Training tips for college track and field athletes

Coaching any sport takes time, dedication and continuous personal growth. Coaching isn’t for everyone, but with planning, organization, and a willingness to learn, it’s a skill that can be honed. Athletics training at the intermediate level can certainly present a host of challenges. You may have years of experience or a lifelong love of the sport, but these characteristics alone will not be enough to be successful as a coach or on your team.

Athletics is often one of the most accessible sports. Equipment requirements for entry are minimal – one pair of shoes. Often, for athletes joining the college track team, it may be their first foray into organized school sport. It’s an opportunity for them to be an athlete and an opportunity to develop skills, learn to be part of a team, to self-organize and to work with a coach.

As a coach in a college track and field program, you have three main goals: to teach athletes the fundamentals of the sport, to expose them to a wide range of track and field events, and to involve the athlete – to inspire them to stay in the sport.

And as a college track coach, you need to be a master at communication. You need to set clear goals and expectations for your athletes. You will also need to communicate with the parents. These young athletes will depend on friends and family for transportation to and from practices and competitions. Make sure parents understand times and locations for practices and meetings. And make sure they understand the needs and expectations of their track and field athlete, including uniform and equipment needs, time commitment, and what needs to be done outside of the team to refine the skills.

Your role as a college track team coach should focus on the following:

Establish the foundation of athletics

There is a long way to go and little time to do it. Often practices are short and so is your athlete’s attention span. Middle schoolers have a lot to do, and you need to keep your practices, drills, and talks short, focused, and fun. Hard work is certainly important here, but it can be done in an engaging way to keep your athletes interested. It should be a balance of strength, skill work and “play” time that serves as team building and conditioning. It may be worth setting aside the last part of the practice, or one day of practice per week for fun. This could include games such as capture the flag, ultimate frisbee, obstacle course, or spike ball.

Here are other ways to work on some foundational skills:

  1. Stand up and do exercises from different starting positions. Have your athlete begin in a prone, kneeling, cross-legged, supine, tuck and roll, push-up position, deep two-point squat. When signaled, they explode, sprint a set distance, then work on a controlled deceleration.
  2. Acceleration relay races in small teams (3-5 athletes). Choose a distance (10 to 30 meters) on the grass. Choose a starting position and at your signal they begin. The athlete marks the hand of the outgoing runner and continues to the finish line. The trainer uses the time between runs to review acceleration cues and feedback between runs.
  3. Jump races, jump races and gallop over 10-15 mini obstacles for a time while observing the mechanics.

Focus on athlete development, not events

This is the time to develop the fundamental skills of your athletes. Although winning competitions and events is the ultimate goal of an athletic trainer, it should not be the primary goal for middle-aged athletes. It is important at this stage to instruct track and field athletes on the rules of the game, key movement patterns, and strengthening drills so they can explore the movement patterns. Have your athletes try events like the shot put, javalon, discus or pole vault, not just the sprint. This is often a period of physical development in young men and women and although they were active child athletes, their bodies may need time to improve in strength, function and prevent injury.

Rhythm before speed

There’s an old adage: learn to walk before you run. This concept can be done when it comes to athletics. Developing a good rhythm with the mechanics of walking is far more important than speed. Once your track and field athlete understands how to move properly, speed can be applied. It’s much more important that it be done slowly and steadily, rather than fast and messy. You want your athlete to look good and move fast, not just fast. As your athlete ages and their developing body can better adapt to neurological inputs, the speed will come.

There are four points to look for and work in rhythm:

  1. Legs that change (remove and replace) at the same time.
  2. Arms that go up and down contributing to the movement.
  3. An ability to run at different paces or shift from first to fifth without any coordination issues.
  4. A forward lean and a long spine.

You can achieve this by manipulating running tempos using animal references for different speeds:

  • Cheetah = sprint
  • Deer = fast running
  • Horse = easy run
  • Elephant = running
  • dog = jogging
  • Turtle = walk

As a trainer, you can mix and match animals so your athlete can adjust speeds while working on rhythm mechanics. For example, ask an athlete to perform the following actions:

  • Dog 10 seconds
  • Cheeta 10 seconds
  • Horse 20 seconds
  • Cheeta 5 seconds
  • Turtle 1 minute

Remember, this is an important time to develop a foundation for young track and field athletes. If you instill hard work, expose them to all elements of the sport, and develop basic skills, it can set the athlete up for success in high school, college, or beyond. A college athlete who enters high school with a strong foundation will be more coachable and will progress safely in the sport. Your job as a coach is to build the framework upon which future coaches can build. For additional lessons, resources, and tools, visit NFHS.org

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