Track Coach

TC230 Editorial Column

From the Editor – RUSS EBBETS

Technique V. Style

Track and field is a technique-based sport. Even the casual spectator can watch most any athlete move and identify the meaning. Shot put, high jump, pole vault or hurdles— it is difficult to confuse what’s going on.

One of the goals of coaching is to achieve a “technical model.” In reality a technical model can be a simple concept. Generally speaking, there is a “right way or wrong way” to do things. Where it gets fuzzy is with the varying schools of thought, gurus and programs that may champion technical nuances that identify “their brand” of shot putting, pole vaulting or whatever. But once again the similarities and common denominators of the “technical model” greatly overshadow these technical nuances.

Why the variation? Now things graduate from the simple to the complex. One reality that dictates technical execution is simply the fitness level of the athlete. The appropriate use of levers, posture, line of drive and force application are different from one athlete to the next due to age, maturity, size, gender and experience. These differences may be dramatic and require the coach to tweak the model from athlete to athlete. Coaching becomes a struggle between what should be done and what can be done.

Coaching is not a Procrustean Bed. Procrustes, you’ll remember, was the Greek god who wanted all his captives to be the same size so he chained his victims to an iron bed and either stretched or chopped down any variants to get what he wanted. Procrustes may have been the original “one size fits all” guy before infomercials but modern day coaching necessitates we program in some wiggle room.

Any coach worth his or her salt knows that one of the great challenges of the profession is to figure out what exactly is the right amount of “wiggle room.” The technical skills of a workout need to be adjusted to the age and ability of the athlete. Trying to teach a double hitchkick flight and landing pattern to a kid long jumping 12 feet is just not going to work.

And let’s not forget physiology’s effect on technique. Running may seem fairly cut and dried; you teach the whole action and as fitness improves things progress from a lap to a mile to a marathon. But even running has some different techniques.

The marathoner’s foot basically “cuts the calf” from one step to the next with an easy arm action that never quite approaches the chin or the hips. Contrast that with the sprinter who steps over the knee and uses a vigorous arm action that cycles from the “lips to hips.” Trying to crossover the different step patterns for the different distances is not going to work.

And as far as the hands go, you can wrap your thumb tip with your index finger or use that straight fingered open hand form popularized by Carl Lewis, because he had “style.”

But what about personal style and when is personal style a bad thing? Well, is the technique appropriate for the training age of the athlete? Does the athlete have the necessary fitness, physical strength and maturity to execute the technique? If the answer to any of these questions is “no” repeated attempts will only lead to frustration for all involved.

Another important question—is the technique biomechanically sound and safe? I once had a pole vault recruit who gripped the pole in a right handed manner and took off on the left side of the pole. He cleared the bar with what was essentially a feet first Fosbury Flop. His vault height was limited by his handhold. I told him we’d change him over when he got to school. He told me “no,” that “This is my style.” And that is how his career ended, a victim of his own style.

Training theorist Tudor Bompa once described style as an athlete’s use of imagination to solve a technical problem. He also called style an athlete’s rebellion against authority. While I have no doubt this defines some athletes, I have reservations making a universal application. One needs to remember that Bompa was a product of the Communist Eastern European tradition where conformity was the Procrustean Bed of the culture. In fact, you might have heard of that famous communist-era maxim roughly translated, “My way or the Siberian Railroad.”

While I have always found Bompa’s statements intriguing if you look at them from the athlete’s perspective— should not the coach have enough sense of self to recognize and capitalize on athletic genius? That the imaginative kinesthetic sense the gifted athlete possesses might in fact be a “better way?” Where would the high jump be today if Bernie Wagner had not given Dick Fosbury the green light?

So while a standard technical model might be just what the newbie or novice needs to get safely started in the sport some creative presentation may be the ticket for the expert that brings that athlete to a breakthrough. I mean, what was Einstein talking about, if not this, when he defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result? Improvement necessitates change and tweaking the old technical model may be the change needed for the athlete to reach the next level, Procrustes be damned.