Often as coaches, we find ourselves replicating methods merely because others have had success with them. The prime example is the block setup. The four point stance has been a staple of track and field since athletes dug out their footholds with troughs. But for the youth population that most of us coach, might there be a better way?
Familiarity breeds complacency. According to Dufferin Research, familiarity breeds attractiveness, and average faces breed trustworthiness. The same is true with blocks. Athletes may not know what they’re doing, but they’re going to emulate what they see others do and what they see on TV. For some athletes, especially beginner athletes, this may not prove to be the most prudent choice.
The Case for the Three Point Start
One of the larger questions I’ve always had about track and field is why the standard four point start? If arms are supposed to mimic the legs, why then do we approach the blocks with the legs staggered and the arms even? If athletes lack a certain level of coordination or familiarity with the skill, the next result may be an awkward stumble, not a powerful push. Staggering the arms can create a more powerful push in youth athletes, especially when coordination has not matured yet.
If an athlete starts with their left leg up, try having the athlete place the left arm cocked back. This can have them shoot that arm with more force, making it easier both to achieve better exit angles and have the opposite arm drive back at the same time. This can help teach proper acceleration mechanics to youth athletes. Take these pictures, taken one session apart:
This is the same athlete, one session later, from the “seated” position. While still not perfect, notice how the athlete has a straighter back and maintains the “chair” position. His body is less coiled, and more apt to project power down the track. He’s got a better chance of driving out, and his body is in a much better position. After 3 sessions of letting him try the four point (because he thought he was comfortable in it), nothing was improving, even though the athlete was willing. This athlete just tried a three point stance, and everything magically improved. Just check out his toe off positions:
It’s not just all eye candy though. We time everything in our practice. This athlete made the switch in mid session and the results are jaw popping. His 40 yard dash rep on the four point start was 5.18. The last 10 meters of that rep were covered in 1.12 seconds. After switching to the three point start, he ran 4.94 on the very next rep and covered the last 10 meters in 1.16 seconds. We use a touchpad, so all times are independent of reaction and there’s no human error to account for. For comparison, 40 yards equates to 36.58 meters, so this athlete was able to cover the first 26.58 meters in 4.06 seconds with a four point start. On the three point start, he covered the first 26.58 meters in 3.78 seconds; a massive improvement.
This athlete chose to implement the three point start in competition because that is what worked for him (it is not illegal). As a ninth grader, he ended up leading off a 4×200 that qualified for the IHSA Class A state track and field meet, and led off a 4×400 that placed 5th in the IHSA class A state meet (he ran a 51.0 split.) Putting him in the one spot would have been unthinkable with a technique that just wasn’t clicking for him.
As coaches, it is our job to find the approach that works best for each athlete. Elites are glued to the four point start because they generate massive amounts of power that may not be properly displayed on takeoff. Most of us do not coach athletes that are that powerful. (Food for thought though; even some elites like Jeff Demp’s do things a bit differently.)
We can’t be afraid to challenge even the most established of traditions, because we owe it to our athletes to put them in the best position to succeed. While this athlete’s start may have been a bit unconventional, it worked for him. They may have been laughing before the gun went off, but they certainly weren’t laughing at the view of his backside AFTER the gun went off.