Legendary Coach Harry Marra leads Truckee track camp
The commands cut through the hot summer air on July 17, as young athletes from middle school up to high school made approach after approach at the high jump crossbar, only to be called back, corrected and told to do it again.
However, when those instructions — no matter how seemingly tedious or minute — come from legendary track and field coach Harry Marra, athletes tend to look up and take notice.
“You have to get on kids, and as soon as (you do), they make adjustments,” said Marra on his style of coaching. “I try to bring across the point that the world-class kids that they watch on TV that win Olympic medals and all that stuff, they don’t really do anything different than these kids do. They do the basics better, and they’re more explosive because they are older … there’s no voodoo, there’s no magic.”
Little gets by the longtime coach, who enthusiastically worked with the athletes during the three-day camp, methodically correcting each movement and step down to the smallest detail as roughly two dozen youngsters worked through the different disciplines of decathlon.
Marra’s experience as a coach spans nearly half a century and has included time coaching athletes such as two-time Olympic decathlon and world-record holder Ashton Eaton, 1996 decathlon gold medalist Dan O’Brien, and Olympic bronze medalist Brianne Theisen-Eaton.
While the athletes at the camp worked on their technique, the coaches in attendance benefited from watching one of the world’s best at instructing track and field as part of Marra’s method of teaching coaches.
“I do these things called Learn by Watching Clinics,” said Marra. “I was in Austria at the end of May, and I did a clinic and they supplied a long jumper.
“All of the coaches stand around and I coach the long jumper, and then after the coaches sit down and say, ‘Hey he was doing this, why did you make this adjustment?’ And that, to me, is good education.”
The other coaches at the camp included Uros Kogal, Rob McClendon, Kevin Wall and Truckee Head Coach Diana Yale.
“Great summer camp, what I like is the small numbers,” said Marra. “It’s our first year, and sure we hoped for more, but it’s OK, They’re getting a lot of one-on-one attention.”
‘No kid should specialize’
In a time when coaches, parents and recruiters are in dispute over whether young athletes should specialize in a given sport or play several different ones throughout the year, Marra is vehemently against the idea of athletes focusing on only one sport.
“No kid should specialize until they are well out of high school — no kid,” said Marra. “Parents that see that their kids are good at football or soccer or tennis or gymnastics are having them do it all year round — the biggest mistake in the world. It’s a huge mistake. It’s nonsense.”
Throughout the afternoon session on Tuesday, Marra often asked students what other sports they did, making comparisons to things like the eyes of a basketball player as he drives toward the rim and a high jumper’s approach to the crossbar, or how a sprinter improving his running technique will improve his game on the gridiron in the fall.
In the case of two-time Olympic champion Eaton, being a multisport athlete was the difference in becoming the world’s best decathlete.
“Most of the top athletes I had in decathlon did a variety of other sports,” said Marra. “Ashton (Eaton) is a great example. He was horrible at the javelin when I first got there, and we worked a year and he still didn’t get it. He didn’t get the idea.
“Then I remembered he’s a black belt in Taekwondo and he came to practice one day and he was out fooling around doing these kicks and stuff. I called him over and said, ‘Come here.’ I put a javelin in his hand and said, ‘Just trot up to the line and turn your right hip like in Taekwondo.’ He threw 33 feet farther without even being warmed up.”
From there Eaton would go on to become one of the top javelin throwers in the sport.
For parents or coaches in disagreement with Marra’s thoughts on athlete specialization, his message was simple.
“I would never come to a teacher and tell them how to teach their English class or history class or math class,” said Marra. “Don’t come to me as a coach and tell me how I should coach the kids or what I should do as far as the development of the kids doing all these sports. They must do all these sports if they really expect to rise to the top. It’s a big problem.”
Justin Scacco is a reporter for the Sierra Sun. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.