Category Archives: Interviews

What I Learned from Talking with Gwen Berry

In the  days leading up to the USA Championships, one’s thoughts turn to big throws and  those that produce them.

One of my favorite contenders to make the team for the World Championships in London is the American record holder in the women’s hammer, Gwen Berry.

Gwen was nice enough to chat with me for a few minutes recently. Here are some things I learned from our conversation.

The woman can handle adversity.

In May 2016, Gwen broke the American record in the hammer with a toss of 76.31m at the Ole Miss Classic in Oxford, Mississippi. That throw earned her $30,000 in performance bonuses.

She got to keep none of it.

I wrote in detail about this situation last summer. You can find that article here: http://mcthrows.com/?p=1511

Basically what happened was that Gwen got suspended by USADA in the days following her American record throw because several weeks earlier she had self-reported her use of a common asthma medication called Breo. She never failed a drug test. There was never a question of why she took Breo. Simply put, she has asthma and like many people with asthma she needs medication once in while to be able to breathe.

Apparently, none of that mattered to USADA, and for a time last summer, it looked like the infraction would cost her a chance to compete in the Olympic Trials. Gwen was devastated.  According to her coach, John Smith, the stress of the controversy, of seeing her reputation tarnished “nearly killed her career. It took a lot to keep her going.”

In the end, Gwen was given a short suspension, which ended just in time for her to compete in the Trials. She was, however, stripped of her American record and the $30,000 she had earned in setting  it.

Then,  shortly after Gwen’s case was adjudicated, USADA published a decision in a case involving a swimmer who was charged with exactly the same violation…and let off with a “public warning.”

You can read about that case here: https://www.usada.org/sam-tierney-receives-public-warning/

I don’t know about you, but were I Gwen, I’d have been more than a little chapped. And I, for one, would not have blamed her if after breaking the American record again this  spring–this time with a toss of 76.77m–she’d have directed some choice words and perhaps a celebratory middle finger USADA’s way.

But, Gwen is not like that.

I asked her if she uses that whole controversy as motivation, if she enters the ring during competitions thinking “I’m going to kill this one to stick it to USADA.” Here was her reply:

“I don’t necessarily think of it like that. When I get in the ring, I want to kill one for everyone who doubted me early in my career. It took me a long time to figure out the hammer. The weight came easy for me, but not the hammer, so I guess when I get into the ring I think ‘this throw is for everyone who doubted me in the past.’ I don’t worry about USADA. I believe that everything happens for a reason. I know that life sucks sometimes, but the whole thing made me a stronger thrower and person.”

Indeed.

 

Gwen Berry and Morgan Spurlock have something in common.

Remember him? He’s the guy who made the Super Size Me documentary.  IMDB describes its premise this way:  “While examining the influence of the fast food industry, Morgan Spurlock personally explored the consequences on his health of a diet of solely McDonald’s food for one month.”

The main consequence was that subsisting on a McDonald’s-only diet made him feel like crap.

Gwen can relate.

After qualifying for the Olympics last summer,  she arrived in Rio two weeks before the women’s hammer competition. The plan was to get acclimated to her surroundings and develop a routine that would help her feel comfortable when it was time to compete.

But she could not stomach the food in the athlete’s village, and McDonald’s was her only alternative other than a two-week fast.

So, in the days leading up to the biggest meet of her life, Gwen took every meal under the golden arches.

Like Spurlock, her McDonald’s binge made her feel awful, and she did not qualify for the hammer final.

She is ready though, if she makes the squad for the World’s in London, to try a different tack.

“I will not go there early,” she vowed. “I will try to keep my normal regimen for as long as I can. If I qualify for London, I’ll go there a couple of days before my competition.”

According to Coach Smith, jet lag tends to hit athletes three days after arriving in a distant land, so Gwen will have to cut it pretty close and literally show up  two days before the hammer prelims.

She is confident she can make it work.

“That’s what I did in Japan,” she said (referring to her IAAF Hammer Challenge win in Kawasaki last May). “I’d never thrown 73 meters overseas before, and I threw 74.13m there.”

 

Gwen can throw great, even when her back is killing her.

When my back spazzes on me, I like to lie on the floor and whine so that  my wife will bring me snacks.

Gwen is made of sterner stuff.

This  past February, a month before the USA Indoor Championships where she was scheduled to compete in the 20-lb weight throw, Gwen strained her back so badly that she could barely throw or lift. According to Coach Smith, her workouts during the four weeks prior to the championships  consisted almost entirely of back rehab.

Two weeks out, she was convinced that she would not be able to compete.

Ten days out, she was able to throw a 25-lb training weight about 18 meters, and Smith convinced her to go to Albuquerque and take a whack at competing.

She did, and ended up throwing 25.60m to break the world record.

 

College kids these days are really soft.

Back in my day, if you stayed up late reading Goethe and got a craving for a freshly baked cookie you were out of luck. Even if you could convince a fraternity brother to take a break from his quantum mechanics homework and drive you to Seven Eleven, the freshest thing you could get was probably a pack of Chips Ahoy that had been on the shelf since the mid Phanerozoic Eon. It was balderdash, I tell you.

But times have changed, and now if you are a student at Ole Miss you can get freshly baked cookies delivered to your door any time between the hours of 9:00am and 3:00am.  And the person who delivers them to you might just be the American record holder in the women’s hammer.

Let her explain.

“I can’t work a real job,” Gwen told me when I asked how she was supporting herself. “So I deliver for Insomnia Cookies.  I practice every day at about 2:00pm, and then I go to work until 3:00am. I don’t mind it, though, and they are great about letting me take time off when I need it.”

