3 Ways Track & Field Can Save Itself From Complete Irrelevance

Posted by Latif Thomas

Let’s face it: The sport of track and field is, well, a joke. I’ve never had a conversation with a single soul, living or dead, who has said, with a straight face,

“Wow. Track and field. There’s a sport that’s really got its act together. ”

I love track and field. Obviously. But you’re about 50 times (I made that number up, I don’t have real stats for it…) more likely to flip to ESPN and catch an episode of World Series of Poker from 2008 or a Spelling Bee than you are to catch a track meet.

And I don’t blame ESPN.

I was in Europe during the World Championships. Driving through London, I saw a digital video billboard showing track and field results and video! WTF!

boltI cried just a little bit. Because in the US, you only see a track highlight if Usain Bolt takes a big poo on a world record.

Now, in terms of quality of coaching from an athletic development standpoint, good track and field coaches, at every level, are light years ahead of coaches in team (field and court) sports. In my humble opinion.

But as far as everything else? Very, very sad.

This is one of those articles that, I guess, theoretically, might offend some people. But I just don’t see how because I’ve never actually heard anyone disagree with what I’m about to say.

Though, that might change today…

So here, in my opinion are the Top 3 Ways Track & Field Can Save Itself from Complete Irrelevance. (If it’s not already too late.)

#3 Split up the Meets

It’s high time the higher ups and ‘decision makers’ in track and field wake up and realize something:

Track and Field is not one sport. It is four different sports.

1.       Sprints, hurdles and sprint relays
2.       Jumps
3.       Throws
4.       Middle Distance/Distance

(Or maybe you could combine 1 and 2.)

Many sprinters/sprints coaches do not want to sit through anything that lasts longer than, and I’ll be generous, four minutes. To the point where you’d rather just not go to the meet than have to watch that.  How many times have you been at a track meet and heard someone say something like,

“Oh jeez. The first of 5 heats of the 4 x forever is up. I’m going to write my Doctoral thesis, then sail around the world. Then eat a sandwich. I’ll be back to catch the bell lap of the seeded heat if I don’t die of old age first.”

Many throwers don’t want to watch that. Neither do jumpers.

And you know who really, really doesn’t want to watch that?

Spectators, parents and/or potential casual fans.

At the same time, many distance runners don’t appreciate the 100 or the shot put.

I’m not saying NO sprints people EVER want to watch distance or vice versa. I’m just saying ‘generally speaking’.

So calm down. No need to burn me in effigy… just yet.

You create a meet with just sprints and jumps and sprints and jumps people would go to it. You put 3 heats of the 10k on the track and sprints and jumps people are looking for a stake to drive through their soul. I coach at a school where the girls have won a State Title in Cross Country two years running, so I have the utmost respect for distance running. BUT, I’ll take the True Death over an hour of slow running on the track.

That’s not saying that ‘sprints’ is better than ‘distance’. Going down that road is a distraction and missing my point entirely. And it says more about your personal bias than it does about the core of my argument. I’m just saying that you can get in and out of most sporting competitions in a couple of hours.

A big track meet is an all day affair. A horrible, horrible all day affair. What an atrocity in terms of being a ‘spectator sport’.

#2 Establish Coaching Standards

Wow, those American male sprinters really represented at the World Championships.

Pardon my French, but when did we become Jamaica’s bitch in the sprint events? They have 2.8 million people. We have just a few more.

Remember when Michael Johnson ran 19.32 and we all lost our minds? Yeah. That’s #3 all time now. Top 2 spots? Jamaicans.

I realize that the best and fastest athletes in the United States are playing football, not running track. But isn’t that part of the problem? Our sport gets other sports’ leftovers. Kids don’t even realize track exists until they’ve got 7 years of basketball and/or football and/or soccer and/or lacrosse and/or baseball under their belts! Wait, I’m digressing…

At the collegiate level, every single college coach should have their USATF Level II Certificate in the events they coach and/or their USTFCCCA Event Specialist Certification. I’m just a high school coach and I found the time to get both. So people whose full time profession is coaching track should have at least one of the two most recognized (US) coaching certificates/certifications.

“But Latif!”, someone is crying right now, “A piece of paper doesn’t mean you’re a good coach.”

