Students in Larry Judge’s coaching education classes aren’t surprised when he tells stories from ground zero of a past Olympics. Judge, coordinator of Ball State’s graduate athletic coaching education program and professor of kinesiology, has coached at every Olympics or Paralympics since the Atlanta Games in 1996. In 2016 in Rio he had the privilege of coaching both Olympic and Paralympic athletes, including his second gold medal winner.
Judge recently shared what he’s learned from the Olympic stage and the satisfaction he’s gained from seeing his athletes succeed.
“I think students want instructors who have been in the trenches—actively coaching elite athletes, working at Olympic training camps, coaching internationally.”
Q: What are your greatest memories from the Olympics?
Certainly my first Games in Atlanta are the most memorable. I remember seeing the stadium completely full for the morning session of the first day of competition. I got goose bumps walking up to the stadium to meet my shot putter at the warm-up track. There is no comparison when it comes to the overall scope and size of the Olympics. It is the mecca of sport. With so many different sports going on at so many different venues simultaneously, it is true sports overload. But for a coach, it’s hard to beat.
The opportunity to serve as an assistant coach the second time in eight years for the United States Paralympic track and field team was also a great honor. Being able to assist a gold medalist, Jeremy Campbell, and the Paralympic Games record holder, David Blair, at the last two Games will forever remain a highlight and possibly the pinnacle of my Paralympic coaching career.
I think students want instructors who have been in the trenches—actively coaching elite athletes, working at Olympic training camps, coaching internationally,” says Larry Judge.
Q: How do you compare coaching Olympic to coaching Paralympic events?
In being part of two Paralympic Games coaching staffs, I have never worked with a more professional or committed group of coaches, managers, sports science, and medical staff and support team than we had in Rio for both the Olympic and Paralympic Games. I have often tried to clearly define what it means to be “athlete-centered.” I now have a visible example of the level of support that an athlete-centered system entails. The USOC [United States Olympic Committee], USATF [USA Track & Field], and every single person in the offices and on the ground were committed fully to providing every level of support that they could for Team USA.
There are probably more similarities than differences between the Paralympic and Olympic Games. The average American understands the magnitude of the Olympic Games. The Paralympic Games are the biggest stage in disabled sports. These athletes will have spent considerable time and resources to get to this place, the crowds are the biggest ever, and much is at stake.
One area where the Paralympic athletes—and really the Paralympic experience—is like the experience of Olympic athletes is the Paralympic Village. The Games present a “once in a lifetime performance” opportunity, making it challenging to stay focused amid a plethora of distractions while trying to perform to one’s capability. Staying focused on this highly charged competitive environment requires a set of mental abilities such as mental endurance, confidence, concentration, composure, and commitment. On an individual level, this requires the coach to get as much of an understanding of the complete individual, their individual story, the role the disability plays in their lives, and their performance history as possible.
Q: What was it like to coach two Gold medalists?
The level of professionalism and planning was astounding. I worked with two athletes that “cracked the code” and won the gold in the last two Games.
I think when anybody wins a gold medal or has extraordinary performance you trace it back and look at what led up to it. I look at Jeremy Campbell. In 2012 he was undefeated. When he came into the competition at London, he was able to withstand the British crowd and he made it his vision to beat the British thrower [Dan Greaves] to win that gold medal.
At the Pan American Games in 2015, when David Blair and Jeremy went against a newcomer on the scene from Trinidad and Tobago [Akeem Stuart], Jeremy finished second, David third. Then we started preparing for world championships in October 2015, which Jeremy won and David finished second. But from that point on, I saw very good training by Jeremy but I saw David making faster progress. This is what I mean by “cracking the code”—David giving attention to every detail, leaving nothing to chance, and having 100 percent commitment. I saw David doing what Jeremy was doing in 2012. He put on 20 pounds of body weight, managed his injuries, improved his technique, had full support of his family, he had a massage therapist set up after the World Championships, a chiropractor as personal coach, and he created a village around him. When we went to our last training camp, I could see David’s throwing fitness and speed in the ring was much better than Jeremy’s. Jeremy could see it too. The bitter side was Jeremy didn’t get a medal. He had some minor set-backs along the way and at the Games simply underperformed.
You look at David’s performance—setting a Paralympic record—and you say the guy cracked the code.
Q: What’s one thing you’ve learned from your participation at the Games?
Each season and every Games is different. You have to know your athletes enough to make sure that you’re not over reaching with expectations. At this level, it’s up to the individual. The coach can’t want it more than the athlete.
Q: How do students in your classroom benefit from your experiences?
This is a part of coaching you cannot learn in the textbooks. You can only teach this type of experience to students by being there. I think students want instructors who have been in the trenches—actively coaching elite athletes, working at Olympic training camps, coaching internationally. This is definitely a point of distinction for our online athletic coaching education master’s degree program. For some of our students, my experiences would be a fantasy camp. For example, as I worked with shot putter Felisha Johnson, who was just 2 ¾ inches short of making the Olympic finals, I got to see some of the other gold medalists and world-record holders prepare. And sometimes it wasn’t all that impressive. But if you want to win the gold, you have to be good enough even on your second best day. You have to be over prepared.
When you get up close and personal with these athletes, you see a common theme—purposeful dedication on the part of everyone involved in elite performance and preparation.
At the Olympic level, one thing you learn is how to take advantage of your support staff, whether medical, physiological, or psychological support. That is all factored into your program. We teach that in our athletic coaching education program—how to use your athletic trainers, chiropractors, therapists. The coach is the first line of defense. They have to observe everything: Are their hips out of line? Do the hamstrings look tight? Do you hear a cough? The coach is the one who has to have eyes and ears to the ground to make sure the right people are getting involved at the right time.
Q: What are your hopes for the 2020 Olympics?
I am going to continue to work with my Olympic and Paralympic Athletes. My passion for coaching keeps me involved. I will do my best to prepare athletes to be the best they can be and serve my profession as needed. It would be great to be in Tokyo coaching and preparing a group of athletes for the Podium. But, the experience I had in Rio—having athletes compete in both Games—will always be remembered. It was a unique, magical and life-altering exposure to sport at the highest level and afforded me some incredible perspectives on sport and my profession.