Six years ago, I felt lost coaching track and field. I had mentors that couldn’t answer my questions. I wanted to learn more about programming and periodization. I wanted my head coach to offer me feedback or, even better, adopt my training recommendations. My USATF Level 1 Coaching course offered a basic guide to technique and technical coaching, but managing a team through the arc of a season eluded me. Instead of accepting these guidelines as my only path forward, I decided to write my own guide, “7 Principles of High School Track and Field to Guide Coaches in All Sports.”
Today, I still receive emails from coaches and parents about that article, and I’ve noticed some commonalities among their inquiries. With so many questions left unanswered, I didn’t want others to feel the same way I did when I started coaching. Revisiting my correspondence relating to the 7 Principles, I found that the most consistent themes from those email queries related to:
- Team management
- Context for performance
If I had the opportunity to rewrite the article, I would embed these themes within the principles to which they apply best. Each theme fits every principle in some way. However, instead of a revised edition, I decided to use anonymous excerpts that exemplify these themes and then write my own generalized responses to their inquiries. I hope these FAQs resonate with you and that the responses support your continued efforts to offer the best athletic experience possible.
Team management is planning. It’s programming and scheduling. Almost all the questions I have received include some reference to team management because this topic is largely ignored in track and field coaches’ education.Almost all the questions I’ve received include some reference to team management because this topic is largely ignored in track and field coaches’ education. Click To Tweet
In my first years coaching track and field (or soccer), I struggled with this too. Stepping into any leadership role with a large team isn’t easy, especially when some athletes train for events within different event groups, like sprinting and throwing or jumps and hurdles. Effective planning ensures that each athlete receives the attention they deserve from their respective coaches. This may seem rather intuitive, but I assure you, without adequate assistance or a good plan in place, it is no easy feat.
Question 1 – Middle School Track Coach #1
“I’ve been recruited to coach track this spring for the first time… I have a throwing coach and a high jump coach, but I am left with the overall organizational role. We have a large team (60+ runners) and I’m feeling most overwhelmed with how to meet the needs of sprinters, distance runners, race walkers, hurdlers, and jumpers all at the same time, or at least with similar workouts and drills.”
Question 2 – Middle School Track Coach #2
“I am new to coaching T&F and will be coaching 5th–8th graders. What would be a good initial week of practices to get new kids excited while keeping ‘seasoned’ ones engaged and not bored?”
Response: Every athlete should know when and where to train every day of the week. The schedule for each event group should be posted and shared with everyone. Monday should have a plan, Tuesday should have a plan, etc. Whether you’re the only coach or you have three assistants, identify where and when you and your staff will spend their time during practice as well.
This may seem like a daunting task, but advanced planning will save you time. You’ll have more time to spend on coaching rather than managing athletes within any given practice. High school and middle school track and field are no different for team management. If anything, planning becomes more challenging in high school as coaches contend with more outside factors, like homework, social media, music lessons, and other extracurriculars.
Everyone should know the same dynamic warm-up, which shouldn’t last more than 20 minutes. After a quick team briefing, everyone splits into their respective event groups for two 45-minute workout blocks. Each block will train technique, fitness, or some well-crafted combination. When Block 1 is over, everyone moves on to Block 2.
Athletes need to learn how to manage their time too. Missing the last rep in a workout is not the end of the world. With purposeful, high-quality work, “less is more.” Practice ends after Block 2. If you’re efficient, you can be done sooner. Kids and their parents will appreciate you all the more for it.With purposeful, high-quality work, ‘less is more.’ If you’re efficient, you can be done sooner. Kids and their parents will appreciate you all the more for it. Click To Tweet
Here are three sample practice days that can apply in a high school or middle school setting:
Mon 3:00 p.m.–3:30 p.m.
- Warm-up and team announcements
Mon 3:30 p.m.–4:15 p.m.
Jumps coach: Easy jumping drills LJ and TJ
Throws coach: Easy throwing drills
Head coach: Running mechanics drills for distance runners, sprinters, hurdlers
Mon 4:15 p.m.–5:00 p.m.
Jumps coach: Hurdles workout
Throws coach: Weight room for jumpers and throwers
Head coach: Coach sprinters and send distance runners on a long run
Tues 3:00 p.m.–3:30 p.m.
Warm-up and team announcements
Tues 3:30 p.m.–4:15 p.m.
Jumps coach: Big day for all jumpers
Throws coach: Big day for throwers
Head coach: Distance runners run tempo workout/sprinters and hurdlers play fun, easy games within sight
Tues 4:15 p.m.–5:00 p.m.
