By Graham Eaton
Throughout my years at Triton Regional High School, I have noted a huge disconnect between our track program and other sports. Unfortunately, the divide has appeared to grow larger in recent years. Like many programs, our school has not acquired as many multisport athletes as we would have liked. Filling out sprint lineups is especially hard in the short sprints when you have a small team.
We have, however, had tremendous luck with soccer athletes. Soccer players comprise a huge portion of our track and field team and some are standouts, especially in the 400m. Exception aside, we have not had perennially strong 100m runners or 4x100m relay teams. Our football team was 0-12 this year and our track team has had lineup holes for years. When you have a small team (usually around 40 boys), these holes become extremely hard to combat, especially when facing larger programs.
Some of this is the culture of our school. A lot of our athletes run two seasons of track, which comes across as “cultish.” Some of it, quite honestly, is the fact that I am an elementary school teacher and have no presence in the high school during the school day.
Attacking the Speed Drought for Your School
I have begun attacking this “need for speed” issue directly this year with Freelap timing system MPH club T-shirts. Any male athlete that runs the times below enters a different MPH club and earns a T-shirt.
20-mph club = 1.07-1.11 seconds (per meter in splits)
21-mph club = 1.02-1.06 seconds
22-mph club = 0.98-1.01 seconds
For the female athletes, we have 18- and 19-mph clubs.
18-mph club = 1.18-1.24 seconds
19-mph club = 1.12-1.17 seconds
The purpose of this is not only to celebrate our athletes’ development through quantifiable data, but also increase awareness of what our track team is about and what it can offer our athletic program. The unspoken message of the T-shirts is: “We prioritize speed development.”
All of this is great, but these numbers are still meaningless without anyone seeing them in action. We decided to brainstorm and attack these issues. In the end, we felt that we needed to host an event that started to break down this mentality. It needed to be simple and easy to run. That’s when the answer hit us.
Promoting the Combine
Early in March, before spring sports started, we held a combine. Joe Colbert, our head track coach, organized it, and it was communicated to all coaches in the building. Flyers were put out for athletes.
Our primary goal with the combine was to dispel the notion that our track athletes are second-tier athletes incapable of playing ball sports, says @grahamsprints. Click To Tweet
Our primary goal was to dispel the notion that the track athletes at our school are second-tier athletes who are incapable of playing ball sports in the spring. This goal comes off as a little self-serving at first glance, but as a whole, I feel that sometimes track is viewed solely as “running” rather than “sprinting.”
Our user fee is also set at $350 per season. At some point, as a track team we have to advertise that we have value. We try to do everything with a high level of focus and intensity, and I am sure other teams see our “standing around” as a lack of productivity. When it comes to speed training, the illusion of hard work through constant motion is not a recipe for success.
I can’t say I am surprised by this. Think about most mainstream movies that include track and field: The characters in those movies are often portrayed as lovable rejects without any real athletic ability. For them, participation is really just a recreational thing to advance the plot.
Our second goal was to create a community-type feel that helps bring the program together in a show of solidarity. A great athletic program has sports that complement and support each other. We should encourage our athletes to play multiple sports and to be well-rounded. The combine idea was the perfect place to start and the timing was good with the coinciding NFL Combine.
Most people are familiar enough with the NFL Combine to know some of the tests, so we knew this would potentially draw some athletes in. Each year at the Combine, a few unknown athletes rise from relative obscurity and raise their draft stock. Clearly, these tests hold value when assessing an athlete’s skill set, although they don’t guarantee the intangible skills needed to play the sport are present. Regardless, I would say there is an acceptable range of numbers at each position. You won’t find many NFL running backs running over a 4.70, just like you won’t find many offensive linemen bench pressing 225 for only 10 reps.
There are extreme outliers in testing such as this who don’t support the narrative of the combine being a reliable measure. Kevin Durant famously failed to bench 185 pounds for even one rep at the NBA Combine. Tom Brady is best known for being a late-round draft pick who presented as goofy and unathletic at his combine day.A great #athleticprogram has sports that complement and support each other, says @grahamsprints. Click To Tweet
We must be careful not to attribute these exceptions to the athletes that we coach. Becoming stronger, faster, and more explosive should always be an attractive goal. Improvements on tests with developing athletes do translate into improvements in their sport. At the very least, we thought it would be interesting to see the talent we have in our building on display.
Athlete Reception (Before the Test)
For the sake of this article, I will talk mostly about the experience on the second day of testing, which was for the boys. Nineteen girls did the combine; however, all 19 were track athletes. Initially, I was surprised, but then I heard rumblings of conversations along the lines of, “This is a track thing. I play softball. I don’t need to do this.”
This is problematic, but also perhaps kind of normal. No one said this would be a quick fix. Every sport can benefit from an increase in speed, strength, and athleticism. While skills in each sport may be specific, the training with plyometrics, weights, and speed does not need to be that varied.
On the boys’ side, the athletes I coach had mixed feelings heading into testing day. They felt that although they would fare well in the 40-yard dash, they would not perform well in the other areas. This concerned me because I know the athletes I coach are more than just fast. They have developed into pretty well-rounded athletes who can move very well and although they don’t look like the average gym rat, through their training they have become at least “strong enough.” Sprinters need to be confident and I hoped that this test would aid in developing some of this.
