Lessons from Bondarchuk on culture and communication

Last week the National Post in Canada published an article on how Canada became a hammer-throwing superpower. Canada won both the men’s and women’s world titles in 2023, plus a number of other elite throwers. To be more precise, all that hammer production is coming out of just a small corner of the massvie country. The article itself is a detailed oral history one person who was a catalyst behind the recent dominance: Anatoliy Bondarchuk.

When you talk about Bondarchuk the discussion inevitably turns to his training methods. His methods are unconventional for sure, but that is only part of the reason that has led to his success. Much of his success comes fomr thing like culture and communication. I appreciate that a lot of these non-training points come through in the article, and below I highlight some of the lessons I’ve learned from Bondarchuk in these areas.

» Related content: listen to more stories from the Bondarchuk training group in the HMMR Podcast 245 Bondarchuk reunion special.

Beyond the training plan

Before I get into the lessons, I first want to underscore the importance of the non-training elements. A lot of coaches talk about the value of culture and communication in performance, only to just reopen their excel files. Bondarchuk wrote my training plans for more than a decade, but much of that time I was based remotely and only visiting for shorter stays. It’s no coincidence that the best years of my career were the ones I was fully embedded in the training group. Only then did I get those extra beenfits. And also you notice how the overall results of the initial group also started to suffer as more time was spent away at separate camps and less time training together over the years.

With the rise of artificial intelligence, coaches need to focus now more than ever on how they fit into the training process. If coaching is simply a matter of sets and reps and data analysis, computers will soon be able to do that better than us (or perhaps already can). In my day job in finance we had a discussion on this point as well this week. If we try to beat the market by analying more financial data, we are fighting a losing battle. A small team will never be able to beat supercomputers at this task, no matter how smart we think we are. So instead we focus our resources on battles we can win: analyzing more subjective areas such as corporate management and culture. We all know the future success of a company is more than just a multiple of its current sales. It also depends a lot of the company’s leadership and culture. We invest a lot of time analyzing those points in order to separate the best investments from the rest.

Coaches also need to see how they can best spend their time. Will another hour in excel give them an edge? Or focusing on how we communicate and lead? Coaches need to evaluate where they can add the most value to the group.

With that in mind, here are 4 lessons on culture and communication from Bondarchuk.

Culture: make it fun

Training should be fun. A lot of coaches interpret that to mean you need games in training. But true fun is at a deeper level. One quote from Cayman record holder Michael Letterlough stood out to me in the article:

“The training dynamic was awesome. There were never any internal conflict or battles whatsoever. We developed lasting friendships. I can’t think of a day when I didn’t want to come to practice because of someone else. It was awesome and Dr. B. and his wife (Galina) had a lot to do with that. Every year she baked each one of us a (birthday) cake. They really treated us like family, so we had no choice but to be like brothers and sisters.”

A lot of people criticize Bondachuk’s training as monotonous. On it’s face it is. And in the wrong training group it can feel like torture because of that. But if you have the right training group you don’t even notice. You live to throw and even the bad times become fun memories, like that time we were greetted by a bear trap at training. That’s how critical of factor the non-training side is.

Culture: building from shared sacrific

When you talk about team culuture there is a lot of talk of core values. Good teams share core values. In his post of team culture Vern Gambetta says “Culture is a feeling of unity, of commitment to a cause.” Our group never sat down to define our core values, but we clearly all had a shared mission and were committed to a cause. We had picked up our lives from all over the world to move to a remote city in interior British Columbia. We were scrapping by near the poverty line. And we did it all for the Olympic dream. Some of us made it, some didn’t, but we all loved the process and would do it all over again.

Looking back I estimated in the article that I made the 600-mile round trip drive from Seattle to Kamloops 50 times over the years. That’s a conservative estimate. It’s a desolate drive through the mountains and some extreme winter conditions. I look back at that and think I’m glad I literally survived it, but at the time I didn’t bat an eye. That was simply what it took. We all had that mindset: we did what it took. If that meant moving to Kamloops to train with the best coach in the world, we were the first in the car.

It was that shared sacrifice that built the core of the team and kept driving us forward as much as any technical cue from Bondarchuk.

» Related content: listen to more stories from the Bondarchuk training group in the HMMR Podcast 245 Bondarchuk reunion special.

