The Weightlifting competition at the Olympics was incredible but what was the best coaching decision at the Olympics?
The suspense, drama, and intense competition at the Olympics helped us forget about the dark cloud of scandal surrounding the sport of Weightlifting. There is little debate the event was sensational. From standout performances to all out wars in most categories, it rocked. The individual greatness of the sport’s athletes was on display and in the end, 7 World Records and 12 Olympic Records fell.
We talk a lot about the importance of coaching and strategy in Weightlifting and sometimes it’s the less glamorous, maybe even unnoticed decisions that set one group of coaches apart from another. During the games, we saw several notable coaching errors that factored into the drama and storylines. I don’t want to focus on those. Instead, it’s a quiet choice in the 105kg category that I want to dive into.
Kazakhstan v. China
One thing about the Kazakh coaches is they always seem to get it right in the backroom. At the 2015 World Championships in Houston, it was Alexey Ni’s sneaky weight change after a warm-up room miss that pushed China’s Lyu Xiaojun onto the platform sooner than expected. That move was a contributing factor in Lyu’s disappointing Clean & Jerk series at Worlds and something we associate with Ni and the Kazakh coaching team.
To that end, I couldn’t help but be struck by the cleverness maybe even discipline of Alexy Ni and Kazakhstan coaches throughout the games. Their handling of Nijat Rahimov in the 77kg category might be the easy moment to look to but it isn’t where I’m going to focus. Rahimov’s 12kg jump and resulting World Record 214kg Clean and Jerk for the win was epic. There was some gaming of course but it was a decision to wait out a third attempt and go big. That’s not a demonstration of coaching prowess.
The Men’s 105kg Category
When I reflect on the Olympics, the best moment of coaching happened during the Snatch competition in Men’s 105kg category. Until the insanity of the men’s +105kg session the next day, this was probably best Snatch competition of the games. Alexandr Zaichikov (KAZ) and Yang Zhe (CHN) are who I’ll key in on.
Alexandr Zaichikov, KAZ
After a solid 185kg opener, Zaichikov made another great lift with his second attempt 190kg success. Then it got interesting. Off that 190kg make Zaichikov jumped a conservative 3kg to 193kg and with that, he had to follow himself.
Conventional thinking leads many coaches to avoid 2-minute clocks at all costs. Maybe not as relentlessly in the Snatch but certainly when working with lifters in the heavier categories. Two-minute clocks are viewed as bad news. Coaches will often add “just another kilo,” or more to buy some rest but the Kazakhs didn’t do that.
In Zaichikov’s case, his prior attempts were excellent. Moving him up to 194kg would have given him that rest coaches so often look to create. He would have picked up two attempts (with no misses), behind both Uzbek lifters Ruslan Nurudinov and Ivan Efremov. Granted, they could have both moved had he selected 194kg and Zaichikov still would have followed himself but with only a one-minute clock. That was a real possibility.
At 195kg he’d have picked up a few more attempts behind both Yang, who was on his second attempt, and Simon Martirosyan (ARM), who was on his third but due first in the order of lifting. Either choice would have seemed reasonable to any outsider watching the competition. Instead of playing into that game the Kazakh coaches stuck with a plan or at least a situation they could control, and left Zaichikov to follow himself with 193kg.
Although they are somewhat known for being cute with moving attempts and gameplay they kept it simple. Picking up 1-2kgs to buy time would have cost them 4kg or more off a miss.
Yang Zhe (CHN)
Contrast this series with Yang Zhe and the choices of the Chinese coaches. China’s head-scratching weight selections were a theme of the games and in this session, they did the opposite of Kazakhstan. Yang made a gritty/tough 190kg opener. He then moved up to 195kg and following Zaichikov’s successful third attempt with 193kg, he missed. The increase off his opener seemed aggressive but not unreasonable. At the time it would have positioned him ahead of Martirosyan who made the same 5kg increase off his second attempt. If successful it would have forced a decision for the Armenian to go to 196kg or accept the downside of a bodyweight tie heading into the Clean and Jerk. Instead of repeating with 195kg the Chinese coaches moved him up to 197kg. He missed again. Why they did that is anyone’s guess.
Martirosyan had to follow Yang’s second attempt at 195kg and Yang had both another attempt and bodyweight advantage. The Armenian missed so why Yang didn’t follow him at 195kg was confusing to me. A third attempt miss at any weight would leave Yang 3kg behind Zaichikov and at least 4kg behind the two leaders from UZB. The Chinese coaches rolled the dice anyway and lost the gamble.
How the game played out
As fate would have it Zaichikov opened 3kg higher than Yang in the Clean and Jerk then got stiffed by a strict call on his 227kg second attempt. Martirosyan and Yang would have had to do 230kg if that call hadn’t gone against him. But if Zaichikov’s miss occurred with Yang sitting on a 195kg Snatch he would have had the driver’s seat and likely a medal off his 225kg second attempt.
Ultimately, Martirosyan made the 227kg they all needed. In a play for Silver, Yang tried it on his third attempt and it was the right call. Unfortunately, it was too much for him.
The Clean and Jerks didn’t go as planned for Zaichikov or Yang. The decision made by the Kazakh coaches in the Snatch for Zaichikov set up the series of events that kept him on the medal stand and Yang off of it. Martirosyan delivered in a tough moment to earn Silver. He proved coaching doesn’t trump clutch performance and it was awesome to watch. But the result for Bronze in the 105kg category shows how coaching choices can affect the outcome of a meet in a big way.
The lesson was clear. In the Snatch play it your way and leave the gaming for the Clean and Jerk. Don’t get too wrapped up in the actions of others. The Kazakhs put themselves in the best position to let the Clean and Jerk sort it out.
For many lifters and coaches, the toughest decision to make is to repeat or follow yourself, in a tight competition. No one ever wants to give away kilos or put an early end to a planned outcome. But the ability to show restraint and take what you can make, not what you might prefer, in the Snatch particularly makes a huge difference.
Zaichikov’s Snatch series represented a subtle yet important moment in the Olympics demonstrating how coaches can impact things. I watched every session and loved it all. There were far too many moments to recap in a simple blog post. As far as coaching goes that one decision stood out to me above all others.
Featured image from All Things Gym