Team Eaton takes a swing at new training concepts

Under the guidance of coach Harry Marra (right), Team Eaton is incorporating baseball techniques into daily training sessions this season. Ashton Eaton was a star baseball player in his youth, and his wife, Brianne Theisen-Eaton, was a standout softball player. (TrackTown USA photo by AHM Brands)

EUGENE, Ore. – If Team Eaton of Oregon Track Club Elite can set personal bests in the shot put, discus or javelin this season, they just might owe a debt of gratitude to an unlikely source: San Francisco Giants catcher Buster Posey.

Harry Marra, who has guided the ascendant track and field careers of the husband-and-wife team of Ashton Eaton and Brianne Theisen-Eaton ever since he joined the University of Oregon coaching staff in the fall of 2009, is a huge baseball fan.

As a kid growing up in upstate New York, he would often accompany his father to the Polo Grounds where he watched a young Willie Mays patrol center field for the New York Giants. Four decades later, Marra spent 10 seasons as speed and fitness consultant with the San Francisco Giants.
So, baseball is in his blood.

Last October, as Marra watched the Giants claim their third World Series title in the past five years, a slow-motion video of Posey’s smooth and efficient batting stroke caught his eye. The video, in which the 2012 National League MVP and batting champion expertly used his lower body to drive the baseball, impressed Marra.

It also gave him an idea.

As he watched Posey swing, shifting his weight ever so slightly from the back to front leg as he stepped forward in the batter’s box; using the core muscles of his lower body to turn his hips into the pitch; and finally, squaring up the baseball with a level bat, it all looked familiar.

Marra realized the concepts and movement patterns which guided Posey’s powerful baseball swing were nearly identical to those used by throwers in track and field.

“You don’t hit a baseball with your arms,” Marra said. “You hit a baseball by driving your hips and core muscles through the pitch, and the bat accelerates after that. It’s the same with throwing in track and field. You don’t put the shot with your upper body; it’s the leg and core muscles.”

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Ashton Eaton uses a baseball swing inside a shot put circle to improve his throwing motion. (TrackTown USA photo by AHM Brands)

With that revelation, Marra decided to incorporate baseball techniques into the daily training sessions of his prized pupils as they began preparation for the 2015 outdoor track and field season. He stopped by the UO baseball office to discuss his intentions and left with an armful of donated gear.

“When we came to practice this year, we had all this new stuff,” said Eaton, the reigning World Champion, Olympic gold medalist and world record-holder in the decathlon.

“There were baseball bats, gloves and balls. It was awesome for us.”

Stealing home

Baseball was actually Eaton’s first sport.

Growing up in La Pine – a small town in Central Oregon about 30 miles south of Bend – he played on multiple teams each summer, including travelling all-star squads until he was 14 years old. Eaton was a shortstop, batted lead-off and his forte was stealing bases.

“My favorite thing was stealing home,” Eaton said. “As soon as I got to a baseball park, I would look to see how far away the backstop was from home plate because there were balls in the dirt all the time.”

Eaton’s youth baseball mentor was Dean Stiles, who is now in his third season as a volunteer assistant coach with the UO baseball program. A longtime high school coach and former head coach at Lane Community College, Stiles works with the Duck pitching staff.

He remembers Eaton fondly.

“(Ashton) was just as dominant then as he is now,” Stiles said. “We put him at lead-off, and if he made contact, he was on first. Usually, two pitches later, he was on third after stealing both bags. He would then either steal home or score on a wild pitch. If he got on base, it was like a sure run.”

Theisen-Eaton had a similar background in fast-pitch softball. She played each summer in Canada until the ninth grade.

“I was the catcher because I was the only kid that could throw from my knees to second base,” she said. “I liked to hit and run the bases, and I also liked the social aspect. But as I got older, and more specialized, certain sports dropped out, and softball was one of them.”

Given their past experiences in baseball and softball, it was easy for Marra to introduce the fundamentals of swinging a bat and throwing a ball into the workout regimens of Team Eaton this winter. With repetition, he believes those movement patterns will add distance to the shot put and discus for Eaton, while Theisen-Eaton is focused on the javelin.

“One of my main teaching components is finding something an athlete can relate to,” Marra said. “Something they are very familiar with. Kids don’t grow up throwing shot puts or javelins. They grow up throwing snowballs, playing catch and hitting baseballs.

“Ashton and Bri are not pure throwers, but with high-level athletes like those two, if you start a movement pattern correctly, there’s a good chance they will finish it correctly.”

Fixing the javelin

For track and field purists, the images can be a bit jarring.

Nearly every day this winter, at some point during practice, Eaton steps inside a shot put circle and begins swinging a baseball bat; similarly, Theisen-Eaton puts on a glove and plays catch with herself by bouncing a ball off a wall beneath the West Grandstand at Hayward Field.

