The throwing events in track and field are complex, multijoint, multiplanar activities that involve the vast majority of the musculature. The successful attempt in a throwing event can be described as a precisely executed display of both strength and power. All throwing events (shot put, discus, hammer, and javelin) use technical patterns that attempt to create a summation of forces by creating torques between different parts of the body via stretch reflexes. For this reason, it is essential that the body be finely tuned to optimally perform these techniques. Given the sequential nature of the throwing actions and the large range of motions used by the thrower, training routines must be designed to emphasize strength, power, flexibility, and technique. The coach is fundamentally concerned with the design of a proper sequence of training to enhance the ability of the athlete to perform explosively. From a pedagogical view, the warm-up and stretching protocols are an important set of interrelated activities that if properly executed will contribute to increasing the efficiency of practice and competition performance (20).
The primary objectives of the preactivity warm-up and stretching are to optimize performance and diminish the incidence of injury through augmented muscle temperature, muscle compliance, and efficiency of physiological responses. A properly planned preactivity protocol will bring about a range of physiological changes that will improve performance during training activity or competition. The most current literature on warm-up procedures suggests that athletes should perform a “general” warm-up (5,22,25,26,38,42), dynamic stretching (DS) routine before activity (8,22,25), and a static stretching routine postactivity (36). Research supporting the usage of preactivity warm-up and stretching has shown that the methodology recommended specifically to throwers has evolved very slowly over time. As far back as the 1930s, Bresnahan and Tuttle (4) suggested a preactivity warm-up consisting of approximately 400 yd of walking and jogging followed by some body weight exercises and 3–5 minutes of static and ballistic stretching exercises. Almost 50 years later, Gambeta (10) suggested a similar protocol of a 800- to 1,600-m warm-up run followed by static stretching (SS), acceleration runs, plus additional SS if needed. These two suggested protocols go against the current recommendations but do demonstrate the limited research available to coaches until recently. Also in the 1980s, proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF) stretching was added as a new technique (1), and it reinforces the need to perform a more static form of preactivity stretching. Replacement of preactivity warm-up and stretching practices recommended a few decades ago has been a slow process. More contemporary research investigating the usage of preactivity warm-up and stretching has shown some of the activities suggested a few decades ago, such as static and ballistic styles of stretching, have been slowly replaced with a focus on DS movements (12,36,40). The most recent research suggests that DS is the most effective preactivity stretching technique (5,6,8,22,25,38,40,42). Current research also suggests that athletes should perform SS after exercise (6,24,33,36) to enhance flexibility. Stretching is commonly thought to be beneficial to athletic performance, but there are 2 studies (34,40) that suggest acute static muscle stretching is detrimental to maximal force production and influences peak torque.
Although the research dealing with preactivity and postactivity stretching is well established, prior research from this investigative team has shown that coaches of other sports do not necessarily follow the guidelines (14–17). Given that national sport governing bodies have taken significant steps to educate coaches, by conducting face-to-face training sessions, organizing seminars, preparing resource material, and other coaching education endeavors, the lack of compliance with research is troublesome. In 2006, the National Association for Sport and Physical Education (NASPE) developed the National Standards for Sport Coaches (NSSC). The NSSC were designed to ensure that coaches and coaching education programs meet the core requirements for creating sport environments that function in the best interest of the athletes' personal and sport development. Collegiate coaches who train throwers in the United States are often certified through the United States Track and Field (USATF) coaching education (CE) program that was established in 1984. The USATF CE program is a 3-level program designed to certify individuals as track and field coaches (39). The USATF CE level 2 program uses the NASPE NSSC as an educational cornerstone and recently began the process of seeking accreditation by the National Council for the Accreditation of Coaching Education (NCACE). However, the USATF level 1 CE program was recently accredited through NCACE and remains dedicated to providing evidence-based practice (39).
Even with the proliferation of CE and certification programs and a greater emphasis on research in this area, it is uncertain if coaching certification is actually impacting the training of athletes. The purpose of this study is to determine the pre- and postactivity stretching practices of men in Division I, II, and III track and field throws programs and to explore whether Division I, II, and III track and field throws programs use pre- and postactivity protocols that reflect the current best practices espoused within the research literature and whether or not their choices are affected by the presence of coaching certifications or by variations in their National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) division.
