Category Archives: Discus

Gia for President

The Constitution says a person must be at least thirty-five years old to run.

Check. Gia is thirty-eight.

As we know, an ideal candidate should be someone who empathizes with rural America.

Gia lives on a farm.

They should understand the importance of having access to quality health care.

More on that  later.

They should be able to stand up to Putin.

Gia has taken on another terror from the East,  Sandra Perkovic, many times and during the 2013 and 2014 seasons handed the Croatian Sensation her only losses.

They should be tough as nails.

A year ago, Gia was so hobbled by a back injury that she could barely bend over to pick up her discus. This past weekend, she won the USA Championships.

I know how injured Gia was last summer because I saw her throw at North Central  College in a last ditch attempt to see if she’d be able to compete at the Olympic trials. She literally hobbled over to the cage during warm-ups and limped out of the ring after each attempt.

It was really tough to watch. I don’t know anyone in this sport who does not love and respect Gia, and to those of us who were at North Central that day it was pretty clear that Gia’s career was over. At her age (Sorry, Gia. I know we often talk about you as if your expiration date as an athlete has expired) it was hard to imagine her coming back from that severe of an injury.

But come back she did.

According to Gia’s coach, University of Illinois head track coach Mike Turk, her back problems first emerged in August of 2015, as she was preparing for the World Championships in Beijing.

“The day before she left for the USA team training camp in Tokyo, her back got really tight. Then, she got a bad seat on the plane and had to endure the thirteen-hour flight overseas in pain the whole way. She spent most of the time in Tokyo trying to get better. USATF did everything they could for her. They even took her to one of Japan’s team doctors for acupuncture.”

Unfortunately, nothing helped and according to Coach Turk, Gia “almost pulled out of the meet before qualifying.” She gutted her way though the prelims, but finished 11th with a throw of 60.55m, almost nine meters below her PR.

Her back problems (it turned out to be herniated discs in  L4 and L5) plagued her throughout the 2016 campaign.  Coach Turk recalls the low point coming at a meet in April when Gia told him though tears that she “could not do this anymore.” Her back hurt so much that she had to have someone hold her place in line during warm-ups so she could rest between throws.

Two months later, she was forced to withdraw from the Trials.

No one would have blamed Gia if she had decided to call it a career, but having fought for nearly fifteen years to make it to the world class level (she threw her PR of 69.17m at the age of 35) she was determined not to give up.

Coach Turk says that Gia’s agent, Karen Locke, was instrumental in turning things around.  Locke referred Gia to a medical team in Los Angeles, and one of the first things they did was to treat a leg length discrepancy that apparently caused a lot of undue stress on her lower back.

After being fitted with an orthotic, “she made an incredible commitment to weeks and weeks of therapy in LA followed by months of therapy in Minnesota (at the Hopkins Health and Wellness Center). It was a big financial burden to her family. A lot of people would have given up, but she wanted to show people that it could be done.”

 

Late in the fall of 2016, Gia was able to start training like a discus thrower again.

“When we started training, it was a real slow process. We started training in conjunction with the work in Minnesota. She would go up there for a week periodically through the fall and winter. Some time in January we actually started doing some full throws.”

But progress was slow, as she had missed an entire year of serious strength training.

“When we opened the season, she was throwing 55 meters because the strength wasn’t there. She was a little down about it, and I had to remind her that she’d been off for over a year.  I really believed her power would come back, I just couldn’t tell her when.”

Finally, in May, her  power made an appearance.

She hit 62.95m to get the A standard, then followed that up on June 2nd by drilling 65.81m at the Tuscon Elite meet.

Coach Turk was pleased, but not shocked by those distances.

“I knew about that time that she was ready to throw well. I could see things flying in practice a bit more the week leading up to Tuscon.  I could see especially the heavy implements going farther.”

Though her winning toss in Sacramento (62.65m) was, by Gia’s standards, not a bomb, she and Coach Turk were happy with it for several reasons: the 100-degree temperature, the 10:00 pm in Illinois starting time, the fact that she had been for all practical purposes crippled twelve months earlier.

“The goal was to make the team,” he explained. “For sure you want to win, but she really wanted to prove that she wasn’t too old, that she could come back at the age of 38 and make another team. And when people wonder how much longer she can throw, that’s the answer: as long as she keeps making teams.

Next up is a short trip to Europe, the first time this year that she will be road testing her back overseas. Turk is not worried about her ability to withstand the rigors of such a trip.

“We’ll make sure she gets herself set before she leaves. We’ll make sure she recovers when she gets back. If she can make trips to the west coast, she can make trips to Europe.”

In terms of strength, Gia’s lifting numbers (she focuses on dead lifts, power cleans and bench press) are close to 90% of what she was lifting when she threw that 69.17m.

Around the first of August, she will pack up that strength, a couple of discs and an over-sized load of determination for a trip to Birmingham where she will make her final preparations for the Worlds in London.

Coach Turk says that he and Gia have a theme for this season: The Story is Not Over.

 

With luck, the story will continue all the way to Tokyo and the 2020 Olympics.

After that, Gia might need to find a new passion.

I have just the thing.

Gia. The country needs ‘ya!

Art Venegas talks about Whitney Ashley and the fine art of fixed feet discus throwing

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In June of 2012, my colleague Pat Trofimuk and I drove to Drake University in Des Moines to cover the NCAA Championships for the now-defunct Long and Strong Throwers Journal.The five-hour drive across the cornfields of Illinois and Iowa gave us the opportunity to examine the lineups for the various throwing events and to predict which would be the most hotly contested. One event that we agreed would offer very little in the way of drama was the women’s discus. Arizona State’s Anna Jelmini was the clear favorite, the only thrower in the field who had consistently thrown in the 58-60 meter range all season and certainly the only one likely to reach that distance under the pressure of an NCAA Championship final.

