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The Psychology of Hammer Throwing: Lance Deal

The Psychology of Hammer Throwing: Two Case Studies
by Niall Cannon, University of Notre Dame

Abstract

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 Two: Lance Deal

Lance Deal, the American record holder and first man to medal for the United States in the hammer throw since 1956, was able to overcome the big time pressure and anxiety of the Olympics to win a silver medal during the games in Atlanta.  Heading into the 1996 Olympics, Deal was one of the top ranked hammer throwers in the world.  However, he almost let his best chance of medaling slip away.  He fouled his first two throws and after his third throw, he was exactly tied for 8th place. He was sure that, just like every other meet, the officials would only take eight throwers to the finals.  Since he was tied, the officials would look at each competitor’s second best mark to determine who would move on to finals and get another three throws.  Deal had no other fair throw; thus, he thought he was finished. Sitting on the bench with his face in his hands, Deal thought he was done. It was not until the score board showed that he did in fact make finals (in the Olympics, in the case of a tie, both competitors go to the finals). Still in 8th place going into his final throw, Deal unleashed the hammer 266 feet and landed in second place, becoming the first American in forty years to medal.

Deal’s road to the silver medal consisted of mental turmoil that began the very moment he arrived in Atlanta.  Once he arrived, Deal had no place to stay.  Somehow the coordination of rooms for athletes got botched and Deal was left without a place to stay.  Deal said in our interview (personal communication 1998) that at this time “my world was basically crumbling around me because this happened two days before the Olympics, two days before what I thought was my best shot to medal.  At a time like that, everything is going to bother you more.”  Fortunately for Deal, when the sports psychologists caught wind of what was going on, they vacated their rooms and slept on some couches so Deal could have his own room.

When an athlete has been training his entire life for one moment, any disruption in normal procedure, such as checking into the hotel, can lead to catastrophic results.  This was not the first time at the Olympics that Deal had to handle plans that went wrong.  During the 1992 Olympic games in Barcelona, the bus going to the stadium where the finals were being held got lost.  In situations such as these, the athlete must calm himself and remain focused on the task at hand.  Deal says, “In my opinion, if you let it be a big deal, then it will be a big deal.  What I was able to do was not let it be a big deal.”  Deal had to repose himself in this situation.  When there are monumental errors, the athlete must take a deep breath and relax in order to control his anxiety.  After this repose stage has been successfully completed, the athlete needs to refocus and find a solution to the problem.  A better solution can be found only after the repose stage because only then is the athlete in a clear and stable frame of mind.  Finally, the athlete needs to respond to the plan of action that he created in the refocus stage by now executing the plan of action to alleviate the original problem.  Deal was able to complete these three stages in Barcelona and soon found his way to the stadium in time for the finals.

Deal began using a sports psychologist in 1991 to help improve the mental aspect of his hammer throwing.  One of the major aspects of mental performance they have worked on is breathing technique.   A substantial part of Deal’s psychological focus is based on certain techniques of breathing like explosive breathing, belly breathing, and alternative nostril breathing.  Deal says that breathing “changes your blood chemistry in different ways and that explosive breathing, in particular, is good for knocking yourself out of a bad loop.”  Explosive breathing is a simple, but extremely effective technique that helps cleanse your body and mind. The athlete takes a deep breath and holds it for about five seconds.  This creates a lot of back pressure and then he pushes the air out of his lungs as violently and quickly as possible.  It can help get the athlete excited and give a feeling of power and being in control.  Often, when a hammer thrower is not throwing well or keeps fouling his throws, he begins to develop feelings of helplessness in regards to technique.  At these times, it feels as if the implement dictates the nature of the throw.  Situations like these are a great time to employ explosive breathing to give the athlete a sense of empowerment over the implement and over his competition.

Having a pre-competition warm-up or pre-meet set of events scheduled is very important for an athlete.  These special warm-ups or pre-meet events should only be done before competition.  This gives the athlete a break from the ordinary warm-ups that are done every before practice all year round.  It helps the mind and body to distinguish between practice and competition through a form of conditioning.  Lance Deal, on the mornings of competition, states:

I like to get up, eat early, and then do something a little bit physical like jump up stairs, mow the grass, or chop some wood – just to get the blood flowing so I can feel my body.  All this time, I’m thinking about throwing.

Obviously Deal does not do this every day before practice because it would eventually become mentally draining. However, getting up early and chopping wood in his backyard, sends signals to his brain and body that today is a special day – a very different day than the previous one.  These pre-meet actions set the necessary mental and physical environment that the athlete needs in order to compete at his best.

