Word Choice

Being an avid reader and writer, and having taught high school English for the past fourteen years, I’ve become very aware of how language affects thought. The words and phrases we use to define things and describe things has a direct affect on how we perceive them. This point holds true in the world of hurdling as much as it does in any other avenue of life. In this article, let’s take a look at some words in our hurdling vocabulary that may need to be re-examined:

Trail leg
The term “trail leg” is one that has bothered me for a very long time, and with the help of one of my athletes, I’ve recently come to understand why: as a hurdler, you don’t really want the leg to “trail.” You don’t want it behind you. If it’s trailing behind the rest of your body, then it’s slowing down the entire hurdling motion, throwing you off-balance, causing your arms to hang in the air. When you’re running, when you’re sprinting, do you want either leg to “trail” behind the other? No. So why would you want that when you hurdle? The fact that we call it a trail leg implies, either consciously or subconsciously, that we do want it to trail behind. That’s why I think it’s time to change the vocabulary.

So what to call the trail leg if we’re not gonna call it a trail leg? There are two terms that I think would be more effective, more specific to what the leg actually does. First, let’s call it the push leg. Why push leg? Because it’s the leg that you use to push yourself off the ground and propel your body into the hurdle. The push off the ground is hugely important in getting you into hurdle position. So by calling the trail leg the push leg, you are reminding yourself of the importance of getting a forceful push off of this leg.

Another term I like is one that I heard at my school’s conference championships a couple weeks ago. One of the officials asked me if I’d be willing to be a judge for the 100 and 110 meter hurdle races. He wanted me to stand near the finish line beside lane eight.

“To watch for…” he said, then he stopped, as if he were searching for the right word.
“Hooking?” I offered.
“Yeah,” he agreed, “the whip leg. Make sure it doesn’t hook.”

I was like, Holy Sugar, that’s what I’m talking about. Whip leg. Because, think about it, what does the trail leg do? It whips around in front. And what happens if it doesn’t whip around in front? All kinds of problems, that’s what. Also, that whip effect is what creates speed off the hurdle. So, in effect, the leg that we call the trail leg serves to provide propulsion off the track (push leg) and in mid-air (whip leg). So why the hell are we callin’ this thang a trail leg????

Hurdle (as a verb)
Though I know I break this rule every day, I think it’s time to stop using the word hurdle as a verb, and to only use it as a noun, referring to it as a barrier that is cleared. Here’s why: when you use the word hurdle as a verb, you’re creating in your mind the concept of a motion that is separate from sprinting, that is different from sprinting. We tell ourselves that we sprint between the hurdles, but hurdle over the hurdles. This mindset, this psychological separation between the sprint motion and the hurdle motion, creates a physical effect. Namely, it causes you to prep for the hurdle on the penultimate step leading into hurdle clearance. So, instead of sprinting over the hurdle, you slow down, drop the hips, then spring up and over the obstacle. As long as the mind perceives hurdling as being something different from sprinting, it will attempt to make a motion that is distinctive from sprinting.

Here’s how to change the vocabulary. Instead of saying “I’m going to hurdle,” say “I’m going to run over the hurdle,” or “I’m going to sprint over the hurdle.” I’ve seen this slight change in phrasing create visible progress three times within the last month. The first time was with myself, while doing a few old-man five-step drills over a flight of five 39’s. I was trying to get my trail leg to whip around in front and it wasn’t working, regardless of the various adjustments I was making. Finally, out of frustration, actually, I told myself, “Just run over the damn hurdles.” And that’s when something finally clicked. I felt like I didn’t need to remind myself about anything specific in my technique. In the next few reps I told myself each time to “run over the hurdle,” “run over the hurdle,” and that’s exactly what it felt like – like I was running over the hurdles.

The second example occurred with a kid I just started working with a few weeks ago. He’s very athletic and is also a quick learner. When I first met him he had a wild trail leg that flung widely before swinging back inward. A lot of wasted motion. Over a period of a few workouts we managed to tighten it up a bit, but some of the old wildness was still there. Remembering how my “run over the hurdles” mantra had worked for me in my old-man drill, I gave him the same instruction. “Don’t think about the trail leg; think about running over the hurdles. Don’t tell yourself to hurdle; tell yourself to run over the hurdles. Focus on your running mechanics between the hurdles, and maintaining that mechanic over the hurdle.” Instant success. He looked so fluid, so smooth, and so fast over the hurdle that I knew he was feeling the same ease of motion that I had felt. The smile on his face confirmed it.

The third example occurred with a freshman on my school team. This was his first year over the 39’s. He started the year five-stepping, then got to where he could four-step regularly. By the last couple weeks of the season, he was able to three-step some in practice. One day, a post-collegiate athlete that I’m coaching was out there with us, and he instructed my freshman to stop focusing so much on the hurdle and focus on sprinting. “You’re not running,” he told him. “You’re thinking so much about the hurdle that you’re not running. Run.” When my freshman drove to the first hurdle in his next rep, the post-collegian encouraged him with “Go! Run! Fast! Fast! Fast!” And the freshman three-stepped all three hurdles that were set up. That weekend, at the conference meet, he three-stepped a whole race for the first time.

I can’t explain on a technical level why such a minor mental adjustment – from “hurdle” to “run over the hurdle” – would make such a significant impact, but it does. The truth is, hurdlers think about the hurdles so much that they do often neglect the importance of proper sprint form, and of making the most of each step between the hurdles. I guess the paradox is, hurdling would be a lot easier if you didn’t think about the hurdle so much.

There are other terms in the hurdling vocabulary that can probably be improved upon, but the ones mentioned in this article should be enough to make you think. I’m the kind of coach who, no matter how often something has worked for me in the past, I’m always looking to find something that might work better. So if I’ve been calling it a trail leg all my life, for example, I have no problem with now calling it a whip leg if that term fits better with how I want the leg to function.

© 2008 Steve McGill

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