A multi-year NCAA regional assistant coach of the year, Chris Parno enters his seventh season with the Mankato State Mavericks as an assistant for both the men’s and women’s track and field programs. Parno directly coaches the men’s and women’s sprint/hurdle groups and serves as the recruiting coordinator. Prior to Minnesota State, he spent two years as an assistant track and field coach at Augustana College in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
Freelap USA: What is the role of rhythm and music at practice for you?
Chris Parno: This is a great question, and a topic I wrote on back in 2017. Coach Andreas Behm of ALTIS encapsulated this topic perfectly in a blog post: “Rhythm in rap music is inherent from the various elements of the beat (drums, bassline, dubs and snips) to the vocal rhymes timed out in bars and creative delivery of syllables. In track, rhythm is present in such activities as acceleration, synchronous limb movements, hurdle step patterns, discus and hammer rotations… just to name a few.”
Most skills we teach in track and field have some type of rhythmic association. Stuart McMillan discusses three key words in acceleration: rhythm, rise, and projection. A good acceleration is not a collection of discombobulated movements thrown together; it is a symphony of high-end neuromuscular messages that coalesce into one of the greatest aspects of being a sprint coach—fast times!Since most skills we teach in track and field have some type of rhythmic association, we practice with music that has a backbeat, uplifts the group, and brings some energy, says @ChrisParno. Click To Tweet
After writing my article on rhythm in short sprinting, many coaches sought out which specific songs were attached to each skill. In reality, we do not only accelerate to ’90s hip hop or perform fly runs to Michael Jackson. Conversely, we ultimately choose genres that have a backbeat, uplift the group, and bring some energy.
As a program, we purchased large portable Bluetooth speakers that accompany us to all practices. Whether we are in the fieldhouse, on the outdoor track, or on the hill, music is always a part of our plan. Without trying to sell smart watches, I found having a smart watch makes it easy to manage the music at a distance, so we are not always tied to the speaker.
This season, I have been struggling with one of our hurdlers in projecting through her first eight steps to a proper take-off distance to the first hurdle. I am usually pretty protective of “the aux cord,” but on this day I let her run the speaker. The music played, her mood changed, and boom! we no longer had an issue projecting to the first hurdle. I am not trying to claim any sort of a causation between music and performance, but something as simple as some Caribbean music fixed a problem I had wracked my brain over for the previous three weeks. I thought through power deficiencies, lack of technical execution, block settings…but just a little hype fixed the issue.
Lastly, in teaching skills like skips, marches, dribbles, etc., I try to rely on my physical education teaching background and work through rhythmic sayings. These sayings may include something as simple as, “up and out and up and out,” or “step, hop, step, hop.” Creativity when supplying the rhythms of a skill through verbal and visual cues has helped many times over!
Freelap USA: How do you approach visual systems in training and skill acquisition? Do you make distinctions between auditory and visual learners here?
Chris Parno: Going through physical and health education programs in college allowed me to get a snapshot within this aspect of coaching. These learned concepts helped me come up with methods earlier in my coaching career. With anywhere from 30-50 athletes in my group, depending on the year, different styles of learning are constantly present. I often ask myself, “Can I take this specific skill and figure out the best ways to address each learning style?”
Take something like block clearance—a skill we are consistently trying to teach to our sprinters. Based on sprint research, a high degree of block clearance can be related to high levels of power, allow for an aggressive spike in an acceleration curve, and allow the body to work through full ranges of motion.
Athlete A (visual) may need the visual film study to observe correct and incorrect clearances. This type of athlete benefits from in-session film studies with Coach’s Eye or some other type of app to adjust with visual feedback. Athlete B (auditory) may need to hear certain cues to elicit proper movements. A coach may spend extra time talking through movements with this type of athlete while they can hand off the Coach’s Eye app to the visual learner for them to check out. Lastly, Athlete C (kinesthetic) may need to feel certain positions to understand concepts. As a coach, can we come up with half drills or partial drills to get this type of athlete to feel these positions? If an athlete has never cleared the blocks, how can we just tell them, “clear the blocks?”
By asking these questions, we can manage a session better and go through our lesson planning for sessions with this mindset. I may have a kinesthetic athlete demonstrate a movement to allow the visual learners to see the movements as I talk through cues for the auditory learners. Most coaches do some form of this, whether consciously aware of it or not, but it goes past the standard “good job” after each rep and reinforces the teaching side of skill acquisition in coaching.I may have a kinesthetic athlete demonstrate a movement to allow the visual learners to see the movements as I talk through cues for the auditory learners, says @ChrisParno. Click To Tweet
These concepts reinforce my continued support of film study in track and field. It is a mainstay in other sports, but not in track and field. I am not just talking grainy video from the top of the bleachers. We can set up cameras near the acceleration portion of the race to see if athletes are reinforcing good techniques with the influx of competition.
If you have four athletes in the same heat, how can a coach possibly give appropriate feedback? My athletes hear, “we have to watch the film” a lot after races, as I have a hard time faking feedback if I did not see a race. Bringing film to practices and meets also doubles as good recruiting material for coaches at the high school and junior college levels, where athletes are trying to get recruited.
Freelap USA: What are some ideas that you utilize to get technical improvements to “stick” better in competition?
Chris Parno: This concept, I believe, starts in the fall general prep, when coaches are teaching the warm-up, sprint drills, and the skills of being a sprinter. This starts each day in the warm-up. Each fall, we do group warm-ups 3-4 days a week, led by our coaching staff, stopping and starting when necessary to teach. Throughout this time, I constantly make connections between how each warm-up element breaks down an aspect of the acceleration/max velocity mechanics. An A march/skip is not only working on coordination, but athletes will hit an A position right before accelerating the leg back down to the ground, initiating the strike. Are athletes more inclined to take more ownership of warm-up exercises if they know we are truly working on top-end mechanics?
