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A silent treatment for your sprint relay teams
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Introducing the non-verbal, non-visual sprint relay pass;

Coach and Athletic Director, August, 1999 by Richard H. Tucker

The 4 x 100 relay is a highly popular track event in which raw speed and technique are blended into a team race that can produce all kinds of electricity at each exchange point. We have all witnessed relay teams approach the third exchange zone in practically a dead heat, meld into a jumble of outstretched arms and batons, and then suddenly have a figure shoot out of the crowd and go on to win the race. Superior speed doesn't always produce the surprise. Just as often as not, it is a superior baton exchange that does it.

For example, though we have had just one sectional sprint champion at Rushville H.S. over the past 22 years, our sprint relay teams have finished one, two or three qualifying for 90% of our annual state championships. We subscribe to the American sprint-relay style of baton exchange - a blind (non-visual) pass. With superior execution, we believe we can compete against teams with greater speed. In our training program, we focus on two things: (1) transferring the baton legally within the exchange zone, and (2) effecting the pass as smoothly as possible on a horizontal level.

The basic pass itself is a right to left exchange with the incoming runner extending his right arm and slipping the baton into the fully extended left hand of the outgoing runner. The arms are extended as far as they can comfortably go, with the receiver's arm pressed tightly against his body, with his palm up and thumb pointed directly at the incoming runner. The three baton exchanges include: (1) a right hand to left hand pass, (2) a left hand to right hand pass, and (3) a right hand to left hand pass. In short, the lead-off runner starts with the baton in his right hand and passes it into the No. 2 man's left hand. The latter sprints right off, keeping the baton in his left hand to avoid wasting time in an exchange. He will pass the baton into the No. 3 man's right hand, and the third runner will pass it into the anchor man's left hand. The last runner will then immediately sprint to the finish line (no switch of hands with the baton).

Since the first and third exchanges are made on the curve, it is possible to reach back farther with the left hand because of the natural alignment of the shoulders (Wilt & Ecker, 1970). The outgoing runner can also get underway more quickly because he can drive his arms immediately upon receiving the baton. This affords an advantage in that it allows each runner to run the shortest distance to the exchange point. Being able to run as close as possible to the lane line all the way can save a total of 50 inches in the overall distance run - 50-inches = 1.28 m (Winter, 1964).

When Silence Becomes Golden

If a recording device could be placed at the point of the final exchange, we'd be able to hear all sorts of verbal commands such as "Go! Stick! Hit! Reach! Slow down! STOP!" Coaches continue to teach such calls to facilitate the exchange. Not at Rushville H.S., however. It is at the exchange zone that we separate ourselves from our opponents. We give them the "silent" treatment. That is, we make no verbal calls. The incoming and outgoing runners employ a silent, seven-stride count for the exchange of the baton. When the incoming runner hits the "go" checkmark, both he and the outgoing runner start counting. On the seventh stride, they initiate the baton exchange.

This "silent" technique was developed in the mid-70's while I was coaching high hurdlers the seven-stride approach to the first hurdle. The 15 yards (13.72m) to the first hurdle fitted well into the 20-meter exchange zone. Add the acceleration zone and you had a fair margin for error. Since a "silent" stride count was being used in the LJ, 3J, HJ, PV, and hurdles, why couldn't it be used in sprint relay racing? Our outgoing runners have one check mark, which they measure with foot-lengths (heel to toe). The marks will vary from 18-28 foot lengths back from the start of the acceleration zone.

The most common basis for determining the "go" mark distances is through trial-and-error. To synchronize a perfect exchange, the runners are obviously required to practice, practice, practice. We practice at maximum velocity. And to accomplish these speeds, the athletes are required to cover only a fraction of the racing distances (30-60m). This allows them to get a greater number of handoffs in practice (12 x 40m). Runs of 100m are not possible or helpful because of rapid exhaustion (Green, 60).

The key for the outgoing runner to accelerate is seeing the incoming runner hitting the "go" mark. The acceleration is very similar to that of a high hurdler's seven-stride approach from the start to the first hurdle. The incoming runner must sprint through the exchange zone to prevent deceleration at the point of exchange. The pass is made by extending the arm fully (free distance) while running at full speed. The baton cannot lose velocity. It has been estimated that a properly executed series of baton exchanges will lop three meters off the running distance (Ecker, 1985). The incoming runner starts his stride count on the initial movement of the outgoing runner. On his third stride, he begins to focus on the outgoing runner's exchange hand. On his seventh stride, he looks the baton into the receiver's open palm - again mirroring a high hurdler focusing on the first hurdle. The responsibility for the baton exchange rests with the incoming runner.

The 4 x 200 runners use the 4 x 100 marks as a predetermined starting point. Each runner uses the 4 x 100 "go" mark for his exchange zone. He divides this mark in half and then adds two more steps. Example: If the 4 x 100 zone mark is 28 steps, the 4 x 200 mark would be 14 heel-toe steps plus 2; hence, the "go" mark is 16 steps.

In the 4 x 400 relay, we use a full visual pass with a 3-stride count before initiating the exchange. The incoming runner carries the baton in his right hand, while the outgoing runner turns to the inside of the track and reaches back with the left hand. It is his responsibility to take the baton from the incoming runner and then, after clearing the exchange zone, switch the baton to the right hand. The silent exchange works! It is as simple as counting to seven (7-53), and it takes the guesswork out of the sprint relay - the two runners simply count seven strides and initiate the exchange.