Above: Under 20 4x100m relay squad members at a camp in Hamilton.
Athletics NZ Sprints and Relays co-ordinator Kerry Hill has put in place a definitive strategy which he hopes will help invigorate both relay running and sprinting in New Zealand. Steve Landells chats to the leading Kiwi sprint coach to find out more.
Given New Zealanders consistently extraordinary ability to work as a team, it is perhaps a little bit of a mystery why the country has scant tradition as a relay (4x100m and 4x400m) nation.
Critics may claim that New Zealand’s sprinting talent pool has been too shallow to make a realistic impact yet Kerry Hill dismisses such a theory insisting the relay should be embraced as a means of excelling on the international stage and developing overall sprint standards.
With Kerry in the early stages of implementing the programme – with the support of the Athletics NZ high performance department – the signs are already positive. For the first time in 20 years, New Zealand has recently qualified a men’s and women’s 4x100m relay team for the World Junior Championships and with Kerry planning to roll out a defined relay strategy from grassroots to the elite his vision is becoming reality.
Kerry’s close affinity with relays stretches back more than 40 years. He himself featured in New Zealand’s silver medal winning 4x100m team – which beat Japan, Australia and Canada – at the 1973 Pacific Conference Games in Toronto. The following year he was a part of the New Zealand quartet that reached the men’s 4x100m final at the 1974 Commonwealth Games in Christchurch.
“I have always been passionate about the relays,” he explains. “The relay always forms the climax to any major championship and it is always a great feeling, in what is typically an individual sport, to be part of a team.”
In the past he says New Zealand has spasmodically focused on the relay with “a good burst” of teams at major championships in the early 1990s. However, that commitment was often never sustained and this, he believes, has had a significant impact on sprint standards in the country.
“Back in 1996 we had four individual male sprinters (in the 100m and 200m) qualify for the Atlanta Olympics but no relay team,” he explains. “As qualification standards for the individual sprint events became increasingly tough and without a relay spot to target, I believe many of the athletes lost their drive and impetus to stay involved with the sport. My passion now is to qualify athletes onto the New Zealand relay team for major championships as this will offer a route into international competition for our top sprinters.”
In an attempt to further his understanding of the 4x100m, he undertook a study with the help of a Prime Minister’s Scholarship in which he studied the sprint relay over a ten-year period in forensic detail. The study took him to more than a dozen countries around the globe from Germany to Malaysia and Australia to Canada and to Olympic Games, World Championships and Asian Games to make greater sense of the event.
What he discovered were some fascinating insights.
“I observed that the relay techniques nations use tend to copy the teams that generally win the medals,” he explains, “but this is a dangerous approach because you might be simply copying a team that might be blazingly fast rather than the one with the good technique. So if you are part of a team that doesn’t have blazing speed to then copy that technique makes you vulnerable to making mistakes.”
Kerry also discovered that historically three of the most consistent 4x100m nations in the world were Brazil, Japan and Poland, none of which boasted super-fast individual 100m sprinters. Yet what bound the three nations together is they all adopted a relay culture. Most countries also now use the push pass relay baton exchange system – in which the outgoing athlete thrusts out their hand vertically to receive a vertical baton.
What his findings also exposed was that the USA and Great Britain – the two nations with the worst record for 4x100m disqualifications at major championships - both used the down pass technique – in which athletes stretch out their hand in the horizontal position to receive the baton. This is a technique he believes is fraught with pitfalls. In fact, Britain, according to Kerry has used both methods within the same team.
“It is almost impossible to run at a speed of 12 metres per second and hold the hand flat out and dead straight,” explains Kerry, who alarmingly found many New Zealand schools and clubs coaches adopted this technique. “The push pass (where the baton is held at the vertical) allows for a much bigger target.”
Another area which contributed to the likelihood of more DQs his research found was the increasing trend for athletes to wait for the baton by setting off in the crouch position.
“The rationale for crouching is to mirror a sprint start out of the blocks but 100 per cent of the timings we have done over the last two years has found that the standing start system (for relays) adopted by the Poles gets you to the 25m mark – approximately the point in which after an athlete has started his sprint where he/she receives the baton - faster than the crouch start. The other danger is asking a sprinter to stay in the crouch position for up to ten seconds. This is difficult and to be down low to the ground, looking backwards can also create a vision issue, too.”
His research also discovered the Polish relay team, which trained together for a combined 250 days a year, had adopted the standing start system for more than 30 years not only at an elite level but also at all clubs and schools in the country, perfect for helping develop a well-honed relay technique for all Polish sprinters from a young age. Their particular point of difference is in the unique detail of how they employ the standing start.
Kerry’s vision is to introduce this system across New Zealand – a move he is already well down the road to implementing. Last October during a Relay Camp in Tauranga he attracted a pair of top Polish sprint coaches - Jacek Lewandowski and Pawel Jesien - to talk through the technique with a crop of New Zealand’s elite sprinters.
Now some nine months on and the country’s relay teams are starting to see the benefits of such a strategy as for only the second time New Zealand has qualified a men’s and a women’s 4x100m team at a World Junior Championships.
“We currently have a brilliant bunch of girls, the best combination of under-20 women sprinters we’ve ever had, yet it is no coincidence they use the Polish relay exchange system,” Kerry explains. “It is really starting to work and although the men have not qualified as many individuals (for next month's World Junior Championships) like the women, they too are ranked in the world's top 16.”
Kerry would like to see the relay act a gateway of opportunity for the current crop of junior and senior sprinters looking ahead to the 2018 Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast and 2020 Tokyo Olympics and such an incentive he believes is a vital tool in athlete retention.
“If we look at the all-time top 20 New Zealand sprinters the average age of when they achieved their PB is 21. Yet internationally the typical average age of when a sprinter will set a PB is aged 25 to 27 and there are many instances of Olympic medallists and winners in their 30s. The reason many New Zealand sprinters have set their PB at such a young age is many have quit the sport early in their careers. By developing a relay programme it can help incentivise them to stay in the sport for longer.”
Besides the work at the elite level, Kerry hopes the relay technique will become standardised and embedded within the New Zealand system from the grassroots level up and he has put in place several measures in place to ensure this happens.
In the next couple of months, he hopes to release more details of a new coaching pathway where the full relay programme will be explained in more detail. Meanwhile, a team of new regional relay coaches will also be announced later this year to focus on educating these standardised relay techniques (the push pass standing start system) across all local clubs and schools.
“I would love us to create the strategy where people will remain motivated to stay sprinting for longer,” adds Kerry, who also hopes to help build and develop New Zealand 4x400m programme. “This will give them more chance to mature as sprinters and will allow the overall standard of New Zealand sprinting to rise.”