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Why Does Specialized Training Get a Bad Rap?

In a New York Times op-ed last week, author David Epstein presented a case against specialization in youth sports. He cited several studies showing that early specialization appears to have detrimental effects on athlete development. For example:

Data presented at the April meeting of the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine showed that varsity athletes at U.C.L.A. — many with full scholarships — specialized on average at age 15.4, whereas U.C.L.A. undergrads who played sports in high school, but did not make the intercollegiate level, specialized at 14.2.

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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 Unique

Coach John Smith (shown above, photo from The Southern) recently shared his thoughts on how to turn around American hammer throwing. Here are some of my thoughts.

Coach John Smith (shown above, photo from The Southern) recently shared his thoughts on how to turn around American hammer throwing. Here are some of my thoughts.

The 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.

Looking Back at 2013: Top Hammer Throwing Stories

There was hardly a hangover after the London Olympics. With records, upsets, and lots of youth talent emerging, 2013 was a year for the history books. My men’s and women’s rankings took a look at the top performers, but there were many more moments to remember. Here is my list of the biggest hammer throwing stories of 2013.


Pawel Fajdek announced himself to the world with his world title in Moscow.

Pawel Fajdek announced himself to the world with his world title in Moscow.

1. Surprise Winners at the World Championships – Those outside of the hammer throwing world likely had never heard of Pawel Fajdek, the young Polish thrower. Insiders knew he was a rising star, but after fouling out in London he had yet to make his mark at a major championships. Krisztian Pars was undefeated and a clear favorite entering the world Championships, but Fajdek came out firing and led from start to finish with a new personal best of 81.97 meters. At just 24 years of age, this will be the fist of many World Championships medals for him.

Just like Pars, Betty Heidler entered the women’s competition undefeated but unlike Pars she failed to even make the finals (more on this below). As defending Olympic and World Champion, Tatyana Lysenko was hardly an outsider but was still an underdog. And for the third year in a row she turned that underdog role into gold.

2. Women Put on a Competition to Remember – Combined, the stellar men’s and women’s competitions made this year’s world championships the most exciting that I have ever seen. I risk overusing this phrase, but the women’s competition in particular was perhaps the best of all-time. I also said this after the London Olympic final when five women broke 76 meters and it took 74 meters just to place in the top eight. The depth was not as good this year, but the competition was better. Lysenko opened the competition with a bomb of 77.58 meters. Since Heidler didn’t make the final and Wlodarczyk opened up with just 70 meters, I thought this would secure the win. By Wlodarczyk slowly started to warm up improving to 74 meters in round two and then took the lead in round three with 77.79 meters. In round four, Lysenko responded with the second furthest throw ever of 78.80 meters. Wlodarczyk then entered the ring and watched her throw nearly surpass Lysenko again. While the throw ended up being a little shorter (78.46 meters), it was still enough to move Wlodarczyk to third on the all-time world list.

There were also lots of competition and lead changes for the other positions too. Zhang Wenxiu won bronze, but was only 1.42 meters ahead of sixth place finisher Yipsi Moreno. Five of the top six had season’s best. Three had personal bests. And two set national records. Even the battle to make the finals was close. Position seven through ten were separated by just 20 centimeters with the two Americans missing the finals by just inches.

3. Heidler’s Future in Question – World record holder Betty Heidler was having a great season until she fell apart at the World Championships. This left many people asking questions, but her actions since then have only generated more questions. Other than a mediocre performance at home in Berlin, she abruptly called her season to an end after the World Championships. After the season she had surgery on her left knee. She also uprooted from her longtime training base in Frankfurt to more back home to Berlin. Then the big shocker came after some strange comments in an interview last month, when she said “I will not start again at the World Championships.” She clarified that she does not intend to retire, just to forgo competing at the World Championships. That’s a strange comment and strategy in an era where the World Championships is one of the only chances for a hammer thrower to make money.

4. New American Record – The top American women were huddled around 72 meters for several years until Jessica Cosby finally broke through and set a new record last season. That opened the flood gates and Amanda Bingson shatter the record this season with a toss of 75.73 meters to dominate the US Championships. With two records in two years and a young crop of throwers, it looks like the breakthrough has just started. Bingson had a very strong season overall and placed 10th at the World Championships, just five inches away from the top eight.

5. Strong American Women – Entering last season the American record was 73.87 meters. This year five women were over 73 meters. Along with Bingson, Jeneva McCall threw 74.77 meters and was actually the top ranked American in my world rankings. Gwen Berry, who like McCall is just 24 years old, also threw nearly 74 meters. Veteran Amber Campbell also had strong season and set a new personal best to make the World Championship team. And Jessica Cosby was once again quite strong. It was unthinkable that an American would not make the national team with a throw of 72.39 meters at worlds, but that is just what happened to Cosby as she placed fourth.

Not only are the marks increasing, but the athletes are also moving up the world rankings. Based on the yearly performance list, five of the top 18 women in the world were Americans.

6. Winkler Improves the American High School Mark – While the American men have not yet seen , a sign of progress can been seen in the development of youth throwers across the country. Once a seldom contested event, the hammer throw results have taken off over the least few years. This year the national record was yet again bettered by New Yorker Rudy Winkler. Winkler’s best of 79.38 meters (260’05”) from July added five inches to former World Junior champion Conor McCullough’s mark from 2008. Winkler also became the third hammer thrower in the last eight years to be named the Track and Field News high school athlete of the year.

7. Gomez Puts South America on the Map – Argentinean Joaquín Gómez fouled out at the World Youth Championships earlier this summer, but he had redemption this month by setting a new world under-18 best with the 5-kilogram hammer. His throw of 85.38 meters added 12-centimeters to the old best by Ashraf Amgad Elseify set in 2011. This may not be the most impressive throw by a youth athlete ever (Elseify also threw 85.57-meters with the heavier 6-kilogram hammer as an under-18 athlete), but it is still the farthest 5-kilogram throw ever by a youth thrower.

South America has lagged behind other countries in the hammer, and Gómez’s results are a good sign that an 80-meter thrower might be on the continent’s horizon. Oceania and South America are the only two areas in the world that have not produced an 80 meter thrower at the senior level. And South America lags the furthest behind with an area record of just 76.42 meters. Oceania is at 79.29 meters.

Reka Gyuratz (centre) and Helga Volgyi (right) both broke the old world under-18 record this year.

Reka Gyuratz (centre) and Helga Volgyi (right) both broke the old world under-18 record this year.

8. Hungarian Girls Demolish Youth Record Books – Hungrian men have long been winning global medals, but the Szombathely training group run by Zsolt Nemeth now has the two most promising young women’s throwers in the world. Like Gómez, Réka Gyurátz and Helga Völgyi both surpassed the old world under-18 best. Gyurátz’s best of 76.04 meters with the 3-kilogram hammer added nearly three meters to the old mark. Völgyi also posted an impressive 74.38 meters and the easily won gold and silver at the World Youth Championships. Gyurátz then jumped up an age group and threw 65.01 meters with the 4-kilogram hammer to place second at the competitive European Junior Championships.

Combined the two throwers have 18 of the top 19 performances of all time in the under 18 category. But their records might not last for long. Their third teammate Zsófia Bácskay already hit 71.76 meters (fourth all-time) and has one more year in the age category.

9. Hammer Challenge Finally Expands – In previous years there were so few meets on the circuit that were grouped so closely together that part of the jackpot remained unpaid since many athletes could not compete in the minimum three competitions. This year the IAAF expanded the challenge to feature 11 men’s competitions and 10 women’s competitions. While this was a great change, it also fell short of fixing the IAAF Hammer Challenge. As I mentioned in an editorial this spring, this only fixed part of the problems. The overall prize money still is minuscule in comparison to the Diamond League and most of the “new” competitions already offered the hammer throw in previous seasons. But with one Diamond League competition officially becoming part of the challenge the change offers a distant hope that more will join in the future.

10. The UK Loses a Legend – On a more somber note the hammer throwing community lost a legend when Alan Bertram passed away in May. The British coach was a die hard advocate for the sport that left an impact wherever he was, like he did with the training groups he led in London and Scotland. When I visited Glasgow in October I heard many stories of his impact on developing the event there. Even in America I remember reading Bertram’s guide to the hammer throw when I was first trying to teach myself to throw. Like Harold Connolly in the US, Bertram was a unique character and the type of people we need more of in this sport. Athletics Weekly had a thoughtful obituary that is well worth the read.

German National Throws Conference

Germany is the top throws country in the world. Other countries may have more depth, but Germany has developed an unmatched elite throws team. Despite being a fraction of the size of rivals like the United States and Russia, it is the only country in the world that has a legitimate medal contender in all eight throwing events.

This past weekend I travelled to the Kienbaum national training center outside of Berlin for the German federation’s annual throwing conference. The training center is already a heaven for throwers. Add in 100 energetic coaches and you start to see why the country has so much success. But as good as thing are, the Germans face the same problems every country does. There was much heated debate about how to get kids started in the sport earlier, retain them longer, and provide better support for elite athletes.

