Russians and Americans have different approaches to coaching weightlifting. Part of it is cultural, and part of it stems from weightlifting being a professional sport in Russia, and mostly an amateur sport in the US. In the Russian approach, there is the glum reality that weightlifting is truly hard fucking work. Over the years, I’ve seen much less of this sort of attitude within the American weightlifting community.

The Russian Coach.

When Vasily Polovnikov started at the Norwood Training Center, he was coaching multiple groups of 6-8 people. He expected results from all of his athletes and used the coaching methods that were successfully used on him for many years in Russian training camps.

Vasily was stern and demanding, which usually came off as angry and dickish. He had near-impossible demands for each and every one of his athletes and had a specific roadmap for them to follow to get to where every athlete wants to be – the top of the podium.

Within a few months, his athletes started leaving his groups.

All of his athletes wanted to be their best, but many of them tended to look at their weightlifting efforts as recreational. It was something they wanted to feel good about and look forward to in their daily lives.

One time when I was at the gym, I mentioned to one of his lifters that his snatch had looked much better than it did a few weeks earlier. The guy’s face lit up with pride. He came up to me at the end of his workout and thanked me. He said that he’s never received a single compliment from Vasily and that it crushed him to see Vasily’s disappointed look on his face over and over again.


I mentioned this to Vasily, who responded, “Don’t they want to get better? What do they want me to do, hug and kiss them when they follow directions?” His larger-than-life stature and heavy Russian accent didn’t help him sound any gentler.

The American Coach.

I see the following at nearly every weightlifting competition from far too many American coaches.

As an athlete is about to walk onto the platform at a competition, their coach peps to them, “Just remember to have fun!”

Maybe I don’t have the same definition of “fun” as they do, but if an athlete wants to become better, or reach their full potential, there is really little fun in weightlifting. 

Coaches who tell their non-beginner athletes to “just have fun out there” are either peddling bullshit or trying to sugarcoat self-inflicted torture. Athletes who smile through a lift are either masochist, or they aren’t working hard enough.

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I’ve had a few great coaches in my athletic career, all of whom have led me to tears. Great coaches expect perfection. When it’s not reached, it’s a disappointment. This is the reality of all competitive sports in all countries.  It may be harsh, but it’s an approach that builds the mental toughness and hunger that’s needed to achieve greatness.

Weightlifting was never “fun” for me. Achieving far-reaching goals was the part that was actually rewarding and brought long-lasting joy.

Both approaches are extremes, of course. Vasily’s approach made his athletes better, but also scared many of the less-ambitious ones away. Just-remember-to-have-fun coaches don’t push their athletes to reach their full potential but do get them to feel warm and fuzzy enough to stick around (and continue to pay for training).

***

Since our talk, Vasily has softened his approach to coaching (just a little bit). He still demands the best from all of his athletes, but acknowledges when accomplishments are made, and that although the tough approach works, they are not in a Russian training camp in Siberia and may need a softer touch.

 

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Yasha Kahn
Weightlifter, coach and now: blogger. I've traveled around the world sharing my weightlifting knowledge and experiences. I look forward to the next adventure.
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