I, like many other coaches, take pride in having what we call a “coach’s eye.” I like to think I can recognize postural problems or mechanical missteps in my athletes and suggest tweaks in technique to help them improve. But no matter how good my eye is, it will never be as good as objective data. I’m okay with that.
The problem with the coach’s eye is that the information it gives is anecdotal, comes in small sample sizes, and is hard to track over time. And that’s without even mentioning the fact that sometimes our eyes don’t tell the truth. In baseball, for example, old-school scouts have sat for decades behind home plate with notebooks and tins of Skoal evaluating what they see with their eyes. One scout famously said of future Hall-of-Famer Chipper Jones—who hit .488 as a top prospect in his senior year of high school—that he “was not aggressive with [the] bat. Did not drive the ball from either side. Displayed non-chalant attitude at all times. He was a disappointment to me […] Young player with two average tools.”
In the case of Chipper Jones, hindsight is 20/20, but this coach’s eye was not. Reliable, objective data, tracked and analyzed over a period of time, can often uncover much more than meets the eye.When it comes to speed, the most valuable data we have are sprint times…Times don’t lie. And yet, too many coaches aren’t taking advantage of this powerful tool, says @TrackCoachTG. Click To Tweet
When it comes to speed, the most valuable pieces of data we have are sprint times. Unlike baseball, where there are mountains of metrics by which to evaluate players, speed data is pretty straightforward. Times don’t lie. And yet, too many coaches aren’t taking advantage of this powerful tool. They rarely, if ever, collect times in practice, leaving track meets as the only chance to collect timing data. I’ve worked with coaches who have literally said, “I’m not worried about their times right now.” To me, this is the gravest mistake we can make if we truly care about speed.
When we are training athletes for speed, we should be timing them every day. A stopwatch is cool and doubles as the official Track Coach ID Badge™ when worn around the neck, but even better is a Freelap timing system, which measures sprint times for multiple athletes and multiple splits more accurately and consistently than you can, no matter how quick your stopwatch trigger finger is.
Regardless of how you measure sprint times, the most important thing is that you do, in fact, measure them. Here are five reasons why.
1. “Gamifies” Training
People tend to do well at things that they enjoy, and the sports they play are no exception. It seems like a no-brainer, then, that we have to look for ways to make training enjoyable. This doesn’t mean that we show up to practice and goof around for an hour, so everyone leaves feeling like they just left Chuck E. Cheese. Practice isn’t a party, and that pizza isn’t even very good. But it does mean that, as coaches, we should look for ways to keep our training exciting, interesting, and appropriately challenging. One way that humans have always sought fun or enjoyment is through games. So, what if we could “gamify” the training process? Timing sprints does exactly that.
When you introduce a timer to sprint training, you inherently introduce competition. By timing, recording, ranking, and publishing sprint times from practice, you ensure the athletes are constantly competing against their own best times. Training becomes a game in which the players constantly attempt to beat their high scores, like a kid in an arcade with a pocket full of tokens and no consideration for the other kids who want a turn on the pinball machine. The pursuit becomes addictive. Achieving new high scores in the form of sprint PRs in practice is a way to keep kids actively engaged and interested in their training.
Last winter, before COVID-19 shut us down, every one of my athletes had set a new 40-yard dash PR by the end of a six-week training period, with an average improvement of right around 5%. We trained three times a week, in training flats, in the hallway of our school. The improvement was powerful to see, but equally as powerful was the level of engagement and enthusiasm I saw from them in training, and the anticipation I’d be met with outside my classroom door the next morning as kids lined up to see their new times posted. If I hadn’t been timing in practice, the only chances to measure improvement and chase new PRs would’ve been on meet days. Personally, I’d rather give them that opportunity every day.Some would argue that you can introduce competition without timing by simply having athletes race, and they’re not wrong. But what about the athletes who lose those races? asks @TrackCoachTG. Click To Tweet
Some would argue that you can introduce competition without timing by simply having athletes race, and they’re not wrong. But what about the athletes who lose those races? They’re now having regularly negative experiences with competition in practice, and that doesn’t help performance. Keep the athletes competing with themselves in practice, and let them compete with others in meets.
2. Creates a High-Performance Culture
Speaking of meets (or games, contests, matches, tests, or whatever your sport has), there are only so many in a season. A high school football team practices at least five times a week from August through October (and longer if they’re good), but only plays nine regular season games. Track and field isn’t that much different. In 2019—the last time we actually had a track and field season in Michigan—my team competed in 10 meets, and that included invitationals with limited entry. Some kids competed only five or six times.
