I have been reading a lot lately and not just about training. But as with anything, I can always bring the topic back to training. In January I finished two good non-fiction books: Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To by psychology professor Sian Beilock. And David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants by Malcolm Gladwell.
After taking two weeks off at the end of September, I have already jumped back into training for 2014 and the first week is now behind me. During my time off I took some time to reflect on the last season. Whether I make this public or not, this is something I do every year. Some things are more clear in hindsight than they were at the time and everyone must must learn from these moments in order to continue to improve in the future.
I had just two goals to start out the season. Unlike many athletes, I do not define my goals in terms of how far I want to throw or what place I want to finish. I simply identify what I need to do to get better and then focus on that. After the 2012 season I was physically in the best shape of my life but I couldn’t translate that into the throw. Therefore my first goal was clear: my technique needed to get better. My only other goal related to my priorities for competitions. Rather than trying to hit a peak for the Swiss Championships, I wanted to shift my peak to the Jeux de la Francophonie this year. Having a later peak allowed me more time to prepare and hopefully reach better performances. With those two goals I started out towards the 2013 season.
Over the years I have used this blog to discuss the work of coaches, athletes, psychologists, physiologists, biomechanists, and economists. But I have not once discussed the work of a philosopher. Since I have my bachelor’s degree in Philosophy, I have to take that opportunity once it arises. In a New York Times Online piece earlier this month, philosophy professor Barbara Gail Montero dissects the widespread view that thinking about what you are doing while doing it interferes with performance. There are few philosophical topics which relate more directly to hammer throwing.
In many areas, thinking about an action can make its execution worse. As Montero notes, “Start thinking about just how to carry a full glass of water without spilling, and you’ll end up drenched.” But this isn’t the case for all actions. Ordinary actions like carrying water will be easier when you do them without thinking about it. But when you start looking at the actions of experts, or hammer throwers, the just do it approach doesn’t always hold. And, for Montero, this is the area that interests her since she has a forthcoming book on thought and effort in expert action.
I always like to end my training with a good throw. I used to think of this tendancy as a superstition, but recently I have begun to think that it may actually have a real positive affect on my training, both psychological and perhaps also physical.
I’ve had this habit since I started playing other sports as a kid. In basketball, for instance, I inherited my father’s insistence of not leaving the court until I made my last shot. That’s a habit I continue today in pick-up games with friends and have carried into hammer throwing. This habit served a few purposes: it encouraged me to focus on technique if I wanted to ever leave the court and it also left me leaving with a more positive reflection on the game or practice. The same can be said with hammer throwing.
In April I read the New York Times bestseller Thinking Fast and Slow, by the Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman. Kahneman is a psychologist whose research has focused on topics like the psychology of judgment and decision-making. In particular, he has identified many biases and heuristics that impact the way we think. One such heuristic is the Peak-End Rule. The rule states that how we judge experiences is largely based on how they were at their peak and at their end. For example, how we judge a practice will be affected by how far our furthest throw was and how well it ended. Numerous studies have shown this heuristic affects and will cause people to rate more painful incidents better than less painful ones.
After training with Peter on Sunday he asked me what my training plan was leading up to my first competitions over the next two weeks. On Saturday my club will be hosting a small throwing meet in Zurich and next week I will be traveling to Spain for the European Cup Winter Throwing event. I told him that I had no special plan; training will continue as normal. “Why compete then?” he asked.
He posed a good question. But I have a better question: “Why not?” I can list a dozen reason why I likely won’t have a good result. Most importantly I plan to do normal training up until and including the day before the competition, I will be throwing alongside six of my youth throwers making it almost impossible to focus on my own throw, I have worked with a coach just a handful of days in the past months, I have not touched a competition weight hammer for more than four weeks, and since we are in the middle of the tax season I’ve been working overtime the past few weeks. But there is still no reason not to compete. My fear of having a bad result next to my name vanished after a few bad seasons in my career. Why not compete?
