I’m always looking for an excuse to talk to Jerry Clayton, and a couple of weeks ago his shot putter Andrew Liskowitz was nice enough to provide me with one.
Andrew just completed an outstanding redshirt junior year throwing for Jerry at the University of Michigan. He won the 2019 Big Ten indoor shot put title, broke the twenty-meter barrier twice during the outdoor season (including a 20.23m mark at the Virginia Challenge in April) and made First-Team All-American by finishing eighth at the outdoor NCAA Championships.
Then he really got rolling.
A near PB of 20.22m at the Ashland Summer Series on June 20 showed that he was still in great shape after the grueling collegiate season, and a 21.15m bomb a week later at the Michigan Throws Tune-Up vaulted him into the ranks of world class throwers.
But it’s one thing to drill a PB in a no-pressure competition at your home facility and quite another to travel across the pond, survive a qualification round, and face the likes of Poland’s Konrad Bukowiecki in a final as Andrew did at the World University Games in Napoli, Italy on July 8th.
But Andrew did more than survive in Napoli—he took the silver medal with a toss of 20.49m. (A video of the competition can be found here.)
After that, I was left with no choice but to give Jerry a call and find out how a young man with a high school PB of 59’10” had become one of the best young putters in the world.
First off, I asked Jerry what he saw in Andrew back in his prep days that indicated he could be a successful Division I thrower.
Apparently, Andrew possessed a “fast arm,” and a powerful right hip action, which Jerry attributed at least in part to Andrew having grown up playing hockey. “To me, anything like hockey, baseball or softball the way you swing a bat or a stick has a lot of carryover to throwing. If you look at baseball, what they do swinging a bat where their left foot is flat and the left knee has slight flexion, it’s the same as the discus or shot.”
Once Andrew arrived on campus and hung up the skates for good, Jerry began the process of figuring out the best way to train him, which he says usually takes about a year and a half.
That might sound surprising, as you’d think a guy who has been coaching world class throwers like Mike Lehman, Edis Elkasević, Gábor Máté and Cory Martin for the last four decades would be pretty set in his ways when it comes to how to train a putter.
But Jerry does not use a one-size-fits-all template when he sits down on Sundays to write workouts for his athletes. He tries to create training plans that best fit each individual, and says that anyone watching the way Andrew trains and they way any of his other throwers train would “not think they have the same coach.”
For example, Jerry used to have Grant Cartwright, a 19.61m putter who graduated in 2018, take a lot of throws with light implements in practice because Grant had been a glider in high school and throwing the light shot helped to smooth his transition to the rotational technique.
During Andrew’s first year at Michigan, he spent a lot of time throwing light shots as well, primarily the 6k to help him get ready for the 2016 USA Junior meet at which he placed fourth with a toss of 19.58m.
But as Jerry got to know Andrew’s strengths and weaknesses better, he decided that training often with heavier shots would serve him best. As Jerry describes it, Andrew was “so fast that I had to keep him more on the heavy implements to make him work the ground better and emphasize force production. Sometimes with the light implement, he doesn’t create much separation and he loses connection with the ball. So, I kind of go back and forth with him.”
When Jerry says he has Andrew throw “heavy implements,” he is referring mainly to the twenty-pound shot, and yes, Andrew takes full throws with it.
Be advised, though, that Jerry does not recommend any coach putting a twenty-pound shot in an athlete’s hand without one, thinking long and hard about whether or not throwing heavy is best for a particular kid, and two, devoting the time necessary to help an athlete who trains with the heavy ball keep his or her hand and wrist healthy.
Over the years, Jerry has developed “a whole protocol for protecting the hand.”
He learned a lot about the topic from Christian Cantwell, the 2009 World Champion, who recommended a series of stretching exercises that the Michigan putters now perform before and after throwing sessions.
Jerry has also come to rely on a specific method of taping the hand and wrist in training.
These precautions have allowed Andrew to stay healthy while training with shots ranging from the twenty-pounder all the way down to the 5k. And that consistency in training has produced remarkably consistent improvement during Andrew’s time in Ann Arbor, as evinced by his seasonal bests:
His outstanding throws of the last month may have been set up during a training block Jerry put Andrew through in March.
He knew that this would be an especially long season with Andrew scheduled to compete in the World University Games and the US Championships, so after the NCAA Indoor Championships he “took Andrew back into training for a pretty good block” with no competitions for four weeks. They needed that time, according to Jerry, “to do things in the weight room and with the heavy implements” that would prepare Andrew for the long outdoor season ahead.
Speaking of the weight room, Jerry’s approach to lifting has evolved quite a bit over the years.
He used to construct his training plan using a double periodization model, but now he peaks his athletes primarily by manipulating the weight of the implements they train with. “The weight room is part of it,” he says, “but I look at lifting as general strength. We don’t max out, and I don’t use percentages any more.”
Instead, he uses an app called GymAware to measure bar speed on squats, bench presses, and cleans.
“I have certain ranges I am looking at whether we are working on max strength, absolute strength, or speed strength, and I don’t let the bar speed go below a certain level. If it does, we stop or we do another set with less weight, but we can keep pushing the weight up as long as the bar speed is right.”
Jerry adopted this approach four or five years ago. Prior to that, he wrote workouts using percentages based on his athletes one-rep maxes, but he came to believe that those percentages were often inaccurate as the maxes were achieved when the athlete was in peak lifting form.
During the course of a long season, there are going to be many times when an athlete is lifting while fatigued from throwing or traveling or just being human, so their actual max on that day is significantly less than what they produced under ideal conditions.
This leads to what Jerry refers to as “grinding out reps” in the weight room. “And if the bar is moving slowly,” he asks, “how much carryover does that have for our sport?”
Jerry says that with his current approach his athletes rarely miss a rep and are less susceptible to injury or overtraining.
During the competitive season, he breaks his training cycles into two-week blocks, which he designs based on how things are going for each athlete.
“I look at what they did the previous two years. I look at different workouts they’ve done. But the biggest thing is the feedback an athlete gives me and what I‘m seeing. If I’m not seeing what I like, if they need more of a speed component we’ll throw lighter stuff. If they are blowing through positions, we will emphasize the heavy implement.”
This ability to synthesize experience, observation and intuition is what Jerry refers to as “the art of coaching,” and it has served him well in his training of Andrew.
In the two-week block leading up to Andrew’s 21.15m bomb for example, Jerry had him back off the heavy implements so he could “get the feel of throwing far.” He soon produced a practice PB of 21.20m with the fifteen-pound shot and surpassed twenty-three meters with the 6k, which showed Jerry that he was ready for a big throw with the sixteen.
Next up is the US Championships in Des Moines. Andrew finished sixteenth there last year, so making the final would be another nice step forward.
This fall he will be back at UMich for another year of training under Jerry’s guidance. With Ryan Crouser, Joe Kovacs and Darrell Hill still in their prime it would be asking a lot for Andrew to get in the mix for a spot on the 2020 Olympic team, but in the meantime he and Jerry will be tucked away in Ann Arbor constructing his future one two-week block at a time.