Coaching Harrison Maurus: An Interview with Kevin Simons

USA Weightlifting held a technique training seminar on Friday, June 22, in conjunction with the 2017 National Youth Championships.  The seminar featured youth world record holder, Harrison Maurus, Maurus’s coach, Kevin Simons, Pyrros Dimas, and Tamas Feher.  The big names drew a large crowd of athletes, parents and coaches.  Tamas Feher led the seminar, explaining the correct progression for teaching the Olympic lifts.  Pyrros Dimas offered supporting comments, and Maurus demonstrated the movements.  Simons, however, remained silent in the background.

While the seminar offered nuggets of good information, it was not what the audience expected.  The audience expected to hear Kevin Simons speak about coaching Harrison Maurus.  In six short years, Simons introduced Maurus to the sport of weightlifting and helped him achieve a new youth world record.  This is a phenomenal accomplishment, and the audience wanted to hear the secrets of this success.  I caught up with Simons after the seminar and gathered the information the audience missed:

Q: Kevin, I expected you to speak about training Harrison at this seminar.  What happened?

Simons: I was prepared to speak about training Harrison and my other athletes.  However, the opportunity did not arise.

Q: I think many people would be interested in hearing your thoughts.  What were you prepared to say at the seminar?

Simons: I was going to speak about my history with Harrison and how I train my athletes.  I take coaching very seriously, and I am always happy to share my methods with other athletes and coaches.  I feel that my methods are working—Harrison currently holds a youth world record as well as multiple American records.  Also, three of my eight athletes took first place medals here at the 2017 Youth Nationals.

Q: What is your history with Harrison?

Simons: I started out as Harrison’s gymnastics coach.  Harrison was a good gymnast, but he was not a perfect fit for the sport.  I knew that Harrison had great potential as an athlete, though, and I wanted to help him develop this potential.  I am a competitive CrossFit athlete, and I started teaching Harrison weightlifting.  First, we experimented with powerlifting.  Then, we decided to try the Olympic lifts. In fact, Harrison was the first athlete I ever taught to do a snatch or clean and jerk.  Harrison was a natural, and we have been together ever since.  It has been amazing to grow with him as a coach and to travel the world together.

At the 2017 Youth World Championships in Bangkok in April 2017, 17 year-old Maurus (77kg) claimed a new youth world record with a 192kg clean and jerk.  Maurus finished 2nd overall in the snatch, 1st in the clean and jerk, and 1st in the total.

Q: What makes your coaching different than other weightlifting coaches?

Simons: I want my kids to be well-rounded, healthy athletes, not just good weightlifters.  In addition to teaching weightlifting movements, I teach my athletes how to eat properly and rest to maximize their performance.  I also teach them exercises that will benefit their overall athleticism, and not just their weightlifting abilities.

Q: What do you tell your athletes about eating?

Simons: I begin with the basics.  I teach my athletes what a balanced meal should look like.  Each meal should include some protein, carbohydrates, and fat.  A portion of protein should be about the size of the palm of your hand.  A portion of carbohydrates should fit within a cupped hand.  A portion of fat should be about the size of your thumb.  If an athlete needs to cut weight, about 50% of the diet should be vegetables.  If an athlete does not need to cut weight, only about 25% of the diet needs to be vegetables.  I try to keep things simple so that my athletes can easily implement healthy eating into their lives.  Good nutrition is very important to athletic performance, but it doesn’t have to be complicated.

In specific situations, I work with my athletes to develop tailored meal plans.  Also, I encourage my new athletes to weigh and measure their foods for a couple of weeks until they understand the proper portion sizes for their bodies.

Simons competed in the 2012 and 2015 CrossFit Games.

Q: You mentioned using non-weightlifting exercises in your training.  Why do you do this?

Simons:  I am a big advocate of GPP (general physical preparedness).  I want my weightlifters, especially the younger ones, to be exposed to a variety of movements.  Until about age 12, kids should be involved in a variety of sports and doing a variety of movements.  They should be running, jumping, lifting, pulling, climbing, throwing, tumbling—doing things to develop their bodies generally.  Of course they can also be learning the competitive lifts, but this should not be the primary focus.  Around age 12 or 13, those kids who decide to lift competitively can begin a more structured weightlifting program.  However, GPP is still important for competitive weightlifters.

Q: What GPP exercises do you use?

Simons:  I use a variety of movements.  I especially like pulling exercises like rope climbs, sled pulls, strict muscle ups, and peg boards to develop the shoulders.  Some of my female athletes can perform 6+ consecutive legless rope climbs.  I feel that this accessory work gives my athletes an edge when it comes to overhead movements.  Their shoulders are very strong.

Q: What does your weightlifting training look like?

Simons: My beginner lifters do a lot of drills emphasizing position and movement.  I reinforce movement patterns through a large number of reps and sets.  I require lifters to consistently perform the movements properly before I allow them to move on to higher weights.  I also include a lot of jumping exercises and plenty of GPP.

