Written by Chad Wesley Smith
Dear USA Weightlifting,
As we sit here on the eve of the 2015 National Championships, the biggest meet in the history of USAW, I’m excited about the growth and improvements American weightlifting has experienced over the last few years.
Thank you for the opportunity to come observe training at the Olympic Training Center last month. I’m glad to be able to help support USAW athletes and am so encouraged by the great progress of our lifters and growth of the federation in the past few years. As much as I’m encouraged though, I’m also frustrated in that I feel there can be so much more done to push forward weightlifting in this country and cultivate more competitive teams on the international level.
There are many out there who think the US needs to emulate the existing models of other successful countries, the Bulgarian System, the Russian System, the Chinese System, etc but that is not what we need to do, because our lifters are not their lifters and we face different challenges than they face. What we need to do is to create an American System and in my view there are 4 areas where we need to excel to accomplish this; 1) Coaching Education, 2) Talent Identification and Athlete Development, 3) Meet Calendar and Structure and 4) USAW Structure.
A model of top down coaching education is critical towards the creation of an effective American System of weightlifting. We have a great resource in Coach Zygmunt Smalcerz and as the coaching of the Olympic Training Center, he should be setting the tone for all other coaches in this country. Zygmunt also needs to have an assistant coach to aid him with the daily duties of coaching the training center athletes and this assistant should serve as the National Junior/Youth Coach, so that Zygmunt doesn’t need to travel for Junior/Youth events and be away from the Senior lifters at the OTC for extended periods of time. It is also critical that Zygmunt has an assistant so that there is a viable succession plan in place for when he likely retires after the 2016 Olympics. Bringing in another coach, especially another foreign coach, is not in the best interest of our lifters. A coach from outside Zygmunt’s coaching web will force us to start over again in terms of the training system of the OTC athletes and since there is an unprecedented amount of momentum currently in the sport, we cannot afford to lose it. Finding a potential successor to Zygmunt who is American will help in athlete recruitment, particularly if they have a successful coaching/competing pedigree.
Other keys to creating an effective top down coaching education system would be to hold an annual USAW Coaching Conference where all USAW coaches could gather at one location to hear presentations from our top coaches, as well as coaches in related fields such as nutrition and mobility. Another effective way to disseminate quality information to our coaches would be hold a monthly webinar series where Zygmunt could recap and explain the previous month’s training at the OTC. These conferences and webinars would also serve as another revenue stream for USAW. Finally, the organization of a regional coaching structure would greatly enhance the ability to effectively educate coaches and incentivize coaches towards excellence. Creating a scoring system for coaches based upon their lifter’s performances at National Events and awarding that coach with the title of Regional Coach of the Year/Head Regional Coach and a bonus for his club would help to create a hierarchy of coaching where Zygmunt would correspond with the regional coaches and the regional coaches would further disseminate these ideas to the coaches within their regions. Currently, there are many coaches who are resistant to sharing training ideas with other coaches, this has to stop because we should not be competing against each other to produce better lifters than one another, we should be cooperating with each other to produce the best lifters for our nation. All coaches may not agree with methods of other coaches but creating open dialogue about these ideas is only going to help everyone learn more and coach more effectively and move towards a more similar coaching system, an American System.
Talent Identification and Athlete Development
The US is rich with athletes and though weightlifting will likely never draw away athletes from the money of the NFL and NBA, there is plenty of talent not playing sports professionally for big contracts that could excel in weightlifting. The first step to identifying potential talent in the US is to create an outreach program to collegiate strength coaches. A simple questionnaire sent to these coaches asking for the names and emails of any athletes they work with who have achieved certain standards in the snatch and/or clean could bring a windfall of potential talent. There are currently about 100,000 athletes competing in the NCAA, imagine getting 1000 athletes names back from that questionnaire, from there, contact those 1000 athletes to gauge their further interest, tell them more about weightlifting and gather more information about them, maybe those 1000 names turn into 100 people with great interest in learning more about lifting, invite those 100 athletes to camps at various locations (OTC, N. Michigan, LSU-Shreveport, MDUSA, etc) and maybe from those 100 athletes, there are 10 each year who are identified as worthy of giving a stipend to to facilitate their development for 1 year and then their status would be re-evaluated. The introduction of 10 more high level athletes each year to our talent pool would be monumental. Identifying these athletes transitioning from other NCAA sports is going to the fastest way to improve the quality of lifter in USAW. Top US lifters like Colin Burns, Morghan King, Anthony Pomponio and Ariel Stephens all competed in other sports in college and didn’t begin weightlifting until after age 22. Tell these athlete’s stories and find more like them, because they are out there waiting to be discovered.
The USAW sanctioning of State High School Clean Championships would also be a simple tool to get athletes from other sports introduced to weightlifting competition and identify potential future talent. Juggernaut will host a Southern California High School Clean Championship in May 2016.
Gathering the names and contact information of the Top 50 finishers in the CrossFit Open’s Teen Divisions would also be a simple way to reach many more talented potential competitors.
