Outstanding Australian javelin coach Mike Barber will break down the technique of 2019 World Champion Kelsey-Lee Barber in a free webinar on Thursday, May 21, at 3:00pm CST. In advance of that appearance, Mike graciously provided some details about Kelsey-Lee’s career and their big night in Doha. You can register for Mike’s presentation here.
It was one of those moments that throws coaches long for and dread. In the fifth round of the women’s javelin final at the 2019 World Athletics Championships, Kelsey-Lee Barber sat in fourth place with a best throw of 62.95m. Occupying the top three spots were China’s Liu Shiying and Lyu Huihui, along with Germany’s Christin Hussong. Having set a PB of 67.70m two months before, Kelsey arrived in Doha as one of the favorites, and she still had an excellent chance to medal if she could find a groove on one of her two remaining attempts.
In the stands of Khalifa International Stadium, Mike Barber, Kelsey’s husband and coach, sat peering into the screen of an ipad. He normally did not watch video of Kelsey’s attempts during competitions but, as he said later, “Something wasn’t right,” and he needed to figure out what that was. After her solid opener, Kelsey had planted her next three throws just on either side of the sixty-meter line (61.40m, 58.34m, 60.90m) a full five meters below what she’d need to get on the podium. She seemed stuck, he needed to help her get unstuck, and they were running out of time.
To Mike, the video confirmed what he had suspected. Kelsey appeared a bit tentative. She seemed to be holding something back. As officials summoned her for her fifth attempt, Mike considered telling her to add half a meter to the length of her approach.“It looked like she needed more space to feel like she could run through the crossover,” he recalls. A longer run up might remove any worries she harbored about fouling and unleash her aggressiveness.
Or, it might not.
That’s what’s so great and so treacherous about these moments. The right adjustment at the right time can help an athlete unleash a big throw when they need it the most. The wrong advice, however–no matter how well intentioned–can cause them to overthink and lose their rhythm at the worst possible time.
We’ve all been there. Maybe not at a World Championships, but sometimes in the heat of a Conference or State championship we notice a flaw in our athlete’s technique and think “That’s it! Fix that, and we’re set!”
In our excitement, we begin shouting adjustments.
“Keep your eyes back!”
“Finish the throw!”
“Stay long! Be aggressive! But, relax!”
Sometimes it works, but sometimes advice delivered in the heat of battle can make an athlete self-conscious and muck up their rhythm.
One year at our State Meet, I had two shot putters competing simultaneously in separate flights in different spots within the oval. It took a lot of effort–I had to bolt back and forth from one side of the stadium to the other–but I managed to shout enough suggestions to make it impossible for either of them to get comfortable. Both threw poorly, and I realized afterwards that they’d have been much better off if I’d kept my mouth shut.
That night in Doha, Mike had to decide, as Kelsey stepped to the runway for her fifth throw, if the moment was right to suggest a change.
Luckily, he and Kelsey had survived plenty of high pressure moments during the five years they’d worked together. The entire 2016 season, for example. After taking bronze at the 2014 Commonwealth Games and surpassing the sixty-three meter mark two years running, Kelsey hoped to make some noise at the Olympics, but instead spent the entire 2016 season trying to manage a stress fracture in her lower back. The focus of that year evolved into holding things together long enough to qualify for Rio and sample the Olympic experience–often an important step in a thrower’s development. Kelsey accomplished that goal–she finished 28th in Rio with a best of 55.25m–but the pain and uncertainty she faced made for a long and difficult summer.
She came back to set PBs in both 2017 (64.53m) and 2018 (64.57m) and picked up some additional big meet experience along the way. She made the final at the London World Championships in 2017, then won silver at the 2018 Commonwealth Games.
The 2019 season began in promising fashion as Kelsy won the Australian Nationals with a toss of 63.33m in April, displaying in Mike’s words “a lot of horsepower.”
“She just couldn’t quite get it through the jav, but we walked away thinking ‘there’s a big throw in there, we just have to find it.’”
They found it in Lucerne in July, when Kelsey smashed a 67.70m PB that announced her as a major contender in Doha.
Unfortunately, ten days later at the London Diamond League Meeting, she suffered a flareup of a shoulder injury she’d originally sustained in 2014. I asked Mike if an injury history like Kelsey’s (she also ruptured an elbow tendon in 2012) was simply a byproduct of making a living tossing the spear.
“You want to believe that you can make your athletes resilient enough to stay healthy,” he said. “But the stress that throwing a javelin puts on your joints is immense. And going from being a sixty-four-meter thrower to a sixty-seven-meter thrower creates an exponential increase in the force on the shoulder.”
They had to adjust Kelsey’s training, and between the London meeting and Doha she never threw with anything longer than a seven-step run up, aside from at the Diamond League Final in late August where she tossed 64.74m and finished second to China’s Lyu Huihui. After that competition, Kelsey informed Brian that in spite of her shoulder issues, “I can beat Lyu. I can win the World Championships.”
Kelsey’s confidence was encouraging, but the shoulder remained touchy right up to their final throwing session before the qualification round in Doha when Kelsey took a few tosses using a seven-step run up and experienced “a hell of a lot of pain.”
Kelsey was assigned to the first flight during qualification, and the best she could manage was 61.08m in round one. That was well short of the 63.50m automatic mark, and afterwards she and Mike retired to the indoor warmup facility to watch the live feed of the second flight and await their fate. In order to advance to the next night’s final, Kelsey would have to finish in the top twelve.
“That was the worst!” recalled Mike. “She was sitting fifth in her pool, and looking at the list of throwers in the second flight and their PBs and what we knew of them, there were definitely eight girls that could knock her out, and there was nothing we could do except prepare as if Kelsey was in the final. She started to go through her routine, and when we eventually saw that she had made it, she said, ‘I know what I did wrong. Let’s go out there and win tomorrow!’”
So, they’d been through a lot together by the time Kelsey stepped to the runway to line up for fifth attempt in the Doha final, and that gave Mike the confidence that she could handle a last-minute adjustment.
“Kelsey!” he called out. “Move back!”
She did, and it almost worked.
Kelsey’s throw measured 63.65m, to that point her best effort of the night, but when the fifth round ended she was still well behind Hussong (65.05m), Huihui (65.49m), and Shiying (65.88m).
Mike says that Kelsey “carried her momentum better” on that fifth attempt but “fell off it” a bit at the end. That did not, however, diminish her confidence. “I can do this,” she assured him as they conferred before her final attempt.
She used the lengthened run up again on her sixth throw, and this time there was no falling off at the finish. She smashed a 66.56m and vaulted into first.
She was now in for another wait, shorter than the qualification vigil but just as agonizing. Throwing behind Kelsey in the order, Hussong, Lyu each had another shot to overtake her.
Hussong’s 65.21m, Lyu’s 62.61m, and Liu’s 65.75m must have seemed to hang in the air forever, but they did not change the final order and Kelsey became the first Australian to win a World Championship gold in the throws since Dani Samuels took discus gold in Berlin in 2009.
If you’d like to learn more about Kelsey’s career and the technique that made her World Champion, join us this Thursday. Mike will break down Kelsey’s form using videos of some of her best throws. Attendees will be able to submit questions throughout. If you’d like to be part of this very special event, register here.