Bobby Farrell is currently the Director of XC/Track and Field for Rutgers University, entering his tenth season coaching there. During his tenure at Rutgers, Farrell has personally coached over 18 All-Americans, 13 individual conference champions, and 48 NCAA Qualifiers. As an assistant coach, he was awarded the 2015 and 2019 Mid-Atlantic Region Assistant Coach of the Year. His athletes have broken 14 school records during his time. Farrell spent his first eight years coaching the jumps, throws, and multi events; he now works primarily with the sprints and hurdles.
Before arriving at Rutgers, Farrell oversaw all sprints, hurdles, and jumps at Lafayette College. While there, Farrell guided student-athletes to 12 Patriot League Championships, including the fastest men’s 100m and 4x100m performances in Patriot League history. Under his tutelage, the Leopards placed in the top six individually at the Patriot League Championships 52 times. He also mentored 71 performances that ranked among Lafayette’s all-time top 10, with eight school records. In 2012, he coached the Patriot League Indoor and Outdoor Female Field Athlete of the Meet as well as the Outdoor Male Track Athlete of the Meet.
Freelap USA: You started out as a high school coach, and now you’re the head coach at Rutgers University. What has that journey been like, and what do you see as being the unique challenges at each of the various levels you’ve coached?
Bobby Farrell: It required a lot of sacrifice and humility, for sure. Every stop has been a major learning process, and I’ve been able to grow as a coach at each level. Coaching at the high school level for all those years really helped me teach from the ground up. I learned to make the most out of limited situations, and overall, it’s given me a good perspective of both levels. Now I have a lot of technology and resources at my fingertips, but it certainly didn’t start out that way, and it’s been a critical part of my development.
One thing is certain, you don’t need all the bells and whistles to develop athletes and help them improve. That can be done in any situation with enough knowledge and creativity. I think the heart of the program needs to boil down to fundamentals. No matter what level you’re coaching, the fundamentals don’t change. And that must be the foundation. And those fundamentals need to be consistently reviewed every day.I think one of the greatest challenges of collegiate coaching is that if an athlete does something wrong for a long time, they can get very good at it, says @CoachFarrell_RU. Click To Tweet
I think one of the greatest challenges of collegiate coaching is that if an athlete does something wrong for a long time, they can get very good at it. So, in other words, the athletes I recruit have had a lot of success doing things incorrectly, and it’s become a habit. And habits are tough to change, especially if the athlete is very comfortable doing it that way. You have to be very careful how you apply these changes, so I’ve learned to be very subtle and patient with how I apply them. Usually running mechanics are one of the more common sense items to tackle first.
Freelap USA: You’ve shared your approach to what you call the 3P’s of running: posture, placement, and push-off. Can you talk a little bit about each of these and why they’re so important to overall running mechanics?
Bobby Farrell: I wanted to make sure that athletes and coaches had a simple checklist to use when focusing on and identifying trouble spots in mechanics. All three P’s affect one another, so you just need to identify the proper cause and effect for that particular athlete. Each athlete tends to respond to instruction differently.
First and foremost, I believe posture is the “check engine light” of the movement patterns. If the posture is off, it’s giving you a signal that something is operating incorrectly. I understand that a lot is going on in the sprint process, but I think it’s important to keep it really simple. Once I review the posture, I like to work my way counterclockwise to foot placement and then work toward foot push-off.I believe posture is the ‘check engine light’ of the movement patterns. If the posture is off, it’s giving you a signal that something is operating incorrectly, says @CoachFarrell_RU. Click To Tweet
In regard to placement, we want to look at the direction of the foot and its landing spot. We want the foot to come back and down under the hips—so make sure the foot is not extending out ahead of the hips. Toe- and heel-first landings are a major issue you need to avoid. You want to strike down into the ground with a loaded, dorsiflexed ankle. The ground should strike the ball of the foot. And with that loaded ankle, the foot can spring back off the ground sooner. I think toe-first landings have a lot to do with athletes overemphasizing the knee lift and not committing to pressing down into the ground. The ankle almost naturally flexes when you strike down into the ground.
If the placement into the ground is done properly, the athlete will be able to apply pressure into the ground and then push off. You need to avoid the foot leaving the ground too far behind the hips and allowing too much ground contact time and pulling the pelvis down to the ground. Also, when done properly, the foot will bounce off the ground and the knee lift will begin naturally. Ultimately, this system is for beginning athletes. As the athletes become more competent in their mechanics, we are able to get into more complicated items.
Freelap USA: If the 3P’s are the goal for efficient and effective mechanics, what do you do when you have an athlete who doesn’t hit those standards? How do you first identify and then correct those mechanical issues, especially in sprinters?
Bobby Farrell: Posture is usually something that people can identify pretty quickly with the naked eye. Just look for long curvature from head to hips. But after that, video becomes useful to get an even closer look at cause and effect. I have a progression of drills I use to help teach them the positions, actions, and feel. I call it my Piston Run Series. Each Piston Run rep we do works on the 3P progression and helps them learn to apply it in their running.
