Despite serving as the US national decathlon team coach for a decade and coaching six men over 8,000 points, Harry Marra was a relatively unknown outside of the insulated world of multi-events when he was hired by the University of Oregon before the 2010 season. He was hired with one purpose: to guide a talented 21-year-old decathlete named Ashton Eaton. Ashton had already qualified for the national team at the 2009 World Championships, but he needed continued development in several events in order to compete with the world’s best.
In three seasons working with Marra, Eaton set the NCAA record, won the Bowerman award, improved the world indoor heptathlon record three times, broke the world decathlon record, and claimed Olympic gold in London. And his fiance, Canadian Brianne Theisen, has also improved tremendously under Marra placing eleventh in the Olympics and moving up to second all-time in Canada. After being named the USATF national coach of the year in 2012, few people will overlook coach Marra again. Eaton and Thiesen have only competed in individual events so far in 2013, but they have done well. Eaton has posted new bests in the shot put, javelin, 200 meters, and 400 meters. Thiesen in shot put and 200m. Both will compete in their first multi-event of the year at the famous Götzis Hypomeeting in Austria next month.
I am proud to be partnering with the United School of Sports to bring coach Marra to Zurich for an evening of talking about coaching and training. The event will take place on Tuesday, May 28th. Coach Marra also took the time to sit down and begin talking about these topics. In part one below we begin by talking about the art of coaching and finding the right way to communicate with an athlete, something I have talked about both last year and this year. Part two, which will be posted later in the week, will dive into a little of the complexities of training for technique and specificity in a sport with ten different events.
Part 1: The Art of Coaching
Martin: In October you wrote a great essay on the art of coaching. One of the keys points was that simplicity is key; you have to use cues with an athlete that are simple and effective. For Ashton in London, you had just 18 words that covered all 10 events. What process do you have in creating a cue for one of your athletes?
Harry: Well if you look at it backwards, in the end the cue becomes a word or two or three. It will be just a short little phrase or statement to the athlete. Something like “keep your legs underneath you.” But where it starts Martin is when the training starts for the year each Fall. The discussion between the coach and the athlete is very broad at that point. Let’s say we are working on the shot put. First we are trying to make sure each of us are on the same page regarding terminology and concepts in the shot put. Once that is aligned through communication back and forth, it is important that it is not just coming from the coach, the communication becomes more solid and the verbiage used to describe something becomes a much more compact statement. That’s the big picture: it is very, very broad in the fall and then it becomes more narrow and focused as you move into the competition season.
Martin: Finding a cue is the most important step, but one thing I find when coaching is that after a while the cues go stale and you need a new cue in order to keep progressing on the same technical point. Do you experience that and, if so, how do you address that?
Harry: You always have to keep the line of communication going between the athlete and coach in all aspects. Especially in the decathlon since there are so many damn problems that can come up. The cues can change even as you are in your final preparation for a major meet when you realize that a different cue might work better.
What you have to realize is that the final cue should really come from the athlete. I’ll ask “What are you feeling on that throw?” If they answer that they feel they are loading their big right toe, then I’ll use it since I know that’s what gets them to respond and post up better during the throw. You jot that down in your notebook and then try to understand what he means by that. You might also have a second way of analyzing it if the first throw doesn’t go well and they are a bit lost. But the cue should come from the athlete and, you’re right, they should change. Perhaps in your event, or with a single event athlete, it might not change as often. A multi-event athlete might practice the javelin one or two times a week. When you come back to it you have to think about where you left off. Does that make sense?
Martin: Definitely. With some of my younger athletes I work with them just a once a week and much of the practice is spent getting back to where we were at the end of the last practice. Only at the end do we finally make a few steps forward. With them I can use the same cue for a year. But with the more advanced athletes we get so specific in the technique that we often need to try working at problems from a new approach.
Harry: You are right. One thing that is critical, and I’m just thinking out loud here, is that in designing the cue the coach needs to know all the demands are on the athlete for the event. You have to know all of them so that you can design, or help the athlete design, a cue that will be helpful for him or her. But no matter what every coach also needs a fundamental understanding of their event.
