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Damon Kelly on Managing Nerves and Investing in Technique

Damon Kelly is a 2-time Olympic Weightlifter and 4-time Commonwealth Games Weightlifter. Damon has won 3 Commonwealth medals and, since retiring, has become passionate about sharing his knowledge and love of the sport. With over 20 years competing with and against the best in the world, Damon offers a unique insight into the world of competitive weightlifting. In this conversation we discuss when Damon started weightlifting, the big milestones and how he managed nerves during those moments that lead him to represent Australia.

You started weightlifting at 15 years old as a precursor to rugby training at St Lawrence’s. How did it all begin for you? 

In about year 10, in HPE we started looking at resistance training. I was fortunate enough that Mike Power, who was the father of Jason in the year above me, was a former weightlifter. He wanted to coach Jason and his friends so he asked the school if they could purchase a few barbells and weights which they did. He then offered up coaching a few mornings each week before school. That was my introduction. We started doing some gym work and I enjoyed it. After about 6 months, Mike suggested that I take up weightlifting more properly. I then went out and joined Cougars Weightlifting Club.

Did the weightlifting help your rugby or any other sports?

Yeah definitely. In years 9 and 10, I was in the Bs and Cs. From year 10 onwards, I was in the As and then the first XV in year 11 and 12 at St Lawrence’s in Brisbane. I really enjoyed all school sport, but the rugby was definitely fun. From year 5 to year 12 Cooper Cronk was in our year. He actually did a bit of weightlifting as well when I first got involved. It was awesome to play with him and then see how his career has progressed.

How did your passion for weightlifting evolve?

I think it was just enjoyment. I didn’t do it to go to the Olympics or Commonwealth Games or even represent Australia, although that definitely developed as I got into it. I did it just to give it a go and then developed a passion for the sport and how unique it is.

You are competing but a lot of the time you’re just competing against yourself. It’s quite tough but then rewarding when it all goes to plan.

There’s always something you can work on. After 20 years, I’m still working on technique. It’s an all year sport so there’s never really an off-season. The thrill of the competition was the biggest thing for me.

Who was the coach who impacted you the most as a junior?

Weightlifting is a unique sport in that I always had the same coach. Mike got me started but then once I was involved with Cougars I was coached by Miles Wydall. He was then my coach for the rest of my career. Over 20 years of training with Miles, he’d definitely be my biggest influence through junior, senior and even now as a coach myself. From him, it was just the passion he has for weightlifting which definitely rubbed off on me. You just want to see people do well and the sport do well. I think because we spent so much time with each other, you get involved in each other’s lives. When I was at the peak of my training, I was there 6 days a week for a few hours a day. You obviously get to know each.

The competition and training are really important but it’s only a fraction of the rest of your life. It’s important to have that relationship where you can talk and have that understanding about external stresses where you can tweak your training to get through some tough spots.

Tell us about your Olympic debut in Beijing in 2008

It was pretty crazy. The lead up to it was probably as memorable as competing itself. Back then, to qualify our quota for the Olympics it was dependant on where Australia placed in the Oceania championships. The winner of Oceania got to send 2 men and 2nd and 3rd got to send 1 man each. We were over in Auckland competing as a team and a few results didn’t go our way. It came down to me in the last round where I had to win to secure Australia that #1 spot. It was a tight tussle to win and ultimately get Australia that spot. We then had to have a trial out of all different weight classes going for that #1 spot. That position was one of the most intense I’ve ever been in. The room was packed down in Melbourne. Everyone was trying to get the best percentage of the qualifying total. I think I did a 5kg PB for clean and jerk which then secured me the spot. I had to beat my best mate, Ben Turner, who I had trained with for 8+ years. It was a pretty surreal moment to get the selection and then to compete as well. Being able to go to the Olympics was definitely surreal, I’ve never seen so many people in my life. The actual competition day, I didn’t lift what I wanted but I managed to get the best position I could at the time. John Eales was one of the Olympic liaison staff and he pulled me up. It was pretty surreal having John Eales helping me warm up at my first Olympics.

Being a dual Olympian, was there less pressure at the second Olympics? Or was it the same process?

I knew what to expect in terms of the village, bussing about and transport to/from venues. Understanding that made it a bit easier but I still got nervous and worked up for the competition. I don’t think that will ever change. Even for local club competitions, I still get nervous and excited. It’s the competition process where I use the adrenalin to my advantage.

You talked about nerves there. How do you use those nerves to benefit your performance? And how would you recommend young athletes do the same?

For me, I really enjoy the competition. I definitely feel the adrenalin kick in. In hindsight, having the good mental preparation enabled me to harness that excitement and not let it take over my thoughts. The beauty of weightlifting is that it’s quite a clear progression through the levels of competition. From your local club competition through to state, national and international but the competition is all the same. It’s 6 lifts so actually competing as a younger athlete and getting a feel for the competition environment is beneficial.

You don’t always have your personal coach there at competitions so being able to work with another coach by developing a good routine for how you set up for a competition is really important. If the opportunity is there, you should take it.

What are some aspects of coaching which have influenced you the most and that you want to bring to your coaching game?

It’s a tricky one because there’s such a wide range of factors that come into play. You can be coaching a beginner and it’s very heavy on the technical cues. That’s very different from someone who’s elite and has been lifting for 5-6 years.  You need to find the best thing to motivate them and make them understand what you’re trying to convey. You need to work out that message which helps them understand. You have an idea in your head about how the lift should look and, because it’s such an individual sport, everyone has different motivations. You need to find the right triggers for the right athlete to get that result.

In terms of development in children, what do parents and kids need to be aware of when it comes to weightlifting?

I would say the biggest part is technique. I know that it’s a strength sport but 90% of it is technique. You need to make sure that you learn the correct technique and get coached properly. There’s a lot of bro-science in gym that you see on Instagram, so it really helps to have that right advice. Weightlifting looks pretty easy but it’s a very technical sport. Trying to understand how the loads work and how they affect your body. Lifting with the right technique is very safe but it’s a fine line. Having that body awareness of how it should look and feel so if it doesn’t feel right, you know it. You want to lift as efficiently as possible. It’s important to be able to train on that technique. Strength isn’t necessarily easier, but it can be put on the back burner. You need to be able to lift properly and efficiently to be able to lift your maximum weight.  

How do people get involved in weightlifting? What’s a good age and where should you go?

We’ve had athletes as young as 8 get involved at Cougars. We have modified bars and weights. At that young age, you just focus on technique and enjoyment. Anyone who’s interested, I’d recommend getting in touch with your local weightlifting club. That can be found on the QLD Weightlifting website where there’s a club locator. If you want to give it a go, you just have to be persistent. It’s quite challenging at the start but it’s really rewarding if you stick at it. If you’re interested in a challenge and something different – it’s great for strength, power, mental toughness and flexibility.

We have a lot of kids who use weightlifting to progress other sports. It’s a core component of the strength and conditioning you would see any professional athlete using. It’s the development of strength and power which is core for a lot of team sports – rugby, hockey, netball – anything where you need that burst of power.