The first, most basic drill a track and field coach typically teaches a new hurdler is the walkover. When new hurdlers are comfortable with walkovers, it’s time to speed things up. The following article is based on a presentation by David Mitchell at the 2014 Michigan Interscholastic Track Coaches Association’s 2014 clinic.
Half Speed Ahead
The second step in a beginning hurdler’s progression is usually a half-speed drill. If hurdlers can perform the whole hurdling motion at half speed, just kind of jogging into it and clearing each barrier, then they’re really working on the technique of clearing the hurdle. At that point, they shouldn’t think too much about what to do between the hurdles, so the hurdles shouldn’t be at full spacing. Instead, the hurdles should be about halfway between the normal spacing. Coaches can place the first and second hurdles in their normal positions on the track, then put another hurdle halfway in between. The hurdlers can then jog through and get up and down over the hurdles and keep a good rhythm. It’s going to be more like a high-knee run, not trying to eat up a lot of ground on the track, but just trying to stay high and clear the hurdle and then get ready to clear the next one. And it prevents the upper body from getting out of whack and moving too far forward as they clear the hurdle. The hurdlers must stay under control to perform the drill.
New hurdlers can do the half-speed drill with four to six hurdles at half spacing. If some of the hurdlers are really afraid and really rough at the start, they can perform the drill with the full spacing and take a million steps in between and get their confidence up.
The next step is to run over the hurdles at race pace. Coaches shouldn’t say “full speed,” because the hurdling race pace is not truly a full-speed sprint. Hurdlers must be under control to clear the hurdles with correct form. So coaches should use the term “race pace” to help them understand.
No matter how fast new hurdlers progress, coaches should very rarely, if ever, have the athletes run a full flight of hurdles at the full spacing and at the normal height in practice. First, they’ll get tired, so they can only do it once or maybe twice during a practice. Additionally, they don’t have the adrenaline that they’ll have in a race, so it’s really hard to replicate that and get that feel during practice. Even if the hurdlers can run correctly in a race and make it to the next hurdle in stride, they frequently don’t make it to the next hurdle in practice, when they’re using a standard racing setup.
But coaches can help their athletes compensate for the lack of adrenaline at practice, and also give the hurdlers more of a feel for what a race feels like. One method is to use a lower hurdle height. Drop it down a notch in practice, so hurdlers can feel that speed a little bit better. Coaches can also bring the spacing in 1 meter. Leave the first hurdle on its standard mark, go to the second hurdle and measure 1 meter in. The next one comes in 2 meters, and so on.
Alternatively, take a marker and put marks on the track. One color can represent half spacing, another can represent 9-meter spacing for boys high hurdles, and so on, to make it easy to set up for practice drills. When hurdlers practice at the shorter spacing, or the lower height, they move faster in practice. But the drills don’t take the same effort and it feels more like a race, without using that full-race energy.
Sweep Away the Fear
It’s normal for kids to be afraid to hit the hurdles, so they’re going to jump too high at first. Coaches should expect this behavior, but must remind the hurdlers to maximize their ground time and track contact and minimize their air time as much as possible. To help hurdlers get past their fear, coaches can lower the hurdles about 3 inches and attach hurdle sweeps on top. Hurdle sweeps are essentially 3-inch horizontal brushes that attach on top of hurdles. Hitting the brush strings doesn’t hurt, so the young hurdlers have a margin for error. Hurdle sweeps also offer some feedback for the athletes as they’re trying to learn. They can actually feel the sweep, or hear themselves brushing against it, and the coach can see it move.
No matter how a team practices, hurdlers must never try to clear the hurdles from the opposite direction. Hurdles are braced in front, so they give way easily when hit from the front. If hurdlers go against the safety of the hurdle and hit it, they’re going down because the hurdle is not going to fall in the opposite direction.