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Wednesday, 12 February 2014

a conversation with Jeremy Wotherspoon...


I was lucky enough to work with Jeremy Wotherspoon for a year - during his so-called ‘off-year’ after the Torino Olympics.  I found him to be not only one of the most intelligent athletes I have ever met, but also one of the most intuitive.  During this year, we tried to push some of the boundaries of what were the traditional paradigms in speedskater-training.  Having rarely put on skates, and with very little experience with the sport other than watching the athletes glide by every day at the Calgary Olympic Oval, where the sprinters, bobsledders, and skeleton athletes I worked with were training, I was able to look at the sport, and the training methodologies, with ‘new eyes’.  Together, I think we had a pretty successful year.  Coming off the disappointment of the Torino Olympic year, Jeremy was able to reboot, work on some technical issues, try a few new things, and come back stronger than ever - setting the world record in his first year back.


For those of you who’s first experience with speedskating is the Olympic games, it may seem like an awkward flailing of limbs in each and every direction.  However, if you get the opportunity to see it up close and in person, and really pay attention to those who have mastered this sport, there is a combination of power and grace that is very rare.   A powerful and technical skater in full flight is beautiful to behold.  And Jeremy was the undoubted master of them all.  Respected as perhaps the greatest technical skater of all-time, watching him skate could at the same time be awesome, breathtaking, and inspiring.  

Jeremy is now the Head Sprint Coach of the KIA Speed Skating Academy, and is currently in Sochi coaching Chinese sprinter Bei Xing Wang,  Polish 500m specialist Artur Was, Taiwanese 500m specialist Ching-yang Sung, and Norwegian sprinter Espen Hvammen.

We sat down in the back of the Athlete Recreation Center in the Sochi Coastal Village, and had a nice little chat...



Training Methodology

SM: OK...let’s get right into it.  In track and field, we have a couple fo different camps for sprint coaching methodology - one camp promotes over-distance, and a lot of volume, while the other promotes primarily under-distance work, and an emphasis on intensity.  From the outside looking in, it always seemed in speedskating, there is only one:  it is all over-distance/under-intensity training...

Why haven’t speedskating coaches, for instance, looked at track and field programs, and learned from successful track and field coaches, where there is a far longer history, far greater populations, and many more coaches and athletes?  Are there no similarities there?  At least in energy-system development...


JW: This idea seems to have come from the history of Speed Skating being a sport where most of the athletes tried to do every distance, from 500m up to 10000m, I'm happy I was born when I was.  Even when skaters started to specialize (starting in the 80s); a sprinter for example would still try to be good at the 500m (~37" for men and 40" for women), 1000m (~1'13" for men and 1'20" for women), and even the 1500m (~1'55" for men and 2'05" for women).  GaĆ©tan Boucher did this quite well.  When skaters really specialized, sprinters would still train for the 500m and the 1000m.  I think this can best be explained by the competition formats:

World All-round Championships (started in the 1890s)
500m, 1500m, 5000m, 10000m

World Sprint Championships (since 1970)
2x500m, 2x1000m

If you were only good at the 500m - no world Championships for you!  Not until 1996 -when the World Single distance championships were introduced - which should just be called World Championships.

So there are 80 years of all-distance tradition, then 20 years of sprint-middle tradition, and now 18 years of individual-distance focus.  Coaches just adapted what they knew from tradition - it is easy to see the reason over-distance training still has a hold of sprint training in speed skating.

When coaches continue to implement the training that they believe worked for them in the past, over-distance will continue to come up, it has been a bit part of most skaters' training histories.  When it doesn't work, or if a skater does not want to train over-distance, he or she usually gets labelled lazy, unfit, mentally weak, un-coachable, etc.  Coaches like the version they believe in to be the correct version and will knowingly and/or unknowingly find the proof to back it.  Often we are guilty of dismissing something, not because we have proved it wrong, but to increase confidence in what we believe.


SM: OK...so what about cycling?  Why the insistence on cycling for speedskaters?


JW: Again - part of it is tradition.  Ice was only available for a few months of the year, so training became sitting on a bike.  But that’s not the case any more - ice is available pretty-much year-round, so I’m not sure why everyone still cycles so much.  Tradition...


Marcin Goszcynski, who has just walked into the room:  I think there is a really cool opportunity right now.  Previously, the strongest person won - as everyone was pretty much doing the same thing - all doing the same training. Everyone was cycling.  So if you’re a coach now, you have the opportunity to look at things a little differently - it’s no longer necessary to cycle all the time, as ice is available almost all year.  For example, you look at some skaters who get injured in the summer - don’t do anything, come back in December for Trials, for example - I can think of a couple of skaters like that - and are really successful.  Then you look back, and they didn’t ride the bike at all - they did some weights, did some technical tuff, skated a couple of months, and are skating faster than ever.   Healthy, they then go back to the cycling, and go right back to where they were before.  The best people have the ability to adapt, and become good, but is it the best that they could be?


