One of my coaching heroes is Arrigo Sacchi - the great Italian manager of AC Milan during their dominant spell in the late 80’s and early 90s. Sacchi had never been a professional footballer. Instead he had been a shoe salesman and worked his way up the coaching ladder. His appointment at AC Milan was met with derision and hostility. What did this no mark know? He was expected to manage some of the best players in the World at one of the richest clubs in the World. The guy was a shoe salesman. He was bound to fail. He didn’t have the requisite experience as a player.
Sacchi’s response has become one of my favourite quotes. With a straight face he simply replied “I never realised that one has to be the horse in order to be the jockey.” The Italian press thought he was crazy but he lead Milan to countless trophies, playing extraordinary football and eventually led Italy to the 1994 World Cup Final, where they were a divine ponytail away from being World Champions. Not bad I suppose.
What has this got to do with triathlon, I can hear you say. Well, since I was a boy I have wanted to be a coach - albeit in football early on. When I asked Chris Turner, the then Sheffield Wednesday manager, if you had to be a professional footballer to be a successful manager or to be a coach (an idea that is still prevalent in British football), and he said you did, I thought of old Arrigo.
In the early days of my triathlon coaching career, I also had people tell me, and say behind my back, that I couldn’t coach anyone to do an Ironman as I hadn’t done one myself. Again, I smiled and thought of Arrigo.
You see what Arrigo was saying, and then demonstrated, was that playing and coaching are completely separate disciplines and skills. Just because you might have been a good race horse/footballer/triathlete (delete as appropriate), does not mean that you have the first idea how to coach nor does it make you a successful coach.
To demonstrate this point, let’s have a look at some of the most successful coaches in triathlon. Brett Sutton, my mentor, has never even done a sprint triathlon let alone an Ironman. He’s coached dozens of Ironman champions, including multiple World Champions including Daniela Ryf and coaches the great Nicola Spirig. Joel Filiol’s squad boasts the top athletes in the ITU World Series and Super League this year, and more littered through the top 10. Paulo Sousa is enjoying an equal amount of success at the ITU level and at long distance.
None of these men have accomplished anything as athletes in triathlon and yet their athletes enjoy unbridled success. Why is this? Because Arrigo was right. Just because you can go fast or make yourself go fast, does not mean that that same formula will work for other athletes. Coaching requires a different skill set, an ability to observe, adapt and deal with the individual circumstances each athlete presents. It is not generic training plans or having one formula applied to all.
Triathlon, like British football, is littered with athletes and former athletes, coaching, who live and trade on their successes as an athlete. If it doesn’t work for their athlete, well, thats not their fault - the plan worked for them, the athlete must be terrible or didn’t do the training.
So what’s my point? A professional coach will help you reach your goals, within your life circumstances. You are the horse, make sure you select the right jockey.
P.S I did coach a lady for an Ironman. She averaged 7 hours training a week and still beat all the boys in her group.
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