Coaches always preach the importance of high performance, but I argue that if we’re only asking kids to perform on the day of a sanctioned competition, we’re setting them up for failure. That’s why we have to create a high-performance culture by timing sprints in practice with regularity.
In his most recent book, Win in the Dark, Joshua Medcalf highlights the importance of consistent and concentrated efforts toward a goal: “Everyone wants their moment in the spotlight. But you don’t shine under the bright lights. The bright lights only reveal your work in the dark.” I would add that if athletes aren’t encouraged to “work in the dark,” then the chances of “shining under the bright lights” is reduced drastically.
In other words, if athletes aren’t asked to perform at a high level consistently in practice, how can they be expected to perform at a high level during competition? High performance isn’t a switch that can be turned on at a moment’s notice; it’s an expectation we must hold for athletes all the time and a culture we must build in our programs. For track athletes, performance and time are synonymous. Performance on meet day is measured by the clock, and we do a great disservice to our athletes if we don’t measure performance the same way in practice.
3. Encourages Maximal Intent from Athletes
Effort and intent are two key elements of a high-performance culture. If there’s one thing coaches ask of their athletes, it’s that they give their absolute best in every race, and in every practice, and on every rep. I’ve found that the best way to encourage maximal intent from athletes is to measure performances—in this case, by timing sprints.I’m here to tell you that you can recreate meet-like intent from athletes. This is, perhaps, the single most powerful impact of timing, says @TrackCoachTG. Click To Tweet
It’s no secret that athletes tend to give their all on race day. Why? Because they’re up against the clock, their own expectations for themselves, and the rankings of the results. I’m here to tell you that you can recreate meet-like intent from athletes. This is, perhaps, the single most powerful impact of timing.
Coaches often speak about the importance of “giving your all” or “putting forth your best effort.” We’re always looking for ways to drive intent. It makes sense, then, that we have to design programs that facilitate the type of intent we want out of athletes.
If I want maximal effort and top-end speed, an untimed workout of 10×300 isn’t the ticket. Instead, I’ll aim for much lower volume and a shorter distance to ensure athletes are physically capable of sprinting, and time those sprints to let the athletes (and myself) know how they did. When the intent is high, so are the outcomes. Use your timing system to drive that intent, and watch what happens.
4. Provides Instant Quantitative Feedback
Competitors crave feedback. I’ve found this to be especially true at the high school level. When I coach hurdlers, they want feedback on every single rep and are often disappointed when I tell them I want to watch them a few times before making any comments. At meets, every coach who has ever lived has been asked “what was my time?” by an athlete—sometimes between huffs and puffs, because they just finished racing. In distance events, we call out splits to athletes at each lap to let them know how they’re doing. If the clock is the purest and most honest feedback tool we have, why wouldn’t we use it in practice?
Without timing, how will an athlete know if they’re faster this week than they were last week? How will a gangly freshman know what it feels like to truly sprint and what a difference it makes on the outcome? How will your kids know they’ve set a new PR if the only time they race the clock is on meet day?If the clock is the purest and most honest feedback tool we have, why wouldn’t we use it in practice? asks@TrackCoachTG. Click To Tweet
In Michigan, we start training indoors around the first of the year, and our kids may not race until March. How will they know if they’re getting better? Furthermore, if they are getting better, can they ever know how much better if you didn’t time them in practice during those early sessions? By withholding that feedback, we keep athletes in the dark about their objective, measurable growth. To improve anything, you have to measure it. Sprint times are no exception to this rule.
In addition to the feedback timing gives athletes, it’s important to think about what the data gives us as coaches, too. For example, timing sprints in practice over an extended period of time allows us to contextualize performance. Maybe an athlete didn’t set a new one-rep PR today, but maybe all five of their reps were faster than their rolling average in that metric. Or, maybe we can notice that all of an athlete’s times were consistent today, when three weeks ago they showed a dramatic drop-off in performance on the same workout. There are many ways we as coaches can help athletes to understand their progress, but not without data.
While we obviously hope that the data we receive by timing athletes in practice will show growth, it could also unveil potential problems. A pattern of times that are consistently slower than average, for example, could be a sign of fatigue, soreness, or even injury. Without that information, some problems could go undetected by the eye test.
Objective feedback can prompt us to start conversations with athletes. What time did you go to sleep last night? What have you eaten today? How much water have you had to drink? How are things at home? These are all questions we might not think to ask if there’s no alarm signal.
5. Ensures Submaximal Targets Are Met
Full disclosure: I’m not personally a fan of doing much submaximal work. I’m telling you this to be honest, but I also put this section last because if I’d told you I don’t care for tempo work at the beginning of this article, some of you would have quit reading right then and there. Now you’re roped in.
