Inside The Mind of Eldrick Floreal and His Approach to Coaching Sydney McLaughlin

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When Sydney McLaughlin crossed the finish line of the the women’s 400 meter hurdles at the SEC Outdoor Track and Field Championships in Knoxville, Tenn., on May 13, her winning time of 52.75 bettered her world junior record for the second time this season and put her just .41 seconds away from the world record.

It is without a doubt an impressive mark but the 18-year-old felt is quick to point out her mistakes. On the back stretch, she got too close to the hurdle as part of an adjustment coming off the first. On the ninth hurdle, she went over with her left leg instead of the right one that she had the rest of the race. She reported the mistakes back to her coach, Edrick Floreal, but she didn’t have to. Flo knows. Even if she had broken the world record, surely they’d briefly celebrate, but eventually, he would turn to helping McLaughlin correct the errors.

Flo knows. It is the phrase Floreal’s athletes and the University of Kentucky track and field team has popularized.

When Kendra Harrison broke the world record in the women’s 100 meter hurdles at the London Diamond League meet last July, it still wasn’t the ideal race. “The eighth, ninth and tenth hurdle weren’t very good but the first seven were almost perfect,” Floreal said afterwards. He also notes flaws in the 110-meter hurdle championship races of Olympic and world champion Omar McLeod. Floreal says he has yet to witness the perfect race and if an athlete ever accomplishes it, that would be enough reason to retire. In the hurdles, wind, fatigue and some mental aspects are just among the conditions that an athlete must balance while trying not to brush a hurdle.

“You’re chasing something that you hopefully never catch because when you do then it’s the end,” Floreal says. “It’s kind of fun to know that you’ve got the potential to improve on whatever you’ve done. Perfection is not really attainable but if you chase it, you can attain excellence.”

The vision of perfection is the starting point for Floreal’s coaching approach and then he works backwards. He measures and looks at what his athletes can do based on their ability and tries to fit that to the imagery in his mind. There’s a model and grouping of pictures in his head of how McLaughlin, Harrison, McLeod or any of his athletes at Kentucky can run. His goal is to take the current version of them and gear them toward his vision.

This lends itself to equal parts frustration at times. An athlete can set a big personal best but Floreal will tell them the second, third, fourth fifth and sixth hurdles were not good, but the seventh and eighth ones are what they’re targeting. The irritation on Floreal’s end happens when the athletes are trying hard but still do not look like the picture in his head.

“Everything is based on the optimum performance—the perfect jump, the perfect sprint and the perfect hurdle race,” Floreal says. “They’re being measured consistently against my idea of the perfect race.”

Floreal was a five-time NCAA champion triple jumper for Arkansas from 1988 to 1990 and he also represented Canada at the World University Games, Commonwealth Games, World Championships, Goodwill Games and the 1988 and 1992 Olympics. Not bad for an athlete who discovered track and field after a game of basketball when he decided to attempt a 6’6” high jump in a pit that was being set up nearby. It caught the attention of the high school’s jumps coach and he was convinced to join the team shortly thereafter.

Before he turned 20, Floreal was considered one of Canada’s best jumpers but he nearly quit the sport after failing to qualify for a junior meet in the Bahamas. He finished third and just the top two athletes went on to compete at the meet. After the race, he threw away the bronze medal—and his shoes.

“I was done with track but that was also when I decided that was the last time there was a national team to make that I didn’t make,” Floreal recalls. “I came back and trained pretty hard. Ever since then, I’ve been a maniac workaholic. If I’m doing something, I’m doing it at 110%.”

While training for the ‘92 Summer Games in Barcelona, Floreal moved to Atlanta with his wife LaVonna Martin. To this day, there are universities and facilities that do not permit professional runners from training on the premises. Floreal asked Georgia Tech to use their track but they initially turned him away. He offered to coach the team’s jumpers and hurdlers for free in exchange for the keys and coach Grover Hinsdale agreed. Floreal reached the Olympics but finished 28th in qualifying round of the long jump while his wife won a silver medal in the 100 meter hurdles for the United States.

