Friday, 19 February 2016

Joel Filliol Interview

Real Coaching, podcasting and beyond Rio 2016

"Hi Jason, with a bit of delay, here are my answers. I enjoyed thinking about and writing these out." Joel Filliol, February 2016, Fuerteventura, Spain.

I have to admit that I felt a little audacious, even guilty, when approaching Joel Filliol for a long-overdue blog interview. Real coaches don't have much time to themselves and I thought a virtual Q&A (read: send questions via email - wait for answers "at your leisure") would be a long shot.

What follows is a long and well-thought out masterpiece on Joel's part and many thanks to him for taking the time to answer my rather lengthy questions.

Nature Gym: Together with Paulo Sousa, you have launched an amazingly insightful podcast entitled Real Coaching. What were your motivations behind this venture? Any challenges in getting it up and running?

Joel Filliol: The Real Coaching Podcast as a concept was something I had thought about several years ago as podcasts were growing in popularity.  Since then I’ve been using podcasts and audio books as sources of continuing education, information and learning. Paulo and I have regular chats about coaching so it was a natural fit to work together in the discussion format for the podcast.

While there are a few triathlon podcasts I had checked out, there wasn't anything with the perspective we offer, that of 'real coaching' which is about the processes from the top of the sport, applied to all athletes and coaches. Overall the motivation for the Real Coaching podcast was simply about sharing our perspectives and practices gained through our experiences working with some of the top athletes in triathlon.

The technology is fairly simple and accessible these days, we use a Skype recorder, audacity to make edits when necessary and a web host. Each episode takes about 2hrs from recording, editing to posting. 

NG: Talk about inter-coach competition in elite triathlon. To what extent does it exist and how does it manifest itself on the professional circuit? Is there a bit of "us against them" between the various training squads?

JF: I don’t see a strong rivalry with other coaches or groups -  there are enough opportunities for ’success’ for many coaches to achieve with athletes at the same time, so it’s not a zero sum game where only one coach or group can be successful.

There are some coaches who have set very high benchmarks of what is possible with independent squads, Federation groups, or simply individually as coaches, but at this point in my personal career, I am not motivated by these comparisons. What is more motivating is the simply the drive to be prepared and compete at the worlds top level, and it’s the athletes who are on the field of play doing that, and our job is to prepare them as best we can to reach those standards.

I was asked once whether we have a group or a team, and my answer was group, as I see what we are doing as providing an environment for individuals to improve and platform from which to perform. I don’t see the identity of different squads as particularly useful in terms of us-vs them, it’s really individuals vs the world standard, and how we work to keep improving.

Furthermore on the inter-competition, as coaches we all work in very different contexts - for example some coaches are handed the most talented athletes from Federations - which is a different environment to the skills required to attract, and develop athletes with minimal resources, or starting from scratch as an ambitious coach with perhaps one athlete to work with. However in the end, even with very talented athletes, the level of decision making, guidance and coaching comes through, i.e. talented athletes don’t trump poor coaching and athlete guidance. 

NG: With 2016 being an Olympic year, there is no doubt a lot of pressure on the athletes to perform or to simply qualify. How much pressure do the coaches feel, particularly private coaches such as yourself?

JF: I don’t look at the Olympic year differently than other years.

Every year is important to avoid making errors, every year is important for athletes to improve and make progress, every year we have big goals to work towards. It’s not productive to focus on the Olympic games as the only goal, or to judge your career by only these standards. Building to an Olympic Games is a nice goal to be motivated by, and there is a process to arrive at the start line ready to perform, but it’s not really different than other opportunities to perform despite the importance some people place on the event. For our athletes we have multiple performance objectives every year, and the World Series and Grand Final are always one for the top level, and developing athletes have many different outlets to prepare towards.