Utilizing USAW stipend athletes as ambassadors of the sports is another effective way to further spread the word about weightlifting. USAW could coordinate with high school athletic departments and have stipend athletes go to the schools to do a demonstration and presentation to the athletes at that school and tell them how they can become involved in weightlifting competition. These athletes are your best and brightest and need to be utilized in this manner.
Creating USAW Combines are also a necessary and valuable tool for talent identification. Combines where we measure athletes explosive power (vertical jump and broad jump), strength (front squat and push press) and flexibility (overhead squat assessment) would be a great tool to identify lifter’s potential. USA Bobsled/Skeleton has a similar model in place here and USAW should follow suit. The testing results from these type of events will be particularly useful in evaluating youth/junior athletes future potential.
Residency at the Olympic Training Center should be the goal of all USAW athletes because it is the ‘full ride scholarship’ of USAW and with that in mind it should be a competitive spot to earn with clearly outlined expectations of the residents and a clearly defined process of how to become a resident. Establish a start of the resident year (October 1st of each year) and a deadline for resident applications to be submitted (Monday after Senior Nationals) and create a scoring system based on results from National and International meets, as well as Combine results, to decide who will be the OTC Residents for the upcoming year.
Meet Calendar and National Qualifying Structure
The National Calendar and which meets will serve as qualifiers for international meets need to be set at least a year in advance. This is imperative for marketing of the meets and planning training for the lifters. These dates need to be widely publicized, so all coaches and athletes are well aware of them. Organizing the competition calendar to allow for a small off-season will also benefit the athletes.
Senior Nationals needs to be more elite and the qualifying procedures need to be reevaluated. A great model to utilize would be having Automatic and Provisional Qualifying totals and cap on the number of athletes who can compete so there are only 2 sessions. Make these totals something to aspire to and the people who need to will rise to the occasion. Showcase your top lifters and make it a better event for spectators with higher ticket prices.
The further development of a regionals structure will give those C and D session lifters somewhere to compete because C and D session lifters are regional level athletes, not national level athletes yet.
More meets means there needs to be more qualified judges. Look at the judging certification model of USA Powerlifting, they have state and national level judges and they are certifying judges every weekend. USAW needs more judges and they should be qualified separately as State, Regional and National judges based on their experience.
Creating a Triple Crown of Weightlifting or Weightlifting Majors, similar to other sports would also be a way to showcase your top lifters, pursue corporate sponsorships (similar to the USATF Visa Championship Series) would also be a great idea. This Triple Crown of Weightlifting could be a running Sinclair score from The Arnold, Nationals and The American Open with the cumulative male and female winner receiving a bonus.
USA Weightlifting’s directive needs to promote the sport of weightlifting in the US and support American weightlifters to be as successful as possible, it is not doing a good enough job of that currently.
The High Performance Director, one of the key positions of USAW, needs to filled by someone with significant coaching experience and someone who is based in Colorado Springs at the National Office. Per the USAW Website, this is the person who would should be spearheading many of type of efforts I outlined above, is the person filling that role capable of doing that? Is he fulfilling his outline duties as Team Leader on international trips?
Zygmunt is currently the greatest resource that USAW has, the Senior National Coach must be treated as a high ranking official in USAW and needs to have more power in the areas of coaching education, athlete development on the national scale and international team selection. He knows what it takes to be successful, empower him to do it.
I would encourage USAW to not undervalue itself, its athletes and its events. Weightlifting is growing and people want to be part of it and they want to watch it. I’m not encouraging you to gouge the members on prices, but reasonable increases of membership pricing ($50 to $100 for athletes and $85 to $175 for coaches) plus charging more for spectators at premier events like Nationals. Also, there needs to be clearly defined and relatively high expectations for USAW partnerships in apparel and equipment. If there is going to be exclusivity given to companies as sponsors of national events, those companies should be giving significant support to USAW. If there is a USAW equipment partnership, that company should be providing the OTC Training Hall with equipment, your highest level lifters shouldn’t be training on equipment that is nearly 2 decades old. If there is an apparel partnership, then the high level athletes should be draped in that company’s apparel, if that level of commitment can’t be made, there shouldn’t be exclusivity to those deals. These small changes could create a simple but substantial revenue increase that can further the cause of better supporting the lifters.
USAW needs much greater transparency in their finances, hiring practices, board voting, resident athlete selection, athlete stipends and team qualifying processes. As a non-profit organization, it is imperative that USAW operates with financial transparency. During a recent meeting with a USAW employee I was met with the response, “that is confidential, you aren’t supposed to know about that”, that response cannot exist in non-profit organizations. Through the rapid growth of athlete memberships, coaching memberships and coaching courses over the recent years, USAW has had a great financial windfall, HOW IS THAT MONEY BEING USED TO HELP THE LIFTERS?
I’m excited about the growth of weightlifting in the US and happy to help support athletes who are part of it. I hope that you know that these suggestions come from a place of support and I know that some of them already have steps being taken towards achieving them. I am a fan of weightlifting and want to see us succeed. The majority of these ideas do not require much if any financial investment by USAW, they just require creativity, diligence and work ethic, I implore you to do that work, make tough decisions and do what is best for the athletes and the sport and work toward creating a successful American System.
Chad Wesley Smith