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"In The Ring with Coach V" by Vésteinn Hafsteinsson with Dan McQuaid. #8: In a Cage with a Lion.

Vésteinn Hafsteinsson, one of the most accomplished coaches in the sport and himself a four-time Olympian, has agreed to share regular updates from his throwing group. Vésteinn will share insights on training, stories from his long career as a coach and athlete, and observations on the state of the sport.

In this piece, Vésteinn details the struggles he and shot putter Fanny Roos faced during the 2021 indoor season.

I arrived for the qualification round of the men’s discus at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea determined to make the final. And why not? I was twenty-eight years old with a PB of 65.60m and experience competing in major championships, including the 1984 Olympics and 1987 Worlds. I had travelled all over the United States and Europe competing against and sometimes beating the top throwers, including Mac Wilkins, John Powell, Al Oerter, Wolfgang Schmidt, and Jürgen Schult. In Seoul, I did not even have to beat those guys to make the final--all I needed was to throw within three or four meters of my PB, which would for sure put me among the top twelve, and I’d be another step closer to realizing my dream of having success at an Olympic Games.

Instead of a dream though, came a nightmare.

I felt pretty good during warm ups. It was very hot and humid in the stadium that day, but I did not really notice--until the competition started. Then, all of a sudden, when I stepped in for my first attempt, I lost my touch on the discus. At that point in my career, I had taken tens of thousands of throws in all kinds of conditions. Rain. Snow. Heat. I went to college at the University of Alabama, so humidity was nothing new to me. But now, for some reason, the disc felt uncomfortable in my hand. Then, as I turned into the throw and began my sprint across the ring, I felt like my left foot had no traction, no contact with the surface. This made it impossible to generate any speed, and I managed a throw of only 58.94m.

I knew that would not be far enough to put me in the final, but I had two more tries. I just needed to stay calm and find my rhythm.

On my second attempt, I slowed down a bit so as not to slip, but a slow throw is rarely a far throw, and I hit only 57.10m.

One throw left. And then, I panicked.

As I said, I had competed against the best in the world many times, but at this moment I found myself looking around at the other throwers and thinking, “What am I doing here? These are grown men, and I am a little kid who has somehow sneaked into the Olympic Games. I have to get out of here.”

The best way for me to describe this feeling is that it is like being in a cage with a lion. Your heart starts beating faster, you can’t relax the muscles in your forehead. You cannot take a deep breath. All you want to do is get away from the lion.

My final throw was 55.70m. In the end, it took 61.34m to make the final.

In the years since, I have seen this happen many times to athletes including some that I have coached, like Gerd Kanter and Daniel Ståhl. It is the worst feeling in the world and I’ve noticed that it often comes when they start feeling the pressure of increased expectations.

Gerd was an interesting case. He threw well during the qualification round in his first senior championships, the 2002 Europeans, hitting 63.66m on his first attempt--the fifth best mark of any thrower that day.

This surprised me because usually it is the most experienced throwers who handle qualification so easily. Later, I learned that sometimes a first championship can be not so difficult if you are still at the beginning of your career and expectations are low. In 2002, Gerd was not even the best Estonian discus thrower. His countryman, Aleksander Tammert, had been throwing over 65.00m for several years at that point. And the focus at the 2002 Europeans was on the battle between Virgilius Alekna and Robert Fazekas, so Gerd was sheltered from expectations and basically too young and inexperienced to feel any pressure.

But the situation was different going into the 2003 World Championships in Paris. After a strong summer during which he raised his PB to 67.13m, Gerd was starting to get attention--lots of attention in Estonia--and so he began to feel the weight of expectations. For the first time, he felt the presence of the lion and panicked during qualification. The result was a best throw of 56.63m, not enough to advance to the final.

The next summer, Gerd threw a PB of 68.50m in June, which got people in Estonia crazy with anticipation. Maybe he and Aleks would both win Olympic medals in Athens. Maybe Gerd would throw a PB and win gold! For a small country like Estonia, that would be a huge achievement. But, it is not easy to throw when you feel the weight of your country’s dreams on your back, and once again, Gerd panicked in qualification. His best of 60.05m did not come close to getting him into the final.

Daniel’s first time in the lion’s cage was during the European Championships in 2014. In May, he crushed a throw of 66.89m in California. It was nearly five meters farther than his old PB, and all of a sudden journalists who had never before paid any attention, started calling and asking would he win a medal at the Europeans that August? Instead, when he arrived in Zurich for the qualification round, he looked at all the great throwers he would compete against--Gerd, Robert Harting, Piotr Malachowski--and knew in his heart that he did not belong. He fouled his first qualification throw, and ended up in 24th place.

The same thing happened at the 2016 Olympics. Daniel had thrown pretty well a year earlier at the World Championships in Beijing where he ended up finishing fifth. That inspired talk of a possible Olympic medal, but he could find no feel or rhythm in the qualification round in Rio. His best effort was 62.26m--not enough to make the final.

In the future, I will explain in some detail how we were able to get Gerd and Daniel to consistently throw well at championship meets. It involved much hard work, travel and experimentation. Right now though, I’d like to turn my attention to the experiences of Fanny Roos and her recent efforts to become a championships medal contender.

Fanny grew up in a small town about sixty kilometers from Växjö, Sweden, where my training group is headquartered. She moved to Växjö in 2011 at the age of sixteen to attend a sports school. The athletes there would use the local facilities, and I occasionally saw Fanny throwing or lifting with her teammates, but I never had much interaction with them.

Then, in 2015, Fanny attended a training camp that I was holding with Daniel Ståhl and a couple of other athletes in Spain. We got along well, and after the 2016 season she called me and said, “Hi. This is Fanny. Will you be my coach?”

She told me later that she had been terrified to make that call because I was “the former coach of Gerd Kanter” and why would I let her into our group? But I could already tell that Fanny was an extremely hard worker, so I said yes, but she had to be willing to drive three times a week to Helsingborg where I was about to move with my family.

She was willing, and so every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday she began traveling to Helsingborg for practice. When we began working together, I just put her through drills one-and-a-half or two hours each session. At first, I thought, “This girl has no idea how to throw.” She had no feeling, no knowledge about technique. But because of her unbelievable work ethic, she started getting better. She soaked up everything I tried to teach her, and never complained about making the ninety-minute drive each way three times a week between Helsingborg and Växjö. After a while, I started to believe that she had a chance to be pretty good.

I moved back to Växjö in March of 2017, which made it possible for us to train together every day, so she improved very quickly. That month, she raised her PB to 18.13m at the European Indoor Championships--only her second major championships. (Just to be clear, in Europe we consider the Olympic Games, World Championships, and European Championships to be “major championship” competitions). Then, that summer, she won the U23 European Championships and later broke the Swedish national record with a throw of 18.21m.

That made me wonder if maybe Fanny was the kind of athlete who paid no attention to the lion. Some are like that. They go about their business and it never occurs to them to doubt themselves or to panic.

But the situation became more complicated later that summer. Fanny made the Swedish team for the World Championships in London, but threw only 17.31m in qualification and did not advance to the final.

And in 2018, after raising her PB to 18.68m, she threw poorly at both the World Indoor (17.23m) and European Outdoor (17.09m) championships.

She did much better at the European Indoor Championships in March of 2019, throwing 18.21m and finishing sixth. Then in September, she broke nineteen-meters for the first time at the Europe v. USA Match in Belarus.

Nineteen meters is an important benchmark for women shot putters. Throw that far in any major championship and you have a chance at a medal. Reaching nineteen meters means you are a legitimate world class thrower. It was a huge breakthrough for Fanny, and for a while I worried that it had ruined her career.

That probably sounds strange, but I’ve seen it happen. Around 2003, I began coaching an Estonian thrower named Märt Israel. Actually, I wasn’t really coaching him at first. He joined our group because Gerd knew him from Estonia and liked having him as a training partner. At first, I did not even write him his own workout. He just threw with Gerd and followed Gerd’s lifting plan. He never said a word practically, but was a very nice guy, and so I started helping him with his throwing technique and then his lifting, and eventually I took over his training. In 2005 he set a PB of 63.17m. In 2007, he threw 66.56m, and he broke sixty-six meters again in 2009, 2010 and 2011.

