A Relaxed Mindset, Shutting Down, Whipping The Shot Put: How Joe Kovacs Won Gold At Worlds
Joe Kovacs joins the CITIUS MAG Podcast just weeks after providing one of the best moments of the 2019 IAAF World Championships when he won the shot put gold medal by one centimeter on a 22.91-meter throw.
Kovacs was the 2015 world champion and also earned silver medals at the 2016 Olympics and 2017 world championships. However, this year’s gold medal came as a shock to Kovacs and his family after he lost his sponsorship with Nike, parted ways with an agent and nearly quit the sport following a dismal 2018 campaign. He decided to make a coaching change and asked his wife, Ashley, to take the reigns on his day-to-day training.
The decision was met with some criticism on throwing messageboards (something I learned existed) and many questioned whether the Kovacs of 2015 or 2016 would ever be back to prominence. On Oct. 5, Kovacs heaved the 16-pound shot put farther than anyone has in nearly three decades to silence those critics.
In our 90-minute interview, Kovacs opened up about how exactly he won gold with an emphasis on rest, focusing on himself and fine-tuning his technique to whip the shot put more than 75 feet. Parts of the podcast have been transcribed below and edited lightly for clarity.
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Comparing 2015 Joe Kovacs to 2019 Joe Kovacs
The biggest difference physically is that my coach used to call it ‘old man strength’ when you hit 28, 29 and 30. But most of all for me, it was mental and emotional changes. I did not think that it was possible for me to throw far with a smile on my face. Obviously, if you watched the meet, I’m screaming like crazy but I was happy before that meet. I was happy in warmups. I was happy in Doha. My wife was the coach for Team USA. That to me has been the biggest difference. It’s brought me a whole lot more relaxation. It’s brought me a lot more perspective.
That 2015 me, when I won that world championship, I was faking it so hard because that’s the only way I could’ve won. That’s why I won. I was lying to myself with anger, intensity. You’re telling yourself you’re that good and deserve it just to make yourself stay in that zone. If you live with that every single day for three years, there’s a point where it gets to you. My roommate for all those years at the Olympic Training Center, Eric Werskey, saw it. Everyone who knew me there could tell and saw, ‘Yeah, he’s getting to be miserable.’ It wasn’t because I was starting to hate throwing. It wasn’t because I wasn’t listening to my coach. It was just that the mindset I thought I needed to have was pretty intense. Maybe even a little dark.
Going into this championship, I was happy. I was training well. It was a different kind of mindset. I was always known as a guy who had these far throws to put on a show, to try and tighten people up for a one-on-one battle. That was the biggest thing that in this competition, the plan I had and kept going up to my wife was ‘Stay in your lane.’
An Emphasis on Rest and the Central Nervous System
You don’t want to tell everyone what you did but I will…I threw way less this training block going into this championship than I ever did in 2015, definitely in 2016 and 2017. I felt fresh. I’m a checklist guy. That’s what my wife calls me. I’m a pilot. I like seeing things get done. We made my goal to check off the boxes. Once I saw my stand throw go X-distance, I was ready to move on. I wasn’t going to take three to five more throws just to prove a point or show that I could. Because of that, it really helped me make them more quality than quantity. The Sunday before the competition, I had a really good training session and then we went back out and I was down the very next day. I was flopping all over the ring and always had no awareness. My central nervous system was down. It was crazy hot out there. We were drained. My wife kind of made the decision and I agreed with her for me not to throw until the competition. That’s tough mentally. Part of you as any athlete, you want to keep doing something to feel it – especially a repetitive movement. You want to feel like, ‘Oh yeah! I did that great.’ She said to me that if I went to practice and threw 22.50 four times does it help me at all tomorrow. No, not really. That decision along with the qualifying round – I didn’t take any throws outside the stadium. I went inside the stadium for the qualifying. I did two stand throws, one full throw and then I took one throw at 21.92. All you had to do was throw 21.90 for the automatic qualifier. That was nerve-wracking. I hate the qualifying round more than anything. It was weird to go into that with not having the confidence that I saw those throws. Once that ball barely squeezed past that line, I saw it two centimeters past it. Competition day came and I told my wife, ‘I don’t feel like I have a meet today. I feel good. I feel fresh. I feel rested.’ I think that was a big part of the way I started to change my training this past year – actually listening to your body.
Listening to the body meant completely shutting things down for me. After I got done with that qualifying, I did not leave my bed. I made the room as dark as possible. I brought my Amazon Firestick with me so I could chill and watch some shows. My goal was to put myself in this box for that week. I went to a Subway that was in the mall that was attached to our hotel. I went there three days in a row and I got three feet of subs each day. I had three footlongs each day, which is not normal for most people but for a shot putter, that wasn’t much of a big deal and I probably had some more meals on top of it. I think part of it was having some comfort. Part of it was just going back to the room and shutting people out. That was a huge advantage.