Martin: In the essay you mentioned that after the process of refining your long jump cues with Ashton you ended up with a single word at the end of last season: “perpendicular.” Can you walk us through what the broad focus was at the start of the season and how it came to end with that final simple one-word cue.
Harry: The concept in the long jump and the 100 meters last season was consistency. He pretty much understood how to do both events, but we needed to find the consistency. This is especially important in the decathlon since you only get three attempts in the long jump. A normal jumper might get off one decent jump and two fouls in a meet, but that is good enough for them to make finals and get three more chances to clean up their technique and timing. In the multi-events you don’t have that margin of error.
Obviously an important part of the long jump and how you start out of the back relies on the running posture and making sure you have a full foot under you instead of being just on the toes. You also need to make sure you are driving off your left and onto the penultimate and then off of the board. As a coach I watch that. But if the athlete is doing that all well like Ashton I throw it out and don’t even go back to that or remind the athlete of that since it is working. Instead I just remind him of one thing: stay perpendicular. This reminds him to keep it perpendicular over the last three steps. In other words, keep your upper body sitting right over the lower body. Don’t lean forward. Don’t lean back. If you do that after you have done all the other stuff on the approach, 99% of the time you will not foul and you will be in a great position to apply force to the board.
Martin: When you were starting out the season, was the cue much longer than that?
Harry: Absolutely. It was a concept thing. It was understanding that maybe the back part of the runway was good, but he was too cautious in the middle. We worked on all of those phases and then focused on the rhythm of the last three steps. Once that got better, all of a sudden he was running to the board rather than through the board. We know that’s not good; you have to run through the board. Now all the phases are pretty good we left them alone and then focused on keeping perpendicular. This gave him a lot of confidence that his foot would be right underneath him and he wouldn’t foul. I don’t know if you have ever long jumped, but if you are cautious of fouling you will take a lot of speed off the release.
Martin: I haven’t long jumped, but I can imagine that if you hesitate a little the rhythm is just gone.
Harry: Yeah. In every event I think it is always better to be slow and in correct positions to apply forces than fast and out of position. If you are out of position you cannot apply forces to build on it. In the long jump if you are a little off the board and in good position you are better off than reaching to get on the board and being in a bad position to jump. Ashton took off a good foot before the board in Estonia a few years ago indoors and he jumped 25’6”. That’s when we knew his long jump could be good once we ironed out the take off.
Martin: You have said you just have 18 cues for Ashton for all 10 of his events. Are those just the cues you use in competition, or do you have additional cues you are also using in training?
Harry: Sometimes in a training cycle the shot put or high jump is going bad, we will have a discussion and try to come up with a better understanding of it and maybe the cues change. But we use those them for both competition and practice.
Ashton told me straight up when I arrived that he did not want more than three cues per event. That was good communication right there since he let me know he couldn’t handle more than that. In discus his cue is “firm on the left out of the back.” We just keep it that simple. An ideology I have is that if you start a skill correctly, for instance start the long jump approach correctly or start of the discus balanced, then you put yourself in a position to be successful. If you start improperly you will pick up speed across the ring but all you can hope for that you are a good enough athlete to just overcome those mistakes.
Martin: That leads into the next question. Ashton has just one or two cues per event, but that is 18 total cues to think about over a two-day competition. I can’t imagine trying to have eighteen things to focus on even if it was just one or two per event. Does that ever get to be too much?
Harry: No. Your question begs to what the decathlon is all about. It’s about focus and concentration. Here’s what we do: the morning of the first day we just focus on the first event, the 100 meters. The focus is entirely on that and you are focusing on your 100 meter cues. After the 100 meters, you take a break, rest, and put your feet up. Before you start your warm up for the next event, the long jump, we take out our cues and he goes over them. Then he is a long jumper, nothing else at that point. That is how we work it throughout all the events.