You’re right, coach who does not have either of those pieces of paper. But, it lays out a standard level of expectation. A starting point. A basis of comparison.

Plus, I coach high school kids. And most of them don’t get faster in college. I’m not over here brushing my shoulders off when I say that. (For you old people, that means I’m not bragging.) I’m saying it because it makes me feel bad for the athletes.

But, at the same time, only one college coach has ever asked me how I train the kids they’re recruiting. Then again, I steal a lot of my stuff from him. (Go River Hawks!)

Speaking of high school…

Most high school coaches are bad at their coaching jobs, man. There’s a reason why I only worry about the same handful of teams each year. Because they have good coaches and turn out quality athletes every year.

I know I’m preaching to the choir here. But one of the reasons American sprinters are getting abused by Jamaicans is because talented kids cruise through HS on ability alone and their fast times mask their complete lack of development by their undereducated coaches.

I know because I was one of them. When I got to UConn, I was red-shirted as a freshman, in large part, because I was so useless from doing no organized training in high school. I thrived mostly due to a mind numbing contempt for losing. But, I did vomit after every single 400 I ran, even against jabronies, and that is a testament to an insufficient training program.

Or, if you want to get technical, a lack of specific endurance. Or general endurance. Or work capacity.

Also, my HS coach taught me to clap my hands together in front of me when coming out of the blocks. I shit you not.

Kids get to college and coaches have to waste freshman year developing some capacity and teaching basic skills like ‘pushing’ and ‘low heel recovery’. That’s 25% of a kid’s career! If we had more quality coaches at the HS level, our extremely excellent college coaches wouldn’t have to waste time doing so much GPP type training on kids just to give them some semblance of training age.

Again, in my division and state, there are a couple of teams whose sprinters are going to be nasty every year and if my group is going to compete, I need to bring my A+ game. 

Why do the rich get richer? Because they have superb sprints coaches who don’t sit back and do the same crap every year! It’s not luck! It’s not chance! It’s good coaching, man!

Last year, in my first year in a new program, the kids broke 13 school records in the span of 6 months. Not too bad. You think I’m sitting back and doing the same thing as last year? Hell, no! We’ll get smashed! Evolve or die, my friends!

(No that doesn’t mean you should throw my other programs in the trash. Jeez! Stay on track, here. Pun intended!)

Look, I know money is tight. The economy has affected many of us. But if you’re going to spend every afternoon and every Saturday for the next 3-6 months coaching track and field, you can certainly afford to buy a DVD once or twice a year. Go to a clinic. Post some questions.

“Oh Latif!”, someone is crying right now, “You’re just saying that to guilt people into buying your products.”


I don’t care if you don’t buy from me. If you think that’s my point, you’ve clearly never met me, anyone who knows me or anyone I have ever coached.

Nonetheless, that brings me to the #1 Way Track & Field Can Save Itself.

#1: Stop Hating Money

Last week I was talking to a really smart guy who has some really cool ideas and plans involving, arguably, the only relevant athlete in the sport of track and field.

He has some innovative ideas that would bring the sexy back to track. I hope he can get them off the ground. But the powers that be are so firmly entrenched in the failing status quo that it is just amazing. So he has a long road ahead, despite being a brilliant guy.

Let me ask you a question:

How many CEOs has USATF had? Honestly, who would invest in American Track & Field when the governing body is such a mess? The answer, apparently, is just about no one.

Win the Visa Championship Series and win $25,000. Real athletes in real sports light $25k on fire just to see what would happen. First, nobody gets how the scoring works. Second, nobody has seen the lead up races. Third, by this point, nobody cares. Fourth, I’m not excited to watch someone win the equivalent of 4th prize money from the NBA Skills Challenge at All Star Weekend.

The only time (outside of Olympic Finals) I get excited watching track is when the NCAA Championship is on TV. Why? Because there is team scoring! A concept the American audience understands! There is a point to every race, jump and throw so you actually care what is happening!

A few years ago I interviewed DeeDee Trotter. She talked about discussion amongst athletes of ‘East vs West’ types of meets. As in, people who went to Eastern schools competing in a scoring meet/s against those who competed in the West. Or North vs South.