Having been through the build up to Olympic Games before, through that process and out the other side as coach of a Silver Medallist, I can say authentically it really is about the process you go through, and taking enjoyment from that, because success or failure at the Olympics are not very different than other competitions. You either achieve, or don’t achieve what you targeted, then you move onto the next goal or even phase of your life. What determines the satisfaction is how well you did the process, whether you really committed to it fully, and appreciated the opportunity, the blood, sweat and tears of that path.

Of course as an independent coach I have a real degree of accountability for performance than some other coaches, but that is the standard situation, not any different this year.

NG: As an international coach you are generally on the road a lot. How does this affect your personal life and just life in general? Does this occupation have a shelf life?

JF: High performance coaching is indeed very demanding and while every coach is different, there is a shelf life of shorts. I'd say it's somewhat role dependent - perhaps as a coach on the front lines three Olympic cycles would be pushing the limits. For some two is enough. It might be different for a support staff role such as admin, or medical.

As I have changed roles a few times since my first Olympic build up to 2004, I'm not feeling near those limits. Having autonomy as I do in my current work also helps extend the shelf life.

The way I am working now, I don't coach out of my home base of Glasgow Scotland, so I am away from home more or less from December to September each year, with just short periods at home during that block. That schedule is not sustainable over the longer term, so for me it'll likely change in the future. Personally this way of working requires either to be single, or to have a very understanding partner.

Overall the coaches life is one of giving to others, which sometimes doesn't leave a lot to give at home, so I reckon coaches don't make the easiest partners to live with. In my case I have a young daughter and another on the way, so I will be arranging my coaching life a little differently post '16. Other coaches who work from 'home' might find the year less demanding in this way, however only if they are lucky enough for home to be in the best place for preparation or they made the effort to be in the 'best' place. 

NG: Many a "triathlon coach" maintains a high level of fitness and racing prowess themselves. Does this occur in a high performance environment? What sort of fitness regimen do you maintain. Which HP coach would win a 10km "coaches only" running race and in what sort of time?

JF: A high level of fitness is not a quality that is required to be a high performance coach. While there are some coaches who have a high level racing background or ability, and are able to maintain good physical condition while coaching in a demanding environment, training with their athletes it not really coaching and I question the motivations in many cases - are they training for themselves or the athletes?

I think it’s only possible in certain circumstances with a very small group, or male coaches with female athletes in limited way, as observing and seeing what is happening is difficult or impossible if you are also working at a high level.

While I raced for Canada as a junior, and trained a bit more in my early days of coaching, now I find I need to focus my energy on coaching, interacting with athletes, and planning, preparation and review of sessions. Fitness and taking care of yourself is very important in any field to be a high performer, so that you have the energy necessary to do the non-stop nature of coaching work. For me that typically entails simple exercising every day, usually running, with some light gym work and eating well. I know it’s a sign that I am doing too much when I don’t take this time to take care of myself every day, even if it does happen with the demands of being on camp.

I’m not interested in the least of which coach is the fastest over 10km as it wouldn’t tell me anything about their coaching abilities. 

NG: Any advice for aspiring elite coaches wanting to break in to the industry?

JF: Do your job every day - be on deck with athletes, learning and coaching. Accumulate as many days like this with as many different athletes over time - it’s the only way to develop the skills to be a top coach. Learn to be a filter of what is important, over time the list of fundamentals is clearly very small, do those well and you’ll be an effective coach at any level. 

'Breaking' into the elite side isn't a short term thing, it takes many years, to be in the right places at the right times, and be ready when those opportunities present themselves. In addition to having the attitude to continually be learning and progressing as a coach, this process never stops and is fundamental to coach development at all levels. 

NG: Back to your own role - what are your plans post-Rio 2016?

JF: As I said above, I'll change my process somewhat in '17 to spend more time with family, however I remain committed to continuing my work at the highest levels. There are a few athletes and federations who are forward looking and we're already making plans.

With my performance record over the last 10 years I'm very fortunate to have many opportunities to work with interesting people from around the world, and I'll look forward to continuing to do that in 2017 and beyond.

Note: Header image courtesy of Joel Filliol.