True, Anna had also been considered the favorite going into the previous year’s NCAA meet only to be denied when Northwestern Louisiana’s Tracey Rew nailed a three-meter PR to claim the title, but the odds of that kind of ridiculousness happening again seemed remote.

Once the competition began late on a humid Iowa afternoon, Anna did her part by hitting a 58.79m opener that, as far as I could tell, assured her of the win.

Then, a funny thing happened in round five.

As the evening progressed and the humidity dropped and a gentle breeze floated in, a young lady from San Diego State with two first names, a violent fixed-feet finish and the rather odd habit of carrying the discus next to her right hip as she turned out of the back of the ring stepped into the cage and deposited a throw just short of the 60-meter line.

The exact measurement was 59.99m,  a four-meter PR.

That young lady’s name was Whitney Ashley,and that throw made her the NCAA champion. It also began a series of events that led to her qualifying for Rio by winning the Olympic Trials last weekend.

Whitney trains at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, and to get some insight into her improbable rise to the top of her sport, I spoke with her coach, Art Venegas. Here are excerpts from that conversation.

Coach, the first time I ever noticed Whitney was when she won the NCAA title in Des Moines in 2012. When did you first start working with her?

I was at Chula Vista while Whitney was at San Diego State, and her head coach had just hired a new throwing coach, the shot putter Dorian Scott, and she knew that Dorian had a lot of shot put background but needed help with the discus so she sent them over to me to get information and then Dorian worked with her off the stuff we were doing together. Her average was in the 180’s, and I was very interested in having her go to the training center, but the people in Indianapolis said unless she throws within two percent of the “B” standard–which was in the mid-190’s– she could not come no matter what you say. Interestingly enough, it was that one throw in Des Moines that got her over the “B” standard. Her next best throw was way under what she would have needed, so that throw in Des Moines had more implications than just “wow what a great moment!”

She started at the training center in the fall of 2012 and she immediately had a breakout year. In the spring of 2013 she was able to get second at the USA’s and make her first international team, She went to Russia for the Worlds and had foul issues there, but she trained extremely well while in Russia which told me there were some good possibilities here.  She didn’t cave in. She was throwing good enough to make the final if she did not foul out. She had to get used to keeping her focus that deep into the season. Then, by 2015 the goal was to make the finals at the World Championships, which she did, and now the minimum goal is to get six throws in Rio, to be in the top eight.

She is one of the few fixed feet throwers that you’ve coached. Can you talk about that?

Well, more and more now people in the US are doing it. Dave Astrauskas, the coach from Wisconsin, came over to the training center and I told him everything about how I teach it, and he said he was going to give it a go and now Kelsey Card is doing great with it.

The belief used to be that fixed feet throwing was best for someone with super long levers like Franz Kruger,

You’re talking about the two-kilo, and with the men it is still true. You rarely see a guy 6’1 or 6’0 be successful throwing fixed feet. It’s still nice to have long levers with the 1k, but the one-kilo discus changes the whole equation. I’ve always said that women are like two-thirds the power of men, but their disc is one half the weight. Even in the bench, there are not many guys benching 600, but there are quite a few girls benching 300,

How strong is Whitney right now?

She is just getting strong. Her future is completely out ahead of her. We’ve got to keep growing the engine and keep the athleticism, but her bench is around the 260-270 range, and her best power clean is around 105-110k. Her jerk is 110k, and her squat is about 175k with a nice deep squat,

For the women how do you decide who should stay fixed feet and who should reverse?

It depends on who the coach is and how much they know about each technique. In the reverse in most cases, you work the ground early and are loaded up over the right more. In the fixed feet you are more upright and you barely stay on the right leg before you transfer to the left leg. But, the big thing that I want to emphasize is that fixed feet throwing is a complete sequence that is different in every way than just a regular throw without a reverse.

So, the throw is set up differently?

It is so simple for a young coach to say, “look, we do traditional technique like Wolfgang Schmidt and now I’m going to have my people throw non-reverse.” But that is not the true fixed feet technique.

Who would you say is a great example of a pure, fixed-feet technique?

Most everybody who does it in Europe. There’s only one woman who does a traditional pivoting action and does the fixed feet finish–and does it very well by the way–and that is Melina Robert-Michon. She lands early, turns her foot on the ball of her foot, and then transitions out. But, if you look at all the top German men and women, you look at Imrich Bugar, you look at Whitney, they turn in mid-air and they turn their hip around at least to twelve-o’clock and then they quickly transition out to the left leg–you don’t want to spend too much time on the right leg

It’s a more exaggerated hip and foot turn in the air?

Yes. Get pre-turned in the air and then transfer quickly to the left leg. And there are a lot of other things involved. The whole thing I’m telling you is that you have to have a whole sequence that takes you there.

Do you feel like fixed feet throwers have to be a little more patient?

No. It’s actually a little more violent. What it comes down to is that they have to have a good feel for the different factors that make the form work. One thing we find is that if you transfer quickly onto the front leg you don’t need a high and low orbit like you do with the other technique. The discus can stay pretty much flat the whole way around because of the counter movement. When the hip gets ahead, you throw your arm opposite–you wrap it around,

What’s  the plan for Whitney between now and the Olympics?

We need to get back into a good training phase. She will go to London to compete and will be pretty beat up in London from our training, so don’t expect big marks. Then, after that we will start tapering down. We will take off for Rio, the whole training group together and come back from Rio together so we can train together for the Diamond League final.

