Why do we train? Reframing the multi-sport participation model for the track and field athlete
As a coach who has worked with development athletes from multiple provinces, teams, organizations, and groups who have taken part in dozens of activities at the same time I can fully attest to the craziness and questions that arise when trying to balance it all. However, I fully support a multi-sport environment and dealing with the craziness as the variety of experiences for the developing athletes in their middle and high school years are a proven beneficial fact. But the question then shifts to how the high school athlete fits it all in?
Framing my answer from the viewpoint of a track and field coach in my opinion there isn’t a right answer. Track coaches can’t bench their players or threaten them with decreased playing time so we are usually just happy to see the athletes on the days that they come. I only wish that other sports supported embracing a balance as much as we do. However, this approach is a compromise and comes with an understanding from the coach, athlete, and support team (parents, etc) that every choice comes with consequences. So, the question then becomes why do we participate in track and field training at all? If the athlete is going to soccer, baseball/softball, hockey, and basketball aren’t they doing more than enough to be fit and still compete well? The short answer is usually yes, they are. They are getting a number of trainingboxes checked and this is why we want multi-sport participation and also why we see multi-sport athletes who have never done track come out and still be successful over others. But where does track fit and why should we prioritize it to attend two to three practices per week?
This comes from the development aspects of learning and specific training that enhances the team sport. I’ll start with the second. Track and Field is one of the purest sports around and the requirements of sprinting as fast as possible or doing intervals are usually not done in the same manner as a team sport so the training effect isn’t as significant. Running is running but which running workout is going to have the biggest impact on increasing performance in all sports –running at basketball or maximum speed sprinting at track? One of those will help with both while the other will barely move the needle in the other. If we go back to the first example of learning the situational demands and well-rounded approach to development that occur in track practice – warm up, medicine ball throws, specific strengthening through bands and tubes, running mechanics, technical drills, some energy system manipulation (fast sprinting or specific intervals), and then a structured cool down that increases flexibility, range of motion, and increases the prevention of injuries are rarely done in the team sport environment. In the case of track and field practice it is the practice that benefits all the other sports. Track will positively impact hockey. Track will positively impact basketball. Track will positively impact soccer. Track will positively impact baseball/softball. Can the same be said about a baseball/softball practice having a positive impact on hockey to the same extent? Usually not but as always there are exceptions and reasons as to why we want to shift the priorities in that that multi-sport involvement.
In closing I, as a coach, want to be involved in a multi-sport long term athlete development program where athlete participation in a number of activities is supported and then decreases in the late teens as performance goals become clearer and opportunities with a greater chance of success become evident. However, with an increasing number of opportunities comes an increase in stress and costs in making those decisions based around which one do I skip today? What will happen if I skip ______ (insert sport)? What happens if I skip track? While track will still miss out more often than team sports perhaps we should look at track as the primary training for all those other sports and the glue that links success between them all together. Athlete experiences and performance are better in their team sport because of track so keep the track going and keep the performance in the team sport increasing. I have seen too often the situation where the track athlete goes to a team sport where they are initially successful only followed by reduction in team sport level success because they stopped coming to track in order to only focus on the team sport. They stopped doing what made them good in the first place. A balance must be reached and hard decisions made but track is the foundation for success so try to make sure it is being prioritized accordingly.
*Jason Reindl is the former Head Coach of the University of New Brunswick Varsity Reds and High Performance Coach with Athletics New Brunswick and is set to take on the role of Head Coach with the University of Saskatchewan Huskies.