The stud walks in the door, he is an absolute monster, moves well, jacked beyond belief, bright and has lofty goals. Every coach dreams of this situation. The freak of nature is here and he’s ready to get to work. It’ll be easy, it’ll be fun. Then reality hits.
These situations aren’t so simple. In the coaching world, we love to talk trash on other coaches who aren’t developing their “freaks.” We love to hate, we love to be naysayers, we all know more than everyone else. That’s the way the throwing world works, that’s the way the strength world works. However, when it’s all said and done, everything has to be held in perspective. Athletes take time to mold into a system, the coach takes time to understand the athlete and how they fit into the system, the personalities need to match and a big-picture plan needs to be communicated positively on a regular basis.
Starting with Sam
When Sam Mattis told me he wanted to train with me permanently instead of working at the Olympic Training Center, I viewed it as a breakthrough. My work with Alex Rose had paid off, Sam saw that we added 7 meters to Alex’s PR and it was time to get to work with Sam. I worked with him a bit toward the end of his collegiate career and by the end of that summer, he committed to moving to Garage Strength. By December of 2016, he moved on-site and we started to work. The grumblings in the coaching world were fun to hear:
“What a mistake.” “Who is that guy?” “That dude is an idiot!” “What has he done??!?!”
I started to feel pressure but quickly recognized it’s important to ignore the outside world. Sam and I took our time to get to know one another. We built a solid foundation for our relationship, it wasn’t always about throwing. We argued politics, religion, we discussed losing our dogs, losing loved ones, we shared our stories about doing dumb shit like partying and even realized we both had a weird connection of being born on the same day, a decade apart. That first year, my goal was to get Sam to buy into my entire training system, to buy into my technical model and most importantly to trust me. I think it’s very important to share personality in coaching. Coaching isn’t about being a best friend but it is closer to friendship than it is to a dictatorship.
Sam’s meet average had increased by nearly 2 meters. His PR did not move. We went to USA’s in Sacramento and Sam fouled out. I was a failure. I was a loser. I didn’t know shit about training. I failed Sam, I failed the US in discus and I was a clown of a coach. It didn’t matter that Tim Nedow and Nik Arrhenius and Alex Rose had all qualified for World Champs that year, what mattered was that I ruined Sam and he fouled out at nationals. I feared Sam would leave Garage Strength and I would lose the stud. As a coach, the long term process is what is most important to me. The long term plan. The technical plan, the strength plan, the mental outlook, these are the most important aspects of developing an elite athlete.
We regrouped after 2017, we discussed failures on my end as the coach and where we could have improved the system in general. I laid out a plan, we focused on further technical development for more consistent growth of the competition average. My long term goal has always been to make Sam more consistent meet to meet. I believe he can compete overseas and consistently throw 64-66+ meters, if he was able to do so, that would help him financially and eventually a big bomb would come. We continued to focus on his strength gains and over 2018 I started to study his adaptation curves. I began to understand his movement issues, his peculiar positions in the middle, I began to truly identify his best finishes vs. his mediocre finish. We began to make headway with his left leg, his speed improved and he bought more into the entire system of training. He began to work on his mobility, even more, he started to comprehend long term recovery and daily/micro recovery.
Throughout 2018, Sam’s average result began to climb even further. Climbing into the 63-64 meter range. He became extremely consistent, even having multiple throws over 66 meters. Sam started to move more in line with our technical model. He still was one of the biggest meatheads in the weight room but he consistently pushed the technical process in the circle. I began to truly understand how to set him up for a peak and really understood how his body adapted to various stimuli. He finished 2018 extremely consistent, his average meet result grew even further and he placed third at US Nationals in one of the strongest years ever in the history of American discus. Unfortunately, this was an off-year and there was no team to be made. Onto preparation for the 2019 season.
The fall of 2018, we focused even more on technical gains with the left leg, more focus on a grounded finish that could generate a longer period of force production. This was all while trying to fix Sam’s positions out of the back. I believe Sam has one of the most peculiar positions coming off the left leg. He is extremely posterior chain dominant, he has a weird lean around his left and when his right grounds in the middle, his chest dumps oddly. This is something we discussed and worked on for quite some time. I believe this stems almost entirely from low bar back squatting, a position that forced him to optimize recruitment in that weird manner. To address this issue, I started to focus on his patience of holding double support out of the back of the circle. The longer his right foot held while his left opened past 90 degrees, the more his posture would improve.
The 2019 season was slated and known to be extremely long. We set up various markers for tests and various periods of inactivity or passive rest to ensure he felt strong when it would matter most, the end of July. The first test was a peak at Grand Valley State’s indoor discus competition based around his adaptation curve. We succeeded, Sam went the hell off. He went 63.60 indoors and had a very narrow toe foul at 65+m. The plan was coming together and execution was more precise.
