Training Talk with Mac Wilkins (Part 1)
While my true love lies with the hammer throw, I try to learn as much as I can from all of track and field’s various disciplines. The best coaches and athletes that I have met all accumulate knowledge from every source possible. With that in mind, I decided to ask Mac Wilkins a few questions about the discus throw. Mac was the 1976 Olympic Champion in the discus throw and set five world records. But even though he had much success in the discus, he also knows a thing or two about the other throwing events. His nickname was “Multiple Mac” since he had impressive personal bests of 70.98m (discus), 21.06m (shot put), 63.66m (hammer), and 78.44m (old-style javelin).
In 2005, Mac decided to turn his attention back to the throwing events. He accepted a job as the throwing coach at Concordia University and started the Mac Wilkins Throwers Academy. Through those two roles he is involved in a long list of pursuits from offering online video analysis to hosting frequent competitions and clinics. One of his more recent ventures is The Wilkins Review, a subscription based service that provides coaching tools, analysis of the world’s best throwers, commentary, and training tips for the discus and other throwing events. His contribution to the sport is already paying dividends. This year’s top ranked male high school shot put, discus, and hammer throwers all train at his facility (in addition to the national high school javelin record setter last year). Despite the mild weather in Portland, it is the best throwing facility I have ever seen.
Below is part one of the interview where we discuss his projects and the current state of discus throwing in America. Check back for the final part in the next day or two, where we’ll discuss more about training and the elements of success for elite throwers.
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Usually I look forward to anything that Mac has to say, but I’ll have to admit I am a little disappointed here. Here is what stands out to me:
I’m not sure how a non thrower (decathlete/decathlete coach for example) or even a 60mDT/20mSP thrower can fully explain what to do and what to feel to throw 65-70m or 22m. Throwing even 65m/21m was indeed the challenge they were unable to solve when they were throwers. How can they show the way to others? It might not be impossible for them but first gather the knowledge from those who have been there. My view is that most “standardized throwing knowledge” is from guys who have studied the event but have no experience throwing far or haven’t thrown at all. Book knowledge can be helpful for decathletes but may not be accurate or complete. The US is lacking in a “Standardized Model” of discus technique. It remains an entrepreneurial effort to piece together the knowledge of how to get to 65m and then how to go to 70m.
If I’m not mistaken, he has basically tossed out 99.9% of all coaches as having any sort of input in his “standardized throwing knowledge”. I guess only 70m throwers need only apply.
70m throwers have many genetic gifts. They aren’t just walking around with normal humans. Maybe some of these 65m throwers, who are not worthy to contribute to the “standardized throwing knowledge”, only threw 65m because they only worked to 60% of their potential/capacity. Maybe they had injuries. Maybe there are 65m throwers that got 99% of their potential realized.
Time does not permit me to go on and on, but I believe that the athletes that could be good throwers in the are eaten up by football and other sports. Does this happen in other countries? What other activities are there for 6’4″ 250 athletes in France, Switzerland, Sweden??
thnx for your time.
I agree. There are many examples of coaches that have coached elite throwers without having broken those barriers themselves: I would say the majority of the world’s best discus throwers were coached by mediocre former throwers. Same goes in other events and other sports. Just some examples off the top of my head: Venegas was not even a national class thrower and took Godina and others past 22m and 69.91m; Günthor’s coach had a best of just 20m; even though Bondarchuk won a gold he coached his throwers nearly 10m past his best in the hammer and 15m better than his best in the discus.
Look at basketball, baseball, football, etc. and almost all of the top coaches were not stars. The theory is that they are good coaches because they were not gifted athletes. They had to work harder and learn even more to succeed. I think the same is true in track and field, even in other events like the sprints, distances, jumps, etc. We definitely need to learn from the top throwers, but that doesn’t mean they are the only ones that can be the best coaches.
As far as what do the top athletes do? Every country runs into competition. In Switzerland, most of the big strong farm boys that would be great throwers compete in a very popular Swiss form of wrestling. Rugby is popular in France, etc. While the U.S. loses athletes to football, I think that is an easy excuse. It has a higher participation rate and larger population to begin with, so some attrition is not the biggest problem.
