Joel Filliol on Coaching Through a Pandemic

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Vincent Luis. Katie Zaferes. Mario Mola. Jake Birtwhistle. What do they have in common? The coach: Joel Filliol.

Joel has supported athletes to achieve more than 30 World Triathlon Series winning performances as part of more than 90 World Triathlon Series podiums, and 6 overall World Triathlon Elite World Championships Titles.

Tim Ford and James Bale sat down with Joel on an episode of a podcast and came away with a greater appreciation for the art and science of putting together a high performance training squad, and the challenges a coach like him had to overcome in the past year. Here are a few excerpts from that episode.

(This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.)

How did you build this multi-national squad? How do you choose who to take on?

My screening/interview process has evolved over time. Who is open to coaching? How much baggage do they have from their past? Who were their coaches before and why did that break down? What beliefs do they have? What challenges do they have? Can I help fix those?

Some of them have had a series of injuries, psychological issues in the sense of confidence or other areas and it can be very difficult to overcome those. Not to say I won’t try but I’ve got to feel like I can help this athlete, this person get better. And that’s not going to be for everybody.

It’s not a competitive environment in the sense that we don’t want athletes to race each other and challenge each other and ultimately that can lead to wrecking each other from an injury point of view, so you have to have good control of your ego and good self-management in order to function in an independent environment like this. How you can manage your training without too much drama or unrealistic expectations? With the existing culture, anybody we add to that must add to it in the sense it will make it better.

Synergy in the squad is important.

There’s only so many athletes you can support at any one time. The max we’ve had are 15-16 and that starts to get into really boring logistical stuff like pool space, or traveling, doing the workouts where the groups end up getting too big. There’s also a critical mass where if you don’t have enough athletes it can be hard to run specific sessions such as bike sessions and technical crit sessions where you kind of need some athletes around and you need to be able to work together in that way.

With Super League Triathlon and PTO Championship racing tacked on at the end of the World Triathlon season, what does the longer season do to the athlete’s training regime and how do you as a coach address that?

The athletes used to race more French Grand Prix and Bundesliga through the season. My approach has been we’ve had to do less of that so we can train more because the travel, the calendar, the whole challenge, can you actually train enough?

It’s an additional challenge of you having to maintain your health and your energy through the year. For the athletes, everything sounds like a good idea in February but when you come through the summer, a lot of athletes have got niggles through the year and need time off and so that’s been a challenge.

But Super League is such a great opportunity though that it’s more motivating for athletes to try to make that happen. Also there’s good prize money and a lot of promotion they invest in.

I think that how we’ve tried to approach it is to try to find periods in the year where we have a clear block where we can train, we’re not traveling and to sort of recharge for the next phase, perhaps bundle some races together and have a discrete training block. And it’s not easy because the calendar isn’t designed with that in mind. So you also have to choose times to miss out some races and that’s kind of unfortunate. Given the bigger priorities of performance we have to make some of those choices sometimes.

Can an athlete race across multiple formats like Super League Triathlon, World Triathlon, and Ironman successfully in the course of a year?

A number of athletes on the Olympic pathway that I’m working with would love to go into long distance racing and the challenge is often just the timing of these things. We have to prioritise and we don’t want to make the mistake of trying to do too much and end up broken just from traveling around and racing too much.

This year coming up is a great example. You’ve got the 70.3 world champs in September right in the thick of SLT races post-Olympics. It’s one of those ones you have to decide what you want to do. In general it’s a huge positive and I’d like more athletes to have more opportunity to come up in distance to 70.3 or half, it’s very accessible for Olympic athletes. The volumes of training they’re doing, it’s a matter of specificity and prioritization.

In long distance particularly ironman you can’t race very often, you have to prioritise the races you do. That’s the opportunity cost that stops some athletes from moving up in distance. It’s more a matter of the athletes having choices and making those choices. That’s the great part about triathlon; you can choose and specialise in the distances and mix and match to some degree. In a lot of Olympic sports that’s kind of it; you can’t continue the way we can.

We’ve seen some triathletes like Javi Gomez race across a range but even he’s had to step back from some of the ITU racing in order to create some space in order to do that. And then there’s others like Ali Brownlee who made a long-distance commitment and then come back to Olympic towards the Games. It’s possible, but not if you try to do everything.

How did you deal with coaching during the pandemic the last year?

It’s been challenging. What I tried not to do was to rush to fill the pause with something. You couldn’t just continue with training and wait and see what happens, what would pop up.

If we trace the timeline back we were expected to go to Abu Dhabi beginning of March last year. At that time we didn’t know [the Olympics would be postponed] so we had to continue training to some degree but you can’t keep in this holding pattern. And so we had to take rest for some of them and find a way for some of them — if you are from Italy, Spain, France, for some of them they couldn’t train outside for two months. There was a rush to find some way to continue to be fit indoors.

Some of the younger athletes were probably a little easier to manage, they’re earlier in their career so they kind of felt like they have a lot of opportunities. The ones I knew that were really focused on performing in Tokyo, that was a harder transition to go through. If you’re near the end of your Olympic career, you’ve invested in this big block in the winter to get ready and you realise you have to do that again. It’s a real first world problem, but it’s these athletes’ lives. Even as a coach I found it super hard to deal with.

I feel like that pause was important. Some of the ones who got themselves in trouble filled that gap with some extreme challenges. My orientation in my coaching is we have to keep healthy and consistent and ready to perform. Even the transition to so much indoor riding, a lot of athletes had knee issues or leg issues as a result of riding 15 hours a week.

There was a lot of learning about that and also respecting that everybody deals with this differently. I think as a coach we have to be understanding and empathetic that everyone will handle it differently in their environments and personalities. Knowing when to give more space or when to adjust things because if an athlete is feeling stressed they’re not going to be able to recover the same way.

I’m used to spending a lot of face time and one-to-one with athletes and being on deck, and not being able to do that also changes the dynamic because you’ve not been able to observe things the same way. You don’t have the same set of inputs you get from the casual conversations and informal meetings that you have when you’re in the same environment, so we had to create a bit of that. Not everyone wants to communicate in the same way.

Being a coach and follower of the sport of triathlon, what did you think about the Sub7 Sub8 Project?

As a spectacle and looking at the goal, I think it’s doable. I think there’s probably other athletes that could be even better. Anything that promotes the sport can be good. This was on the front sports page of the BBC Online the other day. It can get some mainstream interest.

I’m kind of a purist in the sense that even carbon plate shoes, I’m not a big fan of records falling everywhere due to this. We won’t be able to compare [the Sub7 Sub8] to records in Kona or other records. Triathlon already has a problem with course measurements.

In the same way as the sub-2 hour marathon I’m keenly awaiting a non-drafted, non-paced legit sub-2 marathon. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the other angle but I tend towards the purity of comparing history. Where are you in history? Who’s gone before you?

Probably those times are non-achievable in the traditional formats but it will be interesting to see the athletes go for something unusual and I’m sure people will be paying attention.


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