Coaching the road map to life

Last updated 15:22 29/05/2012

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Clint Sullivan, the bloke behind my training programme, has also signed up for the Port of Tauranga half ironman on January 5. I know he'll be finished an hour or two before me - he has captained New Zealand in his age group after all - so will have plenty of time to do the cheering-on thing, even after a massage and some recovery time.

His coach is Brendan Downey. For those not familiar with that name, he's a former national triathlon champion, competed in everything from sprint events to the ironman and coached the New Zealand Olympic triathlon team in 2004 and 2008.

"Brendan is more than a coach," Clint says. "He's one of my best friends." The pair met at university and both have a degree in physiology, and for his masters thesis Brendan developed a nutritional supplement. "He's a guy who not only knows what it takes to be a high-end athlete; he also knows the science behind it."

Clint says his mate has a three- tier coaching service - gold, silver and bronze.

The gold level service is for those elite athletes aiming for the Olympics and other world championships. As their coach, he will talk to them on a daily basis.

Those receiving silver service will get high-end coaching, but not so much control and the bronze level will involve interviewing an athlete and writing them a programme.

Even though Brendan is Clint's friend, this time round he fits in the bronze category.

"But when I was competing for the world championships, he would tweak the programme and talk with me on a weekly basis," he says. "He was not about motivation. An athlete has to be intrinsically motivated themselves - he will guide you."

As a coach himself, Clint downplays his efforts and doesn't even like to give himself the label. That's for people like me to name him Coach Clint, and then be enthusiastic about the daunting but do-able training programme he's written for me.

"Compared to people like Graham Park and Brendan, I'm not much of a coach. They are in a completely different league to me. But for people who want to fit sport into a busy lifestyle, then I can help with that."

As a dad of young boys, and a businessman with KCL Property, he knows that sometimes life gets in the way of training and he says coaches need to understand that. For that reason, he believes that former elite triathletes don't always make the best coaches.

"They went out and pushed themselves and did great distances on the bike, massive big runs and lots of distance in the pool, but what worked for them does not necessarily fit for everyone else." A good coach needs to be experienced and knowledgeable, Clint says. "But it needs to be more than book knowledge." He or she also needs to love the sport they are coaching. "I think if they are passionate then they will take care about the advice they give," he says. "I like helping people learn about a sport that I'm really passionate about."

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"Brendan Downey just loves it and he's been involved in it for more than 20 years."

Clint, who is an amateur advice giver, says a coach like himself also needs to know when to let go. "If you said 'I want to be in the top 5 per cent in my age group in the world champs', I would say talk to him [Brendan] or Graham [Park]."

During our chat at the Ozone Bean Store, Michael Kaye, another Port of Tauranga half ironman candidate joins us. Triathletes seem to thrive on coffee. He's never had a coach and has learnt most of his information from fellow competitors and books. Michael swears by The Triathlete's Training Bible, a 386-page book by Joe Friel, which he's generously lent to me.

Michael's two big words are "recovery" and "nutrition". That means you don't train full on week after week, but have a couple of hard weeks and then an easy one to recover and prevent injury.

Clint's built this into my training programme and, of course, it is in his own schedule.

Young triathlete Ryan Dingle, 17, says the support and knowledge he gets from coach Graham Park also stops him from overtraining and getting hurt. "There are different phases of training that I only know a little bit about," the deputy head boy of Spotswood College says.

Ryan, who came 11th in the 16-19 age group at the World Triathlon Championships in Beijing last year, says "Parksy" is a great coach and they meet up once or twice a week.

"I've got a pretty cool Garmin watch. When I'm running and biking it will tell all my speeds, heart rate and elevation. I send it to him after every training session," Ryan says.

The information is fed into a website that Graham looks at and if he sees that Ryan's heart rate was too high, he will give his charge a call and ask what was happening.

"You can't really cheat any more, which is quite good," Ryan says.

As well as being a technological watchdog, a coach needs to have a decent amount of knowledge to make an athlete feel confident they know what they are talking about. They also need to listen.

"If I've done a real hard training session and I'm quite tired, I'll phone him and he'll say 'give it a miss the next day' or 'take it easy' and I have heard of coaches who will say 'train through that pain' and people end up injured or over training," he says.

Ryan says Graham wants to help him so much. "He lends me so much gear to use. He's just so good to you. I really like having him as a coach. He really believes in you. It's so hard to judge yourself and knowing someone thinks you can do well is pretty good."

Graham is a passionate advocate of triathlons and coaching. But he's not one to talk about himself - just what is possible to do for others.

"I don't do it for the money or for the ego. I have got my uniform from the Olympics and Commonwealth Games, but if you walk into my house there's nothing in here to tell you I have any involvement in triathlons apart from a whole lot of running shoes at the back door."

For him it's about passing on a legacy not to "anyone who wants to be the best they can be but better".

He believes a coach has to be an adviser, assessor, chauffeur, counsellor, communications expert, facilitator, fact finder about new techniques, equipment and on rival athletes, mentor, motivator, friend, organiser, fountain of knowledge and a person who knows how to access experts, including, nutritionists, sports psychologists, physiotherapists and sports massage therapists.

"Communication is No 1. That person becomes a friend and you share their successes. It's important to keep personal information confidential. You have to respect athletes and you can't afford to have favourites," Graham says.

"You have to keep that motivation going the whole time." He's always listening to what his athletes are saying to him and then goes looking for answers. "The biggest thing of all is having a passion for the sport."

Seeing an athlete like Ryan striving to be the best he can be means the legacy does live on.

Graham is happy to share his coaching tips with others.

"It's not a secret society. It's the road map for life."

As Martin Duggard, author of To Be A Runner, writes: "To be a runner is to learn continual life lessons. To be a coach is not just to teach these lessons but also to feel them in the core of your marrow."

- © Fairfax NZ News

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