Another year, another venue, a similar story.
Last night, the GB men’s 4x100m team once again failed to get the baton round. What went wrong? I caution that I have been unable to fully analyse the changeover on video (I cant get the BBC here), but I’ve seen enough. I’m also not privy to the biomechanical data, such as speed of incoming and outgoing runner, and checkmark reaction, which would make things clearer. Anyway, I don’t think it matters, because I have a good idea of where it all went wrong, and who is to blame. Essentially, last nights DNF could have been down to four factors:
- CJ Ujah left too early
- James Ellington was coming in too slow
- The checkmark was incorrect
- Some combination of two or three of the above factors.
In all truth, #4 is the likeliest reason the team were unable to get the baton round. None of this is Ujah or Ellington’s fault.
Firstly, I think it’s important to state that athletes don’t want to make mistakes. In an ideal world, they would do their best, and be rewarded for that. None of the athletes in the GB relay team have ever deliberately got disqualified. Yesterday, Ellington or Ujah didn’t wake up and go “Do you know what would be great? If I didn’t get the baton round. I don’t want medals anyway.” Instead, the failure of the relay team is a failure of the coaching staff. The job role and responsibilities of the coaches are to enable and empower the athletes to complete what is a pretty complex skill in a high-pressure situation. Time and time again, they have failed to do this. Let’s look at the GB Men’s relay team results from 2000-present day at the World Championships and Olympic Games (note, that a DQ and DNF are different things – however, the end result is the same, so I will class both as DNF).
2000 – DNF
2001 – DNF
2003 – Silver (retroactively disqualified)
2004 – Gold
2005 – Bronze
2007 – Bronze
2008 – DNF
2009 – Bronze
2011 – DNF
2012 – DNF
2013 – DNF
2015 – DNF.
Spot a trend here? When the team compete, there are one of two scenarios that occur. Either the team a) get the baton round and win a medal, or b) don’t get the baton round. I’m to blame for one of those statistics. I’ve written quite extensively in the past about my part in this debacle, and what lessons I have learnt from it all.
In fact, in pretty much every single one of those DNFs the outgoing athlete leaving early has been a significant causal factor in the team not getting the baton round. Is it the mistake of the athlete if the same mistake continues to happen, or is it a symptom of a coaching issue?
Why does an athlete leave early? This is usually down to the ability to handle the pressure of the situation. Although the general public might think that relay running is relatively easy, it isn’t. To be in with a chance of winning a medal at a major champs, GB need to exchange the baton at around three-quarters of the way through the changeover zone. The incoming runner will be moving in excess of 11m/s. The outgoing runner is rapidly accelerating away from the incoming athlete. The outgoing runner also cannot see the incoming runner, and so is essentially blind to the changeover. Add to the fact that you’re running in a stadium against the best people in the world, in a race where you might be able to win a medal, and the sound is deafening, it’s easy to see how mistakes do happen.
So, why do I think that this is the coaching staff’s fault and not the athlete’s? Well, the coaching staff have to train the athletes to be able to handle and withstand this pressure. There needs to be pressure applied in training. The correct competitions have to be targeted, and the athletes have to compete in those to learn how to deal with the pressure. If the athlete shows signs of not being able to handle the pressure, or chooses not to race in the targeted races, then the result is simple: DO NOT pick that that athlete. GB have enough of a pool of athletes capable of running 10.1 or quicker that one substitution here would have a minimal impact on the overall speed of the team. And, if you can’t get the baton round, you can’t win a medal, so why take the risk?
The second reason athletes sometimes leave early is because they genuinely have issues seeing the checkmark. When you’re in the 3-point position, with your head upside down looking in-between your legs, spotting a white bit of tape 10m away can be hard. Then, under pressure, you have to do mental calculations, matching up the speed of the incoming runner, a moving object, and deciding when he reaches the checkmark. Remember, this athlete is moving at 11m/s, and if you leave 0.5m early or late relative to the checkmark, you’re likely to botch the changeover. This gives less than 0.1s for the outgoing athlete to decide that a) the incoming runner has reached the checkmark, and b) now is probably a good time to run. The athlete has to do this under considerable mental stress, whilst also filtering out the seven other incoming runners, some of whom may have very similar kits to your athlete. Oh, and they also could be running round the bend, which means that your incoming athlete might be obscured for a good period of time. How can you deal with this? Same as the previous point – expose athletes to competitive changeovers, either in training or competition. Film the changeovers, and then you can see if an athlete is leaving late or early. Are the consistently doing this? Then make them change this behaviour. Have they not changed this behaviour? Then don’t select them.
