By: Greg Kealey, Triathlon Ontario Provincial Coach
From day one our sport has never followed the traditional path. Even if you don’t want to go with the famed Ironman origin story (a group of Navy Seals argue over who is the fittest athlete in a bar after finishing a road race) and choose to go with the 1974 Run/ Bike/ Swim event put together by members of the San Diego Track Club, the bottom line is that triathlon’s roots differ dramatically from those of other sports.
Here in Canada, as the sport started to develop in the early 80s, it was very much an adult-oriented activity. Children’s races, in the form of the famous Kids of Steel series, came a few years after the first triathlon events. That meant that the growth of triathlon in Canada has been the reverse of virtually every other sport program in the country. Most sports follow a pathway where community youth programs lead to Provincial Development programs which lead to the National Team programs. For sports like swimming and athletics (track and field), masters programs were borne from the groups of aging athletes that wanted to continue to enjoy the sports they once participated in. (Ironically, Dave Pain, who put on a biathlon event in San Diego which helped inspire that first triathlon, is credited as being the founder of masters running.)
After Simon Whitfield’s dramatic Olympic win in 2000, the sport burst onto the Canadian scene. With an Olympic gold medalist to our name, one would think that Canada enjoyed a developed sports program that helped our best athletes the opportunity to work through a successful system that would take them from talented youngsters to Olympic medalists. Unfortunately, that was hardly the case. This is no slight on Triathlon Canada – there wasn’t a country on the planet that had such a system in place. Australia was considered the premier triathlon country in the world heading into the inaugural Olympic triathlon in Sydney in 2000 and was expected to sweep the women’s podium and take one or two of the men’s medals, but came out of those games with just one silver medal.
What’s happened since Whitfield’s win in 2000, though, has become an issue. Seventeen years later it seems, here in Canada, we’ve fallen behind other countries. We still seem to be struggling to move from the adult down to children model. While our national program is much better run, more organized and is now lead by experienced knowledgeable professionals, on a national scale we have not yet developed a national development system nor begun to build the infrastructure we need to develop world class triathletes across the country in a consistent methodical manner.
If we are hopeful Canadian triathletes will ever consistently be at the top end of the sport we need to develop those athletes within our sport system and not hope we find a swimmer with a run background or a runner who can swim.
As one of Canada’s most experienced development coaches, I have been coaching youth to elite level athletes for the past 20 years. Over the past three years I have been developing infrastructure for Triathlon Ontario’s Provincial Development Program to support and develop our athletes with our goal being that Ontario’s athletes will consistently represent Canada on the world stage.
Its not hard to find scientific evidence in most sports that the best young athletes rarely go on to become our best senior athletes. It’s not a rule it’s just the reality. The question is why. The answer, in my opinion, is the overwhelming focus on outcome and the confusion between “talent selection” and “talent identification.”
Talent selection is the practice of choosing athletes who perform well now at the expense of those capable and willing to participate and possibly grow into elite athletes in the future. Talent identification on the other hand is the practice of trying to predict future performance based on an evaluation of current fitness, technical skills, tactical skills and emotional qualities in addition to overall athleticism (the ability to learn and perfect new skills quickly).
Good coaches assess developing athletes not by how good they are now, but if they possess the physical and psychological attributes to eventually become one. Perhaps the athlete has not yet grown, has not trained at a high level, or been exposed to competent coaching or began the sport at a later age. Perhaps they are not as skillful yet, but show a high level of coachability, sensitivity to training and the motivation to learn. Identifying talent requires the skill to weigh all the physical, physiological, psychological and technical components of an athlete, as well as the coaches vision for the athlete and “gut instinct.”
So why do we consistently measure young athletes by outcomes? In triathlon we use time trials and race performances. I don’t know a coach who would not agree “that skill development is the cornerstone for long term success.” Those same coaches then go on to gush over the fastest athletes under their care. That message does not escape the athlete or parent. Coaches who measure their value by the success of their young athletes do so at the expense of long term success.
Great Britain, considered amongst the world’s leader in athlete development, starts with “Skills Schools” for all athletes aged 11 to 16. Anyone else notice who won the men’s gold and silver medals in Rio? Or which country won the bronze (and had the fourth-place finisher) in the women’s race?
So what do we need to do?
To me we need to start by developing a national infrastructure that provides athletes at the youth (12 to 15) and junior (16 to 19) with the appropriate skills to be successful at the International level. That means we need to:
- Improve the coach development pathway
athlete proficiency in the four “pillars of performance” – Tactical / Technical
/ Emotional / Physical
The Coach Development Pathway
Coaching is the cornerstone of the development pathway and we need coaches who understand the demands of the sport all along that pathway. A Coaches job is to enact change, see the potential in the athlete and put into place the strategies to enable them to reach their potential. The coach / athlete relationship is the number one precursor of success at the elite level.
Coaches should understand that developing an athlete’s talent is not what you can measure, but who you see in front of you. The training environment should be a place where failure is OK, and learning is supported, where athletes feel safe taking chances and pushing boundaries. Coaches need to ensure that athletes understand the aspects of success – the challenges, the costs, the choices, the tough decisions and the pain.
Since most of the coaches in this country are not full-time coaches. We need to provide a better education system for them – one that is led by the national sports organization (Triathlon Canada) and implemented by the Provincial sports organizations.
Four Pillars to Athletic Success
All elite athletes must be tactically, technically, emotionally and physically proficient to be successful. Developmental athletes should be working on these areas to meet the demands of the sport at the highest level.
The tactical aspect of triathlon can not be understated and, for a developing athlete, it is an important part of understanding the sport as a whole as well as the different aspects in breaking down the race.