One of those times is right now as she prepares for the US Championships. If she makes the team for London, her hiatus could be  extended for a couple of months.

Coach Smith says that she is ready not only to make the team but to extend the American record. His hammer throwers train with a wide variety of implements–heavy and light on both regular and shortened wires–and he keeps meticulous track of how  far each thrower throws each implement each practice.

Based on her training throws, he says that Gwen “is in much better shape now than when she broke the American record.”

So, if you happen to be in Oxford, Mississippi this fall and find yourself ordering up a late-night cookie, be ready. When you open your door you may well come face to face with a World Championships medalist.

And one of the nicest people you’ll ever meet.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Michigan to open throws palace in 2018

 

michigan field house

 

Next January, the University of Michigan will inaugurate a new indoor and outdoor track facility. Currently under construction, it is  known as the “Stephen M. Ross Athletic Campus Athletics South Competition and Performance Project” but it won’t be long before it picks up a catchier name among throws aficionados, something along the lines of “The Stephen M. Ross Palace of Awesomeness.”

Ok, it won’t just be a throwing facility.

The field house will also contain a state-of-the-art, 200-meter, banked, hydraulic track surrounded by a three-lane, 300-meter practice track, a weight room with 42 platforms, training facilities for the rowing, soccer, tennis, wrestling, lacrosse, and  gymnastics teams, and enough locker room space for a good chunk of the civilized world.

But, the fact that you are reading this article on this site tells me that you are not terribly interested in banked tracks or gymnastics facilities, so let’s get to the good stuff.

Four years ago, Michigan hired this man…

…Jerry Clayton, as head coach of the men’s track team.  He brought with him thirty years of experience at the University of Illinois, Southwest Texas State, the University of Florida, and Auburn. During that time he coached…

• 2 World champions

• 2 Olympic Medalists (Silver, Bronze)

• 16 individual NCAA Champions

• 80+ All-Americans

He also accumulated quite a bit of expertise in the construction of track and field facilities, so when  the athletic department acquired two old warehouses on the edge of campus and decided that the land they occupied would be an ideal spot on which to build new indoor and outdoor track arenas, Jerry was the perfect guy to have on hand.

Fortunately, the  administration at Michigan realized that and gave Jerry lots of leeway in designing the new facility.

Those of you who have been involved in the construction of a track venue know that this is a rare and wondrous occurrence. When my school rebuilt our athletic facilities a few years ago, our principal called me into his office and demanded to know why we had to have a concrete pad from which to throw the discus. “Can’t they just spin around on the grass?” he fumed. We got our concrete, but I always felt like he resented it as an unnecessary expense.

Jerry’s experience at Michigan has been just the opposite.

“During the fall of my second year, they really started serious planning,” Jerry told me in a recent interview. “They knew that I had built facilities at three of my previous four jobs, and it was incredible how much the administration allowed my input.”

Jerry is one of those guys who could probably coach any event in track and field, so he was able to pitch in with advice on everything from the layout of the track to the ideal seating capacity (2,000 permanent seats, which can be expanded to 3,500 if he gets his wish to someday host the Big Ten and NCAA championships).

But his area of expertise is the throws, and three decades of coaching world class shot putters and discus throwers  such as Mike Lehmann, Gabor Mate,  Edis Elkasevic, and Cory Martin gave him a chance to visit a great variety of training and competition venues  across the United States and Europe. Jerry also encouraged his athletes to send him pictures of the facilities they came across on their travels overseas.

Given the opportunity to design the new facility at Michigan, he tried to combine the best features of all these places, some as close as Lincoln, Nebraska, others as far afield as Berlin, Germany.

A top priority was creating a space that would allow for year-round training of the long throws.

“At one end of the indoor facility (see the illustration above) we will be able to throw the hammer and discus into nets outside of the oval and also outside of the 300-meter track so athletes can still train on those tracks while we throw.”

The finished product will look something like this…

One trick to constructing an effective indoor training space is  to find the right material in which to throw the  hammer. It has to be flexible enough so that the implement does not rebound back at the thrower, but sturdy enough to withstand a lot of abuse.  Luckily, Jerry’s former putter Eric Werskey spent a lot of time in Germany over the past couple of years and was able to obtain the exact specs for the materials the Germans use in their indoor throwing facilities.  According to Jerry, “they  throw the hammer into strips of  PVC vinyl, one quarter inch thick (see photo below). You hang the strips so that they overlap and you can throw a hammer into it and it will only deflect maybe a foot and a half.”  The Michigan space will use that exact grade of PVC.

While many coaches working in a northern climate would be thrilled for their athletes to have the ability to launch hammers and discs into a net all winter, the new facility will allow Jerry to take cold weather training a step further.  If you are a true throws geek, you have likely seen this video of Robert Harting:

He is throwing from an indoor ring through a large open doorway onto an outdoor grass field. Here is another view of a similar facility:

Notice how misty/rainy/crappy the weather looks outside. Kind of like a typical day in the Midwest between November and March.  But with a setup like this, who cares? Your athletes can throw from a dry, covered ring and still know how far their attempts are traveling, which is a distinct advantage over throwing into a net.

Here is a closeup look at the end of the field house where Jerry’s rings will be located:

Two of those rings will be like the ones in those videos, where the athletes will be able to throw from inside the field house onto…

…these outdoor throwing fields.

