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Aries Merritt and Andreas Behm

Under his guidance some of his athletes have qualified to the past two Olympic Games and past three World Championships.
 His group at ALTIS World includes Aries Merritt, who under Andreas’ tutelage won Olympic Gold in London 2012 in the 110 m hurdles. Later on that same year Aries went on to shatter the existing 110 h World record with a time of 12.80 seconds at the Brussels Diamond League Meet.

Before moving to Phoenix, Andreas served as a Volunteer Assistant Coach on Texas A&M’s high powered coaching staff for eight years. He assisted Pat Henry and Vince Anderson with the collegiate sprints and hurdles athletes, while training his own professional group in the mornings (Including such athletes as sprinters Muna Lee and La’Shaunte’a Moore). During his time at A&M the Aggies won an impressive seven Outdoor NCAA Team titles.

Andreas’ coaching style is laid back, yet demanding. Always a stickler for technique, his overall sprints philosophy is very acceleration and speed based. He employs a proven, systematic approach to maximize each athletes’ talent, yet is not afraid to experiment and try something new. Andreas was named the US Olympic Track Coach of the Year by the USOC in 2012. Andreas has lived and/or worked in Spain, Germany, England and the United States. He is fluent in English, Spanish, German and French and has traveled all over the world for competitions, presentations and the occasional vacation.

Keys to preserving Speed off the Hurdle

Freelap USA — Congrats on joining the World Athletics Center and your move to Phoenix. Could you share your experience working with hurdlers trying to improve take off mechanics as well as ensuring the mechanics in the air don’t interfere with the preceding technique? I am sure the entire movement is one fluid action but sometimes coaching intervention is needed to find ways of getting faster, any suggestions?

Behm — One thing I look for to help set up an explosive takeoff into the hurdle is a stable penultimate step. If there is too much lowering on that step (like a Long Jump penultimate step), the hurdle athlete will generally brake by sticking their foot out too far in front (to try and catch themselves). By staying tall and stable on the preceding step, the athlete can generate more negative foot speed, allowing for better foot placement underneath the center of mass on take-off. This will help propel the athlete through the hurdle in a much more active fashion.

After take-off, the lead-arm sweep needs to time out properly to help counter-balance lead-leg extension. Once the lower lead-leg extends, the lead-arm should be at its longest point in the sweep motion. This helps prevent excessive rotation over the top of the hurdle, which otherwise would lead to the torso and shoulders twisting upon touchdown. The re-acceleration step would then be negatively impacted. Too much twisting will lead to that step being passive and too far in front of the body.

So balance over the hurdle results in stability off of it; which helps set up an explosive re-acceleration step away from the just-cleared barrier.

Aries Merritt Hurdle Technique

Figure 1: Ron Parker’s photo sequence from his thought provoking article shows Aries Merritt clearing the hurdle with a downward sweep. Arm mechanics are thought to have a limited role in enhancing performance but the synchronization is more important because it’s about how fast the leg reflex and active contribution is for lead leg motions. How the torso and arms contribute is still up to debate, as very little research exists here.

Carl’s Take — Running off the hurdle requires a great takeoff and Gary Winckler addressed this in the earlier interview. Several studies support the observation of Andreas when one looks at the forces, motions, and even foot pressures of each step in the hurdles. The key is to make sure the average hurdle cycle split improves over time by ensuring the entire flow is consistent, not medically straining on the body, and minimally disrupted from running mechanics. Too much deviation from running slows down the between barrier velocities but not enough hurdle technique and shuffling with elites will make improvement difficult. Each athlete will have their own signature and it’s important that all parties collaborate to find what works for them.

Developing your own Coaching Voice and Philosophy

Freelap USA — Developing one’s own training philosophy and coaching style is difficult when many coaches are assistants to great master coaches. What are some ways coaches can develop on their own without copying who they are working under? Is it ok to follow another program and start making independent choices or is it ok to do your own thing and ask questions when stumped? I am sure some combination is best but would love to see how you developed beyond the common conference, brain pick phone call, and assistant coaching.

Behm — I was certainly lucky to be in a fairly unique situation at Texas A&M for the past eight years. I started out by assisting with sprints and hurdles training designed by the lead coaches. This allowed me to focus on other areas of coaching without being directly responsible for programming. Such areas included: learning about technique and movement, effective athlete cueing, finding my coaching voice and also understanding how the entire training program fit together. Additionally, I would take it upon myself to expand my theoretical knowledge by reading any and all training materials I could get my hands on.

