The HurdlesFirst Coaching Philosophy

There are a lot of different kinds of Track & Field coaches out there. A small few are true track coaches, who have a genuine love of all the events and a vast range of knowledge to go with it. Most coaches, though, specialize in either the distance events or the sprint events. Then there are others who specialize in the throws, the jumps, or the pole vault. Then there are the few, like me and many of you reading this, who specialize in the hurdles. In my practice sessions, the hurdles come first; in my approach to the sport of Track & Field, the hurdles come first; in my approach to how I live my life, the hurdles come first. As I attend youth track meets this summer and see heat after endless heat of the 100, 200, and 400 meter dashes, I can’t help but wonder to myself why more of these kids aren’t at least trying the hurdles. Except for the really outstanding naturally-gifted athletes, most of these kids who call themselves sprinters are only marginal sprinters at best. A lot of them, I’m sure, who are getting knocked out in the early rounds of meets, who don’t qualify for the major national meets, could excel in the hurdles if they just gave it an honest try and had a coach who could guide them through the pitfalls they will encounter on the way to developing sound hurdling technique.

As the saying goes, if hurdling were easy, everybody would do it. Still, I believe that many talented athletes could be very good hurdlers if they just put in the time. There are a lot of potential hurdlers out there getting their butts kicked in the sprints, growing increasingly disillusioned, and ultimately dropping out of the sport altogether. As one of my former athletes put it, there are a lot of potential hurdlers out there “slipping through the cracks” because they don’t have a coach who recognizes their potential. Most track athletes shy away from the hurdles without ever giving it a real chance. This happens mainly because they’re afraid of falling, afraid of looking silly, they’ve been told they can never be good at it, or they’ve been scared off by watching too many hurdle races that featured crashes, smashes, and other forms of ugliness and violence. But really, the biggest reason that more kids aren’t turning to the hurdles is simply because too many coaches don’t give a damn about the hurdles.

One of my greatest pet peeves has to do with the fact that most sprint coaches, in their training philosophy, group their hurdlers with their sprinters, as if hurdlers are just sprinters who hurdle. Many hurdlers, consequently, don’t get in a lot of hurdle repetitions as part of their regular training program, but, instead, spend most of their time sprinting with the sprinters, and then have to make time on their own to practice hurdling. Therefore, they never develop the muscle memory necessary to really hurdle efficiently. Also, in terms of their mental/emotional state of being, they never gain the intangible self-confidence and comfort level that comes with being able to say, “I’m a hurdler.” Even at the collegiate level, there are cases in which the hurdlers have to coach each other because the sprint coach doesn’t know enough or care enough about the hurdles to help them further their development as hurdlers. But hurdlers aren’t just sprinters who hurdle. Hurdlers need to be more than fast. They have to be very flexible, they have to have a very aggressive mindset, and they have to have the willingness to endure a tremendous amount of frustration that comes with learning to master a very technically demanding event. Hurdlers in programs that emphasize sprinting first generally have the skills that a sprinter possesses – power, leg strength, upper body strength, quick turnover – but lack the efficient technique that separates true hurdlers from sprinters who hurdle.

That is why, in my training philosophy, I put the hurdles first. As Wilbur Ross said in The Hurdler’s Bible, hurdlers are hurdlers, and sprinters are sprinters. Any coach who indiscriminately groups the hurdlers with the sprinters is doing a disservice to the hurdlers, stunting their growth as students of their event. The hurdles are not merely a sprint event. Hurdling is a plyometric event, a ballistic event, that involves sprinting. Yes, sprinting is an aspect of hurdling, but sprinting speed is far from being the only contributing factor to a hurdler’s success. I would argue that, for some athletes, it is not even the primary factor. Simply put, a hurdler can sprint, but a sprinter can’t hurdle. By emphasizing the hurdles first, I’m saying that hurdling workouts are of paramount importance, that no amount of sprint training can replace the types of event-specific workouts that are necessary for a hurdler to excel. A hurdler who does a lot of 150’s, 250’s, 350’s, etc. in practice, but doesn’t get in a large volume of hurdle repetitions as part of his or her practice routine, will be strong, fast, and in good condition, but will also generally have glaring technical flaws and always be in the process, during races, of compensating for his or her inefficient technique.

What many coaches who don’t specialize in the hurdles (or at least appreciate the hurdles) don’t realize is that working on hurdling technique consequently leads to working on sprinting technique. Flaws in hurdling technique expose all flaws in sprinting technique; therefore, by improving hurdling technique, sprinting technique will improve with it. For a beginning hurdler, for example, who is just learning how to three-step, he or she may find that too much lateral movement within the lane prevents him or her from being able to reach the hurdle in three steps, so he or she focuses on running in a straight line between the hurdles. Subsequently, when there aren’t any hurdles in the way, the same athlete who used to have a lot of lateral movement in his sprinting motion will have been cured of this problem without ever having actually worked on it in sprint workouts.

Because hurdling is a plyometric, ballistic event, requiring much bounding and exploding off the balls of the feet in order to maintain good drive and a low center of gravity while diving into the hurdle – this method of running, practiced over and over again in hurdle workouts, carries over to sprinting. Because hurdlers have to lead with the knee (both lead leg and trail leg) in hurdle clearance, you won’t find many experienced hurdlers who sprint flat-footed or have low knee lift when there aren’t any hurdles in the way. In addition, hurdle drills are beneficial to all sprinters, whether they ever actually hurdle in a race or not. The hurdle drills – such as A skips and B skips over 30” or 33” hurdles, walk-overs, pop-overs, lead leg drills, trail leg drills, and one-step drills, force you to get your knees up, to stay in a straight line without a lot of lateral movement within the lane, to drive your foot back to the ground. Hurdling improves speed because of the simple fact that you’re not just focusing on running faster when you hurdle; you’re focusing on your hurdling mechanics. Then, when the hurdles are out of the way, the flaws in your sprinting form that you have had to fix in order to hurdle better will carry over to a more efficient, fluid sprinting form.

One final point I would make is that, on school teams, hurdlers don’t just run the 110’s/100’s and 300’s/400’s. They also run legs of the 4×100, 4×200, 4×400, sprint medley, and they can also fill in as needed in the 100, 200, 400, and, in some cases, even the 800. Also, many good hurdlers also have skills that make them good long-jumpers or triple-jumpers. In that sense, by emphasizing the hurdles first, a coach is building a team that has many athletes who can do many things and contribute in many ways. A “hurdles first” philosophy does not lead to having a team that is strong in the hurdles but weak everywhere else. On the contrary, it makes for a team of athletes who are skilled on many levels and can help a team score points in multiple events.

© 2005 Steve McGill

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