Teaching proper hurdling technique to a novice track-and-field athlete can seem like a daunting task. It’s not as simple as “step-step-step-clear,” or treating it like a free-for-all obstacle race. Proper form is essential for both the safety and efficiency of the athlete. The instruction of this complex motor skill must be done in a step-wise, simplistic fashion, where each component phase is broken down and trained separately. Difficulties in learning this complex motor skill can arise in a number of ways.
Don’t Overwhelm the Athlete
Over-coaching with too many verbal cues can have a negative effect on the learning process, hindering motor development and reinforcement. If you give too much information to the athlete at one time, it could cause a stimulus overload. If the athlete receives too many cues, then the focus gets spread too thin and becomes lost. Therefore, give one cue at a time between repetitions so the athlete doesn’t become overwhelmed.
Too much feedback between trials has the same effect as an overabundance of pre-cueing. More than anything, a coach’s job is to focus on the intrinsic feedback that the athlete feels: This teaches autonomy and control over his or her own body. One concise statement of constructive criticism every few trials is the best way to ensure the athlete focuses on the task at hand and then listens for when the words do come. If feedback is too wordy or given for every trial, it will lose its effect.More than anything, a coach’s job is to focus on the intrinsic feedback that the athlete feels. Click To Tweet
Go Back to the Basics
Issues such as weak leg power, hip flexor weakness, ankle instability, and lack of upper body control all affect the underlying biomechanics of the hurdle form. If an athlete is struggling to complete the moves or achieve full range of motion, the coach must go back to the basics of strength development. This will ensure the athlete has the fundamental muscle and tendon power to carry out the technique.
In other words, elastic capability must come first: hurdlers are sprinters first (Rogers, 2015). Deep hip flexor muscles such as the iliacus are responsible for keeping the lead leg in line and tightly adducted (McKinnon & Comerford, 2013). A lack of necessary strength when trying to perform a certain move can quickly lead to frustration and drained confidence in an athlete, especially if not recognized by the coach, or mislabeled as defiance or a lack of concentration.
Difficulty in getting three steps between each of the hurdles can be a function of poor ground reactive force, sprint mechanics, stride power, or rhythm. Rhythm is imperative for running an efficient hurdle race and preserving running economy. Any deceleration in the three-step rhythm can cause the athlete to come up short on the next hurdle; this usually develops with poor flight or landing mechanics. If the lead leg does not follow a straight path over the hurdle, the center of balance will be off, and the landing unbalanced (Rogers, 2015). It is helpful to have the athlete perform wall drills with the lead leg and work on controlling the upper body to counter the lead leg.
Coaches can cue to lead with a slightly-flexed knee rather than the foot of the lead leg, to avoid a straight-legged “braked” landing (McKinnon & Comerford, 2013). The hurdles can also be moved closer together until the three-step technique is mastered (Rogers, 2015). If the struggle is in reaching the first hurdle, there may be poor acceleration or comfort out of the blocks; the starting legs can be reversed in the blocks to add an extra step for the correction and cue the athlete to aggressively attack the hurdles.
Difficulty staying low to the hurdle is usually a measure of confidence and flexibility. Hamstring flexibility is crucial for full leg extension and hip spread. Core strength over the hurdle is essential to balance the limbs and land with proper center of mass. McKinnon and Comerford state that core strength is about “coordination, alignment, efficiency, and controlling the body’s natural compensations for minor restrictions,” which can compensate for a less-than-perfect takeoff or foot placement if necessary.
Running over lower-height hurdles can be a great confidence builder and help overcome the obstacle fear (Rogers, 2015). Emphasis should be placed on “running” the hurdles, rather than “jumping” the hurdles.
Prioritize the Athlete
As a closing note: The athlete’s well-being should always come first. If too many trials are being practiced in a single session, the neuromuscular system will become overtaxed and burnt out. Small gains in training and milestones in skill mastery should be noted and praised in the athlete. As coaches, our first priority is always keeping our athletes healthy and safe.
Consider the other stressors in the athlete’s everyday life that may be affecting his or her training life. When an athlete feels balanced and well-rounded, the focus and motivation on skill development is less likely to waiver.
- McKinnon, G. & Comerford, M. (2013). “Hip control issues for clearing the hurdle and reducing flight time.” Modern Athlete and Coach, 51(2): 31-34.
- Rogers, J. (2015). Track and field coaching essentials: USA track & field level 1 coach education manual. W. Freeman (Ed.). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
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