At this time Sam decided to move back to New Brunswick, New Jersey. He would make the trip to Garage Strength once a week but would train at Rutgers. Obviously, this pissed me off (Sam, I hope you are reading this lol) but I also understand factors of life. We created a decent line of communication and consistent technical review, but I wouldn’t be hounding him as consistently as I did previously.
We went through some solid spots of training, even with the new set up and Sam entered the outdoor season in tremendous form. He was prepared to go HUGE during the early part of the season. That was our goal, set a monster throw out there, get invited to Europe to hopefully earn some cash and then come back and prepare for nationals and making the world team. He was ripping bombs. Brian Williams had even told me how impressed he was by his movement and he expected Sam to drop a huge throw early when they were out in California together for competition. That was until Sam nearly tore his pec on his throwing side.
A significant pec strain put quite a damper on Sam’s season. It strained (not just his pec muscle) his progress, it prevented him from having a monster throw, from getting to Europe and from making significant progress professionally. Yet again, Sam would be scraping by financially, struggling to make ends meet while working to become one of the best in the world. Fortunately, we work closely with Mobility Doc, Dr. John Giacalone and he implemented a significant bodywork program for Sam to heal and I worked closely with Sam and John to establish a training routine that would not cause further damage on his pec.
Sam’s strongest attribute and weakest attribute can be his mental outlook. The time we spent developing our relationship in 2017 taught me this. He can get quite irritable when training isn’t going his way and I also struggle to communicate positive support during this time. We started to struggle with the direction we would head because the pec was hindering any progress. BUT, surprisingly we both embraced patience. It took time to come around, it took time to get his repetitions back into form and it took time for him to feel consistent again. Gradually, Sam became more positive on his visits to Garage Strength. He was clearly still upset about his major set back but at this point, he began to focus on the US National championships and focus on making the world team.
The last 4-6 weeks heading into USA’s was a serious test of our cohesiveness. The pressure was felt on both ends and we needed to get him healthy and prepared quickly. He had a few decent meets but never felt incredibly strong in the circle. I sat down and studied his period of adaptations even further, I discussed his peak with our assistant coach Trevor Stutzman, I knew what would work for Sam physically but I also knew it could hinder him mentally. The last two weeks before the competition, we had a local meet at Garage Strength. Our entire team was at the competition and I actually believe this was a turning point for Sam. He didn’t throw overly well but he started to get a better feeling and this was when Alex Rose went 66.31. Alex went off and it became apparent (at least to me) that Sam was the next in line.
A week later, we went out to Des Moines, Sam had some very, very solid practice throws. His peak was beginning to come into fruition. It seemed that he felt strong and finally in good enough form to throw a bomb. He had bought into the system and as frustrated as he may get, Sam is also loyal as f*ck and knows things will work out. I felt confident watching him practice in Iowa and knew that Thursday competition would be exciting. Sam was in good spirits and ready to compete.
I stood on the fence at Drake, I felt as though I may throw up. At one point I felt like I was about to pass out. My dream had been to get Sam on the World team, to get Sam on the Olympic team. It would be perfect if he could rip a 66m throw and hit the standard and make it to Doha. His warm-ups were perfectly executed. Sam takes short standing throws, 43-46 meter stands. Then he takes very, very easy fulls. The rest of the field was HAMMERING their warm-ups. Sam had two easy throws around 60 meters, then a nice an easy harder full around 62.50. Keep in mind, three of his teammates, Noah Kennedy-White, Josh Syrotchen, and Mr. Unnamed Discus Thrower were in the tent, providing support. Josh and Mr. Unnamed Discus Thrower competed well as did Noah and they could be there as team members, ready to watch him go off.
Sam’s first throw….OVER! He went 66.69 on his first throw. Holy freaking shit. I lost my mind. I was fairly certain this would get him on the World team. I wasn’t overly concerned about the national title, my main goal was that he made it to Doha. It was like Alex’s throw in repeat. When they announced 66 meters, I got amped and slowly realized Sam had also hit the Olympic standard! With all of that being said, I wasn’t comfortable. Brian Williams was smashing his warm-ups and I felt he could go off at any minute, Mason Finley was in the field and he’s one of the best American throwers ever and defending champ Reggie Jagers was present. Sam put the field on lockdown from the first throw. He knocked the wind out of everyone. The field seemed deflated outside of Kord Ferguson also dropping big throws. Sam brought home the national title, locked a spot to Doha and smacked the Olympic standard. What a freaking day.
What excites me most about the current situation is that Sam could potentially be in a lot better shape come to Worlds. His pec set him back tremendously but now he is in better physical shape and better mental shape. The system works, the plan was executed and Sam is the National champ and a freaking monster. He will be ready to continue growing as a professional and will continue to build as we head to Doha.
It’s incredible how proud I am of Sam. He is one of the hardest workers I have been around. He is a meathead but also sees things intellectual. He has the intangibles to be one of the best ever from the US. We have grown together and it makes me so happy to look back and recognize that Sam Mattis is the 2019 US National Champion in the discus.