What makes for a great triathlon coach? An encyclopedic knowledge of exercise physiology? Experience as an elite competitor? Some otherworldly gift of vision? Time on the job? Or is it a mix of all of these things?
To whatever degree there's a beaten path or not, let's first consider that the man widely considered to be the greatest running coach in the last century is the late Arthur Lydiard, the New Zealander who coached several generations of great runners from around the world starting in the 1950s and 60s. What were Lydiard's prerequisites to a coaching career? He was a shoe cobbler. He also was a milkman.
Or how about another legendary running coach, Percy Cerutty? Cerutty was a middle-aged civil servant in Australia who was so sickly and weak, an early grave seemed imminent. Cerutty stopped eating crappy food and started running up and down sand dunes, then went on to coach the likes of Herb Elliott, one of the greatest middle-distance runners of all time.
In triathlon, Brett Sutton is largely considered the most successful coach in the sport's brief history. As a kid, he wasn't much of a swimmer himself, but by the time he was 15, he was a successful swim coach for his classmates. He boxed, he learned how to train race horses, and then he put it all together to start churning out world champions.
Mark Allen has become one of the most successful coaches of age-group triathletes in history, having translated his intimate knowledge of the sport, gathered during his mythic career, into helping scores of clients qualify for the Hawaii Ironman. Before Allen got into triathlon, he was a lifeguard.
Another former world champion who has developed into a tremendous triathlon coach is Siri Lindley, with Mirinda Carfrae and Leanda Cave being two notable athletes on her resume. In her early years as a pro—not-unlike Allen as a matter of fact—Lindley was known to crack mentally during big races like the Olympic trials. It was Sutton who virtually reached down into Lindley's subconscious and reset the circuit breakers, rebuilding Lindley's confidence into an unstoppable force. Now she's the one resetting circuit breakers in her own athletes.
Another highly successful coach of both age-groupers and pros is Canadian Cliff English. On the elite level, English has worked with Sam McGlone, Peter Reid, Simon Whitfield, Heather Jackson and Tim O'Donnell. A fresh spotlight will be shining on English this year as Cave—after a 2013 rash with difficulties—has turned to him to help her flip to a new chapter after a year plagued by skin cancer and disastrous racing.
The 43-year-old's journey toward becoming one of triathlon's premier coaches offers yet another telling description of why there is no beaten path in the profession, and one piece of advice he has for the more experienced age-grouper who might be frustrated by staleness or plateaus.