Coach Paulo Sousa steps up

Coach Paulo Sousa is only days away from the first training camp with his new Elite Triathlete Squad in Las Cruces, NM. The outspoken Portuguese is stepping up to coaching full-time and shared some thoughts with slowtwitch.

Slowtwitch: Thanks for the chat Paulo.

Paulo: No problem Herbert, I am always available to Slowtwitch, as long as it’s not over the phone.

ST: You recently got apparently married, so what is next?

Paulo: Apparently? I got de facto married back in December! Right now I am living in Nashville, TN and waiting for my wife Heidi to graduate so that we can move somewhere warmer and sunnier. I have no idea why they call this “The South.”

ST: What warmer places are you and Heidi looking at closer? Or is that too far out?

Paulo: She’s a California girl, so she would like to go back home. We will decide on a location that offers her a post-doc and from where I can operate the Squad.

ST: Talking about warmer places, are you ready for that first Elite Squad camp in Las Cruces?

Paulo: YES! Very excited to finally meet the athletes and have the chance of doing some real coaching. The point of forming the Squad was to be able to work with the athletes on the field, so I can’t wait to get to camp and get the work done.

ST: Why Las Cruces?

Paulo: The first answer is “why not?” Where does it say that if you’re in the US and you’re a triathlete, the only acceptable places to train are Boulder, San Diego or Tucson? Las Cruces, NM is perfect for triathlon training. It’s got a small size and roads with very low traffic. People in Southern NM are very friendly. We have access to a great pool complex, with an outdoor 50m pool and 25yd indoor pool. Right next to the pool there is a track, and within 10min you can hit a varied network of running trails. But what I like more about Las Cruces is the stuff that it doesn’t have. It doesn’t have a Whole Foods or a Trader Joe’s. It doesn’t have a Walgreen’s every mile. It doesn’t have (a lot of) self-entitled people thinking they are their roads, not yours. So to sum it up, it doesn’t have the amenities usually sought by the lifestylers in triathlon. You go there because you want a great place to focus on training and being the best you can be. And this is why I like it.

ST: If we understand it correctly, the first camp is actually still part of the selection process.

Paulo: Formally yes, in the sense that having the athletes working together and seeing how they interact in a group environment is an important aspect of the project. There is always the chance that some athlete won’t fit with the group dynamics I am going to implement. In that case, he or she will have to be let go from the Squad. I don’t have a fixed number of athletes in mind for the squad, and the squad remains open to all those athletes that are ready to embrace our core values and our vision.

ST: What actually instigated the concept of the Elite Squad to begin with?

Paulo: Well, the idea of forming an elite Squad here in the US has been on my mind for a long time. From 2000-2005 I had a squad of athletes back in Portugal, and when you’re running a group of athletes and work with them on a daily basis, the possibilities are endless. Since moving to the US, I have missed the daily contact with the athletes, and have grown increasingly frustrated with what I could do at a distance. There is a ceiling of what I can do from my laptop, and I got tired of hitting my head on that ceiling. Finally at the end of the summer of last year, a lot of circumstances, both personal and professional, made the launching of this project possible. I have to thank Joel Filliol for constantly instigating me to go out there and be a “real coach”. He was a great help in brainstorming the initial concept for the squad, as was very helpful a chat I had with Darren Smith in London when we were there for the WCS. Darren told me about his experience of starting a squad from a reduced group of athletes and no support from anyone, and slowly building it through a lot of hard work. So getting support from these two great coaches certainly helped me move forward and take this step.

ST: So does this mean that you basically decided to give up your University gig?

Paulo: Not give up, but basically put it on hold. I still have some work that needs to be published, so I will focus on putting things into writing. I would also like to keep working on subjects that interest me as scientific challenges.

ST: Were you surprised to see that since you talked about this concept in early October that more efforts like this have come up by other coaches since?

Paulo: Not really, because the triathlon coaching market is very competitive, and there are a lot of coaches out there that thought that exploring a remotely similar concept would be a good way to expand their business. But I would like to point out that those “efforts” like you called them don’t even come close to the level of commitment that myself, but especially the athletes in the Squad are putting in. The Squad is a high-performance project that demands full-time and long-term commitment from those in it, and it is at an entirely different level from having a bunch of athletes in a “team” where they get free Gatorade, or having elite development athletes hang out with the pros for a week.

ST: What would you say makes your coaching philosophy unique?

Paulo: I wouldn't call my coaching philosophy unique. I have a no-nonsense, evidence-based approach to triathlon training, which is very simple and pragmatic. I wish similar approaches were the mainstream to tell you the truth. You really don't have to re-invent the wheel, you just need to spin it the right way. Unfortunately, in an effort to distinguish themselves in the market, too many coaches try to have an angle that is unique to them. So you have the "recovery coach," the "low-HR coach" and the "high-intensity coach" - when what should be distinguishing coaches should be results and not marketing.

ST: You are coaching quite a few individuals too. Is that still so and how does the squad impact those folks?

Paulo: My individual athletes have a lot to profit from the Squad. First off, with my full focus in triathlon, I do have more time for them. Second, they have privileged access to the Squad’s training camps. At this first training camp, I will have a few of my individual athletes, both age-group and pros, join the Squad and take advantage of training with a large group of very committed individuals.

ST: Last season you were coaching Simon Whitfield, but what is the nature of your relationship right now?

Paulo: At the present time I am not coaching Simon. Last year I was coaching at a distance Simon, Kyle Jones and a few other Canadians, and this was actually one of the main motivations to make the jump to real coaching. It was an up-and-down year, with a lot of high points like Simon’s 5th place at WCS Sydney, Kyle’s 13th place at Hy-Vee or both of them sprinting for the win at Canadian Nationals, but with some low points like Simon’s accident in Germany that prevented him from racing at the WCS Final in Budapest. Coaching at the highest level of the sport is an incredible challenge that demands a full-time commitment. The level of racing is equivalent to racing Kona every month for Ironman athletes. It got to be pretty hard to coach athletes at that level from my laptop, even if I interacted with them online on a daily basis and personally several times throughout the season. I’m still friends with Simon (and the rest of the crew in Victoria) and we talk on a daily basis. We consult often with each other. Simon has a high “triathlon-IQ” and is a great source of knowledge and experience in the sport, and I know he values my opinion in all things triathlon.

ST: How would you describe your coaching style?

Paulo: Have you watched Full Metal Jacket? Just kidding… It is difficult for me to describe myself, but I would say that as a coach I am fully focused on the goals and what it needs to be done to achieve them. I believe the coach should determine the path to success, and be ready to intervene whenever the process deviates from that path. In order for that intervention to be successful, the coach needs to have the “right” relationship with the athlete. I believe a lot of coaches try to achieve a friendship relationship with the athlete, when that might not be the best. I believe it’s important to establish a professional relationship with the athletes, and maintain the relationship at that level. This doesn’t mean that I am not friends with my athletes, in fact I am friends with a lot of them, and have remained friends with a lot of athletes I’ve worked with in the past. But every athlete that I coach needs to realize that when push comes to shove and the proverbial matter hits the fan, I will not act like their friend, but as their coach.

ST: Are there too many coaches and how does an individual in the market for a coach find one who is worthy?

Paulo: I don’t think there are too many coaches, and the proof is that even in this recession, the coaching business is still going well. What I think is important to notice is that the coaches that exist are terrible: no knowledge, no experience, just a website and here’s my PayPal account. And I am leaving out the sellers of training plans or printouts of some macro, that’s not even coaching. For a person searching for coaching, they need to do their homework and find out two things about a coach: years of experience and results at the level the person competes. If your goal is to finish an Ironman, look for coaches that have years of experience at delivering what you’re looking for. If you’re an elite athlete, look for coaches that have a long track record at delivering at elite level.

ST: Do you know any other sport where as many athletes have a coach and should some triathletes just not bother along those lines and just go out and have fun?

Paulo: To each their own, live and let live and all that. You want to hire a coach, get a tattoo, buy a $10k bike - be my guest. I usually don’t get riled up in judging what triathletes do, even if some “habits” in the triathlon community are downright funny. But having fun is a huge part of sport, and I think we all should remind ourselves of this several times a day.

ST: Where do you see yourself in 5 years?

Paulo: Coaching in Rio de Janeiro 2016.

ST: Is there anything else we should know about you?

Paulo: Since this is Slowtwitch, I want take this chance to thank the forum community for all that it brought me these last 8 years. I’ve met a ton of incredible people throughout the years and made a lot of friends for life.

Paulo Sousa's site is: