One of the great moments of the 2018 NCAA Championships came early when Georgia’s Denzel Comenentia won the men’s hammer and shot put titles…on…the…same…day. His heroics gave Georgia the impetus they needed to take home the team title.
In order to get some insight into how Denzel pulled off this remarkable double, I spoke with his coach, Don Babbitt.
Followers of the sport know that Don has long maintained a powerhouse throws program at Georgia in addition to guiding all-time greats Reese Hoffa and Adam Nelson to the top of the professional ranks.
After reading this slightly edited version of our conversation, I think you’ll understand why Don has been so successful and why Reese and Adam trusted and relied on him for all those years.
So, how did Denzel manage his historic double? The short answer is, he’s a supremely talented athlete who rises to the occasion at big moments. The long answer is a bit more complicated and reveals much about the art of coaching the throws.
Coach, I was in Des Moines when Cory Martin won the shot and hammer at the 2008 NCAA Championships, and I thought that was an amazing accomplishment. But he didn’t have to throw both in the same day.
This was pretty amazing to me, too. Denzel’s freshman year we went through the same thing with having to compete in the hammer and shot on the same day, and last year as well, so we knew what to expect and we’ve been practicing for it. The key for Denzel was knowing him and how his body was going feel. Having the two trial runs in 2016 and 2017 was really helpful.
How did your approach to getting him ready for the hammer/shot double evolve over the years?
What’s interesting is that even before he enrolled at Georgia, he made the final of both the hammer and shot at the World Juniors in 2014. And the schedule for that was just as bad. On the same day, he had shot prelims in the morning, then hammer qualifying right afterwards, and then he had the shot final that night.
So he had three things in one day, and I wondered, is he going to crash and burn in the shot final? But he ended up throwing 20.17m in the first round, and that held up for the silver. And I thought, wow, that’s incredible that he was able to do that.
So I knew before he even came to us that he could handle something like that mentally.
His freshman year, 2016, at NCAA’s, he had the hammer first, and he had thrown 69.42m that year and he ended up throwing 68.80m. He didn’t make the final, so he only had three throws. Then we went to the shot and he threw 18.85m and just couldn’t get it going powerwise. He had thrown 19.54m that year. So, he dropped a little in both. And he told me that he was kind of tired for the shot.
In getting ready for the next year, we had to figure out how to treat the season, the training pattern, and we made one big change. Denzel was a guy who, when we threw the shot in practice, he just kind of went for it. He was kind of wild and crazy, and he fouled a lot. Then in competition, he’d catch one throw maybe two throws, kind of like the way Adam Nelson used to compete. He’d just swing for the fences. If he caught one, it was big, and if he didn’t it would be a foul or it would be short.
So the next year, we came into the fall season and we decided that he needed to be a little more steady so that whatever energy he had in major competitions, he could make the most of it. So, we held everything in in practice. And at first, his practice marks weren’t as good as they had been, but after about five months he was throwing just as far as he used to but was way more steady.
Indoors his sophomore year, he got second in the shot at NCAA’s. We didn’t throw the weight that year; we just worked on his movement in the hammer with the main goal of making him steady in both in major competitions.
Outdoors, at the 2017 Southestern Conference meet, he won both and was really steady. There the hammer was first and shot second, but they were two days apart just like Cory had it in 2008. When we came to Eugene last year, he threw 71.75m.to get fifth in the hammer. He missed the Dutch record by two centimeters That was a PR for him, and he had another throw that was a PR for him too, so he had a really good competition. Then he went over to the shot, where he got fifth as well, but he had six fair throws. His best was 19.63m–his PR at the time was 20.33m–and his worst throw was 19.54m. So he was really steady, he just didn’t have the pop to get near his PR in the shot.
So, we got the equation partly right. We got the good performance in the hammer, and in the shot we thought if he threw well he could have gotten third, but he just didn’t have the power left from throwing the hammer.
So for this year, we had to figure out a way for him to have more power in the second event.
This last year we really worked on power training. All his Olympic lifting went up in terms of max strength, and he was also able to move fairly heavy weights fast. His freshman year he cleaned about 310 pounds for a single, and this past year we got to a point where he could do a set of five with 310 in about six seconds. So his power output was way up.
This past winter we started throwing the weight as well, and I think it really helped to steady his pattern in the hammer. He threw 23.71m in the weight his first year throwing it. When we went to indoor NCAA’s the shot was first and he threw really well–20.29m to finish second. When we went to the weight the next day he was a little tired, and he wasn’t used to competing with the weight tired. He threw 22.45m which was the second best throw of his life, and he got sixth but he just didn’t have the power to go over 23 meters.
The last thing we had to figure out with his training was he usually threw the hammer a bit better when he was in heavy training. With the shot though, we had figured out that he needs a long taper to be explosive.
So how did you reconcile that?
We had to choose one. We decided he’d be able to figure out the hammer even after the long taper, so we chose to appease the shot.
That brings us to this past Wednesday.
Right. To start off, the hammer went well. If he could have thrown 76.41m earlier instead of round five, we might have passed the final rounds, but you can’t underestimate your opponents, so we only passed the last throw after he had it won.