Sixty-six meters is a world class distance, but remember, Gerd Kanter, Märt’s friend, training partner, and fellow Estonian, was at the same time throwing regularly over seventy meters and winning international medals including gold at the 2007 World Championships and 2008 Olympics. Märt lived in Gerd's shadow, and felt very comfortable that way. Gerd got the attention and had to deal with everyone’s expectations. Märt just kept plugging along without most people noticing him.

But, that changed in 2011 when Märt placed fourth at the World Championships. Suddenly, people noticed and started asking him when he was going to overtake Gerd. He did not like this pressure, and he never threw well at an important meet again. This is nothing against Märt. He and I are good friends. It was just not in his makeup to perform well when he was the one in the spotlight.

Just like Märt, Fanny had been able to live in the shadows while she worked to become a world class thrower. Yes, she was for a few years already the best women’s shot putter in Sweden, and she threw pretty well at some Diamond League meetings, but nobody really expected her to contend for a medal at a championships--until that night in Belarus. Then, the spotlight found her.

Every time she looked at her phone after she threw the 19.06m, she started seeing comments people posted on social media predicting she would win a medal at the Worlds in Doha. This situation was probably even harder on Fanny than it had been on Märt because social media is now such a big part of life for people Fanny’s age.

As her coach, I knew that a medal in Doha was probably not likely. Fanny’s average in her top ten meets in 2019 was 18.69m. Her best throw ever in a championships was 18.21m. Realistically, the best we could hope for was that she would throw in the 18.60m or 18.70m range and make the final, which would have been an important step forward in her career.

But after Belarus, the chatter about winning a medal got so loud that it woke up the lion. She fouled her first throw in Doha, then hit 18.01m and 17.39m. It took 18.03m to advance.

After the 2019 season, I spoke with a sports psychologist that I work with and told him we have a problem. Fanny was now a nineteen-meter thrower, but her PB in major meets was 18.21m, and her average in those meets was 18.11m. How can we fix this?

The sports psychologist worked with Fanny about handling all the talk on social media, and she trained hard like always. For the 2020 season, she kept her top ten average high (18.63m) but with no championship meets, we could not tell if she was getting better at throwing well under pressure.

Leading up to the indoor season this year, Fanny showed great improvement in training. She is still in the phase of her development where we are trying to add strength and muscle mass, and we succeeded in doing both. She also made improvements with her technique, and as the first competition approached, she was throwing nineteen meters in practice, no problem.

That competition was a small “shake off the rust” meet at our facility in Växjö on January 23rd, and she threw 18.16m.

A few days later, she traveled to Karlsruhe, Germany to compete against a pretty good field including Auriol Dongmo of Portugal, Christina Schwanitz of Germany, and the Americans Chase Ealey and Raven Saunders.

In Karlsruhe, we tried out a plan that I developed with the sports psychologist.

In sports like throwing or jumping, an athlete obviously wants to generate a lot of speed. The key is to be able to control your speed, so that the result is a far throw or a successful jump. Think of a high jumper approaching the bar. They have to be under control as they gather to lift off the ground. If they were to sprint madly towards the pit, they would not be able to convert their horizontal velocity into the vertical lift necessary to clear a height.

It is the same for a thrower. Blasting out of control through the ring does not bring success. You have to be able to move through the proper positions with rhythm. This can be tricky when, as was the case this winter with Fanny, you have increased your ability to generate power. Factor in the adrenaline that comes with competing against a strong field, and it can be difficult to regulate your speed to a controllable level.

To head this off, we told Fanny to take her first throw in the competition with ninety-five percent effort. If she hit around 18.50m on that throw, she could press a little harder on the accelerator for her second attempt.

Fanny’s first throw was 18.40m, which was fine, but when she put a little bit more behind the second one she hit only 18.03m. She followed that with a foul, then went 18.43m and 18.08m before finishing with an indoor PB and new Swedish indoor record of 18.64m.

She finished second to Dongmo and managed to beat Schwanitz and the Americans, so all in all, it was a pretty successful day.

The next week, Fanny raised the Swedish record to 18.66m, then on February 9th traveled to France and threw 18.51m. After breaking the Swedish record twice, everyone was happy with her.

