Track & Field

National League in need of a healthy change

Elizabeth Egan competed in round 1 of the GloHealth National League and felt the need for change. Below is her blog post and suggestions on how we can get into a better format.

by Elizabeth Egan

So I finally found out what time I ran at the GloHealth National League – four days after the event! I didn’t run as fast as I thought (hoped) I had, but that’s the problem with delayed results: they have the habit of raising expectations.

On the whole, I enjoyed the day. There was a decent turn out, the standard was reasonable, and there was some level of atmosphere (not always a guarantee at track meets these days). The fact that there were three guest races in the men’s 100m demonstrates that there still is an appetite for competition with electronic timing.

But, my god, the format needs to change!

I was a little shocked (I’m not sure why – this sort of thing happens all the time) when I saw that there were 5 premier ladies teams listed to compete in Belfast and 8 for Templemore. Either the teams in Templemore were going to be at a serious disadvantage, or the league had been split in a pool more than required.

Yes, it seems that in the world of athletics and eight-lane tracks, that 5 + 4 + 4 is the chosen way to divide 13 teams! Wexford Country (my team!), benefited not only from being drawn in a pool of 4, but when St Abban’s essentially didn’t show (they scored 11 points), we were guaranteed 6 points in almost every event! While five teams were battling it out in Belfast, our target quickly evolved from laying a decent foundation for day two to seeing if we could score maximum points.

There were other issues with round 1 and the league in general, which I don’t think I need to go into. Suffice to say that for many athletes, coaches, officials and team managers, the league is a well-established nuisance event on the summer calendar, and a long Sunday afternoon (or three) that could be spent on the beach… training for bigger and better races, of course.

Many benefits to the League

But there are many benefits to the League. Off the top of my head, these are just some of the things that it can (and should) aim to achieve:

– To select national league champions to represent Ireland at the European club’s championships the following year
– To provide senior athletes with competitive race opportunities in the hope of recording decent performances
– To provide a stepping stone between junior and senior competition for young athletes
– To achieve all the above in a relaxed and fun, yet professional, environment

Good friendly competition. Maria McCambridge and Sharon Bradley at Round 1. Image: Kieran Carlin

Good friendly competition. Maria McCambridge and Sharon Bradley at Round 1. Image: Kieran Carlin

The league should, without doubt, remain, but the format needs serious reconsideration. These are some of my suggestions – not all would work, but they demonstrate that thinking outside of the box can lead to endless ways of improving the competition. Be warned though, they are quite radical!

Suggested changes

Option 1 – Get rid of qualifying rounds and have separate interclub and intercounty team competitions

The problem with the current format is that clubs/teams throw out any sort of team in the first round; scramble for points in the second just to make the final; and actually put out their best team for the final at the end of the summer. The result in one good day of competition, proceeded by two days of tedious competition that stretches the patience of both athletes and team managers.

The European Team competition and the European Champion Clubs competitions are one day event, so there is no reason that the Irish team event couldn’t be. The whole league could be split into divisions of 8 teams, and run off on one day. The team with the most points wins the division, with the top two in the lower divisions gaining promotion and the bottom two being relegated. It might be difficult to split the teams in the first year, but it would sort itself out after that. Teams who fail to compete have to start at the very bottom the following year.

The above could be done on one day for purely club teams, and repeated on a second day for just counties (though Dublin would definitely have to be split in some way). For the intercounties, it could be two per team per event.

Advantages:
All eight lanes of the track would be used, making for more competitive races.
The luck of what teams you’re drawn against in the qualification rounds would be eliminated.
There is less commitment required from athletes and managers.
Clubs wouldn’t have to compete against counties and visa versa.
Clubs could know well in advance where they are competing.

Disadvantages:
Many clubs in Ireland are still relatively small, and standard within a club varies from year to year; the chance of no shows are high.
Guest competitors, particularly those that have no club entered, may not be well catered for.

Adaptations:
With just 8 teams in a group, there could still be multiple matches (similar to British League and UK Women’s League), but with each match carrying equal points.

Option 2 – Stick with current rounds and final, but make sure that there are multiples of eight teams in premier division

This is pretty self-explanatory, and the most obvious possible solution. Have 16 teams in Men’s and Women’s premier, with teams split evenly based on previous year’s seeding. Top 8 qualify for final.

Athletics Ireland should have enough flexibility to promote/relegate teams to allow for this once the receive entries.

Liam MacDevitt winning the 400m

Liam MacDevitt winning the 400m

Option 3 – Seed heats and award points based on performance/overall ranking

This is the most radical of my suggestions, but arguably the best for competition for athletes.

Basically, you would have all the women’s teams competing in somewhere central on a Saturday (and the men on a Sunday, or vice versa). Races would be graded as best as possible, and points awarded based on overall performance time/distance (e.g. if there are 24 teams, the best performance in the 100m would get 24 points, and so on down to 1 point). At the end of the day, the top 8 teams would go into the Premier (or A) final, and the next 8 would go to the Division 1 (or B) final. On the final day, both men’s and women’s teams would compete on the same day, in the same venue as normal. The final would be unchanged from the current format.

This would undoubtedly work better for the women’s event, where there are fewer teams.

Advantages:
Athletes get the best level of competition possible, which is particularly good for athletes in smaller clubs.
The best performances get the best scores.
There are a lot of points on offer for every event, so the rewards for developing a pole vaulter, for example, are potentially very big.
Only one qualification round is needed.

Disadvantages:
Seeding might be very difficult.
There may be too many men’s teams to do this.
Women-only and men-only events are dull (for obvious reasons!).

Adaptations:
This could be adapted slightly so that all the Premier League teams compete against each other, and all the Division One teams compete against each other.

Other suggested improvements
Award points based on number of teams in each pool (i.e. if there is 5 teams in a pool, points are awarded 6, 4, 3, 2, 1). A team, therefore, isn’t disadvantaged by being drawn in a pool with more teams than other pools.
The league may also provide the opportunity for athletes to try other events for the first time. However, when a club can drop scores in four events, there is the risk that some of the more technical events get left behind. Why would a club bother to search for and develop pole vaulting talent when they don’t need to? The number of events that can be dropped should be reduce – maybe to just 1. In addition to help develop talent across multiple events, it might help balance the scoring.
Get the timetable right. If multievent races or guest races are being included, add these to the timetable, so athletes know how many races are still left to run before their race.

At a quick estimate, I’ve competed in approximately 20 league matches in Ireland, and close to the same number of UK Women’s League matches. If I didn’t feel that I get anything from competing in them, I wouldn’t. League competition does still have a place, but the format, and the attitude towards it – not mutually exclusive concepts – need to change. Keeping an eye on what the league aims to achieve will, no doubt, help.

Craig Murphy (left) representing Iona in Cross Country
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Feidhlim Kelly

Feidhlim Kelly

Con Houlihan once told me that tomorrow is now. In taking on this venture I’ve started to try and put his words into action.

I worked for Con from 2007 till his passing in 2012 taking down his copy and a whole lot more. I have a Con Houlihan section which will go in to more depth on that.

I’m a long-time contributor to the Irish Runner magazine and am also working for the Irish Examiner.

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