Track has a problem…

Track and Field has a problem, and it is made especially manifest during the indoor season: the meets are often way too long and lack excitement.  This is a concern to me, because I love the sport and know what it CAN be but too often isn’t: the venue in which the labor of weeks, months, and years pays off; the time and place were an individual earns the satisfaction of having achieved a personal best in their event and gets to share the joy of that experience with both fellow participants and gathered spectators.  The parents, friends, and other fans who come to watch help invest meaning into the runners’ performance.  In the best situations, there is a beautiful symbiotic relationship between track athlete and track fan: the athlete’s best effort excites the fans, who urge the individual on to even greater heights.  The athlete feeds off the energy of the crowd, and the crowd is rewarded with spectacular and exciting races.

Such a meet occurred this past Friday in Batavia.  Coach Bronco Meeks and his staff inaugurated the “Distance Madness” meet, experimenting with a new format by initiating a coed meet featuring just three events: the 800, 1600, and 3200.  Being a distance coach myself, I was of course predisposed to appreciating this sort of change: however, I would contend that all spectators and participants would agree that this meet represented the best of our sport: its design helped foster great performances by all runners, regardless of ability level.  Of the 28 runner we brought to the meet, 22 ran personal best times; I expect the other competing teams enjoyed similar results.  Zach Sayre dropped his 3200 best by 30 seconds; Michael Gates, in the same heat, bested his previous PR by 20 seconds.  In the next 3200 heat, Ethan Planson shaved 20 seconds of his personal best, Sean O’Connell dropped 8 seconds, and Neil Cumberland bested his previous PR by 24 seconds.  Steven Zaher had a 22 second 1600 PR; Jeff Hopkins dropped 10 seconds – both broke 5:00 for the first time ever.

What was it about this meet that allowed for such outstanding performances; such generally good vibes?  For one, Batavia has a beautiful facility – a state of the art 200 meter indoor track that is the envy of most high school track teams.  For another, excellent competition.  The teams invited all have respectable programs, good coaches, and well-trained athletes.  Finally, the meet management was excellent.  Within a minute of one race ending, the next began.  This was a rare meet that actually ran ahead of schedule, with one closely fought race following another.  By the end of the evening, the atmosphere was absolutely electric.  In the meet’s culminating race, 7 all-state athletes from cross country took the line as Thunderstruck by AC/DC blared from the loudspeakers.  For just under 5 heart pounding minutes, the assembled field tore circles around the track, and the end result was 4 of the 5 fastest times in the state right now for the 1600 meter run.

Unfortunately, too many meets are devoid of this kind of exuberance: Batavia proving to be an exception rather than the norm.  The meet felt so refreshing in part because so many of our previous competitions were long drawn-out affairs where athletes and fans sat for 5 hours or more, interrupted only sporadically by a few genuine moments of excitement.  I have to believe that it is not entirely enjoyable for parents to watch several hours of most high school track races before getting to watch their child run; even more so when the conditions are not ripe for their son to have a good race.  I believe we do have it in our power as coaches and officials to impact these conditions to some degree.  Underlying this belief is the core idea that great track races can be manufactured, and that what truly motivates individual athletes in our sport is not simply the opportunity to participate in races, but rather the prospect of feeling the genuine sense of pride that comes with knowing you’ve just accomplished something you’d never done before.  In other words, mere participation is not enough to keep an athlete in our sport for the long term; rather, it is providing the best possible opportunity to see their hard work pay off in the form of personal bests.

In that spirit, I offer some obstacles that I think make track less exciting than it could be, and propose some ideas about how to infuse our sport with more energy.  As a major caveat, I should acknowledge that I am not

a head track coach, nor am I an official, so I have not had to grapple with the very real challenges of managing a complex athletic event.  My suggestions are also heavily biased towards the distance events, as that is my first love.  I offer the following observations simply in the hopes of contributing to a conversation about how to make track more fun for both participants and fans alike.

Some obstacles track and field faces:

-Too many heats: At one meet we attended this year, there were 13 heats of the 400, and over 20 preliminary heats of the 55 dash and 55 hurdles.  While it is a challenge to balance opportunities for more athletes to run with keeping meets shorter, no one benefits from meets that last all morning and afternoon.

-Too much time between heats: I fully acknowledge that managing a meet is hard, and I have the utmost respect and appreciation for meet officials.  However, I think everyone would agree that it is more enjoyable to watch a well-managed meet where there are not long pauses between races.  Relatedly, we need to make a greater effort as coaches and officials to combine heats whenever practical.

-Conditions not amenable to running fast.  This is more an issue for outdoor season, and an unfortunate reality of spring in the Midwest, but the truth is that no one is going to PR when we hold meets on windy days.  I realize that meets must be scheduled in advance, and that it is not often possible to know how conditions will change towards the evening, but I have definitely been to too many meets where no one really wants to be there (coaches, athletes, and fans alike) but we all go through the motions anyway, pretending like we do.  If it is 50 and rain, let’s cut our losses and cancel or reschedule.  Perhaps we should have less April dual meets and more May meets?

