Ashton Eaton's unconventional shot put technique uses his strengths to eliminate his liabilities

Ask Martin Vol. 24: More on Strengths and Weaknesses

Question: Is it better to train the implements that the athlete throws best or to train the implements that the athlete struggles with? Try to improve where the athlete already throws well and improve that or attack the weak points (or balls that the athlete does not perform best with)? -Frederick Hannie

I began responding to this question last week by discussing the specific question of whether a throw should focus on throwing implements they are good at, or ones they are bad at. The short answer is that rather than making the decisions based on what hammers they are good at, they should instead focus on what hammers will help them throw further.

But after I finished the question I left open the bigger question: should training focus on strengths or weaknesses. It would be nice to focus on eliminating weaknesses and focusing on strengths, but athletes have limited time and energy and coaches must often make a tough decision between the two. In addition, strengths and weaknesses come into play not just in the training plan, but also in technique where there also might not be the choice of pursuing both paths simultaneously. My approach is to look at the problems in steps by focusing on eliminating liabilities, focusing on the transfer, and then creating your own individual mold that capitalizes on your strengths and uses creative thinking.

Step 1 – Eliminate Liabilities

Michael Chang not only had the best shorts in tennis, but he know how to tailor his game to capitalize on his strengths.

Michael Chang not only had the best shorts in tennis, but he know how to tailor his game to capitalize on his strengths.

Having a weakness is ok; in fact it is inevitable. But athletes need to get rid of liabilities as soon as they appear. A liability is a weakness so great that it prevents an athlete from going beyond a certain level. Take an example from tennis. The sport has been on my mind since watching some great French Open finals last week. Lots of players, like Michael Chang, have had success despite a weak serve. At age 17, Chang even used an underhand serve in route to winning the French open in 1989. But if the serve is so weak that it doesn’t make it over the net, it becomes a liability that can no longer be overlooked. The liabilities therefore take first priority.

Step 2 – Focus On Transfer

How do you tell the difference between a liability and a weakness? This comes back to the transfer of training concept I mentioned in discussing how to select the right weight hammer to throw. A hammer thrower may be weak in the bench press, but it is hardly a liability since the bench press plays no significant role in hammer throwing. A coach needs to look at what weaknesses play a crucial role in the athlete’s development and prioritize them as such.

In the next step I will talk about where focus on strengths are necessary, but transfer of training even comes into play there. There is no need to strengthen a strength if doing so gives you no advantage. For example, an athlete might be really strong in the weight room but increasing that strength even more might have little value. When Coach Bondarchuk began coaching Dylan Armstrong he was already a good shot putter with significant power but little rhythm for the throw since he had just begun focusing on the event. They almost completely ignored the weight room since he already had plenty of power to throw further and adding more would not help him. Instead, they attacked his liability, technique and rhythm, through a high volume of throwing.

Step 3 – Make Your Own Mold

A common strategy in training plan design is to identify the model for your sport, analyze the specific athlete, and then focus their training on the shortcomings they have compared to the model. My problem with this approach is that it forces the athlete to fit into a mold and also assumes there is one mold that everyone will fit into. Once an athlete’s liabilities are out of the way, they should feel free to create their own mold focusing on utilizing their specific strengths and transfer those strengths into the throw.

A thrower with below-average power should not aim to transform themselves into a power thrower like Jud Logan was. It wouldn’t make sense because you shouldn’t try and make them something they are not. Instead, they should still keep their focus on their strengths and tailor their training to both utilize and amplify those strengths while simply eliminating their liabilities. For example a thrower with great speed or length should adapt a technical style and rhythm that best transfers those into the throw. Training exercises should then focus on helping these items even more.

This method is easier to see in sports where the people do not assume there is one model everyone should fit. For example, take tennis again. As I mentioned above, Michael Chang had a weak serve. But he was amazingly fast and agile on the court once the ball was in play, wearing down opponents with his defense until they broke. As a coach, you don’t want the serve to be so bad that the opponent can return a winner every time. But you also don’t want to try and turn Michael Chang into a Pete Sampras, who relied on his serve to win many points and games. That was never going to be possible for the diminutive Chang. He took the middle road: he simply made sure his serve was good enough to get the point going so that he could win the points with his defense in the rallies.

Step 4 – Think Outside The Box

Ashton Eaton's unconventional shot put technique uses his strengths to eliminate his liabilities

Ashton Eaton’s unconventional shot put technique uses his strengths to eliminate his liabilities

As is the case with every aspect of training, be creative. The best solutions to this problem are often so easy they are overlooked. In speaking with Harry Marra last week he had his own little twist on the issue. He told me “You must attack each athlete’s weaknesses if you expect him to improve in any one discipline, and you must do so by establishing a super consistency in his strengths.” You use a cliché, kill two birds with one stone by using your strengths to eliminate weaknesses. Perhaps this is what he had in mind when he switched Ashton Eaton to a non-traditional shot put technique.

Three years ago Eaton showed potential, but his throwing events were a liability and holding him back from record-setting distances. Similar to Chang’s serve, Eaton’s throws didn’t need to be amazing, they just needed to become a good-enough thrower that they would not hold him back from winning. In the shot put he had never looked comfortable using the standard glide technique and coach Marra decided to switch things up after noticing something in practice on day. In the long jump, high jump, and pole vault Eaton always jumped off the left leg. But in the shot put he was required to initiate the movement with his right leg. Switching to an unconventional start to utilize the strength in his left leg to turn his liability into a mere weakness. His throwing events are still his weakest events, but now he is able to nevertheless set a world record and he doesn’t need to be great at them to continue to have success. After a recent breakthrough in the javelin, Marra mentioned Eaton is capable of 70 meters. Perhaps more, he said, but he doesn’t need that. After all, a few more meters in the javelin likely won’t bring him many more points compared to a similar improvement in other events.

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