Experimental Approach to the Problem
The purpose of this study was to ascertain stretching practices conducted in men in the NCAA Division I, II, and III track and field throws programs in the United States. The use of a survey instrument allowed for the collection of data from institutions and coaches across all 3 divisions of the target population. The survey instrument produced large amounts of data regarding current practices, and the data were analyzed for differences among the demographic and educational classifications. These comparisons were used to explore variables that could potentially influence the alignment of coaching practices with current scientific understandings regarding stretching and flexibility.
An e-mail detailing the study and containing informed consent documentation was sent to all men in the NCAA Division I, Division II, and Division III track and field programs, as it pertains to throwers in the United States and included a hyperlink to the online survey. To avoid redundancy, only 1 coach per program (the throws coach) was contacted about the study. The throws coach, or direct member of the staff responsible for stretching activities, was directed to be the only person from the program to complete the survey. Current e-mail addresses for all NCAA Division I, Division II, and Division III throws coaches were obtained from the current athletic Web sites of the institutions involved in the study. An introductory e-mail explained the purpose of the study and provided a hyperlink to the Web-based informed consent form and survey instrument. Data were collected during a 3-week period in early spring (February and March). Early season for the outdoor track-and-field programs was determined to be the best time frame to maximize recall of stretching practices used during the current season by coaches and participation of coaches in the study due to the transition from the indoor to the outdoor seasons. After the initial contact, a reminder e-mail was sent both 2 and 4 weeks after the initial e-mail in an effort to increase the overall response rate. The institutional review board approved the present investigation, and each potential participant was encouraged to contact the principal investigator of this study to answer any questions or provide clarification prior beginning the online survey instrument. Once the potential risks and benefits of their involvement were explained in the introductory e-mail and in the introduction to the online survey instrument, the participants were informed that their completion of the survey acted as their active implied consent to the principal investigator for study participation, and that the subjects were free to withdraw their consent or discontinue the survey at any time without reprisal. Of the 770 questionnaires distributed, 135 were returned (17.5% response rate), and these responses represented the subject pool for this study. The demographics of that subject population are detailed in Table 1.
The authors designed a survey instrument to gather demographic, professional, and educational information, as well as specific pre- and postactivity stretching practices. The survey instrument consisted of 33 questions. The first part of the questionnaire (9 questions) focused on the personal, educational, and certification background information of the participant, whereas the second part (24 questions) pertained to the pre- and postactivity stretching practices used with the track and field throws athletes. Content validity was established in 2 ways. The survey was reviewed by a panel of experts that included 3 certified strength and conditioning specialists (CSCSs) and 1 National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) fellow. After a careful review of the survey instrument, the panel of experts made no substantive changes to the instrument but did alter some of the wording to enhance the clarity of the survey. Wording of the questions was designed to include descriptive information to counteract against misunderstanding of key terminology. For example, ambiguous terms such as “warm-up” and “stretching” were defined for the respondent. Previous research using similar questions did not reveal any difficulty with participant comprehension (14–18). Questions were similarly defined and worded to maximize participant comprehension of specific terminology related to the throwing events in track and field. This survey format has been used in prior research of differing sport populations and has demonstrated construct validity (14–18). A pilot study (n = 15) of USATF certified throws coaches was conducted before data collection for the current instrument and a Cronbach's alpha of 0.722 demonstrated adequate construct validity. After full data collection was completed, an additional evaluation of construct validity was conducted via Kaiser-Meyer-Olkin (KMO) statistics. Like items on the survey were sampled and compared for similarity in response, and the KMO results (>0.600) indicated that the instrument had construct validity.
The surveys were distributed via e-mail, and the recipients were asked to complete the questions on the survey within 7 days of receiving the initial e-mail by completing an online version of the survey using Survey Monkey, an online survey and data collection Web site. A hyperlink to the survey was included in the e-mail, along with a statement of implied informed consent. Two follow-up e-mails were sent 2 and 4 weeks subsequent to the initial e-mail to increase response rate.