What makes the Michigan facility potentially better than the German training centers will be the ability to throw the javelin from indoors to out as well. Notice on those blueprints that an extended straightaway from the practice track ends just short of the throwing rings. Jav throwers will be able to use that section of the track as a runway while launching the spear out onto the grass.

One more aspect of the Michigan facility bears mention, though it does not pertain strictly to the throws.

As much as I love the sport of track and field, I  think I can speak for most coaches, athletes and fans when I say that sometimes meets, especially indoor meets, can drag on a bit too long, A lot too long when you have a field of elite pole vaulters.

Jerry has sought to remedy that situation by setting up his new facility so that not only can the weight, shot, and  high jump be run concurrently, but so can two long jump and two (Thank you, Jesus!) pole vault runways.

The facility is set to open in January, 2018, with a quad featuring Michigan, Notre Dame, Ohio State and Michigan State. Jerry predicts that meet can be completed in two hours.

He is also trying to put together a Big 10 v. ACC challenge featuring at least nine teams, which he believes will take no more than five hours, start to finish.

And speaking of making track and field more fan-friendly, Jerry also designed the new facility to allow live streaming of practices and competitions.

“I made sure they put the conduit in, and also put in  locations for cameras, with a toggle switch in a control room so you can cover the meet live.  The parents will be able to sit at home and watch. That’s the direction that track needs to go. We need to get it out to more alumni, fans and parents. We will have to purchase the cameras later, but when we do the facility will be ready for it.”

Whatever they end up calling this new athletic complex, kudos to Jerry for envisioning a cutting-edge venue that will provide a great track and field experience for coaches, athletes, and spectators.

And kudos to the Michigan administration for hiring a coach with vast experience in his sport and then trusting his advice.

Maybe they should call it the Palace of Miracles.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A look back at Coach Smith’s busy day in Rio

Qualifying two throwers in different events for the Olympics is a dream come true for any coach, including John Smith of the University of Mississippi who accompanied shot putter Raven Saunders and hammer thrower Gwen Berry to the Rio Games. Unfortunately, the women’s shot prelims and finals took place on the same day as the hammer prelims, making August 12 probably the busiest, most pressure-packed day of Coach Smith’s life. 

I talked with John a couple of days later, and asked about his impressions of the Rio Games in general, and more specifically how he survived his big day.

Coach, what were the accommodations like in Rio?

I stayed with the other coaches at the  hotel  for personal coaches of high performance athletes. It had air conditioning and toilet paper, so it was pretty good.

The US has a naval base that belongs to the Brazilian navy and there’s a track there and a weight room there.  Basically my time was spent going to the track, practicing and lifting. 

Did you lift at the naval base?

Yes. They had a US-only training place. It is right on the ocean. You could see the sailing competitions from it. If you saw the sailing competitions on TV that’s where our track was.

What was it like getting around?

They had shuttles for us to and from the practice track every day. Everything was there at the naval base. The weight room was like the Chula Vista weight room. They even had a safety squat bar that I requested. We were able to do everything training wise that we needed to do just like we would at home. Because of that, our athletes were prepared and ready to go. Compared to other Olympics, it was unbelievably accommodating for the coaches. USATF and the USOC gave us a chance to do what we needed to do.

This was my fifth Olympics and you could tell  the organizers weren’t ready. The day we finally got to go to the stadium. they had just put in toeboards at the practice track the day before. And they were building the cage inside the stadium the day before. But, at least  they had an Olympic lane on the streets so we could avoid the traffic. Even with that, for the athletes it took an hour to get to the naval base and an hour to go from the village to the stadium. It pretty much took an hour to go anywhere important.

Did the streets feel safe?

You had to be careful. Where we were at there were bars on the windows, metal doors.  There were even bars on the windows on the second story.

You had to be happy with Raven getting a PR of 19.35m and finishing fifth.

We were in great shape. In practice prior to the Games,  she did some fantastic things, but you never know if they are going to come out or  not.  We had a practice in the last six or seven days where she threw a sixteen-pound shot 45 feet, and a 3.75k 66 feet. She usually matches her 3.75k distance in a meet, so she was pretty excited. After she qualified for the final,  I said “Raven, go for it. On your first throw get into the top eight then just go after it. I don’t care if you foul.”

She was pissed afterwards that she didn’t throw 65. She only has one speed–all out. She is fearless and that is what makes her great. I expect her to throw 66 feet next year. The only think I may add to her repertoire is I may have her lose a little weight and I may add push jerks.

Are you planning on adjusting her  diet?

Yes. There is a lot of room for improvement in her diet. I’d like her weigh about 245.

How would the push jerks specifically help her?

As fast as she gets across the ring, she needs to get up quickly. I have her throw into a net every other throw in practice–one to the net, one to the field. And we emphasize getting up at the end of the throw.  But after seven days in Rio without the net, she lost her ability to lift at the end. Her speed has to go from horizontal to vertical. When she fouls it is because she doesn’t get up soon enough or hard enough, 

How did Gwen look leading up to the Games?

Gwen was ready to go. She threw the 3k 280 feet in training, but this was Gwen’s first time, and the failure rate the first time at an Olympics or Worlds is 85-90 percent.

Deanna (Price. who John coached at Southern Illinois University) was the same way last year. I asked her what was the difference between this year and last year, and she said, “Last year I was scared. This year I wasn’t.” (Note: Deanna made the World’s team last year, but did not make the final in Beijing. In Rio, she did.)

World qualifying is a bitch. Until they go through it…

Can you take us through your day on August 12 when both girls  competed?

