The Psychology of Hammer Throwing: Two Case Studies
by Niall Cannon, University of Notre Dame
This paper details a two-case study of Olympic hammer throwers to be presented in two parts. It examines how world-class hammer throwers employ psychological principles to assist them in competition. The first case study is on Jud Logan, a former American-record holder who took fourth place in the 1992 Olympics at Barcelona. The second study details Lance Deal, the current American-record holder and first American to medal in the hammer throw in over forty years. The second study also examines how Deal had to use mental strategies to prevent himself from squandering his Olympic experience.
Part One: Jud Logan
Jud Logan, one of America’s top hammer throwers and fourth-place finisher at the Olympics in Barcelona, believes that there are five keys to the psychology of hammer throwing. In an interview with Jud (personal communication 1998), he professed that the first component is a positive mental attitude and belief system. Even though some practices and competitions are better than others, Jud says, “I refuse to have a bad day.” Here, Jud shows that he has engineered his brain never to allow him to accept doing poorly. This is an extremely important concept for throwing. If your first two throws are just horrible and your technique is off, or if you’re just tired, giving up is a sure fire way to set yourself up for choking on the third throw.”
Secondly, for all athletes in any sport to attain success, they must believe wholeheartedly in their system of training and coaching. Logan claims to “have a strong, unparalleled belief in my system”. He describes his belief as “blind faith in my college coach”. If the athlete holds the coach as immortal, the chances of success are significantly higher. The athlete needs to truly believe the coach when he/she says something and needs to believe that it will become true. Logan feels that this type of mental approach to the coach-athlete relationship lays the foundation for the mental side of throwing. It is of such great importance to Logan, that he says, “without this foundation or underlying structure, it is nearly impossible for an athlete to be focused in big meets like the Olympics.”
Third, once an athlete has a firm foundation of a belief system of training and coaching, then he can enter into the stage of mental imagery. Because the athlete believes in training, providing he works hard, the athlete will inevitably begin to witness positive results. Now that the athlete has a catalogue of good performances in his mind, he can rewind the successful images mentally and visualize what was happening at that time. Logan states that:
Once you have enough good performances, you learn to know what they feel like. You learn to FEEL it before you make the throw, over and over again in your mind. This allows you to dream of winning. An attitude, belief system, and a strong mind are a hard combination to find, but more importantly, a hard combination to beat.
Once the hammer thrower has accomplished and experienced success, his confidence begins to build. Personal records in throwing, along with personal records in the weight room, vertical jump, and other measures of strength and explosion add to this increased confidence.
Logan feels that confidence is a word “that is thrown around like a cup of coffee and is underestimated for sport performances”. In all sports, especially hammer throwing, where all eyes are on the athlete standing in the seven-foot circle, confidence is what distinguishes the big time performers from the chokers. The thrower must have confidence in his ability to perform the technique while under the watchful and evaluative eyes of others. This ability to perform personal bests in pressure situations, Logan feels, stems from “good hard training” because “without good old fashioned hard work and goal setting, confidence is unachievable in pressure situations.”
Fourth, goal-setting is an invaluable asset to athletes in training, especially sports such as hammer throwing where it is very easy to assess where you stand in relation to your goals since it is founded on objective measurements. Goal-setting necessitates awareness because first the athlete sets the goals, then attempts to reach them, then evaluates the performance and finally adjusts the goal to realistic standards (Harris & Harris, 1984; McClements & Botterill, 1979). It is crucial that the athlete make a distinction between outcome goals and process goals. Martens (1987) and Burton (1983, 1984, 1989) relate how outcome goals represent “standards of performance that focus on the results of a contest” and how performance goals focus on making improvements in each competition.
While the long-term outcome goal of a hammer thrower in college may be to throw approximately 210 feet and thus be invited to the NCAA championships, he must set numerous short-term performance and training goals in order to achieve the goal of throwing 210 feet. One of the first places he may begin his goal-setting is to make short-term goals in the weight room. The goal of increasing one’s power clean, snatch, or squat max by fifteen pounds over a six-week interval is a fine example of short-term goal-setting. The hammer thrower whose intention is to throw six inches farther at every preliminary meet is another example of setting short-term performance goals. However, the thrower with the goal of throwing 210 feet must have numerous short-term goals that pave the way to throwing 210 feet. He may wish to throw 210 feet all he wants, but if there are not objective intermediate goals set and then attained, he will never one day just pick up the hammer and throw it 210 feet. Logan feels that it is crucial to “keep a training log and set short-term achievable goals that allow the athlete to reach long term ‘loftier goals’ and when this happens, confidence is easily instilled.” Accomplishing numerous short-term goals instills a feeling of confidence in the athlete. Logan feels that when he achieves these short-term goals, then he realizes that the “training system had set me up for my best performance of the year.”
Finally, the athlete must tie all of his training together on one day and make sure that not only is he ready technically and physically, but also mentally. Many athletes choke on these big days because of nervousness, fear, or any other number of mental obstacles. Logan utilizes a unique way of killing nervous feelings and taking pressure off by approaching the big meets with the saying “I don’t compete to win, I compete to reward.” This type of self-talk helps alleviate the pressure because Logan takes the big meet and views it as a chance to gain personal satisfaction for himself, not as a chance to show the world how good he is. Gauron (1984) calls this process of “creating alternative frames of reference or different ways of looking at the world” reframing. Logan takes the pressure of big meets like the World Championships or Olympics and “reframes” it so that he views it as an opportunity to show himself how good he is as a result of all his hard work. Thus, when he is competing in his greatest athletic moment (Olympics), Ravizza (1977) found that athletes who compete without fear have a narrow focus of attention, total immersion in the activity, and a feeling of being in complete control.
Logan is adamant that a competition is a reward for the hours of hard training. Each thrower is rewarded at least three throws and the possibility of an additional three for the countless times he woke up with an aching back from doing squats or each time he had to sit in an ice bath because his shoulders hurt from throwing so much. If the athlete looks at the three throws as a personal reward for his dedication in training, rather than a time to impress others, much of the anxiety and pressure will be lifted.