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Ask Martin Vol. 26: Throwing In The Other Direction

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In other throwing events it is common to throw in each direction. How many throws should you take in the opposite direction and how good does technique need to be in that direction? My concern is that training just to one side might provoke scoliosis or other spinal injuries. -Thomas

Throwing in the opposite direction is indeed less common in the hammer throw than in other throwing events. Tony Dziepak has compiled a list of ambidextrous throwing records which include impressive performances like Hank Kraychir putting the shot 20.55-meters with his right hand and also going over 18-meters with his left hand. With the amount of technique involved, it is natural that hammer throwers generally do not throw as much in the other direction. But in looking at the necessity of it, the same rules apply to all throwing events.
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October Training Update

Last year I wrote about my training only sparsely since there was not that much new or exciting going on. But this year I am barely two weeks into training and I am already eager to give a training update. As I discussed in my season review a few days ago, there were several problems that kept me from reaching my goals last season. I hope to learn from those mistakes and make some improvements to my training. This year I have kept one of my goals from last year: technique. I need to improve the start of my throw by staying a little lower and getting more “range” on the first turn. Then I need to stay relaxed throughout the final turns. In addition, I have a new second goal, which is to keep my focus on these points even as the competition season begins. Last year this went well in the off-season, but as soon as a little extra stress was added to the formula (be it an injury, more work, house guests, travel for competitions, etc.), the wheels came off. I have also developed a plan for both of these points and am already implementing it. Read more

Training Talk With Dan Pfaff (Part 1)

During the first half of the 20th century is was quite common to see a distance coach working with throwers, or vice versa. Without a big staff of assistant coaches, collegiate track coaches were required to have a much broader skill set. Just look at the biography of the legendary Bill Bowerman as an example. In Seattle Ken Foreman did the same thing while across town Hec Edmundson not only coached the University of Washington track team (including several Olympic medalists in various events), but also guided the basketball team for nearly 30 years. As training has become more specialized, this legacy has been replaced with one-event specialists like myself.

Coach Dan Pfaff at his facility in Arizona with the World Athletics Center.

Coach Dan Pfaff at his facility in Arizona with the World Athletics Center. Photo by World Athletics Center.

But coach Dan Pfaff is proof that this rare breed still exists. Pfaff has had unprecedented success across nearly every event including the sprints (1996 Olympic 100-meter gold medalist and former world-record-holder Donovan Bailey), jumps (2012 Olympic long jump champion Greg Rutherford), vaulting (2007 World Champion and US record holder Brad Walker), and throws (US discus record holder Suzy Powell). Throughout his career he has coached at major universities like LSU, Texas and Florida. More recently he has spent time leading the USOC Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista and the UK Athletics High Performance Centre in London. After the London Olympics he took on a new role as coach for the World Athletics Center in Phoenix where he will work with Walker and many other world class field event athletes.

A few weeks ago I had the chance to pick Pfaff’s brain about a variety of topics including how to improve technique in older athletes, common themes in his approaches to the different events, the use of different intensities in training, and his experience and thoughts on the hammer throw. Due to the length of the talk I will be posting it in three parts. Below is the first part which covers technical learning and the common themes between all events.


Part 1: Improving Technique and Finding Commonalities Between Events

Improving Technique

Martin: I’d like to start off with a question that’s more personal in nature. I’m curious to hear your approach to fixing the technical problems of someone with very engrained bad habits. In other words, how do you teach an old dog like myself new tricks?

Dan: I think there are two directions from which you can attack problems. If you are looking at film you can look at frames that occur before the problem and frames that occur after. Sometimes working on things further down the road can go back and fix the cause. And sometimes the art is looking at how many frames earlier do you have to intervene to get an effectual change at a certain point in time.

A lot of times, especially in the throws, the resistance to change is an alarm theory. We set alarms like single support, double support, ball position, time in the air, and so on and so forth. We set up this alarm system for executing movements. These alarms are pretty dominant for elite athletes and override spatial and temporal awareness. Once you are set in a certain pattern the alarms are the central governor so to speak.

Martin: I know you generally prefer focusing on the movement in its entirety. But when trying to focus on these alarms will you break down the technique into its component parts?

