Brett Sutton, aka “The Doc”, has coached Ironman world record holder Chrissie Wellington and Olympic gold medalists Nicola Spirig and Emma Snowsill.
First of all, let me just say that Brett’s interview was the longest (and perhaps the most provocative) of all the triathlon coaches I spoke with. He had a lot to say and a lot to offer. He did not shy away from bringing up controversial topics and did not hesitate to speak his mind on anything and everything.
Former professional athlete and now famed coach Siri Lindley has described Sutton as “the best coach in the world” (in January of 2011).
Here is the transcript from my conversation with Brett: (Note: Because the interview was NOT recorded, transcribing was not possible and many of the answers are thus paraphrased.)
David Bertrand (db): How many years have you been coaching?
Brett Sutton (bs): I come from a coaching family where both my mom and dad were coaches. I’ve been doing it since the age of 15 (which amounts to 40+ years).
db: What originally drew you into coaching and what do you enjoy most about it?
bs: My brother and sisters were all swimmers, so I was teaching them how to swim when I was 10 years old. It was a part of my life from very early on. My entire life has been centered around sport.
It’s what I do best – not necessarily what I enjoy – but it’s just what I do best. I get very emotionally involved with my athletes. At age 18 I had experienced a lot of success already having coached with the Australian national swim team. This early success made it difficult for my coaching career as I didn’t get another job until age 24 (parents of athletes thought he was too young to coach). In the interim I crossed over to coach greyhounds and horses.
Coaching is the family business. If I had to do it all over again, I’d have stayed with the animals. I had great success with them. My dad would always pull me back in to the swim training and stir my interest for working with people again, and sure enough I’d get drawn back in to the mainstream of swim coaching.
Triathlon coaching came in to the picture in 1999. I was working with swimmers on the gold coast, as coaching director for Queensland Swimming. Initially they asked if I could step in to the age group masters program for a few weeks. It was then that I met Ben Bright, national triathlon high performance coach for England. I worked with the triathlon age groupers for three months and absolutely loved it. I loved the atmosphere and the camaraderie of the age grouper environment. I had to make up my mind though and choose between coaching the swimmers or the triathletes, which I thought was totally unfair and disingenuous. Being the hot head that I was, I left swimming and began a 3-year stint of working with the age groupers. The rest is history.
db: What is your coaching philosophy and what if anything, do you consider to be unique or core to your approach?
bs: I’m an authoritarian who listens. A coach should be a coach and make decisions. The reason for loyalty is the listening part. From the outside looking in, it might just look like authoritarianism. But I listen first and then act decisively. I understand their feelings and the logic of what the athlete is trying to achieve. I’ve never looked at the sport of triathlon from a triathlon set of eyes, and that has been my biggest advantage.
The best medley swim coaches in the world make compromises of each stroke and technique, in order to make the best medley racers in the world. I brought that philosophy to triathlon. I have never done a triathlon. I did two bike rides just to see what the athletes are going through. What I learned is that coaches are far too technical and way too specific.
Teaching age groupers how to get a “feel’ for the water is just outright ridiculous. Michael Phelps and Alexander Popov are terrible distance swimmers, and yet that’s the model for many swim clinics. It drives me nuts.
- Being an authoritarian is not a bad thing because you have to make decisions. (I wear it like a badge of honor.)
- You must compromise certain things to get the best performance.
db: Did you receive any advice from early on in your coaching career, which has been something you draw strength from and/or something you consider to be a great piece of wisdom?
bs: My dad couldn’t read or write. All of his coaching was done by feel and with a great eye for the sport of swimming. Everything he learned was trial and error. After the age of 15 when an athlete typically begins to ask “Why?” in regards to training procedures and methods, things went south for my dad as ultimately he was insecure about it.
When I first set out to learn the craft of coaching, my dad sent me out to observe each of the top 5 programs in Australia. He wanted me to learn what I could and then report back as to what each program does and what they do to produce good athletes. He said, “Don’t come home until you know what’s going on.”
There was one program in particular that seemingly was accomplishing very little. The head coach would write the workout on the board and then go into his office, after which chaos and play would ensue with the group of youth swimmers. He reported back to his father that it was simply “pandemonium” and his dad’s response, “You’re only looking, not watching.” After the third visit, I finally figured it out: after the coach would go back to his office the young swimmers were doing relay after relay of 25 yard sprints. It was no wonder that the program was producing short-range rockets!
This example serves to illustrate that my first year of coaching was dedicated to observation. I consider it to have been an ingenious coaching expedition.
The observation skills I learned from training horses and greyhounds would put triathlon coaches to shame. And in a nutshell, that’s the mystique that I bring to triathlon. I spent the better part of 3 or 4 years around training animals, and that has had a huge influence on how I coach people.
The depth of the psychology needed to coach effectively is underrated. You must be a great observer and communicator but if I had to pick one between the two, observation trumps it every time. Great horse trainers don’t talk to the horses.
For example, at times I didn’t even talk to Nicola. I’d let her physiology do the talking. Earlier in my career I would never compromise, but in 2000 I started to compromise.
Emma Snowsill would not have achieved what she has without my authoritarian style. Same thing goes for Chrissie Wellington. Nicola Spirig too.
