Coaches I Love: Harry Marra and 18 Words to a World Record

At the USTFCCCA (US Track/XC Coaches Association) Annual Convention last month, world class coaches came together for education symposiums, award ceremonies, and to bond and network with each each other for a week in sunny Phoenix, Arizona. While there were many tremendous learning opportunities, one in particular still comes up in conversations, with many of us struggling to wrap our heads around it. This was Harry Marra’s presentation titled “The Art of Coaching.”

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As all of us in the coaching community know, the University of Oregon brought Marra in to help coach talented decathlete Ashton Eaton and heptathlete Brianne Theisen, both of whom he continued to coach professionally. Ashton Eaton broke pretty much every world record in a multi event (Indoor Heptathlon, Olympic and World Record in Decathlon) while Theisen has an Olympic bronze medal and several World Championship silvers to her name as well as the Canadian Record. Marra previously coached 5 other 8,000 point decathletes and has served on the USA’s coaching staff for Olympic and World Championships since the 80’s. So, he’s legit.

In his presentation we got what many of us were really hoping for: the nuts and bolts of training for a world record. While he didn’t talk much about the physical side of training, he talked about the mental preparation and ways he cued his athletes. It was apparent both from the results he gets with his athletes and from his presentation that he has a knack for explaining very complex ideas in a very simple way. He was able to teach Eaton and Theisen parts of the track and field throwing motion by using their similarities with baseball throwing and hitting. This sort of teaching for transfer is a hallmark of a talented educator, which is what a world-class coach usually is.

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He also shared the story behind Eaton’s unorthodox but incredibly effective shot put “shuffle” technique (also explained by Eaton here.) The story essentially goes like this:

  • Eaton is having bad practice in shot
  • Coach Marra keeps telling him the same thing with no results
  • Nothing clicks
  • Eaton, frustrated, chucks shot put as hard as he can at the wall
  • Marra: Eureka! Let’s try that again!

Essentially, Marra being the genius that he is, saw in this act of frustration all the essential characteristics of a world class shot put, and later modified and refined an unorthodox technique that culminated in a world record. I will say the breakthrough for a couple of my decathlete high jumpers was a practice in which they were so tired from the prior day’s training that they accidentally started to add 2 steps to their approaches. I didn’t love it, it wasn’t textbook high jump, but hell, they both jump 4 inches higher with the potential for more, so I am going to work with what they have working instead of trying to break down the improvements their unconscious mind made for them.

As much fun as it was hearing that story, by far the most memorable part of the lecture (which felt much more like a conversation) was Marra’s description of their preparation process. He talked extensively about communication. This is probably the most important skill to have as a coach. After all, it doesn’t matter how much you know, how much you care, or how well you motivate if you can’t communicate these things with your athlete!

He explained that as the training year starts, he uses more explanation, and as the year goes along and competitions heat up, he funnels those cues down to less wordy and explanatory to one or two words that convey the same meaning. He is a big proponent of “less is more” in regards to cueing, of which I am a big fan. I cannot tell you how often I hear coaches giving their athletes five paragraph essays after each race or jump at track meets. I have personally found that the more I say, the less my athletes retain, and if I keep corrections to one particular thing, the athletes are 100% more likely to correct it next time. If I say too much, they won’t know what’s important or they’ll forget 90% of what you said, and it’s never the 90% you can live with them forgetting. Even worse, they’ll come down the runway thinking of everything that you have told them, in which case they’ll suck (thinking athletes are always going to be a step behind non-thinking athletes). Say less and they remember more.

“Most wars were started from lack of communication.” — Harry Marra

The culmination of this simplified cueing system was the heart of the presentation: 18 words. That’s the level of preparation he achieved with Ashton Eaton prior to arriving in London for the 2012 Olympics, in which he smashed his own world record and won gold. I’ll explain that if it’s too mind-boggling to be clear: Ashton Eaton and his coach came into the Olympics in an event that is made up of 10 events with 18 cue words as foci for the competition. That averages out to most events having 2 cue words to focus on, with others having only 1. Everything else was either so automatic, good/consistent enough, or depended on the other cue having been executed that it was an afterthought. Imagine the level of confidence you might have preparing for an event only thinking about one thing, knowing that if you take care of that one thing, everything will fall into place and you will be on track for an Olympic gold medal and world record. That’s real confidence. That shows an otherworldly level of preparation, communication and trust, developed over years of training. This still blows my and every other coach who was in that room’s mind. Winning wasn’t up to chance, it was as simple as putting one foot in front of the other. Although it takes time and preparation, the recipe for success is usually much more simple than we give it credit for being.

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