The Coach Behind America's Best Teen Kettlebell Athletes
Sara Nelson was the first person I met in the kettlebell world and one of my biggest role models in the sport. She conducted my interview for an intern position at Ice Chamber Athletic Performance Training, where I was introduced to Sport and worked for three years. As one of the Ice Chamber Kettlebell Girls, Sara was one of the first female lifters to travel the world as a kettlebell athlete. Nowadays, she coaches a majority of the Ice Chamber team - including teen phenom kettlebell athletes Rylee Reeves (first American junior to podium at the IUKL World Championships) and Miranda Robbeloth (youngest American female Master of Sport). Read the interview below to learn about Sara's coaching and lifting philosophy.
1. What is your athletic background? Growing up I was a swimmer, but it wasn't until I found trail running as an adult that I really developed a passion for athletics. I found Kettlebell Sport through Maya Garcia after she discovered lifting as a postpartum routine.
2. What are your best results and who is your coach? Most recently I switched back to One Arm Long Cycle and did 105 reps with the 24kg kettlebell. I am terrible at remembering my competition numbers but this one stuck out to me because it made me feel like I found my groove again. Currently I coach myself, but Steven Khuong was my foundation.
3. What are your personal goals for lifting kettlebells? My goals for 2017 are to lift in more Long Cycle events at 24kg and beyond.
4. Why do you enjoy lifting? What is the best part for you? I enjoy lifting because of the efficiency, given my time restraints. I also enjoy the constant chase; chasing the number or the time. The best part of lifting is the places it has taken me and the relationships I have developed as a result of kettlebells.
5. Which lift is hardest for you and why? Which is easiest and why? I would say the hardest lift for me is Snatch. One of the biggest reasons is because of issues with my abdominal separation from pregnancy, which I am working to correct. Another reason is I do not spend enough time working on this lift! Jerks and OALC are my easiest lifts. I enjoy them and often find them meditative when I am having a hard day. Yes, I know that sounds crazy!
6. When and how did you start coaching kettlebells? I started coaching in early 2009 at the Ice Chamber. Steven asked if I would like to lead a series of month-long workshops, so I said yes and the rest is history. Ironically by saying yes, my whole life plan changed! The opportunity to coach got me out of my corporate desk job and into doing something I actually enjoy.
7. What does a typical day in the life of Sara Nelson look like? A typical day in my life includes a 5AM wake up call and I'm off to work at the gym and teach classes. I do office work, write training programs, squeeze in a quick training session for myself, race to get my kids from school, and go home for lunch. Then it's back to the gym to teach before I head home for dinner and do prep for the next day.
8. What are your students' best results? Rylee Reeves: 90 reps 24kg Snatch at the IUKL Junior Cup in Latvia.
Miranda Robbeloth: 95 reps 24kg One Arm Long Cycle at the AKA Mr. Olympia competition (Master of Sport).
9. In my opinion, you are one of the best female coaches in the U.S. for Kettlebell Sport, and have produced great results especially in your Junior athletes Miranda Robbeloth and Rylee Reeves. Did you set out with that as a goal? What do you think is the biggest contributing factor to your coaching success? So kind of you to say - thank you! I do not think that was necessarily a goal. I really enjoyed the sport and traveling to places that I had never been, and I wanted to share that experience with others. It has been especially exciting and fulfilling traveling with my juniors and watching their experiences first hand.
10. What do you think is your biggest strength when it comes to kettlebell lifting and/or coaching? What sets you apart from other lifters? What is your biggest weakness? One of my biggest strengths is that I don't put a lot of pressure on myself or my athletes. That can also be my biggest weakness when it comes to my own lifting. Sometimes it allows me to enjoy the moment on the platform and let my body work hard, but other times it means I don't try hard enough and walk away knowing I was capable of much more.
11. How do you decide whether one of your students can increase their competition weight? The student should achieve a minimum number of reps with lighter weight even on their worst training day before moving up. If you do not have a good foundation, moving up in weight will only become harder. The minimum number of reps I require for my students is different depending on the lift.
12. What are the most important aspects of being a good coach and getting results from your students? Listening to your athletes. Taking their physical and mental concerns into account so you know when to push them harder and when to ease up. This is especially important because we are not professional athletes with a large team of people assisting; rather we are people that have a passion in a unique sport and still have to manage everyday life. In the beginning of someone's lifting journey, it's important to set goals that are challenging but not beyond reach.
13. How much time do you spend coaching technique versus coaching mindset? I try to spend equal time on technique and mindset. Once a lifter is past the beginning to intermediate stage, however, I probably favor mindset. Mental training is the biggest hurdle when lifting on the platform versus lifting in the comfort of your training space.
14. Why do you enjoy coaching? What is the best part for you? The reward is getting to see your lifter achieve the goal they have worked so hard to obtain. When they finally do... the joy and excitement of that moment is worth it for me.
15. Do you think a lifter NEEDS a coach to be good? Please explain. It is important to have a good coach to protect yourself from injury, especially in the early stages of lifting. I think it is also important to have a good coach when you get to the upper level to help ensure you are taking the proper recovery so you can keep training at your full potential.
16. It takes a long time to develop proper technique and conditioning for Kettlebell Sport. How do you keep yourself or your athletes motivated when the ultimate goal is often so far in the future? I set both short-term and long-term goals so there is always something to work towards. I also try to add games to the training program to add a twist of fun. When we are a few months out from a big comp, I also program a day where we do no bells and instead do some fun physical activity that pushes limits (i.e. tire flips, sled pulls, or some sort of game). This takes some of the weekly pressure off of kettlebell training and allows us to laugh or cry depending on how hard we want to push it!
17. Do you have any tips for lifters out there who are coaching themselves? If you can find a way to train with others, even if only periodically, do it! There is something about lifting with others that can help push you, motivate you, and show you alternative ways of training. I also think videotaping as many sets at as many different angles as you can is really beneficial. That way you can study technique, review mindset, count reps, and more!
18. What is the biggest misconception about Kettlebell Sport training? One of the biggest misconceptions is "lifting kettlebells must be so bad for your back". I have had a million conversations with different people that do not lift about this! My response now is "if you are doing it right, it actually strengthens your back".
19. What does the future of Kettlebell Sport look like? My personal hope is that it keeps growing worldwide and of course the icing on the cake would be to see it as an Olympic sport!
20. What is your personal fitness philosophy? How does it differ from the fitness philosophy you have for your athletes? Do things you like and enjoy! I am sure that sounds like a cliche, but I really do think you should do physical things that you like and relieve you from the stress of life. I constantly remind my athletes of this, so it is drilled into their motto as well. If you can't walk away from an activity with a positive mindset, then you need to find another activity that will. That being said, I do think it is important to get uncomfortable at times to test your mental and physical strength - which in the moment might not be "fun"!