Coach: Throwing Discus More Mental Than Physical

Discus is one of the original Olympic events and was first used to train Greek warriors. But just what goes into a discus throw? Longtime discus coach Tony Ciarelli tells Audie Cornish that it's all about the mind game.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The original Olympic Games included events that were supposed to train Greek warriors.

(SOUNDBITE OF MAN YELLING)

CORNISH: Events like the discus. And it must have been good training with the discus itself weighing in at 4.4 pounds, about the size of a laptop. And to me that seemed like a lot of weight to hurl into the air. But then discus coach Tony Ciarelli told me about the body of an average thrower.

TONY CIARELLI: Six-five to six-nine, 275-pound to 300-pound person with a lot of speed and a lot of strength.

CORNISH: No wonder the discus looks so small when I'm watching it on TV.

CIARELLI: Yes, yes. Some of the guys, when they wind up, it doesn't look like a 2k discus 'cause their hands are enormous.

CORNISH: Now, imagine one of those guys doing a kind of dance out there in the ring.

CIARELLI: So, to start with the wind-up is to sweep the right leg around the left leg. So, you're turning in circles down a straight line. And after wind up, taking the left shoulder to the right hip and the right shoulder to the left hip.

CORNISH: All that footwork sounds complicated, but Coach Ciarelli told me what's really difficult in the discus is the mind game.

CIARELLI: You have to put everything in its place as you're going into the ring. And if any of those things are out of place, then it really doesn't matter what you do at the front of the ring because it's all going to start falling apart.

CORNISH: So, is this the thing that we see the throwers doing when they're practicing? Sometimes, we see them off to the side standing, squatting a little and then doing this kind of twisting motion.

CIARELLI: Right, doing drills to get themselves in perfect balance. Because what you do in the back of the ring is what you're going to do in the front of the ring. So, if you're off-balance in the back of the ring then you're going to be off-balance in the front of the ring.

CORNISH: When you're coaching someone and you're talking them through the process of it, what are the kinds of words you say to them as they're finding their balance?

CIARELLI: You know, feeling is a big part. And so trying to feel, that's one of the attributes to great discus throwers. They have great spacial awareness. And so being able to feel where your body is - because the whole throw only takes basically 1.3 to 1.5 seconds, so you don't have time to think about what you're doing when you're throwing. So, feeling where your body is in space and time as you're going through the ring is very important.

CORNISH: Hearing you say that makes me wonder about the mental part of this event. I can't imagine an angry thrower doing well. You know, is there another end to the throw?

CIARELLI: Yes, there very much is. Actually, that's a very good statement. "Zen and the Art of Throwing" has been written and talked by many throwers, including myself. I think, for example, coming up in the Olympics, it's going to be the men and women that stay the most relaxed that are going to be able to throw the farthest. Because it is a strength event because it's strong people doing it, but it's not a strength event in the sense of things when we think about bodybuilders and people who lift weights. The event is much more of a relaxation event. The people who can get the biggest stretch and keep their muscles relaxed are the ones who are going to throw the farthest.

CORNISH: Well, Tony Ciarelli, thank you so much for talking with us.

CIARELLI: Thank you for having me.

CORNISH: Tony Ciarelli has coached Olympic discus throwers for more than 15 years. He joined us from London.

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