To observers, the hurdles sitting on a track may not look imposing – until you’re the one who has to run over them. The fear of striking the barriers may limit the number of volunteer hurdlers on some teams, so coaches must be prepared to recruit, and then nurture, potential hurdlers. The following article is based on a presentation by David Mitchell at the 2014 Michigan Interscholastic Track Coaches Association’s 2014 clinic.
Track and field coaches in search of hurdlers should first look for speed, although some very effective high school hurdlers are slow, but also tough. That mental and physical toughness is another trait a coach should seek – somebody who’s willing to learn, who’s willing to make mistakes and learn the hurdles as a process. Perfectionists are probably not good candidates to become hurdlers. The event is not pretty; it’s not perfect. It’s an on-going process and there’s going to be failures and crashes and burns – literally – along the way. So coaches should look for someone who’s determined, who’s willing and able to learn the technique. Physically, a hurdler needs some flexibility and basic strength, and it helps to have height, although you don’t have to be a giant.
At some point it’s also good to let other team members, who don’t want to be hurdlers, try the event as well. With a training device such as a hurdle sweep placed on top of a lowered hurdle to reduce the fear, a coach might discover someone who’s well-suited to the hurdles.
Coaching New Hurdlers
Anyone coaching new hurdlers should try to create some unity within the group and make sure that they’re a respected part of the team. Part of getting that unity within the group is having a common language. For example, a coach should never say the word “jumping” a hurdle. Jumping paints a different vision in the mind. When we hear “jumping” we’re thinking about lowering, gathering, and so on. Hurdling is a rhythmic sprint over barriers. In fact, hurdlers must vary as little as possible from sprinting. The greatest hurdlers, when they’re really doing the job, don’t look that different – especially in their upper bodies – from sprinters. Hurdlers can’t help but look a little different, particularly in the high hurdles, when they must hurdle more and sprint less. But the goal is to keep sprinting as much as possible and to be on the ground as much as possible. If hurdlers can stay in contact with the track longer and spend less air time, then they’re better off.
Coaches should take steps to ensure that their hurdlers take care of each other and take care of the equipment at all times. If somebody bumps a hurdle and it’s crooked, then it should be a standard within the hurdler’s group that everybody wants to run over and straighten out the hurdle. Because that’s going to keep their teammates safe, that’s going to make their workout better, that’s going to keep things moving. It’s a simple thing and it’s on the picky level, but it’s helpful if coaches get that spirit ingrained in the hurdlers. Because the coaches can’t be there
every single time the athletes clear a hurdle. This type of team spirit sets that standard for the hurdlers and helps create unity in the group.
Learn to Finish Strong
Another core principle for hurdles practice is, every runner who comes off the last hurdle during a drill should sprint 10 more meters. It doesn’t matter how many hurdles there are, each hurdler should sprint 10 meters after the last one during every drill. If the hurdlers always accelerate off that last hurdle, it becomes ingrained in them to the point where it will definitely happen in a race. If you watch enough track, especially with younger, newer hurdlers, you’ll see races in which runners are leading but ease up after that last hurdle. They clear the last hurdle and they celebrate in their minds. But they haven’t won anything until they reach the finish line, and if they slow down enough they may not win anything at all.
Another core standard is, every hurdler is going to fall at some time. If you sit around with old hurdlers long enough, sooner or later the pant leg goes up and they start sharing stories about their scars with each other. Hurdlers will get some marks on their legs, they’ll get some bumps and bruises. It’s OK; it’s actually sort of a badge of courage. When a hurdler falls, unless they’re really injured, they should get up and finish the race.