Initial data analysis included computing frequency counts and means where applicable. Results were initially computed using all responses collectively to produce descriptive results for the whole sample. Subsequently, items of interest were analyzed by key demographic variables and applicable frequency counts were compared statistically via Pearson's chi-square analyses to assess potential differences. Particular items of interest included the levels of coaching certification, number of years of experience, and key persons or sources of influence on the preactivity stretching activity of collegiate throws coaches. Significance was set at alpha <0.05 for all analyses, and all statistical analyses were performed using JMP version 9.0 (SAS Institute, Cary, Inc., NC, USA).
A total of 135 coaches returned the 33-item survey instrument that assessed the warm-up and flexibility practices across NCAA Division I (n = 320), Division II (n = 175), and Division III (n = 275) institution competing in track and field. The distribution of the 135 responses by division included: 42.6% from Division I, 15.4% from Division II, and 41.2% from Division III. This distribution across the 3 NCAA divisions closely resembles the actual distribution of NCAA member schools with track and field programs with Division I at 320 for 41.6%, Division II at 175 for 22.7%, and Division III at 275 for 35.7% (29). The overall low response rate may have resulted from the following factors: (a) spam control software may have sorted introductory and follow-up e-mails into a bulk mail folder, (b) coaches may not have been interested in the topic or may not have perceived a tangible benefit from study participation, and (c) coaches may not have had sufficient time to complete the survey instrument due to the recruiting, training, and competition calendar (e.g., placed on “to do” list). While the response rate is relatively low by traditional standards, review of institution and conference affiliation data suggests this sample is representative of Division I, II, and III men's track and field throws programs.
The subjects ranged in age from 23 years to 62 years (Table 1). The mean age of the participants was 38.6 (SD = 11.2) years. The participants reported a mean of 12.6 (SD = 9.3) years of coaching experience. The vast majority of participants were male (81.4%) (n = 110). Females accounted for 18.6% (n = 25) of the participants. More participants reported working at Division I institutions (42.6%) than Division III institutions (42.1%) or Division II institutions (15.4%).
Preactivity Warm-up and Stretching
A total of 130 of 135 respondents (96.2%) did some type of general warm-up before track and field throws practices and competitions. Twenty-five coaches (18.5%) reported the general warm-up lasted between 5 and 10 minutes, 4 coaches (2.9%) reported less than 5 minutes, 44 coaches (32.6%) reported between 10 and 15 minutes, and 61 (45.2%) coaches reported more than 15 minutes in length.
From a timing in the workout routine standpoint, a total of 114 of the 135 coaches (84.4%) who responded performed some form of preactivity stretching after the general warm-up. For the type of stretching conducted, 15 coaches (11.1%) indicated using either static/ballistic or PNF stretching; 55 coaches (40.7%) used DS, and 52 coaches (38.5%) reported using a combination of SS and DS. A total of 8 coaches (6%) reported that they did not use preactivity stretching, and 5 did not respond. From a duration of stretching standpoint, 61 coaches took more than 10 minutes, 9 coaches took between 5 and 10 minutes, and 6 coaches took less than 5 minutes for preactivity stretching.
Comparisons by Gender
Chi-square analyses were used to determine if male and female coaches responded differently to the questions regarding flexibility practices on the survey instrument. The analyses revealed no significant difference (p > 0.05) between the flexibility practices of the male participants (81.4%) (n = 110) and female participants (18.6%) (n = 25). Generally, the proportions of the answers were comparable with similar distributions.
Postactivity Cool Down and Stretching
Of the respondents, 71.9% (97 of 135) indicated that their athletes completed a postactivity cool down. Of the 97 respondents, 11 respondents (11.3%) described postactivity cool down as low-intensity track and field throws activity, 1 respondent stated jogging, and 4 respondents specified “other” (e.g., light band movements and stance/slide movements). Fourteen coaches (4.1%) reported the cool-down lasted 5–10 minutes, <1% (1 of 97) indicated less than 5 minutes, and 1 coach indicated between 10 and 15 minutes. Four of 16 coaches indicated that athletes almost always complete the full postactivity cool down, 6 reported that athletes almost always complete the full postactivity cool down, 5 reported that athletes sometimes complete the full postactivity cool down, and 1 coach reported that athletes rarely complete the cool down. Regarding postactivity stretching, 86.7% of respondents (117 of 135) reported including this aspect of training in their daily routines. A total of 71 of the 117 coaches (53.6%) described postactivity stretching as static, 6 coaches (4.4%) reported PNF stretches, 7 (5.2%) used DS, 34 of 117 (29.9%) used a combination of SS and DS methods, and 18 of 135 coaches (13.3%) reported not using postactivity stretching.