The first day of training in the snow each year fills me with the excitement of a schoolboy arriving to the first day of class. The snow mutes the air, leave a still, peaceful and relaxing silence to train in. I am not alone either. I was excited to see some of my young throwers not only train without complaint in the snow this year, but hit a few personal bests and brag about training in the snow on Facebook. It is a merit badge in winter throwing.
But it gets old. Fast. First is the physical element. I put together some tips for throwing the snow last year, and while it makes things better the weather still drags on you. Walking to retrieve the hammer drains the legs more and more every training. While you may think it would be good to be warmer, the slushy snow is just more slippery with throwing shoes on.
Experience is one of the most underrated traits for hammer throwers. You mostly need it when training is going poorly, and at some point that happens for every thrower. My season started off terribly in May and June with marks consistently around just 61 and 62 meters. It was frustrating to hear the officials read off marks that I could have easily achieved six or seven years ago. A few small speed bumps in training set my training down the wrong path and I had to scramble to save the season.
This wasn’t the first time my season had started so poorly. My 2009 season actually started similarly. The difference was that it was the first time things had derailed so badly for me. I essentially threw in the towel and coasted through my last meets knowing that my throw of 61.69 meters was good enough to win the Swiss title. That mark would have been good enough this year and in line with some of my recent meets. But rather than giving up on my season, I used my experience to keep me focused through the turbulent waters. As I often say, five meters can’t disappear in a matter of days; it’s in there somewhere. Lo and behold, I found it this week first at Olten, and then again on Friday at the Swiss championships in Bern. At the same ring where I had thrown just 62.13 meters one month earlier, I was able to throw 66.40 meters for another Swiss title. Now the season looks completely different after having two of my six best results ever in the span of four days.
The best set of eyes I get to watch me belong to my training partner Dejan, a masters thrower who returned to the sport two years ago after two decades away. One thing we share in common is that our enthusiasm sometimes make it hard for us to boil down what we see into just a few words. But unlike me, Dejan sometimes produces these little pearls of wisdom that get to the point so well that I leave practice with a smile on my face as if I have found true enlightenment. After talking about visualization earlier this month, he threw this line at me: “Sometimes you have the right picture, but the wrong light.”
One of the most difficult aspects of training alone is focusing. I no longer have a coach there that will yell at me after every throw and tell me that I need to push the hammer more. After a long day at the office, it is easy for my mind to wander about my latest work project, what I need to pick up at the grocery store after practice, or even what my next blog post will be about. If I don’t watch out practice will be over before I know it and I will have taken all my throws without really thinking about what I wanted to improve.
The flip side of this difficulty is that once I learned to focus better, it has added a new dimension to my throw. Training alone forces you to be an independent thinker; you cannot just rely on someone else’s input. It forces you make all the small adjustments on your own. All this comes in handy at competitions where you are often separated from coaches and left along with just your thoughts.
U.S. Olympic hammer thrower Loree Smith recently wrote a detailed post on goal setting for hammer throwers. She provided, better than any sport psychologist I have ever heard, the best explanation of how useful goals can be.
To summarize, athletes need long term goals, short terms goals, and flexibility. I believe the long term goals are the most important for a hammer throw since shortcuts and quick success are hard to come by in such a technical discipline. It takes a certain type of athlete to train year after year towards a goal that may be a decade away. But those as the type of athletes that succeed in the hammer throw. I’ve seen many talented throwers give up the hammer after one day since they were not able to throw further than their shot put best. That was probably the right move because they didn’t the mental prerequisites to be a good hammer thrower.
Short terms goals are also important, but I tend to have focus these goals on my technique and training rather than distance. As Loree puts it, short term goals mean you have a focus for each training session. I almost never put a distance as my goal for an upcoming meet. I have an idea of what I should throw, but I know that if I keep to my technical game plan, the results should follow. The results don’t always follow, but if you were in shape and had good technique, there is not much more you can do to change the result.