Monday, September 27, 2010

Sign of the times

Being close to home, I made the trip down south to watch USAT Nationals. And as Brendan Sexton, from Australia, passed Jarrod Shoemaker, the best US athlete, for the win, I saw that as a sign of the times in US triathlon. Not the performances at this race in itself, since this was a race that counted for little for most of the top athletes, but it was kind of an appropriate epilogue for the season.

2010 was a year where US triathletes went either backwards or sideways. Not only in terms of results, which is obvious to anyone, but it seems that the trend is definitely towards worse performances, when we’re less than two years from London 2012. This is undoubtedly a product of the no-structure structure model that was implemented in the last couple of years.

Another worrying trend is the lack of development athletes coming through. I was surprised to see that many of the under-23 athletes are at the same level or worse than when I saw them at the same race last year. The same athletes can’t make the front pack in swimming, the same athletes can’t hold on to their bike pack, the same athletes are visibly overweight and with difficulty is running at a good level.

The only exception in this analysis is Laura Bennett, an athlete that this year returned to her (high) level. But perhaps not by chance, Mrs. Bennett is one of the few US athletes that doesn’t belong to the USAT culture, as her development as an elite athlete has a lot to do with her personal relationship with her husband Greg.

To sum it up, it seems that the issues that I pointed out on a blog entry from 2008 not only have not been addressed, some have worsened. This is what I wrote back then:
“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.”

I think we are seeing the signs of this mediocrity now.

So what is the solution for this crisis? For as painful as this might be for the American way of thinking, US athletes need to start acting more like successful athletes from other countries. They need to embrace the training methods that make others successful. This only means one thing: a strong squad comprised of professional talented athletes, committed to excellence.