Do You Have to Be a Hurdler?

Do you have to be a hurdler, or former hurdler, in order to be a good hurdle coach? That’s a question that’s worth looking into. I’m gonna ride the fence on this one and answer yes, and no. Being a hurdler helps when it comes to coaching hurdlers, but being a hurdler and being a hurdle coach are not the same thing. Success in one does not guarantee success in the other.

In my younger days, when I first started coaching, I could still do the workouts that I gave to my athletes. Often, I would hop in the lane and get my reps in right along with them. I loved doing that for the simple fact that it was so much fun, but also because it enabled me to show them what I was telling them. Plenty of people learn by example much more quickly than they do through verbal instruction. So if I was tellling them to snap down their lead leg, and then they saw me snapping down mine, they knew what I was talking about without me needing to repeat it over and over. They saw what it was supposed to look like, and then they could try to duplicate it.

Another bonus of being a hurdle coach who hurdled was that I could always try out new ideas for workouts and drills on myself before I tried them out with my kids. That way, I could very accurately gauge how many reps was a good number to challenge the kids without wearing them down. I wouldn’t assume that they could go for as long as I could, but I would have a basis from which to make a good decision. Also, if I saw a race on television or in person and saw a hurdler doing something technically that I wanted my athletes to adopt, I could, again, try it out on myself first. To me, nothing beats being able to feel what the athlete is feeling. There is no replacement for that. As I’ve grown older, and have gotten to where I simply can’t do the workouts I give to my athletes, I still find that all the hurdles I’ve cleared in the past have provided me with enough muscle memory that I can tap into that resorvoir of knowledge without needing to actually step into the lane and show ‘em how it’s done.

If you’ve hurdled yourself before, it makes coaching hurdlers easier because you’re just more in tune with the way a hurdler’s mind works, how a hurdler needs to be trained differently than a sprinter, the types of injuries that tend to nag hurdlers, the sense of rhythm that a hurdler must have, the confidence issues that hurdlers grapple with, etc., because you’ve been through all those things yourself. It’s hard for someone who hasn’t hurdled before to really grasp how a hurdler’s needs are distinctive from those of all the other track athletes. That’s why so many coaches throw the hurdlers in with the sprinters during most practice sessions, and then say ‘You can go do your hurdles now,’ after their legs are already wobbly. A coach who is a former hurdler would never do such a thing.

As a coach, whether you’ve hurdled or not, there’s no getting around the fact that you have to study the event in order to get better at coaching it. As an athlete, your focus was exclusively on yourself and your own problems. As a coach, your athletes may have technical issues that you never had to deal with, and you have to be able to help them. For instance, my lead leg never drifted to the trail-leg side of the lane. I had the opposite problem; I would hug the edge of the lead-leg side of the lane. I had a very snappy lead leg but my trail leg was always slow, so I was always sliding further and further over to the edge of the lane. But in my first year of coaching, I had two kids – one girl and one boy – who both veered to the trail-leg side of the lane, and I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what in the world was causing them to do that. I had to read up, watch videos, ask questions of other coaches, then read more, watch more, ask more, before I was finally able to come up with some possible causes and possible solutions. My background as a hurdler didn’t help me at all.

One misnomer that I’ve learned to disregard is the idea that you have to have been a great athlete in order to coach a great athlete. I ran the hurdles in high school and college, but with personal bests of 14.9 over the 39s and 15.63 over the 42s, I spent the first five or six years of my coaching career assuming I wasn’t good enough to coach high school athletes who were competing on a national level. How can I coach somebody who would’ve blown me away? That was my logic. It took me a while to understand that how good I had been as a hurdler had nothing to with how good I had the potential to become as a coach. When I first coached an athlete whose personal bests exceeded my own, my first instinct was to assume that this kid was an exceptional athlete; I didn’t even think to take any credit for his success. I wasn’t being humble; it just didn’t occur to me that I had really made that much of a difference. Then, with the help of some good friends, I started to think about it more, and I realized that all the hurdlers I coached got better. If they started out in the 17’s, they got down to the 16’s or 15’s. If they started in the 16’s, they got down to the 15’s or 14’s. Sure, their talent determined how fast they were ultimately capable of running, but still, with all of them, the amount of improvement they showed was always more or less the same. I have slowly discovered that acknowledging my abilities as a coach is not a matter of massaging my ego or “brushing my shoulders off,” as the young folks say, but more so a matter of accepting the responsibility of helping to guide a young athlete’s hurdling career. The most recent turning point for me came this past February when Johnny Dutch ran a 7.l3 in the 55m hurdles. His best the previous year, as a sophomore, had been 7.32, which is blazing fast to begin with. It would’ve been easy to say, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” But I saw some things in his technique that could be tweaked, and we worked on them all winter long. The fact that he dropped almost a full two tenths of a second in such a short race informed me that there had to be something we did in those workouts that helped him to drop his time so dramatically. I may not ever coach a hurdler as good as Johnny again, but I fully expect that every hurdler I coach will show improvement commensurate with his or her ability.

There have been plenty of great hurdle coaches who weren’t hurdlers themselves. Tonie Campbell went to three Olympics with a coach who had never hurdled. Renaldo Nehemiah ran a 12.9 in high school under a coach who had never hurdled. I’m not certain about this one, but I don’t think Liu Xiang’s coach ever ran the hurdles either. The success of these coaches can’t be dismissed as the luck of having a great athlete drop into their lap. The coaches studied the event with intense scrutiny, they listened to their athletes, they worked with their athletes, and used their communication skills to develop a relationship with their athletes that was based on mutual trust and mutual commitment. Still, I would argue that such coaches are rare. Most coaches who don’t have a knowledge of technique aren’t willing to do the work to learn it. That’s why so many hurdlers have sloppy form. And it’s not just hurdlers. In the field events, especially the throws, the same problem exists. Coaches don’t want to do the grunt work required to really coach their athletes, so they just say “go throw,” just like they say “go hurdle” to the hurdlers without providing them with any hands-on instruction.

In the final analysis, all hurdle coaches, whether they ever hurdled or not, have to study the event and develop close relationships with their athletes if they are going to be successful. Having a background as a hurdler is beneficial in the sense that it gives you instant credibility with your athletes and provides you with an instant frame of reference for technical problems. But either way, if you’re not a true student of the event, you will limit your potential, and that of your athletes.

© 2006 Steve McGill

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