Sprinting is a skill that needs to be learned. Certain species are built for speed, like a cheetah. The cheetah depends on its speed for survival, and it doesn’t need to learn to sprint. However, as humans, we are more long-range hunters who can outsmart our prey. We’re built more for walking.
With that understanding, I think it’s always going to be instinct for an athlete to put one foot out in front of the hips when they run. So, with running, they need to get comfortable knowing that they can move forward with a more vertical motion, and they need to bring the foot back under the hips and push. And pushing is not something that most athletes can do instinctively. They would rather pull their hips forward than push.For me, the mechanics dictate the workout. We only go as long or as fast as they can maintain mechanics, says @CoachFarrell_RU. Click To Tweet
Once they understand how to apply the proper technique, they need to apply it daily in their running. It has to be a constant, and it’s the coach’s job to keep a close eye on the form. Coaches get way too caught up in the priority of conditioning and don’t take the time for proper mechanics. However, for me, the mechanics dictate the workout. We only go as long or as fast as they can maintain mechanics. It takes patience and discipline from both coach and athlete, but in the end, it will be worth it.
Freelap USA: Your athletes have had tremendous success in a wide variety of events both on the track and in the field. What are your favorite events to coach, and how do you approach those? And, as a follow up, how do you manage to effectively coach athletes across the board, whether they’re throwing, sprinting, running, or jumping?
Bobby Farrell: After coaching for 20 years, I see all the events as more similar than they are different. There are so many commonalities within all of them—the necessities of movement patterns and what is needed from a mechanical standpoint to accomplish a task all overlap within them. And, generally, the parameters of how a body adapts to different stresses and stimuli don’t vary a tremendous amount at the end of the day.
At all the schools I’ve coached, I’ve been asked to coach a large number of events, so it forced me to figure out how to effectively coach each of them at the same time. One constant in all of track and field, except the throwing circle events, is running mechanics. Ironically, running mechanics is sometimes the least-taught item in these events. Distance and sprints get caught up in conditioning, jumps get caught up in jumping, and javelin gets caught up in throwing. But probably the most critical element within all of them is learning to sprint and run efficiently and effectively.One constant in all of track and field, except the throwing circle events, is running mechanics. Ironically, that is sometimes the least-taught item in these events, says @CoachFarrell_RU. Click To Tweet
In distance and sprints, proper mechanics will help distribute energy more efficiently and improve overall speed. Also, it is critical for injury prevention since a majority of injuries, whether overuse or acute, can be traced back to a mechanical fault. The long jump, triple jump, pole vault, and javelin are mostly running, followed by the jump or throw at the end. The jump and throw are heavily predicated on the success of the approach, so it makes sense to me to spend the most time on the running.
Freelap USA: I feel like every coach has a favorite workout that they run each season, something that’s sort of a staple of their program. What is a staple in the Rutgers program? Give us the ins and outs of the workout from its design to implementation, as well as considerations that coaches might need if they’d like to try that workout with their program.
Bobby Farrell: There’s always a lot of debate about the training of the 400m. Some emphasize speed, while others emphasize strength. I think they’re both right because I think every athlete can be stronger and faster. But probably the biggest challenge athletes face with that race is how to properly run it.
I find that coaches like to break that up into several parts and instructions for the athletes to follow. From my own experience, I haven’t had a lot of luck with that approach. For me, the race is so built off rhythm, I want to think of it more holistically. So, I always use a 400m rhythm workout that tends to have a lot of success with helping them simplify the race.
I set up cones at every 50 meters of a 400-meter track. I instruct the athletes that we are going to do a 400m rhythm drill but not to worry about time or effort. I make sure I hammer home to them that this is simply a drill.
When they hear the whistle, they have to get out fast to the first cone. I just want them to get out and get themselves moving. After that first cone, I tell them they can settle down, regroup, and relax a bit. I remind them this is just a drill. From that point on, I tell them I want them to try and run even splits from cone to cone. I will take the splits, and we will look at how well they were able to do them. So, when they hit a cone, they may need to pick it up a little to keep their pace as fatigue begins to set in. It’s a gradual increase of effort and discomfort from cone to cone.
Once they are done, I walk over and show them the time. It’s always a huge surprise for them to see how fast they ran the 400m. In some cases, it can be a personal record. Their biggest surprise was that the race seemed easier. They also see that the 50-meter splits are actually a smooth deceleration in the second half of their race. This is usually a major breakthrough for them—both mentally and with their execution.
With the journey of coaching, I think the first thing that needs to be done is extensive learning and studying. Take advantage of networking, clinics, and courses. Then you can use that knowledge to build the structure of your program. However, with experience and failure, you can begin to develop your own style. In the end, we’re in the results business, and the final product should be personal records. The coach has to figure out how to make that happen. It always reminds me of one of my favorite quotes by Pablo Picasso: “Learn all the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.”
Lead photo by Bill Streicher/Icon Sportswire
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