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Swiss Athletics Hammer Workshop

Whenever I complain about the hammer throwing situation in America, I always need to remind myself that it could be worse. It could be like Switzerland. America has come quite a long ways in the last decade. Switzerland has been going in the other direction.

The Swiss hammer throwing community in Locarno.

In the late nineties, Switzerland had more than five throwers over 65 meters. For comparison’s sake, Canada, a country with nearly five times as many people, had just three throwers over 65 meters last year.

But the fortunes have changed. Last season I was the only thrower over 65 meters in Switzerland and I learned to throw in America. Two more throwers were over fifty meters, but both are over 35 and had either already retired or were nearing retirement. The next best result was under 50 meters and an underwhelming 45.98m was good enough for the bronze medal at the Swiss Championships. With few coaches and competitions, participation is low. We need to do something to turn things around, and thankfully the Swiss federation agrees. They invited the top throwers, coaches, and youth to a hammer throw workshop last weeked at the Tenero national training center near Locarno. This was the first such event here in more than a decade.
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Start ‘Em Young

It’s been nearly two months since my last training update on here. However, it seems like you all enjoy other topics more since I had a record number of readers last month. Lately I’ve also enjoyed talking about other topics more because my results have been reliably mediocre.

I tend to be optimistic about training. When I have a bad day or bad week of training, I tend to write it off since a step back is actually part of the my plan to progress forward. However the past two weeks have been different because this step back was not planned. I picked up the flu right around the Swiss Indoor Championships. While it was never that bad, it drained my energy for a while, left me five pounds lighter, and somehow stole most of the technical progress I’ve made in the offseason.
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The Fight Goes On: Responding to Critics of Youth Hammer

Those of you the followed my advice and wrote to USATF Youth Committee Chairman Lionel Leach have found out that he has already made up his mind. He vehemently does not want to support the rule change that would add the hammer throw to the 13- and 14-year-olds age group. Mr. Leach has sent out the following response to those that wrote him:

We as a division have made every attempt and good faith effort to have this event in our meets. Before I was chairman it was not in our program we allowed first in our 17-18 age group then 15-16 age group then both the junior olympics then our youth championship as an exhibition with a 2010 full event we did it as a full event in 2008 2 years early. Then to have it as an event at regional and association meets I have bent enough on this. finally it is only 2 states that has this event their are not enough qualified coaches in the country to teach the event I am not risky kids getting hurt.

While Mr. Leach has been kind enough to talk to those that have contacted him, myself included, his arguments are misguided and he has made many inaccurate statements. Along these lines, I would like to present some additional facts and arguments that not only reinforce our position, but also respond to Mr. Leach’s position.

Note: If you are already in favor of this rule change, click here to skip my arguments and see what the next steps are and how you can help.

Business 101: Reinvest in Success

Before I address Mr. Leach’s concerns, I’d like to point out that the main reason this rule change should go forward is because it will build on an already successful program. No matter how you measure success in track and field, it would be difficult to find a better poster child for it over the last decade than American youth hammer throwing. If success means medals, America won the 2010 world junior title and swept the top two spots at the 2008 World Junior Championships. Prior to that, the U.S. had been the world’s doormat in the event and hadn’t won a gold in any international championship at any level since 1956. If success means records, just look at how every national single junior, high school, class, and age-group record at the national level has been broken in the past five years. Every one. If success means participation, just look at how the number of competitors has increased from just a few throwers to over a thousand. If success is the number of elite athletes, that has also increased. Back in 2000, the national rankings listed just 5 high school boys over 200 feet and 19 over 175 feet. This year, there were 17 boys over 200 feet and 51 over 175 feet. The girls have improved even more rapidly, tripling the number of throwers over 140 feet from 12 to 36 kids over the last ten years. Finally, if success means having fun, let’s just say there is a reason so many kids are flocking to this event.

All this success has not been due to luck. It has been due effort. Performances were already improving in the late 1990s, but the event was still limited to a few pockets of athletes around the country. The hammer really took off when it was added as an event for 15 to 18 year olds at the Junior Olympics. Though the change took a lot of effort by the USATF Youth Committee and associations nationwide, it allowed competitions to immediately spring up in every corner of the country and athletes emerged with them. This rule change would expand those opportunities. The infrastructure is already in place, we just need to take it to the next level.