JW: Their reaction would be though - imagine if they didn’t get hurt, and could have done all the cycling!  Then we would have had a really fast year, you know?  I was never a skater that if I got hurt - I didn’t really get too stressed about missing some training - some people they get anxiety about it, and then feel that they have to make up for it or something...I never got stressed about it.  I thought ‘well, I have to deal with this, and then just carry on’.  In 1997, I had to leave a training camp because I had an appendix attack - July - the middle of the Summer - and then pretty much missed 6 weeks of intense training, and then I had my best season ever to that point - by far.  

Like my off year after the Torino Games - that year we did no cycling at all, and I remember other groups were talking - like what are these sprinters thinking?  They’re not doing any cycling.  But the sport is speedskating - it’s not cycling!  I didn’t miss it.  I came back and raced better than ever...it was a combination of factors - it wasn’t just no cycling - but to me that was the biggest change - the biggest eye-opener.  We changed quite a few things around, and changed the focus of training - which went from all energy system and physiology-based - and almost always endurance as being a primary or secondary objective of the training - like focussing on my weakness...keeping speed after 40 seconds of skating at top speed.  

Then I took the year off - did some different type of training -  and then when I came back, we had a new National Coach for the sprints, and his focus was much more on acceleration and top-speed, and my acceleration and top-speed got a lot higher - and even in the 1000m, where the last lap has always been hard for me, that improved by 7/10ths of a second...that was all because of acceleration and top-speed work, not because I was working on any type of endurance work.  


SM: We’ve spoken a lot about coache’s insistence on spending a lot of time working on developing athletes’ weaknesses.  I personally feel that at the elite level, very little time should be spent on weakness.  Can you give some insight to why this doesn’t seem the case in skating?


JW: I think a lot of coaches see the athlete - and we see that they’re good at all of these areas, but we have these one or two weaknesses, and if we can just improve in these one or two areas...but, if you’re a sprint-based/power-based type of athlete - like I was a guy - good top-speed, pretty good acceleration, not good endurance after about 45 or 50 seconds. So because of that, I could be really good at both the 500 and the 1000, as long as I was really fast in the first 600-800m of the 1000.  But then the coaches thought - well if we can just improve the last half-lap of his 1000, and with his speed, he’s going to be really good - like dominant in the 1000...which sometimes I was anyway.  The problem with that, was when we really focussed on that - everything was geared towards the last lap in the 1000 - which compromised my acceleration training, and compromised my top-speed.  So I was consistently finishing stronger than before, but was consistently slower in the first 600m, and in the 500m race - so the trade-off was a negative net.


SM:  How did this re-focus of training effect your psyche?


JW: yeh - for sure.  If you always feel like you can rely on something.  You rely on it.  You rely on it.  And then it’s not there - you start searching.  And the more you start searching, the more you start over-thinking things.  Obviously, it is important to think about stuff if you want to improve it - but if you over-think it, then you start making things too mechanical and too unnatural, and then you lose a lot - you lose more than you gain.  And then after I had started coaching, and began skating again - coming back from being a coach - I was definitely over-thinking some things a bit too much.  As I was so used to watching and analyzing...I began self-analyzing a bit too much.  So when I let things go more, then I started skating better.  


SM: How do you try to promote that as a coach?


JW: It’s difficult.  Every athlete is different.  It depends upon the time of year.  There are certain times of the year when I am trying to educate them about what I think are the keys for them to get better.  But I always want to know - when I see them do something well - I ask them ‘what were they thinking?’  What was going on in their heads? How did it feel? Not even so much so that I know - but if they say it, then they will begin to remember things that might keep them rolling.


MG: I think a lot of that also depends upon the person - some people you can ask that of, and they will answer ‘I don’t know’, but now you have implanted that question, it forces them to think about it.  And on the flip-side - those that just do it naturally without thinking start over-thinking....and then it can create a cycle where they lose the ability to control it unconsciously.  Getting back to your original question - sometimes people look for singular answers to complex problems.  But so much of it depends on the person, or the situation, or the environment.  

Most people think that simple things are done by everyone.  For example - even when we are here - in Sochi - at the Olympic Games - and I here people say ‘Oh - we are working on this or that weakness’...to me, that is mind-blowing!  You’re at the Olympic Games - you’re two days out before the race, and you’re going to be working on a weakness?!  In my experience, really good coaches - when they get to a really big competition - even if it a placebo - are making you think you are ON.  Of course, that becomes dangerous if you’re always doing that - then the athletes see right through it, and you get to the competition, and the athletes ask ‘well, is he really meaning that?’ ‘Does he really see that?’



