Building Momentum

Want to make your track and field program the talk of the town? Host a first-class home meet—in which fans, athletes, and officials are all focused on the right thing at the right time.

By R.J. Anderson

R.J. Anderson is an Assistant Editor at Training & Conditioning

Coaching Management, 13.1, January 2005,

Downtime is the one ingredient that every track and field coach knows can sour a good meet quickly. It is the space between running events when the fans’ attention turns from the track to their watches. Deprived of action, the crowd grows restless, wondering when the meet will be finished.

At Fresno State University however, the lulls between track events are often the times fans look forward to the most. During breaks, the crowd’s attention is drawn to the infield, where the field events finals take place in a format called the Final Countdown. These match-ups pit the top two competitors for each event in head-to-head showdowns, accompanied by music designed to pump up the crowd and inspire the athletes.

The Final Countdowns are a staple of all Fresno State meets—events renowned for their raucous crowds and efficient organization. However, when it comes to putting on successful, well-attended meets, the Final Countdown is just one part of the equation. Along with music that encourages crowd participation, there is well-thought-out announcing, allowing fans to know exactly which athletes are competing and what marks they are shooting for. And thanks to an organized and efficient approach, the entire meet is finished in the time it would take to attend a football or baseball game.

From pre-meet organization and set-up to recruiting and training volunteers, the goal of every meet host is to provide the most athlete- and fan-friendly event possible—one that visiting teams look forward to attending in years to come. For this article, Coaching Management talks to a handful of top high school and college coaches who have built reputations for putting on successful meets. These coaches share ideas and advice for hosting meets both big and small. Along the way, they share their philosophies about reducing down time between events, delegating duties, and fostering a highly competitive atmosphere that brings attention to your home meets and your program as a whole.

Getting Organized
As at Fresno State, Occidental College meets are known for their fan-friendliness and innovative twists, but none of that would be possible without a more fundamental ingredient: careful organization. Regardless of the size of the meet, whether or not it succeeds comes down pre-meet planning. For Troy Engle, Men’s and Women’s Head Track & Field Coach at Occidental College, proper preparation means thorough utilization of checklists.

"I make a list for each of the events," says Engle. "For example, for the long jump, I write down the things that need to be out and ready—X number of clipboards, X number of pencils, X number of tape measures, a rake, a shovel—gather all those materials together and place them in a central location—we use a milk crate—so right before the event, we only have pick up one package that contains all of the equipment required to run that event."

Included with those materials is a list of the people assigned to work the event. "We also photocopy the rules of the event out of the rule book and tape them to the back of the clipboard," he adds. "The meet schedule also goes on the clipboard. You want the folks who are running each event to have all the information they need, so that they don’t have to scramble around and find you at the last minute."

The next step is keeping the meet running quickly and efficiently. The key is knowing your boundaries and not trying to host too large of a meet, which could overextend your resources. "We only host small meets," says Mark Guthrie, Head Track and Field Coach at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. "We’re looking more for quality competition than enormous, all-day events. It’s obviously much easier to keep a small meet on time than it is a large meet."

Even for a small meet, preparation should begin well before the meet is scheduled to start. "We publish a tentative time schedule weeks in advance," says Guthrie. "Once we receive entries, we update the time schedule. That way, we know how many heats of each race we’re going to have and how long each race will take from the start of one heat until the start of the next heat."

By knowing the number of events, and how long each event will take, Guthrie is able to construct a fairly accurate schedule. And he always makes sure he allows for five extra minutes for removal of both the hurdles and steeplechase barriers.

To keep meets from becoming marathons, Fresno State has done away with heats at dual and three-way meets. "Each team gets three entries, and in the field events they get four entries," says Bob Fraley, Director of Track and Field at Fresno State University. "Because we have both men and women, the throwing events can take up to three hours, but everything else takes around two hours and 20 minutes to run. The athletes get fired up because they only have one chance to run in each event, and the fans love the finality of head-to-head competition."

Labor Ideas
No matter how well-planned, any meet can bog down without enough workers. When host coaches are forced to wear too many hats, resources are stretched, details are overlooked, and visiting coaches are left scratching their heads wondering whether attending the meet was a good idea.

