"In The Ring with Coach V" by Vésteinn Hafsteinsson with Dan McQuaid. #9: Simon's Season
In April of 2013, I had a call from Anders Axlid, the head of Swedish throwing. Anders asked if I would come to the track and take a look at a young decathlete who wanted to specialize in the discus. Anders thought the kid had potential, and he hoped that I would agree to become his coach.
When I arrived, he introduced me to a very tall, very thin kid named Simon Pettersson. He was nineteen years old and had a discus PB of 50.95m with the 1.75k implement. As a favor to Anders, I watched Simon take a few throws. He looked slow, had bad technique, and did not say a word the entire session. His father did all the talking for both of them, which made me wonder if he wanted this more than Simon did.
I saw nothing that day to make me think that Simon had a future as a discus thrower, so I told Anders that I was not interested.
But Anders refused to take no for an answer, so just to be nice I agreed to train Simon for a few months over the summer of 2013. I told Anders I would coach the kid for free because I really didn’t think he was going to stick around.
Things began badly when Simon pulled two muscles during the first week of training. But by the end of the summer, I agreed to take him into our group full time. There were two reasons for this.
First, Simon right away showed an ability to throw his best in the biggest competitions. His “biggest competitions” that summer were the European Junior Championships where he threw the 1.75k implement 53.17m, and the Swedish Championships where he threw the 2k implement 49.71m. Those, obviously, were not world class distances--he finished 17th at the European Juniors--but both were PBs and he threw them in a stadium with lots of people in the stands. This is very different from throwing a PB at a throwers meet in an open field with a nice wind and fifteen people watching. Some athletes never develop the ability to compete on the big stage, but Simon already had a knack for it.
The second reason I agreed to coach Simon was his commitment to training. In this, he is like Gerd Kanter. When I began coaching Gerd, I would send him a program and then call to see how he was doing. Every time, the conversation went like this:
“Did you get the program?”
“Does it seem ok?”
“Do you have any questions?”
And then, he would do his program.
This is the way it was with Gerd for eight years. No excuses. No complaints. And his consistency was a big reason he went from a PB of 56.09m in 2000 to an Olympic gold medal in 2008.
I knew that if Simon was going to succeed as a discus thrower, he would have to commit himself to eight-to-ten years of hard work like Gerd did. And after that first summer, I was convinced that he would.
So, in the winter of 2013-2014 we began the long process of turning a toothpick into a world class discus thrower. At the time, he was 1.99m (approximately 6’6”) tall and weighed 84 kilograms (185 pounds). That first year, he did twenty-four weeks of high volume weight lifting, mostly 5x10 in bench press and squats as a way to begin adding muscle to his frame.
Most throwers hate doing that kind of volume, but Simon loved it. Five-by-ten is still his favorite routine. A couple of years ago, I cut back on the amount of time he spent doing 5x10’s because I realized he was burning so many calories that it started to interfere with his ability to gain weight. But I let him do 5x10 for a couple of months this winter, and he walked around all the time with a smile on his face. My other throwers think this is very strange.
Simon’s dedication to training has allowed him to slowly and steadily gain muscle and strength. He now weighs 120k, benches 180k, power snatches 140k, and if we did a one rep max in squats--which we generally do not do--he would likely make 250k-260k.
Meanwhile, his PB has steadily improved each year to the point where he reached 69.48m this summer.
I always say that the slowest process produces the fastest result, and Simon is a great example of this. Yes, he has increased his body weight by thirty-five kilograms, but that averages out to only around 4.5 kilos per year. Yes, he has improved his PB by twenty meters, but as you can see from the statistics at the end of this post, he has had no huge jumps from one year to the next during that time.
I learned this patient approach from mistakes I made with the first athlete I coached, Magnús Hallgrímsson from Iceland. Magnús competed in the 2000 Olympics, but his career was derailed by injuries, and I blame myself for that. I trained him too hard too quickly in an effort to produce immediate results.
Every athlete I have coached since has benefited from the mistakes I made with Magnús, maybe no one more than Simon. With his thin build, it would have been easy to break him if we tried to do too much too soon. Instead, we took the long, slow path and just focused on getting him to throw as far as he could while thin and weak with the hope that someday, when he was bigger and stronger, he could compete with the best. All that hard work and patience finally paid off this year.
Another important aspect of Simon’s development was getting him used to competing against and beating the best throwers in the world. It is very difficult to show up at the Olympic Games and do well if you are not used to going against the best guys, so I have always tried to get Simon and Daniel into as many high level meets as possible. Simon took a big step at the 2018 European Championships when he finished fourth and beat Gerd, Robert Harting and Piotr Malachowksi. Those guys were obviously on the downside of their careers, but still it was a big moment for Simon. Then, at different times this season he managed to beat all of the expected medal contenders for Tokyo, people like Andrius Gudžius and Lukas Weißhaidinger. I am convinced that his success against those guys during the season made it possible for Simon to defeat them at the Olympics.
So Simon’s breakthrough season, his 69.48m PB, his silver medal, and his high world ranking, are really the result of an eight-year process finally bearing fruit.
And he still has room to improve.
I believe his ideal body weight is 128 kilograms, and we will try to get him there by 2024. His strength should continue to improve as well, and by 2024 we hope to have him over 200k in bench press, 300k in squats and 150k in snatch.
At the same time, he can also improve his feel for the throw. Currently, he misses too many throws and has too many meets where he fouls four out of six attempts. Improving his feel while also increasing his physical capacity could get him to the point where he could throw seventy meters in a stadium, which is a pretty interesting possibility for a former decathlete.
Here are some statistics from Simon’s 2021 season:
Competed in 24 meets
Best Performance Discus: 69.48m, new PB
Average on all 24 meets: 65.03m
Average of Top 10 meets: 66.41m
PS: 1 meet over 69m, 3 meets over 67m, 11 meets over 65m
2nd in the Swedish Championships 62.91m 2nd in Finnkampen 63.91m
5th in Oslo DL 64.62m
4th in Stockholm DL 64.19m
4th in Budapest DL 64.26m
6th in Brussel DL 63.57m
5th in Zurich DL Final 63.68
2nd in the OG in Tokyo 67.39m
World List: 3
European List: 3
World Athletics Ranking: 5, 1327 points
His progression since 2013:
49.71m 2013, 55.39m 2014, 60.25m 2015, 63.10m 2016, 64.88m 2017, 65.84m 2018, 66.39m 2019, 67.72m 2020, 69.48m 2021