Better Baton Passing For The Sprint Relays

By Dennis Grady, Whetstone High School, Columbus, OH

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How To Decrease Our Exchange Failure Rate

No other country has won more 4 x 100 golds in Olympics or World Championships competition than the USA. Generally having the world's fastest sprinters is pretty much the reason for our success internationally. That's what makes it so frustrating-to coaches, athletes and fans-when our sprint relay teams crash and burn. Here is one coach's contribution to helping American teams get the stick around in first place. Grady is the sprint coach at Whetstone, working under head coach Joe Monda.


    At the 2004 Athens Olympic Games a bad exchange cost the United States men's 4 x 100 relay team the gold medal. At these same Games the U.S. women's 4 x 100 team was disqualified for making the second pass outside the ex- change zone. And at the 2005 World Championships for Track & Field held this past August at Helsinki, Finland, our men's 4 x 100 relay squad never even made it to the finals, botching the first exchange in the preliminaries. Add to this list the disqualifications at the World Championships in 1995 and 1997 for the U.s. men's 4 x 100 relays, and you start to wonder why the athletes with the fastest feet in the world seem to be cursed with the worst hands in the world.
    Three consecutive, good and fast exchanges should not be all that difficult; thousands of high school and college teams do it on a regular basis. So why the difficulty at the highest levels of track & field competition? Have our elite athletes and their coaches neglected the basic fundamentals of running relays and baton exchanges, especially the blind exchanges used for the 4 x 100 relay?
    My aim is to review these fundamentals first and then address what I see as some of the factors affecting our performance at the World Championships and Olympics.

Gymboss Timers


1) Never leave the zone without it. Just because an exchange isn't perfect is no reason to give up on it. The outgoing runner, nearing the end of the exchange zone without receiving the baton, should open up-turn around and look for the baton, slowing up, if necessary. A poor exchange beats no exchange any day or night.


2) Always finish the race. If the baton is dropped, pick it up! Don't just stand there and argue about who is to blame. And don't disqualify yourself because you think you were out of the zone. If the "stick" is in the zone, the pass is legal. Let the officials do their job; your job is to finish the race. Stick to it!


3) Timing is really everything. We are talking hundredths of a second. Don't fall asleep at the switch by leaving too late; don't jump the gun by leaving too early. Coaches may debate which is worse. I side with the leaving late. With Law #1 firmly in mind, a runner leaving early can salvage the race. On the other hand, if a runner leaves late, the time lost is lost for good. The worst-case scenario happened one year at the Pan American Games. The outgoing runner was talking to someone and didn't realize the race had started until his teammate went whizzing by. A substitution for that runner is the only cure.

    The basic procedures and rules for the 4 x 100 (and 4 x 200) are fairly straight forward and widely known. Usually only teams with new or inexperienced coaches are unfamiliar with these, but even some veteran coaches would benefit from a review.


Responsibilities of the Incoming Runner:
i. Attack the zone. Do not slow up or relax until the baton is passed.
ii. Share the stick. You get the lower half, the receiver gets the upper half.
iii. Maintain good running form. Running with your arm extended slows you down. Winding up to make the pass is a waste of time.
iv. Speak first, then reach. Do not give the verbal command of "stick," "go," or whatever, and reach at the same instant. Give the command, keep running, and wait for the outgoing runner's arm to extend, then reach and place the baton in the open hand.
v. Stay in your lane, but don't worry about running out of the zone-you are allowed.
vi. Always look back before exiting the track, someone may still be running behind you.

Responsibilities of the Outgoing Runner:
i. Step off the distance (determined after repeated practice) to your "go" mark. Place your mark, usually half a tennis ball or tape. Return to your starting position inside the acceleration zone. You must be inside and remain there when the gun starts the race.
ii. Make the incoming runner catch you. Position your feet for a fast takeoff and good line-of-sight to your "go" mark.
iii. Trust your mark and accelerate 100%, no holding back. (In the 4 x 200 relay, hold back a little, 75%-80%, depending on how strongly the incoming runner finishes a 200m run).
iv. Never extend your arm to receive the baton before you enter the exchange zone. This comes into play more with the 4 x 200 relay when trying to "shorten" your slowest leg.
v. When you hear your incoming teammate give the verbal command, extend your arm straight back, horizontally, with the palm up, fingers together, thumb ex- tended making a v-shaped target for the pass. Hold steady by pushing the upper arm inward towards your spine. Don't turn your head or look back; remember it's a blind exchange.
vi. When you feel the baton, grasp firmly and fly.

    A novice coach may be thinking, "All this for a simple handoff that should only take a split second to complete?" Yes, but the details involved are what make the 4 x 100 relay one of the most exciting events in track & field, and the list of bad exchanges mentioned at the beginning of this article suggests to me, at least, that some of these details have been lost by our top athletes and their coaches.
    As a high school track coach I have seen many strange things happen to our team and others over the course of years: a mark being kicked at the third exchange by someone leaving the bullpen area and running across the track; our #3 runner being bumped off stride as he ran on the inside of the curve by another team's anchor, in the lane on our inside, crouched with his behind sticking halfway into our lane; a runner losing track of his mark after looking at the incoming runner because there are so many marks that all look alike; and my favorite problem, which only occurs when we have a pretty good team-keeping them focused when they are used to leading the entire race and never having to see another team take off for their exchange before we do! Oh, but when it all comes together, the chemistry and the timing are beautiful to behold and treasure. It won't happen every time, but it will happen more often than not if you work at it.
    So what ails our elite 4 x 100 teams? Being too caution, for one. They know they have the fastest team and they settle for safe passes, even to the point of telling the incoming runner to hold tight the baton and let the outgoing runner pull the baton from his hand! That is a recipe for the disasters we have seen all too often. The positioning of the outgoing runner's hand, with the thumb down, the elbow bent, and the arm partially extended to the side and not straight back is another error on the side of caution. And Laws #1 and #2 above were definitely not displayed in Athens with the U.S. women's 4 x 100 team.
    The last thing to consider is the selection of the team. Name recognition should not playa part in who runs on the relay teams. I will take our second four fastest sprinters with great exchanges over our top four with bad exchanges any day and win four out of five any time. But without the sound fundamentals outlined here, more disappointments await us, I fear.
    I know we can do better. I hope this contribution helps.





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