Shot put record holder Ryan Crouser on what makes him the ultimate champion

The double Olympic gold medallist is pushing his limits with innovative techniques and self-coaching, constantly aiming to surpass his own world record in shot put.

Published : Aug 17, 2023 09:59 IST - 27 MINS READ

When Ryan Crouser steps up to the shot put ring in Budapest at the World Championships, his real competition will be with himself.

Standing 6 feet 7 inches and weighing 145kg, the American from Oregon is so far ahead of the rest of the field that he might as well be in a league of his own in international athletics.

The 30-year-old is a two-time Olympic gold medallist and the reigning world champion, with 10 of the top 15 throws of all time (including the three biggest in history). In comparison, Usain Bolt has seven of the top 15 100m times of all time.

The 23m mark has been breached 12 times in shot put history so far. Crouser accounts for eight of those distances including the current world record of 23.56m. 
The 23m mark has been breached 12 times in shot put history so far. Crouser accounts for eight of those distances including the current world record of 23.56m. 

The 23m mark has been breached 12 times in shot put history so far. Crouser accounts for eight of those distances including the current world record of 23.56m. 

This season, he has been in even more dominating form. In May, he smashed his own world record with a throw of 23.56m at the Los Angeles Grand Prix. That mark is nearly a metre clear of his closest pursuer, Joe Kovacs, who is second best this year with a throw of 22.69m.

Crouser is not done just yet, which probably isn’t good news for his competitors in Budapest. Speaking to Sportstar, he dissects his world record throw. “In terms of execution on the day, I think it was very good,” he says. “But in terms of improving on it or making the ball go further, I feel it needed more speed work and high-intensity throws. At that point in the year, I was doing a lot of heavy lifting and throwing a lot of heavy shots. So I was throwing the 18-pound shot (16 pounds, or 7.26 kg, is the usual weight) and doing 5s and 7s in the weight room,” he says.

“I was very strong, but I didn’t have much speed. Speed really lends itself to throwing far. So I feel the improvement would be more in terms of preparation — having more plyometrics, more speed work, and throwing light shots before that meet. It was an early-season meet, so I wouldn’t be expecting to do that at that time of the year. That’s what got me excited for the World Championships. Because now I’m doing a lot of speed work and plyometrics, and hopefully that distance will show up in the Worlds,” he says.

Indeed, despite being so far ahead of the field, it says something about Crouser’s mindset this year, boosted by a new technique that he thinks will make him go even further.

It’s not that he needs to innovate as much as he wants to. “I’m always trying to get better and compete against myself and throw as far as I can. I think the new technique does let me throw further. That’s the main reason I’m going with it,” he says.

A different take

Ever since it has been a part of track and field, there have been essentially two techniques to throw the shot — the glide and the spin. In the glide — that’s probably as old as the event — the putter faces the back of the circle, beginning with a crouching position, and proceeds with kicking his leading leg to the front of the circle, while the other leg follows in a ‘gliding’ motion. In the spin technique — invented in the 1980s — the putter faces the back of the circle, and then executes a series of ‘pivoting’ motions with his right leg generating power much like a discus thrower.

Crouser’s technique, dubbed the Crouser slide, has the possibility of being as significant as the Fosbury flop in the men’s high jump. It is an evolution of the spin technique.

“Instead of just starting with my feet fixed opposite the direction of the throw, I move them 45 degrees over clockwise, and then make a lateral shift with my left foot so it adds another 45 degrees to 60 degrees of rotation. That gives me a longer time to add force to the ball and also adds an extra step. So I’m able to add a lot of linear force to then transfer into rotational force and then back into linear force at the front,” he says.

There is a bit of a trade-off, Crouser admits. “When you add the extra movement and the extra degrees of rotation, you have more variables that can go wrong. So it’s a bit of a chess match between figuring out how to increase the amount of potential energy created and how to minimise the inconsistencies in the variables.”