Communication: less is more

That being said, the cues mattered too. And here was a key lesson I learned from Bondarchuk when it comes to communication: less is more. As Dylan puts it in the article:

“He’s very straight to the point when he talks, gives feedback and comments. When he first came to Kamloops he was starting to study English out of a dictionary. A lot of my coaching was done with a bunch of yelling and hand signals. It was entertaining, to say the least. When you’re with a guy twice a day almost every day for that long, it doesn’t really matter if he speaks English or not, you’re going to start to bond and understand each other 100 per cent.”

Looking back on that time, I’ve argued that not knowing a language can have benefits. I currently coach in a foreign language and I see that first hand: a limited vocabulary sometimes helps you get out of your own way as a coach. Coaches often say too much, but if you only have a few words to say you don’t have that problem.

From an athlete’s perspective it also helped me keep my focus as the same thing was being repeated after each throw, rather than having a coach that was bouncing all over the place.

Communication: praise needs to be earned

Bondarchuk had high standards and he didn’t sugar coat things in his feedback. As Jennifer Joyce shared in the article:

“It was black or white. You either did it right or you did it wrong and he didn’t ever get upset. He was like, ‘nope, that’s still not it. Nope. See you tomorrow.”

As a coach, I am sometimes overly positive and optimistic. I envy Bondarhcuk’s ability to give blunt feedback without coming across poorly to the athlete. He was not an asshole, he was just honest.

This style of communication had a few benefits. First, again it helped us stay focused. If we didn’t reach our goal we wouldn’t get a participatory ribbon: we had to keep working. But secondly, it made the little praise he gave even more valuable. I think every athlete he coached in that group remembers each time they got a double excellent feedback from him. Praise is much a much more valuable tool when it is earned.

Communication: leave the ego behind

In the age of social media, sometimes the coach seems more at the front and center of the whole process as they creep into every photo posted. The process needs to be about the athlete and this is primarily demonstrated by how coaches communicate with athletes and with the outside world. As Jimmy Radcliffe noted, coaches should be backstage not onstage.

As big of a name of Bondarchuk was, he tried to stay in the background as much as possible. For example, he declined to be interviewed for the article. A key part of our group in Canada was US champion and Olympic finalist Kibwé Johnson. He unfortuantely wasn’t quoted in the article, but shared some thoughts on this topic with me afterwards:

“Bondarchuk doesn’t require, nor is he in search of credit or recognition for those who have directly or indirectly tasted success via his influence. All he has ever wanted was for people to learn more. To experiment. To promote discussion so that we may all benefit. He was never one to say, ‘you should do it how I do it.’ That would be incongruent. I think there’s incredible wisdom in that as people from different training backgrounds and experiences navigate this sport.”

He’s held the world record, coached the world record, and has dozens of metals. He has nothing left to prove. It’s not about him, it’s about the athletes. And coming from someone of his stature, that was a powerful message to the athletes in the group.

Once in a lifetime

I hope coaches can profit from the lessons above. But looking back I also have to acknowldge how rare it was that all of these points came together at the same time. After the article went up, Kibwé posted on Instagram that it’s so rare that we’ll likely never see it again in the sport. This week he talked to me more in detail about that thought:

“Over about a two year period, there was an incredible explosion of athletes moving to learn and/or train with Dr. B. It was the proverbial perfect storm.

Even among those of us who showed up, we still found ourselves surprised by what we felt was a “lack” of general interest in others making the same decision we had made. Or rather, an interest that is actually acted upon.

I don’t believe that the conditions that created our training group will ever be duplicated. Not because people don’t have the desire, but because it’s really hard. Training as much as we did, moving to where we moved to undertake said training, took sacrifice. And that’s just the native Canadians. The non Canadians such as myself had even bigger mountains to climb as we couldn’t just go get a part time job to make ends meet.

All of that and more that I didn’t mention, I would do it all again without hesitation. We were our own perfect little training group that created memories that I’ll never forget. All these years later, I’m still learning from experiences, training, and conversations I had then.”

I can’t count how many people told me that were going to join me in Kamloops. I can count on one hand those who actually made the mode. It is easy to talk, but hard to get out of your comfort zone. And I dare to say it is getting harder every year for young athletes as the comfort zone is getting bigger and bigger as the sport grows, NIL money increases, etc. Not to mention the fact that you’re never likely to see the world’s best coach move across the globe to a start up club in a small town for a few thousand dollars a month and a basement apartment. But as the article makes clear, those who made the choice don’t regret it for one second.