I got up at 5:30 to catch the 6:30 bus, but it got lost on the way to the track, so it took an hour and fifteen minutes to get there when it should have taken 35 minutes. I had to go get my credentials to get in the practice track, and once I got in, I had Raven take a non-reverse half-turn and a non-reverse full, another non-reverse half-turn and non-reverse full.  I had her take a full throw to see that everything was balanced okay, then I took her to the waiting room and went inside the stadium.

She fouled her first throw then hit the automatic qualifier (18.40m) on her second throw (18.83m), which for someone in their first Olympics is fantastic.

I thought it would take 18-meters to qualify, so for several weeks we practiced twice a day where I would  give her four warm-up throws then she would get three throws to throw 18 meters with the 3.75k, then she would go home. We did that for ten weeks.

We got to the point where I was comfortable that she could  make it.

Then the day before the competition we were going to rest, but it started to rain, and there was a chance it would rain the next day in the competition, so I took her  to the track and had her take some throws to get used to those conditions. She threw about 63 feet with the 3.75k.

After the shot qualifying, they had a car for me, Michael Carter (father and coach of Michelle), and Larry Judge (coach of Felisha Johnson) to go back to the hotel. I felt bad for Michael because the airline lost his bags and he ended up wearing the same clothes for six days. We got back just after noon, and I went to have something to eat at a smorgasbord where you put your food on the plate and pay by the pound.

I left on the 5:30 bus to go to the track again, and this time I had Gwen getting ready for the prelims, but the warm-up area for the long throws was at a different practice track, so I had to go back to the stadium and then take a shuttle to the long throws track, which looked like a vacant lot with a hammer cage on it.

From there they took the girls to the call room, and they had another bus to take the coaches back to the stadium.

While you were at the warm-up track with Gwen, where was Raven?

She was at the warm-up track at the stadium and Connie was there. (Note: John is married to former Olympian Connie Price Smith who was the head coach for the women’s track team in Rio).

So you were positioned to manage that potentially difficult situation.

Yes. And if Gwen ended up in  the second flight, which competed when  Raven was throwing, JC would have coached Gwen. (Note: “JC” is JC Lambert who Smith coached at SIU and who took over as throws coach there when the Smiths moved to Ole Miss) He’s worked a lot with Gwen, so it would not have been a problem.

Anyway, it worked out well that Gwen was in the first flight, because the second flight competed during the women’s shot final, so when Gwen was done I just walked around to the other side of the stadium, and Raven was already warming up.

 I never did get to see Raven after the competition. Connie did, but I had to catch the 11:30 bus back to the hotel.

That was quite a day!

Yes. I had one fantastic performance and a girl that came up a little short and still had a lot of emotional baggage. Gwen felt like she had something to prove instead of just getting in there to throw. After the whole thing with the asthma medication, she felt like she had to prove that she wasn’t on drugs.

Will Gwen keep throwing?

I hope so. Whenever an athlete has a disappointing Olympics they sort of re-think their career. But I think she will. She has tons of potential. 

 

 

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

whitney

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 Mental Toughness of DeAnna Price

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By any measure, DeAnna Price of Southern Illinois University had a great collegiate career. After winning the 2015 NCAA hammer title as a junior, she opened her senior season on March 19th with a 72.19m toss at the Alabama Relays and finished with an NCAA meet record 71.53m on June 9th in Eugene. In between, she broke the 70-meter barrier in nine of the ten meets in which she competed.

It was this ability to be consistently excellent under a variety of conditions that interested me most about DeAnna’s season, and her coach, J.C. Lambert was kind enough to answer my questions about her mental approach to competition.

First question. DeAnna was remarkably consistent this year. It seemed like she threw 70 meters every week. What was it about her personality and her preparation that allowed her to do that?

She’s a tiger when she competes, she will go after throws no matter the situation. The one thing we’ve been working on a lot this year is making sure her first throw makes finals and she gets a 70m+ throw within her first three throws.

Have you two worked at all on any sort of pre-meet ritual? Are there a certain number or types of warm-up throws that she likes to take?

As far as a pre-meet ritual, she does a light lift, she likes to eat either Olive Garden pasta or half a chicken with a baked potato the night before. Breakfast the morning of, she likes to have one pancake with syrup, no butter, some eggs and meat along with coffee.

For warm up throws, she likes to start with turns with a two ball system. That’s one thing we’ve used this year to help her turns and with pushing the hammer. After that, she usually goes to a left arm throw and 1-2 80% throws and then is ready to go.

What do you mean by a “left arm” throw?

With a left arm throw, it’s a drill we use a times to warm up. You just take the hammer with your left arm, wind it like a regular throw, turn and throw.

Here is something that gives me endless amounts of trouble as a high school coach. Over the course of a season, my guys will, like DeAnna, develop their own routine for warming up. But, there are times when that routine gets disrupted. Rain delays. Officials who for some reason decide to limit the warm-up period. This year, at our state meet, the guy in charge decided to move the shot competition indoors due to predictions of dire weather. So, after eight weeks of competing outside with an iron shot, the competitors were moved into the field house and made to share four indoor shots, three of which were egg-shaped. There went their routine. That’s an extreme example, but I’ve heard stories about having flights of 25 at the World Championships, or of Reese Hoffa getting a single warm-up throw at the Athens Olympics. Have you worked with DeAnna on staying focused even when her routine is disrupted?

