Track and field, the greatest sport in the world, is brutal, unforgiving, and fair. A race’s victory goes to the person who deserves it the most. For most meets, we don’t use stopwatches and subjective judgment; rather, we use highly sophisticated timing equipment with multiple perspectives and angles at the finish line. The multiple cameras go to a computer that captures the “photo finish” by measuring the “torso” of the athlete. To quote the commentators at the recent World Championships in Hungary, “You must know how to lean at the finish.”
Consider, for a moment, the razor-thin margins that decide the outcome of a race—mere inches, tenths, hundredths, or even thousandths of a second. Each season, there will inevitably be races where the line between securing a championship, triumphing in a dual meet, or breaking a world record hinges on an athlete’s finesse in that critical lean at the finish line.There will inevitably be races where the line between securing a championship, triumphing in a dual meet, or breaking a WR hinges on an athlete’s finesse in that critical lean at the finish line. Click To Tweet
As a high school track and field coach, I have weathered the emotional rollercoaster of races, oscillating between sheer elation and profound disappointment in the results. It’s a journey that spans four years of relentless training, encompassing 10 months of each year, all to culminate in a decisive lean!
When I was a high school athlete, many of the timers were either coaches or moms equipped with stopwatches. My coach used to emphasize that “leaning forward a bit early and adding a slight grunt could shave off a couple of tenths.” Coaching guru Kebba Tolbert, coach at Harvard, shared a photo of himself during his high school days, showcasing a Michael Jackson “Smooth Criminal”-inspired lean at the finish line of his race.
Throughout my career, I’ve witnessed every imaginable variation of the “lean.” From the Windmill, Chest Out, and Arm/Shoulder Push to the Forward Head Dip, Dive, and a myriad of others—I’ve seen them all. Surprisingly, each of these finishing techniques can be effective at some level. The Dive will get you on the local news. However, it’s a delicate art, and a common problem for most high school athletes is either leaning prematurely or far too late in their races. Regardless, at any track meet, you will hear the same thing yelled at the end of a close race, “LEAN!”
I firmly reject the notion that athletes will instinctively know how to do the finish lean, says @CoachJTAyers. Click To Tweet
This article is not intended to persuade you that one type of finish is superior to another. Rather, its purpose is to demonstrate that the finish lean is not only important but also frequently overlooked in training. I firmly reject the notion that athletes will instinctively know what to do. I’ve observed numerous professional runners falter or lose precisely because they lacked the essential “skill” of finishing well.
Recently, one of the fastest humans alive told me:
“(How to finish) is something most coaches at this level believe you should have already learned from your first coach. But most first coaches don’t teach that. And your high school coach will probably think the same thing. And the cycle continues until they realize no one has taught you how to lean.”
As a high school coach in California, the stakes are undeniably high. Winning a race or securing a placement can be the key to victory in a dual meet or an opportunity to advance to the next round of post-season or clinch a championship title. Having your athlete out-lean an opponent for a second-place finish, especially in dual meets where points are scored in a 5-3-1 fashion, changes the entire meet. Going 1-2 not only secures valuable points but also grants your team an impressive 8-1 advantage.
In the NCAA, championships are often decided by competitors who secure a place finish by the narrowest of margins. These points carry immense significance, highlighting the critical importance of each place and the ultimate finish of a race.
On the global stage of events like the World Championships, Olympics, or prestigious Diamond League races, the stakes are not only about glory but also about substantial financial rewards. Consider the scenario of traveling all the way from Jamaica to Budapest, enduring an 11-hour-and-10-minute flight, only to miss out on a medal by a mere one-thousandth of a second. This unfortunate fate happened to Oblique Seville in the 100m event during the recent World Championships. The difference between victory and a fourth-place finish in such elite competitions can translate to a staggering $16,000 in prize money—a fortune lost by the slimmest of margins, sheer thousandths of a second.
Image 5. Screenshot from results posted on the World Athletics website.
