Tips for covering track & field meets

Plan coverage by using highlighters and stickies.

Originally published May 2014.

Let’s talk track and field coverage.

In many states, sectional and state meets are tacking place during the next few weekends, including here in Illinois, where high school girls compete for titles at EIU’s O’Brien Field – a short walk from the house.

Like high school football, a large track and field meet can be overwhelming for both new and experienced sportswriters. These meets have at least 16 events, which are multiplied by quarterfinal and semifinal heats. So where’s one to start? How can one keep track? By relying on research and organizational skills – listing local athletes and charting when they will compete, for starters.

I’m about to help my daughter, Kristen, a freshman at EIU, cover her first live sports event this afternoon. I’ll be tweeting advice and tips through the day at @joegisondi. I’ve listed a few tips below for those also heading out to cover track this afternoon. I’l add this list either tonight or tomorrow. In the meantime, here are some suggestions in no particular order.

1. Have a plan. Get a program early or print it off a website. List all local athletes, cite their events, times they compete, and classification (Class 1A, 2a, etc.) Also leave room on each row to insert times, distances or heights, along with overall finish. This will ultimately be your cheat sheet when writing on deadline.

2. Like politics, all track meets are hyper local. A local kid who takes third in the high jump trumps a state record from another kid in a town far from your circulation area. Note the record, of course, but do not insert it early in the story.

3. Write as you go. Track meets are like 16-20 mini-game stories. After each event, detail how an athlete performed, perhaps adding some description, along with quotes. Insert them into the story in order of news value and reader interest. Ultimately, you’ll have several minileads through the story that will keep the reader interested. If possible, you can post these mini-game stories online through the day to draw readers to you website. Afterward, you can revise your story to reflect more overarching themes.

4. Read previously published stories on these athletes, such as a piece about last week’s sectional. Further, check archives for stories on last year’s meet to fid additional storylines, stats, and details. Print these and bring them with you.

5. Bring a backpack that includes notebooks, pens, audio recorder, chargers for iPhones and laptops, snacks, socks, and sunscreen. These races can last all day, so please make sure to use the sunscreen, wear a hat and to keep hydrated. Most large meets will offer snacks and water at a press/athlete tent. Find that early.

6. Determine where results are posted or handed out so you can confirm times, heights, distances and places.

7. Ask editors for length, deadline and content. Some editors prefer a straightforward story that focuses on results; others like a feature approach.

8. Make sure you include the name of the event in the story, although you can delay this to the second or third graph. Today, for example, we are covering the IHSA Track & Field State Meet.

9. When writing about events, no need to add ‘dash’ after 100 or 400-meter run. In most instances, you can avoid using ‘run.’ For example: “Scott Raft passed three runners on the final curve and retained down the stretch to win the 400 meters title in 49.7 seconds.”

10. Use numbers appropriately. Someone wins the 800 meters in 1  minute, 50.7 seconds, but the next runner finishes in 1:52.9. Someone wins the long jump at 19 feet, 6 inches, but the runner-up leaps 18-10. Spell out times in first reference for each event so the reader understands the time. Same holds true for a marathon, where someone can win that event in 2 hours, 5 minutes, and 12.2 seconds, but the runner-up finishes in 2:05.32. As you can tell, do not spell out numbers below 10 as you would for many other stories, according to AP Style. This is one of the many exceptions to the confusing numeral rules.

11. Compare times an individual or relay team posted in the state meet compared to qualifying. For example, one 4×400 team ran 10 seconds faster during today’s IHSA preliminary heat. That’s astounding. Offer both times and follow-up with questions to learn the reasons for this great improvement. In many case, you’ll slip in this information like this: “Karina Liz kicked it in during the final 100 meters to finish in 2 minutes, 12.69 seconds, nearly three seconds faster than the next best time and more than one second faster than her sectional qualifying time.”

12. Find coaches during the meet, asking for their cell phones in order to contact them during the hectic final rush of events. You can also find most coaches at their team tents, usually popped up outside the stadium, at the end of the day in order to help put performances into perspective.

A few post-event questions to ask:

1. What was your goal or strategy in this event?

2. Walk me through your race. What were you seeing or feeling?

3. How did you feel before the race?

4. What was the biggest challenge you faced in today’s event? You may learn that a runner rolled her ankle during on the curve of a race a few weeks earlier. You may even get a quote like this: “My ankle is not strong enough to run a curve yet, so I ran the straight instead,” said Zick. “It’s a different race coming back from an injury.”

5. What has been your biggest challenge this season? You may learn something like this: “Zick isn’t the only athlete suffering an injury. Krista Fitzmaurice, a senior from St. Charles East, has battled sinus and ear infections, anemia, and four broken metatarsal bones. The physical therapy three times a week healed her foot, meaning that the only thing Fitzmaurice needs to worry about is her lungs.”

“I could have walked off, and I wanted to so many times because it’s frustrating,” said Fitzmaurice. “But then I had to think about [state] finals last year and it gave me chills.”

Talk to as many athletes, coaches and officials as possible. That’s how you gather insights even people in the stands won’t know.

I’ll update this after today’s state track meet.

-30-

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About jgisondi

I covered sports and worked as a sports copy editor for more than 20 years at several newspapers in Florida, including the Fort Myers News-Press, Clearwater Sun, Florida Today and Orlando Sentinel. I started writing for a weekly sports publication in Coral Springs, Fla., at age 15. I have been hooked on sports journalism ever since. I was fortunate to have worked with some amazing editors along the way, journalists who took the time to help me even when my copy was not top-notch. Now, I teach journalism at Eastern Illinois University and work as an editor for Landof10.com, a vertical that focuses on Big Ten athletics. A second edition of the "Field Guide To Covering Sports" will be available sometime in February 2017. The book is a practical guide to preparing, observing, interviewing and writing about 20 different sports, from auto racing to wrestling. Chapters also address ways to cover high school sports, fantasy sports, to develop sports blogs. You can also learn how to cover games, to write features and to interview better. Fans can also learn basic rules of these sports, along with ways to better observe the action. New chapters in the second edition will address social media, advanced analytics, fantasy sports coverage and revised, expanded chapters address game coverage, features and columns, among other new sections.
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