Ashton Eaton, the shot put, and individualization

Ashton Eaton may be the world record holder in the decathlon, but when you watched him throw shot put that was not the image that came to mind. To start with the implement always looked a size too big for him. He also adopted an unorthodox technique in which he started with his other foot and then shuffled across the ring in his tennis shoes. Watch him take a few throws and you are reminded more of a masters thrower at a neighborhood track meet than the world’s best athlete.

Appearances, however, can be deceiving. When you dig a little deeper into how he developed his unique technique a new image comes to mind. Whenever I watch video of him now I only think of how his technique is an excellent case study in individualization.

» Learn more: Eaton’s coach Harry Marra is one of a dozen coaches interviewed in our latest book Training Talk, available for purchase now.

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Build on your strengths

Already at age 22 Eaton set the world indoor record in the indoor heptathlon. But it took him a few more years to dominate in the decathlon. The discrepancy came down to throwing. Eaton relied heavily on his speed and jumping abilities and was not a natural thrower. Indoors that is ok since there is only one throwing event. But outdoors 3 of the 10 events are throwing. Eaton didn’t need to become a world class thrower, but he needed to become a good-enough thrower that they would not hold him back from winning. It was the only thing keeping him from being unbeatable.

Eaton knew all this, but he found the shot put incredibly frustrating. We hosted his coach Harra Marra in Zurich several years ago and I asked him about how and why they developed this technique. I started the conversation convinced that Eaton would throw better with a traditional technique. I left the conversation with a great example of individualization in practice. I relayed the story a few years in an article about training strengths and weaknesses:

In the shot put he had never looked comfortable using the standard glide technique and coach Marra decided to switch things up after noticing something in practice on day. In the long jump, high jump, and pole vault Eaton always jumped off the left leg. But in the shot put he was required to initiate the movement with his right leg. Switching to an unconventional start to utilize the strength in his left leg to turn his liability into a mere weakness.

Eaton also explains their approach even further in this video:

Find your strengths

As a coach, Marra was trying to solve a complex puzzle. He had a non-thrower trying to succeed in a throwing event. With 10 events to train for, he didn’t have much time to dedicate to technical training. And with only three competition throws by a pre-fatigued athlete, they had to develop consistency. What do you do in such a situation? Rely on an athlete’s strengths to give them confidence and power under pressure. Or, as Marra put it, “You must attack each athlete’s weaknesses if you expect him to improve in any one discipline, and you must do so by establishing a super consistency in his strengths.

Often when we talk about individualization we highlight an athlete’s weakness. Other times we focus on an athlete’s strength. The best coaches look at both strengths and weaknesses to see how the strengths can help pull up the weaknesses.