Responding to the Arguments Against

There are a variety of people that disagree with me for a number of reasons. Below I address each potential concern.

There are not enough coaches – It’s obvious that there are more distance coaches than hammer coaches in this country, but there are plenty of coaches to support youth hammer throwing. Presumably, there are enough coaches in the youth ranks already since this was not a big enough issue to stop the Committee from adding the hammer throw to the older age groups several years ago. If there are enough coaches for 15 years olds in this country, surely there are enough for 14 years olds too. In a quick census of hammer throw coaches over the past 48 hours, I already identified over 300 youth coaches covering nearly ever state in the union. Mr. Leach feels that Harold Connolly and the hammer community did not live up to their side of bargain by training more coaches after the Youth Committee added the hammer for older age groups. Contrary to his belief, Harold worked tirelessly to train more coaches. First, he published free online coaching resources and guides on his website. He toured the country giving clinics and hosted a special coaches clinic every summer at the Olympic Training Center. He also answered numerous inquiries every month from aspiring coaches looking for help. And Harold has not been the only one working. College coaches across the country have been conducting more clinics in recent years, as have I through the Evergreen Athletic Fund. Track Coach also published an article I wrote on teaching youth to throw the hammer in their latest edition. There are already many hammer coaches and we are working hard to expand their ranks.

There are not enough athletes – Some argue that the USATF should not add the event since only a few athletes participate in it. It is true that only a few states offer the event as an official high school event. However, thanks to the Junior Olympic program, athletes are now spread across the country. In 2010, athletes from more than 25 states were represented on Bob Gourley’s national rankings of the top 100 throwers and the top six boys came from six different states. We have worked to compile state records and nearly every state has had a thrower break its record over the past decade. In 2010 alone, 19 state records were bettered. The beauty of adding the hammer as an official youth event is that it will give athletes a chance to compete even where they are not allowed to do so at school. For example, one 8th grade boy and girl (14 years olds) made it onto this year’s national rankings even though could not find a sanctioned competition. In this era of budget concerns many schools are looking at limiting funding of athletics. Therefore, it will be even more important for non school initiatives to be supported, including club athletics and USATF youth participation.

There are not sufficient facilities – Again, this rule change would not increase the demand for facilities. Again, while it is easier to find a place to run than it is to throw the hammer, there are presumably enough facilities already since the event is allowed for older youth throwers. Adding it for a younger age group will not create an increased need for facilities.

Youth are too young for the event – This is not what the IAAF believes. The IAAF is in support of youth hammer throwing and has recognized the need to begin training young in order to produce top results. They sanction the hammer throw at the youth level and recommend the same lightweight implements for 13 and 14 year olds. Canada allows the hammer down to the 12 year old age group despite having perhaps fewer or more isolated coaches and hammer facilities. These young men and women are not toddlers, they are on the verge of entering high school. They are old enough to officially throw the javelin and compete in the pole vault. The hammer throw is not too much for them to handle. For example, a Hungarian who is just one year older this age group threw the 4-kilogram hammer over 280 feet this year.

The hammer throw is too dangerous – Whether it is danger to the participant or others that is being raised as an issue, neither is a valid basis for rejecting the proposal. Like all events, the hammer can pose risks, but statistics have shown that it isn’t dangerous. My experience has been that safety is the first topic discussed when coaching, conducting clinics and during competitions. Safety is a concern in all areas of daily life (commuting to work, at work, at school, at play, etc.), but that does not mean that all activities are dangerous to such an extent that they should be avoided. If danger or safety was the primary criteria, then javelin, discus, pole vault, football, etc. would all need to be reevaluated. Insurance data in Rhode Island (the state with the largest number of high school throwers) show that there have been no claims for injury from the event. Risks may even be lower with younger kids since they are not throwing the hammer as far and are using lighter implements. The event also does not pose a substantial risk of harm to the thrower since injury rates are much lower than the javelin and other track and field events.

What’s Next

As I said last week, I encourage you all to express your opinions to Youth Committee chairman Lionel Leach (917-913-5505, lionel@youthusatf.org). While his mind is made up, it will help our cause both now and in the future for him to know the number of youth coaches and throwers nationwide. Specifically, he feels that even the coaches we have are unattached and have just one or two athletes. This is not the case and hopefully you can provide him with examples to the contrary.