Deanna does pretty good in tough situations. When it gets down to the bigger meets, your athlete should be ready to go no matter the situation as long as long as the preparation leading up to the meet is done right. I learned as a athlete a long time ago that there will never be a perfect meet, something(s) will always try to get in your way. You must learn to adapt and adjust. You have to go with the flow. Deanna understands this and has done a great job so far with her mental preparation.

If you have a lump of coal you think has the potential to be a diamond, you must put that lump of coal under extreme and intense pressure. If it survives, you have a diamond. If it breaks apart and crumbles, then you just have coal. Not all lumps of coal are meant to be diamonds just like all athletes aren’t meant to be world class competitors. During practice, you must put your athletes under various situations that may pop up at a meet. Some athletes can learn and adapt quick, some have to be guided and talked through, others can just never seems to get past the little things that get in their way.

Can you give me an example of something you might do in practice to help get your throwers ready to handle a pressure situation?

For handling competition- At any time of the practice, I will bring up a meet time situation that they may be faced with. For example, Deanna might be at the middle or near the end of her practice and I will bring up a situation to where I will have her imagine that she is currently 4th place at the Olympic Trials, just been jumped by someone. I will say she has 1 or 2 more rounds to beat her best mark to make the Olympic team.

What is your role during competitions? At the NCAA meet, were you in a position where you could talk with DeAnna between throws? If so, can you characterize your interactions? Dave Dumble once told me that between attempts he tried to give his throwers a compliment on something they were doing well, then give them a suggestion on what to improve, then finish with some encouraging words. Can you tell me about your approach?

During competitions, most times I am at a place where I am able to talk to her. Leading up to big meets, I try to keep my coaching towards her simple in practice. That way if she messes up, I can use a simple cue that she’s very familiar with and it clicks in her head fast. That means less thinking and more competing. I also will let her know what she’s doing great during her throw and then will follow it up with something simple to fix. I try to be confident, aggressive, and excited when I say explain something to her. She really feeds off attitude and excitement.

Which competition this year presented the biggest challenge mentally, and how did you two deal with it?  Will the challenge at the Olympic Trials be to treat it like it is any other big meet and not get overwhelmed by its significance? If so, how will you manage that?

The biggest meet of the year for Deanna will be Olympic Trials. At a lot of the meets this year, Deanna has been trying to throw for a mark (college record). When she tried to throw for a certain mark, she actually tries way too hard and thinks too much about it, compared to when she competes against someone.

If you watched her compete at NCAAs, you could see what I am talking about. Even though she had a big throw in her and had a big sector foul over the fence, she was “going for broke” for a big mark. So far this year, she’s only had one meet with some competition in it. During that meet, her opening throw was over 70m, she had 2 other 71m throws and her final toss at 72.49m. At that meet she was more focused on the competition and it helped produce a little PR at the time in heavy training.

We will treat the Olympic trials like any other big meet she’s gotten ready for in the past. She’s going to have other high class hammer throwers that she can chase down and they will push her as well. One challenge will be to keep her excitement and eagerness contained. Coach John Smith and Coach Connie Price-Smith refer to her as a tiger when she competes, so I came up with the term “keep the tiger caged and hungry”. But she’s learned over the past couple years how to relax and keep her self slightly distracted Leading up the competition. She has a very good “on and off switch”. During practice and the day of competition, the switch is on. Most other times it’s off. If it’s not, I will help by changing the subject of conversation.

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:

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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.

A Q&A with Eric Werskey

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This fall, Cal State University Northridge appointed the fine American shot putter Eric Werskey as assistant track coach in charge of the throws.

Recently, Eric was kind enough to answer a few questions regarding his coaching mentors and the CSUN program.  We also touched on his inside knowledge of the German throwing community courtesy of his relationship with the outstanding hammer thrower Kathrin Klaas, and a very timely video he appeared in this summer alongside Klaas, Robert Harting, and Julia Fischer.

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Congrats on your new job at CSUN! First of all, can you tell me how this came about? Did you have a master plan of transitioning into coaching or did this opportunity sort of pop up?

 Coaching at the collegiate level has been a career goal of mine once I saw myself “retiring” from sport.  When training for the 2012 Olympic Trials in my hometown, I would volunteer coach at local high schools.  With the development I had under Jerry Clayton at Auburn University plus my volunteer experiences, I knew I wanted to develop student-athletes at the collegiate level.  However, after the USA Trials, Art Venegas reached out to me about training at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, California. It was a no-brainer decision to pack my bags and move to Chula Vista.  I spent three years learning Art’s system as well as training among some of the best throwers in the USA and world (Joe Kovacs, Whitney Ashley, Tia Brooks, Jessica Cosby, and many others).  I learned an invaluable amount training among these athletes and wanted to begin to share my experiences and develop athletes myself.  After the 2015 season’s completion, I discussed several options with Jerry and Art and we all decided it was best to pursue my coaching career.

I knew a head coach would be taking a risk on me considering I had no collegiate coaching experience.  With that said, I want to thank California State University Northridge head coach Avery Anderson and his staff for bringing me on board! I am very excited and looking forward to the opportunities here. Cal State Northridge has a tradition of throws dating back to the late 1970’s and our goal is to bring the throws program back into the light again.

Are you going to continue training and competing?

Currently, my focus is on the kids and getting the program heading in the right direction.  I still lift and do some drills with the kids, yet my focus is on the student-athletes.

Can you give me one thing that you learned from Art and one thing from Jerry that you have applied to your coaching so far?

