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WHY I choked at D3 Nationals

Flashback three years ago when I was a senior in college at Division 3 Nationals. I was seeded 3rd at 18.00m behind two of D3’s greatest shot putters ever, Roger Steen and Colt Feltes. I was hoping for a chance to make a big upset and possibly steal the national title. However those hopes were dashed pretty quickly when I threw 16.17m in prelims and didn’t make finals. It’s pretty obvious looking at this scenario from the surface that I choked pretty hard, but is that the end of it?

“He/She just choked” is a phrase used constantly in throwing and track and field as a whole. “Choking” comes down to the stakes were just so great that the athlete could not handle all of the pressure, and that mental breakdown caused them to compete poorly. It gives the notion that the circumstance is out of one’s control, and it is a mental flaw that causes a thrower to compete poorly. I don’t want to say that this never partially contributes to a poor performance, but to just accept this explanation for a bad meet is a disservice to the athlete, and simply unproductive to becoming a better thrower. I am a firm believer that there is always a reason for having a bad meet, and that there is always something that could have been improved to get a better result. After coaching for the last three years, I have a much different perspective on training than I did when I was in college, and hope to use that experience to constructively break down why I choked at Nationals.

Meathead Throws

A lot of what I did poorly as an athlete I like to blame on the fact that I didn’t have a coach for my last two years in college. However, most of that just comes down to being bad at keeping myself accountable to certain aspects of training, which a coach could have made me do. Throwing like a meathead everyday is hands down the biggest mistake of my college career, and was a clear result of not having self-control in practice. I probably yelled on 75% of my full throws, and for an hour long session tried to smash every one to try and get a good mark for the day. Probably the only benefit of this is that I knew how to step up my intensity in competition. The bad part is that I had little to no true technical consistency.

My main goal in throwing with taking every throw at 100% intensity was to try and find that one throw that felt really good. It always felt like a monster throw was just one throw away, and if I didn’t go all out on that next throw I might miss it. I had the hope that once the stars aligned and I hit that big throw, a breakthrew in my distances would spark. Every thrower likes to “chase the feeling” in their throw, but let me tell you something: feeling is fleeting.

There are hundreds of variables that determine whether you are going to feel good throwing on any given day. Whether it’s rising and falling hormonal levels, the volume/intensity of your last lifting session, how much and quality of sleep you got, what you ate, how tight you are that day, the amount of stress in your life, or simply how focused you are on training that day can play into the feeling of your throws. The reality is you will have weeks when you feel amazing and smash all of your throws effortlessly, and weeks when you feel like trash, and no matter how focused you are, the distances are never there. So when it comes to championship time, even the best peaking program out there cannot guarantee with 100% certainty that you will feel good at competition time. So where do you find consistency if not in feeling? Get good technique!

Technique, technique, technique!

I was disillusioned in college that I had good enough technique, “enough” being the worst part of that sentence. Part of this was the result of not having good competition in my area. I would win the local D3 meets by a couple meters usually. So compared to the throwers I was around most often, I did have good technique. When I would have the chance to get up to Penn State, Darrell Hill would destroy me by a couple meters. When I saw Darrell throw, or would watch video of other great throwers, I had the ignorant view that either their size and strength were so much greater than mine that their technique was irrelevant, or that their technique was so good that it was unobtainable.

Part of my downfall when it came to technique is that I didn’t really know how to critically breakdown technique, mostly because I didn’t try. Taking more time to analyze video, dissect parts of the throw, and build a more well-rounded technical model in my head would have helped me realize there were major parts of my throw that could be improved technically. Having that technical understanding would have led to less of a focus on pure feeling during practice, and more focuse on improving certain technical aspects.

Here is when accountability and self-control come into play during practice. It is not bad taking throws or assigning certain days where you will go 100%, scream and yell, and try and get a big practice mark. However there must be a schedule or plan. An example would be Sunday and Monday take all 70-80% throws. Wednesday take the first 20 easy or ramping, then take the last 10 all out. Thursday take all of them 70-80%, and then Friday either take all of them hard or do a mock meet. It is key, however, that on the technical days you go into practice with 1-2 specific technical goals that you want to tackle. As you feel out the throws, there might be a number of different ways to approach those issues, but don’t try and fix 5 things at once. Even on the throws you are going all out on, still have one main technical cue that you are trying to execute in your head each throw.

Having more technical focus leads to more technical consistency, which gives a thrower technical confidence. When you are confident in your technique going into a competition, there is little room for error and uncertainty in your ability when the pressure is high. It is no longer a matter of executing a big throw, but going through the same movement as you have thousands of times before during practice, just with the added adrenaline of the competitive atmosphere. Even if all of the feeling is not there, you can be confident that your technique will get you most of the way there, and in most cases even getting close to your PR will get you good placement in a championship meet. So if you have choked in a big meet, figure out the reasons why. If you haven’t choked, learn good technique so you will be confident that you won’t! I certainly wish that I would have.

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