What will be even more effective is to utilize contacts you have at USATF. Obviously, if you know someone at the top, get them on our side and voicing their support to the Youth Committee. But more importantly, if you know someone involved with youth athletics at the association level, have them contact Mr. Leach too. Mr. Leach is very concerned about the impact the rule change will have on the local associations since they must implement the rules. Having those same people support us will provide us with tremendous support.

Finally, you can always attend the USATF Youth Committee Meeting and show your support. While opportunities to participate there may be limited, support never hurts.

Whether this rule change passes or not, we need to keep this issue front and center so that we can continue to provide more opportunities for American hammer throwers well into the future.

The Hammer Throw: A Political Cause You Can Believe In

Update: I’ve responded to critics and written more on this topic in a follow up post. Click here to read it.

Those of you in America probably woke up this morning and were welcomed by the joyous void created by the absence of non-stop election ads. Well, I hate to be the one to do this, but I’m here to lobby for one more cause before you stop thinking about politics for the year. The USATF Annual Meeting will start on December 4th in Virginia Beach. On the agenda is a rule change (Item 92) that would add the hammer throw to the youth age group for 13 and 14 year old throwers. I encourage you all to reach out to the chair of the USATF Youth Committee, Lionel Leach, in support of this amendment.

As with anything, starting young helps in the hammer throw

A young Koji Murofushi was featured in an IAAF instructional video at age 10 (click to view). By age 29, he was the Olympic champion.

Time and time again, the importance of starting young in the hammer throw has shown its benefits. Koji Murofushi, 2004 Olympic Champion, began throwing at age 10. While attending a clinic by Yuri Sedych in 2003, I saw his then nine-year-old daughter Alexia Sedych throwing the hammer. This summer she won the inaugural Youth Olympic Games in Singapore. Later that year, a 12-year-old Conor McCullough attended the USATF Junior Elite Camp at the USATF Olympic Training Center. Now he is the U.S. junior record holder and the most recent world junior champion. This, along with Walter Henning’s 2008 win, was only America’s second gold medal in a major international competition in more than a half century. The hammer throw is an event centered around rhythm and technique. Both take more than a decade to master and it is essential to start the process young.

The IAAF recognizes that starting young is important. They currently sanction the event and recommend using lightweight 4-kilogram (boys) and 3-kilogram (girls) hammers for the age group. These are also the weights proposed by this amendment. The International Olympic Committee also recognizes the event at youth level, most recently allowing 14 year olds to compete at the Youth Olympic Games. Countries across the world follow this lead, even our neighbors to the north. In the U.S., however, the USATF does not allow 13 or 14 year olds to compete.

The hammer throw is safe

While there are many opponents to this amendments, there is little sound reasoning behind the opposition. The arguments against the amendment normally begin with a mention of safety concerns. But all the data that exists shows the hammer throw is no more dangerous than any other track and field event. Former USATF President Bill Roe also feels “[w]e should investigate the medical issues surround introduction of the events to younger athletes.” He argues that the hammer may not be appropriate at the youth level for the same reason that youth runners may not compete at longer distances. But, runners are not banned from running, they just have to run the 3k instead of a 5k. Similarly, hammer throwers should not be banned, but should throw a lighter weight implement (as proposed). Personally, I think that the idea that hammer throwing can be unhealthy stems from the urban legend that lifting weights can stunt growth. There is no clinical evidence of this, and weightlifting’s own federation includes an under 13 age group for both boys and girls with weight classes down to 35kg (77 pound). If their own sport allows power events, what are we doing?

If weightlifting is not a risk, I do not see the hammer throw as a risk. Kids as young as 9 and 10 are allowed to do the shot put, which is more of a strength event than the hammer throw. The youth age group is even allowed throw the real javelin, which is likely more dangerous for both the athlete and spectator (younger age groups use the TurboJav and if younger age groups were to adopt the hammer, it might be right to adopt a similar training tool in our event). If we are worried about injuries, a kid is more likely to tear an ACL playing basketball or break a bone playing youth football than they are of having a serious injury in the hammer throw. With the rates of childhood obesity climbing, we should do whatever we can to encourage youth participation in sports. Even if America fails to win another Olympic medal in the event, we can help a lot of kids by letting them find a sport they love.

