coaching, leadership, triathlon

A Conversation with Dave Scott – 6 time Ironman World Champion

In 2014, I had the great privilege of interviewing 25 of triathlon’s most decorated coaches for a project entitled “The Greatest Triathlon Minds of Our Time”. Dave Scott, the first inductee to the Ironman Hall of Fame and known as “The Man”, was a shoe-in for this esteemed list of coaches.

While Dave is direct in communicating, he balances it with a humorous tone that keeps you smiling. He is incredibly smart and his knowledge is top-notch. He has a unique way of keeping things light and while yes he is serious about triathlon, he doesn’t seem to take himself too seriously.

Here are the highlights from my conversation with Dave: (Note: Because the interview with Dave was NOT recorded, many of his answers are paraphrased. I’ve done my best to be as accurate as possible.)

David Bertrand (db): What originally drew you into coaching and what do you enjoy most about it?

Dave Scott (ds): When I was an athlete participating in water polo and swimming, I found that mentoring other athletes on my own team came naturally. I just have a personal passion for motivating other people. 

If you don’t leave with your spirit raised and a good feeling (and I can sense that 90% of the time), either you didn’t allow yourself to do it, or I didn’t do my job correctly. I like the motivating part of it. I like people to think. Complacency or mediocrity just drives me crazy. I like to keep folks guessing at times, in efforts to help challenge the athletes.

db: What is your coaching philosophy and what if anything, do you consider to be core to your approach?

ds: My philosophy is I always like to look at the science. It’s a very objective way to look at things (i.e., training intensities, energy systems). I also like to look at the best athletes and explore what has worked for them and why. I try to extract what the best ones are doing and find commonalities among them.

I also like the art form of coaching. It’s not only a science. You have to have a keen intuitiveness on how the athletes are responding (e.g., Around race time, athletes tend to be more unpredictable). Being able to adapt to athletes’ cycles is also an art form that I’ve learned more about recently.

I want the athletes to be gratified from the workout, even if they come in flat. Most want to please their coach! But you can’t be “on” all the time, and that’s OK.

In coaching groups, my philosophy is to address everyone at least once during the workout. I have to be attentive to accomplish this.

And lastly, there are no “B” and “C” races. Saying “This is a ‘B’ race” gives you an out. Have specific goals for every race. Saying you just want to get through an event is just crap! Focus your mind on what you CAN do, and I believe this to be a better practice than resorting to the idea that some event is “B” or “C” priority. It’s a paradigm shift.

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?

ds: I went to an ACSA coaches conference, and Doc Counsilman was speaking and he wasn’t pretentious at all. He said one thing which has always resonated with me, “A good coach has the X factor. It’s the innate ability to relate and listen to your athletes. Because it’s then that you can extract the best out of that athlete.”

I’ve learned to be a great listener. Everyone has weaknesses (db: He proceeded to spout off at least 10 of Chrissie Wellington’s weaknesses), but the key is to learn how to speak to people in a way not to degrade them, but to enhance their potential.

db: Do you have any tips for athletes or coaches in regards to getting through injuries / difficult patches?

ds: My son is a basket case wearing a boot at age 23. The most difficult thing for him and for all athletes is that their memory is very short-term. They even forget great workouts or phenomenal races only a week previous. A streak of 3-4 bad days seems to take over despite how big the victory is.

Solution: Let’s not forecast to the next race; instead let’s just get through the next 3-5 days. Let your spirit lift, take off your Garmin, etc. Go very, very short-term, and have goals for the next 10-14 days, and write down the goal. Then, the athlete feels like they are in control. I don’t mind the positive stress of setting the short-term goals.

db: What are the most common mistakes you see coaches make?

ds: Be more inquisitive. Learn more. Have a background in exercise physiology, psychology, biomechanics, and nutrition. Expound upon what you know. Ask why and understand human anatomy. Seek mastery in these areas so that you become more knowledgeable to your athletes.

This is a massive, lifelong process. You must ask for help when you run into a brick wall.