The Tests We Used
Since this was our first year doing the combine, there were some kinks. However, the kinks were consistent, and the numbers still accurately reflected the abilities of the athletes in attendance.
We had volunteer coaches at each station who tested and recorded the athletes. There were groups of 8-9 athletes at each station. The day ended with the 40-yard dash to spotlight the speed portion (although I’ll lead the test list with its description below).
- 40-Yard Dash
- Bench Press
- Standing Broad Jump
- Vertical Jump
- 5-10-5 Shuttle
I used two Freelap transmitters and six chips to administer this test. Going by Tony Holler’s setup guidelines, I placed one transmitter 5 feet past the start line and the other 3 feet past the finish. This allowed for dash times similar to a hand time. Even though this was not a true FAT (fully automated time), it was consistent with all athletes. This enabled a much more efficient testing of 35 athletes, as I am not always accurate with a stopwatch.
We did this testing on our gym floor in sneakers. Sure, the sneaker times are slower than if athletes wore spikes or cleats, but on this surface, it’s what we had to do. It also ensured that no one had an advantage because of footwear.
The athletes were put through the procedure by four female track athletes. They instructed the boys to put the chip on correctly, ensuring it was clipped to the belt under the belly button. Any time that was run with a chip not under the belly button would be thrown out. All times were considered valid during the testing because the chips were worn correctly.
Of the top 10 athletes by 40-yard times, nine had run at least one season of track and field and the top five have all run two seasons of track (this was during our off-season and it shows what consistency with speed work can do).
One observation noted in this test was the ability of the track athletes to relax at top speed compared to the other athletes. Several kids nearly fell over due to coordination erosion near the end of the dash, but no hamstrings snapped. There is nothing beyond top speed, so once they achieve it, they must own it and run free of tension. This is something that needs to be communicated often.
I think the 40-yard dash is the perfect blend of acceleration ability and max velocity mechanics. Most high school athletes are at top speed by 40 meters, but hopefully, good acceleration technique has gotten them there. Repeated reps and practice of this will pay off.
This is not to say that there was not visibly raw talent just outside of the top 10 that I would love to get a chance to work with. The fact remains that speed is the hardest biomotor ability to develop. If your athletes aren’t sprinting regularly, then this area is simply not being maximized.If an athlete isn’t running track and field, you have to wonder where they get their speed training, says @grahamsprints. Click To Tweet
Selfishly, it was nice to get confirmation that consistency in speed training works. If an athlete isn’t running track and field, you have to wonder where they get their speed training. At least the coaches of the other sports seemed to take notice.
Based on anecdotal evidence, if there is one thing high school boys love, it is the bench press. It is often perceived as easy to do, although I think ego and a lack of coaching sometimes get in the way of valuable long-term development on this exercise. There is more of a technical underpinning than people think.
We maybe bench pressed three times during the indoor season and most of it was tempo training. We do upper body assistance work like landmine presses, recline rows, and push-ups, so I knew that they would be fine. Our 300m and 400m runners might typically be lankier because of the demands of their event (SAID principle), but they are far from frail. I poked my head in and also saw our throws/weight room coach, Katelin Invernizzi, talking about the importance of a good bench setup. She highlighted hand placement on the bar, specifically discussing how to use the knurling to make sure hands are evenly placed.
The rules were that they needed to maintain the three points of contact: Upper back, glutes, and feet. The biggest errors that we typically see at the high school level are feet and/or butt coming off the bench and floor (absent leg drive or too much leg drive), wrists being bent back with knuckles facing the wall behind them, and hands haphazardly placed on the bar. We also had them set up with their eyes directly under the bar to avoid hitting the rack when pressing upwards.
We had to keep in mind that we didn’t know what these kids were capable of on the bench press. For safety reasons, we set the testing weight at 75% of their body weight. This kept it safe and made it possible for almost every athlete to get a recorded score. The athletes weighed in and then used a percentage chart to find their testing number. For example, a 200-pound athlete used 150 pounds on the bench for as many reps as possible. A 120-pound athlete used 90 pounds. If the number came to 137.5 pounds, then they simply rounded up to 140. This equalized the test based on their size.This goes back to our philosophy that being strong enough is a good goal to have. I want my athletes to raise their numbers, but not chase numbers in the weight room, says @grahamsprints. Click To Tweet
When I walked into the gym on testing day, there were screams of encouragement emanating from the weight room. On each rep, the bar had to touch the chest or a “no rep” was given. To the track athletes’ surprise, they fared quite well. This goes back to our philosophy that being strong enough is a good goal to have. I want my athletes to raise their numbers, but not chase numbers in the weight room.
Standing Broad Jump
On this test, we had a section of a rubber rollout runway. The athletes had to snap down quickly, jump as far as they could horizontally off two legs, and stick the landing. We gave them three jumps and recorded their best one. This is a terrific test for lower body power.
