The Hurdle – Football Connection

When I first started coaching, I didn’t want for my hurdlers to play football. I was afraid they would hurt themselves beyond repair. The reason for this attitude was that during my high school days, my track coaches emphasized that we should run cross country in the fall in order to get stronger for the spring season. In the fall of my senior year, when I told my coach that my goal was to run a 14.5 in the 110s in the spring, he told me I should be running four to five miles every day. There wasn’t nearly as much an emphasis on weight-room strength as there is now. Still, even back then — the early 1980s — there were many hurdlers who also starred in football. Roger Kingdom and Willie Gault were the most obvious examples of very successful hurdlers who also played football, but there were plenty others as well. Still, the general consensus was, avoid contact sports like football, build up your cardiovascular conditioning, then, when the spring arrives, be ready to run fast. That’s the approach I took when I first started coaching, but it is not the approach I take anymore.

A little while ago I was reflecting back on all the male hurdlers I’ve coached in the past eleven years, and I realized that over 90% of them played football in the fall. This development has truly been a coincidence, as I have never consciously sought out football players to hurdle. Still, the fact that so many of my hurdlers have also been football players, and that the best of them have all been football players, informs me that there must be some correlation, some natural affinity that connects the two activities. Here are some of my thoughts on this topic:

Most of the football players who make for good hurdlers are defensive backs and wide receivers, although running backs and linebackers also possess similar talents. Of course, the football players who make for good hurdlers also make for good sprinters, but I have noticed some differences. The ones who focus on the sprints are what I call the “40-time” football players because all they care about is improving their time in the 40-yard dash. These types don’t really want to be bothered with the learning the new skill – and technically difficult one at that – of hurdling efficiently. These types of football players make for very good sprinters because they generally do possess a genuine desire to learn the proper mechanics of sprint form, and they always prove to be valuable relay legs, as they enjoy and gravitate toward the team aspect of the relay events. The football players who will gravitate toward the hurdles are the ones who will see a hurdler practicing and say, “I bet I could do that,” or ask, “how high are those things?” Such off-hand remarks are obvious signs of a hurdler in the making, as the majority of people, whether football players or not, will look at hurdlers practicing and say something like “those guys are crazy,” and not give the idea of hurdling a second thought. The spark of curiosity is something I’ve learned to look for, because I know if they are curious, then I can get them hooked.

I also feel that the football players who make for better hurdlers have a different temperament than those who make for better sprinters. I may be over-generalizing a bit, but my observation has been that sprinters tend to be more cocky, brash, and braggadocios, whereas hurdlers tend to be more analytical. The ones who become good hurdlers enjoy the intellectual challenge of figuring out how to negotiate a series of barriers in their way as they run down the track. My experience has also been, although this is not the case all the time, that the ones who prefer to hurdle are generally harder workers than the ones who just want to sprint. For a beginning hurdler, no matter how gifted of an athlete he may be, learning how to hurdle efficiently – with good rhythm, good speed, good technique – takes a very long time. Hurdlers are regularly the last ones to finish practice on a daily basis, as they have to do hurdle reps in addition to doing the intervals workouts, and they have to do hurdle drills in addition to doing sprint drills. The majority of high school football players who first come out for track in order to get faster for football have no desire to do all that “extra” work. They seem to want to focus on working on their start, as that’s where they will be able to bring down their 40 time.

Another reason that football and track are very compatible is that the seasons are far enough away from each other that they don’t overlap. Basketball players are usually very good athletes, but basketball season cuts into track season; plus the fact, more and more basketball players play on AAU teams during the spring season, so, even if they do come out for track, there are always problems to deal with in getting them to show a reasonable level of commitment. Also, because of the talents necessary to excel in that sport, basketball players generally make for better long-jumpers, triple-jumpers, and high-jumpers than they do hurdlers. Basketball players can also make for good quarter-milers, as they generally have a high level of speed endurance. In regards to other winter sports, swimmers generally make for good distance runners, but so many swimmers swim year-round these days that getting them to come out for track at all is a long shot. Wrestlers are probably the athletes who have the most potential to do anything in track, as their sport requires the endurance of a distance runner, the flexibility and agility of a hurdler, and the strength of a thrower. But again, because the seasons overlap so much, finding good wrestlers to help out the track team is hard. I was a basketball player who became a hurdler, but I had to quit basketball altogether during my junior year of high school in order to get good enough at hurdling to be competitive. In my years as a coach, I have never had a basketball player or wrestler who hurdled, and I’ve only had one swimmer who hurdled. In regards to fall sports besides football, cross country runners are the track team’s distance runners, with very few exceptions. I’ve had a couple of my hurdlers run cross country, and it did help them, especially in the intermediates, but they have been the exceptions, not the rule. Meanwhile, soccer players generally play soccer year-round, but I’ve had a few who have sprinted for us. I’ve never had a soccer player who hurdled. So, my experience has been that, of all the other sports, football is the one that has given me the most sprinters and hurdlers who have made significant contributions.

The reason that so many football players make for good hurdlers is a simple one: the physical and mental skills necessary for success in both are very similar. Let me start with the mental aspect first. What I love about coaching football players is that they already understand the basic terminology that applies to hurdling. When I tell a football player who is beginning to try the hurdles to be “be aggressive” and “attack the crossbar,” they know exactly what I mean. They’re always in attack mode in their native sport, so transferring that aggressiveness to hurdling comes quite naturally a lot of the time. They have already heard and internalized such language in football practices. Other than the pole vault, hurdling is arguably the event in Track & Field that most requires an aggressive, reckless-abandon attitude. Football players understand instinctively, from the physical nature of their sport, the importance of overcoming fear, of facing fear head-on. The better ones tend to take an adversarial approach to the obstacle – a you vs. me approach. And, for the most part, it works. If they’re willing to put in the reps and stay persistent in their attempts to improve technically, then driving at the hurdle as if it were a would-be tackler works.

When it comes to physical skills, the football players who play the skill positions are very much suited to hurdling. Many of them are in the range of height that is common for successful hurdlers (5’10” – 6’2”), and most of them have the strong sprinter muscles (quads, calves, and hamstrings) that make them a logical fit to try the hurdles. For the 39-inch high school hurdles, even smaller guys (in the 5’8” range) are tall enough to achieve significant accomplishments.

With basically no exceptions, I have been very happy with the work ethic and level of performance of all the football players I’ve coached in the hurdles. My attitude now has changed a complete 180 degrees from where it was when I first started coaching. Now, I do look for football players to come out for track, and, specifically, to try the hurdles. I don’t try to persuade the “40-time” guys to hurdle, since the team always can benefit from having capable sprinters and relay legs as well. But for the ones who are willing to try, I’ll give them plenty of encouragement. More often than not, they end up loving the hurdles just as much as they love football, and, in some cases, even more.

© 2004 Steve McGill

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