Dyestat IL: Passing the Baton - February 19, 2013

Published by Mike Newman
Feb 20th 2013, 4:39am | 3071 views

Waubonsie Valley Head Coach Kevin Rafferty's teams always have strong relays. Kevin talks about his process of how he gets a 4 x 400 & 4 x 800 Meter Relay together.


Coaching the 4x800 and 4x400

                Relays are either ignored entirely or only mentioned in minute detail at coaching clinics or in coaching books.  The simple reason is that because so many variables go into a good relay it is easier to believe that the team with the four best runners will win the relay.  The reality is that most relay races at the state meet, heck at the sectional meets, are close finishes. This article is not designed to help build four great relay runners but it should help to organize those four runners into the best relay possible.


Finding the Legs

                Finding the correct four kids is a process and finding the correct leg for each kid is an even more difficult task.  The difference between the 4x800/400 from the 4x200/100 is that you can use relay splits throughout the year in the selection process.  These relays move slow enough that the universal location of the exchange zone allows a coach to accurately time each leg.  We try to give every kid a fair shot during the course of the year by moving kids between the open 800/400 and running a relay leg in the same event.  In order to be fair to the kids, we base sectional and state meet line-ups on what times/splits each kid has previously run.  Coaches cannot assume a kid running one event shorter or longer is going to be good at the relay distance based on their primary event.  So, a great 200 kid might not be the magic answer to that one hole you have in your 4x400.  This means as a coach you need to constantly pay attention to the events your kids are in throughout the season.  Coaches need to find meets to try your 100/200 stud in the 400 or your 3200/1600 kid in the 800.  The 2012 track season reaffirmed to my coaching staff and I that a kid who is hesitant to stretch into a relay leg or tries to pull himself out of the relay during the season should be kept out.  It is better to have a kid with less God given talent but a big heart compared to the hugely talented kid without any heart.  Go to the line with four kids who are going to fight from start to finish for each other because one lackluster effort from one kid can render the efforts of the other three inconsequential.


Finding the Right Order

                I break my kids into two categories: turnover/kickers and rhythm/pace guys. The main difference between these categories is how they compete.

Turnover/kickers love to run people down, preferably down the homestretch.  These are the kids that hit the homestretch and find new life; seemingly getting faster as they close the distance on the next racer ahead of them.  The shortcoming of the turnover/kicker is their inability to run as the front runner.  When these kids get in the lead they will either slow the pace down so somebody else assumes the lead or they will overreact and start out way too fast, too soon and not have the fuel left to fight off chasers down the home stretch.   Our best examples of turnover/kickers: Durrell Williams, Tracy Drew, John Gibbs, Emmett Lorenz, Marc Pressley, and Kyle Schafer.  One of my favorite comments I’ve ever read about my athletes comes from Randy Weigand, writing as “Maverick” on the old dyestat message boards, referring to Durrell Williams finish down the homestretch of the 4x400 in 2005 “closing like a freight train”. Waubonsie Valley has been blessed to have a number of young men compete for our team who have made the crowd in Charleston gasp and applaud, but the biggest reactions usually come to the big finishes.

Rhythm/pacing kids prefer to run the same pace throughout the race and simply hold that pace through the finish.  These are kids that can run the same time in an elite field or in an individual time trial.  Our best examples of rhythm/pace runners: Marcus Caldwell, Scott Mankivsky, Ben Tromblay, Mark Homan, Sean Wiggan, Austin Ameri.

These are important differences.  A turnover/kicker given the baton with a big lead may struggle to run the individualized and even pace needed to finish in the lead.  On the opposite side of the spectrum, you do not want to find your rhythm/pace anchor running stride for stride with another team to the homestretch, because the other guy will shift gears and leave your rhythm/pace guy in the dust.  Mental approach and personality are just as important as PRs.


The Basic Approach

                The usual coaching manual gives the simplistic formula of running your second fastest leg lead-off, then the third fastest guy in the second leg, the fourth fastest guy (AKA, slowest) in the third leg and the fastest guy as the anchor leg.  During the course of the year we organize our line-ups in this basic format from time to time and this approach is fine in early season meets.  As your kids compete in meets, it is vital that as a coach you take splits and watch your kids closely.  It is important to see who competes and who throws in the towel, who is tough and who is a whimp, and who competes when the relay is winning but quits when the relay is struggling.  It is important to remember how much young athletes develop physically and mentally during the season.  Just because a kid succeeded or failed once does not mean that is how it will be throughout the whole season.  You can’t bury a kid’s athletic dreams because of one bad effort; one race cannot determine an entire season.  We also try to make sure to individually talk to each kid about what their role is in the relay prior to the meet and debrief with each kid following the meet so they know what they did well and what they need to focus on improving during their next opportunity.

                Here is a glimpse into one such basic conversation we have had at some point every season we have coached. 