How long will you be in Rio?

Two and half weeks.

There was a little of a controversy about the scheduling of the women’s discus in Rio with the finals the morning after the prelims.

It is a little bit of a controversy because it hasn’t been done before. We are fine with it.

Is that why they scheduled the women’s disc that way at the Trials?

Yes, we wanted to approximate it. The only reason its not the same is that the time zone is different, but by the time we are there a few days that won’t matter.  When they make the final they are flying on air anyway. They could throw at three in the morning and it won’t matter, they will be so happy

What advice are you going to give Whitney about the qualifying?

What I tell  my athletes all the way from Godina to Brenner–everybody–I tell them the same thing: treat the qualifier as if it were the final.  Do not go through thinking you are too good for it. Go in with fire. Try to get the auto and get home early, but do not float around. I won’t mention names, but I saw some Americans who were very good throwing very easy in the prelims at Beijing, and then they couldn’t find the intensity later. It is very important to approach the qualifying with high intensity. It is so different in the field events than say a 100-meter runner who knows they are in control and can relax going into the finish line. Percentage wise there is so little difference between being stuck in a dead-end 57-meter throw and a real high-end 66-meter throw and once you get stuck you hit it and you hit it and you think you are going hard, but your implement doesn’t go anywhere.

You have to be ready to hit it. And in the final, I have nothing to say. That’s the only goddamned reason you are throwing. If I have to say something, there is something really wrong. That’s where my coaching ends as far as mental preparation because the final is what it is about.

What is Whitney like during competition?

Very independent. She and I have learned to work a system. She likes very few cues, and she likes the cues she is comfortable with. We practice those cues before the meet, and let’s say I said something to her that we hadn’t practiced before the meet, that would not go well. She like the cues she is comfortable with.

So you guys have a nice system.

I had to learn a system. She likes to be in charge. I’m a married man, I get it. And I learned from my great women throwers at UCLA, You learn what their different personalities are and Whitney feels comfortable if we establish early how it is we are going to approach the meet.  And I have both men and women who are like that, and I have throwers who say “throw it at me and see what happens”–  more loosy-goosey types, The other thing is she is very independent. She doesn’t need a lot of babysitting to get ready to compete. Some athletes feel better if I’m around them the whole time to keep them calm. With Whitney, I just need to let her know where I’m going to be and what’s going to happen and she’ll sit on her own for an hour or two hours getting prepared. I’ll give her a whistle so she knows where I’m at in the stands. One thing she had to get used to with me is I like to get close enough during the competition to be able to say “that looked great” or give them one little cue that has to be worked on for the next throw.

Now she is very comfortable with that.

When do you find out which flight she will be in at the Olympics?

The day before. And that can sometimes be tough in the long throws if you are in the first flight because you have to get there so early in the morning, but we won’t have that problem in Rio because both groups in the women’s disc will throw in the late afternoon or early evening.

Aren’t the flights sometimes huge in the Olympics and World Championships?

They can be. It’s two flights no matter how many total throwers have qualified. At the Worlds in 1995, John Godina threw in a flight of twenty-five. It took an hour and seven minutes between throws.

What will it take for Whitney to make the final in Rio?

It depends on the conditions. The discus is pretty great up at the top, and I think 62 or 63 meters will do some damage, and over 60 will make the final.

Do you think a fixed foot thrower has an advantage in a big meet?

Yes, if the form is properly developed because that technique, if properly done, the consistency is better. And the fouls are less. If you see Whitney with a foul by her name it’s because she stepped out.

 

 

 

The Discus Technique of NCAA Champion Kelsey Card

 

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Not a bad NCAA meet for Wisconsin’s Kelsey Card. After finishing fourth in the shot put on Wednesday, she marched into the discus ring on Saturday and hammered out three throws over 63 meters. Her fifth-round toss of 63.52m was two meters farther than anything the rest of the field could muster.

Afterwards, Badgers throws coach Dave Astrauskas kindly agreed to go through a frame-by-frame analysis of Kelsey’s big toss. 

Here’s Dave:

astrauskas

And here is our conversation:

I just watched the video of the NCAA discus final and Kelsey was like a blonde assassin. Other throwers kept inching closer to her, and she just stepped into the ring three times and cool like a cucumber knocked out 63-meter throws. Was she always like that? Can you talk a bit about the arc of her career? What qualities did she show up on campus with four years ago and what has she developed over time?

I had a conversation with Kelsey prior to the discus competition which was basically about how Kelsey could not afford to be passive, but needed to be the aggressor in the competition. Her game plan was to go after the first throw, but at the same time make it look/feel as easy as possible to ensure six throws. After the first throw, the plan was for Kelsey to go after the remaining five with everything while staying within herself. In round one, we were shooting for high 57m ended up getting 59.50m. In between prelims and finals she went to the tent outside the stadium and we met and the plan was to again go after each of the remaining throws the right way – with the lower half.

Kelsey has not always been the aggressor in competition, but has always been a competitor while at Wisconsin. She historically has been one who generally starts off slow and builds throughout the competition. I cannot recall a competition where her first throw has been her best performance of the day. We continue to work on our round one efforts. Over the years I think the main thing she has learned is that big throws come from executing the proper technique, which as a result create the proper positions at which she can generate force.

When Kelsey showed up on campus five years ago, I noticed several traits. First, I saw right away that Kelsey knows how to deliver an implement whether it be a shot, discus, weight, hammer, discus tool, bowling pin, bat, etc. Second, she is one of the most coachable athletes that I have had. Over her time at Wisconsin she has worked with several of my throws volunteers and they’ve always indicated what a joy she is to work with. Third, I noticed her kinesthetic awareness. She has complete control of her body and extremities and can react to a cue and make an adjustment within 1-2 attempts. Lastly, she does not like to lose. I remember her first indoor meet at Wisconsin and she PR’d in the shot and placed 3rd, but was really angry with herself that she lost to two other girls on our team.