Q: What about your advanced lifters?

Simons: When a lifter has developed the muscle memory to consistently perform the snatch and clean and jerk well, I allow them to add more weight.  I don’t limit the weight as long as the lifter can demonstrate good form.  However, I do limit the number of attempts my lifters make above 90%.  My lifters are youth lifters, which means that they should have long weightlifting careers in front of them if they don’t get injured.  I do not allow my athletes to train through an injury, so the best course of action for everyone is to prevent injuries from happening.  We save singles and max out attempts for competitions and the weeks leading up to a competition.  We work mostly in sets of 2 or 3 reps, which allows the lifters to build strength without over-stressing the joints.

Q: Do your elite level lifters receive extra training or advice?

Simons: Of course.  As lifters approach the senior level, different issues arise, such as overtraining.  It becomes necessary to fine tune nutrition, recovery, and training.  Periodization in training becomes more important.

Q: You mentioned that you don’t allow your lifters to go over 90% very often.  At what percentage do you normally train?

Simons: I don’t specify percentages in daily training.  Youth weightlifters are developing strength so quickly that percentages are not generally helpful.  What could be a weightlifter’s max one month could be their 75% the next.  I find it more helpful to specify a starting weight for each lifter.  I allow the lifter to add weight with each subsequent set, as their technique allows.  If a lifter’s technique breaks down, the lifter is not allowed to go up in weight.

This approach sets my weightlifters up for success in competition.  Since my lifters are always required to lift with good technique, they do not make many misses in training.  In fact, Harrison went three years without missing a clean. Because my lifters practice making their lifts—not missing their lifts—they go into each competition lift expecting success.  And usually, they are successful.

Q: How often do your lifters compete?

Simons: I limit the number of competitions we attend.  All of my lifters love to compete, but competitions break up the training schedule.  Each competition requires a ramp-up period and a recovery period, which takes away from building strength.  My athletes perform better—physically and mentally—when we take on a smaller number of competitions.

Q: What advice would you give to other coaches who are trying to develop youth weightlifting programs?

Simons: Seek out “feeder” opportunities.  For instance, I work with a gymnastics center, offering strength and conditioning training to competitive gymnasts.  Some of these gymnasts fall in love with weightlifting and become members of my team.  It is also good if you can create training partnerships—a pair of athletes that can push each other.  Harrison works with a 105+ lifter who pushes him to lift heavier weights.  Also, it is great if you can create a positive competitive atmosphere.  Create opportunities for kids to compete against each other daily in the gym.

Q: What are your personal goals as a coach?

Simons: I want to become the best weightlifting coach in America.

With his attention to detail and dedication to his athletes, Simons is well on his way to achieving his goal.

 

The Gift of Coaching: An Interview with Dennis Espinosa

Coach Dennis Espinosa, of Salina, Kansas is a well-known name in U.S. weightlifting.  Espinosa has been a weightlifting coach for over 20 years, is an International Weightlifting Federation Category I Referee and has coached numerous athletes to the national and international levels.  In this interview, Espinosa talks about the benefits of youth weightlifting, the challenges of coaching and the transformation of the sport over the past 20 years.

Q: When did you first become involved in weightlifting?

A: My mother was a fan of weightlifting in the Olympic Games.  I remember watching the 1976 Games with her on TV and sharing her excitement for the sport.  There were no Olympic weightlifting opportunities available to me at the time, but I was very interested in the sport.  In my late teens, I got involved in powerlifting and bodybuilding.  I continued these sports when I opened my own gym in 1988.  In 1997, I turned my attention to Olympic weightlifting and became a sanctioned club with USA weightlifting.

Q: Tell me about your weightlifting program.

A: I currently coach 16 youth athletes in two separate programs.  My competitive program is called Reps and Sets Team Salina.  Right now, I train eight competitive weightlifters in this program.  I also run a strength and conditioning program through the Parks & Rec department.  The athletes in this program receive general strength training.  I use the strength and conditioning program as a feeder program for my competitive team.  It helps me identify athletes with the interest and talent to succeed in competitive weightlifting.  Also, involvement with the Parks and Rec department gives me a free place to train my competitive team!

Q: What does your typical training session look like?

A: I begin with Coaching Corner, where I gather all of my athletes together and give them an overview of what we will be doing that day.  Then, we perform a General Warm Up and a Specific Warm Up, which includes core and stability exercises as well as skill transfer drills. Finally, we proceed into the Olympic lifts.

Q: What benefits does weightlifting offer to youth?

A: Weightlifting requires a tremendous amount of discipline.  Kids who stick with the sport learn to organize themselves, become self-reliant, and control their minds and bodies.

Q: Why do you like working with youth athletes?

