"In The Ring with Coach V" by Vésteinn Hafsteinsson with D. McQuaid #10: No Accident
This will be the last in a series of posts by Vésteinn Hafsteinsson regarding his experience at the recent Olympic Games. In it, Vésteinnem reflects on some of the factors that enabled his throwers to excel in Tokyo.
This will not, however, be the last we hear from Vésteinn. He is back in training with his group of throwers, which consists of newly-minted Olympic Champion Daniel Ståhl, Tokyo silver medalist Simon Pettersson, 2021 indoor European shot put silver-medalist Fanny Roos, former European U23 discus champion Sven Martin Skagestad, and former European U20 shot put champion Marcus Thomsen.
There will be future posts providing updates on Vésteinn's group, and as 2022 begins he is planning an ebook on Daniel's career and historic 2021 season. Vésteinn would also like to create an outlet for those involved with the sport of throwing to put forth ideas about how to improve it.
The final training days leading up to an Olympics can be a treacherous time. The stresses of
travel and of adapting to an unfamiliar environment, along with the pressure of wanting to
perform well under the Olympic spotlight can make it difficult for athletes and even coaches to
stay in balance mentally and physically. And once that balance is lost, there are problems.
One of the reasons that Fanny, Simon, and Daniel had success in Tokyo, was that we managed
the two weeks prior to the Games in a way that let everyone stay calm and happy and focused
on the simple act of throwing a shot put or discus.
This did not happen by accident. I learned through many years of experience the conditions
necessary to produce an optimum performance at an Olympics, and with the help of the
Swedish Athletic Federation and Olympic Committee and our support staff we were able to
create the proper conditions.
The first issue that we had to deal with was the question of when to arrive in Japan. Adaptation
to the seven-hour time change from Sweden to Tokyo was a key consideration. Theoretically, there are two ways to manage a situation like this. One is to wait until the day before a competition to fly in. It takes a day or so for jet lag to hit, and sometimes it is possible to perform well before feeling its effects. This would not have worked for us, however, as the qualification round and the finals were on different days, so even if we performed well in qualification, we would have been in big trouble for the final. Also, Covid protocols have made traveling more complicated than ever, and so trying to fly in the day before a competition would be risky. Any delay in traveling would put the athletes through enormous stress, and our goal in the days leading up to the Games was to create less stress, not more.
The other method of helping athletes adapt to a significant time change is to provide at least one day of adaptation for each hour of time difference. This is the method I follow, and in this case it meant we could arrive in Japan no later than July 23rd, as the men’s discus qualification was scheduled for the 30th with the women’s shot qualification (and also the men’s discus final) the following day.
I have seen coaches try to fudge on this one-day-per-hour rule, and I would not recommend it. Going into the 2007 World Championships in Osaka, Gerd Kanter had lost to Virgilijus Alekna forty-four of the forty-five times they had faced each other. We arrived in Japan two weeks before the competition, but for some reason, Alekna arrived much later and gave himself only four days to adapt. He was still in his prime then and had a season’s best of 71.56m, but in Osaka he threw only 65.24m and finished fourth. Gerd won with a throw of 68.94m.
That experience reinforced to me the need to give my athletes enough time to acclimate to a change in time zone.
Another important factor for us in formulating our travel plans was my determination to maintain the normal pattern of our training.
Throughout the entire year, from our first sessions in October to our final competitions in September, we do our best to maintain a specific rhythm in our practice schedule. That basic rhythm usually consists of two sessions on Monday, two on Tuesday, and one on Wednesday. We repeat that pattern from Thursday through Saturday, then take Sunday off. This plan can be altered slightly depending on the needs of each individual athlete, and we obviously have to adjust during the competitive season as we cannot dictate the days on which meets occur, but even then we try to stick to our training pattern as closely as possible.
Maintaining a consistent rhythm in training provides the athlete with a sense of physical and mental well being, and the last thing I want to do is to disrupt this feeling in the days before the most important competition.
With that in mind, we decided to travel to our training camp in Fukuoka on July 16th.This would allow us a day of travel and then a full two weeks of training in our normal rhythm prior to the men’s discus and women's shot put qualification. A couple of weeks prior to our departure, however, we found out that our flight had been canceled.
We were instead offered a choice between traveling on the 17th or leaving several days earlier than planned and flying to Japan on the 12th. Even though it meant leaving the comforts of our training base in Växjö and spending extra days under the strict covid protocols and unfamiliar conditions we were likely to face in Japan, we chose to take the earlier flight because doing so guaranteed that we could fit in two full weeks of rhythmical training before the Games.
And thanks to the Swedish Olympic Committee, we were able to book business class seats–an important consideration for big guys like Simon and Daniel–on a charter flight on the 12th which flew directly to Fukuoka. When we arrived, the Covid protocols took about five hours, but that was not so bad compared to the eight or nine hours it took for those who flew into Tokyo.
So, we ended up arriving in Japan in the best way possible and having a couple of extra days to acclimate before easily fitting in two weeks of normal training. This allowed Fanny, Simon, and Daniel to relax and feel in balance as the Games approached.
Of equal importance in establishing a feeling of normalcy was the presence of our support team: Tommy Eriksson (physical therapist), Henrik Wagner (massage therapist), Henrik Gustafsson (sports psychologist), and Linda Bakkman (nutritionist). These are the same people who Fanny, Simon, and Daniel worked with all year, and again thanks to the cooperation of the Swedish Athletics Federation and Olympic Committee, we were able to have them with us in Fukuoka.