It is very hard to pick one thing specifically that Coach Clayton and Art left me with as they both taught me an invaluable amount. Coach Clayton laid the foundation and helped spark my interest in becoming a coach. He would have a systematic approach to each event and taught us to really take ownership of our training and pay attention to our bodies. Art helped further my interest in coaching. He advocated believing in the system you are in and taught me to seek the finest details that ultimately build the bigger picture.

Can you tell me something about CSUN? What is it about the place that would be attractive to a prospective recruit?

CSUN is definitely a great place to be. The school itself is very modern with solid facilities. Plus, us being in Southern California and suburban Los Angeles, we are able to train year round. For a “smaller school” (though CSUN has over 35 thousand students) we are not shy when it comes to our competitive schedule. In the past the team would travel to the NYC Armory, Texas Relays, and the UCSD Triton Invite to name a few. We believe to contend for championships we have to give our student-athletes the best opportunities to compete among the best in the country on a regular basis.  Also, for throwing training, we actually have our own field designated for throws only. It’s a great set up and allows us to get great training in with minimal distractions.

Have your experiences in Germany and knowledge of the German system influenced your ideas about coaching?

Absolutely! I have been fortunate enough to spend the last two summers in Germany. I have learned a lot from my girlfriend, Kathrin Klaas,..

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…and how she structures her training and what  cues she feels and looks for her in her throwing. I’ve been able to discuss many ideas with her and adopt some of her drills and cues into my own training plan. I have been lucky enough to watch her prepare for the 2014 European Championships and World Championships at their federal training center in Kienbaum as well. In Kienbaum, I was able to watch the best German throwing athletes train and gather some good ideas. Also, I spent many days discussing training ideas with German Federal hammer and javelin Coach Helge Zöllkau. I was given some incredible insight into his program and how he approaches training with his club athletes and elite level athletes.

 One last topic. You made a vid this summer with Kathrin, German discus champion Julia Fischer, and Robert Harting. That vid seems pretty timely after the release of the recent  WADA report. Can you describe how that vid came about and share your thoughts about the current situation with the IAAF?

The video was created when the first articles were released over the summer stating the IAAF had been sweeping positive tests under the rug and accepting bribes from GOBs to protect certain athletes. Not only is it ethically wrong, but the integrity of our sport to the highest level has come in question. The video is to show that athletes are tired of battling the cheaters of our sport and, now, the governing body.

The video came about actually during a training camp in Kienbaum. The leaked articles were being discussed during breakfast and Robert and Julia asked Kathrin and I if we would be in support of and be part of making this video. We spent the next two days between training times creating the video and reaching out to people who had been affected by doping. We created the hashtag #HITIAAF (honesty, integrity and transparency) to help create awareness about how we as a whole are not only battling cheaters in our events, but also the IAAF. The video went on YouTube on a Sunday afternoon and by Tuesday we had over 80 thousand views, I believe. If you have not seen it yet, here is the link:

In light of the new findings of bribery and doping scandals, this video definitely drives home what we we stand for… Honesty, Integrity and Transparency #HITIAAF.

 

Werskey takes over at Cal State Northridge

 

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Determined to develop a top-notch throwing program, Cal State Northridge recently announced the hiring of former Auburn shot put all-American Eric Werskey as their new throws coach.

In hiring Werskey, Matador head coach Avery Anderson acted on the advice of two of the most highly regarded throws coaches in the United States–Jerry Clayton and Art Venegas.

 

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Clayton (pictured above) currently the head man at the University of Michigan, coached Eric at Auburn, where young Werskey first exhibited coach-like tendencies.

 

Clayton explained that, “When throwers get to their junior and senior years I try to get them to help coach the younger athletes because teaching technique helps them to have a better understanding of it themselves. Eric was always good at explaining things to the younger throwers.”

After Werskey graduated from Auburn, Clayton encouraged him to take up residency at the Chula Vista Training Center so he could work with Art Venegas and “be exposed to a different coaching philosophy.”

That turned out to be a great move for Eric. Though he struggled with injuries during his two years at Chula Vista (notice the bandaged calf in the photo below) …

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…he received what amounted to an intense seminar in the art of coaching like Art.

That would be Art Venegas, the man who in the 1980’s and 1990’s built UCLA into the dominant throwing program in the nation.

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Don’t let that smile fool you, folks. Art is an extremely intense, passionate man. A reliable source told me that when shot put World Champion Joe Kovacs (like Eric a resident of the training center and pupil of Venegas the past two years) had trouble finding his timing while warming up at the Triton Invitational last summer, Art’s sage advice to him was. “Relax, mother——!!”

Let it be noted that Kovacs responded by launching a 24-meter warm-up throw.

Anyway, if you want to gain Art’s respect you’d better work your butt off and show your own passion and respect for the sport of throwing, and that is exactly what Eric did upon arrival in Chula Vista.

“I knew,” explained Venegas, “right from the first year he was here that some day he would make a great coach. I spotted that potential in him right off the bat.”

That’s a meaningful statement coming from the man who readied Dave Dumble, Brian Blutreich, Don Babbitt and John Frazier to join the coaching ranks.

“If any of my athletes asks, I will tell them straight up if they are meant to be a coach. When Don Babbitt was throwing the javelin for me, I told him ‘you are wasting your time as a thrower! You were born to be a coach!'”

Art’s responsibilities sometimes keep him away from the training center for several days at a time, and he says that he came to rely on Eric as an unofficial assistant. Eric did so well and became so passionate about coaching that Art occasionally felt like telling him, “Stop coaching, dammit! You’re still a thrower!” But, before long  he decided that “I wanted him to coach with me here when his throwing career ended, but there was no position available.”

