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:

joe 1

photo (24)

photo (25)

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:


photo (19)

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


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…



…and leads him into the throw:

robert 3

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:

perk 3


perk 5

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…

perk 4

…it carries a lot of force…


…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:


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



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…


…and not allowed to slide back:



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




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:


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…


…drives his right knee/hip towards the cage…


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


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.

Of Manatees and Germans

So every day at the beginning of class I show my students the “BBC One-Minute World News.” The BBC generally covers topics like genocide and terrorism, just the thing to get a bunch of sixteen-year-olds excited about semicolons, but every once in a while they sneak in a fun story about koala bears or some such, and a few weeks ago they featured a manatee named Snooty who lives in Bradenton, Florida, and is the oldest captive manatee in the universe.

I could not wait to show my daughter KC some Snooty vids when I got home that night (turns out he is all over Youtube) as she loves animals as much as I do and and suffers as grievously as I do over the fact that my wife forbids us from owning one.

We gave up arguing long ago as the wife is an attorney and we know that crossing her means spending the winter living in the shed.

But the wife loves to travel, and it does not take much convincing to get her to head to Florida for spring break.

And truth be told, she loves animals as much as KC and me, as long as someone else is in charge of taking care of them. So she was happy to book us a flight to Tampa and a hotel room on the beach in Sarasota (just ten miles from Snooty and Bradenton). Here, by the way, is Snooty:


Truth be told, I had an ulterior motive for wanting to visit Bradenton. Last August, at the European Championships in Zurich, I struck up a friendship with Torsten Schmidt, one of the throws coaches in the German national system, and I knew that Torsten and his training group were going to be spending a couple of weeks at the IMG Academy in…Bradenton.

That’s right,  Snooty the Manatee and German discus throwers in…the…same…place.

No, I will not shut up.

So we (me, my wife Alice, KC, and KC’s extremely affable friend Eileen) caught a flight to Tampa at the crack of dawn last Sunday, and that night Alice, Torsten, and I sat down for an excellent seafood dinner not far from the IMG campus.

Torsten, who threw the disc for Germany in the 2004 Olympics, is an extremely tall, extremely affable man who admits to two obsessions aside from throwing: television and cake.

He and his training group (Julia Fischer, Robert and Chris Harting) had recently dined at the Cheesecake Factory, an experience he spoke of  with great reverence.

“I hear they have really good hamburgers,” my wife interjected.

“No,” he corrected her. “I do not go to the Cheesecake Factory to eat burgers. I go to eat cake.”

Four pieces, apparently. Two double chocolate and two Oreo.

In addition to the quality of the local cake, Torsten had other reasons to be happy. Robert’s recovery from knee surgery (he tore his ACL last September) seemed to be going well. Chris had been throwing practice PR’s. And Julia had, that very day, made a breakthrough when Robert suggested she try an abbreviated windup.


We celebrated by inhaling seafood together. During the meal, I peppered Torsten with questions about German throwing technique while my wife graciously offered advice on his relationship with his girlfriend, Sanna,  “The man should always say yes,” she told him. “Then you will both be happy!”

After we dropped Torsten back at IMG, my wife gave him the ultimate compliment: “He has a good aura.”

The next day, the girls tried to kill me with exercise by making me join them on a kayaking tour of the local waterways. Afterwards, even my aura was sore.

On Tuesday, we got to meet Snooty. And he did not disappoint.

Snooty lives what could accurately be described as “the good life.” Come to think of it, he and my daughter have a lot in common.

Both consume massive amounts of vegetables.

Both like to spend their days floating around looking cute.

(Here is my little manatee)


Both have been raised entirely in captivity, and would be unlikely to survive in the wild (“wild” in my daughter’s case meaning any town where you’d have to walk farther than 100 meters to find a Starbucks).

At least my daughter feeds herself, though. Do you see Snooty in the background of this picture? He is looking up at a pile of vegetables that he knows are meant for him.


He won’t touch them, however, until one of his handlers…


…leans over and offers them to him bit by bit.

That woman and her fellow Snooty-keepers spend several hours per day shoving produce into Snooty’s snoot.

And forgive me for digressing, but to those of you who have been contemplating switching to a vegan diet in order to lose weight, who looks better–the meat-eater with his elbow on the rail, or the 800-pound vegetarian floating in the background? I thought so.

Anyway, it turns out that Snooty often shares his home with various injured or traumatized manatees who will at some point be returned to the wild. These sorry creatures are forced to fend for themselves at feeding time so that they do not get too comfortable with humans. Here is Snooty’s current roomie wrestling his dinner from the clutches of a traffic cone:


This youngster currently weighs in at 500 pounds which, in the manatee world, qualifies him as emaciated. He will not be released from Chez Snooty until he hits the 800 mark.

