The CHill Zone of T&F: Conway's View From the Finish Line

Off Season Relay Development

Mar 26th, 2010
3:31 pm PDT

Track and Field: 12th IAAF World Championships in Athletics

As I’ve said previously, this early portion of the season is dominated by relay meets at almost every level. Even what is generally the big kick off to the elite portion of the outdoor season (Penn Relays) features a “USA vs the World” section of relay events. However, with there being no global major this year and virtually no meets on the European Circuit offering relays, the Penn meet may just be the highlight of the season as far as international relay units are concerned.

As much as I love relay competition, that may not be a bad thing for our US squads this year. Looking back at the last two majors – Beijing and Berlin – our 4×1 squads could use some work! Four times in the past two majors our 4×1 teams (men AND women)have taken to the track and failed to finish the race. Not just failed to medal, but were unable to get the baton around the track and across the finish line!

Clearly we need some work in that department. And I’m not sure that scrapping the old relay program – one of the first moves by then new USATF CEO Dog Logan was the best move given that A) it came on the heels of the first double debacle in Beijing, and B) no viable replacement was put into effect. The end result being that once again in Berlin we failed to finish either race!

But with a good year and a half before the next World Championships in Daegu (2011) we have a lot of time to “get things right”. Unfortunately I’m not sure that we have anything in place to do so. Which is why I am sitting here writing right now – because I am strongly suggesting to USATF that we put something in place!

For example, one of our issues (IMHO) is that we have a plethora of available talent. That would be a good thing if it weren’t for the fact that we seem to be worried about trying to please everyone and be “fair”. Fair usually meaning that the first four finishers in the 100 at the Trials/National Championships get the job of representing the US in the relay.

Now while this is a noble endeavor, and worked quite well when we were the only big dog in the yard with easily the best talent, the rest of the world has developed their own pools of talent. As a result countries like Jamaica, Trinidad, France, Cuba, Brazil and Great Britain are now able to bring equal and sometimes superior talent to the table.

What they have also been bringing to the event that our present method of selection prevents us from doing, are seasoned teams that work together much better than our last minute “pick up” squads! While these other squads are now able to match us in talent, it is often easier for them to decide upon line ups as their pools tend to be “shallower” and the talent more easily defined. Being able to define the talent earlier allows them to create what are essentially “National” squads that work together better than our teams do. Very important because while the relays are about speed, the key element of the race is the movement of the baton – getting that small piece of metal from person to person, through the zones, and around the track as rapidly as possible!

That is what we have failed at. That is where we need to put a plan in place to improve!

Frankly while I respect the ideal of giving everyone a shot at making the teams, we know who our top talent is. We know that our squads need to be built around Tyson Gay (natural 3rd leg & 2nd fastest man in history) on the men’s side, and Carmelita Jeter (our best closer & 2nd fastest woman in history anchor) on the women’s side. We also know that our two best backstretch performers in recent seasons have been Wallace Spearmon for the men and Allyson Felix for the women. I would think that these four would make a pretty good nucleus to build around. That would leave us looking for two viable legs to fill out each squad.

Personally I would like to see a panel of top collegiate relays coaches put together to evaluate the available talent and make recommendations to USATF as to who the remaining personnel – including substitutes for the pool – should be. Why? Because that’s what they do for a living! No one at USATF works with relays on a regular basis – and it shows! Yet working with constantly changing rosters, the coaches at Florida, Florida State, Baylor, LSU, and Texas A&M, among others, routinely turn out world class relay squads.

This coincides with my personal philosophy that you run the 100 to select your representatives in the 100 meters – not necessarily to put a relay team together. You place in the top 3 and you earn the right to represent your country in the 100 meters. But the relay is a completely different event, and we need individuals running it that have demonstrated that they also have relay skills to go with their speed. Spearmon and Felix specialize in the 200, yet are superb backstretch runners in the relay. Relying solely on the outcome of the 100 meter final would preclude using them in the relays. Collegiate coaches are used to utilizing talent outside of the 100 meters to put together quality relays. Their expertise in personnel selection and placement could certainly be put to good use!

Personnel selection aside, USATF also needs to find a way to get which ever personnel is selected on the track to perfect passing the baton. Knowing just who your personnel will be should make it easier to put together some “camps” between now and Daegu to do just that! And I wouldn’t be against bringing in a college coach or two to conduct the camps.

Now, there are many ways to skin a cat – and I’m sure that others have other ideas and methods to put our squads together and get them ready. My point is that this down time between majors presents an optimal time to do SOMETHING constructive on the relay front! And I would hope that USATF would use this time wisely. Because if our goal is truly 30 medals in London, we can’t afford to keep giving medals away. Or more concisely dropping them on the track!

5 Responses to “Off Season Relay Development”

  1. Hopeton says:

    Ypur comments have some validity but, there is a rider. Synergy between the runners is also important as well as some amount of 'brain useage'. Relay runnibg does require consideration for the person you are exchanging the baton with. Considerations would include their preferences as well as their mental and physical condition on the day.
    It also requires that you do not panic at the point of exchange (brain power)and, at a worst, to prefer a slow exchange and the chance to recover than no a 'panicked' botched exchange.
    In the past the USA could have poor exchanges and still win but now, there is more raw speed shared across nations. The pressure on the US to win is contributing to the 'panicking'.
    My advice is to ensure the baton is paased, in the first instance' and finetune from their onwards.

  2. Conway Hill says:

    I agree whole heartedly .. All the more reason to get a team selected and in place and give them ample time to work together ..

  3. liracewalk says:

    I've said this about 100 times, we need to select relays the same way we select every other event. Make them earn it by winning the relay championship at our national champs. Take the top 8 teams in the 4×1 & 4×4 and let them run a final at the end of the meet, just like they do @ worlds, etc., and send the winner. No need to worry about cohension issues, dropped sticks or the egos of athletes & agents.

  4. Conway Hill says:

    Actually our most successful squads were basically club teams .. Our national teams of the 80's had a core of Carl Lewis, Mike Marsh and Leroy Burrell – all members of the Santa Monica Track Club .. And our best late 90's early 00's squads had a core of Mo Greene, Jon Drummond and Bernard Williams who at one time ran together for HSI ..

  5. Hopeton says:

    Agreed. Reinforces my point about synergy between the 2 athletes exchnging the baton. Teammates at the club level have it. Talk to those guys and I can bet that they never used the exact same 'checked diatancec' every time or they didn't accelerate the same way every time. That wasn't coaching. That was understanding. That was synergy.
    Review the tapes of Bolt to Asafa in China (bad baton change but safe) or Frater to Bolt in Berlin (short man to tall man. All vibes as they shouldn't work.

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