I have evolved as a coach.
db: Do you have any tips for athletes or coaches in regards to getting through injuries / difficult patches?
bs: Injuries are part of the deal. If you sign up to be a soldier, you can’t guarantee you won’t get shot. If you want to be a professional athlete and be the best you want to be, you are kidding yourself if you think you can do it without injury.
It’s HOW you deal with it that counts. Often times people do great things while injured.
When Loretta Harrop came to me, I was “Mr. Fix It” and would use horse remedies to help her and others. An art of coaching is being able to train around awkward physiology. For example, one recovering athlete I never gave any speed work to but she could handle 60k a week on the run at a steady-state pace and was strong as an ox. It’s how you set the session that matters.
Injuries usually come in three’s I’ve found. After 10 days off from an injury let’s say, an athlete might come back with a different set of legs. There is one legitimate injury and two illegitimate ones.
db: Regarding the business of coaching, what do you see as the biggest challenge to establishing a successful coaching practice?
bs: I’m broke and the worst person to ask for this.
I get the best results of five coaches combined. But I’m a bad business man.
db: What are the most common mistakes you see coaches make?
bs: Letting athletes cram: “I missed this session, so I’ll fit it in there.” Don’t play catch up!
What’s ridiculously hard is to be consistent at my training sessions. I tell my athletes that I need 20 weeks of consistent work.
db: What types of collaborating do you do with other coaches to improve your own practice?
bs: I’m an eclectic. I’m not a very smart guy, but what I can do is tell you things about athletes and what they do that other triathlon coaches cannot see. I don’t necessarily collaborate with other tri coaches because there are only five that know what they’re doing.
I having great success with those I mentor because I can explain to them why I’m doing what I’m doing. I would advise coaches to be very careful who you are collaborating with.
An important thing to note here is that I don’t change anything if it’s working. I’m not thinking “Oh, how can I improve this next year?” if it’s working. Sometimes if you’re always thinking about ways to become a better coach, it can hurt you. That thirst for knowledge can hurt you. You may be passing over something that is working just fine.
Chrissie did the exact same program in year 1 as she did in year 2. She just did it faster. And did it better in year 2. Caroline Steffen trained the same way as Chrissie; they had similar body and emotional make-ups. Additionally I trained Nicola more like Loretta because of similar leg problems.
I spent 4 years in an apprenticeship standing on deck as a coach. I am not someone who was a great athlete or that has taken certain courses. That’s what I’ve found to be valuable.
Sidenote: The greatest swimmers don’t make as good coaches because they lack the empathy.
db: Where do you see the sport of triathlon headed?
- Coaches are making money on age groupers and that part has never been better.
- If professionals don’t wake up and get organized, things are going to get ugly. It’s regressing completely. If you’re in the Ironman field, be very careful as prize money is shrinking.
- If you strive to be a high performance coach, you’re going to be very broke.
- A good business strategy does not revolve around the pro’s.
- I’m very worried about the performance side of things. It’s very scary in regards to doping. I still think you can be clean and get the times necessary to win. If you train hard enough, you can still produce the results (this is NOT the case with cycling). I wish triathlon would wake up and nip it in their own sport.
db: If you could wish one thing for an ATHLETE that may be new to the sport, what would that be?
bs: Consistency. Understand if you’re coming in new to the sport, you’re not going to be a professional so the main goal is health…don’ destroy your family.
Follow this: Mon/Thurs = swim; Tues/Fri = bike; Wed/Sat = run; Sun = rest. That’s it.
All these “I want to go faster and longer” goals are being lost in the holistic pie as age groupers are starting to sacrifice other things to get 5 minutes faster. Is that healthy? Or does that cause you to unhinge in other areas? Or is there actually a health benefit? The competitive component of triathlon has over-run what triathlon is all about.
Use the sport to be healthy and to enhance your lifestyle and family life.
I advocate eliminating 1st, 2nd and 3rd place medals at these age group races. What about completing the event…that guy is a winner! How can you compare a guy with no job to another that has a family and works 12 hours a day? It’s just silliness.
db: If you could wish one thing for a COACH that may be new to the sport, what would that be?
bs: Spend time on the deck, observing. If you want to be a great coach, that’s the best way to do it. Don’t go straight to online programming and coaching; that is a mistake. Coach people and understand personalities. That’s the key. You’ve got to get the experience if you want to be a good coach. You learn that the books may not be right and then you bring in the “art” to find out how to help the athlete.
Nicola Sperry was out 6 months in 2011, but she swam 60k a week and we found things to work on.
Pick athletes to work with that have big results, not big egos. There’s a huge difference.
db: Any final thoughts?
- Number one is that psychology wins over physiology, always.
- A lot of coaches think they’re going to get “magic” out of a book.
- Match your knowledge to what the person’s needs are at that particular time.
- If you are doing a set of 4 x 800 on the track and the athlete looks agitated, then I might change the workout on the fly. Doing the original workout will only make the athlete worse. Never rely on a set program.
So there you have it, from the “coach with the most formidable resume in triathlon”.
Learned a lot. Hope you did too.
For your success,
If you liked this article, then you also might appreciate interviews with the following:
All triathlon coach interviews were conducted in April and May of 2014.