Tommy Eriksson (here working on Daniel) has been a huge part of our group's success.
Once we were all settled into the facility in Fukuoka, the next important consideration was to take care not to do too much.
The Olympics are obviously the most important competition in the career of a thrower, so it is human nature to want to make the final training sessions leading up to them the best training sessions ever and to think that by doing this you can ensure that your athlete will have their best performance ever. But this is a mistake.
The truth is that there is very little you can do in the two weeks prior to the Games to cause an athlete to have the performance of his or her lifetime. It is the years of training and competing prior to the Olympics that determine their chances of medaling.
The night before the 2008 Olympic final, my friend Raul Rebane invited me to join him for dinner to celebrate Gerd winning the gold. This may sound funny, because Gerd had not yet won the gold, but Raul pointed out to me that Gerd’s average in his top ten meets that season was 68.80m. All he had to do was to have an “average” day, make an “average” throw in the final and he would win.
And that is what happened. In the final, Gerd threw 68.82m and won. I asked Gerd afterwards if the 68.82m felt like a good throw. He said no, only "average."
But it was the many years of hard work leading up to Beijing that allowed him to do this, not anything special that we did during our final days of preparation.
And it would be the same for Daniel, Fanny, and Simon in Tokyo. I hoped that Daniel, as the defending World Champion, would win the gold medal. I hoped that Simon, as an up-and-coming contender, would finish in the top five or six and set himself up to compete for a medal in Paris in 2024. I hoped that Fanny, who had never advanced to the final at an outdoor global championships, would do that in Tokyo and also end up in the top eight.
Those would be special achievements, yes, but here is what we needed to remember: In order to achieve these things, all each of them had to do was to have a normal day.
Daniel’s average best throw in his top ten meets in 2021 prior to the Olympics was 69.06m. In Tokyo, that would likely get him the gold. Simon’s top ten average was 66.13m. For sure enough to get him in the top six at the Games. Fanny’s top ten average was 18.99m, a distance that would easily get her into the Tokyo final and probably the top eight.
So there was no need to try to make our time in Fukuoka the “greatest training camp ever.” Which is good, because it wasn’t. Daniel’s best throw during those two weeks was 69.40m. Simon’s was 66.60m. Fanny had one throw of 19.45m, but on most days, her best throws were around 19.00m. And all three missed on a lot of throws during those two weeks, just like in “normal” training sessions. Knowing that we did not have to be perfect, that all Fanny, Simon, and Daniel had to do was to prepare to throw an average throw in the Games kept me from getting stressed and from passing that stress onto them.
My plan was to just focus on one bit of technique with each of them and to coach them as little as possible and I kept to that plan. With Daniel, we worked on feeling a bit of separation in his windup that he would then carry into the throw. With Simon, I reminded him to turn his left foot early as he began his entry. I asked Fanny to be sure to wind up as long and slowly as possible.
So, I actually did very little technical coaching in Fukuoka. At one point, Fanny got mad at me because she thought I was ignoring her. She was throwing at the same time as the discus guys, and because I was saying so little she thought I was only paying attention to them. But I was just following my plan.
I also spoke to our support team every day and always reminded them to do no more or no less than they would if we were training back in Växjö. With a lot of time on our hands in Fukuoka, it would be easy for them to schedule extra sessions with the athletes, but it was important to avoid this so as not to create the feeling that we had to do more than usual in the days leading up to the Games in order to have a good performance.
So Tommy worked on their backs and other body parts the usual amount, and Henrik G. spoke with them every third day or so. Henrik W. kept his normal massage appointments with them. Because of the heat, Linda checked their hydration levels daily, and at one point we had to adjust Daniel’s intake of fluids, but she was careful not to make a big deal of it. We wanted to avoid creating any feelings of drama.
There was one more aspect of our environment in Fukuoka that I think helped our group to perform well in the Games, and that is the bond that grew between Simon, Fanny and Daniel. They have always gotten along well, but their friendship deepened as the Olympics approached. Simon and Daniel, for example, chose to room together in Japan even though they could each have had their own space.
It may seem obvious that athletes who train together every day should become friends, but it is not always the case. During the years when Gerd was my best thrower, there was a divide between him and the rest of our group. I believe this was because Gerd was so hypercompetitive. He grew up in tough circumstances, and he always felt like he had to fight for whatever he got, so with him everything became a competition. If he beat my ten-year-old son in pingpong, he would celebrate his triumph. Don’t get me wrong, Gerd is a good person, and you don’t get to the top in sport without a strong drive to succeed.
But Daniel has a very different personality. He has fought his way to the top like Gerd did, but Daniel likes to get along with everyone. If he played a kid in pingpong, he would probably let him win just to make him happy. So even though he is the best discus thrower in the world, it is easy for the others to be friends with him, and I think all three benefited from this bond.
The Olympics is always the most stressful competition, and with all the uncertainties of Covid, this Olympics was even crazier than usual. Fortunately, through careful planning, and with the help of our Athletic Federation and Olympic Committee and our support team, we were able to create a feeling of comfort and normalcy that allowed our athletes to have the “normal” day we hoped for. Daniel’s winning throw of 68.90m was sixteen centimeters below his 2021 top ten average. Simon’s silver medal throw of 67.39m was a meter better than his top ten average, and Fanny’s best throw in the final, the 18.91m that got her seventh place was eight centimeters less than hers.
It will be interesting to see what effect their Olympic success has on these three going forward. With a World Indoor Championship, a World Outdoor Championship, and a European Outdoor Championships on the calendar for 2022, we will soon find out!