There are a variety of ways to staff a track meet, but in nearly every situation, the key is recruiting and rewarding volunteers. Your program may be able to fund a couple of paid officials, but in most cases, the people who work the events are moms and dads, community members, and athletes and coaches from other teams at your school.

Engle has had success finding workers by recruiting within the school’s athletic department. "We’re lucky that we’ve had friends of our athletes volunteer to help, and we’ve also been able to convince other sports teams to help out," says Engle. "When we had our conference championships here last spring, the swimming coach was gracious enough to offer the help of her student-athletes and we were able to do small things for them like buy a couple of pizzas," Engle says.

"After the meet, all of our athletes made it a point to find all the swimmers who helped out and thank them, which the swimming coach told me really made a difference," Engle continues. "In turn, we offer our help in hosting their home events."

At the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, Guthrie takes things a step further by providing monetary rewards for teams that help out at track and field meets. "At this level, we hire a lead official for each event. Then we have, for example, members of the football team returning the shot put, marking the shot, and writing down results," says Guthrie. "Teams are paid out of my budget. The athletes themselves don’t get paid, but their team gets a sum of money for working that event."

Guthrie, author of Coaching Track & Field Successfully, says that when he coached at the high school level, he leaned heavily on parents to help run home meets. One system that worked particularly well for Guthrie was forming a parents group and empowering that group to spearhead volunteer recruiting efforts.

At the beginning of each season Guthrie hosted a pot luck dinner meeting for athletes and their parents. "During that meeting, the president of the parents’ group would stand up and say, ‘We’re hosting this many meets, and we need workers,’ and we would then start assigning people," says Guthrie.

"After we ate, we asked them to actually perform a portion of their son or daughter’s event," he says. "We didn’t make them run the mile, but they ran a little bit, threw the shot, or jumped into the high jump pit. It really helped them understand the sport as both a fan and prospective official."

Once the season got underway, one person from the parents’ group was in charge of signing up other parents to work the meets. Guthrie provided each parent with an instruction manual for running their event, which included where they needed to report and a copy of the rules for the event. Then, before each meet, he held a brief training session on how to run the event.

"It takes a little work for the head coach to get parents organized and informed," says Guthrie. "But once we got it going, it was pretty awesome."

Brian Colding, the Head Boys’ Coach at West Chapel (Fl.) High School, also utilizes a parental work force, concentrating most of the meet education while the action is taking place. "We ease people who want to help but aren’t very experienced into the process by having them work with volunteers who already know what’s going on," says Colding. "I’ll say, ‘I’ve got somebody working the long jump. Why don’t you go over and help rake the pit, mark the jumps, or read the tape?’"

Colding says he’s also not afraid to ask visiting coaches for help when it comes to staffing a home meet. "I usually know most of them and what their area of expertise is," he says. "So if the visiting school has a really good pole vaulting coach, I’ll put him or her in charge of the pole vault."

For meets that limit the number of entrants per event, Colding is quick to find athletes from his team who aren’t participating that day and have them help out. He also enlists other sport coaches at West Chapel to help officiate, and he has even talked the high school principal—a former track coach at the school—into working as a starter.

Convincing coaches or volunteers to work an event is easier if you tell them how long they’ll be needed. Engle says he learned a valuable lesson from a former athlete who wanted to remain with the program despite suffering a career-ending injury as a sophomore. "He wanted to stay involved, so I asked him to help coordinate the volunteer labor," says Engle. "Since then, he’s taken over and shown me that you can never be too organized in that regard.

"I used to just wait, and as volunteers showed up I’d say, ‘Okay, I need you to go over to the long jump and you to go over to the pole vault,’" he continues. "Now, this former athlete has it scheduled so that we can say to our volunteers, ‘We need you here at this time, but we’re not going to keep you any longer than this because we know that the long jump is only going to take two hours.’ He’s got a checklist put together and he knows who’s where. And if somebody doesn’t show up, he also has a group of folks we can ask to fill in."

