Hooking

One of the more common infractions in the 300/400m hurdles is that of hooking. This violation, which results in a disqualification, occurs when the hurdler’s trail leg swings around the hurdle instead of going over it. Most commonly, hurdlers hook when they’re on the curve, although it has also been known to happen on the backstretch. This article will discuss causes of hooking and how to prevent it.

Hooking is only an issue for hurdlers who lead with their right leg. There are two types of hurdlers who hook: those who have faulty mechanics with their trail leg, and those who run too close to the inside part of the lane. Those with technical flaws are the ones who bring their trail leg around too wide, with the foot leading the way instead of the knee. When the foot leads the way, the whole leg swings wide, causing the violation. For a hurdler with such inefficient mechanics, hooking will always be a problem, no matter how far to the outside edge of the lane he or she may run.

Similarly, hurdlers who hug the inside edge of the lane are in danger of hooking, regardless of how efficient their technique is. From an early age, most sprinters (including those who later become hurdlers) are taught to hug the inside of the lane in order to minimize the distance they run. For a hurdler who leads with the right leg, this practice can lead to disqualification. It’s a hard habit to break because even athletes who specialize in the hurdles still run relay legs and open sprint events that will require them to hug the inside edge of the lane. So it becomes a matter of being able to adapt one’s mental focus from event to event.

I have coached both types of hurdlers with hooking issues. One of my athletes who competes for both my school team and my club team specializes in the high jump – another highly technical event – so he doesn’t spend that much time working on his hurdling technique. In the spring, he doesn’t run the 110’s, only the 300’s, and he focuses exclusively on the high jump during the summer season. During one of our weekday meets this past spring, he was obviously hooking with his trail leg over most of the hurdles. One of my former athletes who was watching commented that “it looked like he was doing a lead leg drill.”

The next day at practice, I set up eight 36” hurdles on the second curve, about six yards apart from each other, and had my athlete focus on running on the outer edge of the lane. I also had him concentrate on tucking the heel of his trail foot into his butt and driving the knee upward in order to tighten up that motion. This drill corrected the problem, and he didn’t hook again for the rest of the season.

The other hooking incident involving one of my athletes is much more well-known – Johnny Dutch’s disqualification after winning the 2006 Nike Outdoor Championship 400m hurdle race in 50.97. Johnny has always tended to clear hurdles over the middle of the crossbar instead of over the right stripe. But his trail leg action has always been tight and precise, so I never saw him to be in any danger of hurdling illegally. The hurdles that he hooked were not on the second curve, but on the backstretch, where there is no need to hug the inside edge of the lane. The official who heard our protest claimed that most hooking violations occur on the backstretch, because hurdlers usually aren’t even thinking about hooking until they get to the sixth hurdle.

Whatever the case, I looked at the situation as one in which blaming the officials wouldn’t help us to avoid any future incidents of hooking. So I set up a standard workout where he ran 150’s over the last four IH’s. This time, though, I set up hurdles in the lane to the left of his lane. For the ones on the curve, I didn’t put them on the marks, but I lined them up directly next to the hurdles in Johnny’s lane, so that the crossbars were touching. I wanted to see if his trail leg would hit the other hurdle. If it did, that would mean that the trail leg was, in fact, going slightly around the hurdle.

On a few reps, he did clip a hurdle or two in the other lane with the foot of his trail leg. Once he recognized what was happening, he understood the need to run in the middle of the lane, not the inside edge of the lane, to ensure that his trail leg would clear legally. Because his trail leg action is so efficient, he wouldn’t need to hug the outer edge of the lane. But running on the inside edge of the lane was definitely putting him in danger of hooking.

Johnny’s disqualification has made me much more aware of hooking than I ever was before. A couple of weeks ago I was viewing a dvd of old-school hurdle races that I had watched dozens of times. One of the races is John Akii-Bua’s gold medal 400h race from the 1972 Olympics. He ran 47.82 – the first sub-48.00 in history. It was a race that changed the whole event, setting the standard that Edwin Moses would equal and surpass four years later. In that race, Akii-Bua defeated the previous Olympic champion, David Hemery of England, as well as American Ralph Mann – another pre-race favorite. So, watching this race again a couple weeks ago, I noticed for the first time that Akii-Bua clearly hooks the first hurdle. I was like, “Whoa! He’s hooking!” Nowadays, at major meets, there are officials all over the track to check for hooking. Apparently, that wasn’t the case back in the day. It makes me wonder how history would be different if Akii-Bua had been disqualified. He wouldn’t be the larger-than-life figure that he has become, and one of the most legendary moments in the history of the 400m hurdles would’ve been eliminated. Wow.

My advice to hurdle coaches who read this article is to not make the same mistake that I made. Don’t wait until one of your athletes gets disqualified for hooking before you begin to address the issue in practice. Incorporate the workouts I mentioned earlier into your routine, talk to your athletes about the nature of this infraction, and make sure your hurdlers who lead with their right leg do plenty of trail leg drills. Another useful tactic is to occasionally stand behind your hurdlers when they’re hurdling in practice, so you can more clearly see whether they’re hooking. Filming practice sessions can never hurt either.

© 2006 Steve McGill

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