A well-run middle school track program can be a game-changer for both the varsity track program and the school’s athletic program in general. Middle school-aged athletes are interesting cases in that they don’t primarily need to play any longer, but they also don’t need a high school training regimen. If a coach can find that sweet spot, the kids will fall in love with sprinting, jumping, and throwing and reap benefits for years to come.A well-run middle school track program can be a game-changer for both the varsity track program and the school’s athletic program in general, says @grahamsprints. Click To Tweet
Although I have never directly coached middle school track, I have observed enough practices through the years at Triton and other schools to see what works and what doesn’t. As I see it, the middle school coach, has three very important jobs:
- Make them want to come back.
- Teach foundations that allow for a transition to high school track with movement competency.
- Expose them to an array of events and give a clear picture of both TRACK and FIELD.
That’s it for the big picture. Yes, you will have athletes who instantly love it and will be “trackletes” for life, but for the majority of middle school kids, this will be their first exposure to the sport and one they approach with trepidation. There should be some feel-good fun, but at the core there has to be age-appropriate training.
Here are five tips for a middle school coach to make their athletes’ experiences both productive and appropriate.
1. Lay the Track and Field Foundation
Both practices and attention spans are short in middle school so some deviation from traditional training and rest is okay, but there should be no need for non-stop entertainment.
Because track and field is a novel concept, in the early going we need to take some care in selling the legitimacy of the sport. Middle school kids are already searching for their identity and in some respects are trying to distance themselves from being seen as little kids. Age-appropriate training doesn’t need to be a circus, and there are plenty of ways to make things palatable for young teenagers that still are rooted in purpose. Hook them in, but don’t be afraid of giving them a dose of reality that track and field is a real sport, and one that measures raw athleticism.Age-appropriate training with middle schoolers doesn’t need to be a circus, and there are plenty of makes to make things palatable for young teenagers that are still rooted in purpose. Click To Tweet
In a four-day training week, the middle school coach can set aside a day of “X-factor” fun that perhaps culminates in a game that gets the kids laughing and breathing hard while applying learned concepts. Games like “capture the flag,” “spikeball,” speedball, obstacle course, and ultimate frisbee will always have a place, but they should not comprise the majority of training. Kids are your best recruiters and ambassadors, and if they feel the program is about games and entertainment, then the program’s reputation is most likely shot when the kids talk amongst themselves. Kids want to feel like they are a part of something, and while relationships are important, in my experience they also want to feel the coach is knowledgeable and provides structure.
Some tips to make the “mundane” have a bit more pop:
- Utilize various position starts for accelerations. In a set of 10x10m accelerations you can have them start flat on their stomach, kneel, cross-legged, on back, tuck and roll, push-up position, two-point, two-point deep crouch… The coach is really only limited by their imagination, and all variations can strengthen the block start down the road. After a walk back and an explanation of the next rep style, enough time passes to hit another rep. This is a great way to keep them running fast and sprinkle in some track-specific starts as you go.
- Accelerations relay-style in teams of four or five. Choose a distance 10-30 yards on the turf to have an easy start line. Pick a start position and get off to the races. Tag the outgoing runner’s hand and have them cheer their teammate on. If the races are even, then keep the teams the same. If not, mix them up. Review some good acceleration cues between races, and soon you are ready for another round.
- There are plenty of opportunities to race or time things that are not purely sprint-based. Things like skip races, hop races, and gallops measured over 10 mini hurdles for time are nice ways to drive intent and competitiveness naturally while not getting ridiculous. It is also a great chance to see who is learning and improving without coach instruction. Review these items and others daily but also allow them to just do it.
“We work hard and have fun” is a nice way to phrase it. Fun might attract them, but results and growth make them stay. Sprinkle in fun, but don’t be afraid to take care of business first.
2. Don’t Worry About the Events – Coach the Athletes
The typical middle school athlete, at least in Massachusetts, is very much getting their first exposure to track and field in middle school. They are not setting the track on fire yet. Even if they were, the eighth-grade state meet is not the end of the road. This is not meant to minimize early success, as success is motivating, but the first goal should be to pass off kids with some movement competency to the high school coach.
My advice to middle school coaches would be to spend a decent amount of time each day drilling sprint drills and allowing for exploration of key movements.
I often hear coaches and trainers say that kids don’t need to be taught to land, skip, and jump, as they can do these things instinctively. From where I sit, I see a huge need for this instruction and exploration now more than ever. With puberty comes increased body mass, which seems to often bring coordination loss, and that can require a second wave of motor relearning. A 60-pound fifth grader can quickly become a 6-foot 150-pound high school freshman who is all arms and legs.
