Joel Filliol has been the Canadian Olympic coach and more recently served as the head coach for British Triathlon. He surprisingly left that position earlier this year and we chatted with him to see what he is up to these days.
Slowtwitch: Joel, quite a bit has happened in your world since we talked last in March of 2008.
Joel: Back around March 2008 I was right in the thick of the build up to the Beijing Olympics; with all the blood, sweat and tears that is necessary when you totally commit to a goal. The result was the high of the brilliant silver medal performance from Canadian legend Simon Whitfield, with support from Colin Jenkins; and the low of Lauren Groves (now Campbell) crashing and breaking bones, unable to finish the race. There was also the post Olympic blues and soul searching, what happens now moments after build up to and completing an all-consuming project. And ultimately the decision to take on the British Triathlon head coaching role in March 2009; and two years overseeing the rise of Alistair and Jonny Brownlee, and evolution of Helen Jenkins to the top of the world rankings. Finally reaching the decision that the role in GB wasn’t what I was happy doing, and another big decision to step down before London, and returning to Canada.
ST: Where are you actually as we speak?
Joel: I’m now back in beautiful Victoria British Columbia. Although I didn’t have any ties here, it was a natural choice when I knew I would be coming back to Canada. Victoria is a great sporting city, and we are fortunate to have good facilities with our two 50m pools, crystal and commonwealth, great lakes for summer swimming, and fantastic trail running.
ST: It was stunning to hear when you left your coaching job at British Triathlon and to this day it still seemed to have happened out of the blue.
Joel: It was a big decision to step down from the head coach job with Great Britain. I knew it was right for me personally, but it was difficult to decide to part ways with the athletes and coaches mid-way through the process of the build to London 2012. Back in early 2009 it didn’t all get off to the smoothest start. It was always going to be interesting having a new personality come into a system with baggage like any sports program does, and a foreign one at that, but over time those relationships grew stronger so leaving those behind was the hardest part.
With huge athletic talent, massive resources, and the momentum of success leading into a home Olympics, being the head coach for the GB leading into the home Games should have been my dream job. The reality was different, and it was a something that I realized early on, but it was something that could only be experienced to really understand. It built up over the two years there, and wasn’t about any one issue, but the sum of everything together resulting in the knowledge that I just wasn’t doing my greatest work. It was always going to be a different and challenging task to be in the non-personal coaching role. The program wasn’t set up in a way where I could make the most impact toward the performance goals, and that meant every day I was working in a way that wasn’t consistent with my beliefs about what we needed to be doing, and I wasn’t prepared to simply go through the motions.
ST: It though appears the British Triathlon program is doing quite well. Do you feel pride when you see what has been achieved or a bit of sadness that you can't quite see the fulfillment?
Joel: I don’t feel the same pride about the successes of the British program as I do being at the coal face as a personal coach with athletes. Going through the trial of miles, and miles of trials together with an athlete is what drives me as a coach. However, the role of a coach isn’t necessarily to be there for the whole journey with athlete. Providing support in different ways to athletes based on what is needed at the time is part of the job. If I played a small part in the current success of some of the British athletes I was fortunate enough to work with then I am happy for that, and will be equally happy to see these athletes continue to be successful without my involvement, provided they are finishing behind the athletes I am currently advising.
It’s been really interesting to be able to look under the hood of the success of the British program to get an understanding of what is really behind that success. Great athletes will always find a way to be successful regardless of what goes on around them, whether their federations are getting it right or wrong. There are some systematic things that have been done well in the UK, primarily creating and supporting opportunities for athletes to get involved and develop in the sport. Having places for athletes to develop, whether that be clubs, or organized camps, and competition tours all helps tremendously. Triathlon is a young sport so most federations are still figuring out the best way to develop talent, and to support those athletes who are currently performing at a high level. The British Olympic program has evolved over the last couple of years and my hope is there is a legacy of my approach whereby the top performers are supported in ways that are uniquely customized for them, and that they are seen as equal partners in this process. These are subtle changes in many ways, but it’s about walking the talk of an athlete centered / coach driven program. Real shared accountability is rare in sport, and very hard to achieve, so my hope is this way of working remains while maintaining an overall program vision and leadership.
ST: How beatable are the Brownlee brothers, and who or what is the biggest threat to them?
Joel: The Brownlees are not very different than most other athletes. The biggest threat to their continued success is simply staying out their own way. The challenges are whether they stay healthy and injury free, can they continue to progress and evolve, and will they make good decisions leading into the games as far as what is really important to get right?
They will face the pressure that comes with being true Olympic favorites, both from their own expectations and also significant external influences, particularly off the back of their successes in 2011 and London being a home games. The Olympics is a totally different race going in with the expectation that winning is a real possibility, but the Brownlees have shown they can handle this pressure well thus far.
The Brownlees have a lot going for them, they can swim, bike and run at the very front, and they race without fear, and that counts for a lot.
ST: What is your opinion on the talent of Lukas Verzbicas?
Joel: My advice for all involved is to keep perspective. Lukas is a fast runner for his age, and one of the best high school runners ever from the USA. However he’s not a significantly faster runner than those who have come before him in triathlon and compared to those are out racing the circuit currently. He also needs to develop his swim and bike, and move up to double the distance. So patience from all involved is warranted lest his development be derailed by focusing on anything else aside from simply patiently and progressively developing as a complete triathlon, and eliminating the distractions like what we have seen surrounding him recently.
ST: Should he have stayed in Oregon?
Joel: With the aim of developing as a world-class triathlete, Lukas made the right decision. Running in college risks injury and missed time to develop as a complete triathlete. It takes time to develop the swim and cycling abilities, as well as continuing to move the run forward. There is no shortcut there - an athlete can put in the time now, or later, but later risks that it will never happen. The further Lukas went solely as a runner, the less chance of him making the transition back to triathlon and achieving his potential. While many of the top American triathletes have come through the college system and gone on to success in international triathlon, there are also many who have never been heard from again. Lukas has the opportunity to get a high level of support while developing as a triathlete, an opportunity that didn’t exist in the same way as for Hunter, Jarrod, et al, so provided he surrounds himself with the right team, and keeps his head down, and works hard, he’ll go farther in triathlon than he would in running.
ST: What does the next generation of US and Canadian Olympic triathletes look like? Is there hope for the future?
Joel: I’m found of Arthur Lydriard’s quote “champions are all around us, all we have to do is train them properly”. Talent really is all around us, so the challenge is about what can be done to develop that talent. Both Canada and the US need to create more opportunities for athletes to get involved in high performance triathlon programs, and stay involved long enough to develop toward world-class levels.
Much like cycling, Olympic triathlon is going to become more European centric, there are simply more opportunities in a smaller area for high level competition, learning, and sharing knowledge and accelerating development. So North Americans need to look at what the Australians and New Zealanders have been doing for years, which is setting up in Europe, making it a second home and creating opportunities for their athletes. The sooner that really happens the more Canada and American talent will come to the top of the sport. The whole 10 year ‘rule’ doesn’t work in a sport like triathlon, once athletes reach a certain stage of development, there is 2-3 years for most to achieve ‘enough’ success that they can move up through the system, get access to more resources, and earn enough performance well enough to justify continued commitment.
Finally, any real advantage in sport is about learning and implementing faster than everyone else. Not one federation is currently getting athlete support and development right, so the opportunity is there to get a step ahead. It will take real vision and leadership to make it happen, but the potential is there. It’s a simple formula - support the best coaches to work with the best athletes, and do this in as many places as possible. Sports science is sexy and ticks the boxes that federations use to gain funding and support, but great coaches will make winning happen consistently and rely less on chance that it will work out. Hope is a terrible performance strategy, yet many countries are essentially relying on hope that they will find a great athlete and the right things will happen, and costly errors will be avoided, vs. taking control and making great performances happen.
ST: Quite a few folks have wanted you to be their coach over the years, but other obligations have prevented you from doing so. Is that all different now?
Joel: Yes and no – both my contracts with Triathlon Canada and British Triathlon were exclusive to their nominated athletes, and now that I am back coaching independently I am free to work with a variety of athletes whom I find interesting and am fortunate to have filled up the time I’m allocating to personal coaching for 2012.
ST: Who made you the coach you are today?
Joel: The biggest impact on my development as a coach has been the athletes I’ve been fortunate enough to work with and learn from. Putting together many ‘experiments of one’ into a variety of different coaching experiences has challenged me to learn faster many times. Being in the right place at the right time helps also, but as the biggest influences; it’d be hard to look past Simon Whitfield, from training with him as a teenager, to learning from him for over a decade, and being in a position to work with him from Athens to Beijing. Victoria was a great place to develop as a coach, I was able to learn with so many internationals that have come through from Greg and Laura Bennett, to Hamish Carter, and Terrenzo Bozzone. I recall one workout around the infamous ‘waddling dog’ time trial loop in Victoria where we had Simon, Greg, Bevan Docherty, Hamish, and even Craig Walton and Emma Snowsill all doing efforts at around the same time. What a great opportunity to soak up that collective knowledge.
Of course ST’s own Jordan Rapp, from his first visits out to train with me and my squad in 2005 ish, he always made me think and inspired to be better prepared and look at the fine details that go into the preparation of the complete athlete.
ST: Which coaches do you have respect for.
Joel: As far as coaches, I respect coaches who have the passion to pursue high performance and find a way to make it happen with or without any external support. The best find a way to do it, and do it for the right reasons. They don’t wait around for a job to be offered to them, but are out creating these environments and doing it their way, and show their work through the consistent performance of their athletes over time.
ST: Anything else new and exciting?
Joel: I am happy to have the opportunity to be working with a great group of athletes for 2012. I’m privileged to be in a position to be able support a trio of potential Canadian Olympians with Kyle Jones, Lauren Campbell and Kirsten Sweetland, all based in Victoria, and whom I worked with earlier in their careers. Internationals with Olympic goals are Helle Frederiksen from Denmark, and my partner Kerry Lang from Scotland. I’m also enjoying working with Ironman winners Chris McDonald and Hillary Biscay toward changing up their performances. In addition I’ve got a fun and inspiring mix of ambitious amateur athletes with goals ranging from Kona qualifiers to just getting faster.
So I’m very much stuck into the day-to-day coaching process and loving it.