- Gold: US $70,000
- Silver: US $35,000
- Bronze: US $22,000
- Fourth place: US $16,000
- Fifth place: US $11,000
- Sixth place: US $7,000
- Seventh place: US $6,000
- Eighth place: US $5,000
Race Examples with a Lean
Countless examples abound at every track meet worldwide, a tradition that has continued since the inception of this sport. While I could highlight numerous instances, even from my team this past season, I’ve instead selected a few notable examples with links to excellent breakdowns of the events.
Allyson Felix vs. Jeneba Tarmoh
During the 2008 100m Time Trials for the 100m dash, Jeneba Tarmoh and Allyson Felix unofficially finished in third and fourth place. The top three athletes were set to qualify for the Olympics. However, following a timer-issued protest, it was determined that both athletes had recorded an identical time of 11.068 seconds, resulting in a dead heat or tie.
USATF had no established policy to address this situation. Ultimately, it was decided that a runoff would occur after the 200m races later that week. Jeneba chose to withdraw from the runoff, allowing Allyson to secure her spot at the Olympics. She went on to earn three gold medals in that Olympic Games (in the 200m, 4x100m, and 4x400m events) and place fifth overall in the 100.
Nick Symmonds vs. Khadevis Robinson
One of America’s all-time greats in the 800m, Nick Symmonds, was out-leaned in the 2008 U.S. Indoor Championships Men’s 800m by Khadevis Robinson. Nick would go on to say, “A lean can be the difference between winning and losing.”
What Do the Coaches and Athletes Say?
Coaching at the high school level, I avidly follow the NCAA and professional competitions and even host a popular podcast. Throughout my journey, I’ve had the privilege and honor of interviewing some of our sport’s most brilliant minds and accomplished athletes. Naturally, I posed a question to them: Do you intentionally practice for the finish? Is the art of leaning at the finish line a part of your training regimen? Their answers surprised me.
I made a commitment to maintain their anonymity, but to bolster credibility, I provided some accolades to accompany their responses (with permission granted for the use of each quote).
High School Hall of Fame Coach (California)
“I do teach the finish. Cues are lean, dip, windmill. I’m not a big fan of the both arms back, chest out technique. Lots of falls with that. Windmilling the arms is important, as it counters the forward rotation. So it’s torso that counts at the line, and that could mean chest, shoulder, or beer belly.”
High School Coach, Multiple Times Coach of the Year (California)
“The funny thing is I do not, and even more funny, I have no reason why I have not. Even better than that, all my kids lean well anyway.”
High School National Coach of the Year and California Coach of the Year
“I teach leaning through the line. Most athletes tend to slow down and pull their chest back from the line. I have found that the best kids on your team need and deserve the time to be taught this part of a race.”
Four-Time Orange County Coach of the Year
“Yes, we teach to run through the finish and will end a practice by walking and visualizing the end of a close race. Not to panic and where on the track to lean.”
D1 College Coach in California
“I do not teach to lean through the line at practice. My fear is that by doing this in practice, an injury will occur.”
Arizona Area Collegiate Assistant Coach of the Year
“Yes, I teach how to finish the race with a good lean.”
400m Hurdler World Medalist
“Yes, we always worked on it around the week of conference or a big meet, but that was about it.”
One of the Fastest Men to Ever Live
“I don’t practice that. It’s just not at the top of the list to practice. However, my mom taught me when I was young.”
One of America’s Best 100m Sprinters
“No, sir. Normally, nobody is next to me, so I just practice running through the line.”
Multiple Gold Medalist Sprinter and Women’s Relay Record-Holder
“Yes, I do practice leaning at the line in some practices. Depends on the coach. I have had some that focused on it, and some did not.”
One of America’s Best 200m Runners Ever
“Not really. That’s more of an instinctual thing. The only times I’ve done it is when someone is on my tail.”
NCAA Coach of the Year and Sprint Guru
“We don’t practice that. Folks get distracted trying to lean instead of just sprinting well… and most leans I see at meets are done very poorly—people just dip their heads early.”
One of the Greatest 400m Hurdlers Ever
CEO of One of the Best Private Sprinting Coaching Groups in the Country
“We don’t practice leaning more than we just practice ‘running through’ and looking in the distance.”