An analysis of the divisional data shows that 40.4% (23 of 57) of the Division I coaches stated that a combination of dynamic flexibility and static/ballistic/PNF stretching best describes their preactivity stretching, whereas 42.9% (9 of 21) stated the same at the Division II level and 38.5% of coaches (20 of 52) stated the same at the Division III level. Usage of dynamic flexibility alone as the prestretching activity produced almost the same response as the combined dynamic and static routine with 40.4% (23 of 57) respondents at the Division I level, who stated that dynamic flexibility best describes their preactivity stretching, whereas 38.1% respondents (8 of 21) stated the same at the Division II level, and 46.2% respondents (24 of 52) stated the same at the Division III level. Static stretching alone was still used by 10.5% respondents (6 of 57), which is the lowest level of response at the Division I level, who stated that SS best describes their preactivity stretching, whereas 19.4% (4 of 21) stated the same at the Division II level, and 9.6% (5 of 52) stated the same at the Division III level.
Other divisional data illustrate that 75.0% coaches (42 of 56) at the Division III level had obtained a graduate degree, whereas 57.1% coaches (12 of 21) at the Division II level and 56.9% coaches (33 of 58) at the Division I level had obtained a graduate degree. In terms of certification, 58.6% coaches (34 of 58) at the NCAA Division I level reported having CSCS certification, whereas 47.6% coaches (10 of 21) stated the same at the Division II level and 62.5% (35 of 56) stated the same at the Division III level.
Perceptions of Stretching Outcomes
Five survey items in this study were designed to evaluate the respondents' knowledge and perceptions of flexibility. This included 4 questions relating flexibility, both pre- and postactivity, to injury prevention and performance enhancement. The responses to these items are summarized in Table 2. An additional question examined the timing preferences for the implementation of stretching, and the responses included preactivity: 22.8% (n = 31), postactivity: 38.2% (n = 52), both: 35.3% (n = 48), neither: 2.9% (n = 4), and no response: 0.7% (n = 1).
Impact of USATF Certification
Significant differences were found for the level of USATF certification and the use of SS between throws (χ2= 6.333, p = 0.048). Ten coaches not holding a USATF coaching certification reported performing SS between throws compared with 24 certified coaches that reported not using SS between throws (Figure 1). Significance was also found for the level of USATF certification and requesting the athletic trainer (AT) to perform SS (χ2 = 13.598, p = 0.01). Five coaches not holding a USATF coaching certification reported asking the AT to perform preactivity SS compared with 25 certified coaches who reported not using the AT to perform preactivity SS (Figure 2). Significant differences were also found for the NCAA division levels and the use of soft tissue mobilization (χ2 = 5.913, p = .026). In breaking the results down by division, 15 NCAA Division I coaches, 3 NCAA Division II coaches, and 5 NCAA Division III coaches reported using soft tissue mobilization (Figure 3).
A properly designed preactivity warm-up and stretching routine is intended to prepare the athlete for their specific sport practices and competitions. Prior research in this area suggests a sport-specific warm-up should be performed before stretching (2,5,25,38,42), and a vast majority of throws coaches conform to this “best practice” with 95.6% reporting implementation of a preactivity warm-up. These findings are similar to other sports, including football at 100% (17), volleyball at 100% (15), basketball at 98.6% (16), tennis at 86.9% (14), and distance running at 98.1% (18). Current research also recommends that the athlete perform DS after the warm-up in preparation for practices or competitions (5,7,8,22,24,25,30,38,42) and avoid SS (12,27,34). While 40.7% of the coaches in the present study indicated use of the DS protocol with the warm-up, another 38.5% indicated the use of SS in combination with dynamic methods. This suggests a reluctance to discontinue the outdated practice of SS while beginning the implementation of new evidence-based techniques. Even more problematic, was the 11.1% of coaches using either static/ballistic or PNF techniques. Current literature does not support the use of static/ballistic or PNF stretching prior to track-and-field throws practices and competitions (2,3,7,21). While a single study recommended ballistic stretching during preexercise (41), the general usage of this form of stretching is not supported by research based on safety concerns (3,22).