Except me.

Because I trained with Fanny every day, I knew that she was underperforming. Based on her results in practice, she was ready to throw between 19.25m and 19.35m, which might get her a medal at the upcoming European Indoor Championships.

No Swedish woman had won a shot put medal at a major championships, so it would be huge for Fanny and for Swedish athletics if she could do it.

But was she ready to throw well in that kind of competition? I wasn’t sure.

On February 12th, Fanny had the best throwing session of her life in practice, and I was convinced that she would, at the very minimum, set another Swedish record at a meet we were hosting at our training center on the 14th. But, I was wrong.

The competition was conducted in the same circle where Fanny had been throwing nineteen meters day after day, but I could see from her first warm up throw that she felt no connection with the shot. She muscled another warm up throw out to 18.85m, but could not find her rhythm and opened with 17.84m. I usually don’t say much during competitions, but after three throws I took her aside and asked, “Do you have any idea what is going wrong?” She said she did and that she would fix the problem. But she did not fix it, and her best throw of the day was 18.29m.

I was totally in shock and more determined than ever to find a way to get her through this. I believe that it is the job of the coach when things are going badly, to come up with a plan to turn the situation around. This may sound obvious, but you would be surprised how often coaches dismiss poor performances as “bad luck” and just hope that things somehow get better.

I cannot do that. To keep my sanity, I must come up with a plan, even if no one knows whether or not the plan will work.

In 2003, for example, I moved my family to Denmark to coach for the Danish federation. I was put in charge of a group of athletes, but my job was essentially to coach the shot putter Joachim Olsen. On my first day of training with Joachim, he looked at me and said, “I have a hand injury. I can’t throw a shot.”

My first thought was, “Well, what in the hell am I doing here? I moved my pregnant wife and our two small children to a country where we know very few people, and now I am supposed to wait and see how things turn out with your hand?”

Right away, I began calling coaches from all over the world to find a specialist who could fix Joachim’s problem. I finally located the best person to do that job. They operated on Joachim, we resumed full training and he was able to win a medal at the 2004 Olympics.

I wanted to do the same thing with Fanny--to come up with a plan to make things right. It was clear that our original approach of regulating her effort on her competition throws, of keeping the foot light on the gas pedal, was not working, and we needed to find a new way forward.

I thought about how to do this and I decided that there was a difference between Fanny in practice and Fanny in competitions, and the difference was that in practice, Fanny had fun. She laughed often, and sometimes sprinted to retrieve her shots because she was so excited to take more throws. This sense of fun kept her loose and allowed her to find her rhythm and produce far throws.

My job, then, was to figure out a way to make competitions feel more like practice.

The Swedish Championships on the 19th of February were Fanny’s next meet, and I decided to surprise her in the days leading up to it by shaking up her training schedule.

The competition was on a Friday. Normally, we would rest the day before a meet, do a short “wakeup call” the morning of the competition, then compete in the evening. (A “wakeup call” is a light training session designed to prime the nervous system. With Fanny, we usually would take ten-to-fifteen throws at about ninety-percent effort, just enough for her to find her rhythm.) Before the Swedish Championships, I had her rest on Wednesday, then take two sessions of just six throws--one in the morning and one in the evening on Thursday.

I told her we would not measure these throws but just treat them like a fun practice where I would film her and we would work on some technical matters. (I did, however, have a spy in the training hall who told me that she broke nineteen meters in our evening session.)

She enjoyed these training sessions, and seemed to be in good spirits when we met at the competition hall in Malmö on Friday morning to do our wakeup call. My hope was that this feeling of having fun would carry over to the competition.

Then, a strange thing happened.

That morning, I woke up with a stomach ache, and later in the hall after Fanny took two throws of her wakeup call, I passed out. Someone called an ambulance, and I was taken to the hospital. Luckily, the diagnosis was food poisoning and not something more serious. I was released from the hospital after a few hours, but was too sick to go see Fanny throw or even to watch the live stream. Fanny was pretty shaken up and that night she threw 18.51m, so we missed another opportunity to make a breakthrough before the European Championships.

One advantage of being too sick to move was that it gave me time to think. I stayed in my hotel room the rest of the weekend feeling awful and trying to decide a path forward for Fanny.