For now, at least, Crouser has been remarkably consistent with the technique — throwing over 22m in every competition of the season. And when it does click, even when he’s far from his physical peak — as it did in May — he improves his world record by nearly 20cm.

If anyone was going to reinvent a technique that appeared to be set in stone, it was probably going to be Crouser.

If you were to judge the book by its cover, at first glance, Crouser seems like a stereotypical brawny American jock — he has a penchant for cowboy hats, has a giant Stars and Stripes flag hanging in his training room, loves fishing in his spare time, rocks an ’80s mullet, and of course, there’s the fact that he makes a living by hefting a 16-pound iron ball.

Innovation is key: Crouser’s technique, dubbed the Crouser slide, has the possibility of being as significant as the Fosbury flop in men’s high jump.
Innovation is key: Crouser’s technique, dubbed the Crouser slide, has the possibility of being as significant as the Fosbury flop in men’s high jump. | Photo Credit: REUTERS

Innovation is key: Crouser’s technique, dubbed the Crouser slide, has the possibility of being as significant as the Fosbury flop in men’s high jump. | Photo Credit: REUTERS

Crouser is all that, but he also combines it with a deeply analytical mind. He has an academic background in engineering and finance — the cowboy hats come from his time at the University of Texas — and brings that scientific temperament to his throwing. He built his own shot put ring from scratch during the COVID-19 pandemic, created his own training programme, and is perhaps unique in international sports as a self-coached athlete.

Even his ‘business up front party in the back’ hairdo is something that makes sense from the shot put. “It started as a joke. I had long hair for a while. I had a training partner who had a bit of a side business doing hair cuts, so he was like, ‘man, you should do a mullet’. I think most of the guys seem to like it, but most of the girls don’t seem to find it as appealing. My girlfriend and mom were very against it, but I did it anyway. I enjoy throwing with it. It’s actually better for throwing the shot because it keeps the longer hair out of the way. When my hair is long, it interferes with the shot being on my neck. The mullet I feel is a pretty ideal shot-putting haircut,” he says.

Luck by chance

For a guy whose name is now synonymous with shot put, it’s perhaps surprising that shot put wasn’t even his first choice of sport. This is doubly curious since Crouser, born in Portland, comes from a family of seriously accomplished throwers. His father, Mitch Crouser, was an alternate on the 1984 Olympic discus team, while his uncle, Brian Crouser, competed in two Olympics in the javelin.

“I started with baseball and soccer, and then American football and basketball. Up until high school, I did that, and then I moved to basketball and track. I didn’t focus solely on track and field until I went to college at 18. I think some of that helped me to be successful later on in my career as I developed a general athletic background because I had played all of these sports. I’ve seen so many athletes who specialise really early, and they play one sport year-round at 8–10 years old. It’s really crazy to specialise at that young age because you lose out on a lot of athletic development,” he says.

While he started out playing team sports and still admits he could probably have made a lot more money as a football player rather than a shot putter, it was track and field that ultimately drew him in. “I think the eye-opening moment when I realised I was pretty good at this (throwing) came when I was in eighth grade. I would have been 14 when I made a big jump throwing the discus in a school competition— about 60m with a 1kg discus. That was the year I realised I had a natural talent for this,” he says.

What also fascinated him was that unlike other sports, athletics allowed him to see how much better he was getting every time he stepped on the field. “I could see that I was progressing weekly. That’s one thing that’s always attracted me to track-and-field — it’s so easy to measure your improvement. What frustrated me about team sports is that you could have the best day as a player but your team still loses. So I like the aspect of track-and-field that if I go out and throw a personal best, I can say that I am the best that I’ve ever been. It’s such a special feeling,” he says.

That ability to measure progress was particularly appealing to a mind that has inherently been drawn towards science and numbers. “I think the math and science background lends itself to an appreciation of track-and-field because it’s purely performance-based. If I were playing another sport, I’m sure I would have found a numerical breakdown of that as well, but it certainly is one of the reasons I gravitated towards the shot put,” he says.