I teach fifth grade, so I see elementary school kids at recess. Recess is short, and there seems to be less play in general. My point is, don’t assume that because they are young, they are not far removed from this. For an eighth grader, it is likely 2-3 years since they have had recess, and even if they play other sports there is no guarantee that the emphasis has been placed upon development.
YouTube has a host of drill videos, but unfortunately, not a lot go in-depth on how to do them correctly. I have yet to see a great basic sprint drill resource that highlights “have-tos” and applications for a given drill. Doing drills and easy plyometrics badly strikes me as potentially harmful, or it can at least cause stagnation if the body gets mixed signals.
I would suggest finding athletes who have the look and the function down on a given drill and cue the rest of the team off of their model. Communicate with the varsity coach or another track coach that you trust and ask them where to start. Staying consistent through these awkward and developing years is a great way to get ahead of becoming fast.
3. Speed Kills, but Rhythm Is King
Rhythm is something I believe needs to be present in all track events from the 100-meter up to the 2-mile. Of course, it is hard to quantify rhythm, unlike velocity, power, and strength numbers, so I do feel that this is kind of glossed over in favor of the more measurable stuff. “Pretty” doesn’t guarantee fast, but fast should always be pretty.
These are prime speed-building years, to be sure, but I have always tended toward pushing them to “earn the fast.” A freshman who displays rhythm in most things will be just fine once they can produce more force, they get older, and their CNS adapts to the speed training.
If I was to explain rhythm, I would describe it as…
- Legs that switch (remove and replace) at the same time.
- Arms that move up and down and seem to contribute to movement and vertical forces.
- An ability to run at different tempos or shift through first gear to the fifth without any coordination issues.
- Appropriate relaxation, forward lean, and posture with a long spine so that reflexes in the lower limbs can reveal themselves.
Other coaches may have different ideas as to how to define this, but this has been a nice starting point for me. There are many ways to work this with middle school athletes that are fun and not painful.
There is a tremendous opportunity to use drills that utilize buildups in speed, distance, or height. Some of my favorites as of late are:
- Gallop buildups – Five gallops, each making a subtle and progressive increase in distance.
- Skip buildups – Blend loose skips into progressively longer alternating skips until good-looking maximal skips for distance are attained.
- Prance quick to high – Start with short choppy contacts and build subtly and evenly toward a prance with maximum pop without changing posture or foot strike location.
Watch for postural compensations and encourage athletes to take the good habits for the lower-intensity exercise into the longest, highest, or fastest variation.
You can also do this by manipulating running tempos in a kid-friendly way. One of the best workouts I have seen came from our old middle school coach, Dennis Donoghue, a few years back. He used a variant of “Cheetahs, Deer, and Elephants.” I believe he used slightly different animal names.
In this game, each animal that you call out corresponds to a different speed:
- Cheetah = sprint
- Deer = fast-paced run
- Horse = easy run
- Elephant = race walk
- Dog = jog
- Turtle = walk
This is essentially an age-appropriate fartlek with embedded tempo sprints. Coaches can tailor it to event groups as well. For example, for a sprint athlete a coach could design something that is achievable and doesn’t result in a death march. An example set:
- Cheetah– 5 seconds (fast)
- Turtle – 20 seconds
- Deer – 15 seconds (tempo like)
- Turtle – 20 seconds
- Dog – 30 seconds
- Turtle, and talk with friends for three minutes. Repeat as appropriate.
A distance coach could also look at these animals and design a workout geared toward a specific goal. I think exposure to different running speeds is important for developing concepts of rhythm and pacing. In my experience, SOME kids just need to get better at running before they can be good sprinters.I am much more in favor of running for time rather than distance and watching/cueing the kids to figure out how to best distribute their effort over the whole length of time, says @grahamsprints. Click To Tweet
Obviously, this is not the only type of running workout you can do, but I would be much more in favor of running for time rather than distance and watching/cueing the kids to figure out how to best distribute their effort over the whole length of time.
A 5- to 10-second sprint may be full tilt, but a few reps of 15- to 20-second runs approaches 150m rhythm and 20-30 seconds may be closer to 200m+. Variety in these timed intervals with appropriate rest would be a terrific way to encourage fast and rhythmic running. Doing them on grass can also provide a new surface. A session of reps with a mix of times from long to short or vice versa could be terrific.
If there is enough rest between reps, ask athletes how they felt and tell them what you saw. Include them in your coaching and hold them accountable for what they do. For example:
- “How did you feel? You looked smooth. Can you do another exactly the same way?”
- “You went out too fast on that 30-second rep, but I love that you figured it out and ended beautifully.”