At these championships, with all these logistics, all these people and all the hype, it’s very easy to get caught up. I felt that more than ever in Rio. People always ask me for the biggest difference between a World Championship and Olympics. I don’t ever want to sound negative but the Olympics are just more annoying because of all the external factors, which are really cool. Don’t get me wrong, everybody wants to go to the Beats by Dre Lab to get their headphones but at the end of the day, you’re doing all this stuff and you’re always up. The more I throw, the more I go out, the more I’m up-up-up, I’m just dulling that knife. By sharpening it, I’m going back to the room, putting my eye mask on, not seeing light and just kind of shutting out the world so I can wake up on competition day and feel better than ever. I think that was a huge advantage.
I would never expect the world record to go down at a major championship. However, I would never expect three guys to throw 75 feet. That’s why it’s so shocking. It’s unusual to throw far at a championship because of the logistics, the qualifying into the final and the pressure involved. I will tell you one big advantage that all of us had was that normally the shot put had qualifying in the morning and the final in the afternoon. This was the first time that we were ever split up with a day in between because there were no morning sessions. Olympic Trials and Olympics next year are back to morning and afternoon, which I don’t think I can discount will be that big of a factor but I do think that was a big help for all of us in staying fresh.
Tom Walsh opened up with a 75-foot throw – the farthest throw I’ve ever seen in a meet. The farthest throw we’ve all seen – ever. It didn’t faze me. 2015 me, who was a world champion or 2016/2017 me, who was a silver medalist, definitely would’ve freaked out. I would’ve lost that meet because I would’ve been so caught up in that battle instead of just worrying about myself. A lot of the analogies that we were sharing all week were to just put on the blinders like a horse. It was all to keep me in the zone.
When I went into that last throw in Doha, I wasn’t really trying to win the meet. That sounds weird to say.
I had a really good week of training. The goal and my personal best at the time was 74-feet (22.57m). I threw that twice in training in the week beforehand. I knew I was in shape so I thought, ‘Let’s PR. Let’s just get a PR.’ Hopefully, that would get a medal.
That would’ve barely gotten bronze because it was a crazy competition. I went into there just trying to replicate what we did in practice
We know in the sixth round, there’s always those sixth-round heroics. Somebody always pops up and goes crazy. I wasn’t trying to get affected by that. I turned out to be that guy who was doing it. I was aware of the meet. I was aware that people were throwing far but I wasn’t getting caught up in it. I was just making sure that little-by-little I was inching away.
I remember Dan O’Brien was down on the ground and doing some commentating. He saw me pacing back and forth. I could see him make eye contact with me. I think he knew something was going to come from that.
When the ball came off my hand, it looked like I celebrated that I won the meet. I think because of the relaxation and the intensity of the atmosphere, it found a way to go 75-feet. All I knew is that it was what I wanted to do. That is why I was screaming like crazy. When I turned around and saw the board that said 22.91 and first place next to it – just one centimeter further – yeah, I yelled little bit crazier that’s for sure.
It’s the loudest scream that I’ve ever had for not knowing anything. I’ve yelled at a lot of throws and you can kind of know where it’s at. Generally, there are not three guys throwing over 74-feet at a meet. Sometimes it’s like a 71 or 72-foot meet and you hit that big one, you know you won. For this one, I screamed louder than I ever had. It could’ve landed a centimeter short and I would’ve walked away with just as big of a smile on my face because we got the job done. That for sure was the biggest blind yell I’ve ever had.
Celebrating with His Wife
The first person that I went over to was my wife because that was the goal the whole time. I was shouting, ‘I love you at her.’ It was awesome.
I called her my North Star because I told her I have all this perspective now because of her I know where everything is. And, ‘We did it.’ Those three things right away came to mind.
It was awesome to feel all that frustration from the year before and the doubt – 2018 I definitely thought that was my last year. It was a good run and hang it up – to have all that go down and come back up again, that was a real story of us.
Everyone wants to talk about how crazy of a competition it was statistically. It was by far. But for my wife and I, my mom and my stepdad who were here in February when I was coaching an athlete who beat me at a meet – that’s tough. I can remember being here in February and my mom saying, “Maybe it was a good run.” They’re trying to be positive and helpful but to see it come full circle and have them in Doha…That will never go away for me.
