Technical Grasp of Sport

I polled you all a couple of weeks go, asking what you thought was the important element for success, in a 70.3 or longer, for both pros and age group racers. I listed 8 factors, all of which I felt were important. You (the aggregate you) were less likely to chose “Technical Grasp of Sport” than any of the 8 elements, as you considered which was the most important.

I wouldn’t have chosen it either as the most important, but I do rank the Technical Grasp of Sport more highly than either Financial Means or the Specific Training Regime you employ. Those two elements were selected as most important by more of you than Technical Grasp of Sport.

This virtue, Technical Grasp of Sport, isn’t as important as work ethic, if you’re talking about success in a half-distance triathlon. But let’s consider the swim leg by itself. Lionel Sanders (above) had all the work ethic you’d ever want, and more. He had genetic traits, and the time to train. What he didn’t have was the technical grasp of swimming. Until he did! Gaining that technical grasp of swimming is the most obvious difference between his being a contender in Kona versus when he wasn’t.

How do I justify ranking Technical Grasp of Sport above, say, Specific Training Regime? Let us say you prefer power-based training over heart rate-based training for your cycling. I believe a technical knowledge of cycling; how to adjust your derailleurs and change your tires; being properly positioned aboard your bike; how to negotiate descents; add up to being more important than the metric you use to gauge your effort (power versus heart rate).

When I used to coach athletes I’d say to a particular contestant, “You’re fighting for the top 3 places in this race.” “But there are 6 who have better times than I do,” might be the rebuttal. “Yes, but 3 of those 6 will beat themselves.” Yes, I was talking about athletes who were well trained, had expensive equipment, and had big hearts and big engines. Nevertheless, their equipment broke; they crashed; they got injured because of a bad bike position (there’s a case that could be made that this is what happened to a high profile athlete in this year’s Hawaiian Ironman World Championship).

Way too often in triathlon equipment malfunction, really isn’t equipment malfunction: it is really user or pilot error blamed on equipment. If bikes, saddles, wheels and equipment were properly maintained, used, fitted, chosen we wouldn’t see the chain suck, broken chains, broken wheels, cranks and pedal cleats falling off and so forth half as often as we do. Injuries in run, swim and bike are often due to a lack of the technical understanding of sport; lack of the right bike or footwear tech (to be clear: not sufficiently pricey tech; but the manifestly wrong tech for that athlete). And, of course, the notorious doping bust. “But my doctor prescribed it!” Or the bike course penalty. You were banned, penalized, or disqualified because understanding your sport just wasn’t on your radar.

Lack of technical knowledge not only bedevils the racer but the casual cyclist. How many rides are ruined or aborted because a rider doesn’t know how to change a tire? Replace a chain and/or a cassette when the chain begins to skip?

I’m just getting warmed up! If I go further I’ll start to sound disgruntled. I’m not. I’m just an observer, and this is some of what I’ve observed over the years. This isn't gender-specific. The best women in triathlon are technically good at their sport; they have a technical understanding of it; they are often the equal or better than males in this regard.

A lack of technical knowledge of your sport won’t necessarily keep you from the podium. Still, it’s uncanny to me how rank beginners like Andy Potts and Lionel Sanders got very good, very quickly, and just as quickly picked up a technical understanding of all three legs of triathlon. They each became students of their craft, rather than remaining ignorant of one or more of triathlon’s legs. This is a large part of how they got good.

Our own Jordan Rapp (above) neither swam, ran or rode a bike in any competitive sense until he decided to compete in triathlon, and rose to the level of U.S. Ironman Champion and ITU Long Course World Champion. Per simply my observation Jordan’s virtues were: intellectual curiosity of sport; willingness to accept the tutelage of others; and a big work ethic.

But there are 5 elements important to success more important than this one.