Coaches seldom realize when they decide to place an athlete in an event at a young age exactly how critical this decision is. At this time when the coach is simply thinking of picking up a few points, an athlete’s entire career might be bolstered or wrecked and a pattern of self-confidence or eternal self-doubting can be established. This decision might well have determined whether an athlete will eventually experience success or failure, receive a scholarship or not, or remain in the sport. It’s a serious matter. So here are my thoughts on talent identification.
Talent Identification. Before event selection, our first calling is talent identification. Obviously when looking for athletes for speed oriented events, people who can run fast are the best candidates. But how can you tell who might be fast later in life? When finding athletes for the sprints, hurdles, jumps, and throws, there are three key variables to look for.
- The ability to produce force quickly
- The ability to move body parts (the limbs) quickly
- Body type
The Ability to Produce Force Quickly. A major clue in the search for talent in the speed and power events is the ability to produce large forces quickly. This shows the athlete’s power and elasticity. This ability can be measured subjectively by watching youngsters as they perform hopping and jumping games. What you are looking for is a high ratio of displacement to ground contact time. In short, you want people who can jump high or far, but seem to spend little time on the ground. Sometimes in the triple jump you find athletes who seemingly just peck at the ground but still jump good distances – these are athletes who will become champions when taught to use correct impulse values. Watch kids on the basketball and volleyball courts, looking not only for the person who can jump, but the person who can land from a jump and quickly jump high again. The cutting and direction changes you see in sports like soccer, football, and basketball are like sideways plyometrics. Athletes who are good at these skills fit this mold as well.
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The Ability to Move the Limbs Quickly. The ability to move the limbs quickly and generate high stride frequencies is an inherent gift. Consider anyone you see with good stride frequency in sprinting as a potentially talented person. Sometimes we see youngsters who show high stride frequencies, but they aren’t fast. They show poor mechanics, bad posture, or are just plain slow. This is often because they have not developed the strength levels needed to strike through the ground. This means that when the foot hits the ground, the impact forces decelerate it too much and the strength levels to overcome this aren’t there. Taking an athlete like this and adding the strength and power they need will enable them to strike through the ground and cash in on the natural high frequency they possess. Sometimes the ability to move the limbs quickly doesn’t readily appear because of these strength issues. Watch kids while they are in the air. When in flight, there is no ground resistance. For example, sometimes you will see a young athlete in the long jump who looks average on the runway, but turns into a bolt of lightning while cycling the limbs in the air. When strength and power are added the ability to move the limbs quickly will begin to appear in all phases of the event.
Body Type. Unfortunately there is discrimination in athletics. Athletes who possess certain body types have a much greater chance for success in certain events than athletes who don’t. It’s remarkable how similar elite athletes in a given event are in this regard. There is also a lot of truth to the saying, “if they look the part, eventually they will be able to play the role”. At young ages better athletes might be good at a variety of events, but in most cases the body type will give you the clues you need to determine where an athlete will eventually have the best chance to excel. For example, let’s take a stocky, muscular 11 year old sprinter who is destroying his/her competition. The absence of a good body type for the event will eventually limit performance, and often this scenario ends with a fairly good high school career but utter disappointment in college as the odds finally catch up. Emotional wreckage and a bad experience result. If this person had been placed in the throwing events at a young age, there is a good chance the that the speed that made him/her a great sprinter at 11 will make a great thrower in college, and the college career will be filled with trophies and self-esteem.
Event Selection. Once talent is discovered, the attention of the coach shifts to proper event selection. Following are some guidelines for event selection that might assist coaches in making good long term decisions for with their athletes.
Short Sprints. Short sprints place a premium on power and stride frequency, and favor athletes with medium to slender builds. Height is a big advantage, provided the athlete will commit to developing the strength levels needed to manipulate the longer limbs. The ability to start and run the first part of the race is primarily power dependent. Jumping ability is a good indicator of this ability. Of course the importance and necessity of good stride frequency and fast limb movements are obvious.
Jumps. Jumpers thrive on speed and elasticity. Here again you are looking for athletes with medium to slender builds. Jump heights and distances are proportionally smaller to a taller athlete, so height helps tremendously. Elasticity plays a much bigger role in the jumps than in the short sprints. Here you are looking not so much for the athlete who can jump, but the athlete who can bounce, the person who can land from a jump and quickly jump high again.
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Long Sprints. The longer the sprint, the greater the role elasticity plays in the event. For this reason, candidates for the long sprints show characteristics that are remarkably similar to jump candidates. This explains the large number of jump-400 doubles you see at young ages. These athletes must show higher than average endurance levels, so a 400 runner who struggles with the running workouts might be a champion jumper in disguise, or a good jumper with high energy levels might be a champion in the long sprints.
Hurdles. Hurdlers thrive on speed, elasticity, mobility and coordination, with the mobility and coordination element setting them apart from long sprinters and jumpers. Never neglect the speed element, and the hurdles should not become a dumping ground for discarded sprint candidates. Medium to slender body types are needed, and height (particularly long leg length) is a great help in the men’s sprint hurdles. The high frequency demands and low hurdle heights of the women’s sprint hurdles often aid shorter athletes, so sprint candidates who lack height often find a home here. The same qualities, combined with higher than average endurance levels point to success in the long hurdle races.
Throws. Good throwers show high power levels. They also show good speed qualities. In fact, many elite throwers can compete well with elite sprinter in very short races. While running speed is not essential, the ability to move body parts fast (especially the throwing arm) is essential to the event. The throwing events don’t show cyclic movements as we see in running, so coordination is a must. Body types required in the throws are quite different than those seen in the other speed and power events. Good height, wide shoulders and long limbs create leverage advantages, although a fast athlete can succeed to some degree in the throws without these advantages. Body mass is typically considered as essential to the throws, but the lighter implements used in women’s and high school boys throwing events give slender body types great chance for success The high school years can be seen as a time for these boys to slowly gain the muscle needed to adapt to the heavier implements used in collegiate competition.
Using the Field Events. Young people (10-15 years of age) need all the coordination training they can get. The development of coordination at these young ages may very well eventually determine their ability to learn skills at older ages, as well as perfect skills later in life. For this reason, strongly consider having all athletes do field events at young ages. Supplement the training of sprinters with a field event or two, or possibly hurdle training. For this reason, many of the greatest sport systems on our planet mandate youth athletes to compete in combined events, allowing them to specialize only later in life. This also allows the coach time to see what body type and skills the athlete will eventually show, and prevents a late start in an event in which an athlete may eventually become a champion.
Special Notes on the 400-Jump Combination. The 400-jump double is common at young ages, because the talent of elasticity is shared in both events. However, the training for these events is tremendously different, and actually conflict in goal and purpose. For this reason the jump-400 double is not a good one, so the coach should decide fairly early in the career where the athlete’s heart and the best chance of success lie. When team points are a consideration, involving a jumper in the sprint hurdles, the 100 or 200, and relays are better options than the 400. The training for these events is much more compatible with jump training.
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