For the sake of science

Crouser has admitted he took his throwing seriously, mostly because it offered him a full-ride scholarship in college, where he started out studying engineering before switching his major to economics. “I’ve always been a math and science-based person. I liked numbers and excelled at math. I always liked engineering, math, and the numbers behind them. I did two years of engineering and only had the upper level of courses left. But then I was speaking to a senior who had graduated and was working as an engineer. He was asking me if I enjoyed these upper-level courses. I said I wasn’t really enjoying them but was continuing because it was a really good degree to have. He told me what we end up doing in his job is mostly the upper level of engineering, so if I don’t really love it, maybe I should look at something else. I was doing my minor in business, and I took up a finance course and an economics course for my business minor. I really liked both of those, so I decided to finish my undergrad in economics so I could finish off early and then work and get my masters in finance while I was still on scholarship,” Crouser says.

Just as Crouser’s decision to switch majors came by chance, so too did the decision to focus on the shot put. In his first year of college, Crouser, it could be argued, was as good a discus thrower as a shot putter. At the 2014 NCAA Big 12 meet, for instance, he threw the discus 63.90m, which would have been more than enough to qualify for the final of the Rio Olympics. It was only in 2016 that he said he decided to become a full-time shot putter.

“For me, the reason I ended up as a shot putter is more of a coincidence than a plan. In my fifth year of college, I was only eligible to compete indoors in collegiate meets. So, I had to focus on shot put for my final year since you can’t throw the discus indoors. That happened to be the Olympic year as well. I threw 21.73m and that happened to be the second-best mark of all time indoors. So, I figured it would be better to commit to throwing a shot at that time. But if I was throwing both shot and discus, then I might very well have ended up a discus thrower. I think I could have been a pretty solid discus thrower. I actually thought about going back to the discus a few years ago, but it is at such a high level right now. When I was throwing, it wasn’t nearly as competitive as it is now. You see multiple 70m-plus throwers throughout the season,” he says.

DIY effect: If Crouser can break down his throws to the minutest detail, it’s because he doesn’t depend on anyone else to do so.
DIY effect: If Crouser can break down his throws to the minutest detail, it’s because he doesn’t depend on anyone else to do so. | Photo Credit: AFP

DIY effect: If Crouser can break down his throws to the minutest detail, it’s because he doesn’t depend on anyone else to do so. | Photo Credit: AFP

Basic instincts

While Crouser has done more than enough in the shot put event, the lack of discus success has cost in other ways. Crouser jokes that even with his two Olympic gold medals, he still doesn’t have bragging rights at home. “They won’t let me say I’m the best thrower in the family. I think I can argue my case as at least the best shot putter in the family. But my dad has a better discus PR distance than me, and my cousins and my uncle have a bigger javelin PB. I think I am the best shot putter, but they can argue that maybe I’m not the best thrower,” he says.

Although the decision to focus on the shot put might have proved to be the correct one, at least in terms of medal count, Crouser says there is perhaps another reason he prefers throwing the iron ball. “The thing I like about the shot compared to the discus and javelin to an extent is that there is very little impact on the shot apart from what you are doing. Once the shot leaves your hand, it’s going to go as far as it’s going to go. It follows projectile motion almost precisely, so it’s easy to track where it’s going to go.

What always bothered me about the discus, particularly, is the wind. The way the wind impacts the javelin and particularly the discus was frustrating for me. Some of my best throws in the discus came in not-so-great wind conditions. For me, I was trying to prepare for the big meets.

And when I get there, the wind conditions aren’t great. It always bothered me because I was trying to prepare my best and minimise the number of variables, and when you show up, the wind is bad, or when you aren’t prepared to throw well because it’s early in the season but the wind is favourable, you end up throwing a personal best. That variable aspect has always been frustrating for me,” he says.

