Written by Team Juggernaut
Social reasons play a large role in the US’s lack of success in the Olympic strength sports, but in Part II of this article we will discuss the needs for a youth development program for US Olympic success. Lets first examine the need for youth development programs to succeed in these sports. I see the need for youth development programs as 3 fold; 1) Exposure to the sport 2) Technical Development 3) Neural pathway development.
Exposure to the Sport
If an athlete doesn’t know a sport exists or has never tried it, they aren’t going to excel in it, obviously. Also, if an athlete doesn’t receive proper exposure to the sport, they will not enjoy it and want to pursue it further. American youth’s only exposure to Olympic weightlifting is often power and hang cleans in their high school football’s offseason program, where the technical development and exposure to competition is extremely limited. While the shot put and discus are high school events in every state and many athletes compete in it, the quality of coaching is still sparse. Conversely, in Finland where Javelin could be considered the national sport (7 of the top 20 in the world in 2010); there are an abundance of camps where youth athletes are being coached by current and former Olympians and World Champions. Also in Hungary, which produces top athletes across all throwing events on a yearly basis, athletes from youth to world elite levels training under the same systems at the same facility in Szombathely. Below is a video of a Chinese Olympic lifting training camp, where a 95 pound 8 year old clean and jerks 165 pounds.
Here there are dozens of youth athletes being exposed to the highest levels of coaching and are priming themselves for success in the long run.
Many argue that the US doesn’t succeed in Olympic lifting and the throws because their athletes aren’t training from pre-adolescent age. It is certainly beneficial to begin learning techniques at a very young age, but it certainly isn’t necessary. There are plenty of American athletes who develop into the best baseball pitchers or quarterbacks, both very technical endeavors, while only beginning to train as high school athletes. I think it is certainly possible to develop the technical skills necessary to excel in Olympic weightlifting and the throws while only being exposed to proper technical coaching from 18 years old and beyond, though it is certainly more ideal to be exposed at a younger age.
This is the most important factor in why youth development programs are necessary for America to succeed in the strength-speed dominant sports of Olympic Weightlifting and the throwing events of track and field. The speed necessary to excel in these sports is extremely high and it is important that the young athletes train at the necessary velocities to one day move their implement of choice at a world class level. During a young athletes development, their neural pathways is much more plastic than later in life and it is during this time that they must develop the speed and wiring, that will one day make them a champion.
On a personal note, as a young athlete (ages 7-13) I was never the big kid and I competed in soccer, track and field (as a shot putter and sprinter) and basketball (as a point guard), all at a club or national level. This experience, particularly in the sprints, gave me the speed and explosive power necessary to help me succeed in track and field and powerlifting as an adult.
It is a common practice in European countries to have their youth athletes throw light hammers (beginning as low as 1kg) until they can achieve a given distance with that weight. Hence, a young athlete will throw a 1kg 80m, then a 2kg 80m, then a 2.5kg and so on and so forth, because an athlete’s body must learn the necessary velocity that must be imparted to the ball to throw elite distances. It is during these formative years, that athletes develop the proper motor patterns to one day reach Olympic glory.
Conor McCullough is an example of a US athlete who has built the proper foundation of nervous system and technical development to experience long term success in an Olympic strength sport.
The need for youth development programs to help the US succeed in these Olympic sports is apparent, but there is still one other important factor, training, which will be discussed in Part III of this series.