– Carl Lewis
The 2017 D1 NCAA Championships offered us some great races and lots of excitement, across all events. As the sprints coach for the University of Houston, our 4X100 win was particularly exciting for me because it showed that the system we use really works.
Relays are team events and running them successfully demands tight collaboration and trust between coaches and athletes, and between the athletes as well. As coaches, some might think it’s pretty complicated, but it doesn’t have to be.
The best way for me to get this point across is to tell our story.
After our Conference win, we went to NCAA Regionals feeling great. We had the #2 time in the country and all of our athletes were healthy and ready. But our 2nd fastest athlete suffered an injury in the 100m and that threw our relay team upside down. I studied our options, including which athlete would make the best alternate, and whether we should change the order. I had a combination of experienced sprinters and hurdlers on hand who could help.
With only 10 days to go before the Nationals, we had a lot to figure out. My decision was to leave the order intact so the other 3 runners didn’t have to change, and just replace our injured athlete with the alternate at the Regionals. We didn’t run great but we qualified.
As we prepared for Nationals we took some time to analyze the order and I decided to go with each athlete’s strength. This changed the order for Nationals. And then we practiced. The steps, the exchanges, all of it.
But the 1st time this team actually ran a race was the qualifying round at Nationals. The 2nd time they ran together, they won.
How’d we do it? Well, we have a system that everyone understands. This makes changes easy, so we can quickly adapt. Then all we have to do is compete to build experience and confidence. So, in this case, once we put the team together, everyone knew what they had to do.
Coaches, it’s about knowing each athlete’s strengths and weaknesses…on your team and your competitors’ teams. Part of working your relay strategy is knowing everyone else’s capabilities. Study the other teams’ line-ups and exchanges.
I studied this for hours before the final at Nationals. I watched films to learn other teams’ strengths and weaknesses. I researched their stats. It was a lot of work. But my strategy became clear: it was about making sure each athlete could win his leg, and then move through the zones at max speed. So that’s how I created the order.
I had some experienced athletes on the team so they adapted quickly to the changes.
As we practiced, and after the 1st round, I had 2 questions for each athlete:
- “How did that feel?” I asked both incoming and outgoing runners. They have to trust each other. The incoming runner has to believe that the outgoing runner won’t leave early. The outgoing runner has to believe that the incoming runner will catch him.
- “Can I get more steps out of you?” I wanted to make sure they’re running the zone hard.
I used video during practice. I always do. That’s the best way to KNOW what’s happening with the details. You can refer to it later and make sound decisions.
We got ready. Then it was time to just get the work done. I explained to them that leg-for-leg they had the most speed. They just had to trust their exchanges. And they did it.
They won and became National Champions. I was so proud of them, not just for winning, but for trusting the system and each other.
Another thing: as I went to congratulate the team, I was almost tacked by someone…guess who? It was the one who couldn’t run, but he was still their teammate, brother and friend.
We’ve published the relay system for our Members. It’s called, “Running the Relays”. Join the portal and check it out!