The Lost Art of Hurdling

“…and that’s bad for good, and that’s bad meaning bad, not bad meaning good.” –Consequence

The first hurdle race I ever watched was Renaldo Nehemiah’s world record race in Zurich, Switzerland in 1981. Nehemiah became the first sub-13.00 hurdler in history with his 12.93, while Greg Foster finished second in a blazing 13.03. My reaction while viewing that race was to emit a long “Wowwwww…….” Since that time, I’ve seen many races that have evoked a similar reaction. There have even been many practice sessions when athletes I’ve coached have impressed me on the “wow” level. Unfortunately, with increasing regularity, I find myself saying “wow” in a negative way as I attend meets and look at races on online. It’s becoming apparent to me that the men’s 110 meter high hurdles is becoming an event in crisis, that hurdling is, in fact, becoming a lost art.

The inspiration for this article was a college meet I attended a few weeks ago. There were about eight preliminary heats of the high hurdles. Almost every heat featured various forms of wreckage and carnage. Hurdlers smashing hurdles, knocking hurdles to the ground, bouncing hurdles off the ground. Hurdles were ricocheting into other lanes, crossbars were breaking in two. It was comical. If I wasn’t a hurdle coach who understood the event, and loved the event, I would have been laughing. But nothing that I saw that day made me laugh.

Instead, it sent me reflecting. I found myself thinking, what if I weren’t a hurdle coach? What if I didn’t know anything about the hurdles? What if I were just a fan sitting in the bleachers hoping to take in an enjoyable day at the races? What would my reaction be watching those hurdlers crash and burn, twist and turn, leap, fall, dive, reach, strain? My reaction, I realized, would be, What the hell are these guys doing? Isn’t there a rule against hitting so many hurdles?

I also found myself thinking, What if I had taken some of my high school hurdlers with me to the meet, eager to show them how the big boys do it? What would my athletes have learned from the experience? What technical tips could I have pointed out to them? I couldn’t imagine, in my wildest dreams, how any prospective hurdler, upon watching the ugliness I had just witnessed, would respond with the words that came to my mind after I first saw Nehemiah’s 12.93: “I want to learn how to do that.” No, I couldn’t imagine it.

What I saw at that meet that day is not as uncommon as I, or anyone passionate about the hurdles, would like to believe. There’s a whole lot of ugly hurdling going on out there, at all levels. Even at the elite level, many of the top hurdlers have glaring technical flaws, and their races look slow and forced, lacking a consistent rhythm.

With sprinters like Usain Bolt, Tyson Gay, and many others capturing the imagination of the track and field public, and with the sprints and sprint relays being so plain fun to watch, the high hurdles are in danger of heading toward the realm of irrelevancy. It’s a sort of novelty event that even other track and field athletes don’t understand. I remember a couple years ago there was a YouTube video people were sending to each other of some hurdlers in a high school meet who were falling down, getting back up and jumping over hurdles in an opponent’s lane. It was hilarious. I laughed when I saw it. But really, the joke is on us – we who love the hurdles. We’re the ones being clowned. There is no other event in track and field that can be as darkly comical to watch as the men’s high hurdles.

So what’s the problem? Why have the high hurdles reached such a sorry state?

It starts with coaching. Or the lack thereof. The high hurdles are a very complex event to coach, and, to put it bluntly, a lot of coaches don’t want to be bothered. Even the women’s 100m hurdles is a comparatively easy event to coach; the hurdles are so low that the women’s race is still basically a sprint event, and can largely be coached as a sprint event. Technical flaws can be masked by speed, and the race will most often go to the fastest sprinter. But in the men’s race, the hurdles are very high, and the space between allows no room for true sprinting. So, in essence, the men’s high hurdles is not a sprinter’s race. It’s a technician’s race. It resembles field events like the long jump and triple jump just as much as it resembles the 100 meter dash. Most coaches don’t want to deal with technique, or don’t know how to, so they focus on the sprinting aspects of the event, ignore its hurdling aspects, and leave their hurdlers to languish in underachievement.