Here is an even better example: Bela Karolyi. He was neither a girl, nor a gymnast, but became the best coach in the women’s gymnastics world in two different countries.
No offense to Coach Wilkins, but people who have thrown world leading distances that have also coached people to world leading results are few and far between.
great coaches are good at understanding both the thrower and the throw. They are masters of communication and change their coaching style to best fir the athlete. They have an amazing ability to “hack” the athletes mind by using the right cues and assigning the right drills, along with the rest of technical work/volume/weights, etc… that constitute an amazing array of variables that ultimately affect how successful an athlete will be. They act as sports psychologists with praise, criticism, and support.
Most of these attributes are independent of whether the coach him/herself competed at an elite level. In fact, One might argue that great natural athletic ability can hinder one’s ability to teach, much in the same way that a genius who “just gets it” for calculus actually sucks at preparing high schoolers for the AP calc exam.
I think that what Mac is saying and what many are taking it for is very different. We have spoken about this topic in person and there is a different point that lies within. I think that each event has a varied developmental curve and the level to be world class is reached on average at different ages. I believe that the argument that we dont have our best atheltes competing in discus is weak. I am sure that we have a large population in the USA and we have the Best top 20 group of shotputters that exist or ever have existed in any country. I believe that the standard of the NCAA system and development curve is working very well to make 20m + shotputters. I think that our system there is the best. Countries like Estonia have lots less than 10 guys all time over 60m in the discus and only 3 ever over 65m. All in the last 10 years. I feel that I am a good athlete and despite what you guys think I know that I can throw better than I have thrown. Problem though. Are guys that are rising up in discus like Erik Cadee, Mart Israel etc. considered freaks of athletics in America? No but these guys are on there way to throwing 65m+ in big championships one day. I as an athelte was a great football player maybe too short, long arms, fast speed, jumping and lifting better than any of those guys. I find it as an insult to say that there are better throwers doing these other sports. Maybe they are but that isn’t hurting us too bad in shotput, sprints, hurdles, Kibwe, etc. I am also and NCAA coach and I think that the amount of talented athletes that we work with is astounding to Eurpeans and the rest of the world. If we see Germany in discus, How many guys who throw even 58m with 1.75k end up throwing at least 65m with 2k. Almost all. In america there have been countless guys that throw this type of high school distance and never throw over 60m. I think that just because there are a lot of coaches and a lot of so called knowledge that we are holding ourselves to a lower standard. lots of good and above average coaches for discus but also lots of good and above average athletes. Just as any other field to be truthful, there are not 50 top heart surgeons in the USA there are just a few. Everyone cant be the best but in order to get better we have to realize that everyone is not awesome. I am coming from a meet where I threw 64m foot foul and 2 into the net. Kanter wins with 65,Casanas and alekna 64. I think that if we feel that our athletes are not good enough, then we cnat be good enough. The shotputters are going away from the development system in the USA because they know its bullshit, Guys like Hoffa and Cantwell have good coahces and good systems that have worked for them and developed them for years. they trust it. In discus most throwers who make teams go through 5-7 coaches in a career. Why? the results dont get better so they move on. I am frustrated about discus and this talk as a thrower. I want badly to throw far and I am disabled if I dont have good guidance or a good body. I guess to make it far for me they need to cut off Kanters RIght arm. BUt funny enough I threw 60m before he did and now he is the olympic champ. also in estonia as a youth, they wrote off his talent because he didnts sprint or do jump test well, he wasnt strong, he had only 57m at 21 years. But he is the OLYMPIC CHAMP NOW!!! nobody can take away that. WHAT THE FUCK IS TALENT. USELESS RANT BUT I FEEL ANGRY TODAY!