I started to think that maybe I was wrong to be so obsessed with how far Fanny had thrown in practice. Lots of great throwers have had huge practice throws that they never approach in a meet. Brian Oldfield was famous for that. And I once saw Joe Kovacs throw almost twenty-four meters warming up for a competition (something, I am told, he did again at the 2021 Olympic Trials). But how would it have affected Joe if he thought his coach, back then Art Venegas and now his wife Ashley, was disappointed with him every time he didn’t throw twenty-four meters in a competition?

As a coach, I’ve always believed in setting “the bar” (my expectations) at a reasonable height and letting the athlete easily jump over it again and again. Then, you slowly raise the bar an imperceptible amount and let them keep jumping over it. All that success builds confidence, whereas setting the bar too high too soon can cause fear, anxiety, a loss of feel and rhythm. It gets the lion stirring.

Maybe I had let Fanny’s success in practice distort my expectations for what she could do in a competition. As I said, her top ten averages in 2019 and 2020 were around 18.60m to 18.70m. Was it reasonable to expect her to suddenly add fifty centimeters to that? She had broken the Swedish indoor record twice this winter. Wasn’t that a sign of progress? Shouldn’t that be enough?

Was my experience with Märt, and my worries that Fanny might never be able to throw well in the spotlight, clouding my judgement with her?

The following week, on February 25th, we had another meet in Växjö, and I decided that I would not talk to her any more about psychological preparation. We would work on her technique in practice, and I told myself to keep the bar low and let her jump over it. The Olympic qualifying distance is 18.50m, and I vowed that I would be happy if she threw that far in our competition.

As it turned out, she threw much better than 18.50m...but I was still not satisfied..

Fanny won the meet with a throw of 18.85m, which made her happy, but when she came up to me afterwards she could tell I was disappointed. I was still obsessing about the nineteen-meter-plus practice throws. “We can do better,” I growled. “We just have to…”

But, she did not want to hear it, so she interrupted me.

“I think it’s a step in the right direction,” she said, and turned away.

This was a shock to me. During our years together, Fanny had never really been disrespectful towards me.

But, she’d had enough. The 18.85m throw was an indoor PB and another Swedish record. She wanted to feel good and enjoy it, but how could she when she saw the look of disappointment on my face?

I was actually proud of her at that moment. She was not a little kid any more afraid to talk back to “the former coach of Gerd Kanter.” And when she did this, I knew that I was right about having set the bar too high. Going into every meet knowing that I would be happy only if she threw 19.20m or better made competing a miserable experience for her. We needed a change, and this time I followed my own advice.

In the week leading up to the European Championships, I never once talked about how far she had thrown in practice. I told her that I would be satisfied if she surpassed the Olympic qualifier, which would still be her best throw ever in a championships and another “step in the right direction.”

I think Fanny knew that I was listening to her now, because she asked if she could do some deadlifts two days before the competition, which is Daniel Ståhl’s favorite pre-meet workout. Is it according to theory to have an athlete deadlift so close to an important competition? Probably not, but I always let Daniel do it because he is convinced that it makes him throw far. Now, Fanny asked for that same consideration, and I said yes.

We did our wakeup call in the arena the morning of the European Indoor qualification round, and Fanny advanced to the final with a throw of 18.45m.

The day of the final, she came to me for a quick chat after warm ups, and I told her I’d never seen her in better shape. She looked really powerful, and I told her I knew she was ready mentally and physically to throw well.

She fouled her first attempt, then threw 18.53m and came over to me. “I’m happy,” I said. “You’ve done everything I wanted you to do. Now, just have fun.”

Her next three throws were 18.59m...foul...19.29m.

For a moment, she was in first place, although we did not realize that until later. Then, Auriol Dongmo took back the top spot with a throw of 19.34m, which held up for the gold.

But Fanny’s silver was the first ever medal in a major championships for a Swedish woman shot putter.

She came up to me after with her eyes big like she couldn’t believe what she’d just done. “Well,” I said, “the ketchup has finally come out of the bottle.”

It took a lot of hard work to make this breakthrough. Also, a case of food poisoning, and a young athlete finally standing up for herself.

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