Track and Field is a sport consisting of a collection of dozens of highly specialized disciplines. National Sport Organizations (NSOs) and Athletic Departments loop every discipline within Track and Field together and classify this collection of sports as Athletics. A closer look at what each discipline entails quickly reveals that each could be considered its own sport and should be treated as such.
Athletics consists of disciplines ranging from sprints as short as 60m (indoors) to marathons and 20km race walks (yes, race walks). It encompasses a multitude of unique throws, vertical jumps and horizontal jumps. Each event is so highly specialized that each event group has its own coaching staff or specialists at the highest levels. Even at the collegiate and high school levels, the coaching staff is often broken up into more general specialties (depending on number of staff available).If you were to look up almost any collegiate track and field team’s coaching staff, you will find “Assistant Coaches” who oversee similar groups of events.
One of the most common and general ways these are split up are by Sprints, Jumps, Distance, and Throws. There can also be coaches who are responsible for short and long sprints, hurdles, jumps, rotational throws, overhead throws, mid-distance events, you name it. Specialization is needed at these levels of competition and some disciplines require completely different skillsets from athletes and coaches alike (i.e. 1,000m run vs shot put).
Think of Athletics like Football; every event (or position) has a specific coach catered to development athletes in their respective roles.In most cases, there is only a single strength coach for the "Track Team". This one coach is responsible for over a dozen unique sports, each with their own unique demands.
It seems odd that a sport with so many specialties will have multiple skills coaches yet seem to disregard the need for a diverse strength staff. Nevertheless, we as strength coaches need to find ways to make lemonade. The following sections will present some strategies that Strength and Conditioning Coaches could use when organizing their side of training, for a team consisting of an abundance of athletes in different disciplines.
Fill The Buckets
The ratio between training time and competition time in Track and Field is massive. Athletes will train year-round for just a handful (if that) of meaningful competitions per year. The lines between “training” and “practice” become blurred compared to team sports; Athletics is just one big stimulus. By understanding how they train for their sport with their event coaches, we can prioritize our training to best complement that work.Let us imagine that athletes’ needs are labelled on buckets. We have a speed bucket, a strength bucket, a technical bucket, etc. Our job is to fill the buckets that are needed, not ones being filled enough by practice. For example, we do not need to do speed work with sprinters, or likely much basic aerobic development with distance runners. Those buckets are being filled. Sport coaches are our allies, and it benefits to create and maintain an open line of communication with them to ensure the team works cohesively towards the common goal. We can use their training strategies to help direct our own.
Identify Your Team
Track and Field coaches are not like many team-sport coaches. They must be able to develop skill, strategy AND physicality. There is less demand on tactical preparation (like game plans and lineups). Track Coaches must be knowledgeable in the field of Strength and Conditioning to some extent. We, as Strength and Conditioning Coaches, can use this to our advantage. We have an entire staff of coaches who know their disciplines very well and how to train for them. Not only should we consider their input, but we should work together to ensure all training is complementary of one another.
The coaches’ input help in both programming and implementation. They likely do have a background in training athletes, so we can use that to our advantage. Suddenly, instead of being stranded on an island as the sole Strength and Conditioning Coach of the team, you now have several “assistants” working with you to help improve their own event groups. This is the reason why having an open line of communication and being receptive to their input matters. Track and Field coaches often speak our language, and we should use that to our advantage.
Divide & Conquer
Since each discipline has it's own specialty, your training plan should cater to each unique need. Below are some considerations for each discipline:
Athletics is an umbrella term to group together a multitude of sports. Most coaching staffs are equipped with coaches who specialize in the training of specific (and sometimes overlapping) event groups. However, most coaching staffs in the collegiate and high school setting will only have one Strength and Conditioning Coach responsible for helping athletes across every discipline.
This is a unique position for a Strength and Conditioning Coach and can be a daunting task. However, by taking a collaborative approach with the sport coaching staff to complement their training, and by identifying the unique needs and demands of each group of events, the Track and Field Strength Coach can carve out an impactful role within the team.
Author: Paul Bisnauth
Paul is Head of Speed Development at Iron Performance Center. He has a bachelors degree in science in kinesiology from Brock University and a postgraduate certificate in Exercise Science for Health and Performance from Niagara College. Paul has experience working with a broad spectrum of the population, including older adults and athletes alike. He was the assistant strength coach for the Niagara College Men’s basketball team and helped them towards an improved season. Paul excels in team atmospheres and enjoys the discipline associated with sport performance.