I believe I learned more about weightlifting from Caleb than from any other source. I think he learned some things from me, but overall I think I got the better end of the exchange. Every single lifter that I have coached since Caleb has benefitted from the relationship we had and the things I learned from him.
Caleb was a very unique lifter. First because he decided to devote himself to weightlifting at a young age back way before the CrossFit boom and the huge rise in popularity of the sport that CrossFit created. Second, because even at the ages of 12 through 20, he was able to keep his attention focused like a laser on his weightlifting goals and never let it waver.
This, I believe, is the most useful trait that a young lifter can have. And Caleb Ward had it in spades.
I met Caleb through his older brother who I had coached for a couple of years. Josh was a physically talented lifter, who actually was the first lifter ever in our club to clean and jerk 300 pounds. Josh had mentioned the fact that he had a little brother that might also be interested in weightlifting. Josh insisted that his little brother was somewhat of a cry-baby who was likely to quit as soon as training got hard or became uncomfortable.
At some point the little brother came in and after a week or two it became obvious that Caleb, or “tank”, as we all came to know him, had talent for the sport. At first glance, Caleb did not look very athletic. He was just a chubby kid who had eaten too many chips and spent too much time on the couch. But he also had these huge thighs, elbows that slightly hyperextended, and in general great joint mobility. I didn’t know it yet, but Caleb was also extremely explosive and by the time he was 15 would have no problem doing standing back flips at 5’ 9” and 270 pounds.
He was also an extremely determined young man. Over his first several years of training Caleb surprised both his older brother and me by displaying a maturity that was downright shocking for someone his age. I remember a conversation we had when he was 14, and was thinking about taking a month or two off during the summer. He had been training about 2 years at that time. He told me that he felt that he could definitely continue with no break, but was worried that if he didn’t take at least a little time off, it might negatively affect his long term desire to stick with the sport. We talked about it, and he decided to take about a month off. He came back 4 weeks later chomping at the bit to train. Now what other 14 year old would display this kind of maturity? In many ways, he was displaying more maturity that I had. I was coaching a group of teenagers, and mainly concerned with keeping them in the sport and enthusiastic about the sport. I was way more concerned with what happened next month than looking forward years into the future to the future of an athletes career.
Besides determination, the trait that I believe was the most useful to Caleb Ward was an almost insane attention to detail. Even at age 12, lifts that even I could find no fault with were not acceptable to Caleb. Seemingly nothing escaped him. He picked apart joint angles at different positions, the relative speeds of different parts of a lift, and even the slightest hesitation during a snatch or clean. Many of the coaching points I still talk about during my seminars today originated during the first seminars I did many years ago using Caleb to demonstrate the lifts.
One of the things I did right while coaching Caleb was to focus much more on movement patterns, the rhythm of the lift, and speed than on strength. I believe that the first person to discuss this with me was Jim Moser, the father of James Moser. He was a big believer in two things. The Bulgarian system, and using heavy snatches and clean and jerks to build most of the strength needed to do heavy snatches and clean and jerks. I differ from Jim in training philosophy, but the difference is one of degrees, not one of direction. I can remember conversations where Jim talked about coaching his son James and how to minimize the amount that James would have to squat and front squat to eventually clean and jerk 500 pounds. The fact that James would eventually do 500 pounds was assumed, but Jim believed that if along the way he developed the sincere belief that clean and jerking a weight was actually easier than front squatting it, that belief would go a long way toward insuring his eventual ability to clean and jerk it. Jim convinced me of the validity of this line of thought. This became the basis for my belief that when learning the lifts, it is an advantage do do the initial learning when still weak. A large amount of strength allows the lifter to lift in inefficient manner yet still make the lift due to an abundance of strength. If you do not have an abundance of strength, you are forced to lift efficiently to make the lift. There is no doubt in my mind that one has to become very strong to be a great weightlifter. But the lifter who waits till technique is firmly ingrained before attempting to build that strength is going to have a big advantage in the end.
Through the first 7-8 years of his career Caleb focuses almost exclusively on squats and the competitive lifts in training, rarely doing any other pulling exercises. I also never tried to increase the squatting strength at any cost. Caleb usually limited his back squat training weight to a weight that he was capable of clean and jerking. When he could clean and jerk 160kg, he was able to comfortably back squat 160 for a set of 5, and do so with a bar speed that was very near to the bar speed of his maximal clean and jerk. His best front squat triple usually did not exceed his clean and jerk, and if it did it was not by much. My belief was that Caleb should develop a lifting technique that utilized his strength in the most efficient manner possible. Once he did that, there would be plenty of time to worry about strength later. I still believe that efficient technique is the proper focus for a lifter or coach who has the aim of becoming or developing elite weightlifters.
I owe so much of my coaching career to Caleb and athletes like him it is difficult to talk about any of them and most of all Caleb without the conversation veering off into training and coaching theory. But when I think back on Caleb and that whole group of kids I coached in Texas, the main thing I remember is fun. We had a blast. In training, at meets, doing car washes and other fundraisers, in fact in everything we did. When I look back at that time in my life I don’t think about the politics of the sport, about the financial stresses of paying for travel or any of the negatives. I think about the fun we had, and how lucky I was to coach lifters like Caleb. It was a hell of a ride.