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GAINcast Episode 47: The Art of Coaching (with Harry Marra)

Recently Ashton Eaton announced his retirement. During his career he took the decathlon to new levels and it was coach Harry Marra who helped guide him there. In order to break down 10 complex events, Marra has become a master of communication and the art of coaching. On this week’s episode he joins us to discuss the art of coaching, the decathlon, and more. Read more

HMMR Podcast Episode 84: Going Out On Top

A rush of athletes announce their retirement after every Olympics. For many, the reason to go is because they want to go out on top. Is that the right reason? On this week’s episode Nick and I discuss retirement and also look back on Ashton Eaton’s career. Read more

Get Rid of the Decathlon? If It Ain’t Broke, Don’t Break It

Four years ago I left my hotel room to head for the London Olympic stadium. We got an early start to navigate the public transportation, security queues, and ticket lines. We still got to our seats an hour before the competition started, but I felt like we were late as the stadium was already packed. It was immediately clear they were not there to see the men’s hammer throw qualification like I was. Neither were they there to watch the steeplechase qualifying round. They were there to see one person: Jessica Ennis. The people in front of us brought their five-year-old daughter to witness the spectacle and her scream nearly blew out my eardrums once Ennis started the competition with a national record in the hurdles. The event’s power to draw in fans was on full display in London. The multi-events are a two-day test to crown the world’s greatest athletes and fans stand in awe of the diverse skill-set the top athletes possess. Therefore it was a bit odd when I learned that a new proposal from European Athletics would get rid of the heptathlon and decathlon forever in favor of newer formats. Read more

GAINcast Episode 22: Simplicity

We often think that the more complex something is, the better it is. Fancy sports cars, new computers, and Swiss watches all revel in their complexity. But in coaching simple is often better. Unnecessarily added elements can distract us from our core focus. On this episode we talk about the value of simplicity and ask how simple is too simple. Read more

Two Mornings in February

Let me preface this by saying I am a coaching junkie, my passion is watching coaches coach and learning from them. It is a bonus when the athletes they are coaching are the best of the best. In February of this year at University of Oregon I was able to watch two great sessions. Read more

Last Week in Oregon – Observations & Lessons

Oregon City Swim Team – Matt Crum head coach of Oregon City swim team spoke the phrase of the week to his team: “Embrace Chaos” when he was introducing a new training set in the water to his swimmers. This really resonated with me. Essentially training is preparing to race and no race goes perfectly according to plan. OCST does not have perfect facilities and unlimited pool time, in fact their facilities are limited which leads to some chaos but Matt has turned that into a positive. Learn from the chaos by embracing it. This is a good lesson for us all. Read more

Lessons Learned from Beijing: Less Is More

Ashton Eaton’s tremendous world record performance in the Decathlon just underscores how important that less is more. Less is more is almost a mantra for he and his coach Harry Marra. They live it every day! Seldom are any of their workouts over one hour. The workouts are on point and focused, no fluff, no nice to do fillers that make you tired and add undue training stress. It reminds me of one of my simple training rules – No one workout can make an athlete but one workout that is too much too soon can spell disaster and ruin an athlete. Focus on the process rep-by-rep, set-by-set, run-by-run, throw-by-throw and jump-by-jump. Recognize it takes time and that training accumulates from session to session, day to day, week to week, month to month and year to year.  The temptation is to do more, but the risk is not worth the return. One less throw or jump that is quality is preferable to one more that is sloppy. Read more

Ask Martin Vol. 24: More on Strengths and Weaknesses

Question: Is it better to train the implements that the athlete throws best or to train the implements that the athlete struggles with? Try to improve where the athlete already throws well and improve that or attack the weak points (or balls that the athlete does not perform best with)? -Frederick Hannie

I began responding to this question last week by discussing the specific question of whether a throw should focus on throwing implements they are good at, or ones they are bad at. The short answer is that rather than making the decisions based on what hammers they are good at, they should instead focus on what hammers will help them throw further.

But after I finished the question I left open the bigger question: should training focus on strengths or weaknesses. It would be nice to focus on eliminating weaknesses and focusing on strengths, but athletes have limited time and energy and coaches must often make a tough decision between the two. In addition, strengths and weaknesses come into play not just in the training plan, but also in technique where there also might not be the choice of pursuing both paths simultaneously. My approach is to look at the problems in steps by focusing on eliminating liabilities, focusing on the transfer, and then creating your own individual mold that capitalizes on your strengths and uses creative thinking.
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Elton John and Throwing

Last Tuesday, I worked together with Terry McHugh and the United School of Sports to bring Harry Marra to Zurich for a coaching workshop. Marra is one of the world’s best multi-event coaches and currently guides decathlon word record holder and Olympic gold medalist Ashton Eaton. But rather than focusing on the training methods he uses for his athletes, Marra presented on the art of coaching to a diverse crowd filled with coaches from more than a dozen sports including figure skating, BMX, and even fistball.

While Marra talked about several facets of being a good coach, nearly every point came down to communication. And this applies to all sports. Coaches are essentially teachers; they have to understand their topic and then convey it to athletes  The latter part is the hardest and that is where proper communication fits in.
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The Quiet Coach

Good coaching is not about yelling and inspiring as much as it is about teaching. Take John Wooden as an example. Photo by AP.

Good coaching is more about teaching than it is about fiery speeches. Take John Wooden as an example. Photo by AP.

Tennis was one of the first sports I played and it remains one of my favorites to watch on television. A unique aspect of tennis is that while coaches are involved intimately in training, often on a one-on-one basis, they have no role at the match. With the exception of some recent rule changes in women’s tennis, it is frowned upon to even look at the coach’s box during a match and communication is forbidden. Watching the ebbs and flows of a five-set grand slam final as athletes must cope alone with the momentum changes and building pressure produces some of the best drama in sports. The tennis coaches may not get much recognition but they are some of the best coaches in the world since they prepare their athletes to do this battle alone.

Talking with coach Harry Marra last week has gotten me to think more about coaching theory. Many of the topics Marra talked about concerned how to improve communication between athlete and coach. Coaches must know their sport, and the great coaches are those that can best convey it to their athletes. The great coaches will have athletes that are not just physical specimens, but also students and active learners. During a competition they are not on their heels waiting for a sideline instruction from their coach; they are proactively deciding their next move because their coach equipped them to learn for themselves.
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