The University of Oregon Ducks football team has seen a major resurgence lately. How has a program that once went 37 years—from 1957 to 1994—without winning even a share of a conference title suddenly become a perennial national title contender?
The logical answer would be great players and great coaches, which the Ducks have had in droves. Joey Harrington, Dennis Dixon, LaMichael James, Kenjon Barner, and Marcus Mariota all finished in the Top Ten of the Heisman Trophy voting. Mike Bellotti, Chip Kelly, and Mark Helfrich are all proven winners as head coaches. Jimmy Radcliffe might be the best strength and conditioning coach in the country.
Facilities is another potential answer. Although Autzen Stadium is certainly above average for big-time college football, it is not nearly as hallowed or historic as Michigan’s “Big House,” Ohio State’s “Horseshoe,” Florida’s “Swamp,” or USC’s “Grand Old Lady.”
Perhaps it’s the uniforms? Now, I am not suggesting that Oregon somehow has a performance advantage based on their uniforms—though we will talk about performance apparel later in this article. I am suggesting that Oregon, whose uniforms were voted as the best in college football, has an advantage in recruiting based on their uniforms. While most longtime college football powerhouses like Alabama, Notre Dame, Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State, Florida, Texas, Nebraska, Auburn, USC, and Oklahoma keep the same uniforms for decades in order to stay branded in tradition, Oregon is appealing to our current generation by trotting out new uniforms every single game. Not many college football teams have 739 words on their Wikipedia page dedicated to their uniforms.
Figure 1: The University of Oregon football team appeals to today’s generation with their attractive, unique uniforms. Every game sees a new combination of helmets, jerseys, pants, socks, and shoes. Their uniforms, which have been voted as the best in college football, help attract top talent to Eugene and keep the Ducks winning. It certainly doesn’t hurt to also have marquee athletes such as Devon Allen, an Olympic finalist in the 110m High Hurdles, on the team as well.
At Oregon, the football resurgence started at the turn of the century with Pac-10 titles in 2000 and 2001. A seemingly innocuous change in the school logo preceded this resurgence, from the outdated overlapped UO logo to the now-famous stretched O logo you still see today.
That was just the beginning. In 2005, the Oregon Ducks wore nine different uniform combinations. The team was now a staple in the Top 25 college polls, but had yet to truly scare the regulars up top. Then, in 2009, they hired Chip Kelly, whose high-octane, fast-paced offense revolutionized the college game and brought the greatest success in the program’s history. In his four years, Kelly led the Ducks to three outright conference titles and four berths in BCS Bowl games, including an appearance in the 2011 BCS National Championship game. Mark Helfrich took over in 2013 and has kept the Ducks in the national spotlight, including another berth in the BCS National Championship game in 2014 and the program’s first Heisman Trophy winner in Marcus Mariota. Success garners headlines, and success in fresh new uniforms garners the attention needed from top recruits.
How important is looking good to football players? Apparently, more important than their long-term safety. Two NFL players in the late 1980s and early 1990s—Mark Kelso and Steve Wallace—wore oversized helmets during their playing days. The helmets made play safer for those wearing them and—because the outer shell was softer—for those getting hit by them. Both were made fun of quite often about the helmets, even by television announcers.
Kelso himself says, “Players thought the padding didn’t look cool, so they didn’t want it.”  You read that correctly: Players want to look cool, even at the risk of injury. Kelso added, “With football players, aesthetics wins out over safety every time.”  Oregon’s fancy, varied uniforms did not decrease their safety, of course, but they are winning the war of aesthetics over their competition.
Figure 2: Steve Wallace helped protect quarterback Steve Young on the San Francisco 49ers’ run to the Super Bowl XXIX title. Wallace himself was protected by an oversized helmet. Plagued by concussions early in his career, Wallace added a layer of foam around his helmet to protect his head. His dedication to safety earned him mockery and derision from players and announcers.
There will mainly be two parts to this article—competition and practice—both focusing on how apparel can make your team better.