 

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Let’s talk some technique. Here is Kelsey’s wind on her 5th throw in Eugene. Compared to a lot of discus throwers, it is a pretty abbreviated movement. Can you comment on that?

I feel the wind in the discus is all about what feels good to each individual athlete similar to a windup of a baseball pitcher. I’ve had several discus throwers that wind back 270 degrees, but they uncoil the wind quite a bit before they start the lower body and sometimes have difficulty shifting the weight from right leg to left leg early. In Kelsey’s wind all we are trying to do is lock the discus back behind the right hip to set up an early shift to the left side.

 

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In these two photos we see Kelsey getting set up to run the ring. What do you emphasize in this phase of the throw?

First, try to keep the shoulders facing the back of the ring as long as possible. After loading the left, try to turn the left knee and left heel as early as possible. We talk about a feeling of high to low or turning downhill across the ring. Left arm is long, left, and loose. As the discus approaches zero (center back of the ring) we strive to get the right leg as far away from the discus as possible.

What is your cue for getting the right foot off the ground? Some say to get it off as early as possible. Others recommend leaving it down until the left foot is turned almost to the direction of the throw. Where are you at with this?

I tell my athletes that the left side rotation will pull on the right adductor making your right foot leave the ground. Once the right foot comes off the ground we try to send it out over the back of the ring.

 

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Looks like Kelsey did a nice job of (as you said) sending her right foot out over the back of the ring. From here, do you want her driving at all with her left foot/leg? And how would you describe her right leg action as she runs to the middle?

The right leg whips around the left leg (axis) with a much radius as possible. I do not cue the left leg drive all that much. I feel if you whip the right leg around and reach to center you naturally end up driving off of the left. The other thing I think is important is to carry your toes under your right knee as early as possible to avoid a soccer style right leg.

 

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Here we see Kelsey sprinting to the center of the ring. Can you talk about her right foot action, the orbit of the disc, and anything else you emphasize  regarding this phase of the throw?

I’ve talked with Kelsey about pre-turning her right foot while keeping the left arm wrapped and she has gotten better over the years. I have not discussed orbit with Kelsey all that much. She does a good job keeping the discus back and shoulders level so I think her orbit is fairly natural for her technique. We have also stressed that her right leg needs to land loaded ready to move and not extended and rigid. The main thing that we have worked on all season you can see in these photos. We have been trying to keep the discus locked in over the left leg until contact. So, after left takeoff in the back of the ring Kelsey is trying to make sure that the discus is not getting too far ahead of the left leg. We want the discus to travel with the left leg to the front of the ring so that at double support (power position) the discus is over the left heel. I believe that this terminology has developed a longer pull

 

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She does an amazing job here of keeping her right leg loaded while driving her right knee and hip into the throw. How did you train her to do that?
 
This part of the throw is still a work in progress, but Kelsey continues to improve. Each day her warm-up primarily focuses on separation and moving the lower body and upper body independently. Kelsey has done thousands of reps of partial and full throws with light rubber balls, and dowel rods maximizing the right knee and right elbow separation. We often cue the power position with things like, “turn right knee into left knee so that the left heel is driven up,”  “face the throw before you throw,” and “turn your right heel out before you throw.” Kelsey has also became a bit more patient with the upper body in the power position this year due to understanding that the pull does not start violently but starts out smooth and long and increases velocity all the way to a very fast release. Since Kelsey’s shoulders have become more patient, her lower body rotation has improved
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Let’s talk about my favorite part of her technique: her fixed feet finish. I’m a big fan of fixed feet throwing. But tell me, how did a rotational shot putter end up with a German style non-reverse finish in the disc? 
There are a couple things that led to the fixed feet finish. First, when Kelsey arrived at Wisconsin she had what I called a jump-turn finish in the discus, meaning at left foot touchdown she would jump in the air and rotate to throw. I wanted to change this immediately so Kelsey went on a heavy diet of non-reverse throws. Generally at Wisconsin 60% of our throws in training are non-reverse efforts. Kelsey was closer to 90% in years one and two. Second, Kelsey came in as a glide shot putter and while we were switching to rotational shot her sophomore season almost all of our training throws in the shot were non-reverse throws because it just gave her a better feel for the throw. With the mass amounts of non-reverse efforts in both shot and discus the technique became second nature to her. Now, most of my women are developing into or have become non-reverse discus throwers.
I had a chance to speak with Robert Harting’s coach a couple of years ago, and he emphasized pushing the right knee/hip out then sweeping the disc out and around the hip. The left leg blocks with a slight bend in it to allow the thrower to keep his/her hand on the disc longer while chasing it out. Do you use similar cues? It looks to me like Kelsey would fit in quite well at the German Championships.
I teach the same as you mentioned. When the left foot touches down in the power position Kelsey is trying to push her lower half out to the left. I think this is an easier way to make sure the athlete is more patient with the upper body. If an athlete tries to turn to the right side to the sector (instead of pushing the knee left and the throwing arm left) then it usually ends up with an early or rushed delivery. In the photo you can see Kelsey’s head tilted slightly to the right sector line. This is something she does to ensure maximum radius through the delivery. As I mentioned earlier the pull starts out strong with the lower half and  increases velocity, concluding with all energy going into a violent release.