As his own competitive career started coming to an end due to a knee injury at the 1995 world indoor championships, Floreal started focusing on coaching full-time and results followed. Eric Bowers arrived at Georgia Tech as a 23-foot long jumper but after working with Floreal, he slowly improved to 26 feet, 2.75 inches. The University of Kentucky took notice and offered Floreal a role as an assistant coach in in 1995. Bowers went on to set a Yellow Jackets record and ACC Championship record before finishing second at the NCAA championships.

His first stint at Kentucky only lasted two years before Floreal received a call from Vin Lananna at Stanford University. Lananna is now viewed as one of the most influential figures in rejuvenating track and field, from his coaching days at Oregon to his key role in bringing Olympic Trials back to Eugene. Most recently, he served a brief tenure as president of USA Track and Field. In 1992, Lananna and Stanford did not have the full complement of scholarships—the men had three and the women had six. The Cardinal managed to win a cross country national championship in 2016 with limited resources and then brought on Floreal as an assistant in 1998.

With Stanford’s demanding admission standards, the athletes attending the university excelled in the classroom but could use development on the track. Similar to Bowers, Floreal started seeing marginal gains with athletes to win PAC-10 titles and place high at the NCAA Outdoor Championships. Floreal’s pursuit of perfection started with those teams.

Lananna recalls when Milton Little won the PAC-10 long jump title in 2002, becoming the first Cardinal to do so since 1991, Floreal was quick to note a minor tweak in the takeoff.

“I would constantly have to remind him, ‘C’mon Edrick, we have to celebrate the victories,’” Lananna says while laughing. “That’s just his personality.”

“A lot of people rest on their previous success but that’s not Edrick,” Lananna adds. “He put in a hard day’s work all the time. At school where students are very into their high-level studies, extracurriculars and sports, they gravitate toward Edrick.”

When Lananna left for the Ducks in 2005, Floreal was tabbed as the successor. Under his leadership, 91 Stanford athletes earned 197 All-America honors with several winning Pac-12 and NCAA championships titles. A handful went on to represent the United States at Olympics or world championships. In 2012, Floreal decided he wanted a new test and looked to the SEC. He also recruited Kori Carter, who set a then-NCAA 400 meter hurdle record at Stanford and then reunited with Floreal as a professional to win the 2017 world championship title.

“People were telling me, ‘Oh man! The SEC is the toughest conference because these guys have superstar athletes.’” Floreal says. “I looked at the results and I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be fun to take the worst program in the SEC and see if I can turn it around?’ My wife is full of jokes and said, ‘Well, it’s time to see what you’re made of.’”

When Floreal accepted the job at Kentucky, the Wildcats were coming off an eighth place finish by the men and a 12th place finish by the women at the 2012 SEC Outdoor Championships. Challenge accepted.

Floreal’s Kentucky squads have incrementally improved in the SEC Championships standings. The men have finished in the top seven on four occasions since 2013 while the women have reached the podium with third place finishes in 2015, 2016 and 2017 with Harrison and sprinter Dezerea Bryant leading the charge.

The arrival of McLaughlin and the breakthrough of Jasmine Camacho-Quinn, who represented Puerto Rico at the Olympics and won the 2016 NCAA outdoor 100 meter hurdle title, continue the new tradition of talent rolling through Lexington.

Before this weekend’s NCAA outdoor track and field championships, Floreal says that McLaughlin has done research of her own by memorizing all of the best 4x400m splits of every competitor that she could possibly match up against. Floreal and McLaughlin are a match in their respective analytical and technical approaches to the competition. That was just part of plan that was proposed when McLaughlin took a visit to Kentucky and decided on the Wildcats over USC—a school that could match up against her on the final leg of the relay.

Floreal now helps do some of the research for McLaughlin, who now admits to watching Youtube videos of Edwin Moses sometimes during class at Union Catholic High School in New Jersey.

