The American Way
Coach John Smith posted his thoughts on what the US hammer throwing scene needs for success in an article last week entitled “USA Hammer Throwing Needs a USA Approach.” The name explains his main point. To implement this approach suggests disregarding the established European development models in favor of an American one tailored to the fact that most American throwers begin throwing the hammer at a much older age. More weight training, the use of short heavy hammers, and a few other tools are his formula for success.
Lots of people emailed me to ask me my thoughts and I couldn’t agree more with the main point: each country needs their own approach just like each athlete needs their own approach. As Smith suggests we need to look at our current situation and see what makes it unique. And then we need to figure out how to work with that. But after doing that my conclusions are a little different than Smith’s.
What Makes America UniqueThe common conception of what leads to European dominance in the hammer is that they have huge talent pools. As Smith says “the real secret to their success was the 1000s of talented athletes.” America, by popular conception, has no one since the hammer isn’t an official high school event in most states. In fact the opposite is true.
There aren’t thousands of young throwers in Europe. The only country with close to that amount of youth throwers is America. America is arguably the strongest and deepest country in the world in the youth hammer. America will never have the hammer throw at every high school, but with 300 million citizens we don’t need that to succeed. The IAAF published my article on the resurgence of American youth hammer throwing in their journal New Studies in Athletics last year. The participating numbers and results have skyrocketed over the last two decades thanks to the hard work of many coaches. To give one statistic, America had 11 junior women break 54 meters in the hammer last year. That is more than double any other country. Traditional throwing powerhouses like Germany, Belarus, and Russia had just five each. Russia, the top women’s nation overall, had just two. While Hungary’s five athletes are higher up on the list, it is not like they are using the European model Smith describes to get there. There are just a few elite groups in Hungary that produce nearly all their throwers.
In addition, America is unique since it also has an even bigger pool of potential throwers from the college ranks. As Smith points out “it is up to the college coaches to identify good shot and discus athletes who might end up being better hammer throwers.” This is an added bonus that should make the hammer throwing scene even stronger. America’s last Olympic medalist, Lance Deal, came into the sport this way.
Creating the American Model
When creating a model for America it would be negligent to just copy any other country’s model. But it is just as negligent to create something from scratch without looking at what has made other models so successful. We should learn from those who have been successful, which in the hammer throw that often means looking abroad.
When Smith describes the European model it is hard to pin down what exactly he is talking about. This might be because there is no one European model. What most European models have in common is international success, something American systems haven’t proved they can produce yet. They also tend to have a big focus on throwing, a point Smith also acknowledges when he reiterated that “This event is all about time and reps.”
If there is an American model that should be created then I think it should be focused on throwing the hammer more, as opposed to lifting heavier and throwing short hammers (short hammers are a topic I’ve covered before, but to sum it up I’m not a big fan). With its youth talent alone, America should be able to compete with the world. What is holding us back is how that talent continues to develop in college and beyond since so many of our top youth throwers just evaporate as they reach college. Creating a development model for these athletes should be the first priority. Rather than increasing throwing volume when they get to college, most hammer throwers merely start lifting more. This will raise their results, but not take them to the highest level. More throwing will help them.
More throwing will be even more helpful for those that only throw the hammer for the first time when they get to college. These athletes are well-trained; they made the team because they were a good high school thrower and that requires good general strength levels. Therefore what is lacking is technique and experience. This can only be gained though thousands of throws. And with such a high volume other elements of training will have to be reduced a little. It might seem like a slow process to coach Smith, but as discus coach Vésteinn Hafsteinsson told me recently, the slowest process gives the fastest results. Time and time again this has worked all over the world and in its own iteration it can work in America too.
Throw Early and Often
As they say with voting, the best way to win is to throw early and often. Throwing creates throwers. And the later your begin, the more often you should be throwing to make up for it. The next step is to make sure that the throwing is done under the watchful eye of a knowledgable coach. But let’s just take things one step at a time: get out there and throw.
I have been a high school hammer coach for a while now and noticed John Smith’s comment about our “politically correct” school systems. I think he missed the most difficult part about throwing the hammer in high school. Most schools have just a couple of coaches that try and coach Shot, Discus, and Javelin. Now have them coach the hammer that most have never coached and get this all in a 2 hour practice. Pretty difficult to do, let alone the Bondarchuk method which is time consuming. What has worked for me is to get the implement in the kids hands as sone as possible, stick to very basic techniques, get them excited so they take it upon themselves to learn how to throw and throw. I like how the event is not a state sanctioned event in most states because it allows me to coach kids out of season. We also throw the weight being careful not to give-up on technique which gives us a fairly long season including a USATF summer season. The difficult part about coaching kids these days is finding them time to throw during the day. Most American High Schoolers keep themselves very busy these day’s which is not a bad thing just different than a few decades ago.
It’s definitely hard to implement any complex training system, including Bondarchuk’s, for a high school program. Nick Garcia has done a great job of this, but h has a dedicated group of athletes. What John is referring to as European is simply starting young. This can be done and is being done. Simply getting in the ring regularly is the most important step.
Regarding this article, John’s point about the European system is referring to the ability or opportunity that european athletes have in learning the hammer at a much earlier age. His methods for closing the ‘gap’ between Europe and America are questionable but, he has shown success with a number of women athletes in the hammer, most recently Geneva McCall who won the World University games in Russia, beating the Russians in their own country. I also think that John Smith’s athletes do a lot of throwing (it is my understanding that he only lifts 2 times per week).