“You don’t know me and you don’t know my style.”
Hurdling, at its best, is a means of self-expression. It’s a way of showing the world who you are. When you can hurdle in a way that is unique to who you are as an athlete and who you are as a person, the confidence you have in your ability to come up big in big races is unshakeable. But then the question arises, what is “style” in the hurdles? Does having your own style mean hurdling any old way you want to, even if it’s inefficient? Is there a “right” way to hurdle? Is there a “wrong” way to hurdle? In the quest to correct technical flaws, do we run the risk of becoming robots who try to hurdle according to pre-set notions of technical perfection? My feeling is that there are plenty of technical mistakes that are wrong, that need to be fixed, but, ultimately, there is going to be something you do that is “wrong,” but that works for you. This aspect of your technique is what sets you apart from the rest of the crowd; it is what gives you your “style.” So, it’s important to pay attention to details, to seek to hurdle the “right” way, but it’s equally important to know when to leave a perceived problem alone, and even to use it to your advantage.
Over the years, many top-flight hurdlers have done something technical that was unusual, that could have been considered a flaw. Rodney Milburn won a gold medal in 1972 using his double-armed lead to forcefully propel him into the hurdles. Renaldo Nehemiah set three world records hurdling with a very upright posture. Mark Crear was ranked #1 in the world in 1995 and ran a personal best of 12.98 although he commonly locked the knee of his lead leg. Aries Merritt, 2006 NCAA 110m hurdle champion, employs a very high lead-arm swing that is downright funny-looking, yet he broke Greg Foster’s 28-year-old NCAA record of 13.22.
What if these athletes had tried to “fix” their flaws? What if Milburn, a powerful but relatively short (5-11) athlete, hadn’t used the double-armed lead? Would he have been able to explode off the hurdle with such force? What if Nehemiah had chosen to lean forward more while clearing the hurdle? Would he have been as fluid and graceful? Would he have been as fast between the hurdles? Did Crear’s straight-leg lead help him to stay lower over the hurdles? Does Merritt’s arm swing give him more propulsion heading into the next hurdle?
Obviously, these hurdlers had success with their styles. Does that mean their styles should be copied by up and coming hurdlers? When Milburn came up with the double-armed lead, a lot of hurdlers copied it, but very few had the success with it that he had. Nehemiah’s upright style worked for him because he was so flexible in his groin, hip flexors, and hamstrings. Most hurdlers would have major balance issues trying to hurdle so erectly. As a purist, I don’t like Merritt’s high lead arm, but I have to admit that his style works for him. Still, if most hurdlers tried to copy his style, they’d get all twisted around and end up zig-zagging all over the lane.
The one thing you don’t want to do is identify a flaw as your “style” just because you don’t want to take the time to correct it. A lot of times, a flaw isn’t corrected in a hurdler’s beginning stages, so it becomes ingrained to the point where it’s almost impossible to correct. A good gauge as to whether a technical flaw needs to be corrected or if it can be left alone is to ask the question, is it efficient? The general rule is to cut out as much extraneous motion as possible. Anything you do that is not helping you move down the track faster has got to go.
Really, style is not a matter of technique, but a matter of integrity. You can only find your style by studying, studying, studying and training, training, training. You must constantly make decisions about what works best for you. Also, you must be willing to re-evaluate those decisions if race performances demand that you do. In reference to himself and his long-time coach Jean Poquette, Nehemiah said, “You have no idea how we dissected the event in every conceivable way.”
Larry Shipp, former LSU star and 1975 NCAA champion in the 110s, said that “Hurdling is like Kung-Fu. Everyone comes from a different school. Everyone’s attitude is, ‘My Kung-Fu is better than your Kung-Fu.’ A rival of Milburn in the 1970s, Shipp said that “Rodney’s technique was perfect for his body size. I was leaner than Rodney, taller. One time I tried to do what he was doing and I almost fell. I was like, ‘Hell no. That ain’t gonna work.’”
Shipp often trained with Milburn and 1968 Olympic gold medalist Willie Davenport in Baton Rouge. “It allowed you to experiment,” Shipp said. “When you experiment against the world’s best, if something doesn’t work, you throw it out real quick. You know right then and there you’re wasting your time.”
This willingness to experiment, this spirit of adventure that Shipp talks about, is what enables a hurdler to develop his or her own style. Still, you never get to a point where say, this is how I hurdle. As Nehemiah pointed out, “I felt there could never be a perfect race. If there was, then there would never be a way to improve. Perfection is a relative term. One can run perfectly on a given day to run a particular time. However, it wouldn’t be the perfect race. No one has ever run the perfect race. If they have, then they’ll never run faster.”
© 2006 Steve McGill