The function of your competition uniforms is obviously more important than their form. However, advances by apparel companies have taken the job of functionality out of your hand, for the most part. Nobody wears heavy cotton jerseys or big, baggy shorts in Track & Field anymore. Basically, all the outfits on the market are of high-quality fibers that are great for performance. Still, having a knowledge of the various uniforms can put your team at an advantage.
Your uniform choices for Track & Field should be almost as varied as the events. Tight tops might be great for your sprint crew, but would you want to wear them if you were running the 3200m on a hot day? I am the head boys coach at Lake Forest High School (IL). Our varsity athletes are all issued the same jersey top, a Nike DQT Victory singlet. Their bottoms, however, are issued depending on their events. Sprinters, jumpers, hurdlers, and vaulters are given tight shorts; distance runners are given their typical “short shorts”; and throwers are given regular athletic shorts that hang down almost to their knees. If an athlete wants a different pair of shorts, that’s fine as long as we have enough in stock.
The variance in our uniform bottoms serves to accommodate function as well as form. Distance runners typically do not like tights because the tights often make them hotter during a race, as well as in between races. Running the mile leads to quite a sweat, and nobody wants to walk around at a meet with a tight, sweaty item stuck to them, especially with another event coming up. Distance runners have also generally embraced the short shorts. Wearing them is a source of pride because those tiny shorts are now unique to their discipline.
Some coaches have taken the issue of lower body apparel completely out of the picture and let their athletes wear whatever they choose on their bottom half, as long as it is a certain color (usually black). This saves the school money on apparel and also allows the athletes to individualize their look.
If you have the resources, variance in jersey tops is desirable as well, both for function and form. You may have noticed that the U.S. Olympic marathon runners wore jerseys with holes in them. The weather was predicted to be hot and the marathon is obviously quite long, so having light, thin uniforms with holes in them made a great deal of sense. Female distance runners at the professional level virtually never have their midriff covered, though this look is not allowed at the high school level.
While some athletes love the look and feel of speedsuits, others hate them. All speedsuits are not created equal, either. I loved our speedsuits my first two years in college, and hated the new ones we got my junior year. My personal advice for speedsuits at the high school level is to make them exclusive. We will cover exclusivity later in this article.
Swimming and Track & Field are often compared to each other, which is quite understandable. One area where they should not be compared, however, is apparel. Obviously, the medium for the sports is quite different. Nobody disputes the amazing effect of compression suits in swimming. Speedo claims that their Fastskin-3 suit reduces passive drag by 16.6% and improves oxygen economy by 11%.  Just getting into those suits takes 10-15 minutes, and they are generally only ideal to use for one competition. The benefits of compression suits are so obvious and undeniable that coaches and officials do not even expect the athletes to be in team apparel during the championship season! Athletes buy their own suits and caps, regardless of whether they match the school colors or not. In what other sport does this happen?
Can we apply those benefits to compression apparel in Track & Field? Certainly, an appropriately tighter uniform will keep you warmer and be slightly better for wind resistance. But, despite what the companies trying to sell you these items would like you to believe, those are essentially the only benefits. Multiple studies, including those by researchers at Indiana University  and many for the Journal of Sports Science & Medicine , have concluded that compression apparel in Track & Field has essentially no effect on running performance.
My suggestion here is not that speedsuits, compression shorts, and the like are worthless and have no place in Track & Field. However, their use as a performance enhancer is essentially a placebo effect. But you know what? Most of the time that is good enough. Athletes should feel faster in a speedsuit. They should feel faster in cool new clothing. Our coaching colleague Tony Holler points out speedsuits as one of his five speed enhancers. Loren Seagrave once told me, “When the athletes take off those warm-ups and reveal that jersey, it’s like Clark Kent going into the phone booth and coming out as Superman. You are faster than a speeding bullet.” That is the way your jersey should make you feel.
“Compression apparel may not affect performance, but if an athlete feels like it does, that’s enough.”
In the early 1990s, the University of Michigan’s “Fab Five” entertained the world of college basketball with, not only their exuberant youth, brash play, and incredible talent, but also with their bald heads, black socks, and baggy shorts.  Most basketball jerseys in the 1980s and 1990s were awesome—we will talk about retro appeal later—but the Fab Five were pioneers of promoting the way they looked just as much as the way they played. Everybody wanted those baggy shorts. Their student union started selling the team shorts and could not keep them in stock.
