Brett Sutton: an insightful talk

Sutton pulls no punches in his interview with Pontoon. One of the gurus of world triathlon talks to us about his training methods, his athletes’ plans and his view of today’s triathlon, and he even puts forward an idea for a competition format for a more honest triathlon with the best competitors. 

By Alberto Trillo | Photos : courtesy of Trisutto.com


A legendary figure, Sutton continues to reap success as a coach. Just in the last month, Nicola Spirig won the European Games, the European Championship and earned her place at Rio 2016, Mary Beth Ellis was crowned ITU long distance world champion, Daniela Ryf won the Frankfurt Ironman and Ritchie Nicholls claimed the title in the Half Ironman in Norway. 

Brett Sutton combines talent and hard work with his unique personality and experience spanning more than three decades training the world triathlon elite. With his personal vision and in-depth knowledge of the ‘triple effort’, the Australian has been behind 3 Olympic medals, 16 ITU world champions, Ironman world champions and over 100 World Cup wins. 

Sutton, like any genius, has suffered and generated misunderstanding in equal measure. Everyone has an opinion on him.

To many, you’re the most controversial and also the best triathlon coach. How do you feel about it?

Well, that’s a hard question first off. Hard in that no matter how I answer it lends itself to the perception that I’m arrogant or controversial. Ultimately it will be for external facts and history to judge. Not me. Though you ask me for my opinion? 

The truth is I am comfortable with that tag (best coach) because I feel I’ve earned it

The truth is I am comfortable with that tag (best coach) because I feel I’ve earned it. I’m happy for people to match my 3-decades of triathlon coaching achievements against anyone else in the history of the sport [see resume of his achievements in the introduction].

Every day I wake up and ask myself one question, and it’s a question I try to encourage my athletes to ask themselves: “Am I going to improve myself in some way today?” From there I try to do the best job I can with the circumstances I am provided with.

You’ve been a coach in various sports (boxing, horse racing, swimming…). What did you learn from training animals and how do you apply it to triathletes?

Yes, I had the advantage of training in many sports in my younger days and competing professionally in two (boxing and squash). This has given me a wide base of experiences to choose from. Working with animals helped hone my observational skills, but also reinforced to me the importance of the linguistic side of coaching. It’s crucial to success. As a coach what you say and how it is perceived by others doesn’t get the emphasis that it deserves placed on it.

We at Trisutto.com have always tried to use the “less is more” approach when giving instructions. We make doing rather than explaining a priority when trying to develop specific tasks or skills.

What would you say is the most important added value that your coaching brings to your athletes?

Over the years our squad has had tremendous amounts of success. Athletes joining the squad tend to take on a great amount of confidence because of that, which is againamplified by the successes of athletes already in the squad. Athletes come on board believing that the systems here can improve them. And they’re right.

Why is it so important to you that athletes “blindly follow” your instructions without question?

Well, to start, that is a complete mischaracterisation of what we do. Nobody is asked to blindly follow anything. I have had some of the most highly intelligent and inquisitive athletes in the sport’s history train with me. Nicola (Spirig) gives me her lawyerly cross-examination before every session on ‘why am I doing this session?’ and I always do my best to answer.

However, to answer your question in another way, to be successful at top level sport one has to be decisive at the critical decision points.

People come to me in the first place for my coaching advice. Why should they ask for it and then not take it on board? It means they’re in the wrong training group. I’m saving them time and money as I know it won’t be effective for that athlete in my environment.

If athletes are debating their training after being committed to a particular course of action then that clouds the thinking under pressure and compromises their performance. We don’t want that for our athletes. So they come to listen or they don’t.

It seems you don’t care much about orthodoxy in triathlon. Why?

This is again complete misinformation. I am extremely orthodox. I stick to principles and training methodologies that have been successful for my athletes for over 40 years as a professional coach.

Do I throw away decades worth of experience because someone with no history of success themselves has a new theory they read out of a book? Of course not. Should I follow the orthodox USAT coaching model, who despite having the largest resource of talent and money of any triathlon nation have not produced a male World Championship medallist since Mike Pigg in 1991? Why would I? 

It’s mainstream triathlon who are unorthodox in their approach to training. Not me

No, the truth is, it’s mainstream triathlon who are unorthodox in their approach to training. Not me. Good coaches are decisive. They believe in their program and stick to it. They don’t jump from one training fad to the next looking for easy speed. I’m quite comfortable sitting in a room with 50 coaches and having 49 of them telling me I’m wrong. 

Why? Because I back my own judgements and have the confidence and expertise to do so after many years of standing on deck with athletes on a 5-hour basis. It’s the greatest teacher of all if you are aware of what you are looking at on a daily basis.

You’ve described periodisation as “bullshit”. What is the best training method in general for triathlon? Is it all aboutindividualization?

Periodisation is a mantra. We use it and we embrace it, but it just happens to be different from the orthodoxy of what is being taught to young coaches these days. We reverse periodise. It works, has long proven to do so, and is more efficient for triathlon. 

Like all things, as you mention individuality is very important. If one method isn’t working for a particular athlete I change it quick smart. And I change it again and again until I get it right. Unlike other coaches if after a time I’m still not seeing satisfactory results I’m happy to pass the athlete on to a coach I believe will suit them better. 

We succeed here because all the athletes know we will do what’s best for their performance. That’s rule number 1

We succeed here because all the athletes know we will do what’s best for their performance. That’s rule number 1.

You’ve coached many athletes, Olympic and world champions. What kind of challenge is it for you to coach Lukas Verzbicas? 

Training Lukas is like training any other athlete. Of course like most people I was heartbroken by his accident and moved by his subsequent courage to resume his career.

