Track Coach

Check Form The Low Tech Way

Elementary, Watson! You can fix form faults just through careful, focused observation.

By Glenn G. Dahlem, Ph.D.

Coaches wishing to evaluate a track athlete’s form these days have access to all sorts of optical and electronic gadgetry available to use. The only problem is many track and field programs lack budgetary resources to acquire, operate and maintain necessary equipment needed for checking form properly. A few procedures exist, however, for appraising dash, distance and hurdling performances using the old fashioned way. “Just watching” can go a long way toward evaluating form if a few basic tenets are applied, turning mere spectating into scientific analysis of a track and field performance.

This “low tech” analysis of running form, when properly conducted, involves checking four important bodily characteristics during straightaway running for both dashes and distance events. A second analysis, of hurdlers, is conducted by noting three critical body positions from the side at the precise moment an athlete clears the hurdle. Counting steps taken between hurdles is also part of that analysis.

Specific characteristics observed during straightaway portions of a race are: leg/foot swing-out, arm swing-out, vertical head bobbing, horizontal head bobbing. It’s best to check for each condition during a separate observation, so a coach can concentrate on one specific problem at a time.

“Swing-outs,” both arm and leg, are very subtle deviations from direct forward momentum, and not easy to detect. For this reason, an observer must be careful to align his/her line of sight exactly with the runner’s route. It’s best to make two observations, one of a race from behind the runner’s start, another of the on-rushing athlete from behind the finish line. The goal is to detect any sideways deviation of leg or arm.

When observing longer distance events, sampling observations may be made during straightaway places during a race, not at the very start and finish.

Dash observations occur during an entire event, except for longer dashes that may include a curved portion of the track. Any subtle deviation of arm or leg from the straight and narrow, no matter how slight, detracts just a tiny bit from overall speed—possibly the difference between winning or losing. There’s no magic formula for eliminating both leg and arm swing-outs. An athlete just needs to concentrate on the problem while practicing running at different speeds, receiving frequent observational data from the coach.

Up and down, or vertical head bobbing occurs a tiny bit when every person runs. The goal is to minimize it. The head is a heavy body counterweight, and any deviation from its stability detracts from running speed. As an observer sights down a runner’s path, up and down head movement is easy to detect. Vertical head bobbing is corrected by practicing running stability at different speeds; stride analysis leads to elimination of any automatic up and down head movement that might tend to occur normally.

Side to side, or horizontal head bobbing, is less common than vertical head bobbing. It’s generally caused by neck muscle weakness. A few head and neck exercises in the gym, such as face up and face down bridging may help, as well as stronger straightahead eye concentration while running.

While swing-outs and bobbing are detected during directly behind and in-front observations, hurdling problems are discovered from the side. Directly positioned beside the track next to a hurdle, the coach looks for three things as an athlete goes over the hurdle: hand to toe reach, body forward lean, and amount of space between body and top of hurdle. If he/she notices the reaching hand isn’t close enough to the lead toe, or body is too upright, and/or too much air exists between body and hurdle, then it’s time for some coaching during practice. Counting the steps between hurdles is also important. Count must stay the same from meet to meet. Actual numbers differ for high and low hurdles, by gender, and from junior high to high school to college and olympic levels. It behooves all coaches to know required numbers and make sure each hurdler does too!

Much analysis of dash, distance and hurdling boils down to common sense. All coaches know what to look for as they seek to improve an athlete’s performance. If a track and field program is well heeled, such an an Olympic training facility or large university program, with videotape and film analysis, it’s easy to check for flaws in an athlete’s performance, however difficult such detection might be. Just tell an equipment manager to run a tape and count someone’s steps between hurdles, for example.

However, most small rural high schools can’t afford fancy visual aids, so the coach is going to miss a few of the subtleties, no matter how competent he or she is.

A few carefully planned and carried out visual observations, specifically designed to pick up hard to notice imperfections, can make up for lack of high tech gear. These specialized observations can go a long way toward improving running and hurdling form. After all, isn’t that what coaching is all about—observing an the athlete performance, then telling he or she how to improve it?

Glenn Dahlem, age 83, Honolulu, HI resident, likes to write about coaching sports, teaching methods, farming/gardening, and linguistics. He coached track and other sports while guidance counselor with the Marshall, Wisconsin School District. Glenn holds B.S. and Ph.D. degrees from his original hometown school, the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an M.S. from Winona (Minnesota) State University.