At around the same time, the Lithuanian men’s basketball team was looking to make a splash in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. Lithuania’s independence was restored in 1990, but while they were thick on basketball talent, they were thin on funds. Thankfully, the Grateful Dead read a story about their plight in the San Francisco Chronicle and decided to donate $5,000 to one of Lithuania’s stars, Šarūnas Marčiulionis. Part of the donation went to their tie-dyed warm-up shirts, which featured a skeleton dunking a basketball. When their most famous athlete, Arvydas Sabonis, saw the shirts, he exclaimed, “Wow, this is really a free Lithuania.”  Lithuania, in shirts that reflected their attitude, won the Olympic bronze medal in 1992, 1996, and 2000.
Your apparel does not necessarily have to make such a bold statement. You do not need to change history with your uniforms, but your apparel should attract people to your team. Athletes in the school should see your team apparel, see pictures of your jerseys, and say, “I want to be a part of that.” You may argue that the type of kids who come out for the team just for the uniforms are not the type of kids you want on your team. But how do you know? Do the Oregon football coaches say to their recruits, “Don’t pick our school just because you like the uniforms”? I have never been on a recruiting visit with one of their coaches, but I guarantee the discussion is more along the lines of, “We have the best uniforms in the country.”
Appearance matters! The look of your uniform will never literally win you a race, but feeling good about your appearance has a great psychological effect. Remember when your aunt would buy you something embarrassing for Christmas and your mom would make you wear it to school? How much confidence did you have that day? Compare that to the day you got a haircut, new shoes, and new shirt. Imagine heading into every track meet with that sort of confidence.Our appearance gives us confidence: Pride in their apparel could help athletes perform better. Click To Tweet
Denis Sheeran was the coach who preceded me at Lake Forest High School, and we overlapped for three seasons there. He took a broken program that was lucky to have even one athlete at the State meet each year and turned them into a powerhouse team that won the North Suburban Conference championship in 2008 and 2009. His first book, Instant Relevance: Using Today’s Experiences to Teach Tomorrow’s Lessons, is the No. 1 new release on Amazon, and is about making learning relevant in order to increase students’ engagement and desire to learn.
Coach Sheeran, a brilliant math teacher, understands that making students interested in what they are doing is essential to progress. He used the same theories in his coaching; reasoning that athletes need a desire to come out for a program that had been sorely lacking in relevance. The speedsuits you see in Figure 5 were designed by Coach Sheeran.
Though there are many companies, such as First To The Finish and GTM Sportswear, that sell great jerseys at very low prices, many teams and athletic departments simply do not have the funds to purchase new uniforms very often. But most schools have some attractive apparel lying around collecting dust. Retro uniforms! Go into your school’s equipment room and see what you can find.
How many examples of popular retro uniforms in sports do you need before you will consider digging into your equipment room to see what gems you can unearth? NBA, NFL, and MLB teams are constantly bringing back old uniforms and highlighting their return. Many colleges are having similar events in almost every sport. Even video games are getting in on the trend. Every time that NBA Live is released, the new version seems to have more retro uniforms to choose from. When is the last time you turned down an invitation to an ’80s party?
This past season, our dual meet between Lake Forest High School and Antioch Community High School was a #RetroMeet. Given that it was the last time the two teams would be having a dual meet against each other—due to our conference splitting apart—Antioch coach Chris Bailey and I decided that throwing back the clock was a good idea. Thankfully, the kids loved it too. We actually had more athletes than retro uniforms at Lake Forest, so we had to limit it by only giving retro uniforms to those athletes who had not yet accumulated an unexcused absence. On a cold, blustery day in early April, the Scouts and Sequoits battled each other in a variety of short shorts and old nylon jerseys.
The fact that we call the outfits we assign to our teams, “uniforms,” is all you need to know about their individuality. The uniform is a way to get everybody to look the same. But, while we assign the athletes their jersey tops and bottoms, there are still plenty of ways that athletes individualize their look. They have their choice of socks, spikes, headbands, wristbands, shoelaces, jewelry, undershirts, tights, etc.