So, that’s point one covered. Hopefully you can see how the coaching staff might have been able to avert this problem. Now, there is point #2 – James Ellington was coming in too slow. This might be correct, or it might not be – I haven’t seen any data on the splits, so I can’t really comment. What I will say is this – running two relay races on the same day is quite physically fatiguing, so some drop off is fine. In fact, it is probably to be expected, or at the very least considered. It isn’t James’ fault if that did happen; he is a fantastic athlete and an incredibly reliable third leg runner, and I would pick him every day of the week. The issue here is whether or not the coaching staff predicted the drop in James’ speed (if indeed it existed), and made adjustments for that in the checkmark. Add this to the fact that Ujah didn’t run the heats, and so was fresh, and you can see how this might be problematic.
Ah yes, Ujah didn’t run the heats. Lets address this issue, because it is a really, really major one. In the heats, GB ran Kilty – HAA – Ellington – Talbot. So, the three changeovers were Kilty to HAA, HAA to Ellington, and Ellington to Talbot. In the final, they ran Kilty – Talbot – Ellington – Ujah, so the changeovers would have been Kilty to Talbot, Talbot to Ellington, and then Ellington to Ujah. See an issue here? NONE of the changeovers are the same? This is absolutely criminal, and a schoolboy error. The heats of the major championships are a perfect time to test your checkmarks, and then refine them for the final. It allows you to see what shape athletes are in ON THE VERY DAY of the race, and how the track is affecting their speed. Here is another key aspect – athletes generally fatigue at very similar rates, so if you decide to refine a checkmark from heats to final, you can be as sure as possible that both athletes will have a similar speed degradation (if any) come the final.
If the coaching staff, for whatever reason, wanted to rest Ujah for the heats and then have him replace HAA in the final, then they should have ran HAA last leg in the heats. That way, two out of the three changeovers are the same from heats to final. Granted, this wouldn’t have made any difference in this case, but it further reduces unnecessary risk. There’s an additional reason why Ujah might not have run in the heats – he might have made a strong case for not wanting to. I’m not saying whether this did or didn’t happen; I don’t know for sure – but obviously I’ve spoken to people involved in the team, and previous teams with some specific athletes. All I can say is, if I were the coach, he would either have run the heats or not run at all.
What confuses me further is that in all the pre-race videos posted by British Athletics, the order of changeovers is quite clearly Kilty – HAA – Ellington – Ujah. This means that either British Athletics are the king of pre-race propaganda and mis-direction, or someone has
seriously bottled made a major decision very close to the race itself by deciding to swap HAA for Talbot in the final. I’m not saying whether this is a good or bad decision, merely that, from the media released into the public domain, this was a very late change – which increases risk.
So, even if Ellington was slowing down excessively coming into the changeover (and I’m not saying he was), this isn’t his fault. Or, if it is his fault, something should have been done to correct and allow for this.
#3 – the checkmark was wrong. You can test whether a checkmark is wrong or right by running the same team in the heats and final. You can also build up experience between incoming and outgoing runner by giving them a ton of competitive experience by racing together at relays, either at World Relay Championships, Diamond Leagues, and European Team Championships. Athlete refusing to compete in these races? Don’t pick him. If you go into a major championships final with an un-tested or uncertain checkmark, you as a coach have failed at your job. Therefore, I can only assume that the checkmark was correct – although obviously the heats would have been a great opportunity to practice and check this, with almost real-time feedback on the effectiveness of the checkmark. If you’re relying on a checkmark from mid-July, you could see how this might be problematic.
So, that’s why I think #4 is the most likely scenario, and I’ve explained why I don’t think this is the fault of the athletes, but instead of the coaching staff.
Now, it would be unfair of me, with the benefit of hindsight, to write all these things and not propose a solution. I’m very confident that the coaching staff involved with the relay squad are going to move on and learn from these mistakes. The timing right now will be raw, but there is a year to correct everything before Rio. The athletes themselves will hopefully learn from the whole process and come back stronger. Here are some of the changes I would make:
I have no idea what it is like now (although, from watching the coverage on TV last night, and reading the comments in the newspaper and twitter, I can guess), the culture with the men’s team is dysfunctional. When I was involved, at times it was toxic, and certainly not conducive to good performance. Cliques were formed, people would slag each other (and the coach) off behind each others back. I don’t believe that athletes need to get on in order to perform well together, but there certainly needs to be a mutual level of respect. At one relay practice I was involved in, an athlete arrived three hours late.