The new wrinkles have paid off in keeping their workouts fresh and fun.

“This is the best we’ve ever practiced this early in the season,” Theisen-Eaton said. “Our fitness is coming around really fast and we’ve started our technical event work a lot earlier.”

The javelin has been a source of concern for Theisen-Eaton.

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By throwing a baseball in practice, Brianne Theisen-Eaton hopes to improve her javelin technique and avoid injury. (TrackTown USA photo by AHM Brands)

She set her personal best of 152 feet, 5 inches (46.47 meters) nearly 2 ½ years ago at the 2012 London Olympics. Since then, she has seen her javelin marks dip, in part, due to an ongoing injury associated with poor throwing technique – strained intercostal muscles.

In 2013, when she won the heptathlon silver medal at the IAAF World Championships in Moscow, her season best in the javelin was 149-9/45.64m. Last summer, she won the heptathlon gold medal at the Commonwealth Games in Scotland despite throwing only 141-6/43.13m.

“I feel like I lost my way in the javelin,” Theisen-Eaton said. “A lot of it is due to the injury. I created bad habits to protect myself and it just made everything worse. So now, I’m getting my confidence back. I’m starting with the basics, and so far, I’m able to throw with no pain.”

She attributes some of that progress to her new throwing program of playing catch, over and over.

“Bri didn’t quite have a complete understanding of the actual throwing motion,” Marra said. “The way she was doing it would create stress in her intercostal areas and it was bugging her a lot … just by playing catch, she’s already gained a better understanding of how to throw. Now, it’s a matter of learning to trust the process.”

Marra believes the javelin could become a game-changing event for Theisen-Eaton. She’s already one of the world’s most consistent heptathletes, but the javelin is ripe for improvement.

“I told her, ‘that’s the event that will win you gold,’” Marra said. “Even though it’s not her best event on paper right now, she can improve a lot. It could become a separation event.”

High expectations for 2015

Team Eaton has two indoor meets on their 2015 schedule – the Knights of Columbus Indoor Games, Jan. 30-31, in Saskatoon, Canada and the 108th Millrose Games, Feb. 14, at the New Balance Track and Field Center at The Armory in New York City.

They will do selected events at both meets.

Their only scheduled multi-event competition prior to the 2015 IAAF World Championships will be the prestigious Hypo Meeting in Götzis, Austria (May 30-31). Neither needs to worry about qualifying for the World Championships in Beijing (Aug. 22-30). Eaton gets an automatic berth as the reigning World Champion in the decathlon and Theisen-Eaton is afforded the same luxury as Canada’s national record-holder in the heptathlon.

Not surprisingly, both have high expectations for the upcoming season.

“My goal is to win the World Championship,” Theisen-Eaton said. “I want to focus on executing all of the events correctly in competition, and the way it’s going now, I see myself scoring higher than ever. Everything is in place to do really well.”

As for Eaton, he will be 21 months removed from his last decathlon when he competes in Austria at the end of May. He took a welcome break from the decathlon in 2014, spending the entire season learning a new event – the 400-meter hurdles. He debuted at 50.01, and in his sixth race, he dropped his PR to 48.69, which made him the second-fastest American and No. 9 performer in the world this past year.

Now, he can’t wait to get back to the decathlon.

“I have a fresh outlook,” Eaton said. “I’m eager to get back to doing one … I would encourage other athletes to try (taking a break) if they can. There was no pressure and training was super easy all year. I was just literally having fun doing track.”

Although Marra took some heat for taking Eaton out of the decathlon “at the top of his game,” – Eaton turns 27 on Jan. 21 – the veteran coach has no regrets.

“Ashton was exhausted after 2013, so I knew there had to be a change, and the change was don’t train for a decathlon,” Marra said. “It worked well. Coming back from our last trip to Europe, we flew home together, and he told me, ‘Coach, I could start training tomorrow. I’m refreshed and ready to go.’ So I knew it was the perfect thing to do.”

Marra expects to face additional scrutiny from throws coaches who don’t agree with his views on mixing baseball with track and field, but he won’t let that stop him from moving forward.

“It’s not exactly the same motion, but there are a number of parallels,” he said. “That’s your starting point … the throws are called the old man’s event because it takes a long time to get them ironed out.”

The early returns are encouraging for Team Eaton.

Theisen-Eaton, who turned 26 on Dec. 18, is already showing a better understanding of her throwing mechanics, and Eaton is making subtle refinements to his delivery of the shot put and discus.

All of which bodes well for an outstanding season in 2015.

“The way they’re training,” Marra said. “If the weather is good in Götzis, and they’re healthy, they’ll both light it up.”