This is the second series out of six series which entail an interview with Alexandros Kouvacs’s coach Dimitris Vellianitis. In this interview, we talk about the Greek weightlifting system.
Below is the first part of the interview which contains a short biography about Dimitris Vellianitis.
Enjoy and stay tuned for the second part!
Taha: Tell us a little bit about yourself?
Dimitris: My name is Dimitris Villianitis and I’ve been training Alexandros Kouvacas for about a year. I was on the national Greek team of Olympic Weightlifting and I participated in many competitions at the Junior and the Senior level. I started my coaching career by coaching the special Olympics powerlifting Greek team which helped me develop a different type of training technics in order to help people with various physical problems. With the use of these technics, I was able to design individualized training programs for athletes from different sports that target their weaknesses and ultimately improve their performance.
Taha: How did you meet Alex?
Dimitris: I heard about Alex when he participated in a competition in Greece. Fast forward, the current coach of the Greek weightlifting team Valerios Leonidis and Leonidis Sabanis introduced me to Alex.
Alex: I would like to add that back in 2007 I came to Greece for a Training camp and Dimitris was still an athlete. That was when I met him for the first time but he does not remember seeing me around at that time.
Taha: How long have you been involved with Olympic Weightlifting?
Dimitris: As an athlete, 23 years.
Taha: How was your career as an Olympic weightlifter?
Dimitris: I started very young, around the age of 12 years old. I competed nationally at the age of 14 years old and I won the national championship U15 in the 85kg category. I also competed in the European Junior championship in the A session where I came third and participated in two European Championships U21 where I came second and third. Furthermore, I participated in many Greek national championships in the 94kg category and in the University Championship. I stopped my career very young as an athlete. I was 24 years old when I stopped.
Taha: Did you stopped very young because of injuries?
Dimitris: I stopped because of my studies in the University and I had internships to complete for school. Later on, I decided to become a coach and in Greece by law if you are in the process of becoming a coach you are no longer considered an athlete anymore.
Taha: Have you participated in any world championships or in the Olympic games?
Dimitris: At my time, very few athletes competed in the Senior team because the Dream Team* was still around (Fighting for a spot in the national team was really hard back in the 90’s, the golden era of Greek weightlifting).
*Dream Team: At the height of Greek Weightlifting the national team was composed of the following legendary athletes: Victor Mitrou, Leonidis Kokas, Loenidis Valerios, Leonidis Sabanis, Pyrros Dimas, Kakhi Kakhiashvili.
This is the second part of the interview. In this part, we discuss the youth weightlifting system in Greece and talent preparation.
Taha: Is there a youth weightlifting system that develops and prepares future champions in Olympic weightlifting?
Dimitris: When I was younger there was a system used to select young athletes and prepare them for weightlifting. Now the Greek weightlifting federation is trying to bring back that system. So basically the new program is trying to introduce young students to Olympic weightlifting. The basis of this new program is to promote the therapeutic benefits of Olympic weightlifting in the sense that it can be used to condition the body, prevent injuries and improve performance in general.
Taha: What do you think is a better age to start Olympic weightlifting in the context of that a country is trying to build future champions in the sport?
Dimitris: 8 to 10 years old.
Taha: What would be the most important elements or capacities to focus on for this age group?
Dimitris: For this age group, the most important thing is for the athlete to have fun during the training process. Also at this age, it is very important to focus on developing technique and balance.
Taha: Why balance?
Dimitris: So that when the athlete is stepping or landing on the ground, he steps properly, remains steady and grounded.
Taha: Considering technique and balance, how frequently these elements should be trained during the week?
Dimitris: At this age, the athlete should start training 3 times a week, as the athletes mature and grow we increase the sessions steadily to 5 and 6 sessions.
Taha: How long these sessions should be?
Dimitris: More or less one hour.
Taha: Aside from focusing on technique and balance, is there any type of training you include to prepare and condition the soft tissues of these athletes?
Dimitris: The training is based a lot on exercises as seen as a game. We use small bars, elastic training, jumping exercises, etc. We incorporate all types of equipment. The training is less specific. As the athlete grows and matures the training gets more specific depending on the sport or activity pursued by the athlete.
Taha: Do you encourage the athletes from this age group to participate in other sports?
Dimitris: Yeah, but the mother of all sports is Olympic weightlifting because the movement patterns in this sport are the basis for many sports. From that point, it depends, not all children have the right body for weightlifting, so I will help the athlete depending which sport he wants to do but we try to instill the weightlifting culture and thoughts into the children so they can use it for other sports to improve their performance.
Taha: You said that Olympic weightlifting is the mother of all sports and that the movement patterns in this sport are the basis for many sports, do you mean specifically the snatch and the clean and jerk?
Dimitris: Apart from the two competitive lifts, we have many other exercises that we use to be successful at those lifts, that’s what we mean with Olympic weightlifting movement patterns. For example, a lot of sports has jumps, in that case, we can use the hang clean and hang snatch to improve the relative performance in those sports but from what I notice most athletes do it the wrong way. The culture and the thoughts of weightlifting help you properly improve performance and prevent you from getting injured. Weightlifting is like a weapon if you do it right you improve your performance if you do it wrong you turn the weapon against you and you kill yourself. It is very important to put emphasis on that Olympic weightlifting helps with performance if done right but it can hurt you if you use it the wrong way.
Taha: It is clear that here in Greece they are against early specialization in sports.
Dimitris: Yeah, but our mentality is that all athletes have to focus on learning the basics of Olympic Weightlifting from a young age because we need strength and balance in all sports.