The downside of this test was that a lot of athletes have not mastered the basics of plyometrics, so as I watched from afar, some of their landings elicited a cringe or two from me. I know that the teenage body is fairly resilient, and they would survive a couple of jumps for the sake of some fun and competition. In the future, I will advise that not sticking the jump should result in a “no measure.”
We do not have a vertical jump testing apparatus, so we had to resort to an imperfect test here. The athletes started against the wall, reached as high as they could, and made a chalk line. The coach watched for a full reach from each athlete.
The athlete then jumped as high as possible and used the chalk to mark the wall at the apex of their jump. The coach at the station then measured the difference between the two marks for their jump height. Athletes got two jumps. If their second jump was better than their first, they were given a third attempt.
Was this test an accurate reflection of their vertical jump? Probably not, due to the positioning next to the wall not allowing for a full extension of the arm overhead. The arm had to come out diagonally and was probably shortened by about 2 inches. However, the test protocol was consistent for all athletes and it served its purpose.
20-Yard Shuttle (5-10-5)
The 5-10-5 drill is set up with three cones. The cones were set up in a straight line 5 yards apart. The middle cone served as the start and finish. The athlete started at the middle cone and sprinted 5 yards to the first cone. Whatever cone they touched, they would run back in the other direction to the furthest cone and then finish by running to the middle cone. This was timed by stopwatch, but you can do it with electronic timing if you have enough time and/or equipment.
The limitation faced in this test was the absence of 5-yard lines, as on the turf of a football field. Ideally, the hand should tap the cone and the foot should also touch the line that the cone is on. The athletes from sports where change of direction is a focus did very well here. The track athletes were in the mix as well. Change of direction (COD) requires a high ceiling of speed and acceleration ability with eccentric strength.
Post Combine Analysis – Overall Scores and Rankings
After administering the five tests, our jumps coach, Tyler Colbert, came up with a method to rank each athlete’s total testing result. He is also the one responsible for logging practice data into a Google sheet for record-keeping. The winner of each event was awarded a percentile rank of 100. For example, the boy’s broad jump winner jumped 8’-11”. This is 107 inches. The second-place boy jumped 8’-8”, or 104 inches. If we divided 104 by 107, we get 97%, which was his percentile rank. This system worked well for some events and not so well for others.
In both the female and male combines, the winner of the bench press won the whole competition. This seems to be due to a huge difference between some of the rep numbers. Twenty-one reps against 35 would yield a percentile rank of 60%, No other event influenced the total score as much. To get a 60% on the long jump, an athlete would only need to jump 5’-4”, which would have been last place. Even still, it was a great way to come up with a scoring system in a short amount of time. Looking ahead to next year, we may rework this.
Benefits and Reception of the Combine
As mentioned before, the energy level and competitiveness were incredibly high all day. Numerous athletes jogged back after their 40-yard rep, proclaimed their time, and challenged the others to beat it. The broad jump and bench press areas were loud and full of encouraging words.
This combine really highlighted the track team’s speed and technique. The following Monday, our track season opened, and we had quite a few last-minute sign-ups. Both of our teams fielded the largest turnout in a decade. Our boys’ team has 60 athletes on it this spring. Were there some athletes who performed well enough on the five tests but still didn’t enroll in a spring sport? Yes, but as a whole, I feel this combine did wonders to break down misconceptions about what the sport of track and field is all about.As a whole, the combine did wonders to break down misconceptions about what the sport of track & field is all about, and we had the largest turnout for our track teams in a decade. Click To Tweet
Although the testing scoring and conditions may have been imperfect, it largely went unnoticed by the athletes and we didn’t hear a single complaint. We are two weeks into our outdoor season now and the morale and attitude of the track teams have been as high as ever. This could be for many reasons, but I would like to think that they stand a little taller and prouder knowing that they stack up well against athletes from other teams. We have begun setting goals and I am pleased to see that they have lofty but achievable ones.
More athletes have achieved 20-, 21-, and 22-mph status than ever before. Some of it has to do with our training evolving, but some of it has to be from feeling good. As Tony Holler always alludes to, dopamine is a wonderful thing. Our sprint sessions often have a football-practice-type feel to them, with rap music blaring and kids yelling to encourage everyone.
Below are the top speeds in mph of our male sprinters during this spring season, which are our fastest Freelap times ever attained.
Wrapping Up a Successful Day
The biggest piece of evidence that this was a success comes from a football player in his first full year of track. He ran a very respectable 4.87 40-yard dash at the combine to finish 12th. He immediately made the decision to come out for outdoor track. He has slowly started to improve his sprint mechanics, he earned a spot in the 4x100m relay pool, and he has a great attitude. It doesn’t hurt that his 40-yard time will be retested 3-4 times this season. I hope he lets his teammates know about his speed gains.
His comment after the first week of track was, “I really messed up not doing this my freshman and sophomore year.” Perhaps, but he is here now, and I know his work this season with us will help our football team in the fall.
The combine was one of the best ideas our athletic department has ever had. If you are having trouble bridging the gap between different sports at your school, I think this is a great place to start. Track and field doesn’t have to be relegated to the status of a second-class citizen.