Look, it’s not that there’s anything wrong with tempo training, per se. In fact, when done well, it can deliver really solid results. But, too often, tempo is poorly prescribed by coaches or poorly executed by athletes. Sometimes it’s too slow to be effective and becomes mindless conditioning. If it doesn’t look like sprinting, it probably doesn’t help with sprinting. Other times, athletes struggle to hit a specific pace and end up missing their target: either they blow the first two reps out of the water and are shot for the rest of the workout, or they go much too slow at the start and look like a gym-class hero on the final rep when they leave everyone else in the dust.
All of this misses the point of tempo work. And while I’m not necessarily here to advocate for submaximal training, I am here to say that if you’re going to do it, you better have numbers to help you out. A chart like this one helps, too.
If I’m going to tell athletes they’ll be running 200’s at 80% of their PR, I have to know two things: 1) what their PR is; and 2) what time they need to run in order to achieve the percentage I’ve prescribed. Kids have no idea what 80% “feels” like, as a rule. But by timing sprints regularly, we can ensure those targets are met. For example, a high school athlete who runs 23.27 in the 200 would need to run 27.92 to hit an 80% tempo pace. If we know that, and the athlete knows that, then they will also know that 29 seconds is too slow and 26 seconds is too fast for the prescribed workout.
But tempo splits are also moving targets. What happens when a kid sets a new PR in a meet, and that 23.27 kid suddenly becomes a 22.75 kid? First of all, nice job, kid! But more to the point, all of that kid’s tempo splits have also changed now that the PR has improved. Without an accurate way to prescribe, time, and execute these workouts, it often becomes guesswork—and that’s not great for developing speed.
But What About…?
In my opinion, there is no downside to timing sprints in practice, but I admit that it takes a little bit of effort, planning, and management. Still, none of those are so voluminous that they should keep you from doing it.In my opinion, there is no downside to timing sprints in practice, but I admit that it takes a little bit of effort, planning, and management, says @TrackCoachTG. Click To Tweet
For example, some of you might be wondering about the cost of a timing system and how it fits into your budget. This is a valid concern. As a coach at a school with a very tight budget, I had to write a grant in order to secure funding for a Freelap system. While there may not be money in your athletic budget, there might be dollars available through community donors, organizations, or fundraisers you organize.
And even if a timing system isn’t in reach right now, that’s okay. Remember, you can still use the trusty stopwatch you’ve used for decades while you save up for a system. You just won’t be able to time short, flying sprints accurately and will have to account for human error. I’d recommend timing sprints of at least 30 meters, and averaging the athlete’s attempts for the day to account for those obstacles.
I know that some of you just read that and thought, “You mean I have to do MATH, too!?” I mean, maybe. But truth be told, an Excel sheet that uses the AVG function will do it for you. All you have to do is write the times down. Assign a coach, a team manager, or the kid who rolled his ankle playing basketball in his driveway over the weekend to stand near the finish line and write down the times. Then put those times into your spreadsheet sometime that evening while you binge watch The Office for the fourth time. The benefit of the information you’ll gain from doing this with regularity will far outweigh the cost of the time it takes to do so.
Another perceived hurdle to timing in practice is the setup. But, look. It’s not like you’re bringing out the FAT system you use for meets here. I can set up my timing system in the same amount of time it takes me to place any other set of cones on the track, and the entire thing fits in a bag that I carry over my shoulder. It’s a perfect job for an assistant to take care of while you’re coaching athletes through their sprint drills or while kids change into their spikes. I know you can find a few minutes to make it happen if it’s important to you.At the end of the day, the logistics of timing may be a little more than what you’re doing at the moment, but it’s a small price to pay for the data you gain, says @TrackCoachTG. Click To Tweet
If times are paramount when it comes to speed development, as I argue they are, then everyone should be timing in practice. As consumer analyst Arthur C. Nielsen says, “The price of light is less than the cost of darkness.” At the end of the day, the logistics of timing may be a little more than what you’re doing at the moment, but it’s a small price to pay for the data you gain. Come out of the darkness. If you want your athletes to get faster, can you really afford not to?
Since you’re here…
…we have a small favor to ask. More people are reading SimpliFaster than ever, and each week we bring you compelling content from coaches, sport scientists, and physiotherapists who are devoted to building better athletes. Please take a moment to share the articles on social media, engage the authors with questions and comments below, and link to articles when appropriate if you have a blog or participate on forums of related topics. — SF