The usage of SS, either alone or in combination with DS, may be limiting the explosive capabilities of track and field throws athletes and may have little or no effect on injury prevention (35,36). Most available data indicates preactivity SS can cause acute performance reduction from decreased tissue stiffness or alterations in nervous system components of the stretch-shortening cycle, such as the myotatic reflex (36). These responses to SS can result in decreased maximum strength and explosiveness, as well as inferior performances in the throwing circle. However, even though the coaches may have understood the value of DS, almost half of them failed to completely eliminate SS from the prescribed preactivity routine. It may be that coaches are reluctant to remove SS because of a traditional or even dogmatic adherence to coaching practices passed on from previous generations.
The 40.7% level of DS used for throwers in this study was similar to the reported preactivity DS practices of volleyball coaches at 42% (15), football coaches at 26% (17), basketball coaches at 30% (16), cross-country coaches at 42% (14), and tennis coaches at 50% (14). In 2 of the studies, a high percentage of football coaches (90%) (17) and volleyball coaches (86%) (15) reported including a combination of DS and SS, as part of the preactivity protocol, compared with 79% of track and field throws coaches in the present study. The similarity between the data reported here and in earlier studies shows that a reluctance to discontinuing SS is not uncommon among coaches, but throws coaches have to deal with a secondary issue that involves the mind-set specific to throwing athletes. In the practice setting, the ratio of athletes to throwing circles/surfaces can result in a significant amount of downtime for the athletes between throws. Many athletes will look to fill this downtime by doing something they feel might better prepare them for their next throwing opportunity. Given that SS is a traditional preactivity practice, suddenly eliminating this element might unexpectedly have a negative psychological effect on some athletes, especially if they have a prolonged history of using it and a strong belief in its benefits (43). Unless athletes are instructed to avoid SS, it is logical that they might use it in an attempt to stay flexible while they wait. This can be combated by the coach educating the athletes about the detrimental effects of SS and by developing specific routines for them to follow in practice and competitive situations that do not involve SS. A prescribed step-by-step procedure like a precompetitive routine that can enhance performance can be used in-between throwing attempts. The sport science component of the USATF CE program covers techniques that athletes can use in practice and competitive situations to maintain control and optimize performance.
The sport science component of the USATF CE program was originally developed in association with the American Sport Education Program (ASEP). The ASEP was originally pioneered by a sport psychologist and is focused on evidence-based practice among coaches (28). Two of the individuals who helped further develop the sport science portion of the curriculum for the USATF coaching education program were involved in seminal research in the area of SS and human performance (40). Their research findings noted the detrimental effects of preactivity SS. Based in part on this research, the USATF CE program notes the negative effects of preactivity SS (39). In addition, if you consider the number of throws coaches who are also certified in strength and conditioning, it seems likely that this important evidence is being presented to coaches. However, the data presented here suggest that there is a disconnection between what is being taught and the usage of evidence-based practices by throws coaches.
NCAA Division I university athletic departments typically operate with larger budgets and a larger more specialized staff (e.g., assistant coaches, ATs, massage therapists, strength and conditioning coaches, etc.) compared with the NCAA Division II and NCAA Division III athletic departments (9). It was not surprising, that there were significant differences for the NCAA division level and the use of soft tissue mobilization. NCAA Division I track and field programs often have a throws coach with a strength and conditioning background, who is able to design and sometimes directly conduct warm-up and flexibility routines before practices and competitions. Most strength coaches and many throws coaches are certified through the NSCA. The NSCA CSCS program was created in 1985 to certify individuals as those who possess the knowledge and skills to design and implement safe and effective strength and conditioning programs (32). To pass the certification examination, individuals must possess knowledge in the scientific foundations of warm-up, stretching, cool down, periodization, nutrition, strength and conditioning, and demonstrate the skills to apply that knowledge (1). In contrast, most NCAA Division II and III track and field programs do not have the budgetary resources to hire an exclusive throws coach. The difference in budget and ultimately staffing at NCAA Division I, NCAA Division II, and NCAA Division III track and field programs could potentially have an impact on warm-up and flexibility routines, but the evidence provided here does not support that reasoning. The usage of preactivity SS was similar for the 3 divisions.