If you are not aware of what is popular among today’s athletes, my advice is to develop some awareness as soon as possible. I have never been cool or trendy in my entire life, so I ask my athletes what is in style. Thus, our team apparel handout in 2016 included “bro tanks,” Nike Elite socks, and 3/4 tights. These apparel order forms can be critical to your team. I have the athletes give me input on color schemes, materials, styles, designs, etc. What I want pales in comparison to what they want.
At our awards banquet in 2015, the athletes got fleece vests as their team gift. When I was in school, that vest would have been donated to Goodwill or buried at the bottom of a dresser drawer. At Lake Forest, I see athletes wearing those vests all of the time. This past year, the athletes got a tank top, since Lake Forest is right on Lake Michigan and many of our athletes spend their summers at the beach. They also get a spike bag every single year, because those bags are extremely functional and cheap. Find something that connects to the athletes at your school. Athletes wearing that apparel become a walking promotion of your team.
One of the best athletes I have ever coached, Brad Fortney, is now the head girls coach at Kenosha Bradford High School in Wisconsin. He swears by headbands, putting them on their apparel order form and getting matching headbands for his athletes at the championship meets. These headbands cost about $5 each, but the athletes clamor for them. Each of the four members of the USA’s gold medal men’s 4x400m Relay team at the IAAF World U20 Championships was wearing a headband. Headbands are in!
Figure 6: Kahmari Montgomery and Ari Cogdell both sport headbands at the IAAF World U20 Championships. Accessories like headbands, socks, and even shoelaces can help your athletes give a personal or meaningful touch to their appearance.
Let us be completely honest here. The best part of track apparel is the shoes. No track coach in their right mind will have “team” shoes like the basketball team does. There are so many different kinds of shoes for so many different events, in so many brands, and so many colors. Every time I see a cheap pair of spikes, I buy them. Somewhere down the line, I will have an athlete without spikes who will need them. If you want to see a happy kid, watch one trying on a pair of spikes for the very first time.
Having a cache of spikes also helps athletes determine which type of spikes work best for them. Some like a rigid plate; others a more neutral feel. Some athletes like to be forced up on the balls of their feet while others prefer a flatter shoe. Some like a ten-spike plate; others a four-spike plate. While a baseball player can try out a dozen gloves in the store and catch a ball with each of them, there are very few options for athletes to truly get on track with spikes before they buy them. During the track season, my trunk is filled with extra spikes in all different sizes.
Spikes are also the most functional part of a track athlete’s apparel. Beginners may buy some “all-around” spikes—usually mid-distance spikes—while figuring out what events they are going to do. But your top athletes should have specialized spikes if at all possible. The actual implements should also be replaced often. As you head into the championships season, check the spikes in your athletes’ shoes and swap out the ones that need replacing.
I remember wanting to play varsity basketball as a kid because they had awesome uniforms. Early on in basketball, you would just get a cotton T-shirt, then a reversible mesh jersey. As a high school freshman you would get last decade’s varsity uniforms—which, in 1994, meant your shorts made John Stockton’s look baggy. I abandoned basketball as a sophomore in order to join the swim team, where our Speedos were about the same size as the freshman basketball shorts. The fact that the varsity basketball jerseys were better and newer than the lower-level jerseys was important. They were exclusive. The best for the best. The CEO of a company certainly has a better office than an entry-level hire.
Youth sports are creeping toward that tradition now. Nine-year-old soccer players are issued high-tech jerseys, shorts, socks, and duffle bags. Names on the back of football uniforms used to be reserved just for varsity athletes, but now I see names on the back of middle school uniforms, team bumper stickers on their mom’s minivan, and signs on the front lawn declaring that “a middle school football player” lives there. I understand that the coaches of those programs want to make their athletes feel special, but what is left to discover in high school? I do not blame those lower-level coaches at all. They are taking ideas that worked at one level and applying them to their own program. They understand exclusivity.Exclusivity in apparel—such as varsity-only jerseys—can give athletes something to strive for. Click To Tweet
In Track & Field, many programs now have “championship” uniforms. We have speedsuits at Lake Forest that we break out during the Conference Championships. If you want the privilege to wear these speedsuits, you have to be good enough to make varsity at the end of the year. Even some of the distance runners on the team clamor for a speedsuit.