In contrast to the uncertainty in the other throwing events, Crouser knows almost instantly when he has a good throw. “There are usually three stages to when I know I have a good throw. The back of the ring is very technical, and that is where most of the mistakes happen, at least for me. So if I have a good set up at the back and I face the direction of the throw, and if I set that up well, then I know that it will be at least pretty good. And then, at that point, it’s about fighting the impulse of your natural instinct, which is, ‘I’m in a good position, so let me throw as hard as possible’. That’s when you get tight, and that wrecks the throw. So if I set it up well, I know things are looking good, and I just have to stay relaxed and patient, and if I do that, I know that I will get a pretty good throw. And the final thing is how you make the last contact. If you make a really good connection off the hand, that’s when you know for sure. I throw so often and have taken so many throws in my career that I can tell when I let the ball go within about 20 centimetres just how far it’s going to be,” he says.

On his own path

If Crouser can break down his throws to the minutest detail, it’s because he doesn’t depend on anyone else to do so.

In the world of elite sports, he is an exception in the way he’s completely self-coached. When he goes to the training field, it’s usually just him. These days, he has his one-year-old black labrador, Koda, for company.

The choice to be his own coach, too, came by accident. “I started co-writing my training programme with my strength coach in the fall of 2015. My strength coach was leaving the university in the spring of 2016, so I felt I might as well start working on writing my own programme,” he says. “I was lucky to have a good foundation in terms of the coaches I was able to work with, both in the weight room and in the throwing event. My dad and my coach at the University of Texas, Mario Sategna, were able to get me a good understanding of the fundamentals and get me to think for myself. I was lucky with the circumstances I had with the people helping me to understand and think for myself what works for me instead of constantly leaning on a coach. I started in 2016, and I’ve been writing my own throwing and weightlifting programmes ever since.”

It’s not always been easy. “There have been points throughout my career where there are moments of self-doubt, and I think it would be nice to have a coach to guide me through this. But there are also advantages. After a meet when I know what I did wrong, it’s such an easy correction to make because it’s a correction I’ve done by myself many times,” he says.

Being self-trained is another thing that appeals to his temperament. “It definitely helps to have a numbers background when it comes to writing my own training and doing my own programming. Some of it is being very analytical and sticking to a path because you always have up-and-down emotions. You might have a very good training day and be tempted to take more throws. Take a few more hard throws if the ball is going far. And if you are feeling flat and tired, you just have to go in and get those reps in. Sometimes it can be an advantage to have a coach. But I also feel it goes both ways. It’s a huge advantage if you can coach yourself and do it on your own. I wouldn’t recommend it for most athletes, but if that works for you, you can be very successful,” he says.

Although Crouser doesn’t feel the need for one himself, he does work part-time as a volunteer coach at the University of Arkansas. This, he says, is as much for him as for younger athletes. “I think athletes at a high level can learn a lot from coaching others. When you have a younger athlete and you have to explain things to them in three or four different ways to have the lightbulb go off and for them to understand it, it really tests the depth of your own knowledge and understanding,” he says.

And while he might be genial towards those starting out, Crouser is never easy on himself. In a video he posted on his Instagram page recently, Crouser recorded himself with a microphone, giving a unique and often funny insight into the mind of an elite athlete. “Attack the ground” and “Load with the right leg”, he tells himself between throws. “Sad foul noises”, he says after a less than satisfactory attempt. A good throw towards the end of a session is followed by a self-deprecating, “Good job. Probably should have come ten throws before”. More often than not, though, he sounds out “Boom!”, as the shot explodes off his hands to the very edge of the throwing area. “I’m constantly talking to myself when I throw. I am by myself for most of my throwing sessions. I’ll have Koda with me, but I’ll be talking to myself. I will repeat what technical cue I want to execute when I’m throwing,” he says.