After a few years, I was given the added responsibility of training post-collegiate athletes in the morning. This was my first opportunity to design integrated training protocols for the track and the weight room. I used the programming that I had previously learned as my foundation and added my own personal ideas to it. These morning sessions allowed me to evolve my own training philosophy past a theoretical framework. I was now able to practically implement and experiment (within reason) with my own training group. I always tried to only include new aspects that I was comfortable teaching and I felt would really add to the overall program. Some things worked great; others not – but all were part of helping me evolve my ideas on training design. I think it is important to initially learn what works, and why it works, then develop a personal overarching philosophy then slowly add in new elements to try and improve and complement this.

Carl’s Take — I was warned not to follow a coaching school or singular thought process years ago, and young coaches are susceptible to following coaches like a cult. I have made the mistakes of following visible coaches and those that are placed in positions of education because of political ties. My suggestion is to look at the results that are coming from coaches with similar resources and look at podium as well. Development can be seen with more than just “after” times and medals though, because recruiting and talent identification is part of the coaching requirement.

The Importance of Mentorship in Coaching

Freelap USA — Speaking of education, how has the role of leading coaches in development helping you as a coach? Without sounding cliche I am sure the instructor position is helping you see new things with interacting with other coaches and forcing you to communicate things that usually remain internal. How has this position help you as a sprint coach?

Behm — Having guest coaches visit to observe all aspects of our training here at the World Athletics Center has been an amazing experience (we offer a 5 day monthly interactive Apprentice Coach Program for all levels of coaches). First off, I am oftentimes younger than the coaches we are mentoring here, so I am humbled and grateful that they listen to me. It definitely forces me to structure thoughts, as well as verbalize them in a clear and concise manner. Anytime we explain or teaches something, we are not just teaching it to others, but really re-teaching it to ourselves as well. Due to the various backgrounds of the visiting coaches, they view what we do through their own personal experience filters. This oftentimes leads to very interesting questions and forces me to examine what we are doing from a different paradigm perspective.

The guest coaches also interact with the athletes and ask them questions. Based on the athlete responses, I am given feedback on how well the athletes really understand our philosophies and instructions. This let’s me know whether I have done a good job explaining something or may need to find a better way to communicate, demonstrate and/or instruct a certain aspect. Lastly, the highlight of every day is our post-workout pool-side chat: all guest coaches and World Athletics Center coaches sit together around a table and have great debriefs and discussions after every training session. I am sure I learn just as much from the visiting coaches (if not more) than they learn from me as we share experiences, anecdotes and talk about all aspects of training.

Carl’s Take — I totally agree with the idea of visiting coaches in action and the 1980s ASCA clinic books mentioned how it’s hard to visit other without leaving your own athletes. They will be fine if you have good support and are educating them on the process. I visit 2-3 times a year and select other coaches I observe very carefully because you can’t just be absent for too long. Also make sure you know your own program as well, so you are asking better questions. The best learning happens internally, and when you are stuck or stagnant for creativity visiting is helpful with a quick email or phone call. Nothing beats visiting to see how it’s done, even in the youtube age. When possible visit your peers as well as the experienced veteran. Getting started at the World Athletic Center is easy, and I have had several interns learn from the group of coaches and therapists.

400 m and Velocity Measurement

Freelap USA — The 400 m seems to be stagnant for many reasons including the money in the shorter sprints and the difficulty improving both speed and endurance. What do you think is going to be the keys in 400m training in the future with men and women, especially in the open 400? Do you think coaches have to rethink things now that it’s 2014 and the event is struggling to improve and stay deep?

Behm — One interesting technological advance I am waiting for in 400m training is an affordable system that can precisely measure instantaneous velocity around the track oval. With advances in GPS tracking, I know such a system is not far off, but as of now I have yet to find one that is accurate enough, and doesn’t cost more than a car. The advantage would be that one could actually give and gain detailed data during a running rep, as opposed to cueing from one rep to the next. The strategies below to improve 400m performance are definitely not new, but this technology would allow for the feedback to be even more precise and individualized. I think there are three major aspects that could be improved upon in training:

First, such measurement capabilities could give the athlete and coach exact feedback on early race set-up and distribution. A big problem is always setting up the 400m race well – it needs to be close to optimal. Too fast and you die horribly late in the race; too slow of a set up and you equally die horribly. Instantaneous feedback during a running rep could really help the athlete gain a feel for pacing out the first part of the race in the most aggressive fashion necessary, but to not compromise the rest of the race and be able to finish with authority.

