Coaching at the 2016 USA Weightlifting Olympic Trials Part 1 – Garage Strength

Coaching at the 2016 USA Weightlifting Olympic Trials Part 1

First, I want to get this off my mind.  Looking back over the past year’s competition schedule, I believe USAW could have done a better job with their athletes (specifically male athletes) by planning out a better schedule to ensure proper peaking for the Olympic Qualifier (Pan Ams).  I believe they could have used the Junior Nationals Trials session or the Arnold Classic as a qualifier for the Pan Am team, which in turn would have given the athletes more time to train and recover and provide them with a peak for Pan Ams.  Instead, they were pushed to compete in the Olympic Trials and then four weeks later turn around and go to Pan Ams and try to put up massive numbers in hopes of making Rio.  I believe this led to many poor performances and possibly an injury to our athlete, Norik Vardanian. 
With that being said, I have wanted to chronicle my experience coaching Norik at the Olympic trials.  First, USA weightlifting did a solid job building up fanfare for the Trials session which I believe would be particularly difficult to develop during a time when USA Weightlifting did not have a CEO to fully run the event (Phil Andrews was in charge but then put in a holding pattern while finding out if he had actually gotten the job. Knowing Phil, I am certain he was still busting his butt during that time.)  There were a few hiccups during the opening ceremony but that did not take away from the intensity of the event.  This was the most intense competition I ever coached for weightlifting.  I have coached numerous national events along with some intense track and field competitions, but I knew Norik would be battling toe to toe with Kendrick Farris and this was something I was very excited to experience. 
After the introductions, we entered back into the warm up room and cemented the strategy we had been discussing over the previous weeks. Norik had specific goals and he laid them out for me, it was my duty to warm him up well and get those weights on the bar.  Some basic things we worked on in warm ups was insuring he felt good with each movement and giving him ample time between reps so he felt good getting after his first attempt on the platform.  What did this include?  Norik’s back had been slightly inflamed so we did some massage on his lower back and glutes, some rolling on a lacrosse ball and some basic stretching before we took any bars for warm ups and made sure his pre-workout was timed out well for competition. 
I knew Norik would be later in the snatch session, which made his warm ups relatively easy to set up. I also knew there would be a lot less jockeying around during the snatch portion compared to the clean and jerk.  Throughout the warm ups, I made sure to take note of feelings Norik was having and inconsistencies, I also liked peaking around at the other Trial’s competitors to see if there were any misses in warm ups.  That is something I believe many coaches are not aware of…often times elite athletes need the same positive messages and the same cues that younger lifters may need.  This was apparent with a lot of the athletes, Norik included.  Consistently reinforcing good movements and acknowledging a fast bar speed is important for their competitive mindset.  What certainly impressed me, was a few of the lifters had some misses in warm ups, yet still went out and crushed some weights while some guys were warming up, looked extremely shaky and thus apparent they would likely bomb out of the competition. 
Norik’s warm ups were not the greatest.  Around 120k he began complaining about his catch position.  He felt unstable and inconsistent when receiving the bar overhead.  Norik is a very laid back lifter and to me as his coach, he was almost TOO tight in the catch.  He has an incredible ability to look relaxed in his snatch catch with his scapula almost entirely depressed.  From 120k-160k, Norik was tight and not receiving the bar as normal. I believe nerves had something to do with this positioning.  He still was able to move 140k extremely fast, in my mind I knew Norik would be fine on the platform because the pulls looked very consistent, all that seemed off was his catch position.  This prompted me to think that once he stepped on the platform, he would be much more comfortable than in the back room where you could cut the intensity with a knife!!!
When we took 160k in the back, Norik was still about 8-9 lifts out from taking the platform.  He missed.  Flustered, he asked to have the weight tightened up and asked if he had time to take 160 again.  We had the time, he was pissed, regrouped and came back to smoke 160k.  This put him in a decent mindset to head out and take 165k for his opener. 
Norik went out and crushed 165k on the platform to get him into the meet.  It’s the little things that people need to take from elite athletes like Norik and Kendrick Farris.  On his approach to the platform, Norik stumbled on a lip that was behind the platform and that others had stumbled on as well.  It did not faze him, nor did he even remember it.  Something like this could easily distract a lifter and get them out of their mindset but the best athlete’s in the world have one focus and that is the competition!  As I thought, he looked much more comfortable in his catch position at 165k and this led me to believe something big could happen in the snatch.  He wanted a bit of rest before his next attempt so we bought him some time.  Colin Burns missed his first attempt at 168k which gave Norik a little more time before Burns came back to make 168k (Burns is one of the lifters that impressed me in warm ups. He looked shaky, missing 140k but proceeded to regroup and look crisp as he ascended to his opener at 164). 
When Norik went out for 169k, I felt relatively certain he would hit the weight and put him in position to break the American record.  This had been part of the goals discussion and Norik is an athlete that has incredible focus when it comes to setting goals and accountability.  He walked out, let the clock run low and then blasted 169k better than he had any other lifts during warm ups.  Is this normal? I believe so.  Coaches ALWAYS want every warm up attempt to be the best attempt they take, but in reality, the best lifts in regard to speed and technique should be done on the platform, the last attempt being the best attempt of the day!  When Norik came off the platform, he made sure I knew 169k was easier than 165k and he wanted 172k but with some time. 
After some jockeying with the cards, 172k was loaded on the platform.  We knew that 172k was a special number, not only would it break Norik's American record, it also would put him in great position heading into clean and jerk.  After some quick back massaging, some solid leg slaps and some explicit words of encouragement, Norik went back on the platform for 172k.  Time wound down on the clock and Norik took 172k for a smooth ride.  Technique was bullet proof and the catch was typical for a Vardanian lift.  The 172k snatch record at 94k is arguably one of the best in the books.  I believe that record stands up there with Oscar Chaplin’s records at 77k and 85k and even Shane Hamman’s 197.5 snatch. 
Stay Tuned for Part 2: The Clean and Jerk Portion
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