-Too many events.  Do we really need to run every event every meet?  Why not experiment with abbreviated meet schedules (especially for dual meets) or meets featuring a particular event group (apply the ‘Batavia Distance Madness’ concept to sprints, jumps, or hurdles)?

Suggestions

-For indoors, drop the 600.  We have the 400 and the 800, and we don’t run the 600 outside.  Eliminating this event would  make meets at least a little shorter.

-On that note, it is my belief that meets should not exceed about 3 hours.  Done right, meets could be completed in this time frame.  It would be more exciting for fans, less stressful for athletes and coaches.  In cases of bigger meets, have prelims on Friday and finals on Saturday.

-Have less meets, but ensure that they are great.  I am not sure high school track athletes really need to compete every single weekend.  I think there is a benefit to training more, so that when we do have meets, everyone is excited to have the opportunity to see how they are progressing.

-Let’s not be beholden to tradition.  All sports evolve. Basketball invented the shot clock when fans started becoming disinterested in the slower paced games.  Baseball this year will begin experimenting with warning pitchers about spending too much time between pitches.  It is time to begin experimenting with different meet formats (like Batavia, as stated above).  Why not have a rotating series of events? For example, one week have a meet featuring hurdles and jumps.  The next week, have a meet focused on distance events.  Or what about running two heats of the 200 or 400 at the same time?  8 athletes could start in the lanes on the home stretch, while 8 others started on the back stretch.  When the gun goes off, all 16 athletes would race around the track.  It would be more fun for fans to watch, and would help move the meet along more quickly.

-Start the meets later in the evening.  When would you rather run – at 5:00 PM or at 9:00 PM under the lights?  It is unquestionably more electifying later at night.  Why not start meets at 7:00 PM instead of 5:00?  Athletes could do their homework right after school and return to the track in the evening for the competition.

-Coaches from opposing teams should work together to set up the best possible matchups.  For a few championship meets, I can appreciate the ‘chess game’ mentality of trying to determine how to get the most points from the athletes you have, but for all dual meets and most other invitationals we should strive to create the best possible race scenarios for our athletes.  It would be a shame to put one’s four fastest athletes in a relay only to find out that the opposing school is running their four fastest in open events.  The idea is to get kids into races where they will be in heats with athletes right at their ability level (I have seen 3200 races where there are only a handful of athletes and the race spreads out right away, such that no athlete is working with any other; this strikes me as an opportunity lost).

For example, in one of our first indoor meets of the season we competed against Conant High School.  I contacted coach John Powers to find out what event their superstar Zach Dale was running; when we learned he’d be in the 3200, we signed up Blake Evertsen for that event.  This helped both athletes.  More recently at Batavia, Coach Meeks set up a google site which allowed all coaches to see who was signed up for each event.  This format allowed for the 1600 to be established as the marquee event, with each coach putting his best athletes in that race.  As discussed, this led to phenomenally fast times.

-Use music to foster excitement.  In the final 1600 at Batavia, “Thunderstruck” by AC/DC boomed through the loud speakers.  It quickened everyone’s heartbeat and no doubt inspired a faster pace.  When we held our “Distance Under the Lights” meet last year, runners were egged on by the pulsating rhythms of Eminem’s’ “Lose Yourself.”  While I am not a fan of music blaring during practices, I do think it can be useful to generate a buzz in the atmosphere on competition day.

-Whenever possible, allow athletes to be in the infield, and let them run back and forth cheering their teammates on.  Sometimes officials get angry and yell at kids who are over enthusiastic about their teammates running the 4*400.  Why are we quelling such excitement?  My first coaching job was in Iowa: in that state, there was a rule that coaches could not be on the infield during the meet.  They must stay behind the fence outside the track.  I hated that rule.  Why keep fans and coaches so far removed from the athletes?  This weekend, Plainfield North initiated their first ever “gauntlet mile” which erased the barrier between runner and audience, inviting all fans to line the track and scream loudly as the athletes ran by.  What a brilliant concept.

In general, I do think the excitement of track picks up with the outdoor season.  Indoors simply does not stir the passions the same as Cross Country or the final meets of the Outdoor season.  The training is less enjoyable, often featuring terrible footing and brutal cold; and the meets themselves must necessarily move slower, as there are less lanes available, leading inevitably to more heats of each race.  Indoor track is a problem us Midwesterners must simply live with; for anyone who wants to be the best they can in our sport, year round training is the only option, despite the fact that the winter part of our year is never as enjoyable as the fall, spring or summer.  So the first change we must make is one of attitude: to accept the winter season as a necessary part of our growth as athletes, to have the patience to know that the hard training we are doing will ultimately pay off later on.  Yet we can do more than just change our attitude; we can reexamine our sport and seek to make it better.  Batavia, as well as the ‘gauntlet mile,’ show the way.

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