Coaching Your Tri Team by Ambassador Andrew Harley
“Okay! From now on Y’all can only pick ONE dog per practice to stop and pet! If you stop to pet a 2nd dog, I’ll find a less dog-friendly place!”
Have you ever heard something come out of your mouth and immediately thought, “I can’t believe I just had to say that?” If the answer to that is yes then you’re probably a parent… or a teacher… or a coach… or a _____________ (fill in the blank with anything else under the sun involving kids). So what was the fill in the blank that caused me to shout the phrase above? I became a youth triathlon coach.
My triathlon club is Playtri and is based out of Dallas/Ft. Worth TX. De Soto has been a partner of Playtri for approximately eight years. Each Playtri location has an adult and youth race team and boasts facilities that could be described as a triathlete’s playground. I found Playtri late in my rookie season of triathlon. My first open water swim was quickly approaching and like many new triathletes, the only place I had ever swum was in a pool. Nervous for the occasion I consulted with my good friend Google, to search for anyone in the area that might have supported OWS practices. Playtri held OWS sessions every Saturday morning, I attended the very next practice lead by the company’s founder and veteran triathlete, Ahmed Zaher. Just like that, I had a new tri family. My involvement with the youth program all started with a Facebook post. Our youth program director was looking for someone willing to coach the kids at a particular location. I thought it sounded like a fun opportunity to get more involved so I followed up on details, talked it over with my wife, and decided to give it a try.
I practice with the kids every Tuesday and Thursday. In those two sessions, we will hit all three sports in addition to strength exercises. The goal is to teach the kids proper technique, wear them out, and of course, have a good time. During Tuesday afternoon practice, we bike down to a local park and complete the day's workout. Not only is this park popular for runners and cyclists; it’s also a hot spot for afternoon dog walkers. It was there, after turning around and seeing my kids stopping to pet yet another dog, that I found myself making the intro proclamation as our newest rule.
The One Dog Practice Clause of 2017 is just one of my “creative” rules that is still in effect today. Discovering how to implement obscure practice bylaws for the sake of productivity is not the only thing I’ve learned from coaching young triathletes. Perhaps the most important lesson for me is the “win” for each athlete is different. For some athletes in the Playtri Youth Program placing in regional events and advancing to national competition is the goal. For others completing the swim without stopping to rest on the edge of the pool is a victory. As a coach you train each athlete with a challenging but achievable “win” in mind. Then you celebrate each win like crazy! I’ve learned that the motivation for each athlete is different. My program is filled with youth athletes that are motivated by goals, or speed, or social interaction. I have used everything from Pokemon Go, to group races, petting a second dog "bonus", and Jelly Belly Sport Beans as motivators for certain practice sessions. It is very possible that I have learned more about triathlon from coaching youth than from being coached myself.
One final lesson I want to share is this: Triathlon may be a solo sport, but it’s better when we do it together. There is a reason race day has a buzz that training days simply don’t have. Sure, it is partially due to nutrition bars and adrenaline but I think more than that it is because we are all out there facing a challenge together. At youth practice there is an energy in the air that when we train together is absent when I am Zwifting at home alone in my pain cave. Each practice, together we warm up, encourage each other, and yell “Roar Lions” when we are done (the team name is the Playtri Lions). This lesson was drilled home for me at the end of last season when two of my athletes started a race one after the other in a rolling swim start. They decided to put individual time goals aside so they could swim, bike, and run the entire race side by side and “finish their season together.” I may not have gotten accurate data from their splits that day, but I was reminded that doing this sport together can be more meaningful than the time recorded by the clock.
In my short time as Coach Andrew, I have many great stories to show how meaningful it is to coach kids. I could tell you about the first kid I taught to ride a bike (which was terrifying but rewarding). I could tell you the story of the extroverted seven-year-old at the local pool who told me (standing right next to his coach) that he wished he was on my tri club simply because he liked our race kits better. The time one of my athlete’s rode by mid-race shouting “Coach! Someone took my bike in transition, so I took this one”. Another great memory is when one of my kids needed a moment to find his favorite track from the “Hamilton” soundtrack to pump him up before a particularly hard run interval. And I’ve partaken in numerous debates as to whether it’s better to just jump in the cold pool and start swimming or take 10 full minutes to slowly ease into the water.
From all of these stories, I can assure you that becoming a youth team coach will make your triathlon life far more entertaining. It is a way of giving back to the sport that will greatly enrich your own experience as an athlete. Working with young people will give you lots of joy. In return, you will have the opportunity to shape the athlete and more importantly, the person they will become.
I’ll continue to show up wearing some combination of my Playtri and De Soto training apparel to stay comfortable here in the Texas sun. And I’ll likely head home with some funny story from practice to tell my wife. I’m already looking forward to the training we’ll put in as a team, and of course the one dog I’ll meet along the way.