Four years ago Taylor Bush was a walk-on sprinter at the University of Arizona. Now the 22-year-old is one of the top hammer throwers in the NCAA with a personal best of 63.78 meters. In short, she is every coach’s dream. Every coach I know is looking for a way to spot the next talented athlete. But finding and measuring talent can be difficult, especially when it is hard to define. Perhaps the most highly analyzed athletes in the world are college quarterbacks. Yet as Malcolm Gladwell thoughtfully discussed several years ago, even highly trained NFL scouts spending countless hours doing tests and analyses still have a poor success rate in recognizing the next star quarterback. The book Moneyball showed other high profile sports have the same problem no matter how much they invest in the problem.
You would think athletics might be different since it looks like it relies more on physical qualities and less on strategy and skill. But talent still remains a complex combination of many factors. Some people chalk it up to natural strength or size, but it is much more than that. Strength is a key factor, and as the cliche goes size cannot be taught, but coordination, potential for improvement, and coachability all play a big factor. Environmental factors such as their family situation even play a role in determining who will be the best rather than who is the best now. Most throwing coaches I know use some form of the Max Jones Quad Test to measure and test talent. In essence this is a test of power where points are scored in four events: a 30-sprint, the overhead shot put throw, standing long jump, and standing triple jump. I was first introduced to this test during my freshman year of college by coach Glenn McAtee. But even he recognizes its shortcomings. As he told me recently “It is not very hammer specific or even throws specific. Rarely as your best throwers also your best quadrathletes. I used that because it allowed all the athletes to compete.”
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Physical tests that involve jumping, sprinting and similar tests can only identify athletic potential, not talent. Talent selection or identification can be (or should be) only done during the training process. In other words, get them to throw, then see what happens.
In East Germany and Soviet union, kids were involved in various sports and activities from the very young age, where they developed the necessary physical and psychological qualities, to enter a selection process before they start specializing for the certain event. And even in such great sport systems they made mistakes. For example, Ulf Timmermann was turned away at age 13. The greatest shot putter of all times (sorry Randy) didn’t have the necessary qualities at that young age.
And that’s one of many reasons why I would never turn down anyone.
About hammer throw, there’s an article/transcript from 1987 EACA congress, where Bondarchuk talks about selection criteria for young hammer throwers. He mentions the ability to rotate quickly around the left foot or the left heel through push-off and swing by the right leg. He continues: “In hammer throwing the most promising athletes are those who are able to rotate quickly with a hammer of varying weight. The test for rapid rotation on the left (support) leg is considered to be the most informative
He also mentions that they payed less attention to sprints and jumps because there’s no direct relationship between sprint speed and rotational speed.
Identifying talent through coordination is a fine method, if you think of coordination as a broad term. Like Dietrich Harre defined it:
“1. Combinatory ability: the ability to coordinate parts of body movements, single movements, and operations with one another in relation to a total movement of the body directed towards a given action.
2. Orientation: the ability to analyze and change the position and movements of the body in space and time related to a defined action area. This must be done with relation to a particular objective.
3. Differential ability: the ability to achieve a high accuracy and economy of separate body movements and mechanical phases of the total movement. This ability is related to perfecting and stabilizing technical skills and their application in competition.
4. Sense of balance: static or dynamic equilibrium.
5. Reactive ability: the ability to quickly initiate and perform rapid and well-directed actions following a signal.
6. Adaptive ability: the ability to modify a sequence of actions to new conditions on observing anticipated changes in situations or to continue the sequence in another way. Precise observation of the changes in the situation and correct anticipation of the most suitable modification are important aspects of this ability.
7. Rhythmic sense: the ability to observe the characteristic dynamical changes during a movement and to implement them during the action. This ability is… important for the quick and correct learning of skills in all the sports, particularly if the rhythmic teaching method is used. Conscious arrangements of driving and striding frequencies are important for economic movements and sound tactics for sports with a cycle of movements.”
Sorry for the long post, I just love discussing this.
The best hammer throwers I have coached all had two factors in common. 1. From the beginning they could feel the hammer. This isn’t measurable but watching them turn with the hammer you could see they felt the hammer forces. The second characteristic which is no doubt related to the first is they had great coordination. You could show them what you wanted done and they could reproduce the movement right away.
The 10 second turn test is interesting. Like many coaches I don’t reject athletes. I had a 20 year Russian immigrant who wanted very much to learn how to throw hammer. It was going badly. After a couple of training sessions I gave him the 10 second turn test. He walked two steps, and fell down. He then sat on the sidelines for an hour and a half feeling sick to his stomach. I never saw him again!!!