We also have an exclusive baton at Lake Forest: Baby Blue. Only our varsity sprint relays get to use Baby Blue, and only if the coaches believe those athletes have a chance to win or place very high. Using Baby Blue is an honor because we have made it an honor. You can see my athletes in Figure 5 holding Baby Blue. There is an aura around that baton. I once threatened to withhold Baby Blue from a team that was not taking their handoffs seriously in practice. They shaped up quickly, and their handoffs the rest of the practice were perfect.
Track & Field is an odd sport in that there is no standard practice apparel. As far as I can tell, coaches of the basketball, football, volleyball, and swim teams never really have to worry much about what their athletes wear to practice. Their practice apparel is set. Our sport is different.
Sometimes we are indoors; sometimes we are outdoors. Sometimes we need spikes; sometimes we do not. Some athletes need shorter shorts than others. Athletes also often have to shed layers during practice. Apparel that helps one part of practice may hinder another.
What is the ideal practice outfit for a high school Track & Field athlete? That depends on the event group. Since I am primarily a sprint coach, I will start with the sprint crew. Ideally, I would like my athletes to wear a relatively tight T-shirt, light athletic shorts that are at least a couple inches above the knee, a non-hooded long-sleeve top, light athletic pants that are cuffed at the ankle, a hat or headband that covers the ears, light gloves, athletic socks, shoes, spikes, a digital watch, and either briefs, boxer briefs, or spandex.
The distance runners will basically have the same apparel, though their shorts are usually shorter and they will need more breathable apparel on hotter days. Throwers generally do more standing around in practice and build up less of a sweat while outside, so an emphasis on warmer clothes should be considered when they venture outdoors. Obviously, they will not need spikes and probably not a watch, either.
As you can see, we want our athletes in light, non-baggy clothing that does not impede their running ability. This clothing must also keep them cool in the heat and warm in the cold. Sweatpants may seem like a great idea when it is cold outside, but they are usually fairly heavy, and most sweatpants I see athletes wear are loose at the cuff. This means they flop around on the athlete’s legs and get wet on the bottom.
I have a rule that my athletes are not allowed to wear hoods or pull their sleeves over their hands while running. Both of these change the athlete’s form. If you do not want your head and hands cold at practice, bring a hat and gloves. Simple. At a meet, hooded sweatshirts are great. They keep the athletes warm between events. But at a practice, I prefer that the athletes do not wear hooded sweatshirts.
The gender of your athletes will obviously make a big difference, both in simple biology and in the popularity of certain apparel items. Girls’ coaches do not need to worry about boxers and boys’ coaches do not need to worry about sports bras. Brad Fortney, the coach I mentioned above, puts winter headbands with a ponytail hole on his apparel order form and sells a ton. If I tried that with my boys at Lake Forest, I might sell three or four. Girls are also much more likely to wear long tights and short running shorts; both very functional items that most boys are simply unwilling to wear.
Your apparel order forms are a great way to get your athletes to buy appropriate practice apparel. Put the items you want the athletes to wear at practice on there. Long-sleeve T-shirts, technical T-shirts, tank tops, gloves, hats, watches, tights, shorts of appropriate length, headbands, etc. Hand out a form to the parents at the beginning of the season with the expected practice apparel at the same time you hand them the apparel order form.
One great item I will be including on our apparel form this year is NIX ELITE zip-away tights. Designed by three-time World Champion track athlete Greg Nixon, they are running tights that zip all the way down from the hip to the ankle, allowing athletes to quickly remove them before a race. This very functional piece of apparel is also a head-turner. I dare your athletes to see a competitor zip off their pants that way before a race and not say, “I want those.”