A: Training a new weightlifter is like unwrapping a gift.  You don’t know what talent a child holds until you begin working with him.  I enjoy training all types of weightlifters—high energy ones, quiet ones—it is always an adventure figuring out how to motivate and get the best out of each lifter.

Q: What is the hardest thing about being a coach?

A: When lifters leave.  A good coach invests himself in each of his athletes.  He learns their personalities, what motivates them, and how to develop them into the best versions of themselves.  When athletes leave—for whatever reason—it is heartbreaking.

Q: You’ve spent 20 years coaching Olympic weightlifting.  In this time, the sport has completely transformed.  To what do you attribute this?

A: Olympians always increase awareness and interest for a sport.  So, having weightlifters from the U.S. in the Olympic Games has brought more attention to the sport.  CrossFit has also had a huge influence by introducing athletes to the Olympic lifts.  In fact, CrossFit is probably the best thing that has happened to the sport of weightlifting!

Q: What is different about the sport of weightlifting now than when you started?

A: Young coaches are able to develop their athletes much more successfully now than when I started.  This has put the sport in a better position.  There are now more talented youth weightlifters than ever before in the U.S.

 

Q: Why is this?

A: USA Weightlifting’s coaching curriculum is better developed in recent days.  Coaches better understand how to motivate athletes, program, and deal with the mental aspects of coaching.  Also, information on weightlifting is more readily available and shared.

 

Q: What advice would you give to new weightlifting coaches?

A: Become a referee.  As a coach, it is absolutely essential to know the rules of the sport.  The information you gain in the referee courses will benefit your athletes and give you a better understanding of the sport.  Soon after becoming a weightlifting coach, I became a referee.  The information I gained in the referee courses has made me a better coach.

Also, compliment your lifters regularly.  Don’t tear them down; always build them up.

Youth Weightlifting Scholarship Opportunities

Youth Weightlifting Scholarships

College scholarships for weightlifting are limited.  However, there are a few lucrative opportunities, including these:

Arnold Sports Festival Columbus Rotary Scholarship

Amount: $2500

Number of Weightlifting Scholarships: 1

Age Eligibility: 10 – 25 years old (age on Dec. 31)

Registration: arnoldsportsfestival.com

The Arnold Sports Festival is held annually in March in Columbus, Ohio.  The festival brings together talent from a number of sports including gymnastics, archery, strongman, powerlifting, and weightlifting.  The event includes exhibitions, competitions, and sport demonstrations by elite athletes.  During the festival, college scholarships are also awarded by the Columbus Rotary Club to ten youth athletes (ages 8 to 18).

Of the ten youth scholarships awarded annually, one weightlifting scholarship is awarded.  The youth weightlifting scholarship is handled by the Columbus Weightlifting Club.  According to Mark Cannella, head of the Columbus Weightlifting Club, an eligible applicant must:

  1. Compete in the Arnold Weightlifting Championships.
  2. Be 10 – 25 years of age on December 31 of the year of the competition.
  3. Demonstrate positive-impact involvement – in the complete sense – consistent with capacity and circumstances and/or significant improvement/success in scholarship and community involvement.

For information on registering for the competition and scholarship, visit arnoldsportsfestival.com.  Registration begins in the fall of the year prior—generally between late August and October.

Wendy’s High School Heisman Award

Amount: $1000 to $10,000

Number of Scholarships: 100

Age Eligibility: High School Senior

Application: https://www.wendyshighschoolheisman.com

The Wendy’s High School Heisman Competition recognizes students with a high level of athleticism, a commitment to good grades, and strong leadership skills.  The scholarship is not specific to weightlifting, but weightlifters are eligible to apply.  To apply, an individual must:

  1. Be a high school senior
  2. Have a GPA of 3.0 or better
  3. Demonstrate leadership within school or community
  4. Participate in a sport recognized by the International Olympic Committee or the National Federation of State High School Associations

The following prizes are awarded annually:

  • $1,000: Awarded to 1 male and 1 female from each state
  • $5,000: Awarded to 5 male and 5 female National Finalists
  • $10,000: Awarded to 1 male and 1 female National Winner

National Finalists are also invited to attend a banquet in their honor in New York City free of charge.

Finally, approximately 1,000 students will receive a $10 Wendy’s gift card simply for applying.  So, even if you don’t win, you can fuel up for your next training session with a couple of free cheeseburgers.  For more information on the scholarship, visit Wendy’s High School Heisman website.

School-Specific Scholarships

A handful of universities also offer weightlifting scholarships to students attending their schools.  Scholarship recipients may receive tuition assistance and help with room and board.  The universities that have weightlifting programs registered with USA Weightlifting are:

Northern Michigan University: US Olympic Education Center 

Louisiana State University at Shreveport: High Performance & Development Center

Lindenwood University

East Tennessee State University

University of Wisconsin-Whitewater

California State Sacramento

Oklahoma City University: OCU Barbell Club

West Virginia University

Texas A&M