Coaches agree that to keep coming back, volunteers need to feel appreciated. "We try to ensure that runners get the volunteers lunches and water at their venue," says Engle. "We want to make them feel like they’ve got somebody taking care of them.

"We also try to do some other little things for our officials," he continues. "For example, at the Occidental Invitational, we had about 35 officials. They were paid, but we also had key chains engraved for about $3 or $4. I had about 50 or 60 of those made, then put each one in a nice gift box and walked around and handed them out to officials and said thank you."

"I think it’s a matter of fostering relationships, generating interest, being organized, and showing people you care," says Guthrie. "And as a coaching friend of mine once told me, ‘You can get anybody to do pretty much anything for a hat and a T-shirt.’"

Win the Crowd
With the meet’s basic organization under control and athletes, volunteers, and visiting coaches taken care of, you can turn your attention to truly making the experience enjoyable for fans. The first step is minimizing downtime, and the next is finding creative ways to fill any gaps that remain.

"If you go to a football or basketball game, when there’s a timeout, cheerleaders and mascots keep the crowd involved," says Fraley. "In track and field, we generally don’t have that. So at our meets, we hold the finals for the field events between the running events, and draw the crowd’s attention to those finals."

Fraley utilizes the Final Countdown, which pits the first- and second-place competitors for each field event against each other in head-to-head, winner-take-all finale. If there are 12 competitors in a field event, there are three preliminary rounds. The top eight scorers advance to a fourth round. From there the top four advance to a fifth round, and the top two competitors move on to the finals.

"We play a song called ‘The Final Countdown,’" says Fraley. "And the announcer says, ‘On the runway, we’ve got the final two competitors in the final countdown. Jumping first is so-and-so in second place and his mark is this, and then jumping last is so and so, whose mark is this.’

"The DJ continues playing music—for the jumping events, we play ‘Jump’ by Van Halen—and the announcer asks the crowd to put their hands together to help push the jumpers," adds Fraley. "It’s very dramatic."

And often, so are the results. "Everybody in the stands is focusing on these two jumpers, and good things usually happen," Fraley continues. "During the long jump at last year’s Fresno Relays, one kid was at 22’4" and he ended up going over 23 feet. Then the kid who was leading at 23’ went 24’2"—just because they had 1,000 people clapping and giving them support. We’ve had people throw the discus 20 feet further on their last throw because the music was on and the entire crowd was behind them."

Fraley says music constantly accompanies the action at Fresno State meets. "When a dramatic scene is taking place in a movie, there’s music playing in the background. It dramatizes the moment," says Fraley. "The same thing happens during our meets."

Fraley’s wife, Elaine, presides over the musical selections while sitting in a booth located next to the finish line and is careful not to interfere with the starts of running events. She also doesn’t take requests from athletes looking to get a boost from their favorite song. "We tell the athletes the music is there to get the fans going," Fraley says.

Fresno State athletes are, however, expected to engage the fans. "We tell them, ‘When you step on that runway, and the announcer calls the crowd’s attention to you, take your hands and start clapping them over your head. As soon as you make the bar, react to the crowd,’" says Fraley. "And when you come off of that pit, if there’s another athlete there, give him or her a high five.

"The key is forming an emotional connection between the fans and the athlete," he adds. "In the jumps, in the pole vault, and in the throwing events we want athletes to make the fans believe that they would not have had that performance without them."

Engaging Announcing
Beyond playing music and filling downtime, fan involvement can be enhanced by a knowledgeable P.A. announcer. "A good announcer keeps the meet moving and makes it more interesting," says Engle. "Although it’s labor-intensive, we’ve found that adding two or three people as spotters for the announcer helps a lot. They can feed information about what’s going on at the different venues and keep the flow going."

Engle is lucky to have Dixon Farmer, one of the most respected track and field announcers in the country, as his athletic director. Farmer has worked at many top meets, including the Melrose Games, and the USA Track & Field National Championships. One thing that makes Farmer exceptional, says Engle, is that he does his homework.

"He researches by asking coaches questions at a brief coaches meeting 10 minutes before the first event," says Engle. "He says to the coaches, ‘Give me the names of three or four of your kids you think might do well today and tell me a little bit about them.’