In order to compete at the highest level capable, the athlete must maximize his athletic talents and mental capacities.  Often, this means that the athlete has a special frame of mind that he enters before competition.  For example, Deal says, “in my mind, there is a definite geographic location I need to be in order to throw far.”  However, each athlete must tailor his frame of mind for competition to his own emotions, athletic abilities, and personality.  If “you try forever to be someone else, it’s not gonna work”, according to Deal.

To reach peak performance, Deal must construct, psychologically, a bubble.  This allows him to be in a flow (Csikszentmihalyi 1985) which is “the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter” (Csikszentmihalyi 1990, p.4).  Deal has a unique frame of mind, which he enters into before every competition.  He refers to it as “the bubble.”  He says, “I can’t describe it.  Imagine it is like a bubble with thick walls that you can float around in.  The people around me can tell when I’m in the bubble, but they don’t have any idea what’s going on in there.”  To Deal, this bubble acts as a mental refuge from the pressures of being a world class hammer thrower and lets him hide away from all the distractions and fanfare that comes with being the number one ranked hammer thrower in the world.  He continues his description of the bubble by telling us; “Once you’re in there, you are in your own room and you decorate it the way you want to and put pictures on the wall and put your favorite music on.  It’s your room and you’re there.”  Deal has trouble describing his bubble to others because it is such a unique creation that only the individual who created it can understand it.  He says, “trying to define it changes it – it’s kind of like God. How do you describe God?”  Just as God represents someone different to every individual, each person must find his own bubble and way of mentally preparing to compete. Deal conveys this message of individualizing his mental approach when he says:

You go to practice and work on the technique, and you go to the weight room and get your strength. You go to the track and do your plyometrics and power sprints.  Then when it comes to the big meet, your personality comes out.  How you do on the big day has nothing to do with all your training – that’s your base.  How far you throw on the big day reflects your personality.  Thus, finding the way you compete and throw well is very, very individual, more individual than your training. Everybody can take a weight workout and get basically the same result, but I don’t think everybody can do a certain breathing or mental exercise or follow a certain pattern and get the same results.

For Deal, there are many flags that signal his entrance into the bubble before competition.  He says that “after seven years of thinking about it and figuring out where this bubble is for me, I’ve got quite a few flags in the ground on the way, and one of those flags is to get up and chop some wood before to get my blood flowing before meets.”  Another flag for Deal is his support system.  The love of his wife and children provides emotional support and gives him a sense of reassurance.  When his wife Nancy sent him messages on his pager during the Olympics in Atlanta, Deal says “it was good because then I was hooked into my support system.”  Another flag that Deal has which signals his approach to the bubble is his breathing techniques right before the competition.  He says “before I start warming up for any competition, I do alternate nostril breathing where I breathe in one side and blow it out the other and repeat this.  It helps me keep focused.”  These are just three examples of the many flags that point the way to Deal’s bubble.  They provide a mental haven where he is completely in control of not only the implement, but also the world.  This lends a sense of empowerment and dominance to Deal that is definitely the mental attitude needed by an athlete when competing in the Olympics and trying to throw a sixteen pound object over 270 feet.  Without physical control, which begins with mental control, the hammer will overwhelm the athlete.  Hence, when Deal is in his bubble, his emotions of complete control and relaxation transcend the pressures of the Olympics.  He walks up to the ring to throw, and it is as if he is in another world – which he is in mentally.  In his bubble, Deal is unaware of the eighty-five thousand screaming fans or the fact his competitors are throwing personal bests. He is completely focused on executing the technique, which will result in a personal best for him.

There have been times before where Deal’s bubble burst and the competition ended in failure.  He had blown a couple of meets before 1991, but none as significant as the 1991 world championships.  At the world championships, the officials would not move the cage back a few feet for him even though he was left handed.  As a result, the right side of the cage was directly in his plane of vision on his release.  This caused a distraction that he had never dealt with before, since it had never been a problem to move the cage back.  Deal said that “it knocked me off and I fouled my first throw . . . I completely exploded mentally.”