What a great idea!

Or how about Nike sponsored athletes vs Adidas? Mizuno vs Puma?

Something! Anything! Track meets suck!

Wait, want more proof?

Unless you have DirectTV, your cable provider is probably going to drop Universal Sports from your channel lineup. Now you’ll see even less track and field on TV. Your cable provider doesn’t care because nobody is watching. It isn’t profitable!

You think ESPN is going to drop Monday Night Football? They wouldn’t even drop the Spelling Bee.

Think I’m being too harsh? After all, I’m just a high school coach on a rant…

Perhaps you missed Nick Symmonds’ article, I’m Tired of USATF and IAAF Crippling Our Sport.

Track and Field is a poor sport because too many within the sport, from coaches to people who run the big clusterbang websites to our ‘governing body’, subconsciously hate money and/or don’t understand how it works. They hate the idea of other people making money. They hate asking for money. They fear what people will think if they do anything that looks like they’re trying to make money.

And that virus of the mind permeates the sport from the top to the bottom. And that, to a large degree, is why this sport has failed.

Everybody claims to love America and claims, reflexively, that it is the greatest country in the world. Well, America was built on a series of hustles. But try to get paid in track and you’re selfish or a snake oil salesman. (I have a history degree, so go ahead and challenge me on it.)

Here’s a secret that sports that make money and get ratings already know:

There is nothing noble about being poor or about being proud of how hard you work for such low pay.

Bill Gates helps a lot of people by giving away a lot of money because he has a lot of money. Bill Gates could not help a lot of people if he was living in a van down by the river. 

Some people complain of too much advertising on this site. That I should run the site for free and give everything away for free.

Wait. I thought you loved America?

First, I’m quite sure none of these people own businesses. Easy to say when someone else makes the money that allows you to cash your paycheck each week. If you think that it should all be free, how about you do your job for 25% less money and give that extra cash away. I’ve got a few charities I could recommend.

Oh. No takers?

Customers, friends and colleagues have told me they’ve ‘defended me at conferences because so-and-so said you’re just a businessman and not a coach’.

What? You can’t do both? They’re zero sum propositions? They’re inversely proportional?

Nope. It’s a Virus of the Mind. And these people are Cancers to the sport.

Big track websites will gladly overcharge me for a useless banner on their site. Because that doesn’t look like they’re trying to make money. Others have Google adwords all over the place. I know the game! You’re trying to make money!

But they won’t send out an email to their list promoting a product because they don’t want to look like they’re selling something. That’s not my opinion or a theory, that is what we have been told by multiple big track sites that you know well.

OK fine I’m just a HS coach. Don’t sell my stuff. But you tell me ‘no’ when I want you to promote a Boo Schexnayder program? What better way to improve the sport than exposing your readers to one of the very best teachers in the sport? Unbelievable.

If people truly want to save the sport of track and field, we need to get some people involved who have some entrepreneurial spirit. Who will treat track & field like a business because they understand the concept of running a business. Innovators who can bring an exciting product to the market that people are willing to pay to be involved in, whether that is buying DVDs, attending conferences and certification courses or going to meets themselves.

Not go to all Cornel West on you (but kind of), the sport needs people who are willing to stand up and drag the rest of these dinosaurs and freeloaders, as well as the bureaucrats, oligarchs and plutocrats running the elite circuits, kicking and screaming, into the second decade of the 21st Century.

Change is scary. But change is the only way to shock the sport off of life support. If it’s not flat lining right now, it’s pretty close.

To your success,

Latif Thomas

P.S. The best way to help the sport is to continue to learn from coaches experiencing consistent success. Come learn directly from many of these coaches at the Complete Track and Field Summer Clinic held at Harvard University:


Latif Thomas - Latif Thomas owns and operates Complete Track and Field and serves as the Co-Director of the Complete Track and Field Clinic at Harvard University, the largest track and field clinic in the United States. A popular speaker and presenter at some of the largest coaching clinics across the country, Latif has true passion for the sport and it definitely shows. Over the past 19 years, he has coached more combined League, Division, All-State, and New England Champions in sprints, hurdles, and jumps than he can count. Follow @latif_thomas on Twitter.

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