The sport is growing, but needs support to continue to grow

The other common objection is that the hammer throw needs to grow more before it should be added as a youth event. First of all, the sport has already grown rapidly in the past ten years, as documented on an earlier post. The sport is doing its part, and now the USATF needs to live up to its motto of “Sport for Everyone” and fulfill its role of establishing grassroots programs. How many more 13 year olds are going to pick up the hammer if there are no sanctioned events for them to compete in? As was the case in Field of Dreams: if you make it they will come. If you add the hammer throw as a youth event, more athletes will pick up the sport. At least that was the case for me. I first competed in the hammer throw merely because I saw it offered as an exhibition event at the 1999 Junior Olympic Regional Championships in Cheney, Washington. I had already qualified in the shot put for the competition, but had no chance of winning a medal there. As a high school freshman, a medal was the coolest thing in the world and when I saw the hammer throw on the entry list, I immediately signed up. I had never thought of trying the hammer before, but entered my first meet simply because it was a new event where I had a chance. I would not have begun the event if there were no competitions to introduce me to it. Offering more competition opportunities is the quickest way to grow the sport since other kids like me will see a potential new event.

Let your voice be heard

I am likely preaching to the choir with this post, but that is the point. It is those of you that love the hammer throw that can give this amendment the support it needs to pass. The hammer throw likely has the least political support at the USATF. Harold Connolly worked tirelessly in support of this issue during his final years and I am hoping that we can continue the effort in his absence in order to further his legacy. With your help, we can. If you agree, please contact Mr. Leach (lionel@youthusatf.org). Contact other members of the executive committee (contact information is available here). Let them know that you support the amendment. And, more importantly, let them know why you support the amendment and how the event has changed your life. Feel free to CC me on your emails or copy your responses below since I’d also love to hear your stories.

Ask Martin Vol. 7: Technique

Question: I just read this interview with Dr. Bondarchuk. In it, he says the two reasons U.S. hammer throwing lags behind is because of the way we train (lack of special strength) and technique issues. You have talked a lot about how to train special strength, I would like to know what you think some of the major flaws in the U.S. style of technique is compared to what Dr. B teaches. -Jeff
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In Memory of the Greatest Hammer Thrower

I hate starting a day off with bad news, but that’s exactly how my Thursday started this week. I normally check my e-mail right when I get up to see what I missed during daytime in America. My first e-mail was from my father and simply entitled “Harold Connolly.” I immediately got a strange feeling about it and, as I opened it, my worst fears were confirmed. My friend and mentor, 1956 gold medalist Harold Connolly had passed away. Read more

‘Saving the Hammer Throw’ Revisited

Last week’s post about Sándor Eckschmiedt’s proposal to save the hammer throw generated quite the buzz and a record number of visitors for this site. As I wrote in the post, Eckschmiedt wants to stop the hammer throw’s drift to the periphery of track and field by changing the weight and length. These moves would help make the event safer and also cut down the cost of the event. I was undecided about the plan after reading and thinking about it last week. While I could immediately see some of the troubles it might cause, I also knew something must be done to help the hammer throw. I solicited your input and got some great ideas in response.
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Saving the Hammer Throw

Hungarians know and love the hammer throw. The country is steeped in tradition and has produced four hammer throw gold medalists (third all-time behind the Soviet Union and America). Their state-owned television company has even produced a documentary on a notable hammer throwing coach. It came as no surprise when Hungary offered to host the hammer throw at the World Athletics Final from 2003 to 2005 after the infrastructure in Monaco was deemed unable to host the hammer. The challenge facing the event now is that many people, including myself, feel the event’s exclusion from top meets has put it on the periphery of track and field. And, yet again, it comes as no surprise that a Hungarian is one of the first to offer a possible solution to the problems facing our event.

The Proposal

Sándor Eckschmiedt is more than just your average university professor. At one time, he was among the world’s best hammer throwers. Track and Field News ranked Eckschmiedt in the world top ten on four separate occasions: 1964, 1967, 1968, and 1972. He also made the Olympic final in both 1968 and 1972, placing a career-high fifth in 1968. But now he sits on the Faculty of Physical Education and Sports Sciences at Semmelweis University in Budapest. His most recent work has been to publish a proposal for saving the hammer throw.  A copy of this report is available below.
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Is There a Perfect Technique?