After bidding a reluctant farewell to Snooty and his anorexic friend, we headed for  IMG and what I anticipated to be the highlight (sorry Snooty!)of the trip: watching Torsten’s group practice.

As previously mentioned, Torsten’s group consists of three discuswerfers, and the first to begin werfing  in this particular session was Robert Harting.

After several years under the tutelage of Werner Goldmann, Harting asked Torsten to take over his training in November of 2013. Watching them interact on this absolutely gorgeous Florida evening, I could tell that they were a good match.

I’ve never seen Harting practice before, so I don’t know if this was typical, but he approached this session with great focus and intensity. There was no laughing. No small talk. No smiling, even. He conferred with Torsten after each attempt, whether a stand or full, and seemed utterly intent on finding a way to make the next throw go farther.

It reminded me of the stories you used to hear around Chicago of Michael Jordan and his approach to training. There was no such thing as a meaningless drill or scrimmage when Jordan was involved. Even after the Bulls started winning titles, he practiced with a fury that few could match.

That’s why Phil Jackson was the perfect coach for Jordan. Naturally laid-back, Phil could interact with Jordan without inciting him. In fact, it is hard to imagine Jordan flourishing under a coach with an aggressive, “in your face” style.

I suspect that Robert and Torsten have a similar relationship. Robert listened intently to Torsten’s advice after each attempt, but that advice was delivered in a quiet, reassuring tone.

This relationship may be the very thing that gets Harting through this difficult period of recovery from major knee surgery. When you are used to being the strongest, toughest mothertrucker in your entire sport the prospect of losing your edge, of falling back to the pack must be agonizing. Obviously, Robert did not anticipate this situation when he signed on with Torsten, but in the end it may prove to be the smartest move he has ever made.

After Harting had thrown for 45 minutes or so, Julia Fischer arrived at the ring. This is an important season for Julia, who was to celebrate her twenty-fifth birthday the following day.


The 2011 Under-23 European Champion, Julia finished fifth in Zurich last August and needs to raise her game a notch if she is to contend for a medal in Beijing and Rio.

As noted above, Torsten was really happy with the progress Julia made during their time in Florida, but this was her second throwing session of the day and, probably owing to fatigue, she fell into the habit of yanking her head a bit at the finish of her throws many of which sailed off beyond the right foul line.

Torsten and Robert took turns adjusting her technique, largely without success. Towards the end of her session she took extra time to gather herself between throws, and this seemed to help. Either way, she finished the session in good spirits and I would not be surprised to see her make a breakthrough this summer.

I hope so. She seems like a very nice person and she is clearly a fine, fine athlete.

The final member of the group to arrive at the cage was Chris Harting, Robert’s younger brother. Chris is in a situation similar to that of Julia as he is just on the cusp of throwing far enough to make noise at the international level (his PB is 64.99m).

chris harting

In order to represent Germany in Beijing this August, Chris must have one of the top three throws by a German man after April 1st (This does not include Robert, as the defending champion gets an automatic entry). With Martin Wierig and Daniel Jasinski leading a strong group of contenders, Chris, like Julia needs to have a breakout year.

We chatted a bit as he worked to loosen up a slightly strained back prior to taking his throws, and he seemed pleased with the progress he had made this off-season and confident about his prospects come the summer.

Unfortunately for me, I did not get to see Chris take any serious throws as in order to give his back a break Torsten limited him to a few left-handed stands.

Yes, you read that correctly. Left-handed stands.

According to Torsten, it is very important that throwers take regular attempts left-handed. Stands. Half-turns. Even fulls. He told a great story about the recently retired German shot putter Ralf Bartels watching the former Olympic discus champ Virgilius Alekna struggle to break the 65-meter line at a practice session. Ralf could not figure out what was troubling the giant Lithuanian until he finally noticed that Virgilius was launching those 60-meter-plus throws…left handed.

Torsten says that throwing left-handed forces right-handed throwers to think about positions and thus helps them to gain a deeper understanding of their technique.

The session ended with Chris whanging a couple of left-handed stands into the cage.

A few minutes later, my wife returned to pick me up and Torsten and I said our goodbyes.

It should be a very interesting summer for his training group.

Torsten, if you read this, thanks loads for greatly expanding my understanding of discus technique.

Sanna, if you read this, take it from my wife, you’ve got yourself a great guy.

Snooty, if you read this, you are a hell of a lot smarter than you look.

Alice, my wife, if you read this…I’m thrilled to be your husband, even if you won’t let me have a dog.

Now, how about a manattee?  They’re cute. They don’t bark. They don’t need to be walked. They…uhhh, what did I do with that key to the shed?