When there is a mental explosion such as the one that Deal experienced at the World Championships, it is very difficult to pull one’s self out of a hole. Such mental vices as negative self-talk, doubt, and fear now enter into the mind of the thrower.  These detrimental mental processes usually ensure failure.  The thrower only has roughly three to five minutes between his throws.  This small amount of time adds to the probability that he will not have time to rearrange his mental outlook and gather himself for a successful throw.  Like many other sports, but especially throwing, success and failure are contagious.  If a thrower has an outstanding first throw, often the next three are also good throws. However, when the first throw is a scratch or feels awkward and out of control, it is likely that the next few throws will also not be too successful.  This is largely due to the confidence that is built early in your series of throws.  If your first throw was great and you are at the top or near the top of the competition, it allows you to relax and take much of the pressure off.

Muscle tension and anxiety are two of the most common downfalls to a thrower.  To ensure that he does not have to encounter muscle tension and anxiety, Deal enters his bubble.  The bubble provides a sense of security and allows Deal to transcend all the pressures and other distractions that come with throwing against world class athletes.  However, the bubble that Deal enters before competitions is very individual and cannot be compared to any tangible object.  Earlier, Deal said, “I can’t describe it. Imagine it is like a bubble with thick walls that you can float around in.  The people around me can tell when I’m in the bubble, but they don’t have any idea what’s going on in there”.  His notion of “floating around” in the bubble tells us that when Deal escapes to his mental haven, he feels so little stress, tension, and anxiety that he literally feels like he is hovering in the air.  It means that Deal has entered into a trance that provides a surreal state of mind to him.  This isolates him from his competitors, and the pressures of competition.

Since using a sport psychologist for seven years, Deal finally had mapped out a path to his bubble.  He could almost routinely climb into the bubble for major competitions and it appeared that it was the cure to all butterflies and anxiety.  For the next few years since mentally exploding at the World Championships, Deal went on a tear.  Quickly he attained a top ten world ranking and then in the year leading up the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, Deal was rewarded with the number one rank in the world for hammer throwers.  It was not a feat accomplished since Hal Connolly had last won his gold medal in 1956. In the prime of his career, feeling he had mastered the technique, and with his number one world ranking, Deal marched into Atlanta in search of a gold medal for himself, the first for America in that event in over forty years.  However, things did not go as planned.

As one would expect, Deal began preparing mentally for the Olympics almost a year before Atlanta.  He explains that “my whole plan, for a year, was to throw 78-79 meters on my first throw and 83 meters on my second throw.  Way back in October of 1995, this plan was in my head”.  Thinking about and focusing on one meet a year before the competition, may have been the downfall to Deal.  Creating a plan that far back may have unknowingly placed an enormous amount of stress upon him.  All Deal had to do was show up at the Olympics, throw the same distances he was used to throwing in practice, and the gold would have been his.  However, his bubble burst and Deal became a mental disaster.

Deal had been to the Olympics before in Barcelona, but never had he participated with the title of the number one ranked hammer thrower and the public’s expectation of gold.  Added to all this was the fact that the Olympics were in his home country.  Deal described his emotional experiences directly before competition:

I was actually crying during the warm-ups.  The music was blaring and then they lined us up for introductions and they played the 2001 theme song and I just about jumped out of my skin.  When they announced my name, I had never heard anything so loud and the crowd was going nuts. I’m using this, and I’m getting up for it.  I think I may have gotten a little too up.

There were no such elaborate introduction ceremonies in most of the meets Deal competed in.  The huge crowd going nuts when his name was announced was an event he had never experienced before. Most of the best track and field meets take place in Europe and he is not welcome there because he often beats Europe’s best.  Warm-ups felt great and Deal was set to begin the competition.  Mentally, he was on the verge of entering into his bubble.  Deal says that “after the first round of throws, nobody had thrown over 80 meters and I thought to myself ‘shoot, I can just go win this thing right now – but I wound up scratching my first throw.”  The game plan that he had been working on for over a year was tossed by the wayside in a matter of seconds.  When Deal decided to look up at the scoreboard and see how the other competitors had thrown, he left his bubble.  One of the essential aspects of the bubble is not to pay attention to the competitors.  As a result, he abandoned his game plan in an attempt to throw the hammer as far as possible – the result was a scratch.

A little nervous now, but not in a state of panic by any means, Deal had to find a way to climb back mentally into his bubble.  He explains his attempt to climb back into his bubble by doing a breathing exercise. He says:

I have this breathing exercise and while I’m doing it I say ‘one throw, one throw only’. I kept saying that and again I scratched the second throw. Now I was completely knocked out of my bubble. So, I kept trying to get there by doing some explosive breathing and kept rewinding the week of practice previous to the games where I was throwing personal bests on almost every throw.