Art began his own coaching career at Cal State Northridge back in the 1970’s  (making the whopping sum of $800 per year) and when they called him this spring to ask his advice on hiring a throws coach, he did not hesitate in recommending Werskey.

According to Art, “Eric is a great match for Northridge. He is extremely dedicated and reliable, and Cal State is the ideal place for him to develop as a coach. He will deal with a lot of different levels of athletes there. They have great facilities. And California is a great place to recruit. He could have a long career there.”

When asked what advice he gave Eric as he prepared to take on the CSUN job, Venegas said that he told Werskey to “treat everyone equally and bring everyone into the program. I challenged him that if there is a kid who is reluctant to buy in, to reach out to him and get him on board. And once you develop those kind of relationships with the kids, recruiting will be easy because the athletes will sell your program.”

It is rare for someone with no formal coaching experience to be given a shot (pun intended) at a place like Northridge, but it is hard to fault Coach Anderson for taking a shot (sorry, could not resist) on Eric. A fine thrower. A fine man. A fine pedigree.

And if Coach Anderson should, at some point this winter, wake up in the middle of the night wondering if he made the right decision…well, I know what Art Venegas would tell him.

“Relax, mother——!! The kid is going to do great!”

Next up: a Q & A with Eric.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A smooth transition at SIU

One complicating factor for any athlete trying to choose a college is the question of whether or not the coaches who recruit him or her will remain at that school for the ensuing four years.

In football, that is extremely unlikely.  A typical DI player will have two or three position coaches during  their career. Many endure the upheaval that comes with a head coaching change.

The funny thing about football is that many players don’t mind losing their coach (the recent upheaval at the University of Illinois is a prime example)  as the greed and thuggishness which permeate DI football tend to prevent players from bonding with  staff.

It is different in track, though.  I’ve spoken to many DI track coaches over the years, and they all seem to have entered the profession for the same reasons as us high school coaches: love of the sport and love of the kids.

Ironically, the nature of the sport and the deep bonds that often form between coaches and athletes can make a coaching change in track and field all the more traumatic.

Take the recent decision by John Smith, the throws coach at Southern Illinois University, and his wife Connie, the head coach at SIU, to accept similar positions at Ole Miss.

For John, that meant facing the idea of leaving behind NCAA shot champion Raven Saunders, NCAA Hammer champion DeAnna Price, and NCAA 4thplace finisher in the shot Josh Freeman. (It turned out that Saunders was able to follow the Smiths to Ole Miss, but SEC rules prohibited Price and Freeman from transferring as they are down to their final year of eligibitliy.)

Luckily for all parties involved, the Smiths (both SIU alums) were determined not to leave the program in a shambles.

I spoke with John this summer, and he emphasized that while the Ole Miss offer came out of the blue, he had for some time been preparing his former All-American hammer and weight thrower JC Lambert to take over as SIU throws meister.

According to Smith, “JC has, for the last three years, been serving his apprenticeship. There have been times that he has been mad at me because I made him write his own workouts (note: Since graduating from SIU in 2013, Lambert has continued to train with Smith) but now he understands. I have full confidence in him.”

I contacted JC after he was officially named to succeed Smith, and he concurred with John’s description of his apprenticeship.

Via email, Lambert stated that “Coach Smith has been sculpting me for this moment for a long time.  After having a very good freshman year (2008-2009), I become very interested in how his program worked. I always asked questions about his training and why he did certain things. Coach would make a prediction on what would happen in my training down the road, and was always right about it. Whenever it did happen, I was very shocked and impressed by how accurate his predictions were. The one prediction he made that I will never forget: He told me after my first week of training that my best event was going to be the shot put. For those who don’t know, I threw the 12lb shot a whopping 46 feet in high school. After he made that comment, I thought ‘this old man is nuts.’But, after six months of training, I threw the 16lb over 50 feet and eventually 52 feet at the end of my freshman year. The next year I progressed to 58’10” and had a foul at 61 feet. But an unfortunate wrist injury took me out of the event to where I couldn’t train it at all. I really believe I would’ve been a 20.50m guy. After realizing the accuracy of the comment he made, I began to understand why he was one of the best coaches in the country.”

“By my Junior year, he would quiz me on training. He would ask me what I would do if I was in his position and why. I began to answer questions correctly and he was impressed. He began to have enough trust in me to write my own training. I would write it up and show him. He would examine it and express his opinion on what he would do different.”

“Also during my Junior year, Coach Smith had enough confidence in me that he allowed me to start helping out with coaching the younger athletes. This is the point where I started to really like and understand coaching.”

“My senior and redshirt senior year was when I gained the most knowledge. I finally learned how to put together a complete program. Not just for myself, but for others. Coach Smith came up to me and asked me to help put together the lifting and throwing for the 2013 outdoor season. We sat down and began to put the training together. He asked me how I would start the season and I began to explain what I would do for the weight room and the throwing. He kept writing down everything I would say and I would continue to explain up until it was peak week for Conference. He looked at the finished product and said ‘Looks like a winner.'”

“And we had a great result at our conference meet. We scored a total of 71 points in the 3 throwing events on the men’s side and 47 points with a young group of female throwers in a tough conference. I learned a lot from that experience and will always be thankful that coach had enough confidence to allow me to help put that together.”

“My two years as a post collegiate athlete, he allowed to design my training and experiment with different ideas I had. This is the point where I learned how to be creative and not so afraid to think outside of the box with training.”