Jumps coach: Hurdle drills
Throws coach: Throwers, sprinters, and distance runners in weight room
Head coach: Float and support others
***Jumpers go home early
Wed: All athletes OFF
Captains and coaches meeting, if necessary, 3:00 p.m.–3:30 p.m.
Coaches meeting, if necessary
You: Parent communication, planning, team management, etc.
As in question 1, the schedule assumes there is a head coach and two assistants. I have included a similar three-day schedule for a team with only one coach below. This assumes practice is outdoors on a nearby 400m track, with access to a weight room afterward. Notice how the schedule accommodates safety, training volume, and exercise intensity.
Mon 3:00 p.m.–3:30 p.m.
Warm-up and team announcements
Mon 3:30 p.m.-4:15 p.m.
Everyone except jumpers: Running drills and medium-intensity sprint workout
Jumpers: Big jumps for LJ and TJ with coach
Mon 4:15 p.m.–5:00 p.m.
Everyone: Weight room with coach
Tues 3:00 p.m.–3:30 p.m.
Warm-up and team announcements
Tues 3:30 p.m.–4:15 p.m.
Throwers: Big throws with coach
Distance: Long run, on track if MS, or trail near school if HS
Sprinters, hurdlers, and jumpers: fun, easy games within sight
Tues 4:15 p.m.–5:00 p.m.
Hurdlers: Drills and sprints through hurdles 1+2 with coach
*** Everyone else goes home early
Wed 3:00 p.m.–3:30 p.m.
Warm-up and team announcements
Wed 3:30 p.m.–4:15 p.m.
Throwers and sprinters: High-intensity sprint workout
Distance and hurdlers: Calisthenics circuit
Jumpers: Drills and easy jumps practice with coach
Wed 4:15 p.m.–5:00 p.m.
Everyone except distance: Weight room with coach
***Distance runners go home early
Wed 5:00 p.m.–5:30 p.m.
Planning, parent phone calls, captains meeting, if necessary
Programming matters because managing kids is and always will be the most challenging part of the job. Not every athlete needs to practice every day. Rest is just as valuable as training. Three practices per week are plenty. When athletes come up with excuses for missing their practice day, just let it go and move forward. Athletes who really want to improve won’t miss your practices.When athletes come up with excuses for missing their practice day, just let it go and move forward. Athletes who really want to improve won’t miss your practices. Click To Tweet
Adapt and be flexible. You’ll find that it’s easier to coach kids when they know you’re willing to accommodate their needs. When you’re punitive, kids will lose interest, disappear, or become dishonest. Obviously, if they take advantage of your accommodations, then you have to be firm and hold them accountable. Put pressure on the seasoned veterans of your system. Be easygoing with your newcomers. Teach them to love the sport just like you do.
The available resources allow coaches to improve their practice. I receive inquiries about resources because parents see the context or coaches understand team management but still want more tools to diversify and improve the overall experience.
Question 3 – High School Track Coach
“I love and have a passion for running but never coached before or was on a high school track team. Can you direct me to sources?”
Question 4 – Venezuelan Track Coach
“I am from Venezuela… I am a Spanish teacher and athletic coach. I’d like to know what kind of books or courses you recommend to become a better sprinting/jumper coach.”
Response: There are plenty of resources available online and in books for what drill fits what skill. I can offer that advice, but I’ve lost interest in it because that information is already built into coaches’ education. Instead, I care more about sharing resources for team management. Not enough resources are dedicated to helping coaches design better practices suitable to their facilities and staffing.
Resources can be people, videos, articles, or equipment, but I will always believe that the best resources are great mentors—the coaches who came before you have so much to share. When my mentors don’t know the answer, then I go online. I visit SimpliFaster, I hit the textbooks, or I see what coaches in other sports are saying.Resources can be people, videos, articles, or equipment, but I will always believe that the best resources are great mentors—the coaches who came before you have so much to share. Click To Tweet
When I began coaching, I voraciously devoured articles, books, and athletic blogs. None of that came close to the effect my mentors have had on my coaching. Find the people who are willing to guide your craft. I was lucky enough to have some excellent mentors (and also some terrible ones) who nudged me along. They helped me contextualize what I was reading and put it into practice.
My best mentors let me make mistakes. My mentors taught me a lot about athletics, but more importantly, they taught me how to talk to athletes, how to motivate them, and how to accept my mistakes. Event-specific knowledge is secondary to your communication skills. When I outgrew their support, I found someone new.