“I do my own research on the things that I need to accomplish my goals,” McLaughlin says. “That means I watch a lot of 400m hurdle races. I look at the world record and what the time was when they’re coming off hurdle nine or hurdle 10 so that I can look at the clock and know where I’m at and what I can do to better my race.”

When Floreal spoke to Bleacher Report in December 2017, part of that initial plan was for McLaughlin to take a year off from the 400-meter hurdles to possibly delve into the 100-meter hurdles and long jump. The plan changed when McLaughlin and him sat down in Lexington and she expressed her goals of breaking the collegiate record and improving on her personal bests.

“Sydney told me that she wanted to do some cool things this year because there’s the potential that she’s a one-and-done,” Floreal says. “As she tells me what she wants, I put the plan together. People need to see her range so that’s what we focused on this year. People were talking about her as a 400 meter hurdler. I don’t think a 400-meter hurdler is going to be the star of track and field so she needed to be seen as more than that.”

Floreal’s practices can sometimes look odd to a casual observer. Harrison may find herself running hurdles next to McLeod so that she can understand a different velocity around her that she may not get from other women. McLaughlin was paired with Harrison and others to work on her mechanics while preparing to run flat races like the 100, 200 and 400.

When McLaughlin lined up for the 200 at the Florida Relays Gainesville on March 29, Floreal knew that she had been exposed to enough sprinting to race an atypical event for her. She ran a personal best of 22.39, which made her the fourth-fastest sprinter under 20 for the event in history. A day later, she clocked a 50.07 for 400 meters in the rain for sixth in the world all-time on the U-20 list. Calendars were marked for her April 27th debut over hurdles at Arkansas’ National Relay Championships. For a meet centered around team performances, McLaughlin alone stole the show with a new world junior record of 53.60.

There is no question that McLaughlin’s range has been established but in early May, McLaughlin toyed with the idea of running an 800 at the Kentucky Relays and decided to approach Floreal with the idea. She viewed it as an excuse to get out of a workout in the week.

“I chickened out but she wanted to do it,” Floreal says. “She was going to do it and the workouts that she’s done have indicated that she could run 2:03 or 2:04 easily. At some point, it would be fun to do.”

“Now that I look back on it, I don’t think I want to do that,” McLaughlin says. “I was curious of what I would be able to run. I hope he doesn’t remember that. It was just a one-time thing and that window has closed.”

McLaughlin and Floreal decided to stay the course and the historic 52.75 followed at the SEC Championships. McLaughlin is short, almost trying not to jinx herself, when sharing her goals for the NCAA Outdoor Championships.

“Just hopefully run a personal best,” McLaughlin says. “Hopefully that means a win. It depends on the day and anything can happen. I’m going to try and run the best and cleanest race I can.”

The next fastest collegiate would have to shave more than three seconds off her personal best in order to top McLaughlin’s best. The individual NCAA 400 meter hurdle title could be the first and last of her career in a Kentucky uniform, if she decides to finally cash in on a lucrative professional contract with a shoe company, which has likely been waiting for her since making the Olympic team in 2016. Her value has only increased. Floreal has no requirement for McLaughlin to stay with Kentucky or turn professional for next season. If she elected to turn professional, she would simply join the ranks of Carter, Harrison and McLeod of professional stars working with Floreal.

“I think right now turning pro is what she’s leaning toward,” Floreal says in late May. “She’s sort of done everything that she could do in a year. It’s been full and she’s done it all. If she comes back next year, then people hold you accountable to the previous year and it creates pressure. In my gut, it makes sense. If she doesn’t want to, that’s fine with me. We’re not 100% sure what the decision is yet but her parents are evaluating.”

“Sydney wants to set the world on fire,” Floreal adds. “I tell her that she’s Beyonce and I’m the manager. My job is to make sure the drummer drums correctly. I make sure the beat stops when she pauses. I make sure the dancers zig when she zigs and zag when she zags. I help make sure that the lights turn on correctly—not too bright but make sure it doesn’t reflect too bad. I’m just the guy making sure that everything is being orchestrated correctly. She’s the star and puts on the show.”

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