With this being my last essay type article for Australian Triathlete Magazine, I had a good, hard think about the most valuable advice I could give a triathlete regarding experience and improving performance. Over the few years I have been writing this column I have been forced to look more closely at our sport from many different perspectives – not just that of an elite racer. Spectators, coaches, business leaders, age groupers, family members and the media all see our sport very differently and have different priorities and motives that lead them to love or to loathe our triathlon world.
I grew up never questioning the value that competitive sport offers society. As a child – drugs, exploitation, sexism nor elitism – ever entered my train of thought. When it came to racing – sports winners were heroes, their sporting endeavour a worthy example of success in life.
I grew up with elitist principles, the winner very definitely ‘taking it all’. I fought to win races, enjoyed victories and suffered defeats. I never had cause to really understand the premise ‘it’s the taking part that counts’. That was something other people did.
It wasn’t until I moved to long-distance triathlon that I ever really gave the value of participation in sport much thought. Age group triathlon opened my eyes to the valuable role that inclusion and participation in sport can play in everyone’s life – that the human need for challenge and endeavour can be fulfilled in ways that do not feature a podium, a medal, or beating everyone else. Merely completing a distance can stimulate regular people to feel the same sense of achievement and esteem that the podium always brought me. Elite sport and participation sport stand poles apart in preparation and performance but are intrinsically linked by similar motives and reward principles – courage, dedication, focus and commitment.
In triathlon, the two strata coexist together in a unique way. There is a special symbiotic relationship between the elite side of our sport and the age groupers whom we race alongside. All race on the same course, at the same time, for the same distance, with the same provision. The sports business model relies on mass, age group participation to fund events and pay prize money to the elite. The elites provide the entertainment – the prerequisite principle of competitive sport – the race. They satisfy sports elemental principal – to determine the ‘fastest/highest/longest or strongest’ competitor.
Over the past few years of writing for Australian Triathlete Magazine, I have provided insights for the outsider into the elite-racing world I have lived and breathed for 20 years. It’s a world of marginal gains, of professionalisation, of minute detail and both inspiring and cruel stories. Occasionally, dismayingly, perhaps increasingly, it is also sometimes a realm of unscrupulous morals and questionable behaviours.
Sometimes, I have to temper my stories – some experiences could be seen as inflammatory, some are outright shocking. The high-performance world I have seen is not a land of sunshine and rainbows. There are eating disorders – there’s bullying, there is sexism and much unprofessionalism. There has been ‘success’ through all of these things.
As an elite sportsperson, I occupy a world of obsession to detail where sacrifice is fairly rudimentary. Much of ‘the rest of life’ is suspended in waiting for a time, or a race, or a medal. Relationships suffer, health suffers, and balance goes out the window. In this environment, winning can be worth such rigour – but not for the young, not for the old, not for the masses.
Don’t get me wrong. I love what I do. I am completely willing to do it, and I have found no higher source of satisfaction in my life than striving to be the best that I can be at sport. The elite racing world is exclusive, and it is magnetic, for those capable it is a life that not much can match.
It is absolutely not for everyone.
I realise now that my audience is different. My readership includes athletes trying to complete an Ironman in sixteen hours – maybe do their first half marathon, knock a few minutes off their swim time, lose a few pounds, socialise.
I can coach somebody to reach all or one of these goals. The basics principles of training can achieve that. My advice won’t be unique – in fact, it may be far too complicated for the purpose.
Gordon Ramsey knows how bake the perfect loaf of bread but would he be the best guy to teach another how to do it? Would he be tolerant to novice mistakes? Constructive to learning?
Lewis Hamilton could probably teach someone to drive. There might be better choices for instructor out there.
I am selling myself out of a lucrative career as an online age group coach here – I know I am.
It is just an attempt to illustrate just how tricky it can be to try and produce universal, informative coaching advice suitable for the pages of a magazine. It remains fairly distant from my area of expertise – coaching the top two percent how to get one percent quicker.
Why now, after two years have I reached this epiphany?
I can’t be positive, but maybe it is observing a recent Ironman race from the sidelines this year. Finally, understanding the difference in motivation, the precise, minute detail needed in elite racing and the difference in race stresses between professional racing and age group participation. Both heroic, both aspirational. Entirely different in preparation, execution and consideration. Dare I say it- to me, they are different sports.
Despite being so different, I find myself reading countless triathlon articles from various publications and ‘experts’ across the sport, grouping ‘a triathlete – elite or novice – together. It seems to me more akin to click bait than good advice.
‘Top Tips To Nail The Swim’ by a back of the field, aged professional, who spends his whole race chasing down the deficit caused by his bad swimming.
‘Gold Nutritional Advice’ by a past pro who verged on the edge of an eating disorder her whole career.
‘*&%^$’s Top Run Workout – For You To Tri.’ Completed by a 2.50 Ironman runner – after three months of one hundred mile weeks.
‘First Trimester Training Tips’ by a first time pregnant champion, physiology – beyond normal, yet to be confirmed successful or remotely medically accurate.
You know, yes – you could replace ‘a whole swim workout with stretch cords’. Maybe that would be a good idea. Probably if you already swim six times a week. Otherwise… no. There is so much information out there nowadays. Some – absolutely true and totally accurate. Much – absolute bull. Think about it.
Anyway I don’t want to be a hypocrite. I want to be good at what I do, and I know what that it is. I know elite performance.
Over the coming months, my new column will profile the ‘who’s who’ of long standing professional triathletes. I want to introduce the stars of our sport to a wider audience. Reveal their personalities. Tell their unique stories. I’ll delve into real personalities and the unseen detail of their extraordinary careers – the ‘nitty, gritty’ of their lives in sport.
In sport, we only get to view the medal product from a lifetime of sacrifice, lessons and defeat. We see the finish line, the celebration, the victory – we forget the rest. Over the years, as I have come to know my competitors better, I have witnessed champions miserable in victory and equally sad in defeat. I have watched bad coaches win, and good coaches lose. There are real stories behind public profiles – real stories are what we are about. Inspirational, motivational, aspirational people – better than any training tip out there.