“Being a volunteer assistant coach, he gave me several responsibilities. He allowed me to coach the hammer/weight throwers at practice and some meets. I also got to run several lifting sessions and throwing practices if Coach was either sick or out of town.”

After all that preparation, Smith has high expectations for his successor.

“I watched JC coach every day and he is better than 95% of all coaches right now. In the end, he will be a better coach than me. Since he is young, he has the advantage of being able to get in a ring and show kids and be in the weight room with them. That’s what I did at Ohio State with Dan Taylor. When you are older, you have to beat people with experience and treachery because I can’t jump in the ring and show people any more like I used to.”

“But honestly, he has done most of the work with Deanna, and he has done a lot of work with a lot of our kids.  When he threw in practice, I’d watch him and coach him, and when he was done throwing he coached  the hammer and I coached the other events.”

“After we accepted the Ole Miss offer, the first thing Connie and I told the SIU administration was they have to keep JC if they wanted to keep the throwing program strong. He is the only one who knows how to do what I do. When I was in Canada this summer (coaching DeAnna at the Pan Am Games) he ran my throwing camp, and I had parents email me telling me how great the camp was and I wasn’t even there.”

“Deanna should repeat as NCAA champion next year, and has a chance to break the NCAA record. If not, I will hold JC responsible.”

Lambert seems energized by the challenge, and agrees that DeAnna could have a monster year.

“I want to build off of her spectacular Junior year, where she only had 5-6 months of hammer training due to a bad knee injury. She just has an outdoor season, so we will have the privilege to focus more towards hammer. She will throw the weight indoors at a few competitions. We use the weight as an indicator for her hammer.  But we will be building up her specific strength with heavy throwing and hammer related core work. We will continue to slowly fix her technique and keep working on what she learned last year. In the weight room, I want to bring her power up another level and make that level consistent. She’s already one of the strongest females in the nation, but continuing to grow her power while having her learn to transition it to more hammer strength will be another step towards getting a female hammer thrower on the podium at an international event. My ultimate goal for her this year is to have a repeat win at NCAA’s, break the overall NCAA record, go to the Olympic trials and finish top 3, and go to the Olympics and make the finals. I also for see her having a good year in shot put. This past year she had a few fouls at the end of the season that were over 17m. I would like for her to throw at least 18m in shot put and have a great finish at NCAA nationals.”

Not to be forgotten is Josh Freeman, who had a huge PR on his final throw at this year’s NCAA outdoor meet.

“For Josh, we’ve been working on some technical issues in shot. So far, it has paid off with great results especially while in base training. We will keep working and attacking the heavy implements, but really trying to learn to stretch out the light shots. Learning how to throw far, with mid-to-light shots, in base training is very important in my opinion. It gives you a look into how the future will play out. Everyone can throw far when you feel good, but learning how to throw far when your body is slow and sore will pay off big when it comes time to peak. Especially as an experienced athlete. In the weight room, his squats have become more powerful, which has resulted in more explosive legs. His bench has been climbing up, as well as his cleans. Ultimately, I want to get him to 21m this next season and to win 2 national titles. Also, I want to have him ready to make the finals at the Olympic trials and see how well he can fight for a spot against the professionals.”

For his part, Smith is excited about what lies ahead at Ole Miss.

“We had certain training demands, and they granted all of them. For example, I run the weight room workouts and they will give me one or two strength coaches to assist me. I had a long talk with the strength coach and he is fine with it. When I am training kids, what they are doing on the throwing field dictates what we do in the weight room. I often adjust their lifting based on how they throw in practice. A strength coach doesn’t see that, and one of the biggest reasons why we have done a good job peaking is that I control all aspects of training.”

“Also, it is the SEC. Connie will have a lot more help, including a director of operations. They are building a new track which will be done next May. They have a temporary throwing field four or five miles away. But all I need is a piece of concrete until they get the other facility done. At SIU, we felt like we had done about everything we could do. Connie was looking for a new challenge and I go where she goes.”

“And there is no hostility there between us and SIU. It was a good breakup. We built the program and want to make sure it stays intact.”

It sounds like anointing JC Lambert as his successor was a key step in ensuring that it does.

 

 

 

A quick chat with Art Venegas after Joe’s big win

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Art Venegas, coach of freshly-crowned shot put World Champion Joe Kovacs, graciously answered a few questions following Joe’s win.

How did you help Joe get ready for the epic scale of a meet like the World Championships?
It has been a gradual learning curve with the championships  always as the goal
How did you approach the qualifying round? Do you warm up the same as the final? Do you hold anything back? 
The Q round is the most important part of the meet. I have a series of preparatory phases during practice that simulate the arduous challenges World Championship qualification  presents that allows for a better chance to get to the final. We don’t hold back, but we try to not foul and keep our technical model in mind
Could you share what you were thinking during the final? It took Joe a while to get rolling. What did you say to him when he came to the rail between throws?
The final is the end of a throwing Marathon that started at 6 AM and finished at 9 PM with intense waiting periods both on and off the track. My job is to determine where the athlete is at and ask some specific questions. If the answer matches my observations, I try to make simple adjustments with usually one cue to focus on. After that, I watch the activity  of the athlete on the apron between throws and see if they are in need of rest or some drills to prepare the next throw
 As you know, making the leap from fine college thrower to world champion is not easy. What allowed Joe to do it?

Joe is an exceptional student and a long-term thinker and planner, added to his great talent and drive. I have felt since I met him that he had greatness in his future, and having been blessed with some great throwers in the past I felt that he had the intangibles that help create champions