However, in terms of training I already view all my athletes as individuals. Yes, we have made technique adjustments to better support his injuries, but the approach to implementing these is the same as I would for any athlete looking for improvement.

What makes Lukas such a special athlete?

Lukas is not a special athlete in that he is like every athlete who walks in the door at Trisutto.com. Whether that be the Olympic champion, World Champion, Working Pro or Age Grouper - every athlete gets treated the same here if they show courage and work hard. Our training set up is very egalitarian in that sense.

He is new to our squad, but I’m happy to report that every day he makes me more and more confident we can get this young man back to the top of USA triathlon. With the right support, he is the USA’s best and only chance for a male medal at the next Olympics.

What’s the plan for Nicola Spirig now? Simply win Rio and Kona in 2016? 

As the defending Olympic champion it is very important for Nicola to be able put in a good performance there. So yes, Rio will be a focus.

Could she also put in a great performance at Kona 2016 off the base of her Olympics training? Absolutely. Would I and the triathlon public like to see the Olympic Champion facing off with the best women in Ironman at Kona? No doubt about it.

So that is up to the powers that be to help make that happen. They seem to wish to increase female participation and awareness by giving places to Bold and the Beautiful actresses under the cover of fundraising. My opinion is that having an all star women’s showdown would do just as much for the sport.

Post 2016? While she’s not a X-country skier we did incorporate it into her training this winter and her improvement was noticeable. So coach has floated the idea that her final athletic goal could be an attempt to qualify for the Winter Olympics. But a lot of variables in the meantime.

Do you think that would be possible for Gómez to attempt as well?

I do not coach Mr Gómez, but from what I have seen I think he could most definitely make the switch and be very competitive. Particularly at Kona. While I believe that in short course he’s slightly off the Brownlee’s Championship level, I do believe he would be superior to both at Kona. Just my opinion.

While I believe that in short course he’s slightly off the Brownlee’s Championship level, I do believe he would be superior to both at Kona. Just my opinion

If triathlon were a person, how old would it be? I mean, do you think there’s still a lot to learn and improve in triathlon compared to classic sports like athletics or swimming?

People keep telling me that triathlon is in its infancy and needs experience. That’s a cover for those who continue to exploit it for business purposes. The truth is our sport has regressed in many ways. 

People keep telling me that triathlon is in its infancy and needs experience. That’s a cover for those who continue to exploit it for business purposes. The truth is our sport has regressed in many ways

Two of the most disappointing being its new found elitism - I can remember a time when people could turn up to a triathlon with an old bike and not feel embarrassed. And performance. We now have courses, start times and race series designed not to see who is the best athlete, but to maximise profits at the expense of the athletes and races. Majority of pros are actually doing it tougher now than they did 20 years ago.

The purity to the sport that I saw in the late 80s and prompted my switch to triathlon in the early 90s has gone. That is a very sad thing and one we should fight to change. 

You said the best ‘real’ triathlete you’ve ever seen, alongside Mark Allen, is Craig Walton. In my opinion, although very strong he would probably struggle to make a top 10 in most WTS today. Do you think short-course draft-legal triathlon is a fair sport or is it too much about the run?

Let me clarify these ratings so they are not taken out of context. I believe Mark Allen based on past results is the best all-round male triathlete I have seen. That means over all distances. Just as I believe Dave Scott is the best ever Ironman in my opinion.

When talking about Craig (Walton) I was referring to the best pure ITU short course all-round triathlete I have seen. By ‘pure’ I mean if triathlon were similar to cycling and there was a time trial where each athlete were starting separately without the benefit of a pack.

In that sense Craig Walton in my opinion would be supreme, and I have seen no one that changes my mind on that. However, you are right in that the ITU formats of today are completely unrewarding to athletes with explosive swim and bike power like Craig had.

What do you think about the shift towards the sprint distance because it is more suited to TV? Will that kill the spirit of the sport?

The move to sprint distance is a disgrace. No doubt it’s an initiative to appease the sponsors and TV, but it will make the sport even more mediocre. 

The move to sprint distance is a disgrace. No doubt it’s an initiative to appease the sponsors and TV, but it will make the sport even more mediocre

It will just promote the speedy 5km runners who couldn’t make it in athletics and who can’t swim and can’t bike. It throws a shadow over our once great sport, which should be about discovering who is the best all round athlete.

Does triathlon need to switch to a private-team scheme like there is in France or Germany but at global level? Is that the way forward to promote professional triathletes?

I don’t think so. Triathlon was never meant to be a team sport. In terms of promoting professional triathletes by improving the sport, in short course the answer is simple: Championships with heats and finals over a true triathlon format: 3 heats of 30 athletes with the top 10 athletes in each heat progressing to the final.

The final to be raced as a 500m swim x 13.3km bike x 3.3km run repeated three times.

I assure the triathlon public at the end of this race they would be staring at the best 3 real triathletes in the world. They would also be watching the most exciting triathlon format they could see.

A true triathlon format: the final to be raced as a 500m swim x 13.3km bike x 3.3km run repeated three times

What are your immediate plans? Are you going to keep coaching or will you devote your time to other initiatives like the Dove project in in Cozumel, Leysin and St Moritz? 

In terms of coaching I will continue with our pro squad and Nicola’s preparations for 2016. Though the last piece of my coaching legacy will be in helping age group athletes achieve their goals through triathlon. It’s an area I feel with Trisutto.com we have a lot to offer as we try and help anyone who has walked in an Ironman and show them how they can control their race and not be controlled by it. I see so many committed age group athletes working and training so hard, but beating their heads against the wall doing things that actually hurt their performance. It drives me crazy. So that’s one goal, yes. The other is to work on projects as you describe that will use the sport to empower people through health and fitness.

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