It is typically recommended that track and field throws athletes perform SS after exercise. Interestingly, 86.0% of track and field throws coaches in this study reported that athletes did complete a postactivity stretching protocol. This is much higher than the 43.5% of football coaches who reported athletes do not complete any postactivity stretching protocol (17). Among those throws coaches who completed postactivity stretching, 52.2% of them reported SS as their primary method. This means that a little more than half of the coaches who implemented postactivity stretching into their program were following research recommendations.
Of the 135 coaches, 97 coaches (71.3%) reported that athletes complete a postactivity cool down. It can only be speculated why the postactivity cool down and stretching are not completed on a more consistent basis. Perhaps, because of the NCAA (31) 20 hour of countable athletic activities rule, there is a lack of practice time to perform this cool down and stretching, and coaches are unable to make it a mandatory conclusion to daily practice. Venue scheduling and availability may also affect postactivity work, as track and field throws coaches may have a small window of time to use their training areas. Additionally, student athletes have to balance class, practice, study, and competition and may not prioritize time to complete a full daily cool down on their own in the locker room, athletic training facility, or another venue.
One of the most interesting findings of the present study is that 25.7% of throws coaches reported an absence of any type of certification. This lack of certifications within the track and field throws coaching population across all divisions is problematic. This can be attributed to the fact that many institutions often hire a former thrower, who is typically uncertified, to serve as the throws coach. Although training and certification is often completed subsequent to their initial hire, there seems to be a knowledge gap, as significant differences for the level of USATF certification and the instances of the coach requesting the AT to perform preactivity SS.
Another interesting finding is the similarity between Division I, Division II, and Division III programs in terms of the preactivity stretching routines. It is generally concluded that track and field throws coaches are implementing flexibility practices into their programs; however, there seems to be inconsistent compliance with the proper protocols recommended in the literature. The lack of differences in stretching practices between divisions defied expectations. Budgetary constraints could potentially impact the hiring of qualified personnel with specialized training, thereby possibly reducing the likelihood of scientific stretching practices being incorporated into track and field throws programs. However, the number of CSCS certified coaches was not significantly different between NCAA Division I, II, and III institutions. Therefore, while the more talented Division I athletes compete at a higher level, scientific understanding of their coaches in the application of training elements such as preactivity stretching may not be any more advanced than their Division II and III colleagues.
Although this research indicates a growing implementation of DS during preactivity routines, coaches must also remain cognizant of other emerging methods. Recent research indicates that alternative warm-up methods have the ability to bolster an athlete's throwing potential (26). Plyometric (29,37), postactivation potentiation (13), and whole body vibration (11) routines, each have been shown to enhance an athlete's ability to exert maximal lower extremity power and strength. Therefore, throws coaches should assess training constraints such as time, gym space, and number of athletes being trained and should choose the evidence-based preactivity warm-up and stretching routine that suits their individual needs (19).
The results of this study demonstrate the necessity for track-and-field throws coaches to reevaluate their methods, perhaps aligning them with the existing research. Although research supports dynamic warm-up/stretching over other forms of preactivity protocols, it seems that some track and field throws coaches remain reluctant to completely discontinue traditional methods, such as preactivity SS. This study suggests the need for track and field throws coaches to implement more scientifically appropriate flexibility practices, as research indicates that alternative warm-up methods have the ability to bolster an athlete's throwing potential.
The higher level certified coaches implementing evidence-based practices within stretching, demonstrate that track-and-field throws coaches at all levels could benefit from participating in certification programs, like the system offered by the NSCA or USATF. Using well-designed training programs that follow research recommended preactivity stretching protocols can positively impact an athlete's preparedness, which contributes to peak performance. Adhering to these recommendations would allow track and field throws programs to implement more appropriate flexibility (warm-up/cool down, and stretching) routines for maximal benefits within their respective team.
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