Chicagoland Throws – Elite Discus

 

Event 9  Women Discus Throw Elite
==========================================================================
 NSAF Girls Discus: 1 kg.
    Name                    Year Team                    Finals           
==========================================================================
  1 Lewis-Smallwood, Gia         USATF                   64.01m     210-00 
      62.39m  FOUL  60.25m  FOUL  64.01m  FOUL
  2 Podominick, Liz              USATF                   57.39m     188-03 
      52.31m  53.70m  FOUL  56.26m  57.39m  FOUL
  3 Pierson, Summer              USATF                   57.12m     187-05 
      53.24m  52.65m  55.97m  57.12m  54.25m  55.15m
  4 Trafton, Stephanie           USATF                   52.40m     171-11 
      50.28m  50.71m  48.11m  51.26m  52.40m  51.72m
  5 Lockhart, Samantha           USATF                   50.69m     166-04 
      FOUL  50.57m  FOUL  50.69m  FOUL  50.64m
  6 Phelps, Kiana                NSAF                    50.20m     164-08 
      46.70m  47.18m  48.30m  48.75m  48.32m  50.20m
  7 Showalter, Haley             NSAF                    49.78m     163-04 
      43.99m  43.94m  49.78m  FOUL  FOUL  FOUL
  8 Szkowny, Alison              USATF                   49.41m     162-01 
      45.27m  47.46m  FOUL  45.57m  49.41m  FOUL
  9 Antill, Kaylee               NSAF                    47.72m     156-07 
      46.13m  47.32m  42.23m  44.64m  42.21m  47.72m
 10 Bruckner, Elena              NSAF                    47.56m     156-00 
      44.86m  45.80m  47.56m  FOUL  47.04m  42.52m
 11 Wilson, Alyssa               NSAF                    44.25m     145-02 
      41.19m  44.05m  42.67m  44.10m  43.90m  44.25m
 12 Young, KD                    NSAF                    42.86m     140-07 
      42.23m  41.60m  42.36m  40.32m  42.86m  36.21m
 13 Dawson, Khayla               NSAF                    40.78m     133-09 
      FOUL  FOUL  40.78m  FOUL  38.24m  FOUL

 

 

Event 10  Men Discus Throw Elite
==========================================================================
 NSAF Boys Discus: 1.6 kg
    Name                    Year Team                    Finals           
==========================================================================
  1 Carlos, Davis                NSAF                    60.14m     197-04 
      60.14m  FOUL  57.88m  55.10m  FOUL  58.24m
  2 Davis, Khalil                NSAF                    59.50m     195-02 
      59.50m  58.21m  55.50m  55.31m  57.77m  58.04m
  3 Evans, Andrew                USATF                   59.27m     194-05 
      57.92m  56.48m  56.45m  59.14m  59.27m  57.83m
  4 Winger, Russ                 Asics America           59.14m     194-00 
      55.89m  58.26m  59.14m  FOUL  FOUL  57.24m
  5 Ribeiro, Lucas               NSAF                    54.19m     177-09 
      54.19m  52.17m  FOUL  51.73m  51.05m  FOUL
  6 Geist, Jordan                NSAF                    50.35m     165-02 
      50.35m  50.27m  48.76m  49.70m  50.00m  49.97m

Stop That Yanking!

One of my young discus throwers has a chance to be really good, but like many athletes in many sports he cannot quite resist the urge to try to generate power by yanking his head.

Warning: Throws coaches may find the following image disturbing.

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I warned you!

What is especially troubling about this photo is that it depicts the ruin of what to that point had been a technically sound throw.

What is even more troubling is that serial yanking can be very difficult to cure. Especially if a kid snaps off the occasional big throw and that voice in his head says, “There! See? I told you yanking your head would work! Ignore that old dude  who keeps telling you to finish tall and stay smooth. That’s sissy talk! Just keep yanking, baby and we will do great things together!”

Fortunately, I am friends with Bob Nihells who runs an incredibly successful throws program at nearby Lake Park High School, and Bob agreed to perform an intervention with my guy Dan.

The first thing Bob recommended was attaching a towel to the cage directly behind the ring. Once in the power position, Dan was to keep his eyes on that towel while his left arm cleared and his right hip turned into the throw. Here is Dan working on that concept:

After a couple of days of working that drill, Dan was able to snap off a nice power position throw with little trace of yankitis:

The next step was to perform a South African drill:

Followed by a fixed feet throw:

After several throws with the actual discus, we switched over to bowling pins as a way of reinforcing the “slow head” concept without worrying about how far the implement was going:

 

I think this was his best effort of the day in terms of keeping his head calm while his left arm and right knee/hip turned into the throw.

Here are a series of photos comparing that pin toss with a full throw Dan took yesterday:

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As he hits the power position he looks to be in good shape in both photos. Balanced. Arms long. Weight mostly on his right leg. But, notice that in the bottom photo his head is already beginning to turn into the throw.

That trend continues below. In the pin toss, he has found his focal point and kept his head stationary.

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With the disc in hand, he has allowed his head to turn as his left arm sweeps.

Below, he continues to keep one eye on the focal point while driving his right hip into the throw.

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Compare that with the bottom photo. At first glance, he seems to be in good shape in both, but by turning his head along with his left arm he has permitted his weight to move prematurely forward onto his left leg.

 

In the pin toss, Dan’s weight is still back even as the implement passes his right leg and hip.

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In this discus throw, he has done a good job of getting his right foot turned before the disc sweeps past it, but a good portion of his weight is already on his left leg.

 

As a result of keeping his head slow and calm in the pin toss, Dan has excellent upright posture on release.

