During the first half of the 20th century is was quite common to see a distance coach working with throwers, or vice versa. Without a big staff of assistant coaches, collegiate track coaches were required to have a much broader skill set. Just look at the biography of the legendary Bill Bowerman as an example. In Seattle Ken Foreman did the same thing while across town Hec Edmundson not only coached the University of Washington track team (including several Olympic medalists in various events), but also guided the basketball team for nearly 30 years. As training has become more specialized, this legacy has been replaced with one-event specialists like myself.
But coach Dan Pfaff is proof that this rare breed still exists. Pfaff has had unprecedented success across nearly every event including the sprints (1996 Olympic 100-meter gold medalist and former world-record-holder Donovan Bailey), jumps (2012 Olympic long jump champion Greg Rutherford), vaulting (2007 World Champion and US record holder Brad Walker), and throws (US discus record holder Suzy Powell). Throughout his career he has coached at major universities like LSU, Texas and Florida. More recently he has spent time leading the USOC Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista and the UK Athletics High Performance Centre in London. After the London Olympics he took on a new role as coach for the World Athletics Center in Phoenix where he will work with Walker and many other world class field event athletes.
A few weeks ago I had the chance to pick Pfaff’s brain about a variety of topics including how to improve technique in older athletes, common themes in his approaches to the different events, the use of different intensities in training, and his experience and thoughts on the hammer throw. Due to the length of the talk I will be posting it in three parts. Below is the first part which covers technical learning and the common themes between all events.
Part 1: Improving Technique and Finding Commonalities Between Events
Martin: I’d like to start off with a question that’s more personal in nature. I’m curious to hear your approach to fixing the technical problems of someone with very engrained bad habits. In other words, how do you teach an old dog like myself new tricks?
Dan: I think there are two directions from which you can attack problems. If you are looking at film you can look at frames that occur before the problem and frames that occur after. Sometimes working on things further down the road can go back and fix the cause. And sometimes the art is looking at how many frames earlier do you have to intervene to get an effectual change at a certain point in time.
A lot of times, especially in the throws, the resistance to change is an alarm theory. We set alarms like single support, double support, ball position, time in the air, and so on and so forth. We set up this alarm system for executing movements. These alarms are pretty dominant for elite athletes and override spatial and temporal awareness. Once you are set in a certain pattern the alarms are the central governor so to speak.
Martin: I know you generally prefer focusing on the movement in its entirety. But when trying to focus on these alarms will you break down the technique into its component parts?
Dan: I am pretty much a whole movement guy. Drills and part-whole learning have their place as you evolve as an athlete from a beginner to an elite athlete. But I haven’t had much success with drills or isolated part-whole integration with advanced athletes. We use real-time tasks.
Martin: So it sounds like to alter the alarms you simply want to make things feel different for the body so that it can relearn things. What inputs do you use to change the alarms?
Dan: We may change positioning in the circle, the weight of implement, or other entities. But we are always working in real-time with the whole movement.
If some of the alarms are stuck on the entry of a throw, you can play with shoulder axis, hip axis, deflection angles, where is the head during the wind, etc. There are certain triggers that start the alarm process. Part of the art is figuring where the triggers are that set or reset the alarms.