There is an interesting discussion on The Ring this week. The topic is whether or not there is a “perfect technique” in the throwing events. In some sports, like diving, athletes are judged on whether or not they hit certain positions.  In those sports, there is a perfect technique.

In throwing, however, we aren’t judged by whether we hit positions.  We win or lose based on how far we throw.  Asking about the “perfect technique” is part of the reason Americans have struggled in the hammer (I’ve detailed some other reasons in previous posts).  Technique in the hammer throw is not about mastering positions, it is about mastering forces.  While I know some coaches in America understand this, many more don’t and even I didn’t even grasp this until recently.
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IAAF Launches Hammer Throw Challenge

Today some more news has emerged about the hammer throw for next season.  As I’ve discussed before, the hammer throw is the one event not included in the new IAAF Diamond League that begins next season.  Instead, the hammer throw will be included at several second tier competitions, with the highest point winner at the competitions to receive an additional prize. Regulations have been drafted and more details will be available soon.

Why the hammer throw is excluded from the Diamond League

With this new announcement, it is final that the new IAAF Diamond League will not include the hammer throw.

With this new announcement, it is final that the new IAAF Diamond League will not include the hammer throw.

The problem apparently is that not all the Diamond League facilities are adequate enough to host the hammer throw.  For instance, the Monaco facility is built above a parking garage, thus creating a potential problem for the high impact event.  Each event in the Diamond League will stage 16 events every year on a rotational basis.  So, for instance, if the Monaco facility stages the high jump and long jump one year, it will then stage the pole vault and triple jump the next year.  Since not every facility can host the hammer throw and the hammer throw would have been the odd seventeenth event, it created an issue for the rotating event system they have set up by throwing off its equilibrium.  The only way to resolve the issue would have been to have certain meetings host the hammer every year instead of rotating, and apparently that was not an acceptable solution.

Last minute lobbying

While the decision to exclude the hammer throw was announced last spring, several efforts have been made to reverse the decision. Some of the world’s top hammer throwers, including Olympic Champ Primoz Kozmus, began circulating a petition at the World Athletics Final for for the hammer throw to be included in the Diamond League.  Some top athletes such as Usain Bolt, Asafa Powell, and Yelena Isinbayeva signed on.  The effort was continued by Kozmus’s agent after Kozmus announced his unexpected retirement last month.  However, the movement was likely too late to have an impact.

New Grand Prix structure

The current Golden League and Grand Prix circuits will be replaced next season with a new structure.  The top competitions will form the Diamond League, where points are accumulated at each competition and the top point winner in each event at the end of the season will receive a 4 carat diamond. The second tier competitions will form the IAAF World Challenge.  Just today, the IAAF announced that the Challenge League will include 13 competitions on four continents.  Additional details about the World Challenge League are forthcoming.

New Hammer Throw Challenge structure

The hammer throw will be included in at least six competitions, mainly those in the World Challenge Meetings.  Presumably, points will be accumulated at these meetings and athletes will vie for a season ending prize.  This is similar to the structure of the current IAAF Combined Events Challenge and IAAF Race Walking Challenge.  The IAAF has not announced the structure of prize money or which meetings will be included in the Hammer Throw Challenge.  However, several World Challenge League competitions have been proud supporters of the hammer throw in the past and will likely continue to host the event as part of the Hammer Throw Challenge (e.g. Ostrava, Zagreb, Osaka, etc.).  It is also possible that some of the competitions will be hammer only, similar to how the combined events and race walking challenges are held.

Impact on the hammer throw

This latest news is big blow to the hammer throw.  The hammer throw has never been a premier event, but this decision will only ensure that the event’s status will not change.  Not only will the hammer throw be excluded from the world’s top one-day meetings, but now it looks like it will not even have normal event status in the World Challenge League.  In all likelihood, the Hammer Throw Challenge will be comprised of competitions that already included the hammer throw, thus not providing any additional competitions for elite hammer throwers.  Furthermore, hammer throwers likely won’t have the chance to earn any additional prize money since the Hammer Throw Challenge jackpot likely will be similar to what was offered at the discontinued World Athletics Final.  The only upside is that in addition to the 16 regular events, each Diamond League Competition will apparently be allowed to host “National Events” which feature mainly competitors from that country.  This regulation may provide a way for the hammer throw to sneak its way into a few Diamond League events next year, although likely as a pre-program event.

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