“We think we’re going to give you the baton on the lead.  You don’t have to keep the lead, in fact, the other guy in your leg is really good and will likely pass you.  When you get the baton, get out and run your good, strong, PR pace.  Ignore everybody else.  If anybody else pulls up even with you, just keep your same pace.  Don’t accelerate or try to fight him off until the home stretch.  Keep your pace and force him to accelerate to pass you.  You’ll naturally adjust to following in a good rhythm behind him and just keep it close.  If you pass in the lead, great.  If you pass even with the leader, great.  If the leader gets away from you, we’ll need a strong finish and you’ll need to get us within four strides of the leader when you pass the baton.” 

Each kids would get prepped with a race plan similar to this and it allows the kid to approach their leg with a plan of attack but enough variation that they can individually adjust to the multitude of things that can take place during a race.  You can’t plan and prepare for everything, but you can help prepare your athletes to be smart about what their performance.  Preparing a good race plan for a meet is less important than preparing a good kid adjust and succeed when challenged.  Most of our kids will graduate and never competitively race again.  All of our kids will face challenges, expected or out of left field, and sports are education outside of the classroom walls.  When you prepare kids to think for themselves and adjust on their own you’re doing high level and life changing teaching.


The Handoff

                We use the same baton exchange for the 4x400 and 4x800.  The name is a mouthful, “swinging trap door with an outgoing runner snatch”.  The execution is simpler to understand.  The runner that is about to receive the baton lines up with all the other runners from their leg in the exchange zone.  We have our guys line up facing the infield with their right side towards the finish line and their left side towards the incoming runner.  We do not use verbal commands from the incoming runners unless the outgoing runner takes off faster than the incoming runner can match.  Instead, we rely on the outgoing runner to gauge the incoming runner’s speed and start at a point where he thinks the incoming runner can run to within arm’s reach halfway through the exchange zone. When he takes off, the outgoing runner swings his left side even to his right side and takes off running straight ahead.   As the outgoing runner reaches the start/finish line he keeps his hips forward but opens his left shoulder sideways and reaches back with his left hand at shoulder level.  As soon as the incoming runner sees that shoulder start to open backwards he is to fully extend the baton, held in his right hand, shoulder height out. The baton is to point straight up and down and is held at shoulder length.  The incoming runner is to run through the pass in this position; his job is to run up on the outgoing runner in this manner and keep a steady target for the outgoing runner to grab.  Now that the outgoing runner has swung to look behind him and the incoming runner has extended the baton, it is the responsibility of the outgoing runner to reach back, grasp the baton, and pull it away from the incoming runner.  The exhausted incoming runner only has to get himself within arm’s length and keep the baton at shoulder level.  The excited and energetic outgoing runner has all the responsibility of judging the pace and the distance to take off, and the outgoing runner is in charge of seeing and taking the baton.  Once the baton is exchanged, the outgoing runner immediately moves the baton to his right hand and takes off around the curve to begin his portion of the race.

                There is a very specific reason we take the baton with the left hand.  Each outgoing runner has to be concerned with other teams’ incoming runners who have already passed the baton.  Those individuals, especially in the state meet when they’re forced to stay on the track instead of race to the infield, are found on the inside lanes or to the left of the runners.  By reaching back to our left we turn to face forward from our left, the infield, and it is more likely we will see stopped runners that we’re in danger of running into.  If you turn to receive the baton with your right side, as you’re turning back to face forward the biggest dangers you have are coming from behind. If this was your race plan you would have to turn to face forward and then continue to look further to your left to avoid collisions.


General Preferences

                We have to remember that we teach kids rather than teaching a sport or an event.  Our job is to create an environment, training plan and racing tactics to allow all kids to succeed.  Each group of kids creates a different mix and we have to individualize what we do to get the most out of the unique blend of talent and personality on each team.  That being said, there are certain preferences that seem to work if you can find them within your group while developing relays.

                The Leadoff Leg Needs a Mentally Tough Kid (and Physically Tough in the 4x800)

                If you’ve never stood at the start line of the IHSA State Meet you’ve missed one of the most awe-inspiring feelings out there.  The size and noise of the crowd reminds you how big the world can feel.  The 4x800 starts finals on the track and the 4x400 ends the meet.  Both of these bring the crowd to full throat capacity.  You need a kid leading off that is going to enjoy that experience rather than get sick to their stomach.