Dan: I am pretty much a whole movement guy. Drills and part-whole learning have their place as you evolve as an athlete from a beginner to an elite athlete. But I haven’t had much success with drills or isolated part-whole integration with advanced athletes. We use real-time tasks.

Martin: So it sounds like to alter the alarms you simply want to make things feel different for the body so that it can relearn things. What inputs do you use to change the alarms?

Dan: We may change positioning in the circle, the weight of implement, or other entities. But we are always working in real-time with the whole movement.

If some of the alarms are stuck on the entry of a throw, you can play with shoulder axis, hip axis, deflection angles, where is the head during the wind, etc. There are certain triggers that start the alarm process. Part of the art is figuring where the triggers are that set or reset the alarms.
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What are you missing?

As we often miss key elements of movement because we become very stereotyped and always see movement from the same perspective. It is so easy to have a confirmation bias and see what you are looking for and miss the real problem. It is so important to see movement with new eyes. Eliminate bias. Don’t focus on the site of pain or the perceived cause of the technical flaw. Look at how everything is connected and linked. If there is pain in the knee then look at the joints above and below. Read more

The Future of Hammer Throw Research (Part 3)

I thought my series on the future of hammer throw research was done after Part 1 and Part 2. But that was until thrower Kevin Becker passed along the link below. Becker is currently finishing up his Ph.D. in Kinesiology at the University of Tennessee focusing on motor learning and the hammer throw. We will have more on his work in the coming months, but for now Becker sent me a CNN special from last month that focused on figure skating.

The special looked at the work of Professor Jim Richards at the University of Delaware. As a biomechanist, Richards recognized the value his field could offer figure skating, but also was well aware of its limitations.
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The Future of Hammer Throw Research (Part 2)

Dr. Bartonietz in Chula Vista last year.

Dr. Bartonietz in Chula Vista last year.

Last week I started to look at ways science could continue to help improve performances in the hammer throw. To start with, I ask renowned biomechanist Dr. Jesus Dapena what direction he thought hammer throw research should move. Dapena, who is a professor in the Department of Kinesiology at Indiana University wrote seven influential biomechanics papers on the hammer throw in the 1980s. His idea was also simple: we need to look closer at the role of balance in the throw.

To continue the discussion, I posed the same question to Dr. Klaus Bartonietz, a biomechanist who worked for more than 15 years at the German Olympic Training Center in Rheinland-Pfalz/Saarland. In addition to being a scientist, he was also a successful throwing coach who guided Boris Henry to over 90 meters in the javelin. His 2000 work “Hammer Throw: Problems and Prospects” for the International Olympic Committee is the best summary available of the current findings in research on hammer throw technique. Currently he is editor of the leading German track and field technical journal and works as a speaker and consultant on a variety of training topics. His comments are below and cover four areas of research. As I mentioned in the past post, if you are a student or scientist who would like to do research in this area, or are already doing research on another topic, please get in touch with me since I would love to follow your progress.
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The Future of Hammer Throw Research (Part 1)

Dr. Jesus Dapena is one of the worlds best athletics biomechanists.

Dr. Jesus Dapena is one of the worlds best athletics biomechanists.

Simultaneous with the growth in results, the 1980s produced a plethora of scientific research into the hammer throw. The Soviets had their teams of scientists, and, sports being central to the cold war, the Americans worked hard to decipher what the Soviets had discovered. East and West Germany were equally well invested in pushing the event forward. But since then new research has slowed. The best work in the past two decades has come from Marwa Sakr and Koji Murofushi, who have both used new technologies to measure many of the forces taking place in the throw, rather than simply looking at body positions. But most other papers seem to simply reanalyze old work or look at topics like effect of wind on a throw that are very interesting but offer few practical applications for athletes.

Research into training methods has been ever more sparse lately. While new translations of Dr. Anatoliy Bondarchuk’s work on the transfer of training and periodization have helped individuals like myself learn more about these topics, no one is continuing his research into event-specific training methods.

