six children aged 10-11 for high jump. He does not use the high jump landing bed, for the bed itself represents a ‘personal best’ for many children of this age. Instead he uses either side of the long jump pit or puts down landing mats in the high jump area. First, a take-off zone should be marked, using talcum powder, then a standard three-stripe approach mark which can later be adjusted to the needs of differing children.

What is the purpose of the take-off zone? It is to ensure that the jumper’s high point is close to the centre of the crossbar, at its lowest point. What is the point of a straight three-stride approach? Simply to enable a ‘scissors’ technique from an accurate approach. Without establishing these basic elements of a consistent approach, taking of from the same point, we can do very little.

The myth of annual progression

Such simple prescriptive methods enable children to understand what high jumping is about, whether they are pursuing it in a club context or as part of the school curriculum. Understanding provides the basis for intelligent practice, away from coach or teacher.

And for practice to work there must be lots of it. Anyone who has ever taken up a sport like tennis knows that it takes some time before it is possible, even with coaching, to sustain a collaborative five-stroke rally.

Physical education has as its central premise the idea that children should be guided through a range of sports by someone who is not a specialist in most of them. Underlying this premise is the belief that each child will find a sport in which he or she has some ability.

However, experience tell us that this is rarely so. What actually happens is that physically-gifted children dominate almost every activity, while those at the other end of the physical spectrum encounter little but failure. This is because achieving competence in any sport invariably takes time – time which is not normally available within the PE curriculum.

While practice does not make perfect, it does make permanent. Work on core skills needs a great deal of repetition, in the process of which the percentage of inferior efforts gradually diminishes, before competence is achieved. And without competence there is little hope of pleasure, which is, after all, what sport is all about.

Another problem with sport in the curricular context is the myth of inevitable annual technical progression. Thus we have syllabi that outline a certain level of technical development at age 12, another at 13, and so on. Now, while it is true that a girl of 13 is fairly likely to be able to throw a javelin further than she could at 12, her performance will not necessarily be technically superior.

Imagine that you were taken to a golf driving range and coached through 50-odd balls, then did no golf for a year. On returning to the range a year later, would you really expect to be any more technically proficient. Of course not! If, on the other hand, you had joined a golf club and hit a thousand balls during that year, you would probably be more technically proficient, even without coaching. To return to our school example, technical skills achieved year on year within curricular time are likely to be fairly static, simply because of lack of repetition.

Because performance outcomes in PE are never tested, we have little means of knowing what level of technique a child has achieved as a direct product of his school experience. And, alas, the empirical evidence offers little in the way of encouragement, since my experience with A-level PE students shows that few of them can claim to master even the most rudimentary athletics technique. It is not, therefore, a question of whether or not they can perform an adequate triple jump from a run, but whether or not they can even perform a standing triple jump.

Curricular athletics teaching, therefore, appears to be an empty box, and the coaching of young athletes at club level is little better. This does not mean there may not be oases of good practice in schools and clubs – only that they are not the norm.

What is most troubling about out failure to address curricular and induction issues over the past half century has been the unwillingness of physical educationists to admit that the Emperor had no clothes: that the majority of children leave school without basic competence in any sport – the equivalent of a five-stroke rally in tennis, a standing shot putt, or an accurate 10-yard pass in football. No child enjoys lack of competence and without enjoyment, there is no prospect of children continuing in sport beyond school.

Unless this issue is addressed, there is little prospect of increased adult participation in sport, for the foundations have not been laid. We must give our children roots to grow and wings to fly.

Tom McNab

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