Monday, December 1, 2008

The real world of coaching II

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.


jason said...

So you propose making USAT even less relevant to the average racer?

Paulo Sousa said...

What I wrote pertains to the high-performance program, it's got nothing to do with the "average racer".

I imagine you're an American and a triathlete, so I'm sure you'd be proud to see an American triathlete on podium in London. That is what I am talking about here. I know that as a Portuguese, I enjoyed seeing Vanessa on the podium in Beijing.

jason said...

I am indeed both an American and a triathlete, but, and I'm sure I'm not alone here, I consider ITU-style racing to be a bastardization of the sport I partake in (are there even ITU AG races? I really have no idea.). I already see very little tangible benefit from buying an annual USAT membership, so why should I continue to do so if they were to give up all pretense and only grant certification to coaches who are working with ITU racers?

Paulo Sousa said...


At the risk of repeating myself, this discussion is not about the issues you're bringing up.

As a side note, even if I am not well-versed in how USAT works, I would be very surprised if the money coming from membership is used for the Olympic program. I would guess that funding comes from the USOC.

Jim Vance said...

Interesting point Paulo. I agree with your point that much more elite-level coaching needs to be developed. I do however disagree that the current certifications aren't good for the advancement of USAT. It certainly helps the sport grow at a grassroots level, while you're discussing more development of a higher level. I think it should be a more complete approach.

I think USAT is getting there with the requirements of getting level 3 certifications, and how you must be involved in their elite development program to obtain it. I think it doesn't go far enough though, as I'd like to see there be more levels, up to 5 or 6, which can only be obtained with certain criteria toward elite racing.

Level 2 coach "sounds great", hell even level 1, when there are only 3 levels. For those coaches who are serious, (or as you say, "real"), and want to reach the pinnacle, there should be a clear distinction for them and a path, as you are saying.

I also believe the collegiate system is the key to the sports future. If the NCAA can adopt draft-legal triathlon, it would change the popularity and face of the sport in the US, especially ITU racing, and probably the world. This would no doubt bring about more high-performance coaching opportunities and a better development system for coaches, as well as the athletes. We see this in both track and swimming. There is no better way to learn than thru experience, especially as coach.

Good topic.


MarkyV said...

Mr. Jason,

Let me pose a question for you...

Say you have a goal to accomplish at work. In your effort toward accomplishing this goal you are allowed to train others. Now you can choose to train others in a way that will assist you in achieving your goal or you can choose to waste your time and train these others in the finer points of underwater basket weaving when in fact the goal of the operation is to analyze the balance sheet.

USAT, as a member of the USOC and participating nation in the olympic triathlon, has one MAIN focus, to win an Olympic medal. That's what a sports governing body is created for. It is the MAIN reason for it's exsistence. Now for USAT to continue its education of pilates and aerobics instructors is frankly a waste of time when they could possibly be devoting said resources towards actually fostering the development of coaches that hold the TRUE nature of coaching most dear... that of producing athletes that win at the very dicsipline that USAT has been tasked with winning at. ITU drafting Triathlon.

MarkyV said...

Level 1... anybody

Level 2... coach guides an athlete who qualifies for their pro card

Level 3... pro athlete of said coach qualified to represent the US at an international event

Level 4... pro athlete of said coach medaled/podiumed at international event

Take the books out of it... make it a merit/results based system

Coach Schnitz said...

Hi Paulo- you bring up some of my concerns as well- a very limited number of high performance coaches in the USA and a to of age-group focused coaches who do not care for high performance athletes. However, I do not believe that a true national coach model is the best model for the USA. You can read all about it in our High Performance Plan if you like or I can debate it with you sometime. I would like to comment on a few things about your post though.

First, the you reference the success of British Triathlon who is looking for a new national coach. The fact of the matter is that USA has 1 more medal in Olympic Games history than BT, and BT has none. Since Worlds for elites went draft legal in 1995, both countries have won 11 medals each. Here’s the scorecard:
2008 1 1
2007 0 1
2006 1 0
2005 0 1
2004 0 2
2003 0 1
2002 3 1
2001 0 2
2000 0 0
1999 1 0
1998 2 0
1997 1 0
1996 1 0
1995 1 2

Total 11 11

If you look at the names of those athletes and you know who their coach is, you’ll see that most, if not all of them, are products of their own will and determination and a personal coach, not a national coach (Simon Lessing, Tim Don, Sheila Taormina, Siri Lindley, Laura Bennett to name a few). So, I would not use BT as the model of success for a national coach. Our top athletes who have been Worlds and Olympic medalists have all had personal coaches. I believe most if not all of the BT athletes have worked with a personal coach as well, instead of the national coach. I would add that all of these athletes benefited from coaching support and other sport science resources from their federation coaching staff though.

Second, you contradict yourself saying that the best coaches in the world are unknowns because they aren’t out there marketing themselves, then says the fact you can’t name a high level USA coach is concerning. I will admit that it also makes me sad that 99 percent of our certified coaches do not work with high performance athletes. But, this is a problem in all individual Olympic sports that do not have a strong university program. Without a salary, there is no way to make a living for a high performance coach in Olympic sport. It’s either private or university. Since there is no such thing as a university triathlon coach (salaried), our top coaches make a living with other jobs, many of them coaching age-groupers, including you. I don’t see anything wrong with that. Just because you coach a few age-groupers does not make you a “hack.” And, I believe we do need a Level I coaching program that is introductory in nature to give some guidance to those coaches servicing our 115,000 age group members and 200k+ non-members. Level III is for elite focused coaches and will continue to be. We are going to be revamping Level II this year to be more focused on developing those coaching pursuing Level III.

Finally, to imply that the staff at the OTC is limited in knowledge is insulting. Cliff is a great coach and very knowledgeable, but Cliff was so busy with the day to day coaching that he was not able to coach the coaches. A true national coach that is doing their job really can’t be that available to develop future coaches. Additionally, when a coach does a mentorship program at the OTC, they are spending time with other top notch individuals at the OTC, not just USAT staff. These people are some of the best in the world at what they do. I’m sure you have never even spoken to any of our current staff.

So, in closing, I’ll just say that you make some good points about the limited number of high-performance coaches in the sport in general and the proliferation of age-group coaches who do not have high-performance experience. However, you are uninformed about the staff and athletes succeeding at the international level in the USA and Great Britain, and you do not offer a plan to improve, other than re-hiring a national coach. I think if one is to really get to know the athletes winning medals in the various triathlon nations they will find a very mixed rate of success for both national coach and personal coach models.

Scott Schnitzspahn
USA Triathlon
Sport Performance Director

Unknown said...

Seems like Triathlon Canada is moving in the direction you speak about...