One nice thing about covering the throwing events is that the day after someone turns in a fantastic performance, say Tom Walsh breaking the Indoor World Championship shot put record in Birmingham last weekend (with a throw of 22.31m thank you very much) you can call up his coach and have a really interesting chat with him while he’s sitting around an airport waiting for a flight to New Zealand.
And that’s exactly what I did last Sunday.
I called up Tom’s coach, Dale Stevenson, and shot the breeze with him for a while about how things have been going for Tom.
Have you ever had a conversation with someone who is so pleasant to talk to that it seems like you’re having a beer together even though you aren’t? That’s what it’s like talking to Dale. Actually, the first time I called him–last summer after Tom had won the outdoor World Championships in London–he was having a beer, in a London pub while celebrating Tom’s big win. That did not prevent him, though, from taking the time to answer a bunch of questions about Tom’s career and training.
(You can read that interview here.)
This past Sunday, he was equally generous with his time. I’d actually caught him in a bit of a reflective mood.
He mentioned that they had to head straight back to New Zealand because the national championships were just a few days away, and I complimented him on his and Tom’s ability to manage the huge travel demands faced by someone living and training half a world away from most international competitions.
He replied that for athletes from “our sleepy little corner of the world” being away from home is “just part of the territory,” and pointed out the dichotomy faced by many coaches that “being away from loved ones sometimes makes you question whether this is something you really want to do,” but at the same time “steels your resolve” to do it well.
Right now, nobody is doing shot putting as well as Tom Walsh, and as a throws geek writing for the benefit of fellow throws geeks, I opened with some questions regarding Tom’s technique.
If you’ve seen Tom throw, you’ve likely noticed that his setup at the back of the ring is pretty unusual–his left foot on the center line and his right foot staggered back quite a bit. You can see it clearly in this still from a training session that Tom posted a couple of days before Worlds.
I asked Dale how Tom ended up adopting this method of setting up the throw.
“It was just a natural evolution,” he told me. “People learn to straddle the back of the ring initially just because of symmetry. You go from there, and as things evolve you see most throwers working their left foot back to the top of the ring, whether you call that the twelve o’clock or six o’clock position. We kept playing with it until we found the sweet spot, and as Tom gets stronger and can maintain his posture and rhythm, year upon year it is probably going to change and he will end up coming more around trying to maximize the rotation out of the back of the ring and the drive across the middle.”
Like other highly successful throws coaches I’ve spoken to over the years, Dale was careful to point out that just because something works for Tom doesn’t mean that it would work for most throwers.
“We are not trying to copy anyone or change the game. It’s just playing around and finding what works. Tom also likes to start back away from the ring and not jammed up against it so he feels like he can have a nice, clean, flying entry to the throw.”
Another notable aspect of Tom’s technique is the way he throws open his left side when initiating the throw. As a high school coach, I am intrigued by this because I find myself constantly trying to get my athletes to slow down their left side out of the back. But, according to Dale, the active left side allows Tom to create energy that eventually enhances the drive across the ring into the power position. (These photos of Tom’s entry phase should help illustrate Dale’s comments.)
“We see it as a coupling between the left hand or arm and the right leg. We want to create a diagonal sling. That creates more power than trying to push the right leg. It’s about timing that sling, keeping it on stretch and timing it so that you can couple that initial tension with the drive across the ring.”
I then asked Dale what, for me, is the vital question regarding the rotational throws: When should the right foot leave the ground when coming out of the back of the ring?
“For Tom, the right foot comes off sort of as a symptom. We don’t think about picking it up or kicking hard. It is kind of like the cracking of a whip–you crack the handle of the whip and eventually the end of the whip will come through faster as a result. If you crack the end of the whip, it’s not going to be as fast as if you let the chain of events play out. We never talk about it. We never train it. We see it as a symptom, not as a cause.”
With no outdoor World Championships or Olympics this summer, I asked Dale what would be the focus of their efforts the rest of the year.
He pointed to the Commonwealth Games in April (to be held in Australia). “Along with the Olympics, it is the one thing missing from Tom’s record. In 2014, he was beaten on the last round on a great throw from O’Dayne Richards. It burns a bit.”
Tom’s agent is also negotiating a couple of possible appearances in the United States, perhaps at the Kansas or Drake Relays.
Any thoughts of taking things a bit easy in this non-Worlds, non-Olympic year?
According to Dale, “Each year leads into the following, and the way men’s shot is going you can’t afford to sit back and assume 22 meters is going to be enough to win a major championships. There is a chance that you will have to be around there just to make the finals.”
Alright then, since there will be no slacking off this summer, how about taking a whack at the world record?
“There are enough guys out there that can do it. Tom wasn’t throwing phenomenal at a young age. He’s been told a number of times that he’s not big enough or strong enough to throw 20 meters, then 21, then 22. Eventually, you run out of reasons to believe that you can’t do something. There are enough guys around that are pushing big numbers. We want to be in the mix.”
I told Dale that, in my humble opinion, if Tom stays healthy for the next couple of years he is one of three guys (along with Ryan Crouser and Joe Kovacs) who have a chance to establish a new world record. Did he agree?
My question brought out his inner diplomat.
“I don’t know how to answer that question. How about this: I hope I’m there.”
Fair enough. And one thing is for sure, Dale. The day after it happens, I’ll be giving you a call.