As a bit extra. I lost my topic in frustration but I think that technique is something that varies much by athlete and how to best use the advantages of the athlete. I don’t think that top athletes have to coach top athletes but I think that there is knowledge to be gained that nobody knows besides a winner… he has special experience and knowledge that is situational. I know that Alekna for instance has a psychological advantage from his experience as a top thrower. Almost anyone would love to coach Alekna but he was using a coach until the start of 1999. his best throw in majors at that time was 67 in 1999 world and a few times 64 and 65 before. We all think he was a freak and a beast but he didnt throw 67m all the time and 70m in the stadium until he dropped his coach for a physio who had worked with many elite athletes (Zigmas). Now he has near 200 competitions over 67m and since 1999 spring no coach. I think that he is a good example of a very gifted athlete who had to find his own way. But the support system he needed was not a coach but a companion who had been in world level track for years. He needed someone who didnt know everything and to help him simplify. I dont have the answers nor does anyone but I am sure that acknowledging that in general our system as it is doesn’t work that well for discus will help>>> America has more 60m discus throwers than any other country but 70m is few and far between. I think that in one way it seems good with all these 60m throwers. Talent is there but some other things are lacking. I was talking with Luc Mckay about our class of throwers and how many are still throwing. In discus I think just me and him soemtimes. One of these guys went to the NFL. everyone else is away from sport
Wilkins contends that it takes a 65m/70m thrower to coach a world class thrower because only they know what it feels like to throw that far. That being the case, who could have possibly coached him?…I doubt it was a 70 meter thrower. With his logic it would also mean that only Usain bolt is qualified to coach Tyson Gay, because only Usain knows what it feels like to run faster than Tyson. However, I do believe that it HELPS to be a thrower to better coach a thrower, because there is a definite feel one needs to convey.
I think you guys are getting confused. I don’t think Mac is saying that only 70m throwers can coach, I think he’s saying that our system in general is made up of people who haven’t thrown that far.
It would be like a text book on heart surgery by someone who has only studied it and never performed one. The person might be able to teach people to become extremely good heart surgeons but he can’t be the one who writes the book/program that all surgeons should follow.
I think what Mac is advocating for is that our former and current elite throwers come together with elite coaches to develop a system that will help everyone in general. Instead of having coaches who have never experienced those massive throws telling everyone what needs to be done to get there.
He’s looking at the throwing knowledge as a whole while everyone commenting seems to be focusing on the individuals.
Thanks Jeff you got it!
To further clarify…
I did NOT say you must be a 70m/22m thrower to coach one to that level.
I did NOT say all great throwers make great coaches, they do not.
It is one thing to throw far.
Its another thing to know why you threw far.
Its still another thing to be able to effectively communicate that information to others so they might improve.
I DID say 70m/22m throwers have insight no non thrower or non 70/22 thrower can ever have. This insight is NOT “standard knowledge” in the US but should be.
I DID say there is no system to gather and create a shared national base of knowledge about how to throw. We have little discus throwing cultural knowledge.
I did NOT say there are NO good throws coaches in the US.
My statements about the lack of knowledge are based entirely on the technical and competitive performance of US discus throwers the last 25 years, which is the question on which I was asked to comment.
If there are great discus coaches and a good cultural discus knowledge base in the US, 25 years should be enough time to develop great throwers who exhibit great technique and throw far in big meets.
Thanks to all for your comments I enjoy the interaction about the event.
Well stated, Mac. There are so many coaches that are just pushing kids to get overly strong taht they lose the true essence of the movement. Too much emphasis on the big hit. Too much in the way of inflated egos as well.
At least a few big, strong, and fast athletes that should be throwing 70 m but don’t. Seems that their coaches need to expand their comfort zones as we all can to advance the sport
I have been throwing for over 3 years now in Masters competions. I never threw before and I’M 63. I have always beleived in my athletic ability in my younger years, and wanted to take on a very difficult event. Discus was the one for me. I have studied everything I could and am still learning, and only now really improving. All the basic thoughts on throwing are there to be had, but the small things that make a big difference I ethier found on my own or by talking with someone who has thrown well and been at it for years. Theres so many little things from the grip to thr power position. I know them now, and applying it is starting to come. This is a technical event and all the strenght I could muster made little improvement. You have to find what works for your body. Knowing went to apply speed,strength. Understanding balance, timing, relaxation and staying loose are key elements in the throw. Good luck all you discus throwers, but remember to think deeply about what your doing,this event take alot of patients and hard work.