Shane Toy was adamant.
“I told the girls before the first meet that the only people who should be worried about time right now are people behind bars,” the East Valley girls track and field coach told his squad before Friday’s season opener. “I don’t want anyone to be concerned about their time.”
In a typical high school track season, athletes would be rounding into shape. Times in running events and distances in the field would consistently go down, or up, depending on the event.
Websites, like Athletic.net, that track the sport at the high school and collegiate level nationwide, would be monitored daily to track how results stack up in the league, district, region and state level.
But this is anything but a typical year.
The COVID-19 pandemic completely wiped out the 2020 spring sports season. When teams took to the track for the first official competition of the season, it was their first competition in almost two full years. In a sport in which finely tuned technique is paramount, that can be a bigger hurdle than anything placed on a track.
The shortened, six-week spring sports miniseason started with a weeklong spring break. Now, three weeks into the season, athletes are halfway through the entire season.
Toy and his fellow coaches across the region are feeling the time crunch while making sure athletes are brought along on a timetable that does not follow a calendar.
“I think the greatest challenge for me has been the reality that everything we used to do in a 12-week season is now being fit into a five-week season plus the time we took during spring break,” Central Valley coach Chuck Bowden said in an email. “Seventy-five percent of our kids don’t remember anything so I have to remind them that normally, we have five weeks at the beginning of a season to train properly, get the roster set, evaluate what kids can do so we can help them best choose events – all that happens without really having meets.
“So, right now, everything we would do the first five weeks is being done while we go right into competition. And, it all has to be done by the required and approved COVID protocols.”
Athletes have been on their own when it comes to training before the start of their respective sports season. In many cases and for many athletes, it’s like going from a sitting start to full speed.
“We would usually have had two months of winter conditioning, and once we started the season we’d have three weeks before the first meet,” Toy said. “What I found is that we have to take it a lot easier with them the first couple weeks. That’s why a lot of the coaches are seeing that the times and the distances weren’t real good the first meet.”
Not surprising, when you consider that this year’s seniors haven’t competed since their sophomore season.
In the arc of a high school track career, the junior season tends to be when physical maturity and technique finally begin to merge, setting up a senior season of personal bests, Toy said.
That arc was broken by the pandemic and it’s unknown how long it will take to get it back, especially with fewer kids turning out.
“The middle schools are having a short season without holding an actual meet this year,” Toy said. “That means next year’s freshmen class will not have been in a meet for three years.”
What that will translate into for the foreseeable future remains to be seen, Toy said.
In the short term? Look forward to the final week of the season.
Distance races have the best times so far, Toy said. The majority of those runners are coming right off the cross country season. Sprinters will need time to get up to full speed, especially coming out of the starting blocks.
The shot put, too, is looking pretty strong.
“That’s about strength,” Toy said. “Kids grow and get stronger.”
Most other field events, he said, are all driven by technique and it will take time to perfect.
Throwing events like the javelin and discus usually come into their own later in the season. Same with events like the pole vault.
If you listen in on workouts, you will hear coaches giving sprinters percentages that grow bigger as the season goes along – building week-to-week toward a full-out sprint.
“From what I can see, most meets didn’t even have relays,” Toy said, looking back on Friday’s opener. “Some just ran a 4-by-400 relay because they could use their distance kids. We’re going 40-50-60% with kids right now and it will take us four or five weeks to get kids into shape.”
It’s all about protecting athletes from injury. A hamstring injury or pulled abdominal muscle could wipe out the season.
This year athletes need just five practices to be eligible instead of the typical 10 in a full, regular season.
That can be a recipe for injury.
“My best hurdler got her got five practices in for the first meet,” Toy said. “She hasn’t done anything in two years. She warmed her up and felt a twinge in her hamstring.”
Toy said he and his assistant coaches have stressed the importance of reporting anything that feels abnormal – more this season than in past years because athletes don’t necessarily have a base of physical understanding to work from.
“We shut my hurdler down and got her with our trainer,” he said. “Some of the girls were feeling some aches and pains after they did the 100 meters.”
With participation numbers down, Bowden is worried about the bigger picture for the sport.
“To be honest, the biggest problem is that this entire pandemic experience really had a ‘kill switch’ effect on the totality of track and field,” he wrote. “It’s not that the kids can’t come out of the blocks or push themselves, that really just depends on me paying close attention to each individual athlete so that no one overdoes it. There will be more soft tissue issues or injuries possibly, but we can monitor kids so they don’t suffer from overuse issues.
“The issue is whether we can rescue the sport from the shrinking numbers of participants. That is the key question.”
Steve Christilaw can be reached at email@example.com
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