The conclusion is quite evident: there exists no consensus regarding training for this particular aspect of the race. What’s more, the controversy surrounding it surprised me. In fact, one coach even shared that their head coach outright rejected and prohibited any form of lean-focused training during their sessions.The conclusion is quite evident: there exists no consensus regarding training for the lean at the finish line. What’s more, the controversy surrounding it surprised me, says @CoachJTAyers. Click To Tweet
What Does the Timer Measure?
So, I then talked to the timers and got their perspective. They are the ones, after all, who are clicking the button to issue the mark.
Chris Drescher of Finished Results Timing, Brian Sparacino, and Wilson Morales. Wilson is one of only two NACAC-certified finish photo judges in America and is often tasked to oversee finish photos for accuracy at World Athletics events.
“Where do we place the line scan on the body? The simplest way to explain this is to imagine a Ken doll or Barbie doll. Take off the head, arms, and legs; the remaining torso is all that matters. A mistake that I’ll see most often is using the shoulder as the first part to cross. Technically, it’s the clavicle, not the shoulder. So, if an athlete uses the swim and smile technique to try and gain an advantage, the timer should put the line at the clavicle, which is essentially the mid-point at the shoulder.”
The NFHS book states:
“The endpoint of the torso is the outer end/articulation of the collarbone (clavicle). Normally, this is approximately at the border of the middle and outer third of the distance between the neck and the peak of the shoulder. Although the pelvic area is anatomically part of the torso, for consistency in photo finish judging, it is more practical to define the lower end of the torso as the horizontal cross section of the body through the hip line (an arbitrary line encircling the fullest part of the hips, between abdomen and crotch).”
“The most important thing at the end is that these systems and the operators bring equality and fairness to every race. This means no matter which heats you run in any race, your time has the same standards, something that manual timing does not offer, where officials activate time for each individual based on their visual appreciation of the gunfire and stop the time by a visual appreciation of the torso at the finish line. With fully automatic timing (FAT), no human intervention is between time activation (other than the starting gun for the race, but a transducer detects the signal and activates the time) and the operator that captures and evaluates the image.”
What Is Fully Automatic Timing (FAT) for Sports?
Fully automatic timing (FAT) is a popular type of sports timing that captures digital race results that are accurate to at least 1/100th of a second (0.01) but preferably 1/1,000th of a second (0.001). Fully automatic timing systems require a start signal, running time, and capture device to be digitally synchronized to ensure accuracy. True FAT also requires the timing device to be activated automatically by a start signal rather than manually (e.g., as with a stopwatch). The finish time must also be captured electronically to remove any human error or delay.
Training for the Finish
My team prioritizes training for the finish line. However, I have reservations about having my athletes perform reps and practice leaning at the conclusion of training sessions—my preference has been for them to run through the line. Yet, here’s an alternative approach: why not conclude a practice session by having athletes line up about 10 meters from the finish line? In their respective lanes, they can walk (or even jog) to the finish line alongside 5–6 other athletes. This exercise not only helps them familiarize themselves with the movement and timing of the lean but, more importantly, allows them to visualize winning a close race at the line. This has proven very helpful to my athletes over the years.Engaging in a simple routine of walking, jogging, visualizing, and giving oneself the cue to lean at the finish costs nothing, says @CoachJTAyers. Click To Tweet
It is evident that many NCAA and professional athletes do not incorporate this crucial element into their training. However, I have been told that Bobby Kersee and Curtis Taylor of Oregon do incorporate the finish in practices. Engaging in a simple routine of walking, jogging, visualizing, and giving oneself the cue to lean at the finish costs nothing. It serves as a preventive measure against leaning too early and equips athletes with a plan for when it truly matters. And it will matter!
It is also clear that high school coaches are responsible for imparting the art of the finish. If athletes don’t grasp the significance of the finish with their torso, they may struggle to grasp it at higher levels of competition.
Lead Photo by Stanley Hu/Icon Sportswire.
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