Athlete Responsibility

SM: I want to talk about athlete responsibility.  As an example - we know one athlete who probably took too little personal responsibility for her career.  This  initially probably helped her.  All she needed to worry about was doing exactly as she was told.  Her complete trust in her coach, her team, and her system, was more than likely a huge part in her success.  Ultimately though, it may have hurt her - as later in her career, and admittedly after some health problems - when she no longer felt that complete faith in her ‘team’, she struggled.    Conversely, you were one of those athletes that probably knew more about your sport than the people that coached you.  In my opinion, there is a risk in this, as that athlete can tend to be overly-analytical.  Overly self-monitoring.  Overly-sensitive, etc…it can also lead to much more questioning of programming, etc…and that lack of faith/trust is often a big, big thing.  

The cliche of belief in the wrong program is more important than no belief in the right program is a cliche for a reason...


JW: This is a tricky topic because each athlete is so different and the idea has so many different facets to it,

  • nutrition
  • recovery
  • honesty (to oneself)
  • goal-setting
  • therapy
  • decision-making
  • motivation
  • physical preparation
  • mental preparation
  • education
  • is the coach a leader, mentor, peer, guide, dictator, authoritative
  • and like I said, the unique personality of the athlete

The key is to strike a balance of everything, and that is much easier when you can have discussions about these points with someone.  In my opinion, if the athlete tries to take responsibility for everything, they will burn out.  It is too much to plan with too many decisions to make.  The coach should be able to talk knowledgeably about everything the athlete asks about, and if not, the coach should have resources they can rely on.  A coach can only talk the talk for a limited amount of time before trust is lost, and lost trust is usually the beginning of the end of a relationship.  My advice to coaches, be honest, ask questions to others and don't pretend to know everything.

The coach-therapist relationship is also important in this.  Not all athletes know best, what ails them, what to do about it, how much to work on it and when.  When the athlete/coach/therapist/psychologist connection is strong, variances in tissue, technique, performance and force/power output can be better monitored; training can be better individualized, mental cues can be more appropriate for the athlete and so on.  

This leaves the difficult decisions out of the athletes hands and keeps the most knowledgeable people responsible for what they know best.

With the athlete specifically, - I agree - too much knowledge can be a dangerous thing.  Because trust can be lost when the athlete knows more or thinks they know more than the coach, therapist, director, etc.

Personally, I had points in my career as an athlete where I didn't trust the programming.  I wasn't willing to go out of the program, so it lead to a lack of trust and lack of faith in the coach, and lack of faith in the efficacy of the programming.  All negative inputs to training and performance. I went from a pure racer who didn't care too much about training times, to a perfectionist athlete who couldn't find any confidence due to the lack of perfection in my training sessions.  The training sessions were not disaster situations - I was skating well but noticed every little thing, started thinking too much, noticed more things, stopped having unconscious flow in training, lost confidence, and then lost the ability to step up and out of my comfort zone in a race.

This happened more than once, and once you know a lot about a subject it is very difficult to let things go while you are engaged in that subject.

Experience is a double edged sword.

It is true that belief in the training is more important than perfection of the training (execution and programming).

The most critical area of athlete responsibility to me is when it comes down to dedication.  That means sleep, nutrition, supplements, recovery, showing up for therapy, lifestyle, giving the support team ALL of the information they need.  It is the athlete's responsibility to take care of the general picture, leaving a lot of the details and guidance on how to do that to the specialists, as well as learning from those around them (teammates, peers, parents, role models, etc.).

When it comes specifically to the sport technical area, the coach has to try to understand the way each athlete processes the given information - especially when it's technical information.  This, in order to keep balance between knowing enough to improve and knowing more than is helpful, allowing the athlete to become too self critical.  The same goes for older athletes - those with a lot of experience, possibly more than the coach.  The coach needs sound arguments for their methodology, good communication, and in some cases, it may be prudent to form more of a ‘partnership’ with older athletes.

Ideally, in all cases, the athlete should feel like they bring something to the table, their trust, dedication, work ethic count here - not just ideas and knowledge.



Canadian Olympic Team

SM: Let’s talk briefly about the Sochi experience.  One thing that is a little curious to me is the Canadian speedskating team here has how many athletes?  


MG: 17


SM: ...and how many staff?


MG: 20


SM: ...so more staff than athletes.  Maybe I am totally out to lunch here, but I think that is potentially problematic - for a number of reasons.  Jer - I would argue that this effected your career, for sure right?


JW: I don’t know that this is even the most either...I think at other times, it was even more.  Vancouver was more, for instance...

