Thursday, September 3, 2009

World Champs Review - US Sprint Relays

12th IAAF World Athletics Championships - Day Seven

Two dropped batons in Beijing lead to the categorization of the US efforts in China as a disaster and panic ensued! Not enough medals were won. The Relay Program was a waste of money and scrapped. Meetings were held. "Project 30" was written. New positions created and hires made.

Then we went to Berlin and neither sprint team made the final - and adding insult to injury we won one fewer medal than in Beijing!

But THIS time we're told we're on the right track! No worries, just misfortune on the relay front. Missed it by "that much" as Maxwell Smart would have said! I'm sorry, but the responses I've seen post Berlin are as comical as Maxwell Smart himself. We missed by a mile amid problems galore. For the first time in the history of the world the US 4x1's for both men AND women were not in a final in a major for TWO consecutive championships in a row - and when you look at it it's really no accident!

Our sprint relays have been abject failures since Osaka, and that failure when you look at it is by design. We are not set up for success and the best thing that we had - a Relay Program - was scrapped and replaced with absolutely NOTHING. A complete disaster. No relay camps, no gathering of the athletes together at any one time prior to Worlds. No team building.

In short a basic lack of fundamentals. Which seems to be a recurring thread when it comes to our relay teams. For example, while the spin with regards to our troubles in Berlin has been "bad luck", if you go back and take a look at replays of both relays you'll see an important four letter word missing - tape. Tape, as in no markings on the track! Markings as in marks to let you know when to take off when your teammate is bringing you the baton.

I'm surprised that Carl Lewis, who was brought in to help formulate Project 30, never mentioned marking the track, or that Jon Drummond, coach of Tyson Gay the American Record holder in the 100, has never mentioned this to the coaching staff. Because if you go back and look at video of their relay record runs - or any of their relay runs - you will see white tape all over the track! Matter of fact I remember an incident where Leroy Burrell and an official argued over how much tape he could put on the track! And dare I say that relay coach Harvey Glance used to mark the track back in the day!

Because in Relay 101 - around middle school - you're taught to mark the track so that you know when to take off as the incoming runners barrel in! It takes a while to get the timing down, but with "practice" you develop the right distance and THAT becomes your mark. At the elite level this should be somewhere in the neighborhood of 25 to 30 feet. The idea being to keep the baton moving at maximum velocity around the track while executing the exchanges!

Instead what we see from our "elite" relay squads are athletes taking 6 steps and throwing their hands back to wait for the baton. Which is why we saw athletes constantly running up on each other; Darvis Patton touching the baton BEFORE the zone of all things; and Muna Lee gyrating her body around trying to find the baton - contorting enough to injure herself in the process! No accidents here - failure by design!

Instead of calling for the elimination of the Relay Program, the committee should've recommended continuation - but with some modifications. The first modification being a return to an emphasis on the teaching of fundamentals. And the best way to fix that is to hire someone who works on relays for a living - a collegiate coach. Pick a successful relay program - Florida, Florida State, LSU, Texas, Texas AM - and contract with the coach to conduct a clinic. This clinic could serve as the primary relay camp. The coach would work with the athletes on the fundamentals, and could work very closely with the head coach on final team selection and athlete placement.

Which brings me to the second change in the old Relay Program - one coach, one voice. Whomever is chosen to be the coach of the relays should be the final word in how things are done. Not relay by committee. Not input from athlete's personal coaches, managers, trainers, or even the athletes themselves. If you agree to relay duty you agree to run when and where needed - end of discussion! Nothing about I (the athlete) or my athlete will only run "x" leg - then maybe the relay isn't for you. Nothing about athlete "x" will only run certain rounds or with certain other individuals! This is the relay. It is a team sport, check your egos at the door. And if your coach or business manager have a problem, then perhaps the relay isn't for them. But we need to get back to fundamentals, and that means one man, one voice. If he fails, he's the one held accountable and maybe he's not brought back again. But its difficult to build a structure with several architects, all of whom have a different vision. As good as the individual architects might be, you still end up with a mess - and that's what we continue to get from our relay squads!

Now I could talk about a pet peeve that I've heard from both athletes and coaches regarding the relays and that is the topic of politics! But I think that putting one person in charge, giving them autonomy, and restricting outside input, should take care of the politicking that most people seem to feel lies at the heart of our problems. I agree that this is a major problem, but I feel that One Coach, One Voice, should alleviate that situation.

Just as I feel we need a return to TEACHING the BASICS to the athletes. Because, quite frankly, while the assumption is that they are "elite" and should know, many more athletes are going pro after a season or two, or skipping the collegiate process altogether. And may not been part of a high school program with enough support to put together a proper relay. We are getting more youngsters without the experience we need, as well as vets who just haven't done it for a while.

Unfortunately we have the talent to put together almost any combination of individuals and produce a relay team that can run 37-high - giving us the mistaken illusion that its not that difficult to put a team together. But as I said in analyzing the sprints themselves, that mark is just not sufficient any more. That worked when the record was around mid 37. But it is now at 37.10, and to be honest should've been under 37 seconds years ago! Jamaica, who didn't break 38 seconds until two years ago is now the WR holder, and Trinidad just ran 37.62! We are still the deepest sprint squad on the planet and yet we were leading off with a hurdler as if we were France or some country with only 1 decent sprinter to our name! Everyone else is improving and WE are going backwards. I mean we ran 37.73 nearly TWENTY YEARS AGO - its nothing to get excited about.

So we HAVE to be smarter about constructing our relay teams. And that starts with a coach that understands the relays, and can teach a squad the basics. Like how to mark the track to get maximum baton movement. How to run outside your lane when the outgoing runner is going to be running a bend. Simple things that are the difference between successful passes and potential records, and the kind of frustration that we have suffered two majors in a row now.

To paraphrase an old saying Proper Prior Planning Prevents Poor Performance. We still have the talent to win gold. We sorely lack the planning to do so.

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