Warming up for the shot, it was obvious that he had more power than last year. Last year he was really steady at about 19.50m; this year he was steady at around 20.00m. But, it looked like even though we had raised his threshold throwing shot after the hammer to 20 meters, that wasn’t going to be good enough. It looked like it would take 20.50m to win. So, he was sitting there in fifth place going into the final, then all of a sudden he was in sixth, seventh, eighth place. All those guys got hot. And he just responded and hit that 20.61m in round five.
The one thing that Denzel does really well is he responds. The best way to get him to throw really far is to have someone throw far right in front of him, which is great for a big meet. He dug deep to get that 20.61m out there. That wasn’t coaching, that was just him responding
But I thought we did a good job of trying to put him into a position of success.
We took notes over the past couple of years, and I was always asking him how he felt, asking him in different ways to get him to be more introspective to help me devise the training plan.
The one other thing that we considered is that he is a pretty good discus thrower. I’m dead serious about this. We practiced the discus twice this year and he’d done three meets. So, he barely touched the discus and he threw 58.81m. So, in looking at the regional, the discus was in between the shot and the hammer, and he’s good enough in the discus that he could make it through no problem. So, I said to him, “Man, that first day at NCAA’s is a bear with the hammer and the shot, but then you get two days to rest before the discus. You’re a good athlete. If you catch one, who knows? Maybe you could get some more points in the discus.”
But one thing I know about him is that to really do well he has to mentally prepare. Prior to a big competition he takes a day or two to really focus. And he really didn’t want to think about the discus at all. He just wanted to focus on doing a good job in the shot and hammer.
It sounds like he’s a pretty mature young man, him being confident enough to tell you something like that.
He is. He’s a quiet guy. He told me early on, “I’m a simple guy to coach. You don’t have to tell me much.” But what separates him from almost all the athletes I’ve coached, if you tell him to make an adjustment, he can make it almost right away. He has a great feel. He knows his throw so well, that I don’t spend a lot of time cuing him and talking to him because he’s able to be so efficient. That’s a lot of reason for his success. He doesn’t waste a lot of time spinning his wheels trying to figure things out.
How would you compare Denzel to Adam and Reese?
I’m trying to think of what those guys were like when they were Denzel’s age. I’ll say this, he really rises to the occasion. He’ll show you a lot more in a meet than in practice like Adam did. I thought that was Adam’s special gift. Reese was a little bit more steady all the way through. He could practice really well once he figured out how to really be good. In terms of physical ability, Denzel is probably at the same age just as gifted as either one of those guys.
Having been through it with Reese and Adam, I can say to Denzel, “You’re probably at least a 71-foot guy.” I’ve seen enough people to be able to say that. A lot has to go right for him to do that, but he has the talent.
But I also look at the landscape and think he could be one of the top hammer throwers. There are not many guys over 80 meters. If you look at the guys who have a similar PR to Denzel, they’re a little bit up and down. But in the meets he cared about this year, he threw 76.29, 75.97, 75.92, and 75.41m. He’s basically a rock solid 76-meter thrower. So if you look at a major championship meet, he might get fifth place in the hammer, but probably not in the shot because the shot is on fire this year.
Which event will Denzel focus on as pro?
His first love is the shot. He’d like to be a great shot putter. If he really wanted to throw the discus, he’d be a 63-65 meter discus guy. But, you can’t do everything.
I told him to keep on doing both the shot and hammer. Each one seems to make the other better for him. And that would be a unique double. He could be a 21-meter shot putter and an 80-meter hammer thrower, something that nobody has ever done before.
The other factor is though, is that the shot pays the bills.
Cory Martin actually threw his hammer PR after college in a Grand Prix meet in Brazil. But, he made about one third of the money throwing a PR in the hammer as he did with an average performance in the shot.
For Denzel, if he wants international medals, maybe the hammer is the easier path right now. But if you’re talking about money, which he may need to keep throwing at a high level, he would make the same amount of money as an 80-meter hammer thrower as he would as a 20.80m shot putter.
So, do you want money or titles? Or do you try to balance both?
The thing is, you see how the distance runners do it. They get a little slower, they move to the 5,000. They get a little more slower, they move to the 10,000, then the marathon, so at the age of forty they are still competing. Maybe Denzel could be a shot guy and later on focus on hammer when he gets into his mid-to-late thirties.
So, there hasn’t been any decision made yet.
When he’s done at Georgia, will the Netherlands give him some support?
Yes. We’ve talked with the head coach of the Netherlands about that. Denzel is going to have one more year of school after he finishes his eligibility. They’ll give him some pretty good support. He’s an A-level athlete for them in two events, so he’s a bargain for them.
Will he compete in the European Championships this August?
That’s the plan. One thing that kind of sucks is that the shot and hammer are at the exact same time. They’re doing the shot in the street by the Brandenburg Gate, which will be pretty cool.
I’m sure your next question is “which one will he do?”
That is my next question.