Developing a Race Plan – Developing a race plan is a process to help you discover the type of “racer” you will be. Race plans are not vague and general (“I want to come out of the water in good position”). They are detailed and specific, breaking down the race into its main components. For example, if the race has a beach start, how many steps will you take before diving in? How many dolphin dives? Planning this brings confidence and calm on race day. Race plan development takes into consideration “contingencies” – what will you do if you end up in a second or third bike pack? What is your pacing plan on the run if you find yourself in the lead group?
Know Your Pace – Far too many young athletes don’t know how to pace themselves or understand the importance of developing a pacing plan. For example I have discussed with many athletes the run portion of the race whom have coaches tell them “elite athletes run harder out of T2 and settle in” and suggest that a young developing athlete follow the same process. This approach may be good for experienced elite athletes who have developed that ability over years and years of specific training, but for younger athletes this is not a great idea and will usually mean they finish slower than their intended race pace. Developing athletes need to learn what their limits are, push them in practice and rely on them in competition.
Course Profiling – Know the course – is it hilly or flat? What gears do you need to be in? What lines will you take on the bike? Where will you position yourself in the pack? The ability to profile a course helps to develop your race plan as well as allowing you and your coach to develop training for that specific course to maximize your training and race performance.
There are more areas to work on and understand than can be mentioned here, the point being that young athletes need to be working on these skills early in the development pathway and not wait until they are elite aged athletes before these items are introduced to them.
We all hear about developing proper technique, but lets
make this a bit simpler. Do the basics well.
The foundations of each discipline need to be done well, when fresh, when under fatigue and when under duress. Each coach will have their own priority list of what is important (see sidebar). For me there are two factors that flow through all three disciplines, balance and rhythm. To me speed is built on a solid foundation of skills. The better an athlete’s skill set, the higher the potential for success.
The emotional aspect of the sport is often the most overlooked. Coaches need to develop people first and athletes second. There are three personality traits that underpin the success of young athletes: persistence, patience and resilience.
Persistence – Go outside your boundaries, take risks, don’t be afraid of failure, don’t avoid failure. Learning from your failures through reflection and assessment. To me “experience” is when you reflect on failure and developing strategies to improve the outcome next time.
Patience – Understand that learning takes time. That athletes be allowed to create a healthy respect for themselves and gain the confidence they need to learn new skills. Triathlon is not a sport that can be mastered early. With too much focus on fitness in the early years and not enough on “the process of improvement”. Understanding improvement can be measured by more than just using a clock, develop a process, follow the process and be patient, top level success in our sport in mid to late 20’s that’s 7-10 years for most juniors.
Resilience – Take on challenges with belief and purpose. Thrive when faced with a challenge, rather than avoid things you can’t do easily or find difficult. A coaches primary job is to “enact change” and yes change is difficult, but it can not be avoided. Young athletes need to develop the ability to recover quickly from difficulty, setbacks and failures.
In my experience, with development athletes there is too much early focus on aerobic development at the expense of speed, strength and the other factors that contribute to long term performance success. There are many pieces to put together and aerobic fitness should be one of the final ones.
Structural strength – Strength training is an important aspect for all athletes. Athletes need to develop strength around the joints and work on developing a “stable” platform (structural strength) that will allow them to do more direct strength work (as well as the ability to hold form under stress ie top end speed, fatigue) as they mature. Developing structural strength is also key to reducing the potential for injury as training volume and intensity are increased.
Speed – Speed development is more important than aerobic fitness for youth and junior athletes. Your speed over 5 or 10 km (the sprint and standard distance), is dependent on how fast you can run short distances (400, 800 or 1,500 m). Aerobic fitness can be developed at anytime in the athlete’s development pathway. Speed cannot. Things like working with a sprint coach (run) is imperative for younger athletes so they can learn proper run technique, while running fast.
During run assessments of our Provincial level athletes we consistently see a breakdown in form and control when sprinting is introduced. This lack of balance and rhythum also affects form during fatigue or when an athlete has to sprint or surge to stay in the hunt.
Over the past few years there has been an increase in programs for youth and Junior aged athletes in Ontario and across the country. Provinces are developing Provincial programs to help expose athletes to ITU events and Triathlon Canada is working hard to help developing Canadian athletes by bringing more ITU events in to Canada and showcasing more International events for Junior and Elite athletes. As more and more programs are being established for youth, we need to provide education and guidance about the proper development avenues and start to steer these programs away from the focus on outcomes and stress the importance on developing the proper processes. We need to send a message to clubs, coaches and athletes that as Provincial and National organizations we value skill development, coachable athletes, and the proper approach to development based on the individual athlete. Athlete assessments have to include the progress in developing the skills sets in addition to assessing outcomes.
We must if we want to ever consistently be a country to compete for Olympic medals is develop a system such as countries like Great Britain has done, with the emphasis on and commitment to developing the skill sets first.
As the sport gets more competitive and more countries develop National systems and follow the lead of GB, AUS & The US, Canada must begin to recognize a National system with proper development benchmarks and assessments needs to be implemented. Our National and Provincial programs will need to be integrated so Provincial programs can identify clubs/coaches who are properly developing athletes for long term success.
In some ways the sport of triathlon in Canada has come along way, more programs, more events, and a proper National High Performance system. However if we ever want to be at the top of the sport at the ITU level, we need to support our National and Provincial programs, develop proper benchmarks and assessment tools and recourses for all community clubs and coaches. We can not continue to waste young athletes potential by refusing entry into a system (to early) based on a flawed selection process or continue to wait to introduce non negotiable skills until they athlete is at the ITU level.