I’ve been traveling a lot and also contemplating how to make progress on a ten-year plan to paint our house, which is now entering it’s thirteenth year. The plan, I mean. But, I’m ready to commit to a weekly piece on the throws which, as is the case with this inaugural edition, may not appear until Monday evening each week. But “Monday Evening Meathead” doesn’t have the same ring to it, does it?
The Big Man is Back
IN 2019, a year during which Daniel Ståhl was nearly unbeatable, he averaged a best throw of 70.15m in his first six competitions, if we forgive him a No Mark at the Paavo Nurmi Games, which we will. At the end of that season, he was World champion.
In 2021, on the way to Olympic gold, he averaged 68.23m in his first six comps.
Last year, as Daniel turned thirty years old and had to deal with the emergence of Kristjan Čeh (expected) and Mykolas Alekna (not so much) as full-fledged phenoms, that number fell to 67.45m. Unfortunately, those first six meets were a harbinger of things to come as Daniel finished fourth at the 2022 Worlds and fifth at the European Championships.
Will his first six comps of 2023 be a harbinger as well? If so, it might be tough to keep Daniel off the podium in Budapest as his average so far this year is 69.68m.
What accounts for this revival? “He’s having fun again,” says his former coach Vésteinn Hafsteinsson. “Last year, it was hard for him getting beat by Kristjan. Now, he’s over it, and he just wants to do his best to irritate the young guys.”
Also, like real estate, throwing well can sometimes be a matter of location. Four of Daniel’s first six comps were held in places where he is very comfortable. Two were in Sweden. One took place in Finland, where his mother was born and, according to Vésteinn, “Fourteen thousand people show up to cheer for him.” His most recent outing was the Heino Lipp Memorial in Estonia where Daniel also loves to throw at least in part because, according to his manager Hans Üürike, Estonians appreciate his sense of humor.
They also appreciate fine discus throwing, and there was plenty to go around at the Heino Lipp. Daniel tossed an SB of 71.45m, the fifth year in a row he’s breached 71 meters…and he finished second.
Kristjan won with a new PB of 71.86m, making Daniel’s 71.45m the farthest second-place throw in history. Finishing third was Fedrick Dacres, who has been on his own revival tour in 2023. He tossed 66.12m and did not come within five meters of the top two spots.
It’s been an exciting season so far for discus fans, with five guys (Daniel, Kristjan, Mykolas, Alex Rose, and Lukas Weißerhaiding) already over 70 meters, and having Daniel back to his old laughing, dancing, bomb-throwing self bodes well for the summer ahead.
And don’t get me wrong when I refer to “location” as having contributed to Daniel’s hot start. As far as Vésteinn knows, none of Daniel’s comps this year have featured especially favorable wind conditions. In fact, on June 11th, he hit 70.93m in a pronounced tailwind in Sollentuna.
Vésteinn, now the Head of Elite Sports in his native Iceland, has always marveled at the Big Guy’s propensity to throw well in any conditions. “When I was competing,” he said recently, “I hated throwing in a tailwind. But guys like Daniel, and Virgilius Alekna when he was at his best, throw the same no matter what. I used to wonder why Daniel didn’t throw 75 meters when I got him into meets in California, but the wind never seemed to help him much. I guess that’s why he doesn’t have the world record and Virgilius doesn’t have the World Record. But they have Olympic gold, and that’s something, isn’t it?”
And Daniel, now training with Staffan Jönsson in Malmö, Sweden, seems determined to have a say in who wins the next one.
Stand by Me
I’ve been a high school throws coach for thirty years, and I’m still trying to figure out the ideal way to interact with my athletes during competitions.
There have been rare occasions when one of my kids has made a lousy throw and come to me for advice and I’ve said exactly the right thing.
“Get off your left!” or “Run away from the disc!”
They’ve followed my suggestion and crushed their next attempt and I’ve walked away wondering if I am in fact the Greatest Coach Ever.
Usually, though, my mid-comp suggestions seem to do more harm than good and I walk away wondering why I didn’t just keep my mouth shut.
A decade ago, I came across a book by Sian Beilock, a cognitive scientist and currently the president of Dartmouth College, titled Choke: What The Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To. In it, she explains the impediments that keep us humans from performing at our best when we want to the most. After reading Choke, I decided that the best thing I could do for my throwers during meets was–as I’d suspected–to leave them alone. Any spontaneous bits of advice I might throw at them, no matter how well-intentioned, were likely to get them thinking rather than flowing and thus make it more difficult to produce an optimal throw.
But, around the time Choke came out–again, we’re talking maybe ten years ago–I had the opportunity to attend the NCAA Championships, and I noticed that most throwers there spoke with their coaches between every attempt. I saw this again when I traveled to New York for the 2013 Adidas Grand Prix meet and watched Sandra Perković interact with her coach, Edis Elkasević. As with the NCAA throwers, Sandra checked in with Edis after every throw. Once, she had to just about steamroll an official who tried to prevent her from crossing the track to reach Edis. The official wisely backed down, and Sandra ended up throwing 68.48m that day. Later in the season, she won a World title to go with the Olympic gold she’d captured in 2012, so it seemed like she had a pretty good idea of how to “get it right” when it counted most.
This confused me.
On the one hand, Sian Beilock presented a compelling case against giving an athlete technical advice during a comp. On the other hand, Sandra Perković was ready to truck an official if she had to in order to confer with her coach between attempts. So, was there an ideal way to interact with athletes as they competed? Should I leave mine alone? Or should I talk to them between every attempt? And if I do, is there a certain kind of advice or way of delivering advice that works best?
