Back to reality with Jonathan Hall – Head Coach Triathlon Canada

High Performance is a game full of successes and mistakes where you must constantly identify the factors that allow for success. In this interview, certain truths were more difficult to discuss. Trimes met with Jonathan Hall, the current national coach at Triathlon Canada to learn more about his journey and take stock of his new fights.

Who was Jonathan Hall before coaching?

Well, I started coaching quite young, in 1994 I completed my Level 1 Cycling Coaching and then in 1995 I completed my level 2 Cycling. I was 22 and had 8 clients who paid me, but before that, I am the son of two amazing parents who had the courage to immigrate to Australia from England, I played various sports including football (Soccer) and Tennis but I fell in love with running at an early age and then due to the fact that my father raced the bike as well as ran with me I fell into Duathlon in about 1986. I raced with Greg Welch in 86 if my memory serves me well and I completed my first triathlon in 86. From Duathlon I moved into Cycling and then made national team in 1991 and spent some years riding with the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) which is where I completed my first coaching certification. I did go on to compete until 2005 in both Duathlon and Professional cycling but I always had a hand in coaching in one way or form and my true professional engagement came in 2003 when I was asked to help with Triathlon Australia. The rest is history. I’m not in love with Triathlon, I think that helps me coach Triathlon.

What was the turning point for you that make you decide to become a coach…

We were obliged to take the coaching course when we were training at the AIS but I found out quickly that a) I liked it and it was interesting and b) people were willing to come and ask my advice because they got better after I helped them. I have always enjoyed helping people reach their goals, maybe even more than mine. The progression was that I was offered a full time coaching opportunity in Australia and I thought why not, that was 12 years ago and it feels like a long time, 4 Olympics for three different countries. I think that in my discussions with other coaches you can make a decision to try coaching but it takes success to make that big decision to coach as a profession and then you need to be fortunate enough to become employed. It’s a tough gig to get into, tough to get out of.

Does your experience as an athlete did influence the coach you are now?

Yes, yes my experience as an athlete highly influences me. I base my work ethic on the standards I demanded from my coaches as an athlete and I was very demanding. I knew that if I had any hope of being the best then I had to be 100%, that meant to me that my coach had to be 100%.  I use my experiences as a reference and I work hard not to become a hypocrite and coach in a way that I would have thought unacceptable as an athlete. I don’t think that you have to have been an athlete to be a coach, but it does help. I was fortunate enough to have both great and good coaches and I lived in many countries and competed in running, cycling, duathlon and triathlon in nearly every continent, so therefore I have experienced a lot. Experience will only get you so far and I have worked hard to make sure I have the knowledge to back the experience. I also have this peculiar thing where I see patterns and recognise patterns and I believe that in the prescription of exercise there are lots of patterns. I worked hard to distinguish my strengths and bring my weaknesses to an acceptable level, I have also worked hard to put a team around me of people who are much more intelligent than me. I think as an athlete I remained humble and as a coach I try to remain humble.

You did surprise the community by leaving a role of HP dir at USAT to work for triathlon Canada, what did you motive to make that change?

There were a variety of reasons but in reality it took just one. I had been engaged at USAT to do a certain job and for a variety of political reasons I was unable to fulfill this job as I wanted to. The issue that I was married to Erin Densham and that she was and still is seen as a threat was something we never really managed well and the result saw me doing mundane tasks. I was engaged to work with the coaches but I found that there were few full-time coaches in the US so I ended up having to coach and this caused problems. So, in the end I was being paid very well and doing nothing important and I was bored. I decided that I was better coaching but there was no coaching job in the US and when Triathlon Canada advertised for a development coach in Victoria I saw an exciting project and decided to change. I went to less money but I was excited by the project and the opportunity to work with young athletes and a federation that was in need of something specific.

But since your arrival in Canada, a lot of things did change… and not for good…

Yes, things changed quickly as they tend to do in sport. I quickly realized that we had a lot of injured athletes and that the relationships within Triathlon Canada were dysfunctional. This was not different to any other federation I have worked in but things changed quickly. Libby got an offer to work for OTP and I can’t blame her for taking it, so the person who recruited me left 2 months after I commenced, we had a head coach who was leaning more towards his international athletes with his Canadian athletes being injured physically and mentally so this was creating angst and then we got cut by OTP and Triathlon Canada. We went from a budget of 1.2 million to 600K and this was also a change that took people by surprise. People lost their jobs and we had little way to attract new people. We hired a part-time high performance Director who came highly recommended and charged $1000 per day but the work load was too much and this individual too out of touch. It was a rough time, I really started to question my move but I decided to stick with it as the athletes as a majority were the innocent party.

And you were momentary the HP director for Triathlon Canada..

Yes, when the part-time high performance director was let go I agreed to fulfil the role. When I was first hired, I was hired as a coach who could also play the HPD role in the future. I was not bound to this but it was something I would consider pending what I saw in my first twelve months. I took the role as HPD as I knew the Olympic selection process was headed for trouble and had not been conducted in the appropriate manner.

I was a martyr in some form as I was required to select a team and tell people they would not be going to the games. People will remember me as the guy who never selected them for the rest of their lives even though the policy was not mine and I was only following the policy from a legal perspective.

I was very clear with Tim Wilson, if I do the job now, I don’t do it later. They chose for me to do it in May and then when they advertised I never applied. I spent 5 very shitty months playing HPD and saying no to people who were not used to hearing no. It ruined many relationships as I had to hold people accountable, I could never have picked up with a new start as HPD and if I had taken the soft approach between May and September I would have failed the athletes and coaches and done Triathlon Canada a disservice. It also saved triathlon Canada about $120K to have one person do three jobs. I would not do it again, I hated every minute of it and it still has an impact today.

How do you explain the fact that our athlete did underperformed at the Olympics?

Easy, our athletes were injured and ill, in 2016, in 2015, it has some pattern to it when you look. We only qualified 5 athletes, we only really had three men to choose from and out of the women all five who saw themselves in contention had been or were injured. By Rio we had one female who had been very ill and failed to tell us, we had one female who had been injured in April and was struggling to get back, we had one female who was injured in May and missed significant training and our alternate was also injured. Then we had one male who turned up in Rio with a significant injury, leaving on crutches and one male who had misfortune and fell during the bike. Our alternate never spoke to me again since hid non-selection so we did not really have a back up anyway. It was destined to be like this a great deal of time before the games.

Right now, we heard that triathlon Canada is affected by a lot of cut from different programs, can you tell us more about this?

I can’t go into details, but I will say this. We are funded to perform, we have not performed and as such the amount of funding we get is less? It’s not complicated, we deserve to be cut.

OTP were very generous, we said we needed more money on numerous occasions as more money would help us perform, we got that money but then did not perform and voila!

We were cut. It is a performance environment and our athletes and coaches failed to perform. The challenge is always magnified. Triathlon Canada was coming to the end of funding we received in successful times from TECK and as everyone knows it is very difficult to attract new sponsors when the performances are not there. It was a snowball that has been gathering momentum for sometime with few parties actually taking responsibility and most pointing the finger of blame. I’d say we have reached the bottom but in saying that unless things. Attitudes, expectations change then we will be here for some time.

But, if the athletes will say that’s it’s unfair, it’s caused by underperforming… by the reaction, do you think we need to change our culture of performance?

Unfortunately, and similar to other federations the athletes have come to expect to be supported whether they succeed or fail, some call it entitlement, it does not really matter. Id say athletes have been supported before they performed which is required as an initial investment and talent speculation but they have grown used to this support and resent losing it. In the “real world” you don’t get paid to stay at home and fail and my concern is that whilst this is not great for Triathlon in Canada that these athletes will suffer when they finish their careers. If you spoil a child it is hard to blame them for being spoilt!

Without this funding, is it really impossible to get success?

Well, there has to be an amount of funding and let’s be clear the athletes still receive money to themselves personally. The government hands out around $140000 to our athletes, not other country in the world does this. Spain has done well without funding and the US program is not funded at the level people presume. People win medals, not money so yes, if we have some desperate and talented athletes with desperate and talented coaches then there is a chance. This is the test. It is hard for Triathlon Canada to maintain me as a coach but there should be plenty of coaches willing to take up the fight. Last year at the NPC in Victoria we took NO triathlon Canadian money, we got some OTP money, Triathlon BC money and some Edmonton Triathlon Legacy trust support and we did fine. No injuries, all athletes improving and we had very little money, so yes it can be done. The athletes will need to start using their carding money to get to events and pay for coaching instead of buying a car or paying the mortgage but this is the new reality. So we have enough money, we just need to spend it in the right places and not expect that it just goes to the bank.

But are you positive about the future of our athletes?

I’m divided, I see talent but I don’t see culture and the culture I do see is one of entitlement, aggrieved, unhappy and resentful. There is just not time or space for those traits. We have a very young athlete group so it will take time and patience, the challenge will be not to push young athletes because there are no older athletes to shield them. I think the Kirsten Sweetland and Paula Findlay stories are lessons to be learned from. They became products of their environment and neither athlete came close to reaching their potential.

Can you tell us more about your group?

Well, the group I have is made up of young athletes from BC and young athletes who have come to BC to study. We have this infusion model that Libby championed and that allows me to have some international athletes whose role is to enhance the environment. We don’t have any experienced older Canadian athletes yet alone anyone who is in a position to play a mentorship role, so we rely on the internationals to guide our young Canadians and in return they receive coaching. It is not complicated but it takes some putting together. I look at our program’s success as also highlighting Triathlon Canada’s failings. We had a 16-year-old female win every Canadian Junior race and for me this is a bad thing as at 16 we have a girl who is obviously talented but we should have 19-year-old women in our junior ranks who are just too mature to be beaten by a 16 years old. So now we have a 16 year old with everyone looking at her saying this athlete is the answer to our problems, sound familiar!

So, my group is focussed on being the best we can be without taking risk with injury and mental and physical illness. It’s a simple process. We don’t talk about the win at all costs, we talk about remaining healthy at all costs and this was good enough to achieve some good results in 2016. We train in Victoria and we travel to Arizona to spend some of the winter and prepare for the early-season races which are all in hot environments and locations. It very simple, we swim, we bike, we run, we gym and we rest. We have the best athletes available and we invest a little money and a great deal of human resources into developing them at the right trajectory.

With the popularity of several international squad who are regularly changing their base, is it hard for an athlete that he can develop in training in North America?

Nothing is hard, nothing is complicated, we make it hard and we make it complicated. People will gravitate to successful programs and there is no reason there cannot be a successful program in North America. I consider my program to be successful and we spent 90% f our time in North America. No one likes constantly changing their home base and I think that in these programs we see fatigue and we see turnover.

You are a coach who is not afraid to speak your mind, it’s almost uncommon for ITU, no?

I think speaking your mind is a dangerous game to play at any level. I pick my battles but I am a fierce advocate for the athletes. I have said it before and I’ll say it again, I’m employed by a national federation but I work for the athletes. It’s a tough balance the sport would not exist without athletes but the athletes would not have a stage upon which to perform without the sport. I think the issue is that each think they are more important than the other. My take is that it needs to be fair, transparent and open with room to talk and collaborate. Maybe I am old school but it takes empathy to see things through the eye of another person or organization and my opinion is that neither the athletes, the ITU, WTC or the IOC have managed to look at things through each other’s eyes. It is disheartening in all honesty and the period in the lead up to Rio was a period where I questioned the validity of sport.

Last question, for you, what’s a good coach?

A good coach is someone who creates better athletes, they mix saying yes with no, they challenge but support the athlete , they set people up to succeed not fail, they do not take ownership of their athletes, they are not bullies, they provide answers some days but questions most days, they enhance without enabling, they draw a line in the sand of what is acceptable and what the cost will be to succeed. It helps if they know swim/bike/run and they must be prepared to give as much as they ask of their athletes some people get upset by the standards of a coach but they get much more upset by double standards. A good coach stands in the back ground and lets the athletes take the limelight when successful and when there is failure (And there is always failure) they protect the athletes. These are just my values. Athletes decide who are good coaches, as they keep going back. At the end of the day I look at my group and they are happy, healthy and they win races. I like that order and I hoe that makes me a good coach.

1 Comment
  1. TC is very fortunate to have a truly reflective and insightful coach like JH. Sport needs more Jono’s