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As a result of leading into this throw with his head, Dan’s posture breaks down on release. His weight is almost entirely on his front foot and his shoulders are ahead of his hips. The throw landed out of bounds on the right.

Our job now is to consistently reproduce the technique that Dan displayed on the pin toss. If you look at the vid of the fixed feet throw above, I think he is on his way.

 

 

 

 

 

 

To Wind or Not to Wind

Most elite discus throwers wind the disc as far back as they can at the beginning of the throw. For example…

…Sandra Perkovic

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…Robert Harting

 

 

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…Casey Malone

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…Frank Casanas

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Notice that each of these athletes has turned his/her hips to the right in order to increase the length of their wind.

Why is a long wind desirable? Well, physics says that we can best accelerate an object by applying force over a long path, and an exaggerated wind lengthens the path over which the discus is accelerated.

Also, there seems to be an element of rhythm involved here. Turning the hips to the right before sitting and shifting them back to the left just feels “right” to many discus throwers, the same way that rising and settling at the back of the ring as they begin the throw feels “right” to glide shot putters.

And feeling relaxed and in rhythm is vital to anyone attempting to throw a discus far.

Also vital, though, is that a discus thrower unwinds successfully.

The thrower must transition from the farthest point of their wind…

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…to a position that sets them up for a successful sprint across the ring:

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Notice that Sandra has shifted her weight way left while maintaining an upright posture and keeping the disc far behind.

From here she can aggressively run the ring…

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…and knock the crap out of it at the front, her tall, perfectly balanced position allowing all of the force she generated during her sprint through the ring to transfer to the implement.

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The question facing those of us who coach young throwers is essentially how best to get them to that strong, tall, balanced finish so beautifully demonstrated by Perkovic.

And grappling with that challenge has lately caused me to question the efficacy of a long wind for young throwers.

Here is one of my guys demonstrating what looks to me like a nice, loose, well-balanced wind:

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Here he is at the finish of that throw:

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See the difference in posture between my guy and Perkovic?

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Look at the angle of the spine. My guy is tilted to the left.

Look what that does to the angle of release. Sandra’s arm is at a 90-degree angle to her torso, and all of her power is being transferred to the discus.

In pulling to the left at release, my guy dissipates whatever force he has developed while running the ring, thus robbing himself of potential distance on the throw.

What does all this have to do with the wind?

In working on this matter with my throwers, I began to suspect that it might be helpful to reduce the throwing movement to its least complicated form.

That meant eliminating the windup and reverse.

Here are a couple of vids of my guys demonstrating what we’ve been up to:

To me, they both demonstrate solid, effective finishing positions here. And I know a lot happens between the wind (or the “no wind”) and the finish, but so far it seems that eliminating an active wind has helped these guys maintain balance and effective posture throughout the throw.

So can this start…

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…make it more likely that a young thrower will hit this finish…?

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…this start…

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…help a thrower find this position…?

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With the help of these hard-working young men (we took about twelve million throws yesterday) I am determined to find out.

Out of the Back, German Style

I’ve been coaching high school discus throwers for nearly 25 years, and I’ve spent a great deal of that time trying to figure out how to get them out of the back of the ring on balance.

We all know what it looks like when they fail at this. The head leading the way . The right foot stomping down in the middle of the ring so hard as to nearly crack the concrete. The discus whanging off the right support post. The embarrassment. The shame.  The utter futility of it all.

The “American” approach to dealing with this matter has been to get the right foot off the ground as soon as possible when setting up to run the ring.  Here is Casey Malone demonstrating that concept:

malone wind

malone left

Notice that when his left foot is turned 90 degrees to the direction of the throw, his right toes are off the ground. His right leg then leads him to the middle of the ring with the disc trailing behind:

malone wide

By getting his right foot off the ground quickly (before the left has rotated past 90 degrees) Casey has set himself up to run the ring on balance.

Here is the fine American rotational shot putter Joe Kovacs demonstrating the same approach:

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The logic here (and it has worked quite well for these two gentlemen) is that getting the right foot moving as early as possible prevents the upper body from getting ahead and pulling the thrower off balance.

I have come to understand, however, that the Germans (who have done quite well for themselves in the discus over the past 30+ years) have a different philosophy regarding getting out of the back of the ring.

They emphasize keeping the right foot grounded at the back as long as possible. Take a look at these photos of Robert Harting:

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See how far his left foot has turned while his right toes are still in contact with the ground?

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By the time his right foot leaves the concrete, his left foot is nearly facing the direction of the throw.

He is perfectly on balance then as the right leg sweeps around…

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…and leads him into the throw:

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The intention here is to use the “late” push-off of the right foot to create a stretch in the hips and thighs that will lend momentum to the right leg so that it may more easily sweep ahead coming out of the back.

 

Here is Sandra Perkovic using a similar approach:

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Look how far her left heel has turned while her right toes maintain contact with the ground.

When the right foot finally leaves the concrete…

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…it carries a lot of force…

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…which can be transferred into the throw.

It seems to me, that this “leave the right foot down and turn the crap out of the left” approach can also be used in the rotational shot. Take a look at these photos of Stipe Zunic:

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Unlike Kovacs, Stipe’s right foot is still on the ground as his left foot turns 90 degrees from the direction of the throw.

 

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It is only when the left foot has turned past that 90-degree point that the right foot pushes off. Notice the distance between Stipe’s knees here. He has created a lot of tension in his hips/thighs that will lend impetus to that right leg when it sweeps ahead out of the back.

The question here is can a young thrower be trusted to leave the right foot in place long enough to develop a significant stretch in the hips and thighs without letting the upper body pull ahead and bollix up the throw?

The answer is yes, provided that you teach that young thrower to push his/her hips forward and to the left as they begin their entry, and to keep their head calm.

Take a look at this still from a vid of Jurgen Schult giving a clinic somewhere in France. When demonstrating the proper method of getting out of the back of the ring, Jurgen emphasizes that the hips must be pushed forward…

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…and not allowed to slide back:

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This keeps the thrower on balance and creates the desired tension in the hips and thighs.

Stipe…

stipe

…Sandra…

sandra back

…and Robert…

robert back

 

…all do an excellent job of pushing their hips forward prior to entry as a way of staying on balance and creating that powerful hip/thigh stretch.

In working with my athletes on this, I have found that putting an emphasis on pushing the hips forward and keeping the right foot grounded until the left heel has turned as far as it possibly can has solved a lot of the head-yanking problems that typically plague young throwers.

Keeping the right foot down is certainly no cure-all for the many problems that can arise during the entry phase. Last winter I asked Robert’s coach, Torsten Schmidt, how they chose which discus ring to use when throwing at the Berlin training center (they have half-a-dozen or so from which to choose). He said that he and Robert liked to throw from a certain ring from which a tree is visible when setting up at the back of the ring. Robert uses this tree as a focal point to try to keep his head slow and calm during the entry phase.

My advice to throwing coaches at all levels? Tree or no tree, teach your throwers to push their hips forward as they unwind and to leave that right foot down until their left foot has turned until it can turn no more.

Can the current men’s and women’s Olympic discus gold medalists and the newly crowned indoor NCAA men’s shot champion be wrong?

Not. Likely.

 

 

The German Power Position

So I chase poor Torsten Schmidt from Zurich to Berlin to Bradenton, Florida to try to figure out why the Germans are so good at the discus and what concepts I can steal from them to help my high school throwers, and my pursuit leads me to a discus cage at the IMG academy on a perfect 70-degree evening and I’m watching Robert Harting take standing throws and–astute observer that I am–I notice that he is not throwing the way I teach my guys to throw.

So when Robert goes out to retrieve his discs, I ask Torsten why Robert sets up with his feet like this:

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I’ve always told my guys to point both feet 90-degrees to the direction of the throw when they wind up for a stand, but Robert set up with his feet pointed out, almost like one might in a sumo-style dead lift. (This still is taken from a vid of a full throw, but it accurately depicts his setup for a stand.)

Torsten explained that this position created optimal tension in the hips and set up the thrower to drive the right hip out (“out” in this case being towards the viewer of this picture).

I believe that Torsten told me that the thrower should leave the left foot at this angle during the windup for a stand throw, even though Robert turns his left foot 180-degrees from the throwing direction when he winds.

Two things here. One, Robert has a lot of habits that he developed before Torsten became his coach in the fall of 2013, and when  you have been as successful as he has you might be inclined to hang on to some of your habits in spite of a coaching change. Two, though Torsten’s English is very good and getting better all the time, I speak not a word of German so the risk of a communication breakdown is ever present.

So when I talk about Torsten’s discus philosophy, I am kind of like an archeologist who has spent a lot of time digging around at Pompeii. I know a heck of a lot more than I did before the dig, but do I have the complete picture? Not likely.

That said, since returning from Bradenton I have coached my kids to keep their left foot in that “sumo” or “duck-footed” position when winding for a stand and I think it has really helped them.

What is the biggest mistake that most young throwers make?  They try to create power by yanking their head. This pulls their upper body past their hips and results in weak, pansie-man throws down the right sector line.

So far, it seems like the cues of keeping the feet in the sumo position while winding and then driving the hip out towards the cage have helped to eliminate chronic head-yanking from the power position among my throwers.

Torsten explained one more aspect of a successful power position throw: the thrower should sweep the disc out and around that protruded hip. This absolutely prevents the head-yank, and lets the thrower move the disc through the longest possible path. Here is Robert demonstrating.

He hits a sumo-style power position…

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…drives his right knee/hip towards the cage…

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…and sweeps the disc waaaay out and around that right hip.

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Torsten told me that even when Robert does not execute properly coming out of the back of the ring, he almost always finds a way to right the ship and produce an excellent finish to the throw.

Hopefully, this provides insight into how he does it.

Perkovic at the Euro Championships

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In an earlier post, I started to write about what makes Sandra Perkovic such a great thrower. Then I got sidetracked by my affection for Betty Heidler.

Time to get back to the Croatian Sensation.

The picture above is one I took at the European Championships in Zurich last August.  That’s Sandra conferring with her boyfriend and coach Edis Elkasevic just before her one and only prelim throw.

That throw of 63.93m easily surpassed the automatic qualifying mark ( 60m, I think) and was a great example of what an elite thrower needs to do in the preliminary rounds: Get it done early without expending much energy.

The weather on the day of the finals was fantastic, and as this was the biggest competition of the year for Sandra (there being no Olympics or World Championships) I anticipated a big throw from her.

My ticket for that session was behind the cage probably 30 rows up, but after my experience with the men’s discus final (the television cameras blocked my view from that angle) I staked out a standing room spot to the right of the cage where I could actually see the throwers throw.

While waiting for the women’s disc to begin, I happened to notice a rather large gentleman with a familiar profile standing nearby. He is the father of two world class men’s discus throwers. Can you tell who?

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Hint: One of his sons dates a competitor in the women’s discus final.

During the discus warmups, a woman walked up to me and held out her ticket, saying something about the view. I thought she was commiserating with me about being stuck in the standing room section, so I just nodded and smiled.

Turns out, she was leaving and wanted to give me her ticket, which was for a seat about 20 rows up on the right side of the cage–a great spot!

Here is the video I took from that seat:

Not a bad angle, eh?

Anyway, Perkovic did not disappoint.

She opened at 64.58m, sealed the win with her next throw of 67.37m, and then crushed any hope anyone might have entertained of an upset with a round three 68.78m.

During the pause prior to the final three throws, I was faced with a decision.

This was my final day in Europe, and I was meant to share one last dinner with my brother-in-law Larry and his wife Susi at their home in southern Germany.

The women’s disc final had started late, and I had to catch a tram soon if I was going to make it to Larry and Susi’s on time.

If I left before the end of the competition, I risked missing a great throw by Perkovic.

If I stayed, I risked missing a great dinner (Susi is an amazing cook).

I decided to hang in there for one more round and then decide.

Sandra fouled her fourth round throw. I told myself that she had probably lost her focus during the break, knowing that the 68.78m would surely hold up for the win.

Based on that calculation, I headed for the tram.

A few minutes later, as I waited for my connection in the main Zurich train station, I decided to kill some time by checking out the final results on my ipad mini.

Imagine my chagrin when I found out that had I stayed in my seat for another ten minutes I’d have seen the farthest women’s discus throw since 1992, Sandra’s fifth round 71.08m.

I should have known.

After her 68.78m, Sandra came over to the stands to talk to Edis and you could tell by her gestures that she was agitated that she had not thrown farther.  She clearly believed that she had a big throw in her that day, and…well, she was right.

And that’s why Perkovic means so much to our sport.

Every sport needs someone who keeps you in your seat.  J.J.Watt. Lionel Messi. Lebron James. You can’t leave a game when those guys are playing because you want to be able to tell your friends that you were there when they did something amazing.

And it is the same with Perkovic.

I can’t wait until this summer. The American Gia Lewis-Smallwood has shown that she too can make huge throws in stadiums, and with her putting the pressure on Perkovic, the World Championships should be a fantastic competition.

A quick comment on Perkovic’s technique.

It can be very difficult for a coach of young, non-elite athletes to figure out which aspects of an elite thrower’s technique are worth emulating.

The United States has recently produced three of the best shot putters ever in Adam Nelson, Reese Hoffa, and Christian Cantwell, but their technique is so idiosyncratic that it would be counterproductive for a young thrower to try to emulate them.

Perkovic’s technique is a bit idiosyncratic as well.  Not many throwers could hit a position in the middle with their head facing down like this…

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…without losing their balance.

I would, however, recommend emulating Sandra in the way she leads with her hip as she gets out of the back of the ring.

She does an amazing job of  getting from here…

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…to here…

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…on balance.

Another view:

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See how her left armpit and hip are aligned?

Coming out of the back, she is perfectly on balance and so can run the ring aggressively without spinning out of control.

Here is a shot of her juxtaposed with Franz Kruger, who also did a great job of getting his shoulders and hips aligned out of the back:

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That is an aspect of Sandra’s technique that throwers of all levels should emulate.

Here is a short vid by Mac Wilkins highlighting several aspects of Sandra’s form:

Whatever you think of her technique, take my advice. If you are at a meet where Sandra Perkovic is competing,..do not leave early.

 

 

 

What’s so great about Perkovic?

A lot, actually.

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First of all, she is immensely competitive, which makes her fun to watch.

The first time I saw her throw in person was  in 2010 at the Adidas Grand Prix Diamond League meet in New York. She was only nineteen then, and had not won any big meets but you could tell she was going to be something special. It was a humid day, and the other discus throwers seemed to sag in the damp air.

Not Perkovic.

She blasted every warmup throw like she was in the Olympic final. One whanged off the cage so hard that I’m surprised it didn’t knock down the support pole.

She only threw 61m that day, with a 65m foul, but she exhibited definite  beast-like tendencies.

The next time I saw her compete in person was back in New York in 2013. This time she came in as reigning Olympic Champion but faced a major challenge from some bizarre Memorial Day weekend weather. The air was damp again, not with humidity but with freezing rain. I don’t know what the temperature was, but between the wind and the rain it felt like eleventy below.

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That’s me in the blue trying not to die of hypothermia while eavesdropping on Perkovic as she confers with her boyfriend and coach Edis Elkasevic (the former NCAA shot champion for Auburn). Unfortunately, they were speaking Croatian so I understood what they were saying about as well as my daughter understands me when I try to explain to her that we can’t live at Disney World.

But language barrier aside, it was very clear that Perkovic had come to New York to win and not by a little bit.  She opened with 64m, and even though it was a Diamond League meet featuring a pretty strong group of throwers, I’d have bet my house, my car, and my entire collection of 1990’s throwing videos that  in those conditions 64m would hold up for the win.

So when the automated measuring system went on the fritz after the first round resulting in a thirty-minute delay in the competition I figured she’d withdraw or at least start throwing  like crap as any normal, immensely frustrated, half frozen human being would.

Not Perkovic.

When she is competing, Perkovic reminds me of another great athlete of Eastern European heritage–the hall of fame Chicago Bears middle linebacker Dick Butkus.

If you’ve never seen video of Butkus in his prime, check this one out:

When Butkus tackled someone, he didn’t just want to hit them hard. He wanted to kill them.

And I think Perkovic approaches discus competitions the same way.

So she did not withdraw after that ridiculous delay.  Nor did she throw like crap. Instead, she took a couple of rounds to get her bearings, then launched one 68.48m . Bam!

Here is a vid of that competition:

And here is Sandra in the interview tent afterwards. Sorry the camera keeps shaking, but my core body temperature was -2 at that point.

Anyway, more on Perkovic next time, including some thoughts on her technique.