But this debate is also key to their success. Rather than being antagonistic, everyone was on the same page because they were working towards the same goal. That teamwork and structure forms the foundation of their success. Despite being the best, they want to improve and learn from the best in Germany and around the world in order to do so.
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Talent is About the Future, Not the Present

A new Olympic cycle has begun and already the next round of young stars have emerged. In America, Mary Cain has broken nearly every single age-group middle distance and distance record in route to qualifying for the US World Championships team in the 1500m as just a youth athlete. In the UK, junior Jessica Judd blazed a sub-2 minute 800 meters to win a Diamond League race on Sunday. And in Japan, 17-year old Yoshihide Kiryu broke the world junior record over 100 meters. I get as excited about these athletes as the next fan, but I also get frustrated when I fear the word talent mentioned so often without the slightest pause to consider what it actually means.

Young Mary Cain has everyone talking about talent.

Young Mary Cain has everyone talking about talent. Photo by AP.

Last year I spent some time looking at talent identification and I came away with two main conclusions: (1) talent in the hammer throw is a complex combination of factors that is hard to measure in a test; and (2) even in the most straightforward test, throwing the hammer, isn’t a great predictor since few of the top youth and junior athletes continue on to be the best adults. But while both of these discussions try to explain why it is so hard to define talent, even I did not offer a definition of what exactly talent is.
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The Way Forward

Sometimes the smallest moments can provide proof of what I have been thinking all along. Meet directors often like to say they have not included the hammer throw because it is not popular. But there is still a natural fascination with the event that they do not seem to get. My Sunday morning training this week took place at the same time as a kids’ relay practice. Throughout their training, I could tell many of the kids had their eyes on my throws instead of their coach, and as soon as they were done a handful ran over to the hammer cage. Without any prompting, they began to use their backpacks as hammers and then see who could throw the furthest with their impromptu technique. I posted a short video on Facebook. As you can see, the kids are naturally drawn to the event and have fun doing it. The same is true wherever I train. The hurdle the hammer throw faces is how to tap into this natural fascination in a larger and more systematic way.

The purpose of this post is to outline how I think the hammer throw can move forward and look for your input on how to streamline my various efforts and focus them in a more systematic way to address the needs of the sport. It doesn’t sound easy, and it’s not. That’s why I am asking for your feedback.
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Bad Excuses Die Hard

Some things in life are timeless. A good wristwatch is one. Another is a bad excuse. Bad excuses, unfortunately, are too often repeated. A case in point was an article sent to me recently by Bob Gourley, America’s top high school hammer throw statistician and also a fine youth coach.

Olympic champion Fred Tootell was an adopted son of Maine.

The article was written in 1939, but could have just come from the mouth of Lionel Leach 70 years later. Back on February 17, 1939 the Lewiston (Maine) Evening Journal printed an article titled “Maine Principals Ban on Hammer Draws Fire.” In it, the paper responds to what turned out to be true rumors that the Maine Principal’s Association was going to cut the hammer throw as an event at the state championships. During the 1920s and 1930s, more than half of the states had the hammer throw as a high school event. But within the ten years all but Rhode Island would have eliminated the sport.
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A Case Study in Resurrecting an Event

Here in Switzerland you can see first hand that the hammer throw has been declining over the past decade. Youth participation is so low that the hammer throw was cancelled at the national under-23 championships for lack of participation this year. But the problem isn’t isolated in Switzerland; neighboring Germany has seen youth hammer results in decline recently and what was once the strongest hammer throwing nation had results of 70 and 60 meters win medals at this years national senior men’s and women’s championships in the hammer throw. But while many countries are struggling, at least one has not just witnessed growth, but a growth level perhaps unmatched in history. That country is the United States.

Spearheaded by the efforts of Harold Connolly and many others in the mid-1990s, the number of US youth hammer throwers has increased fivefold at beginning and elite levels by almost every measure. This success is remarkable and something that other countries and other events can analyze when trying to replicate such success.
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Harold Connolly: Grit Personified

Psychologist Angela Duckworth has done some interesting research into what personality traits can be used as predictors for success in school and other ventures. IQ, for example, is actually a poor indicator of how high a student’s GPA will be. Duckworth’s early research showed that self-control was a much more reliable predictor, but even that was not a good predictor of higher successes. As a lengthy New York Times piece summarized “People who accomplished great things, she noticed, often combined a passion for a single mission with an unswerving dedication to achieve that mission, whatever the obstacles and however long it might take. She decided she needed to name this quality, and she chose the word ‘grit.'”

When I think of grit, I think of one man: 1956 Olympic Champion Harold Connolly. Read more

Meet Recap: Swiss Club Championships

The LCZ team at the 2012 Swiss Club Championships.

Let me start with the good news: I’m finally feeling healthy again. My rib has slowly reached a nearly pain free state thanks to help from my massage therapist and physiotherapist. The bad news is that this small problem set me back more than I thought it would.
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