If It Ain’t Broke: How Florida Track & Field Integrates New Tools In a Winning Program

Mike Holloway isn’t going anywhere. After guiding the Florida Gators’ track teams to eight national championships and 14 SEC titles, Holloway secured a 10-year contract extension with the university that will keep the Hall of Fame coach in Gainesville until 2028. For a program that has reached such a rare level of sustained excellence, the next question becomes: How do you stay there?

(Header photo by Alex de la Osa/ UAA Communications.)

“I think the mistake we make sometimes is we think okay, we’ve got it figured out now, so we stop teaching,” Coach Holloway says. “And when we stop teaching, then the athletes aren’t learning. And if the athletes aren’t learning, they aren’t able to get better. So my goal every year is to become a teacher again and have the athlete become a student again.”

Holloway refers to this process as “refreshing the memory bank”—refreshing, however, is very different from reinventing. Year after year, Holloway and his coaching staff—including Nic Petersen (jumps), Adrain Mann (sprints/hurdles), Steve Lemke (throws), Chris Solinsky (distance) and Mellanee Welty (relays/multis)—evaluate what worked the previous season and what the group can improve on during the upcoming year. It’s a delicate balance—success requires innovation, forward thinking, and risk, but the Florida coaching staff are always mindful about not disrupting what has produced winning outcomes in the past.

“I tell coaches this all the time—go back to when you were at your best,” Holloway says. “Then, go back and be there again. Now if you want to add a little something to what you did, that’s fine. But when you change the model completely, that’s when you get yourself in trouble.”

I. Setting the Foundation

Speaking with Coach Holloway and jumps coach Nic Petersen, over the course of conversation several words and phrases tend to be repeated over and over. Despite the fact that both have coached World Champions and medal winners at the NCAA and international level, rather than elite or Olympian or record-holder, the terms each coach returns to the most are technique, mechanics, and the basics.

“I like to go back to the basics from day one,” Coach Holloway says. “I don’t care who the athlete is, I don’t care how fast they ran the year before. I always go back to the basics—and if I start from the beginning, then I have a better chance of getting better.”

8-time NCAA Champion Grant Holloway.
Image 1. 8-time NCAA Champion Grant Holloway training from the starting blocks. Photo by Alex de la Osa/ UAA Communications.

Over the past year, the Gators have added ‘a little something’ to their working model by integrating the 1080 Sprint into their base training period. During this pre-competition phase, the athletes typically performed resistance- or assistance-based exercises once a week, in some cases two. Staying true to their philosophy, the coaches always started with minimal loading to introduce the athletes to the impact those loads might have on their mechanics.

“I think it’s a fine balance,” Petersen says, talking about athlete buy-in and applying new tools and methods. “And that’s where you have to communicate with the athlete—technique is so important throughout our program that you have to make sure that they know that technique is paramount. So, we’re making sure from a communication standpoint that their emphasis is to hit great technique.”

II. How the Fast Get Faster

Grant Holloway. Yanis David. Hakim Sani-Brown. The Florida track and field program produces great hurdlers, jumpers, sprinters, and throwers in large part by attracting great hurdlers, jumpers, sprinters, and throwers. From there, the coaches cite the importance of being patient—these athletes already possess the physical, psychological, and technical skills to succeed, so the trick is to guide them toward their full potential without straying from what has worked in the first place. The differences the coaches seek to impact from year-to-year are minute, perhaps a centimeter here or a percentage point there, but those minute improvements will ultimately change outcomes on the track or in the pit.

“I start from the beginning,” Coach Holloway says. “The very first step dictates how the race is going to go, and what we do in the first three-to-four meters is critical to what we do throughout the whole race. I liken it to pushing a car. Have you ever had to push a car that was out of gas? If you don’t put your weight behind it in the first three-to-four steps, you’ve got no shot.”

Florida Gators Head Track & Field Coach Mike Holloway and NCAA Champion track athlete Grant Holloway.
Image 2.Coach Mike Holloway and Grant Holloway in training. Photo by Alex de la Osa/ UAA Communications.

Using resistance-based methods to train those crucial first steps is nothing new for Coach Holloway, who can trace the modality all the way back to his own competitive career on the track.

“I go back, even as an athlete—resistance could have been my coach standing in front of me with his hands on my shoulders and me having to do high knees,” says Coach Holloway. “From that, then, to the resistance belt and overspeed belts. Hill training is a still a great resistance tool. I think what the 1080 does is it allows you to create those things without having to leave the track.”

Using 1080 Sprint for resisted sprints out on the track, Petersen describes most of the Gators’ initial resistance work as being programmed at or around 10% of bodyweight, with variable distances depending on the focus of the session.

“We would go anywhere from just the first eight steps out to a measured 20 meters, with different types of weight and intensities of course,” says Coach Petersen. “We did that from the blocks for a number of our 100 and 200 meter sprinters. And for the jumpers, we did a lot from the stand where we were really trying to mimic our approach mechanics.”