With ever-increasing frequency, I’m finding myself in conversations with hurdlers, or their parents, whose coaches aren’t helping them to develop, who have technical issues that their coaches aren’t addressing, who rarely go over any hurdles at all in practice. I feel like there’s a whole world of starving hurdlers out there seeking guidance, yearning for someone to tell them what to do. And when I go to these meets and see the most elementary flaws – too much back-kick between the hurdles, leading with the foot instead of the knee, swinging the arms across the body – go unaddressed, I find myself wondering, Why aren’t these athletes’ coaches fixing these problems? To me, putting a kid in the hurdles and not teaching him to lead with the knee is as bad as putting a kid in the 100 and not teaching him to use starting blocks. I mean, what are you doing?

The hurdles require patience, perseverance, the ability to stay calm amid frustration, and the willingness to think intellectually. And that goes for the coach, not just the athlete. Even more so for the coach. To be a good teacher of the hurdles, you have to be a good student of the hurdles. And you can never think that you’ve come far enough that you no longer need to be a student. My perception is that a lot of potential hurdlers with good sprint speed and overall athleticism are being discouraged by their coaches from actively pursuing the hurdles. Such coaches are just plain lazy. The hurdles are so foreign to them that they don’t want to take the time to learn. So some of these pretty good sprinters who don’t possess the raw speed to be great sprinters, but have other attributes that could make them great hurdlers, end up being pretty good at both. What a waste.

Then there are those coaches who instruct their hurdlers to just sprint through the hurdles, and if you hit them, so be it; just keep sprinting. That’s another reason for many of the train-wreck races we see these days. The goal should be to run as fast as you can without hitting them. It seems to me that there needs to be rules in place to stop this total disregard for effective hurdle clearance. Particularly nowadays, at the college and elite levels, with the weights on the bottoms of the hurdles, there should be a penalty for every hurdle in your lane that ends up on the ground. Something like a tenth of a second added to your time for every hurdle you knock down.

Another question that needs to be asked is, Where do we want to go with the high hurdles? Right now, it’s not a sprint event. There is no such thing as the “sprint hurdles” on the men’s side. At the elite level particularly. So, if we want the high hurdles to be a sprint race, then we need to lower the hurdles to 39” so that the men can just step over the hurdles like the women do, and so they can use more of their top-end speed in the middle part of the race. The other option would be to increase the spacing by about a meter so that the men have more room to lift their knees and open up their stride between the hurdles. Either of these changes would make the event more palatable to the casual observer and passionate track fan alike, would bring the sprint element back to the event, and would reduce the amount of ugly errors that have become commonplace.

When talking about hurdling as an art form, we’re talking about finding the perfect union of speed and technique. We’re talking about rhythm. Even with the way the high hurdles are set up now, we have seen that great races, fast races, powerful races that are also aesthetically pleasing, can be run. The key, as Nehemiah said when I interviewed him for an article on this website a few years ago, is that “You have to know how to hurdle.”

So, assuming that no changes will be made, that the hurdles will always be 42” high, with ten yards between them, the onus is on the coaches to teach the athletes how to negotiate these barriers as efficiently as possible.

And the athletes have to approach their event as an art form that they are seeking to master. And any true artist knows that mastering his craft takes time. Too often, athletes want to get better now. They want immediate results when they make changes in their technique. They don’t want to take a step backward in order to take two steps forward. The truth is, if you have ingrained a multitude of technical flaws, you have to unlearn everything you’ve learned, undo everything you’re doing, and start all over again as a beginner. Even if what you are doing is “working,” in the sense that you’re winning races and staying competitive at your level, you might need to tear down and rebuild in order to get to the next level. The hurdler who isn’t willing to do that will not reach his potential.

But without a coach’s guidance, an athlete’s desire and willpower will only take him but so far.

© 2010 Steve McGill

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