I think the thing that is tough about that is that for a skater, you go from a normal competition situation - which is just having your core group that you are used to having around - and they are the same people that are at World Cups, National Competitions, and World Championships - and then you go to the Olympics - which is already a much bigger event - and suddenly there are a lot more people around you, and there is a lot more things going on around the event.  I know a lot of it is necessary - because it is the Olympics, and that is the nature of the event - but much of it is distractions created by the team, or the Olympic Committee - or whoever it is - to try to protect you, and cover all of your needs as an athlete while you are at the Olympics - but if there is too much of that, I think that it de-normalizes the situation too much.

This year, I am here with the Chinese team, and it is the opposite!  I got here thinking ‘OK, I’m going to have all these people trying to talk to me in Chinese’ - and I don’t know any Chinese - and I get into the Chinese apartments - and it’s dead.  There’s nobody!  It’s the other extreme - I don’t know where anyone is!  If I need something, I’m knocking on doors - can’t find anything.  There’s no general office - nothing.  The nice thing is - for me and for the skaters - it seems like everything is normal.  Peaceful and quiet.  There is no weird outfitting going on.  No distractions.  

I even got a bag of stuff and it all fit!  It never fits!  But everything fits!!  I never had that with the Canadian team - in how many World Cup Teams, World Championships and Olympic Games with the Canadian Team - nothing ever fit.  I didn’t even give the Chinese my sizes!  In Vancouver - home Olympics - half my stuff didn’t fit, and so they set up this thing to swap with people - i go there, but just ended up with a bunch of stuff that didn’t fit.  I’m still bitter !!


MG: Everything that the Canadian team has done this year is actually in response to what happened in Vancouver.  They changed it for London, and then for here.  Outfitting was actually really good - you went in - tried everything on, and got exactly what you needed.  Another example is the medical staff that they brought here is obviously pretty big - but all the therapists are only responsible for those they worked on back home.  So the team is big, but no one is working with anyone they are not familiar with.  They have tried to keep it as consistent as it was in Canada.  And it quickly gets shut down if someone wants to outsource to someone else.  There were lessons learned form Vancouver for sure...it’s a lot better now.  the athletes don’t just use the service because it is there.  You don’t want to be introducing new variables.  That is a fundamental thing at this level.  If you are at this level and you don’t know that, then there is a problem...


SM:  OK Jer - 3 Questions:

What does success look like to you?

That’s a hard question.  it’s a lot of different things.  We’ve seen athletes skate well, and perform poorly.  Others who have skated poorly, and performed really well.  I think it’s got to be a combination.  Ultimately, if you can be a part of creating a situation where athletes are becoming more responsible and more knowledgeable about all parts - not just training, but recovery, nutrition, lifestyle habits - all the things that they need to do really well - the things that they need to do well to give them the best chance - I think that is a sign of successful coaching.  

It’s being able to know the difference between - if you make this training program, sometimes you can become emotionally involve in the plan - it is dangerous if you get stuck into thinking that the goal is to be able to carry out the plan.  Instead, the goal is to use the plan as a framework, and then be flexible within that framework - because it is never going to go exactly as you expect.  There will always be changes.  

I think if athletes want to come back and work with you again, I think that is a sign of success.  

Ultimately, I think that if you - together with the athlete - have figured out what gets them better.  I guess that is the ultimate sign - if you are able to figure out what gets them better, and they get better.  


What are the three  most important factors that determine your success?

1. The ability to properly assess an athlete’s strengths and weaknesses

2. You must know what the athlete’s objective is

3. The ability to be flexible.  


What motivates you?

It is changing all the time...it’s different with each athlete.  Success for each athlete is different than another.  Ultimately, I’m motivated personally to be able to deliver something better and better, as often as I can improve - I want to improve it.  To create a core of things that I know works, and to be able to be flexible within that core of my own experiential knowledge, and have the ability to add things when I think it is appropriate.



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Jeremy Wotherspoon is widely regarded as the best-ever speedskater in the sprint events.  The current world record holder for the 500m, Jeremy is also a four-time World Sprint Champion, a 13-time World Cup Overall Champion, and four-time Olympian - wining a silver medal in his first Olympics in Nagano in 1998.  He has won the most World Cup races in the history of the sport - capturing 67 over the course of a 14 year career. In total, he won a staggering 125 World Cup medals.


1 comment:

  1. This article has been a learning experience for me as an athlete. I thought I was doing the right thing by trying to coach myself based on speed philosophies of yourself and Dan Pfaff relative to 100m amd 200m However I lost trust of my sprints coach and have burntout a few times this year. Even though my coaches plan worked great for me last year (my first ever season) I lost a lot of trust from researching too much and now I am in a position of wondering what to do. How can I build my trust back up in my coach to believe in his programming now I know more than I should as an athlete?

    Any help will be appreciated

    Thanks :)

    ReplyDelete