Stanford’s Valarie Allman just completed a fantastic 2017 season. Not only did she drill a PR of 64.69m that announced her as a world class thrower, but she gained valuable international experience by qualifying to represent the US at the World Championships in London and the World University Games in Taiwan where she earned a silver medal.
All this came while adjusting to a new coach, Zeb Sion, who arrived at Stanford after five seasons at Wake Forest.
Coach Sion was kind enough to recount his experiences with Val this past season. I think you’ll find it very interesting!
First of all, thank you very much for asking me to do this interview about Valarie and her 2017 season. She is an absolute joy to work with each day, and it was a lot of fun traversing through a season of changes, ups and downs, and exciting results with her. Hopefully, I can give everyone a feel for what Val and I worked on this year as well as what we need to improve moving forward. We will openly admit that we have a lot to work on in the future, but we view this as an exciting challenge.
The very nature of coaching and teaching is rooted in the idea of helping people improve. How can you help them improve if you don’t have plans to change their technique and training? So yes, I definitely had ideas of how to help Val improve in my first year working with her. I also find it interesting that “everyone and their mother” seems to have an opinion about how Val should throw or what they would do to change her technique. She had a good amount of success in high school and through her first three years of college, so I’m not a huge fan of being too aggressive with those statements. So while I had intentions to help her improve by making changes to her technique and training, I wanted to work with her and make the changes in a thoughtful way. I wanted her to understand what we were doing and why we were doing it as I knew, based on her personality, that she would improve much quicker that way.
I think putting her first three years of college in perspective before discussing this past season and how we approached it is important. As we know, Val was a very good high school thrower, and she competed at a high level during her first three years in college. The 2016 NCAA Championships, however, was when she had a major breakthrough throwing over 60m for the first time and increasing her personal best by almost ten feet. She followed that meet up with a solid performance at the 2016 Olympic Trials, throwing a distance of 59.02/193-8 which would have been a PB before NCAAs. The natural view and perception became that she was a 201’/61m thrower, even though the average of her top five meets, including the marks I just mentioned, was only 58.86m/193-1. Talk about pressure for her new coach!! Regardless of Val’s PR and top-five meet average, we had goals of improving as much as we could. We focused on the process of making changes with the notion that the results would follow.
Back to when I arrived on campus last fall… I felt fortunate in that I recruited Val to Wake Forest four years prior, and therefore already had established a relationship with her. I think it made it easier to have open dialogue about the plan and how we would move forward. In the first serious chat we had about training and technique, she mentioned that she was worried about me totally changing her technique. I reassured her that this wouldn’t happen, and definitely not too fast, even though that wasn’t necessarily my intention. I joke about it by saying that I told her I wouldn’t change anything and then ended up changing everything. Of course, that’s not close to reality, but it’s fun to say.
It’s important to note that I didn’t analyze a ton of old video of Val prior to working with her. I didn’t want to go into our sessions with a set perspective on what needed to change, but instead wanted to actually work with her and talk through things to get a feel for what needed to change.
I realized that the overarching theme for the changes we needed to make, which was applicable in each phase of her throw, was the idea of taking more energy into the direction of the throw. I often call it “directional energy.”
The back of the throw…
Overall, I liked the back of the ring concepts that Val had worked on previously in terms of her wind, how she loaded the left leg, the stretch she created between her legs, etc… I wanted Val to focus on driving/sprinting across the ring earlier and with more intention. We focused on stopping the left foot earlier and driving across the ring more. The intent of driving/sprinting with more energy naturally lowered her high point because the energy was more linear than vertical out of the back. More importantly, it also lined up her high and low point with the middle of the sector as opposed to being late and down the left side.
During March, April, and May, this part of her throw was very dialed in. I’ll be the first to say that we didn’t totally fix this issue and unfortunately saw it come back at the end of the season. Val had very high throws at USAs, and she was definitely getting off of the back late and not driving at Worlds. Val’s second throw in London was between 61m and 63m according to two different sources, but she fouled “at the front” and by that I mean on the left side of the circle because her energy was so late and left.
The middle and front of the throw…
Now that we had the right concept of how and when to drive out of the back creating better energy across the ring, the second priority I had was to better connect the middle of her throw into a more powerful finish. After landing in the middle of the ring and as Val would rotate into her power position, her left arm would shorten/bend dramatically and begin to rise. When her left foot would get down, she would pull her left arm/shoulder back and away to the left. This put her in an imbalanced and relatively weaker position and was a big reason why she couldn’t transition energy into the direction of the throw and would throw high. Specifically, (1) she wouldn’t have her shoulders back and closed upon left foot touch down so she had less separation, (2) her radius would shorten as she pulled away (left) which made it impossible to keep the correct shoulder plane, and (3) because her left arm/side wasn’t leading the energy out into the direction of the throw, the right side/arm couldn’t be as long as possible working around the hip and OUT.
Our focus was to keep the left arm longer and closed in the middle of the ring and at left foot contact (power position). If her left arm was long and opposite her right arm in a straight line, we felt good about the position. When she hit this balanced/centered position, it was so much easier for her to turn the right hip/side into the throw. As we got her shoulder plane to be more consistent and her left arm to be longer, it put her in a better position to properly lead the left arm out into the sector, so her right arm could then follow it and take the discus out. Ideally, I would want to keep her left arm longer for a longer amount of time (think Dani Samuels). We found that as long as the left arm led out and into the sector, whether it was led by her elbow, forearm, or hand, the resulting throw would be better because it had the right energy.
While I used various cues and drills throughout the year to help Val make these changes, it was pretty obvious when her “directional energy” was better. One quick way to tell if the “directional energy” was better, other than how far she threw, was to look at her reverse. On Val’s far throws, she would be in a good position and had the ability to turn the right side into the direction of the throw resulting in a nice displacement of her energy into the throw on her reverse. When we first started working together, her right foot would barely travel forward when landing at the end of the reverse. This was an easy way to see that the directional energy was wrong (vertical). Compare that to her two 64m throws [Links to those throw can be found below] and you’ll see a significant difference.
It’s clear that we need to refine these technical concepts and make them much more consistent. While we worked on keeping the left arm longer and on the correct plane this year, we are going to add more of a wrap in the middle, which should help with separation and her ability to then accelerate her left arm into the direction of the throw adding more stretch and energy.
As I look back on Val’s 2017 outdoor season, I’m incredibly proud of the changes she made and the things she accomplished. I think it’s fair to say that it’s pretty awesome to go from throwing over 60m at one meet prior to the 2017 season to having competitions at 64.69m, 64.26m, 62.64m, and 61.65m with additional 60m throws in those meets at 62.46m, 61.98m, 60.31m, and 60.10m. Val’s five-meet average for 2017 was 62.36m. We’re both happy with the changes and progress that Val made this year, but are excited to get back to work and make changes for the 2018 season and beyond.
Here is a vid of Val throwing 64.26m this season:
Here is a vid of her PR toss of 64.69m: