The Olympic Lifts: a Study of “Compromises” to “Options.”

I have been talking a lot about “managing options” versus “managing compromises” lately. Get used to it. It is the secret to coaching, parenting and management in general.
The sport of Olympic lifting offers a real time look at how a simple rule change can turn a sport on its ear. There are times in history where we can look back and wonder in amazement how a problem just up and disappeared one day. As Bill Bryson notes in “Home,” city planners were at their wits ends trying to come up with intelligent ways to deal with the horse poop problem that was vexing every city in the world a century ago. The tons of manure created by these engines of industry were making city life a nightmare and, yet, a century later, we probably didn’t even know this was an issue. The truck and the car don’t leave droppings.
In the same way, O lifters complained all the time before 1972 about their mid backs. There were also a lot of complaints about the officiating, too. Now, you can imagine, you can wonder, “How can there be problems with a lift? Either you make it or you miss it!” Well, the issue swirled around the first of the three lifts, the Military Press. Almost on a monthly basis, someone would figure out a new way to lean, pop, bend or slide down to increase the load by a few more pounds. Some officials would agree and others would give you a red light, a missed attempt. But, if two of the three officials liked it, you had a new record.

Depending on where you lived and the officials that were judging changed the way you approached the attempt. In addition, all the leaning back was paying hell on the backs of lifters. So, in a bout of rare wisdom, the fathers of Olympic lifting simply dropped the movement. The O lifts became the Snatch and the Clean and Jerk. Meets finished in record time and the “Quick Lift” records shot through the roof.

And, the sport all but vanished from the imagination of most people. True, a Vasili or a Naim would come along to make the cover of a larger sport magazine upon occasion, but, by and large, the sport disappeared. An interesting sub plot, just for the historians: there was an argument to replace the standing Military Press with the Bench Press. Let me say this, and I have to be right because it is impossible to prove otherwise, if O lifting would have added the Bench Press, there would practically be NO powerlifting (Squat, Bench Press and Deadlift competitions), minimal Strongman stuff and Highland Games would still be more festive than competitive. There: I said it.
But, the international body dropped the press. What it also dropped, and here is the point, is before 1972, O lifting was a sport of “managing compromises.” At a meet, although it would have been still true that it favors the shorter person in the weight class (to a point), one needed enough absolute strength to crush a press, power to pull in all three moves, enough flexibility and mobility to handle a crushing load under ballistic conditions and survive and thrive and, and, and.
Today, there are basically two schools of O lifting: one, the Bulgarian “Butcher” approach, as it was described to me at the USOC, where the lifters do the competitive movements heavy and hard several times a day, or, two, the “Chinese” or “German” method where you find the lifters doing the competitive movements heavy and hard with some assistance work. Yes, the Iranian heavies trained a little different and I am sure my brothers and sisters in O lifting will call me all kinds of names for making the point so simple. With the addition of women to the O lifts at the Olympics and the streamlining of classes, we no longer have the ten weight classes that I grew up with in my early career for men and the numbers and the two movements seem to even favor shorter athletes.
Olympic lifting today is all about “managing options.” Selection based on genetics is probably as clear cut today in O lifting as it is in basketball. After genetics, the training environment is going to be the same in Russia, China, Iran or Greece. The training program is going to be hard to discern differences, too. In my workshops, I always note that O lifting is a Quadrant Four activity as there are very few qualities, but the relative level of absolute human maximum will simply astound you. Most people, for example, can’t deadlift the world record in their weight class in the Clean and Jerk. Honestly, it could also be said about the snatch as I hold the double bodyweight deadlift as a basic standard for competence and that is a “given” in the snatch world records.
Life as a football coach is managing compromises. Every few decades, God grants you a Blue Chip, can’t miss, one of a kind superstar. Enjoy it, by the way. The question is this: how many times do you give him the ball? I had a coach once tell me that a great athlete he had scored one out of six times he touched the ball. The question would be: why didn’t you give him the ball more? If he is so good, why ever take him out?
Managing compromises. If you leave him in the whole game, he gets tired, banged up and hurt. Giving him the ball every time will give the defense a pretty good shot at stopping him. So, how much rest? How many times do you fake it? This is game management at its hardest. Corporations deal with this all the time: this ad we made was very funny. Two questions:

Like the “herding cats” commercial of years ago, which was funny and delightful, and we remember it well. What was the name of the company?

“Where’s the beef.” “I can’t believe I ate the whole thing.” “We try harder.” When does the funny ad become a tired cliché?

How do you insure the message sells what you produce? That’s the compromise. I often tell people that the problem with high school seniors isn’t “senioritis,” rather, for the first (and for some the last) time in life, the students face a “managing compromise” situation. Oh, you can say that doing sports or the school play is a compromise, but really it is an option. I had no options in high school. I have always joked that I would have fully rather kissed a girl than wrestled. Sadly, no one wanted to kiss me!

So, this senior is facing the great task of life. As Pavel recently said, and I thought this was genius: “You can get out of school and get a job flipping burgers and make some quick cash and buy a car. That is fine. That is easy. Or, you can sweat and study for another few decades and establish a career as a doctor or professional and buy a car lot. Both choices are fine. In the first case, you went easy first and found life hard. In the second, you went hard first and found life easy. Both choices are fine. You choose.”

Pavel was summing the secret of strength that we call “Hardstyle” in the RKC School of Strength. We prefer that you learn to aggressively squeeze the finish, lock down positions and dial up the tension before you loosen up. In other words, we teach hard first and easy second. Deciding on what college to attend is like a Las Vegas dessert buffet: you can reach here and there for as much as you want and load up your plate, but just down the way is another exciting treat. Every college is a perfect choice for someone. For me, I wanted to go away to college yet be in a world class track program. I turned down schools with academic credentials that still stagger me, but lousy track teams.

I managed this compromise well. Others would have hated Utah State or Harvard or wherever. When we visited Montana for a track meet, I noticed that the University cafeteria had wonderful things that my Aggie school didn’t have. It’s a compromise. Yes, you can pick a school by its proximity to a beach or skiing. You can pick a college by a process only known to you. But, the college ultimately asks you to choose one.

And, that drives seniors crazy. One.

It’s not unlike what I told the guy not long ago who wanted to be an O lifter: “You should have been born in Eastern Europe to short, stocky and strong parents.”

No, it wasn’t great advice, but this is essential in understanding managing compromises: you might simply not have the opportunity to manage anything because of genetics, environment or the “breaks.” We read about great athletes all the time who throw it away to legal troubles, drugs and other choices. Maybe you could have been the single greatest kayaker of all time, but were born in a desert. Or, maybe you got hurt on the wrong day and missed the try out. It happens.

Managing compromises is the greatest challenge we have in life. It is difficult, I would say impossible, to plot an answer. So, soon, I will have that for you.

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