Coaches often ask me about resources for making practice more fun. I tell them that the warm-up is the best place for that. Playing games during the warm-up can reinforce good technical habits, and it should prime the body for greater physical demands. Run an obstacle course. Complete a relay race with limited mobility, like crab-walking or zig-zagging through cones. Play European handball or ultimate frisbee.
Keep young athletes moving and changing directions. Don’t push the intensity too high, however. You can read more about using games in training from coaches like Dillon Martinez, Jeremy Frisch, and Brandon Holder.
The warm-up should include running drills. This is an easy way to drill skills in a low-stakes environment. Plus, it lets your athletes “tinker” with good form. It’s okay to let kids figure this stuff out for themselves. That’s what play is for—figuring things out. You can always give simple cues like “use your arms,” “chest up,” or “relax” to improve their mechanics.
A fun warm-up might also allow you to identify the kids who may not want to play or participate that day. Pull them aside and deal with them separately. Give them something they can lead, like dynamic stretching. Find ways to connect with everyone, always. When in doubt, play games and keep practice fun.
Sometimes, our best resources are outside our sport. I read SimpliFaster’s blog because it offers perspectives from many coaches, usually from other speed/power sports. I’ve learned a lot from Tony Holler, Latif Thomas, John Brumund-Smith, Carl Valle, Erica Suter, Brett Bartholomew, and many more coaches. Find your people. Use what’s tried and true. As long as your athletes are developing their skills a little bit each week, and you’re challenging their fitness, you are serving their needs well.
Resources are abundantly available online, but I’ve found that one of the greatest resources for strength and conditioning is Instagram. I follow several widely respected gyms and individuals that provide a steady stream of content that keeps me thinking. GarageStrength, Squat University, MoveU, Whealth, Art of Coaching, Joe DeFranco’s Industrial Strength, Coach Garrish, Mike Boyle Strength & Conditioning, and more.
Unfortunately, I don’t find nearly as much educational content for track and field. It’s not because coaches are trying to hide their secrets—I really don’t think there are any secrets at all. The problem is that track and field social media seems less dedicated to beginners and everyday folks. This is where S&C and CrossFit excel. They have found a way to make periodization, volume, and recovery accessible and important.
Context for Performance
This explains why an athlete is excelling, stagnating, or underperforming. I often receive questions from parents who are dissatisfied with their child’s experience or their performance on a school team. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with wanting to understand what variables affect performance, but it’s not always clear-cut whether those variables are coaching-related or outside our control.
Question 5 – Concerned Parent #1
“This year, I am very confused by my son’s college performance. His distance coach wanted him to try cross-country. He tried it and was not very good. In his first indoor meet, he ran the 600m and the 300m slower than he ran in high school.”
Question 6 – Concerned Parent #2
“I am frustrated watching an extremely athletic child get slighted by more than one of the coaching staff. As a junior, he had the fastest 400m, 800m, 1600m, and 3200m times, but he is not allowed to pick his events, and the coaches keep putting him in a non-competitive 4×800 relay. He is less than 2 seconds from the school 400m record and has only been allowed to run it once. He wants the record. He has not been allowed to run the 100m or 200m either.”
Response: Slight improvement should be the baseline for performance progression because teenagers expectedly undergo significant physical maturation during middle and high school. Great coaching, timely and consistent feedback, and a fun, rewarding team experience have the potential to progress athletes beyond that expectation.
I believe that no youth athlete should be told they cannot compete in the event of their choice. There are many coaches who don’t subscribe to that. I don’t get it. The athlete is number one. In 7 Principles, I stated that a coach’s “job is to guide (athletes) to success.” How can athletes be and feel successful if they’re training for events they don’t want to compete in?I believe that no youth athlete should be told they can’t compete in the event of their choice. How can athletes be and feel successful if they’re training for events they don’t want to compete in? Click To Tweet
I wish track and field teams weren’t like that, but it’s a reality that many athletes deal with. Avoid the long disagreeable parent phone calls by granting kids the opportunities they want. If you’re unwilling to budge on something as simple as this, don’t be surprised when athletes quit your team. Teams with new rosters every year are not a good look or a good sign. Kids are resilient—they will find a way to do the things they love, even if it means leaving their school team behind.