Second, immediate velocity feedback could help the athlete figure out the tricky interplay between holding speed and staying relaxed. This is particularly critical for 400m runners down the backstretch, they still need to be fast but not overwork that portion of the race. Knowing exactly how fast you are going while running would let the athlete play with various levels of fluidity and running rhythm. They would be able to dial in their feeling of being relaxed and fast to ‘float’ down the backstretch with minimal energy expenditure.

Lastly it would be a great asset to be able to determine exactly where an athlete starts to ‘fall off’ on the tail-end of speed, special and specific endurance runs. One could pinpoint the exact moment where deceleration becomes too critical and shut the athlete down. Then, we can use that particular moment to push a little past that point next time, and thus continue to improve with very specific speed parameters. This would really help add some purpose and precision to any type of conditioning-endurance workout. Different 400m athletes have different energy systems outputs and buffering capabilities. One could individualize speed, time, or distance for the athlete depending on those variables, as well as on how their instantaneous velocity curve displays in workouts. These readings would open up all kinds of new possibilities for training design and feedback I would think.

Carl’s Take — Many ideas with pacing and velocities can be done already, since pacing lights from Germany were used decades ago and even GPS sensors are used now with teams getting ready for Rio in 2016. Most coaches are familiar with 10 m splits in the 100 and 100 m splits in the 400. How much more granularity does one need? Sampling rates, or how many measurements per unit of time should only be as frequent as fatigue manifests. Fatigue in the 100 m can be felt in a few steps while the 400 m will accumulate over more distance. Pacing is about distribution of speed and effort based on maximal speed and conditioning abilities over longer and shorter periods. If one has enough TX Junior transmitters one can get splits every 40 m or less and see velocity patterns and hopefully timing will become more inexpensive so we can see splits at every stride if needed.

Acceleration Training and Coaching Tips

Freelap USA —Blocks and acceleration is always talked about but anything you think is not talked about enough with departure and the ability to transition? With your experience at Texas A&M perhaps you could get into what you have learned before, during, and after you time with the readers? While every coach evolves, some staples exist with cueing and training the action in general.

Behm — My acceleration philosophy is still very much influenced by my lessons from Coach Vince Anderson at A&M. Therefore I tend to take a fairly holistic approach to acceleration – especially when explaining it to athletes. The more complete and integrated picture I can present, the better the athlete seems to be able to understand and subsequently execute acceleration. The different acceleration phases to me really are one maximally and sequentially blended effort. Oftentimes I find programs focus too much on minute details, without mastering the overall spirit of acceleration. We focus on explosive horizontal displacement with a continually climbing hip axis (push as hard as you can for as long as you can while gradually rising each step). Once they have fully grasped this concept, we can start working on more intricate things.

While I haven’t changed my overall acceleration philosophy much since I have moved to Phoenix, I have experimented with the way I go about expressing it in training. It is great to have more experienced coaches like Dan Pfaff and Stuart McMillan to bounce ideas off of. We have tried different cueing strategies such as using more ground based cues for initial acceleration and longer ground contact times and then switching to more flight based cues as ground contact times decrease and the athlete spends more time in the air relative to on the ground. This is a work in progress with results yet to be determined, but that is an example of something we are experimenting with.

Usain Bolt Toe Drag

Figure 2: Usain Bolt seen here before World Championships, using a style of start that encourages the low heel recovery by purposely dragging the tip of the spike. The “Toe Drag” is a controversial approach to ensuring the sprinter stays low and not pop off, and currently no literature is available to break down the block start to see if certain strategies really decrease air time and maximal horizontal projection.

Carl’s Take — One of the best suggestions I had in blocks is to pretend that shorter starts are actual 100 m distances. What this does is ensures the athlete doesn’t try too hard to get the first 10m and tighten up and rush the acceleration sequence. Vince Anderson was mentored by Tom Tellez and has his own twist on teaching things and I like to time every split to see if athletes are trying to win the start in practice and get lured into a loosing duel later. Timing is great to see if athletes can stay smooth without being flat and slow. Facial expressions are invaluable here since it’s hard to be tightening up if you look sleepy. Another suggestion is to try to accelerate longer and smoother, not just faster. The best acceleration is when the entire race is fast, not just the beginning.

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