Deal attempted to use the explosive breathing to bring him out of the rut he was in.  To an extent, it worked because the throw would have put him into second place except that his foot nudged the outside of the ring causing a foul. Now, his mental state of mind was a disaster zone. Fifteen years of training for the Olympics was all about to come down to his third and final throw.  He needed to make sure it was legal and a pretty good throw in order to make it into finals and get three more throws.  On his third throw, Deal says, “I finally had a fair one, but I looked up and saw the scoreboard and saw that I was in 9th place. I thought I was out. I was dead – finished.”  In track meets, the top eight distances go to finals and get three more throws, but Deal had thrown the exact same distance (down to the millimeter) as the 8th place competitor and they usually look at the next best throw of each to determine who moves on.  Since Deal had no other legal throw, he thought for sure he was out. However, in the Olympics, if two competitors are tied, both move on.  Deal sat on the competitor bench contemplating his retirement and entertained emotions of utter failure and disappointment.  Just fifteen minutes earlier, Deal was about to jump out of his skin upon hearing his named announced on the loud speakers.  This emotional roller coaster was exhausting and draining.

Deal was unaware of the Olympic rule that stated, in the case of a tie, both athletes move on to the finals.  Deal says that “they took nine to the finals and I had 90 seconds to get my glove, shirt, and shoes back on again. Because I was rushed, I fouled the first throw in finals.”  Ninety seconds is far too short of a time for an athlete to gather himself and compose a mental game plan when seconds ago he thought his throwing career was over.  As a result, it could have been predicted by almost anyone that his first throw would be a foul.  Finally, Deal gathered himself and moved into an honest 8th place on his third throw, which he bluntly felt “still stinks when you’re looking at winning.”  Still far removed from the tranquil settings of his bubble where anxiety and tension do not exist, Deal was infused with emotions of anger, disappointment, and nervousness.  Before his 6th and final throw, Deal desperately sought to find his bubble again.

Mentally, Deal was trapped in a cycle of negative self-talk and feelings of anger.  He needed to do something that would help him gain a new outlook for his final throw, one which would bring him closer to his bubble.  He says, “one of the things I do in a competition, if things are not going well, is leave. If I cannot leave physically, I try to leave mentally.  In Atlanta, I got to leave physically.  It kinda breaks the cycle of that mental talk that is not good.”

Deal was able to physically remove himself from the area and take a moment to gain some control over what was going on before his final throw.  He says:

I was throwing and kicking stuff around. Not to vent, but to put myself back in a position of control because at the time I was a loser and the biggest choker at the games and my twelve years of intense training was down the toilet.

Deal was creating a situation where he was in complete control when he left the stadium for a moment.  His throwing of water coolers and kicking trashcans allowed him to regain some sense of power.  He was now ready to re-enter the stadium as a totally different place than the one that saw him waste away his first five throws.  He had armed himself with a new, empowering outlook and was ready to control the hammer instead of letting it command him.

Changing his emotions from powerlessness to empowerment, Deal was once again locked into his support network.  To Deal, this was vital.  It provided a feeling of security and allowed him to ease back into a comfort zone.  He commented earlier that locking into his support system was one of the flags in the ground that he always saw before entering the bubble.  Deal described how it affected him mentally when he saw that his wife, Nancy, had made her way to the railing of the tunnel where he was now re-entering the stadium:

Coming back into the stadium for my final throw, I saw my wife who was in speaking distance.  She said to me, and I’ll never forget it, ‘yea, you know how to throw far’. And it made me say to myself, ‘yeah, I know how to throw far, what am I worried about’ . . . seconds later, 6th throw, 81 meters.

The fact that the most important person in his life was there at a time when he was at the lowest moment in his athletic career made a gigantic difference to him.  Encouragement from the person who loved him unconditionally gave him feelings of assurance and helped him climb back into his bubble for his 6th and final throw.

That 6th and final throw of 81 meters meant that Lance Deal had climbed from eighth to second place, a mere four inches behind the gold medalist.  However, Deal says “the place that I was at mentally when I walked into the ring for that last throw is the hardest part to describe”.  Walking back into the stadium, after speaking with his wife for a second, Deal had found his way back into the bubble.  The fact that he has trouble describing what was going on is evidence that Deal was so engrossed and so focused that he was oblivious to all else except doing what he knew how to do best – throwing the hammer.