Performance can be compromised because there are too many athletes, and you don’t have enough time to specialize their training individually. The casual Monday/Wednesday athletes take time away from the dedicated athletes, who need greater technical support. Sometimes, athletic directors want these catch-all track teams to exist because they allow the kids cut from baseball or lacrosse to have a home. This would strain any passionate, knowledgeable coach who’s hoping to win a title or foster a stronger team culture.
Besides solid programming, independence and collaboration are among the best solutions for supporting advanced athletes. It’s okay to recognize your limits and encourage those athletes who need more to train elsewhere. After all, the athlete is number one, right? Their success will always come back to support your team! If you let those athletes co-plan the time you will spend together, you’ll have more time for the rest of the team, and you won’t feel like you’re underserving your best kids.
Keeping kids safe in a high-impact sport should be a priority. Often, I think coaches and athletes let limited time govern how much technical training they might complete in a given practice. One hour is enough time spent on technical skills when trained at low intensity for any youth athlete. That doesn’t mean they should go from triple jump drills to hurdles consecutively within the same practice! Instead, oscillate their weeks doing each event.
Perhaps in Week 1, they hurdle twice and jump once, and in Week 2, they jump twice and hurdle once. This should occur on separate days of the week. Double sessions with high-intensity events lead to injury, especially when compounded over consecutive days. Before you know it, athletes will have shin splints, and then they’re out for weeks to recover. Play the long game and keep your kids safe.
Call me a radical, but I believe youth coaches who don’t emphasize sprint technique and speed training do their athletes a disservice. Sprinting is foundational for long-term athletic success in track and field or cross country, and speed development is critical in all sports. Even if young athletes love distance running, a majority of their training should be sprint work.Call me radical, but I believe youth coaches who don’t emphasize sprint technique and speed training do their athletes a disservice. Click To Tweet
As athletes get older, they will have a more successful path in either speed or endurance events due to a strong speed reserve developed from years of prior training. A background in sprinting keeps options open for specialization. A background in endurance does not. If you want to run marathons at age 30, great. Endurance training will get you there. If you want to run a fast mile in your junior year of high school, you need to focus on speed and endurance.
When parents tell me about their child’s failure to perform in the sprints during the indoor season, my first question is always, “Did they run cross country in the fall?” Performance is a reflection of training.
Revisiting the 7 Principles
This is just a slice of the questions I’ve been asked, or are worth asking, about youth track and field. Parents want context for their child’s performance because their child’s performance arc does not seem to be progressing, and many factors can diminish performance, even beyond a coach’s ability to provide adequate guidance. But these factors don’t excuse bad coaching or a wretched team experience.
The 7 Principles:
- The athlete is number one.
- Emancipate yourself from volume.
- Practice technical skills at least three times per week.
- If your coach can’t explain how a drill translates to your performance, don’t do that drill.
- Sequencing matters.
- Plan collaboratively.
- Be positive and have fun!
I wouldn’t change much about the 7 Principles. Programming matters would be an appropriate revision to sequencing matters. Perhaps I would add an eighth principle that empowers skepticism in all stakeholders—parents, athletes, and coaches:
8. “If you’re not improving, start asking questions.”
I believe that athletes should feel empowered to ask questions no differently than they do in their academic classes. We would all be better coaches for it. Track athletes rarely see beyond their own experience. They lack the experience, perspective, or courage to speak up and speak out when things don’t go their way.Athletes should feel empowered to ask questions no differently than they do in their academic classes. We would all be better coaches for it. Click To Tweet
Middle and high school sports often exist in silos for which athletes never see beyond their training. A healthy dose of skepticism goes a long way. Ultimately, coaches are educators. I believe kids are resilient, but that should not excuse mediocrity. We should always leave our athletes better off than when they arrived.
The most frequently asked questions are honest calls for help. They are asked for good reason because something isn’t happening as it should. I’d like to believe that most coaches know what drill suits what skill, when it should be used, and how often their athletes should lift weights or have the day off. I learned a little bit about how often and how intense in my coaches’ education courses, but I never learned how to effectively manage 60+ middle schoolers with varying interests for two hours on a Tuesday afternoon. I learned this from my own coaching, observing the good and the bad, and discussing what’s ideal with my mentors.
I have less experience in other individual sports, like swimming or tennis, but all high school sports require programmatic planning, and most teams rely on one adult to coach the team. Track and field is not a complicated sport. Resources are abundantly available, and context is in the results. What’s truly missing is management and programming—where athletes and staff ought to be every minute of every hour of every practice all season long. With such a process in place, the wins will follow.
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