This is what I would do:
1) At the start of the year, have a meeting with all athletes who have the potential to make the relay squad at the following years major championships. Here, the athletes would agree amongst themselves what the minimum attendance criteria for training and competitions would be, as well as a code of conduct. The coaching staff should guide and support this discussion, but ultimately it needs to be the athletes choice. This would then get placed into a contract, and signed by all athletes. Then, its simple – has athlete A met the criteria? If yes, he can be picked. If no, he can’t – but it’s not that he wasn’t aware of the criteria because he himself agreed it.
2) There’s also a sub-culture with some (not all) sprinters who believe that they do not need the relay. These athletes are deluded, but that is their own choice. I would extend an open invite to these athletes, and their coaches, to attend relay sessions and competitions. But, I would also make them aware that if they fail to meet the minimum selection criteria, I would be unable to pick them.
3) Invite former athletes to come and talk to the squad about their experiences, and about what the relay meant to them. 11 years ago we had four guys who won the Olympic Games – perhaps hearing about their experiences would help? For some people, competing for GB has lost its value; this could bring that back.
4) Create an athlete lead leadership programme within the squad. The designated leaders would take the lead on basic administration tasks, as well as form a go-between for coaches and athletes. These leaders would also be responsible for looking after an integrating new members of the squad to the team.
5) Create the ability to have open and honest feedback. This feedback should be two-way, from both coach to athlete and athlete to coach. Far too often ego gets in the way, and some people lack the emotional maturity to correctly receive (and deliver) constructive feedback on how to improve.
- Put in place a skill-ladder approach to changing the baton. Firstly, can athletes adequately pass and receive the baton at walking, jogging, and three-quarter pace. Are their hands always in the right position? Is the spacing accurate? Then I would increase the demands by doing so at a full sprint. Then add in the outgoing runner going from the correct start position, and monitoring whether they left early or late, and the position of the changeover. Next, I would add some pressure, such as competitive relays in training. The next step would be exposure to competition
2. Increase the “relay literacy” of the athletes. Athletes need to fully understand the rules of the race, what determines checkmark positioning, what a good changeover time is, etc. To be fair, most athletes are very good at this, but I’m still haunted by hearing one athlete respond to criticism about a slow changeover with “Yeah, but it felt fast, and that’s what really matters.” I shudder when I think of the job role this individual now has.
3. Consider what value added support staff could bring (budget permitting). I mentioned earlier the issues regarding spotting and assessing the checkmark – could an eye coach help here?
- Put into place a competition structure that allows athletes to be progressively exposed to pressure. This will also increase their confidence, as well as their problem solving ability. By problem solving, I mean developing a library of solutions to “What-ifs”, which can be cultivated through both training and competition. Examples include “what do I do if the outgoing runner leaves early?” “what do I do if he leaves late?” “What do I do if his hand isn’t steady?”. It also gives athletes chance to develop their experience. Let me give you a specific example of this – let’s imagine you are the fourth leg runner. At what point do you go into your three point stance? If you go too early, then your muscles might fatigue. Too late, and you will be unprepared for the incoming athlete. These are things that athletes can only really figure out in competitions, which is why it is crucial.
- Only ever make one change, on either first or last leg, from heats to final at a major competition. Where possible, run the same team in both races.
Now, I know some of you will lead with “But the Jamaicans and USA are much more relaxed about it all and blah blah blah.” All valid. Of course, both teams have much larger pools of athletes that can run sub 10 seconds than GB, which means they are under less pressure to stretch the changeovers. They can afford to chop and change members because the changeovers can be much safer. They also both have strong domestic relay competitions; in Jamaica kids go through “Champs”, which exposes them to high-pressure relay competition. In the US, there is the NCAA system, which again schools them in relays and dealing with pressure. Believe me when I say that, whilst the English Schools and BUCS are good championships, they are a million miles away from those two competitions.
A quick note on the post-race behaviour you saw last night. Two of the athletes in particular have come in for immense criticism. It’s important to remember that in the heat of the moment, people are exceptionally disappointed. Add to the fact that that the two guys getting the most criticism are the two of the athletes who are most dedicated to the relay programme, and you can understand their frustration. Admittedly, they have made some mistakes in the things they have said, but it’s important to know that there will be a lot going on behind the scenes that you don’t know about. I’m not necessarily defending them, but I am providing some context.
I’ll sum up by saying that clearly last night wasn’t GB Men’s finest hour. It comes off the back of a history of making very similar mistakes. Mistakes are fine, so long as you learn from them – but if the same mistakes are being made, this is an issue. Hopefully now the squad will be able to learn, because they have the individual talent to be a successful relay squad. This could be a turning point for the team.