On this final throw, Deal tapped into the essence of what came naturally to him, throwing the hammer almost effortlessly as a result of and training.  His frame of mind, being in the bubble, allowed him to act as a robot and carry out his final throw in an unconsciously competent manner.  He claims to have been completely unaware to the point that he cannot recall hardly any details of that last throw, but he had no problem detailing the previous failing throws.  He compares his final throw to a fellow he used to work with about ten years ago in a car repair shop and said that he was the individual that popped into his head while out of the stadium and attempting to reclaim his thoughts.  Deal described this individual and how he also acted in an unconsciously competent manner:

I used to work at this Volkswagen garage, and there was this guy who was the lead mechanic and when he worked on cars, he didn’t ever know he was doing it. He would talk and work at the same time and before you would know it, the engine would be fixed.  Meanwhile, the other guys and I were cussing and throwing tools all over the place.  Years later, this popped into my head. No anger, no violence, no retribution.  This guy just did the job with complete confidence in himself that he could do it.  This was the last little push that got me back into the bubble for that final throw.

His final throw resulted in Deal winning a silver medal by coming from dead last to second place on his last attempt.  It was a landmark occasion because Deal became the first American to medal in the hammer throw since 1956.  He helped put the USA back on the map for hammer throwing.

Much can be learned form the experiences of world class hammer throwers like Jud Logan and Lance Deal.  Their comments can be used to help establish a solid mental foundation for novice shot putters, hammer and discus throwers.  Events that rely so heavily on the mastery of technique combined with explosive power, demand mental toughness. The fact that all eyes are on the thrower when he steps into the ring makes the amount of pressure greater for the thrower.  Therefore, one of the first psychological principles I would instill in a young thrower would be teaching them to control their emotional levels in practice so they do not choke during a big meet.  This can be accomplished by having inter-team “throw-offs” at the end of each week.  This would mentally condition the athlete to the pressures of being under the watchful eyes of competitors and coaches.  In practice, it is easy to get into a rhythm of throwing, retrieving the implement, and then waiting your turn again.  However, rarely is practice conducted similar to the way meets are run.  In meets, the athlete throws, and then must wait for all other competitors, which can sometimes last ten minutes.  Holding intra-team competitions would allow the athlete to see which areas of the competition make him nervous and highly aroused.  These competitions allow him to focus in on the sort of mental self-talk occurring.  Then the athlete and coach can talk about the experience and see where the weaknesses during the competition were and attempt to correct them before the big meet.

Secondly, I would instill the repose, refocus, and respond mental approach to disasters.  Too often, throwers will have a poor first or second throw and become disgusted with themselves and then proceed to waste that third throw.  If the first throws are not going well, the athlete needs to learn how to take a time out and have a plan for getting back on track.  Teaching the young throwers how to handle each stage of repose, respond, and refocus would allow them to better handle stressful situations.  This would especially be helpful to younger throwers who can easily become intimidated by older and significantly bigger and stronger throwers.  While the younger throwers may not necessarily have a shot at winning, they can still strive for a new personal best.  When a younger thrower is not comparable to any degree to the level of the other throwers in his preliminary round, too often they just throw quickly and try to finish competing as fast as possible in order to save face.  Employing the repose, refocus, and respond strategy will help the athlete stick to the game plan that he and the coach had designed before the meet.

Finally, as a coach to a young thrower, one of the most important psychological principles that I would instill is short-term goal-setting.  It is essential that a young thrower have realistic short-term goal to achieve because a young thrower can so easily become frustrated with the level of technical sophistication required.  Added to this, in order to master the technique, the thrower must have an incredible strength base in order to be able to execute the technique while holding the sixteen pound implement.  Thus, due to a lack of strength and time required to master technique, young throwers often struggle greatly in the beginning.  Hence, it is imperative that the coach work with the athlete to set short-term goals for the athlete.  The attainment of these short-term goals will instill confidence in the young athlete and give him a sense of accomplishment.  This in turn will help fuel his desire to stick with the event.

It is essential that novice throwers (and all other beginning field athletes) learn the importance of mental training. Deal’s Olympic experience shows just how much power the mental aspect is in sports.  Even though he had been ranked number one in the world at the time and even though he had been in the Olympics and several other large meets previously, his story reveals how mental breakdown can ruin even the best athlete.  An athlete can train for as many years as he wants, but if he neglects the mental training necessary, the athlete will only be a champion in practice.  It is imperative that young athletes learn to deal successfully with anxiety, muscle tension, and arousal in the proper way so that they are armed with the proper weapons to fight off choking in the biggest meet of their lives – just like Lance Deal did.