The biggest battle I face with practice apparel is convincing the athletes not to wear Nike Free, Nike Flex, or any other similar shoe to practice. Unfortunately for track coaches, Nike has done an incredible job marketing such shoes, and they have become very popular. They are also terrible shoes for track practice. They flex too much and provide very little support. It’s fine if athletes want to buy them for walking around in, but I do not want to see them at practice. There is some consolation in the fact that the Nike Free is at least ranked in rigidity on a scale of 0-10 (with 0 being barefoot and 10 being a “normal” running shoe like the Nike Zoom Pegasus).  So, while I prefer that none of my athletes wear a Nike Free, I would rather they wear a 5.0 than a 3.0. Please do not get me started on Vibram FiveFingers and the like.
Be sure your athletes are not showing up to run in basketball shoes, skating shoes, cross trainers, or anything else. Thankfully, the market is flooded with running shoes. Nike, Adidas, Puma, Brooks, New Balance, Saucony, Asics, Mizuno, Under Armour, Pearl Izumi, Hoka One, and others all make great running shoes in a variety of types and colors. You can even look up how many medals were won in the Olympics by runners wearing each shoe brand. 
Because footwear is so important, an athlete showing up without their running shoes can derail their practice. Sometimes they can borrow shoes from another athlete, but what if they cannot? I suggest using long-forgotten lost-and-found shoes and worn shoes from your own personal collection to create a stockpile of available shoes. Find a place in the locker room or similar area to store them. This is also a good place to keep extra sweatshirts, athletic pants, and spikes, just in case somebody forgets those. You can even have athletes donate their shoes and spikes at the end of the season.
Most specialty running stores will have experts who can help fit your stride to a particular type of shoe. Three main types of running shoes are for those who over pronate, neutral pronate, or supinate. I personally prefer a lighter shoe, while many athletes love a little extra support. Recommend that your athletes go to a specialty running store to get fitted for proper shoes. The potential for reduced injuries should far outweigh any extra costs.
Practice is important, but it can be a drag. Many coaches are using apparel days to break up the monotony of practice and keep their athletes interested. I know of teams that do Throwback Thursday, tight-tee tuck-in Tuesday, ’80s day, neon day, headband day, jersey day, and even a Halloween costume thrower’s competition. Coming to practice on those days is fun. Athletes will be taking pictures of their outfits and sharing them on social media.Use fun apparel days to reduce practice monotony and give athletes something to look forward to. Click To Tweet
We do a T-shirt relay where athletes wear crazy outfits and run a relay to “win” a choice from a stockpile of old tees donated by the coaches and the athletic department. Eric Kush, the center for the Los Angeles Rams, promotes “Fat Arm Friday,” where he encourages everybody to wear tanks. This was a highlight of the Rams’ appearance on “Hard Knocks.”
Team pictures are another way to creatively use apparel to promote your team. Let the athletes choose—within reason—what to wear for the pictures. The tradition at Lake Forest before I arrived was for the seniors to wear blue button-down dress shirts and everybody else to wear white button-down dress shirts. The rest of the outfit was the same: dress pants, dress shoes, and a tie. In 2013, we decided to make it more fun. The freshman, sophomores, and juniors still had to dress in the traditional outfit, but we gave the seniors the option to pick their own outfit. That year, the seniors picked blazers, bowties, and khaki shorts. In 2014, they went with robes and ascots. The 2015 seniors wore bowties, Chubbies, half-calf socks, and boat shoes. In 2016, the choice was blazers, turtlenecks, jorts, half-calf socks, boat shoes, and gold chains.
Apparel Impacts Performance
What have we learned from the example set forth by the University of Oregon’s football program? Attracting top athletes to your team can have a great impact on your success. Functional, eye-catching apparel may be the performance hack your team is missing. Athletes who look good and feel good are bound to perform well. Coaches who only focus on the “X’s and O’s” are consistently having less success than the innovators who coach the soul of the athlete, as well as the body and mind. Your apparel matters, from form down to function.
Last February, I gave a speech titled “Winning With Speed” at the WISTCA Clinic in Madison, Wisconsin. In that speech, I encouraged all of the coaches to attract the best athletes in their school to their track team. One suggestion was to get cool uniforms and team apparel. At least one coach who attended my session took the handout from my speech and used it to convince his athletic director to help his team purchase new uniforms. I am hoping this article will have the same impact. Please consider all the great effects that apparel can have for your program. If you have better suggestions or apparel items than I have mentioned here, please list them in the comments below.
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