We obviously still have a lot that science can teach us about the event, but it is hard to determine what direction future research should head in. Recently I posed this question to some sports scientists. First up is Dr. Jesus Dapena. Dapena recently retired from Indiana University where he was a professor in the Department of Kinesiology and ran their Biomechanics Laboratory. While he has not published any recent work on the hammer throw, he produced seven influential biomechanics papers in the 1980s that were essential in helping the English-speaking world start to understand the Soviet advances in hammer technique. His comments are below. In Part 2 I chat with Dr. Klaus Bartonietz, a biomechanist who worked for more than 15 years at the German Olympic Training Center in Rheinland-Pfalz/Saarland and was the personal coach for 90-meter javelin thrower Boris Henry.

If you are a student or scientist that would like to do research in this area, or are already doing research on another topic, please get in touch with me since I would love to follow your progress.
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Running Mechanics – Part Two

sprintingThe starting point for running mechanics is a basic technical model. That technical model is what man must do sprint at top speed. Therefore in teaching to improve running mechanics we must start with sound sprint mechanics and extend those concepts out to longer distances. Even in distance running, ultimately the person who runs the fastest is the person who can maintain the greatest percentage of their maximum speed the longest. Running skill is a motor task! Like any motor task it is teachable and trainable. As with any motor task a systematic approach toward improving running mechanics will yield optimum results. The system that I have evolved to improve running mechanics is call the PAL System™. PAL is an acronym that stands for Posture, Arm Action, and Leg Action. Those are the three areas of emphasis in running. The objectives of the system are fourfold. The first objective is to provide a context to analyze movement. Secondly the PAL System™ is a systematic step-by-step teaching progression. The third aspect is that it provides a context to direct training based on the needs established in the past two steps. Lastly it provides a rehab context by establishing a criterion based progressive approach toward getting someone back to normal gait pattern after an injury. Read more

Coaching Roundtable: Julia Ratcliffe Video Analysis

Julia_Ratcliffe_IAAF_World_Youth_Ch_2009Back in February I launched a new series on this site, the Coaching Roundtable, by inviting three of the world’s best coaches to analyze the technique of top US thrower Chris Cralle. Now it’s back for the second edition with an up and coming international thrower. Once again the Coaching Roundtable series brings together top coaches from the around the world to give their different perspectives on the same topic. Subjects for the coaching roundtable are chosen exclusively among members of this site. I plan on doing a rotational shot put roundtable in the near future as well as another men’s hammer roundtable, so if you are a member looking for an analysis of yourself or your athlete , please contact me.

The Subject

Julia Ratcliffe was born and raised in New Zealand and started hammer throwing under the guidance of her father, Dave Ratcliffe. On her 19th birthday last year Ratcliffe threw a senior national record and Oceania junior record of 67.00 meters at the World Junior Championships in Barcelona. Her mark earned her fourth place and was the best mark ever to miss the podium at the meet. This September she enrolled at Princeton University in America where she has continued her success. In April she broke her national record again with a throw of 68.80 meters and was one of the top throwers in the NCAA as just a freshman this season.

The Coaches

Derek Evely served most recently as Director of the UK Athletics Loughborough National Performance Centre. In addition, he has guided several hammer throwers including Sophie Hitchon, who at age 21 set a national record to become the youngest Olympic finalist last summer. Evely is strongly influenced by Anatoliy Bondarchuk, who he recruited to and worked alongside with in Kamloops, Canada.

Don Babbitt is of the most successful throwing coaches in the world over the past decade. Coach Babbitt works as the throwing coach at the University of Georgia for sixteen years in which his athletes captured 11 NCAA titles, and 55 All-American certificates. Chris Hill (javelin) and Jenny Dahlgren (hammer) also set NCAA records under his guidance. In addition, he has worked with athletes like Adam Nelson (shot put), Reese Hoffa (shot put), Breaux Greer (javelin), Jason Dunks (discus), Brad Snyder (shot put), Andras Haklits (hammer) and many other international champions.

Sergej Litvinov Jr. is one of the top active hammer throwers in the world with a personal best of 80.98 meters. He placed fifth at 2009 World Championships and now competes for Russia. He is coached by his father, Sergey Litvinov, who was a world record holder, two-time world champion, Olympic champion, and Olympic silver medalist. He still ranks third all-time with his personal best of 86.04 meters.
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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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