I think throwing the street shot would be really cool, but he might have a chance at medaling in the hammer. So, we’ll see.
We’ll have to see how training is going. And he’ll have a couple more meets this summer to kind of gauge where he’s at.
Speaking of training, one thing that always amazes me is how some athletes manage to compete at a high level for several months–like what Tom Walsh has done the last couple of years. You obviously did a peak for the NCAA’s. How will you regroup for the European Championships?
What we are going to do is based off of what we did last summer with the Euro U23’s. He got the silver in the shot there.
We’ll rest up this weekend, then do a three-week hard training cycle that will take us up to about July first. Then we’ll start a four-week taper that will take him right up to the European Championships. Basically, what we do in heavy training is 3’s and 4’s in a lot of the core lifts. We work off straight percentages, about 91 percent for 3’s, 88 percent for 4’s, 95 percent for sets of two, working off of one-rep maxes from the fall. We don’t really try to get one-rep maxes during the season. Hopefully, if things are going well and he does a triple at 90 percent, he’ll do it easier than he did during the winter. So, we’ll know he’s getting stronger without having to execute a big single lift.
When I say a four-week taper, we’ll keep it at sets of three and four, but he’ll go like 80 percent, 70 percent, 60 percent, 55 percent, lifting for speed.
When we did a seven-week taper for the NCAA’s, we basically did three weeks heavy right at the beginning of outdoors then we went 80, 75, 70, 65, 60. We were just tapering all the way through the season.
That’s basically what he did before he came to Georgia. Then when he got here he wasn’t that strong, so I had him lift a little heavier and it kind of made him a bit tired, and he told me when he lifted like that he felt kind of slow and sluggish, so we went back to doing what he had done before–we just fine-tuned it to match up with the college season.
Then last summer, we tried the three-week build-up then taper, and it worked pretty well. He threw 20.33m during the college season last year, then he went back home in the middle of the summer and threw 20.20m. I was really happy that he could maintain such a high level, so we are going off of what we did last year to get him ready for the European Championships this year.
It’s not really what the textbooks say to do.
It’s great that you and Denzel can work together to figure out what works best for him.
I tell him “You have to help me to help you.” Having that feedback is really good. One thing I did with Reese over the years that helped him be so consistent was that we probably lifted a third as often as most of the top throwers. Most training is built off of fear and superstition. The idea that you have to outwork your opponent. But you don’t “outwork your opponent” when you are throwing six throws. It’s about quality.
The superstition is “the world record holder” trained this way. I’ve been around long enough where I’ve seen that not work out. Training from fear rather than really thinking about what you’re doing. So, when Denzel started and we talked about that long taper, I thought “How are you going to be powerful if you taper that long?” But then I thought about how he had done it before and that I can’t be scared to do something that conflicted with my preconceptions. That’s how innovation happens. That’s how you make progress.
Some people feel like they have to throw up a heavy max to make themselves feel good, but I’m not sure what that has to do with throwing far.
Is the key to have that relationship with each athlete to figure out what works best for them?
Definitely. And usually what happens is that a lot of times the training group ends up doing what the best athlete does. And that’s natural. You see how the top athlete trains and you want to reach their level, so you think, “If I train like them, I’ll be as good as them.”
But a saying I once heard is “To copy champions is to copy their mistakes.”
And what that means is you have to really understand what you are trying to do, otherwise you could be copying the thing that sticks out the most when it might be the thing that athlete is trying to get rid of the most.
Kind of like Reese’s heel turn in the shot. We tried to get rid of it and couldn’t, so after a while we just embraced it. But it stuck out, so people thought that must be why he was so good.
You really have to look at yourself to see what works for you. I always feel like great athletes find their own way. So when they get into a position that’s unique, maybe that’s a position that because of their musculature they feel comfortable in and then they can really do what they want to do a little better, instead of trying to hit positions that someone else does well.
I’ve changed my coaching over the years a lot. As a younger coach, I tried to get athletes to be “perfect.” So, I ended up forcing some athletes to do things that I thought were “perfect” when in actuality they will often find their best self just kind of doing it. And when they hit positions that you haven’t seen before, you sometimes think “We can’t do that. We have to look like Mac Wilkins out of the back.” But, maybe that’s the position that they are comfortable hitting because of their musculature.
I use the analogy of taking a log at the top of the Mississippi River, and you’re going to float this log all the way to the Gulf.
At the beginning, you have to push it out into the current to get it going. You have to do some work to get it going. But then as that log floats down the river, you sort of walk along beside it and and it takes the journey and you just make sure things are going okay. And eventually it hits a snag and you have to work with it to get it out and push it back out in the river again. So, you’re not pushing it down the river all the time. That would be pretty inefficient. You want to let go as much as possible. When there is a problem you step in.
I tend to do that now, coaching wise.
Denzel knows what he’s doing, but I’m always there to jump in when needed.
It was like that with Reese late in his career. Maybe three or four times a year he’d really need my advice and I was the best person to step in because we’d spent so much time together.
That’s kind of how it is with Denzel. So I think he’s got a good future.
Here are some throws from the men’s shot and hammer final: