Lee Pantas: Building a Foundation

Not very often does it occur that two 110m hurdlers from the same high school run under 14.00, but that’s what happened in 2003 at Asheville-Reynolds High School in Asheville, NC. In that year, senior Kris Fant and junior Cade Liverman ran personal bests of 13.86 and 13.87, respectively, in their regional championship meet. A few days ago, I had the good fortune of conversing with Lee Pantas, the coach of these two remarkable athletes. Although Pantas did not start coaching the hurdles until 1997, when he was in his fifties, he is definitely one of the best high school hurdle coaches around, and is also a wise individual who values teaching life lessons more than he values state or national championships.

The 63-year-old Pantas was born and raised in Stamford, Connecticut, where he attended Greenwich High School. At Greenwich, played basketball and ran track, focusing on the sprints, the high jump, and the javelin throw. He did not get involved in the hurdles until much later in life, when his daughter, who went out for middle school track, took up the hurdles in the late 1990’s. Wanting to help her improve her technique, he began to study the event. He developed enough knowledge to help her have a very strong high school career, and the work he did in this period also prepared him to coach Fant and Liverman to the success that they were able to attain.

Coach Pantas with hurdler Liza Schillo

Coach Pantas, who also coaches with the Asheville Lightning Track Club, does not claim to have any magic formula for developing good hurdlers. “About sixty percent of the credit,” he said, “goes to the athlete. The rest of it is some coaching, and then there’s a certain amount of luck.” In regards to Fant and Liverman, Pantas pointed out that both of them were “unbelievably talented, totally dedicated kids.” Fant, who currently runs as a sophomore for UNC-Asheville, began hurdling with Coach Pantas as a seventh grader. Liverman, who currently runs as a freshman for the University of Tennessee, took a more circuitous rout to hurdle stardom. Originally from Montana, Liverman moved to Asheville with his mother as a young teenager, and attended West Henderson High School for his sophomore year before transferring to Asheville-Reynolds for his junior and senior years. During that sophomore year, Liverman experienced something that he hadn’t grown used to in Montana: losing. “He was like superman up there,” Pantas said, referring to Montana, “but there’s a lot of good hurdlers around here.” In the summer between his sophomore and junior years, Liverman ran for the Asheville Lightning, where he began to sharpen his hurdle skills. “He had never had any hurdle coaching before,” Pantas explained, “but he had good running mechanics. I just went to work on his hurdling technique, and he dropped a second right off the bat.”

As mentioned earlier, Fant and Liverman both ran their high school 110m Hurdle pr’s in the same race – the 2003 North Carolina Western 4A Regional Championships. In that race, Fant, who hadn’t defeated Liverman all season long, nipped him at the finish line as they ran nearly identical times – 13.86 to 13.87. Fant went on to win the state championship that year, as did Liverman in 2004. What Pantas enjoyed about their rivalry was the intensity of it, especially in practice, but also how supportive the two athletes were of each other. “When Kris beat Cade at the regionals, the first person to congratulate him was Cade,” Pantas noted. “At any meet, they didn’t care who won, as long as they went 1-2.”

In regards to hurdling technique, Pantas feels that nothing is as important than reducing air time. As he put it, you can’t run fast if your feet aren’t on the ground. “You focus on lead-leg mechanics and trail-leg mechanics,” he said, describing his approach to coaching hurdlers. “You wanna have them do a lot of drills to the side of the hurdle. At the high school level, that’s really, really important. Once kids have the basics down, and they’re not afraid of the hurdle anymore, you’ve really gotta focus on getting them back on the ground.” Pantas is also a big proponent of the fence drill, also known as the wall drill, as a means of strengthening the trail leg and developing proper trail-leg mechanics. Liverman, for instance, “had a lazy trail leg” when he first arrived in Asheville, “so we put him against the fence. You get the trail leg fast by doing weight training with the trail leg, which is the fence drill.”

Pantas believes strongly in the value of weight training as a means of improving hurdle performance. When asked which he felt was more important – flexibility or weight training – he responded by saying, “If I had to choose one or the other, I’d have to choose weight training because the kid’s gonna be faster. But the hurdler has got to be flexible. For a hurdler, flexibility and weight training are probably equally important. In the long run, though, the weight training is gonna give you more bang for your buck” when it comes to getting faster.

Fant (on right) edges Liverman in the North Carolina 4A Regional Championships, May 2003.

When looking for potential hurdlers to develop, Coach Pantas isn’t very scientific in his approach; he is basically looking for two qualities: speed and desire. “There’s two things going on in high school,” he said. You got kids who are never gonna be fast hurdlers, but they love it. I don’t have the heart to tell ‘em not to do it, because they’ll have a lot of fun at it. If the kid wants to hurdle, you gotta try ‘im out. In terms of what to look for, I look for a number of things. First of all, you want the fastest kid on the team and turn him into a hurdler. You may not have the luxury of that if the sprint coach wants him for the sprints, but I’m in the fortunate position where I coach both. So, the number one thing you look for is, the faster the better, and the second thing you look for is, the kid has gotta want to do it. They’ve gotta have the attitude that they wanna learn, because the hurdles are so complicated. Then you look for other qualities. Hurdlers are usually a little on the crazy side, they’re risk-takers. You wanna look, particularly for a 110 guy, for someone who’s at least six-feet tall, because it’s gonna be easier to convert them into hurdlers. When you’ve got a kid who’s five-seven, you’re gonna have problems between the hurdles.”

As for the intermediate hurdles, Pantas likes for his athletes to be able to lead with either leg, because “they’re gonna need that in the late part of the race.” To develop this skill, he has his hurdlers do a workout in which he sets up four to seven hurdles at race height, and staggers the distance between them anywhere from ten to thirty meters apart. “The key,” he said, “is that they’re gonna have to take the hurdle with whatever leg comes up. I like that workout because it puts ‘em in a situation where they’re forced to react. You learn best in realistic situations, when you gotta do it or die.” After each rep, he’ll “reshuffle the deck,” meaning, he’ll randomly change the distance apart between each hurdle, so that the athlete doesn’t get used to the stride pattern during the course of the workout, and therefore continues to need to adjust and use whichever lead leg comes up.

In spite of his vast knowledge of the hurdle events, and the fact that he does attend many coaching clinics, Pantas doesn’t feel that it is critical for a high school coach to be up to date on the latest theories on hurdling technique, although he does feel it is important. Most essential, though, is a working knowledge of the basics. “I think, for a high school coach,” he observed, “you wanna make sure you have the foundation, the fundamental things. You gotta focus on the mechanics,” which means that a beginning hurdler shouldn’t even be entered into a race until he or she is ready. “Once you’ve got the fundamentals of the arms and the legs, then you focus on getting them fast between. No matter how pretty a hurdler looks, if you want fast times out of a kid, they’ve gotta be on the track running, because [hurdling] is a sprint race; it’s not a run-and-jump race. And that’s not new stuff, so I don’t know what new theories are gonna come up that are more important than that. You get the basic things down, and you’re in business.”

In addition to pursuing knowledge of the hurdles on his own, Pantas has had assistance from some excellent hurdle coaches in his attempts to learn the nuances of the event. He mentions K.B. Brown as the coach from whom he has learned the most. Although Brown is much younger than Pantas, Pantas said he looks up to him as a mentor. Brown, who used to coach at Westside High School in South Carolina, now works with the women’s team at Clemson University. While at Westside, Brown coached many outstanding hurdlers; Pantas mentioned that Brown had two girls who ran in the 55-second range in the 400m intermediate hurdles, which would be impressive for a Division I college coach, much less a high school coach. Another coach that Pantas mentioned as being a great help to him is Jean Poquette, who, as many of us out there know, was Renaldo Nehemiah’s high school coach. Poquette, who now lives in Brevard, NC, not far from Asheville, visited Asheville-Reynolds practices a few times when Fant and Liverman were competing for the school. “The main thing I learned from him,” Pantas said, “was the back-and-forths workout, where you five-step ‘em. That workout really helped us, because it really forces you to be efficient technically.” Pantas stated that Poquette also talked to him a lot about the mental aspect of getting the athlete to compete at a higher level. “He was very supportive; I learned a lot, but he also affirmed a lot of what I was doing.” Poquette also helped Pantas to “make some very subtle changes” in Liverman’s and Fant’s technique because, “with those two guys, every little thing counted.”

What does Pantas enjoy most about coaching hurdlers? “The interaction with the athlete – the training, the technical aspects of helping them get better. Sometimes I could give a damn about winning. I just enjoy building the relationships with ‘em. It’s not about winning state championships. I can honestly say that I’d be okay if I were to never coach another state champion. I’d rather coach a kid who’s slower than molasses who wants to do it than a fast kid who has no desire. Helping people is what it’s all about, it’s what we’re here for. Coaching is just a way to do that big time. Anybody who’s into coaching to fill their own egocentric needs is in it for the wrong reasons.” This attitude explains why Pantas is comfortable right where he is – coaching high school and age-group track. “I don’t think I’d like to coach college,” he said. “I wouldn’t like the pressure. We’re lucky as high school coaches because we can build relationships; in college, their job is on the line. It’s a different environment.”

So when it comes to preparing his athletes for the next level, Pantas makes sure to warn them that their athletic experience in college is not going to be like it was in high school. “They’re not gonna get the pats on the back they’re used to in high school,” he commented. “In college, the coaches are paid to produce winners. It’s a business, and a lot of egos get involved. For the kids who are truly talented, and have a shot at making the Olympics, or at least the trials, they’re mentally ready to do the work. The [Olympic] dream doesn’t die easy, so those kids thrive on hard work.” But for those who don’t have Olympic aspirations, Pantas feels that they should give collegiate competition a shot, but not stick with it if they’re miserable, or if the demands of being a collegiate athlete are just too much. As he put it, “walk away if it’s not for you.”

Coach Pantas feels that any young athletes who aspire to become hurdlers need a coach who can guide them through the frustration of learning the event and lay down a solid foundation of technique. “If you’re a kid in high school who wants to hurdle,” he remarked, “you’ve gotta have a good coach. My advice for an up and coming hurdler would be to believe in your coach, do what your coach says, and put it into practice.”

Well-known as an artist in the Asheville area, Pantas feels that hurdling, too, “is truly an artform. The beautiful thing about hurdling is the challenge of the technical aspects of the event that makes it so fascinating.” Having coached the likes of Fant, Liverman, and other stand-outs in the past decade or so, he oughtta know.

© 2005 Steve McGill

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