One of the most humbling things you can tell your athletes is, “I don’t really know what’s going on. This is a great puzzle and I’m intrigued by it. I’ll investigate and get back with you.”

You should be able to talk to your athletes from an art and science standpoint. Be in agreement, collectively, with what’s going on.

You know, we naturally gravitate towards people who give us energy. As a coach, all eyes are on you, listening to your message. You’ll have some on the iPhone and then others that listen to you like you are the Pope. When your word is challenged or you’re receiving a negative indicator from an athlete, always gravitate back to the ones that are the most difficult and win them over! Ask them what is going on, and don’t try to predict anything. A simple “Are you doing OK?” is all that’s required. Be insightful and honest, and broach the topic and the individual. They will think, “This coach is genuinely concerned.” Don’t be judgmental or expect an outcome. Be a good listener and be attentive.

db: Where do you see the sport of triathlon headed?

ds: It’s too bloody expensive! I hope there are more entry-level races that make it easy to do triathlon. It’s becoming elitist in a way. We don’t have good youth development programs in this country at all. Europeans are surpassing us in that category. We do have little pockets of good programs, but it can be better. I wish we had more clubs with youth and adults – that needs to be propagated a little bit better. I’d like to see more youth doing the sport.

Really I’m not a great predictor. At first I thought triathlon would just be a California sport. We’re not seeing a lot of minorities in the sport…why not? Is it finances? We’re just not doing a very good job at that.

If I were a young coach, I’d be looking into coaching at the youth level. There are golden opportunities for coaches there.

db: If you could wish one thing for an ATHLETE that may be new to the sport, what would that be?

ds: More is not better. Most want to go too long, too soon. There are three tenets of training: progression, overload, and recovery. How do you optimally weave each of these into your life? That is the question.

db: If you could wish one thing for a COACH that may be new to the sport, what would that be?

ds: The one thing I would tell coaches is this: Don’t be set in your ways because you’ve been a successful athlete. Open up your mind that there are lots of possibilities in how to help athletes. Coaches tend to do the same thing, day-in and day-out, and it always looks the same. Don’t get pigeon-holed into a set system. It’s a crock of beans to think that since you went 9:10 in an Ironman that you’ll make a good coach.

db: Any final thoughts?

ds: As a triathlon coach, I think it’s important to write down what you do well: your skills and your personality characteristics. You have to be aware. You might think you don’t know anything, but it’s not true.

Sometimes athletes aren’t going to perform well. You’ve done everything to the best that you know how. And your athlete has a disastrous race. How do you approach that athlete? How do you bring a positive out of a gigantic negative?

  1. By recognizing the milestones along the way (and writing them down)
  2. By asking them “Now, what did you do well?” Even if you have to go 24-48 hours before the race, press them to communicate what they did well. The morning of the race, what did you do well? How was the warm-up on the swim? Then the athlete realizes that there were segments that went well, and there’s not that overwhelming sense of failure and loss. Most athletes collapse it all in to one giant negative. As a coach, you have to be able to go in and separate the layers.

Everyone has fears. The ones that say they don’t, are lying! As a coach, you can calm these fears by addressing the unknowns (e.g., For beginners, OW swims and bricks).

Another fear is commitment. It is important for the coach to acknowledge that they are working 50 hours and training 14 hours a week, and that they HAVE committed.

Then there’s fear of disappointment: letting down your friends, coach, club mates, etc. Really they don’t care. They want you to go through the journey and be happy. Write down what a good result looks like.

Dave is a class act.

For your success,

Coach David


If you liked this article, then you also might appreciate interviews with the following:

Mark Allen

Brett Sutton


All triathlon coach interviews were conducted in April and May of 2014.


2 thoughts on “A Conversation with Dave Scott – 6 time Ironman World Champion

  1. Pingback: A Chat with Mark Allen – 6 time Ironman World Champion | Leadership. Locomotion. Life.

  2. Pingback: An Interview With Brett Sutton – Unorthodox Coach of World and Olympic Champions | Leadership. Locomotion. Life.

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