“We use the 1080 once or twice a week from the blocks with resistance,” Coach Holloway adds, discussing their pre-season training phase. “I think it’s a great tool for that, because you’re able to dial it in for how much pressure or resistance you want against the athlete. My biggest thing is, I don’t ever want to do anything resistance- or assistance-wise that is going to change their technique. If it’s going to change their technical model and make it bad, then it’s too much.”

III. Taking Flight

While an athlete’s first steps may dictate the outcome of a race, Holloway and Petersen also identify benchmark speeds and/or distances their athletes must be able to attain in order to achieve the desired outcomes in their events. The coaching staff tracks certain data sets, from flys to bounds to other component drills, and Coach Holloway incorporates that into formulas which—in combination with his practiced coaching eye—can indicate meet performance.  

Once those defined levels are established in the data… sometimes the athletes need a little boost in hitting those benchmarks. 

“I would say we did quite a bit of assistance this year,” says Coach Petersen. “It was individual for each athlete, but I think we stayed pretty much on the low-low end of intensity. We had as low as 2 kg on it, and we had some of the men on our high-high end with as much as 6 kg. There, we are using the machine to get to certain velocity numbers. You look at the biomechanics of the people that are jumping really far in the long jump, they are at or above 10.5, 10.8, even 11 meters per second on the runway. The same thing with the triple jump. The women are above 9 meters per second and the men’s triple jumpers, the best in the world, are above 10 meters per second. So if I can use the 1080 to get their body to feel what that feels like with a little assistance, I’m all for it.”

As with applying resistance, Holloway made certain that any assisted sessions did not risk compromising the athlete’s technical model in their events. In addition, Holloway also displayed characteristic patience and that teacher’s mindset when programming overspeed methods, knowing that even if the sessions were designed to push athletes beyond their physical comfort zone, he didn’t want to cross the line and create discomfort.

“I would liken it to, if you line up ten of your athletes and say we’re going to go hang-gliding or we’re going to jump off a cliff into the water, there will be five of them that step forward to do it right away,” says Coach Holloway. “And of the other five, there are going to be two or three that are still skeptical about it. So for us as coaches, what it comes down to is we have to find their comfort level. So sometimes we dial it down. We might take a guy and start him at ‘three’ so he’ll see it’s not that bad, and then we’ll gradually move him up.”

IV. Potential and Potentiation

Just as there some situations in which athletes need an acclimation period to become comfortable with integrating overspeed methods into their training, in other cases, assistance can prove to be safer and more re-assuring than the full-speed demands of the event itself.

NCAA long jump and triple jump champion Yanis David.
Image 3. Yanis David, 2019 NCAA Champion for Indoor Triple Jump and Outdoor Long Jump, trains on the runway. Photo by Alex de la Osa/ UAA Communications.

“One of the hardest things in the triple jump is to do it when you’re going really, really fast,” Petersen says. “In fact, I can’t mimic a meet in the triple jump. Meet forces, meet velocities, I can’t mimic those in practice—and it’s actually too dangerous to do so most of the time. So, from my standpoint, I can get close to doing that by using overspeed with the 1080 and having it actually pull them and assist them while we are doing technical short jumps, technical hops, and even multi-jump and plyometric exercises, where they can take maybe two steps or four steps of a run-in, and they feel significantly more velocity in each one of those because [the cable] is actually pulling them.”

With this approach, Petersen believes his athletes were able to attain competitive velocities with less work, mitigating fatigue and leaving more in the tank to continue drilling their mechanics and technique. While that ability to subtract training load and achieve comparable outcomes is one type of value, another asset in training is the ability to combine two (or more) imposed loads that achieve an outcome greater than the sum of their parts. 

“One of the most popular things Coach Holloway likes to do is lead an overspeed session where they are getting pulled somewhere between 30 to 40 or even 50 meters of overspeed, and then they come back and run a fly 30 with a 30 meter run-in afterwards,” says Coach Petersen, discussing practical ways to apply potentiation in training. “And we time that, so he can use that data set to see exactly how fast they can go. It’s like overclocking their nervous system, where they go faster than they are capable of and then they come back and they push their body beyond what they normally reach.”

V. Back to the Beginning (Again)

“The biggest thing I always try to do [in approaching a new season] is look at the improvement curve, and from a percentage standpoint, ask how do we get better,” says Coach Holloway. “Once I figure that out, I go back and look at the training model to see where we can implement areas for improvement.”

Restarting each season, those areas for improvement will almost certainly trace back to those key words: technique, mechanics, and the basics. Even with a teaching-based mindset, however, there is always one set of numbers that Holloway tracks above any other: “the data I want to know is, how many points did we score?

“I always think that there’s room to grow and room to get better,” Coach Petersen adds. “At the same time, though, if it’s not broken, we don’t fix it. It’s one of those things where you try to find a nice balance of doing what you know works and doing the stuff that you’ve been successful with, and finding new small things that don’t make massive changes that can give you a leg up and help you continue to make improvements. Especially in our sport, where one centimeter or one percentage point is a huge amount of difference.”