                Stay Off the Rail

                We drill our long relay kids about positioning throughout the year.  If a kid is racing right on the inside rail at any position other than leading the race or leading a chase pack they’re taking a huge risk.  If a kid is sitting behind somebody who’s tying up, there is no worse feeling as an athlete or coach than being pinned on the inside rail.  I kid that is not able to pass because somebody is in front and somebody else is on your right keeping them on the rail as the rest of the field goes storming off is a punch to the gut.  Our kids are drilled to run on the outside half of lane one, even if they’re leading.  If our kids are following they are expected to sit on the right shoulder of the runner in front of them.  The logic is that if the pack starts picking it up our kid can pass the person in front with minimal lateral movement and due to their positioning, they can’t be pinched to stay inside by a runner on their right side.  We have had some great relays get knocked out in prelims because one of the legs wasn’t paying attention to the field, got buried on the rail in a slow moving pack, and the next leg(s) couldn’t make up the difference.

                The 4x800 Lead-off Leg

                We tend to prefer turnover/kicker kids here.  The lead-off leg needs to hit the break line and establish a position in the pack that’s beneficial to them.  Because of this, a lead-off leg than can accelerate at a moment’s notice and not be negatively affected is a must.  In addition, the majority of the lead-off leg in the 4x800 is just a huge, jostling, knot of runners.  Quite honestly, you also need a kid that’s either got a mean streak or a little crazy.  There is a lot of pushing, tripping and elbowing during this leg prior to the finish.  The real race in the lead-off lead is the final stretch.  Teams that have somebody that can follow along and finish like a monster end up having an advantage.

                The 4x400 Lead-off Leg

                This is very different compared to the 4x800.  Because this event keeps the lead-off leg in their lanes the whole time, we prefer rhythm/pacing kids.  A kid that thrives on contact or running people down will really struggle here, as this really feels like a time trial for those kids.  Our preference is also to keep distance kids out of this spot.  Only one leg can use blocks and if you throw a distance kid in the lead-off any pop your relay can get from starting blocks is lost, and 800-3200 kids hate staying in their lanes all the way around while guessing if they’re in the lead or dead last.  Sprinters are usually the best in this spot.

                The 4x400 Second Leg

                This is the leg with the break line.  We prefer a turnover/kicker here for all of the same reasons at the lead-off of the 4x800.  There different in the 4x400 is that this occurs 500 meters into the race rather than 100 meters and everything is much more mixed up.  Your second leg needs to try to take the tangent to the next turn but also come through the break line and read the whole field.  Who’s going to go crashing to the rail?  Who’s going to stay wide?  Who’s going to cut people off and cause a tumble?  The second leg really needs a kid capable of staying on their feet while getting bumped around and tripped up.  Additionally, this leg requires a kid that can combine being smart enough to read  what the other runners are doing and intuitive enough to adjust position.  Every team has this kid on their team but this skill set has to be developed.

                The Exchange and Start of Each Leg

                For the second and third exchange in the 4x400 and first through third in the 4x800 there will be contact in the exchange zone.  We try to keep it simple for our kids and keep both runners facing forward as long as possible.  The turn back to grab the baton is initiated by the outgoing runner so that kid can see everything ahead of the exchange prior to turning away from it.  Once the baton has been passed, the outgoing runner is to run at a tangent to the point furthest down the track available at that position.  Because of how we pass, we’re generally further into the exchange zone at the pass compared to other teams.  This allows our athletes to avoid having to move laterally after getting the baton.  If there is a reason to move we tend to favor going to right as there is more room out there.  Our preference is the kids run a little more distance in space rather than try to turn into a traffic jam and ending up on the ground.  Our runner that just passed the baton is instructed to cross their arms across their chest and either stop entirely or shuffle forward without bending at the knee.  They get out of the way but do so slowly enough as to not interfere with anybody else.  The memory of 1997 when William Lazicki was DQed for diving head first into the infield, after passing in the lead, simply because the next team’s outgoing runner put his hand on Will’s rear end while he was in the air is something that influences how we teach the pass.  Our kids are instructed to stay in the exchange zone until an official tells them to get out.  This is intended to prevent having a DQ wipe out everybody’s hard effort and give the coaching staff a decent chance of winning an appeal if there is a DQ.

                The Dealing With Space

                As each relay progresses to each leg, the distance between the first and last team will increase.  We try to determine where our relay will be within the field and have the right kid for the challenge they will face.  Every kid has to have aspects of rhythm/pacers and turnover/kickers.  The third leg tends to be very challenging.  Each kid has to be prepared to run in a pack, run in the lead, or run leading a chase pack.  Our preference is generally to have rhythm runners in the third leg, as they tend to run in the most space.


The Main Goal

                Boil the relay down to its most simple essence.  At the finish of each leg and ultimately the race, you want to be in the best position possible.  The first, second, and third legs are responsible for passing the baton in the best position they are capable of running and giving the next leg the highest possibility of success.  Every step of every leg matters.  We need four runners committed to each other because whether a leg is pushing to lead by another ¼ second or falling another ¼ second off the leader, each of the relay legs set up how hard or easy the anchor leg’s task is to achieve.  The only leg capable of winning the relay is the anchor leg, but all four legs are capable of losing the race.


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