Posts

The Perfect Physique for Throwing

One chapter of the David Epstein’s The Sports Gene discusses the role of body type in sports and how this has evolved in almost a Darwinian fashion over the last century. At the beginning of the modern Olympic era elite athletes tended to have the same body type. As Epstein explained, in 1925 the average Olympic volleyball player looked similar in stature to an Olympic discus thrower, high jumper, or shot putter. American Robert Garrett was the first modern Olympic discus and shot put champion standing just 6-foot 2-inches and 180-pounds. There is a reason he could easily be mistaken for a high jumper: he also won silver medals in the high jump and long jump. The scientists of the day even had theories of why this was the ideal athlete for each sport. Epstein notes that:

Anthropometrists felt that human physique distributed along a bell curve, and the peak of the curve-the average- was the perfect form, with everything to the sides deviating by accident or fault.

While short players like Nate Robinson can still find success in the NBA, the trend is towards taller and bigger athletes in the league and in the throwing events.

While short players like Nate Robinson can still find success in the NBA, the trend is towards taller and bigger athletes in the league and in the throwing events.

Fast forward a hundred years and each of those sorts has developed a distinct type of athlete that works best for it. Read more

The Sports Gene

sportsgene

Nature versus nurture topic has been a hot topic lately, and was frequently discussed at the International Festival of Athletics Coaching. That is due to David Epstein’s new book The Sports Gene: What Makes The Perfect Athlete, which I just finished last week. Epstein, a former collegiate runner and writer for Sports Illustrated, has put together a must read book on the topic. Since the book’s release in August it has been covered by almost everyone who can write. Mass media outlets like the New York Times, New Yorker, Wall Street Journal have all covered it extensively. The book has also been written about by those within the track and field community since the book spends much of its time looking at track and field topics like Kenyan distance dominance, Jamaican sprint success, the high jump, and other events (I recommend Epstein’s extensive interview with the House of Run). Therefore, other than a whole-hearted recommendation to read the book immediately, there is not a whole lot I can do to add to the conversation. But that won’t stop me from trying.
Read more

IFAC 2013: What I Learned (Part 1)

International-Festival-of-Athletics-Coaching1

Over the weekend I had the chance to both present at and attend the International Festival of Athletics Coaching in Glasgow. While it was a pleasure to teach other coaches, I always enjoy the student role the most.

The IFAC conference is unique since, unlike most other conferences or seminars I have attended, it brings together coaches from every event. Therefore I took advantage of this and actually skipped the other throws presentations by Vésteinn Hafsteinsson. Hafsteinsson is indeed one of the world’s best throwing coaches, but I can send him an email anytime and ask questions. This was a one time chance to learn from some of these other coaches. Below are two topics that I found very interesting over the weekend: long term athlete development and integrated training systems. Check back later this weekend when I move on to one final topic: the brain and learning technique.
Read more

Getting It and Getting There

Why do some athletes get it and make it and others with equal talent and ability fall by the wayside. This is a lifelong fascination of mine. Talent and ability are a given to make it to elite status, but it is so much more than that. Some athletes navigate the path easily and directly and other struggle, but both still make it. Why? Certainly athlete development and passage through to elite status is a process. There is no one model or framework. Nor is there a set time like ten years or a time period like 10,000 hours. No doubt it is related to practice depth and quality. It is related to coaching guidance to first ignite the spark of interest, then inspire and guide the athlete. Read more

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.
Read more

The Quiet Coach

Good coaching is not about yelling and inspiring as much as it is about teaching. Take John Wooden as an example. Photo by AP.

Good coaching is more about teaching than it is about fiery speeches. Take John Wooden as an example. Photo by AP.

Tennis was one of the first sports I played and it remains one of my favorites to watch on television. A unique aspect of tennis is that while coaches are involved intimately in training, often on a one-on-one basis, they have no role at the match. With the exception of some recent rule changes in women’s tennis, it is frowned upon to even look at the coach’s box during a match and communication is forbidden. Watching the ebbs and flows of a five-set grand slam final as athletes must cope alone with the momentum changes and building pressure produces some of the best drama in sports. The tennis coaches may not get much recognition but they are some of the best coaches in the world since they prepare their athletes to do this battle alone.

Talking with coach Harry Marra last week has gotten me to think more about coaching theory. Many of the topics Marra talked about concerned how to improve communication between athlete and coach. Coaches must know their sport, and the great coaches are those that can best convey it to their athletes. The great coaches will have athletes that are not just physical specimens, but also students and active learners. During a competition they are not on their heels waiting for a sideline instruction from their coach; they are proactively deciding their next move because their coach equipped them to learn for themselves.
Read more

What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger

A topic that has interested me a lot this year is how to identify and develop talent. Recently Vern Gambetta shared a good article on his blog about a counterintuitive article recently published in journal Sports Medicine. The abstract describes the article best:

[T]he vast majority of [talent development] systems expend a great deal of effort maximizing support to the young athletes and trying to counter the impact of naturally occurring life stressors. In this article, we suggest that much of this effort is misdirected; that, in fact, talented potential can often benefit from, or even need, a variety of challenges to facilitate eventual adult performance.

“The Rocky Road to the Top: Why Talent Needs Trauma” by Dave Collins and Áine MacNamara of Institute of Coaching and Performance, University of Central Lancashire, Lancashire, UK.
Read more

Identifying Talent

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. Read more

Nature vs. Nurture

“Talent is something that is not only for Africans … For me, there are talented athletes like Africans in both [Italy and America]. The problem is, it’s difficult to find them. In Africa everybody goes running. Because if you become good, it is something for your life. And here everybody goes to do something else. But it is not that there is no talent.” -Renato Canova

I enjoy reading about the best athletes and coaches in every event and sport. Even though the marathon and the hammer throw are worlds apart, you’d be surprised at how much they have in common. Last month I stumbled upon a great Running Times profile of legendarian Italian coach Renato Canova from several years ago. The above quote comes from that article, where he discussed a range of topics including why Western runners can’t seem to keep up with Africans. His words immediately made me think of the throwing events too.

Coach Renato Canova courtesy of runningexpert.blogspot.com

We all know that American and European distance runners have been pushed off the podium by Africans over the past few decades. Coach Canova knows this first hand, having been on both sides of the change while coaching some of the top Italian and Kenyan runners. But after coaching both groups of athletes, he concludes that the main reason Africans are better is because everybody runs in Africa. When a culture creates a large talent pool and a greater incentive to succeed, then they will develop more stars. It’s a simple formula: east Africans dominate the running events because running is central to their culture. Jamaicans outperform other nations in the sprints for similar reasons. And the former Soviet nations lead the hammer throw because they learn the event younger and in greater numbers.
Read more

Start ‘Em Young

It’s been nearly two months since my last training update on here. However, it seems like you all enjoy other topics more since I had a record number of readers last month. Lately I’ve also enjoyed talking about other topics more because my results have been reliably mediocre.

I tend to be optimistic about training. When I have a bad day or bad week of training, I tend to write it off since a step back is actually part of the my plan to progress forward. However the past two weeks have been different because this step back was not planned. I picked up the flu right around the Swiss Indoor Championships. While it was never that bad, it drained my energy for a while, left me five pounds lighter, and somehow stole most of the technical progress I’ve made in the offseason.
Read more