In this post I talked a bit about what I called the “real world of coaching”. Some comments to that post prompted me to expand a bit on that concept and what can be done here in the US to create and nurture real coaching.
The usual American attitude regarding any commercial activity is that the free market will regulate itself. When it comes to triathlon coaching, the general thinking is that after the period of huge expansion we’re going through now, a sort of triathlon coaching bubble, the market will sort itself out, weeding out the bad coaches and keeping the good coaches. This process will reward the coaches that are successful in the existing market. But the market is based on the age-group athletes, and the successful coaches will be those that have an effective business catering to this market. These are often the coaches that can market themselves better, not the best coaches. And obviously all this process alienates high-performance coaching.
This is a problem for the development of elite athletes for two reasons. First is that coaches that might be more geared to high-performance coaching will either have to have a business catering to age-group athletes (or maybe an unrelated professional activity) to support their “habit”, or they will not be able to make a living out of the sport just by working with elites. Second is that developing elite athletes might make the mistake of working with the (perceived as) successful age-group coaches, with the negative implications that this will have in their proper development through the sport.
The lack of real coaches in the US is already hurting the sport, and it will continue to stall elite athlete development in the long run. This is a problem for one institution: USAT.
USAT’s whole action should be geared towards promoting a healthy and successful high-performance program. The core of that high-performance program should be the (real) coaches. USAT has the ability to directly impact the development of the elite program through the coaching certifications and that should start right at Level I. The Level I certification should not be aimed to certify the army of personal trainers looking to broaden their client base, but it should have an elite development perspective. Its main focus should be on junior development and transition to elite ITU racing. It should include a basic outlook on draft-legal racing and the Olympic qualification. But above all, it needs to be more thorough and train coaches that will effectively contribute to the high-performance program.
This way of thinking should be kept on subsequent levels of certification. This means that Level II and Level III should only be accessible to those coaches that already work with junior or elite ITU athletes. This ensures that in order for coaches to aspire to the highest levels of certification, they have to make an effort to work and support elite athletes, thus contributing to the high-performance program. With this in mind, it is obviously a waste of resources to support the activity of those coaches that are perceived as being successful coaches without bringing anything to the high-performance mission. The current effort to bring coaches to the OTC ends up being misdirected if those that are not committed to high-performance just show up in order to be able to market themselves as high-performance coaches without effectively working with elite athletes. The fact that the knowledge-base resident at the OTC is severely limited since Cliff English left also contributes to the relative uselessness of the initiative.
The high-performance-centered efforts would obviously decrease the number of coaches that apply for the certification clinics. However, it would serve to put the pressure on the coaches to seek out and work with elite athletes, which would improve the quality of the high-performance program.
Another important aspect of a high-performance program is strong technical leadership. The model that was implemented at USAT since the Head Coach position was abolished relies heavily on the individual athletes and their respective coaches. This would work well in an environment where there is a very strong coaching community. But let’s face it: In order to be a strong nation in triathlon, qualifying 6 athletes for the Olympics and obtaining at least one medal, there needs to be a pool of 10-15 athletes at world-class level. If we’re expecting that these athletes all have their individual world-class coaches, we’re talking of at least 10 world-class coaches in one nation. The problem with this is that 10 is about half of the world-class triathlon coaches in the World. So clearly, this model will not work, because most of the good athletes in a nation will be working with coaches that simply are not qualified for the job. So even if the talent is there, relying on a model based on the individual athletes just breeds mediocrity.
Having a highly qualified Head Coach is the model that most top nations follow. A good example is British Triathlon, which at the beginning of another Olympic cycle are searching for their new Head Coach (link). The job description in that ad is a good example of the role the Head Coach plays in a well organized and very successful institution like British Triathlon. The way BT works and the results its program has obtained teach us valuable lessons on how to build a successful program.
So, the question that is left to ask is if real coaching is limited to high-performance coaching? The answer is undoubtedly yes. Only at the highest level of competition are the coaching skills tested at their maximum. There are maybe thousands of people that can coach successfully at the lowest level of competition, e.g. helping a newbie finish an Ironman race, but only a maximum number of 6 coaches every 4 years get to celebrate winning an Olympic medal. I will let you decide which is harder to accomplish.