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A tough-love take on U.S. throwing

4/24/2012
Submitted photo

Every couple of months, usually after a good result from a non-U.S. college thrower, message boards will light up with anonymous posters berating these athletes for their age, the "personal" or "national" coaches, the scholarships they steal that cost us "our tax dollars" or some combination of these and more.

To all of these experts: Get over it.

Over the last four decades I've seen quite a bit of a change in the makeup of teams at the NCAA level. When I first came to college back in the early 1970s there were no restrictions on the number of scholarships a school could offer. As long as you had the money to cover the check, you could sign as many kids to your program you wanted. These were the days of football powers like Oklahoma and Ohio State signing kids just so Nebraska or Michigan couldn't get them. There were 100-120 guys on scholarship in those programs.

My freshman year at North Carolina was an eye-opener to me in many ways. I went to my first Penn Relays and saw the United Nations All-Stars that was the University of Texas-El Paso. From what I could gather, the sprinters/jumpers were all from Caribbean nations, the distance guys were all East Africans and the throwers were all Scandinavian, save for one hammer thrower from Australia.

I'd had a pretty serious culture shock (different food, friendly people and cleaner air) in coming to the South from the suburbs of New York City. Seeing the Penn Relays was a wonderful experience and I met people from all over the world. It was the start of a lifelong love affair with our sport, not just for the challenges and pleasures that come from self-reliance, but also for the cultural and educational experiences found by meeting others with the same passion. I forged friendships that lasted until money ran out for postage stamps (this was the 70s ... long distance phone calls were still special events).

By the time I started coaching in the 1980s Title IX was law and limits to the number of scholarships per sport were regulated. There were foreign student-athletes at programs across the U.S. but it was not like what I saw with UTEP. There were smatterings of visiting kids at locations everywhere but it was usually no more than three or four per school. Many of these foreigners were studs who challenged for NCAA titles and spots on their Olympic teams back home. Texas schools had some of the best throwers you'd want to see in those years: SMU's Roald Bradstock and Robert Weir threw for countless U.K. international teams (and Roald also threw for the USA a few times), Texas had a run of Nordic javelin throwers (Olympians all), including Iceland's Einar Vilhjálmsson and Sweden's Dag Wenlund, who both topped 300 feet with the "old rules" javelin, and Swede Patrik Boden, a two-time NCAA champion who set the world record with the "new rules" javelin as a Longhorn. UTEP used its connections to bring over Norway's Sven Walvik, who took the NCAA discus title, and Finn Matti Narhi, who speared an NCAA javelin crown.

Schools developed relationships with either a particular nation, or region, to attract throwers: Icelanders to Alabama, Scandinavians to BYU, Irish throwers to Manhattan come to mind. But looking back at old Track & Field News issues (my old college coach gave me a closet-full of them when he retired) these non U.S. throwers comprised 15 percent of all those on top 40 performance lists. It was not a huge influx of foreign students taking spots from U.S. kids, yet I started hearing that gripe while out on the recruiting trail. "All these foreign kids are stealing our scholarships and wasting our tax dollars," was the refrain.

It’s just not true. There may be a dozen or so foreign athletes in each throwing event across the U.S., but those events total 700 to 1,000 athletes each. And athletic scholarships are funded by university athletic departments with private funds, not tax money.

I'm of a mind that feel-good parenting is at the root of this kind of entitled thinking. Every kid who plays any youth sport comes home with a trophy each season, awards for the “Best Patience By a non-Starter” or for being “Team Spirit Leader.” Kids used to learn many things from sport, including someone wins and others don't when you keep score. And, for many, the pain of losing is the big motivating factor in improvement to local, regional or national dominance. Go back to my very first blog item (Why do we Throw?) to see what that “I'll show you” attitude can produce. Instead, we have kids (and parents) who think they can just roll off the sofa, drop the GameCube and get a full ride to UCLA because they got fifth place in the shot put at the county meet.

We have so much great information available today. Stuff we (athletes in their 50s and older) never could have dreamed of: Internet chat sites where you can "talk" with world-class athletes and coaches, YouTube videos, and more. Yet the overall depth of results in the throws in U.S. high schools seems to weaken. There are always going to be the outliers – those with talent but equal amounts of drive, inspiration and determination that they find a way to succeed regardless of the facilities, equipment or coaching. Those future stars exist today, but in much smaller numbers.

Fewer people are willing to get their fingers dirty working for something. Instead, they prefer to wait for someone to just drop a winning lottery ticket in their laps. Case in point: In my senior year of high school, I threw just over 213 feet in javelin. That barely got me into the top 10 performers list in my state that year, and not even close to the national top 25 or 30 lists. Today that mark would be a top-10 national mark just about every year. Sometimes, it’d be top-five. I know the javelin has changed since then, but the majority of high school throwers do not have great alignment/flighting skills, so I feel that some guys from my era might have only lost a couple feet with the switch to the current one.

To help illustrate my point about the ratio of foreign to U.S. throwers being well in favor of Americans, here's the average number of non-U.S./U.S. throwers (M&W combined) in NCAA D1 schools taken from Top 25 performance lists over the last five years:

Discus: 8 non/42 U.S.

Shot: 10 non/40 U.S.

Hammer: 12 non/38 U.S.

Javelin: 9 non/41 U.S.

In many ways the influence of overseas kids has helped raise the level of our coaching and understanding for college coaches and athletes, with much of that information filtering down to high school and club coaches via clinics, camps and various internet sites. Good technical information from years of research and experience in other countries is paying off here, if the information is understood and applied properly. Clinics and training camps have been established around the U.S. that bring together some of the world's best coaches and athletes to share what they know is successful: The East and West Coast hammer clinics with Yuri Sedykh; Mac Wilkins’ Throws Center; John Powell's Shot/Discus camps; the Ironwoods Throws Camp; the Klub Keihas Throwing Schools (and current Kultan Keihas Project) are good, but not the only examples.

They have all been up and running for many years now and all provide the very best in technical information, good training advice/programs and many of the other aspects needed for throwing success. There are several very good instructional DVD's on the market to help you understand your event and how to train for it more successfully; there are websites that can put you into contact with some of the world's elite throwers and coaches for the purpose of gaining valuable advice. You just have to avail yourselves of them, get away from the keyboard (or smart phone, or Blackberry or whatever the current electronic rage is) and go do some work! You have better access, information and methods of training today then at any time in human history ... go use them!

OK ... rant over. I feel better.