Taha: What is the proper age for a young athlete to start working on maximum strength?
Dimitris: At 14 or 15 years old the athlete should start working on maximum strength.
Taha: And the athlete has to keep working on it during the rest of his athletic career?
Dimitris: The athlete has to prepare himself in a competitive fashion to bring out his maximum strength competitively and we don’t always train maximum strength. It has to be inside your competitive plan but it requires a lot of explanation, it is not that simple!
Taha: So the way an athlete should work on his maximum strength has to have a carry over to the competitive lifts.
This is the third part of the interview. In this part, we discuss the training system of the elite Olympic weightlifters in Greece.
Taha: What is the current system used by elite Olympic Weightlifters in Greece?
Dimitris: I’m gonna talk about my program because as coaches we all train our athletes differently. It is very similar to what the previous national team (Dream team) used for preparation and training with some little modification. For example, what I personally do is, I evaluate the athlete quickly and then depending on his body type and weaknesses, I will design a program geared toward correcting those weaknesses. Within a year, in the training program, there will always be loading phases, volume phases, and maximum effort phases but the most important thing is that it will all depend on what the athlete’s biomechanics needs.
Taha: So at the higher level the training is very individualized?
Dimitris: Yeah, The strategy is personalized to every athlete because they are not all the same.
Taha: What are the most important elements that the elite Olympic weightlifters need to focus on?
Dimitris: It is the same elements as youth athletes but there is one more important element, athletic psychology. How strong the athlete’s mind. that is because we see athletes who are even in strength but the person who has the stronger mind, win. Personally, I have my own model. The difference between an athlete and a champion is fear control. The less fear an athlete has, the more likely he will be successful.
Taha: I’m sure you have ways and methods to work on the psychology aspect of physical training?
Dimitris: There are many strategies in weightlifting to work on that and it is personalized to each athlete, there is no one recipe for all.
Taha: So from what I understand although young trainees need to work on balance and technique, the training of such elements continue during the whole training career of the athlete even during the elite stages.
Taha: Is there any other physical attributes or motor capacities that need to be trained at this stage? We know for example that maximum strength has a fundamental part of the training of the elite Olympic weightlifter.
Dimitris: The most important component in Olympic weightlifting which is also important to other sports is the strength of the back and the legs.
Alex: It goes again with training if the athlete is post-injury then you need to put more emphasis on these components to recover the lost performance. If you are squatting every day, it does not necessarily mean you are doing it to get stronger but for example, you can do it to maintain certain physical attributes like strength or you could be also doing it to increase functional hypertrophy and conditioning the soft tissues.
Taha: What do you think is the future of Greece in Olympic Weightlifting?
Dimitris: New athletes are coming out, few look good and Alex is one of these athletes and I am very positive about the future of Olympic weightlifting in Greece.
Taha: You also said that Greece is trying to bring back the system that they used to select young athletes for Olympic weightlifting, is this happening because some retired top athlete protested about it or is it something else? What was the reason that pushed them to try and bring it back?
Dimitris: All sports programs generally have ups and downs, we are on the down right now and there are new people in our federation that are trying to better our situation.
Taha: So that system disappeared because there was a certain period of time that the sport started getting less popular?
Dimitris: The system did not necessarily disappear but as you know there is an economic crisis in Greece but as the crisis continues we are able to adapt to the crisis, so basically the crisis disrupted the way we operated but now that we understand our situation better we are able to adapt and become better despite the economic crisis.
Taha: I see.
This is the fourth and last part of the interview. In this part, we discuss balance training, as well as Dimitris’s lifting career.
Taha: How do you train balance?
Alex: I think when we talk about training balance he does not mean how you move or how you balance yourself, what he means is training balance in within the body.
Dimitris: There are many exercises we can do. The training methods are specific and will help you improve later during your career.
Taha: When you talk about balance, you are talking about the balance of the motor capacities of the body and its physical components, like hamstring to quadriceps ratio where the hamstrings have to be stronger than the quad and also strengthening the important parts of the body to prevent injury in the future.
Dimitris: That’s what I meant. Muscular strength and proportion, the antagonist to agonist muscular ratio. All muscular groups need to be balanced. Different barbell exercises are used to achieve this purpose.
Taha: It makes a lot of sense because that is part of the base and foundation.
Taha: What were your best lifts in competition?
Dimitris: 165kg in the Snatch and 192kg in the clean and jerk in the 94kg category.
Taha: At what age?
Dimitris: Around 20 years old.
Dimitris: In training 162kg in the Snatch and 200kg in the clean and jerk.
Taha: How about the back squat and the front squat?
Dimitris: 250kgx2 on the back squat and 220kg on the front squat.
Taha: How about deadlift?
Dimitris: 285kg for one rep.
Taha: What was your best competition?
Dimitris: I didn’t do a lot, I did around 180kg clean and jerk. It was an under 21 years old competition. It was the best because they mixed up the attempts so I had to go to the platform quickly since I had only 10 seconds left on the clock to complete the lift. So I did 180kg clean and jerk and that is something I still remember till nowadays.
Taha: That was your best competition ever?
Dimitris: No, my best competition was when I peaked before the Olympics where I did 155kg in the Snatch and 192kg in the Clean and Jerk.
Taha: Which year was that? and which competition?
Dimitris: I don’t totally remember.
Taha: Now my last question is, what is your definition of a good athlete and a good coach?
Dimitris: A good athlete, depending on his strength and ability, is the one who always gives his 100% in competition no matter what. A good coach has to have a small ego, always learning and taking care of his athletes.
Taha: Thank you very much I really appreciate the opportunity.