Remembering Don McCauley

This is the hardest thing I have ever tried to write.

I wrote something about Coach Pendlay, and that was hard. However, this is something different. Coach Pendlay is someone I respected. Don is someone I loved.

We coached together since 2014, starting with our time at MuscleDriver USA. I remember my first day there – and man, did I ever feel intimidated. Don and Glenn are arguably two of the best weightlifting coaches in American history. Glenn was the motivator and recruiter. Don was the technician who didn’t care one bit if you were going to be great or just good. He simply wanted to make a difference in the lives of every athlete he coached.

MuscleDriver USA

Don was a big reason I was offered the position at MDUSA. Coach Pendlay had a stroke at the 2013 American Open, leaving Don all by himself to coach the best weightlifting team in America. At the 2014 Senior National Championships in Salt Lake City, he asked me to help him coach the team. Luckily there were cameras in the back room, so the owner of MDUSA, Brad Hess, saw me coaching the team. At the time I didn’t think there was any selfish benefit to helping out, I just love coaching athletes. Brad Hess saw that passion. When Don got home, he told Brad the team needed someone like me to help assist him with the coaching. Since Brad had already watched me fervently coach his team, he called me in right away to offer me the job.

It was a dream come true to get paid a good salary to coach some of the best weightlifters in American history. Until that point, there had never been such a position. However, like him or not, Brad Hess had created this amazing organization, Team MuscleDriver USA. When I started working there, Coach Pendlay was coaching but wasn’t fully focused. But Don took me under his wing, and we were off and running. I would watch an athlete complete a repetition, and he would ask me what I saw. At first I was way off. His eye was better than a slow motion camera, but over time I got better and better.

Everyday we talked technique and philosophy as it relates to weightlifting. He taught me all about his beloved catapult technique. I laugh at least once per week when I hear it mentioned incorrectly online. There were so many misconceptions about the way he coached. But this article isn’t the place I am going to discuss weightlifting technique. At this very moment, I could care less about weightlifting technique because all I want to do is talk to my friend.

Black and White

Most of you know him as the weightlifting technique guru – and yes, he taught me loads about technique. However, there is something else he tried to teach me – and maybe, just maybe, he has taught me this final lesson in his passing. Coach Don McCauley was unwavering in his beliefs and values. He was black or white, and there was no gray with that man. I like to find common ground when discussing controversial topics. He often criticized me for this. Now looking back I am agreeing with him.

He would say, “Travis, you are such a politician. You need to let people know where they stand with you. Wrong is wrong, and right is right.”

Not doing this has often got me in trouble. I want to please others with all my heart, and often that desire to please does nothing but cause more grief in the long run. It’s funny that Sean Waxman, someone Don disagreed with so much, is also my friend. That quality of me is something they both agree on, so maybe I am like that so the two of them agree on something.

The Real Don

One thing we shared was a love for the athletes. His athletes were his children. He was married to the sport, and in that I am 100% positive. He didn’t care if he was working with an Olympian or someone trying to make the American Open. He was going to give them his all, and they were going to know that he loved them. It wasn’t his words that let them know. Heck, his sarcastic humor was downright brutal at times. It was his actions. It was the way he watched them like no other lifter in the world existed in that moment but them. His steadfast stare was one of passion and intensity.

Nothing pleased him more than to help an athlete overcome a challenging technical issue. You could tell that he shared in their joy way down deep. Every athlete was a puzzle that he was going to solve. It was his oxygen; his reason to live.

I saw him perform miracles with athletes. I saw him take Jess Kinzler in only 10 weeks from the ninth best in her weight class to a silver medal (she darn near won the thing on a final jerk). I wanted to impact athletes like that. I wanted to see athletes enjoy that feeling of accomplishment because I helped them overcome obstacles. He helped me get to that point.

It was Don who gave me the desire to help other coaches. He worked with coaches like Vinh Huynh and me as intently as he did with the athletes. He would share his thoughts on technique, programming, and overall coaching into the late hours of the night (with a few glasses of wine, of course). I believe that some part of him realized he wouldn’t be on this planet very much longer, and that feeling of urgency persuaded him to teach us. A lot of coaches want to keep their “secrets” to themselves, but Coach Mac wanted his understudies to get it… really get it. Only the coaches who can see the barbell like an experienced coach will understand what I am talking about.

Is the bar path “in, up, and back” or is it “out, up, and in front”? What’s causing the issue? What verbal cue or drill will help fix it? When is a good time to use the Mac Board? This man lived his life to master this one thing and one thing only. He understood the sport of weightlifting from both a physics and a philosophical stand point. He got it! He simply got it!

His Legacy

Let me end by making one final point. There are several of you who didn’t agree with everything he said, and that’s fine. I didn’t agree with everything he said. Yet none of us can deny his coaching worked. He coached athletes all the way to the international level with Team USA throughout three decades of his career. Most of you haven’t been coaching three years let alone thirty. Most of you will never coach an athlete to the world championships let alone the Olympics – but yet he did it with four different teams and multiple athletes.

You can debate him all you want, but his resume is probably going to win out over just about anyone else’s. That’s why I normally kept my mouth shut when I didn’t agree with him. I always thought it was funny when people would criticize his coaching. Not everyone thinks that Michael Jordan is the best basketball player in NBA history (although he is), but no one ever doubts that he is at least high on the list. You might not think Don is the best weightlifting coach in American history, but his record clearly places him high on the list also.

I want to celebrate Coach Don’s life by giving all of you a few of the gold nuggets that I learned from him:

  • Rhythm is the most important skill a weightlifter can have.
  • The angle of the torso can indeed change during the pull and normally does a bit – but by the time the bar is right below the knee, it shouldn’t change at all until the lifter begins the second pull.
  • Any extra time spent at the top of the pull is wasted time.
  • Oompa Loompa! If you know, you know. If you don’t, ask me about it when you see me.
  • Push with your whole foot through the floor during the pull and the jerk.
  • Sweep the bar in after the knees.
  • As you pull under the bar, keep the bar moving right up the shirt (close to the body).
  • Never sacrifice technique for more weight during the process of developing a weightlifter.
  • Drive the back foot down on the jerk, and a lot of your problems will be solved.
  • You only get one chance to do it right the first time, so don’t mess (most of you know that he didn’t say “mess”) it up.

I am a better man from knowing the great Coach Don McCauley. I miss him. I watched him get hurt by athletes countless times – and man, did it cut him deep. I saw him help athletes go from good to great, and then watched the same athletes leave him for some other guru. It baffled me. The best thing I learned from this process was that he never let his heart get hardened by the actions of an athlete. He opened his heart to the next athlete in exactly the same way.

Lately I am still learning what appears to be his final lesson to me. I have the tendency to harden my heart to protect it from being broken, but that’s not what Don taught me – and surely isn’t what Christ taught me with His actions. I love my athletes. Don, I promise that I will love each of them in the exact same way as the ones before them. The scary part of being a coach is opening your heart up to new athletes, but it is also a necessary part. Coach Mac, tonight I will raise my glass in honor of you, and I promise to love each of my athletes the same way that you loved all of yours – no matter what hurt that love might bring.

So here’s to your final lesson! I love you, Coach Don. Your life’s work will live on with me and the countless other coaches and athletes that you touched during your time on this earth.

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