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Explaining the Physics of the Shot Put
For context: Wired Editor in Chief Nicholas Thompson published a few World Championships recaps and among his notes were questions about Kovacs. Thompson wondered, “Speaking of Kovacs, do you understand the physics of the shot put? The guys are shaped like offensive tackles, not like, say, linebackers. I asked Wired’s resident physicist, Rhett Allain, about whether it’s advantageous to have a big belly, particularly given that you spin in circles before hurling the object. His theory is that it might actually help, and to understand, you have to think about a human who weighed the same as the shot put—which would mean a human even skinnier than the 10K runners. Rhett writes: “Let’s assume you have a shot putter that had the same mass as the shot put. When throwing, the two masses (the shot and the human) would have equal and opposite velocities. This means the shot would be slower than if the human was stationary. By having a massive human, the ‘recoil’ by the human is much smaller. I’m not sure how big of an effect it would be—but that’s my first idea.”
I describe it as being a human cannonball. The circle we have is a seven-foot circle and it’s the great divider.
Ryan Crouser, if you saw a picture of us standing next to each other, my head is below his shoulder. He’s 6’8”. I lie and say I’m 5’11” – I’m close to it. I sometimes tell people that I’m 6’0” but I’m not. Because of the size of that ring, both of us throw differently. Both of us use different aspects. He uses his leverage. I use my mass and speed – and like was mentioned: mass moves mass at the end of the day.
I love the physics side of things. I love the mass side. When you mention the calculations, I use a monitor that they use for golf balls that can pick up the projectile motion of a shot…but what we do comes down to a very simple equation that’s the same you’d learn in a high school physics class. It’s the projectile equation with the angle of release, the height of release and the velocity. That’s all that matters at the end of the day.
With the height of the release, I’ll never be able to throw it as high as Ryan Crouser. At the end of the day, for every centimeter that you throw higher, you’ll only get about 1.1 centimeters in distance. That’s an advantage but that’s not the end of the world. For every degree, and this varies a lot, it’s about 20 to 28 centimeters of distance per degree. Once you hit 42.5 then it’s diminishing returns. The real thing is the velocity. For every .1 meter per second that you can put on the ball, it goes about 50 to 60 centimeters depending on some variance equation there. 50 to 60 centimeters for .1 meters per second velocity, that to me tells me what I need to work on. It’s the speed.
I know a lot of people want to get caught up in a shot putter being big and strong, which you have to be big to be this strong. You have to be this strong to be able to hold onto the ball at this speed. At the end of the day, it’s all about whipping the ball. For me, I want to turn my body into the golf club when you see it coming down and the shaft is starting to bend. That’s what does all the work for me. Everybody wants to think that I’m pushing like a bench press. Don’t get me wrong…all of us have a pretty good bench press. It’s the flick and the elasticity of the body that makes that ball launch off our body rather than just get pushed out there.
If you’re just trying to hit hard, you’re throwing the ball. If you’re putting yourself in the right position, you’re whipping the ball. That’s what the difference is for a throw when you see a throw go 20 meters and then you’ll see a 21-meter throw and then a 22-meter throw. All of that is catching that whip at a farther position and applying more force right away. It comes down to timing at that point. That’s what all three of us (Tom Walsh, Ryan Crouser and I) are learning to do better and better every meet.
In the back of the ring, if you just pause me or all these shot putters in the back of the ring, our left knee is loaded just like we’re in the blocks like a sprinter. Everyone wants to get caught up in us spinning but if you freeze-frame that – our knees are dropped, our chest is up. We look like we’re in the blocks and ready to go full speed ahead. Sometimes when you do that, just like a runner, you get extra tense. For a shot putter, you want to be intense but when you get tense, you slow down. A throw like the one I had and went a foot farther than anything I’ve done in my life – it felt easier in the sense that everything lined up. It felt like that runner who comes out of the blocks with a loose jaw and just knows how to transition out of it.
Having speed out of the back definitely helps. The faster you start, hopefully, the faster you can finish. The big thing is that I’m trying to stare out as long as I can. The longer I can stare, the more my body is moving underneath me and my upper body is kind of lagging behind. If you think about it like a golf club, it’s the same as if somebody winds back. That club is staying in place but all of a sudden the bend and the whip is starting to happen. The physics of a throw is very similar to a golf swing on delivery not like a Happy Gilmore shot with a run-up. The actual stand throw in the front is a very similar movement between the hips and the club hit speed.
Darlan Romani in fourth place would’ve won any previous world championship or Olympic Games with his throw. I’m sure he’s going back home to Brazil and wondering what the heck just happened because he would’ve had the championship record but finished 4th in this meet. More and more people are understanding it.