"The first couple of times we did it, some of the coaches thought it was a bit of a pain," continues Engle. "Until suddenly, over the P.A., the announcer is describing their athletes, saying, ‘Here’s Joe Blow, who was last year’s conference champ at 200 meters. He’s a sophomore from wherever.’ The kids feel great, and the coaches realize that it’s certainly time well spent. Small things like that can make a big difference in the quality of the meet."

Guthrie also likes his announcer to provide some play-by-play. "In longer races, a good announcer can call it a little bit like a horse race," he says. "The announcer can say who the leaders are, if they’re on national qualifying pace, or a pace to break the track record. And if they do break a record, you certainly let the crowd know."

Since fans love record performances, Guthrie will often set the stadium scoreboard at a record for a particular event, and then run it down once the gun goes off. "If a runner hits the finish line and there’s still time on the clock, everyone knows they’ve set a record—it could be a state record, a facility record, or a meet record," he says. "The spectators really get into it. They’re watching the clock saying, ‘Oh, you’ve got 10 seconds to get there!’"

And don’t forget that fans like to know what’s going on in the field events. Even before the final round Guthrie places performance indicators, in both metric and English, at every field event so fans sitting in the crowd know who is leading.

So how do you know when your meets are a success? For Engle, the end of each meet is the ideal time to evaluate his efforts.

"I poll the visiting coaches at the end of every competition," says Engle. "I walk around and say, ‘Thanks for coming, call me on Monday and let me know if there are things you think we can do better.’ I think by the end of the meet people have a good sense of what worked and what didn’t.

"In the days after a meet I really go out of my way to pick the coaches’ brains, whether it’s at a lunch or by giving them a telephone call," he adds. "Some of our best ideas have come from visiting coaches and visiting athletes."

While hosting a track and field meet is no easy task, when done right, it can be a boon to your athletes, your fans, and your program. Along with making life easier for your student-athletes, competing at home meets allows their fans—a base made up primarily of family and friends from school—an opportunity to watch them compete. And a track filled with competing athletes is an ideal tool for recruiting your school’s younger athletes.

"No matter what your situation is, you can find a way to make a meet special," says Guthrie. "And I think you can run a really nice meet with four or five teams—you don’t need 10, 20, or 30 teams. If you’re willing to put in the time and let other people review what you’ve done, eventually you can have a pretty well-oiled machine."

Sidebar: Pursuing Publicity
When organizing a meet, how can you initiate media coverage, and assure yourself of both pre- and post-event coverage? For Bob Fraley, Director of Track and Field at Fresno State University, it means digging into his budget and forcing media outlets to take notice.

"I buy time on the local ESPN talk radio station," he says. "I’m able to specify that during the morning show—which is the prime listening time for people stuck in traffic—I want a certain number of interviews with our athletes and our coaches.

"The local newspaper writers hear about our event on ESPN Radio, and it spurs their interest, as well as that of the public," Fraley continues. "For example, for the Street Vault pole vaulting event we put on in Clovis this year, we paid $500 for 120 commercial that ran for one week in August. During that time, people are listening to the national news getting updates about NFL training camps, and all of a sudden here’s this pole vault commercial. That’s why we get 7,000 to 10,000 people in the streets of Old Town Clovis to watch the event. People hear the commercials and say, ‘This is on ESPN Radio, it must be worth something.’"

Being accessible—and proactive—is the key to attracting and working with local media according to Mark Guthrie, Head Coach at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, and author of Coaching Track & Field Successfully. "When I first started, I was in a one-horse town in Wisconsin," he says. "The school had 400 kids and did not have a track, so we didn’t host track meets. But we did have a very successful cross country team that won three state titles.

"I wanted the local newspaper to cover us, so I wrote the articles myself," he continues. "And my fiancée checked my writing for grammatical issues and took pictures. We turned the photos and the articles over to the paper and they printed them."

By letting the school know how the team did the night before and when the next meet is through the school’s morning announcements, Guthrie was also able to publicize the program within the school. "Display cases also work well in that regard," says Guthrie. "And if the kids are having a good time, word of mouth works really well."