It isn’t just in training when Crouser talks to himself. “I do that in competition as well. I try to have my mental approach and execution in practice be as similar as my competition,” he explains. This is also why unlike many other athletes, Crouser’s performance doesn’t drop away between training and competition. “My personal best in training is almost the same as in a meet. When I was younger I used to throw further in practice than in competition but I’d get frustrated in trying to find the same feeling in competition. As I’ve got older I throw more in competition than I do in training. It’s a combination of limiting myself in training a little bit and not throwing as much as hard or as often as I used to. Another part is the older I get, it takes more to make the ball go far. If I’m not in a stadium with the crowd cheering it’s harder to find the intensity and the upper gear to make the ball go far,” he says.

‘A lot of people have been asking me about 24m and I think it’s physically possible to do but there are just a number of variables that go into it’ — Ryan Crouser
‘A lot of people have been asking me about 24m and I think it’s physically possible to do but there are just a number of variables that go into it’ — Ryan Crouser | Photo Credit: REUTERS

‘A lot of people have been asking me about 24m and I think it’s physically possible to do but there are just a number of variables that go into it’ — Ryan Crouser | Photo Credit: REUTERS

24 in mind

At only 30 years old, Crouser still has plenty of time to send the shot flying huge distances. What’s next for him?

A third Olympic gold, for sure. “It’s the biggest goal on the horizon. No one has won three consecutive gold medals in the men’s shot put, so I’m definitely chasing that. I want to go through 2024, as well as 2028. I would, of course, have to make some changes in my approach simply because I’m not getting any younger. I would love to retire in LA after the 2028 edition, so doing an Olympics on American soil would be a big highlight in my career. So that would be the long-term goal, but I would have to kind of make an adjustment and figure out how to stay in the sport and continue to be competitive instead of just throwing as far as possible. It will be a big change in mindset, I think, after 2024, with the goal being longevity over just maximal distance. It will be an obstacle to overcome as well,” he says.

While Olympic medals are useful career milestones, Crouser admits that’s not the only thing that drives him. That’s believable when you consider just what he’s done with the two Olympic gold medals that he’s won. “I just keep them in my sock drawer. I don’t have them in a safe or anything,” he says.

What Crouser wants is even more distance. Already the world record holder by some margin he wants to improve that mark even further. “Improving on my PR is definitely a goal. I still feel there’s some distance that I can add to it and improve on. That’s my favourite thing about being a world record holder. Any time you get a personal record, it’s also a new world record,” he says.

As he polishes his ‘Crouser slide’ further, he believes he will add to his current best. “Progress will come in jumps. It’s never a slow, linear progression of slow, steady improvement. You have a big throw, and then you try to get consistent at that, and then you get another big throw. I think 23m high is possible,” he says.

What about the 24m mark — something no human has come close to?

Crouser thinks he can, but is also realistic that a lot of factors need to come together for that.

“A lot of people have been asking me about 24m, and I think it’s physically possible to do, but there are just a number of variables that go into it. The training has to be perfect.

The body has to be healthy, and the preparation, execution, and technique on the day have to be nearly perfect. So I think it’s possible, but there are so many variables that go into it. So if you focus too much on that one crazy far distance, then you are going to be disappointed more often than not,” he says.

That’s also why Crouser, despite being the favourite for gold in Budapest, isn’t too concerned about extending his win streak. “I have been disappointed in the past, getting caught up in win streaks. While they are great and awesome when they are going on, they can also feel frustrating because it does feel like added pressure to go on and keep winning. What ends up wrecking the win streak is that there are so many variables that come into it. I remember what ended the last streak was when I got long-term COVID, couldn’t train for three weeks, and kind of lost the whole tail end of my season. There are so many variables beyond ideal preparation that come into it. If you expect to win every time, you could fall sick or have a tough day, and instead of just moving on, you go, ‘oh I lost my win streak’. If I’ve won 20–30 meets, I’m not going to be able to top that again. That’s a couple of years of meets. It can be almost more of a hold than a benefit. So, for me, there is some pressure, but if anything, the pressure is a little bit more that I put on myself. Because anytime I go out, I want to throw as well as I can, and so that’s the basis of my training — to be the best that I can be. I can’t control the other guys throw, all I can do is throw as far as I can,” he says.

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