Repetitive cueing systems that “cue” the athlete into better positions during workouts can be beneficial. For example, I use “lift through the hip” when trying to get athletes to shorten backside running and bring the leg up and forward to frontside. Lifting from the hip cues them to move proximally from the hip to move the distal portions of the leg up and through. This movement should also put them in more upright frontside positions. Again, there is a lot more teaching involved on the front end of skill acquisition besides just yelling out “lift from the hip” and hoping for good positions, but once synthesized, short and quick cues like that can be effective.Race modeling is an underrated coach’s topic. Technique breaks down in many sprint events because of a poor race model, says @ChrisParno. Click To Tweet
Lastly, I pass on to the athlete knowledge of their events and proper race strategy. Race modeling is an underrated coach’s topic. Technique breaks down in many sprint events because of a poor race model. If a 400m athlete goes 1-1.5 second too fast through the first 200 meters, they are bound to have technical breakdowns as the onset of acidosis comes sooner in the race. As coaches, we could say, “this athlete has bad technique” and work to further fix that or look back at the film and realize poor race modeling may be causing the issues. I am a coach who always films meet day, as I need to make sure our race modeling and distribution is on par with our other efforts in teaching.
Freelap USA: What are some KPIs that are meaningful to you in training sprinters?
Chris Parno: The general model I teach comes from many different areas, courses, and coaches, but my biggest influence has been the work of Ralph Mann. Reading through his book helped biomechanics click in my head and allowed me to be creative in how I teach it. I think Twitter has allowed for a lot of BOLD claims (i.e., wickets don’t work, marching has no place in a sprint program, etc.) as to what works in improving speed. Absolute claims like these do not help our sport, as KPIs will vary from coach to coach and drills used successfully by one coach may not be on another coach’s radar. As Kebba Tolbert says in many coaching education courses, “It depends.” Here are a few examples of KPIs.Absolute claims do not help our sport, as KPIs will vary from coach to coach and drills used successfully by one coach may not be on another coach’s radar, says @ChrisParno. Click To Tweet
The infamous toe drag gets a lot of heat and there are a lot of opinions out there that the added friction in dragging the toe slows down acceleration. However, this is one of the KPIs I use every day in acceleration. Hear me out—If we all agree that a low heel recovery in acceleration allows the foot to travel less distance as we recover the stride to attack the ground on the next step, then the toe drag is the easiest way to get an athlete in the correct low heel position. If an athlete’s current motor pattern in acceleration has never allowed them to feel the low heel position, when they drag the toe, they will feel it. Rehearse that motion, internalize it, then simple lift the toe slightly off the ground as you have more control on the limb. Every fall, the Mavericks learn acceleration with toe drags in the grass.
I spoke earlier about “lifting through the hip” in max velocity. This concept originates from the “thigh pop” idea Loren Seagrave and others have popularized. Again, setting up a stretch reflex in the hip flexor doesn’t simply pop the thigh forward without effort, but the idea that the front of the thigh is leading the recovery of the leg after toe-off is correct. I think we are seeing more and more backside sprinting—large ranges of motion where the ankle travels vertically (at toe-off) before travelling forward. These athletes usually have a forward tilt in the hips and, instead of attacking the ground, are mostly catching themselves with each stride.
Whenever we do any type of sprint drill, I reinforce “lifting from the hip”: meaning, to close the hip flexor angle (proximal point of leg). This cued movement will bring the leg forward and upward in to a position of attack on the frontside. This KPI will allow the opportunity for more efficient sprinting, more force, and less deviation from midline.
KPIs are everywhere and vary greatly from coach to coach. I am a firm believer that any cue or KPI needs to be backed by some type of biomechanical model. There are a lot of “swaggy” terms and coaching fads but, ultimately, if they don’t help our athletes run faster, then they need to go.
Freelap USA: What are your progressions to coaching acceleration and maximal velocity?
Chris Parno: I think we could write an entire book on this topic, but generally speaking, we work from standing, drop-in, and two-point roll-over starts and move to the crouch and three- and four-point starts. These different positions can be played out on both the track and the hill in the fall. In the college season, I usually don’t start incorporating blocks until week five or six, after our first training block and testing weeks are completed. I wait this long because I feel like we need to learn and improve the positions, shin angles, and angles of projection in multiple positions to make blocks a more seamless transition. The rate coding behind all these different starting motor patterns allows for adjustments within the blocks a bit more easily.
I think coaches need to do a better job at being patient and allowing their athletes to develop competency before progressing to more complex tasks. In the age of social media, there are not very many coaches posting videos of the basics being perfected. For example, within max velocity running and working to increase the stride length of an athlete, there the technical groundwork needs to be laid down first. An athlete with an anterior pelvic tilt can gain more length in each stride quicker by running with neutral hips than by working on any sort of drill directly affecting stride length. Likewise, with acceleration, athletes can cheat a timed 30-meter run by rushing through acceleration and relying on quickness, but how does that affect the next 70 meters as we extend out the runs? There needs to be constant monitoring of how the athletes are getting to the prescribed distances.In the age of social media, there are not enough coaches posting videos of the basics being perfected, says @ChrisParno. Click To Tweet
I have enjoyed learning from Gabe Sanders’ work at Stanford. He has done some awesome work breaking down acceleration into complexes. The whole-part-whole method of teaching encompasses these complexes: show the whole movement, break it down into the differing parts, then rebuild the whole movement. If athletes can feel aspects of the whole movement within parted out drills, I would estimate it helps with the overall application of the skill.
I think with any teaching progressions we need to be backward compatible. Never move on until the athletes have an understanding. Then, once they gain an understanding, revisit often. Create motor patterns correctly and everything else will come more easily.
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