- “That 10-second rep looked really easy for you. The next time I want you to run with John.”
You should cue them or use analogies to get them to run with a different feel, but never be completely erratic with the speed and pace. We have all seen the clueless freshman blaze a warm-up lap on the first day of practice or end up carrying a refrigerator on their back the last 75 meters of a 300m because they went out too fast.
The above preparation and learning would help kids understand early without preaching that a workout in their future such as 5x200m has a much different feel than, say, 3x350m (special endurance), 4-6×60 (short speed endurance), and 2x150m (speed endurance). Likewise, a 100m differs greatly from a 400m in race model.
4. Teach the Fundamentals of Field Events and Hurdles
Kids will get taller, faster, and stronger naturally. I have seen kids succeed at the middle school level just because they are tall/big but then have to completely start over when they get to high school. The throwing implements are lighter and the hurdles are lower in middle school.
For example, the boys’ hurdles height at the middle school is 33 inches (6 inches lower than high school) and shot put weight is 8 pounds (4 pounds lighter than high school). It is very possible for a fast or tall kid to do very well in these events without much instruction or technique.
The same goes for the girls, where the shot put is 4 pounds compared to the high school weight of 4 kilograms. Additionally, while the turbo javelin is a great first encounter with the javelin, it hardly flies like a real javelin.
I suggest working key movements and exercises that teach and prime the athletes for the future rather than spending most of the time at the jumping pits, throwing circles, and hurdling at race distance and race height.
Here are some drills and exercises that I think are fun and key to work specific events in conjunction with the other training.
- Long Jump = gallops, gallop buildups, run-run-jumps, short approach pops
- High Jump = circle runs, curve gallops
- Shot Put/Discus = med ball throws (general throws before rotational), cariocas, hip disassociation drills (Dak Prescott “hip whip” drill?)
- Hurdles = single leg A-skips/rain dances, hurdle gallops, trail leg, lead leg skips, cycle ladder with banana hurdles progressing to red training hurdles, low hurdles with discounts, general flexibility/hurdle mobility
Again, there are many ways to address specific event needs without specificity. I think the list above gives an athlete a pretty good chance to learn the event and attain some success in the present but be ready to adjust and build at the high school level.There are many ways to address specific event needs without specificity, says @grahamsprints. Click To Tweet
5. Promote Middle School and High School Interactions
Our track team at the varsity level has a lot of interactions with the middle school track team. The middle school team practices from 2:30-3:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday and the varsity team from 3:00-5:00 p.m. That half hour overlap allows the middle school athletes to see what the varsity team is doing and vice versa.
Relationships are underrated, and a star senior track athlete looks like a grown man to a seventh grader and can be a role model for a younger athlete. Sometimes a voice other than the coach’s can change a kid’s mindset and work ethic.
The middle school team has a track meet once per week, so on those days the high school athletes finish practice earlier and help run the field events. This helps the high school athletes learn a little bit of responsibility. The middle school athletes are excited to show what they can do against the competition in front of the older kids.
Occasionally, if it is a light day for the high schoolers and there are some athletes on the middle school team thriving, the high school athletes will pull a couple of the younger kids to the side and give them some tips for their events. As long as the middle school coach is there, the varsity coaches often do the same.
All of this is good for everybody, as names are learned, and bonds are formed that keep everyone coming back. This is great for the culture of the team and rewarding for coaches who can see their former athletes blossom at the high school level.
Keep the Big Picture in Mind
Being a middle school coach is an important job and one that is often overwhelming because you are short on time. Establish good habits early and keep it simple. Narrow the focus and remember that sometimes the jack-of-all-trades becomes the master of none.If you do it right, the relationships and training can make the middle school team a farm team that has freshmen ready to do something productive on day one of the season, says @grahamsprints. Click To Tweet
Good athletes fill out event rosters, so focusing on athletic development along with speed and rhythm can slow-cook the process. Of course, kids are not ready for university-style training, but showing some reality in an age-appropriate training week can hook kids and make them feel proud to be on the track team.
Focusing on drills and exercises such as the cycle ladder in the hurdles and gallops in the long jump puts the emphasis on the skill needed to do the event even if the athlete hasn’t sprouted to full height or speed yet.
If you do it right, the relationships and training can make the middle school team a farm team that has freshmen ready to do something productive on day one of the season.
Since you’re here…
…we have a small favor to ask. More people are reading SimpliFaster than ever, and each week we bring you compelling content from coaches, sport scientists, and physiotherapists who are devoted to building better athletes. Please take a moment to share the articles on social media, engage the authors with questions and comments below, and link to articles when appropriate if you have a blog or participate on forums of related topics. — SF