I thought about these questions again last month at the 2023 USATF LA Grand Prix. As you may have heard, that Ryan Crouser fella had a pretty good day in LA. He came in wanting to break Randy Barnes’ Ducky Drake Stadium record of 23.12m, set in 1990, which had also been the World Record until Ryan went 23.37m at the 2021 Olympic Trials, and he ended up doing much more.
Ryan had been experimenting with his technique a bit over the past few months, and he was certainly not attempting to peak in May with the World Championships three months away, but remarkably, he’s at a level where knocking off Barnes’ stadium record seemed like a reasonable early-season goal in spite of the fact that only three humans–Ryan, Barnes, and Joe Kovacs–had ever thrown that far.
As warmups for the shot played out on a beautiful LA afternoon at the Ducky, I noticed that Mitch Crouser, Ryan’s father and coach, was present, and that Ryan ambled over to speak with him regularly.
I really wanted to eavesdrop on their conversation to get some insight into how Mitch interacted with Ryan during the comp, but politeness dictated that I keep my distance.
The one comment I heard clearly was by Ryan after he took out Barnes’ record on his first attempt with a 23.23m bomb from a static start.
“Well,” he said as he approached his father near the stands along the right foul line. “I just did everything wrong that I’ve been working on in practice.”
Whatever corrections he and Mitch made seemed to work, as Ryan improved to 23.31m on his next attempt, which got folks wondering if he might just bang one off the wall at the back of the landing pit–a distance of 24 meters.
He fell off a bit in round three with a pedestrian 22.94m, after which he and Mitch again conferred.
Then Ryan got back in the ring and launched a new World Record of 23.56m. Funny thing, the laser had it at 23.58m, but apparently World Records still have to be measured Amish-style with a steel tape, and that knocked off two centimeters.
Either way, it was an historic performance, and I was dying to get Mitch’s take on it, particularly regarding his interactions with Ryan during the comp.
He graciously agreed to a phone call a few days later, and one thing he emphasized right away was that he and Ryan do not have a typical coach/athlete relationship.
“I started coaching Ryan when he was in grade school,” Mitch explained. “Then all the way through junior high and high school. And when he was looking at where to go to college, that was part of the equation. Wherever Ryan ended up, they had to be comfortable with me being involved.”
Believe it or not, that was a dealbreaker for some programs, but the Texas staff agreed, and during his time in Austin, Ryan would regularly send Mitch videos of his practice throws.
“Then, when Ryan moved to the Training Center at Chula Vista, he worked with Mac Wilkins, and I know Mac really well, so I’d go there and work with Ryan for maybe a week at a time.”
Bottom line, being Ryan’s father and coaching him for something like two decades has given Mitch what he terms a “deeper understanding” of Ryan than most coaches have of their athletes.
Another unique aspect of coaching Ryan is that, in addition to his remarkable talent, he has developed his own thorough understanding of the event and what he needs to do to make the shot go far. Actually, “understanding” is probably not the right word. For sure, Ryan is a dedicated student of the sport, but it’s his feel of what works and what doesn’t that sets him apart.
“The great throwers,” says Mitch, “each have their super power. For Joe, it’s his strength. With Tom Walsh, it’s his incredible speed. But for Ryan, it’s his instant recall of the feel of every throw. Because of his ability to feel what went right and what went wrong with each attempt, and because we’ve worked together for so long, at meets I’m more of a sounding board for him than anything else.”
There was a time earlier in Ryan’s career when Mitch found himself offering Ryan different bits of advice during competitions, but that is no longer the case.
“With so many distractions at big meets, it’s not a good idea to say too much. Sometimes, I’ll suggest one simple cue, which can be valuable because it can help focus you and, if it’s the right cue, it can fix so many other things. But Ryan is to the point now where there aren’t usually a lot of things to fix.”
According to Mitch, Ryan’s comment after the 23.23m opener was indicative of this. “Five years ago, if he felt like a throw was way off, it probably was. But now, his technique is so stable that if one little thing is off it might feel like a lot to him, but it can still be a pretty good throw.”
One change they made after the 23.23m was for Ryan to switch immediately to full “Crouser slide” mode, or as Mitch calls it his “step across” technique.
“Our plan going in was to take two or three throws with a static start, but after his opener we jumped right to using the step across. He’d never fully clicked with it in a meet, but after he went 23.31m he told me it felt good and there was more there.”
On the 23.56m, Ryan knew he was in business as soon as he shifted left. It was the same feeling he’d had on his first World Record in Eugene in 2021.
The aspect of Ryan’s development that Mitch seems most proud of is his ability to produce big throws during competitions. “In college,” he says, “Ryan couldn’t do that. He’d have big practice throws, then throw poorly in a meet. It’s taken him a long time to develop the skill of throwing his best in competition.”
One key has been endless hours spent building stability in his technique. Now, according to Mitch, Ryan will sometimes put a cone at 20 meters and “drop a dozen throws on it.”
As to the future, Mitch refers to the current situation in the men’s shot as a “perfect storm.”
“Joe, Tom, or Ryan by themselves probably wouldn’t have pushed the event to the level they have. But together, they’ve made 23 meters like 22 meters used to be. I wonder if ten years from now, people will look back on this time and be amazed.”
That seems likely. In the meantime, it seems the key to knowing what to say to an athlete during a competition is to build a relationship with them that allows you to give them what they need, whether that be a simple cue or just a sympathetic ear.
A Shameless Plug
Full disclosure, I have a selfish reason for rooting for Daniel Ståhl. My friend Roger Einbecker and I have collaborated with Vésteinn on a book about the Big Man’s career from the time they started working together through the Olympic triumph in 2021.
Daniel is a remarkable dude, and I think throws fans and sports fans in general will enjoy this inside look at one athlete’s path to the top of his sport. We hope to make it available soon as both an ebook and book book.