The Malta Independent 26 March 2019, Tuesday

What Preparations are needed for relay teams to be successful

Malta Independent Wednesday, 29 June 2011, 00:00 Last update: about 7 years ago

During the Games of the Small States of Europe (GSSE) in Liechtenstein, Malta won two gold medals and two silver medals in the 4x100m and 4x400m sprint relays. It was by far the best result ever in the relays that helped push Team Malta up the medals table at the Games. The Malta Independent wanted to know more about these events, typically run by sprinters. Mario Bonello, the National Sprints and relays coach, himself a veteran sprinter and relay runner at nine editions of the GSSE, and a member of the first ever relay team gold for Malta in Andorra 2005 (together with Darren Gilford, Rachid Chouhal and Jeandre Mallia), takes us through the relay events and the preparations necessary. He spoke to Henry Brincat who wanted to know more about relays and sprinters.

Bonello says the objective of the relays is to get a baton (30cm aluminum tube) from the starting line through to the finish as quickly as possible through three exchanges done between four different runners.

In the 4x100m relay, each sprinter runs approximately 100m with the baton for a total of 400m, or one lap of the track. In the 4x400m relay, each athlete runs a full lap of the track for a total of 1,600m or nearly one mile in empirical terms.

Typically one uses different runners for the different events, but at times, due to our limited pool of top athletes, some end up doubling up in both events, a feat that is often very demanding especially since at the GSSE all the relays take place back-to-back on the last day of competition.

So what are the differences between the two relays and what practice is necessary?

The baton changes of the two events are completely different.

In the 4x100m relay the athletes are running close to their maximum speed (typically at 10-11m/sec for our male sprinters) when the baton is exchanged from the incoming sprinter to the outgoing one. In order to do so with maximum efficiency both athletes need to be in the most efficient running position, that is facing the direction of their run. This means that during the actual change the athlete receiving the baton is not seeing his partner (he is facing forward) and has thus to rely on a series of automatic (and hence trained) gestures that will allow a smooth baton exchange.

For obvious reasons this is called a non-visual changeover. The outgoing runner thus places a mark on the track (typically 6-7m behind his starting position) so that when the incoming sprinter hits that mark he/she accelerates forward at top speed without ever looking back again.

This head start needs to be sufficient so as to allow him to reach top speed by the time he is “caught up” by the incoming runner. With a call, (typically UP!), the outgoing runner extends his hand backward to receive the baton from his team mate at top speed. For the change to be successful, the timings and the gestures have to be perfectly coordinated. With adequate training, the athletes will become team relay specialists and not simply sprinters.

In the 4x100m relay the summation of the individual athletes’ performances does not necessarily add up to the team’s result. Bonello says that on numerous occasions “we have seen world powerhouse nations such as the USA and GB fail to get the baton round despite having world class sprinters in the team.”

On the other hand, in the 4x400m relay, the exchange happens when the incoming runner is rather tired at the end of a 400m run, and hence the baton exchange is relatively slower. Here we have a visual exchange and it is the responsibility of the fresh outgoing runner to get the baton from the exhausted incoming runner’s hand to start off its next lap around the track. The exchange here has less weight than in the 4x100m relay but precious fractions of a second can be gained if the change is done efficiently and effectively.

At the end of last season there was talk about this relay project. Tell me something about it. What has been done?

Bonello said: “When last year the Malta Amateur Athletics Association (MAAA) entrusted me with the relay teams prior to the European Team Championships (ETCH) that were held in Malta in June, I told them that our main focus should be on the GSSE of 2011, using last year’s ETCH as a launching pad from which to start this project.

“My idea was to drill a pool of athletes with the proper changeover techniques from which we could later pick the team for the upcoming major events. We also wanted to generate better team spirit in what is essentially an individual (and hence rather egoistic!) sport.

“In addition, with the help of the Malta Olympic Committee (MOC), we managed to rope in the Sprints Coach who led the Italian national relay team to Beijing in 2008. Profs Laguardia had been helping me personally for the past 15 years and already knew most of the athletes as well as the Maltese reality. He was a great asset throughout the teams’ preparation.

“I planned three training camps for the teams, wo in Gozo with the help of the Ministry for Gozo, and one in Formia, Italy, with the help of the MOC and the MAAA.

“Additionally the athletes trained together on most weekends so that one can easily say that the preparation was the best we ever had. A pool of around 30 athletes were selected from which we were then to choose 14-16 athletes, depending on whether athletes were to double in both relays. “I have to say that most of the athletes were extremely enthusiastic to form part of this group even though some knew that they only had a remote chance of being selected.

“We started off from scratch, drilling the basics that had not been taught in the past. It was a great learning experience for all of us. Coach Mario Micallef, who is the national coach for the Middle and Long Distance events, was also a great help for me especially since at times I was taking up two roles, that of coach and athlete.

All this was a success also because the MAAA and the MOC (especially through its Director of Sports, Mark Cutajar) believed in this project and in the team. They were all behind me when it mattered and for that I have to thank them.

What were your disappointments?

“It must surely be the fact that, especially in the short relays, some athletes who really put in a lot of work with the team, did not make the cut at the end.

On the women’s side there were athletes like Angie Mangion and Rebecca Sare while on the men’s side, athletes like Steve Moghrabi and Nicolai Portelli, with the latter actually injuring himself during relay practice in Italy, which injury ruled him out of the GSSE completely. I really hope to see them come back stronger in the coming years to be part of this team.

“I also expected better performances from a few new faces that I think are very talented. At times I am baffled by the fact that these athletes either do not understand their potential or are not ready to put in the work and effort despite being aware of their value! Talent alone is not enough to perform well,” he added.

What were your greatest prizes?

Bonello said: “I think that the greatest prize must be the national record and Gold Medal won in the women’s 4x100m relay at the GSSE. The changes were extremely smooth and we won with such a margin that it was absolutely incredible. It surely reminded me of our Gold medal in Andorra in 2005! The third place in Iceland at the European Team Championships held last week was an additional bonus.

“One must also mention here the fact that Rebecca Camilleri, a gold medal contender in the Long Jump and not (yet!) a sprints specialist, lent herself fully for relay practice with the team. Similarly Francesca Xuereb, who had the fourth best time in the 100m and second best time in the 400m prior to the GSSE, accepted the decision to run solely the 4x400m relay so that she would be fresher for the latter event.

“Andy Grech’s team spirit and the ever colourful Charlene Attard were also great team motivators. The exploits of Diane Borg during the season must have also given the team a big boost.

“Finally I must say that we received a great deal of support and collaboration from most of the coaches of the individual athletes. Without their help we could not have gone anywhere.”

What is the way forward?

The national sprints coach said: “I think that we started the ball rolling for the years to come. I am sure that the MAAA, especially in the likes of its President, Anthony Chircop, will be more than enthusiastic to continue with this project. We will surely need to replace some of the older experienced athletes in the coming two years.

“After 18 years, I for one am now out of this team, but I am positive that we will have some even faster athletes in the years to come. I hope that they will be at least as prepared and committed as this group is.

“Furthermore, I strongly believe that we should immediately start drilling our young athletes for the relays in the same way we drill the main team. In that way we would find them prepared when it would be their turn to take the centre stage to make Malta proud once again.

The pool of athletes originally selected included; Karl Farrugia, Nicolai Portelli, Owen Camilleri, Mario Bonello, Rachid Chouhal, Neil Brimmer, Stephen Moghrabi, Andy Grech, Celine Pace, Diane Borg, Rebecca Sare, Francesca Xuereb, Martina Xuereb, Angie Mangion, Charlene Attard, Rebecca Camilleri, Dorianne Micallef (all of whom attended a training camp in Formia), Ivan Borg, James D’Alfonso, Andrew Cassar Torreggiani, Mark Herrera, Matthew Croker, Thomas Farrugia, Alister Vella Stiles, Thomas Farrugia, Steve Camilleri, Clayton Sheldon, Tamara Vella, Jana Pace Cocks, Lara Scerri, Nicole Gatt and Alessandra Pace.

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