How Do WE Do it?

by coachdanbell


There has been debate for decades in this country about the best systems to develop and produce world class weightlifters. We’ve had clubs and our training hall at the Olympic Training Center model their training on the old Soviet system, the Bulgarian system that defeated them, and the Chinese system that surpassed the Bulgarians. We’ve looked at second tier systems modeled on those three in the Greeks, the Germans, the South Koreans, Cuba and all the little –stan countries and South American countries that rose to success followed the breakup of the Soviet Union. They all have similar elements that we are always advised to implement: get athletes while they are young; test for those with the highest potential; institute a system of ranking and rewards; better educate our coaches; get better drugs. (Just kidding on that last one USADA) But we lack most of the things that make that advice usable. We cannot “get ‘em young” because more popular sports take the cream of the athletic crop year after year. There’s no point in screening for the best potential because football or baseball or soccer got them when they were five. We can develop a system of ranking, but it cannot compare to the scholastic/college/pro system that develops athletes from pee-wee to junior high to high school to college to the professional ranks. We can’t reward developmental steps because our broke-ass sport can barely pay for what we have now, let alone expand upon that.

Little of the foregoing advice given is helpful because it all looks outside of our own society for models instead of looking at what we have and what we can do with that. We rarely get a ten-year-old who will stay in the sport long enough for development. What we get are college kids who are done with high school football or softball. We get the guy who couldn’t go on to college football because of a knee injury. We get the late-blooming athlete who didn’t develop soon enough to get into tough high school or college sports programs. We get former cheerleaders who discover strength sports after high school. Lately we’re getting athletes who have been exposed to the Olympic lifts for the first time through CrossFit and decided they liked moving heavy stuff more than breathing really hard and puking. So since this is what we get, why aren’t we asking how to succeed with them, rather than waiting for our Soviet or Bulgarian or Chinese Model fantasies to come true? What do the athletes we actually get need to become high level competitors?

They need to learn technique and they need to learn it fast. We have to find a way to instill proficiency in the lifts as quickly as possible. The drills and teaching methods used to teach ten-year-olds who have years to master technique are inadequate. One of our more senior coaches once told me it takes five years to learn the lifts. A twenty-year-old athlete does not have five years to waste. Nor do we have the luxury of dismissing such an athlete and staring wistfully at the horizon waiting for the freakish child athlete of our dreams. We need to find drills and teaching methods that work quickly early on. Two that I’ve found very useful are what I call the “back half” drill (what Don McCauley calls the “over the edge” drill) that teaches a lifter how to use their hips properly and in the right timing. I experiment with it to see how much weight can be used and if that improves the hip movement or not. Another drill I just started using, after a long conversation with Glenn Pendlay, uses light bands on the bar to force the lifter to aggressively pull down to the bar. Glenn has used it successfully in the snatch, but I’m using it on the clean first, until I have a better idea how to utilize it. Initial results are very encouraging. Lifters slow to move under the bar learn in a few reps what they have to do. Glenn told me that he has saved months of teaching with 20 minutes on this drill. From what I saw last night, he is right. That is the sort of innovative thinking and experimentation required for us to work within the limits or our own culture and succeed.

They need to address mobility issues early and often. CrossFit has led the way in this regard. CrossFit gets so many former athletes with old injuries and middle-aged people who were never athletes. Many of them have mobility problems with shoulders, hips, ankles and wrists. Rather than ignore these problems and limit their members, they have tapped the knowledge of innovative PTs like Kelly Starrett at Turns out that big changes in mobility can happen far faster than coaches had thought. That means you don’t have to give up on fine athletes in their late teens or twenties because they can’t get into a decent overhead squat or front squat position. We can fix most of them if we take the time to learn.

They need to push hard. We need coaches to experiment with great volume at heavy weights and cheap, easily accessible methods that speed recovery. Again, Glenn Pendlay leads the way here, pushing his guys hard and daily. He’s found ways to let his lifters attack heavy weights often but still get in quality reps that reinforce good technique. We have to have both and as early in a new lifter’s career as we can. Again, we will get very few young and talented lifters to mold as the Chinese or Russians do. We need to make lifters our way, with the lifters we get. But we won’t find the way that works for us unless we do something different from the programs we cannot emulate.

They need a support structure to keep training. But we do not have and will not have an organized and hierarchical system that finds local kids, teaches them the lifts early, and funnels talent upward to more advanced training at regional and national training centers. We don’t have the money or the will to establish such a system and pay the coaches who make it work. So trying to do what the Chinese do or the Soviets did is a pipe dream. What we have is a group of widely scattered coaches and clubs who have varying degrees of success at finding and developing talent. We do have some models that work on some scale: a couple colleges that offer scholarships for weightlifting; a supported (kinda) national training center; some corporate sponsored clubs who have had success keeping lifters in the game (MDUSA) and some big clubs who do a good job raising money for their lifters (Coffee’s Gym, East Coast Gold). This crazy quilt “organization” is about the best we’re going to do. What’s the key to this “system?” Volunteer coaches who push to create clubs, raise money and try to become professional about it. They need guidance in the form of information, learning opportunities to increase their skills, and some path to making a living as a coach. If they can make a living at it, they can devote more time to seeing if we can make all of forgoing actually work. Here, again, is where CrossFit comes in. Thanks to CrossFit introducing vast numbers of people to the Olympic lifts (as well as basic barbell exercises like the back squat) we weightlifting coaches have been given a two-fold opportunity: make a living and see thousands of lifts to sharpen our coaching eyes.

But all of this only matters if we convince ourselves that it can be done here and develop the determination to find a way. Our way.