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Triathlon and Leadership Principles

It’s a dark and brooding July morning in South Wales as I peer out of my hotel window at 6am and look down at The Prince of Wales Dock beneath me.  The water is dark, a stiff breeze is stirring the water, the air is cold and the gentle, but persistent rainfall is adding to an element of menace and danger.   

About 400 metres away, I can see the gantry for the start of the swim and a growing number of human “dots” shuffling around like an army of ants preparing for the day ahead.  I get myself ready to join the pack and finish off my Ironman 70.3 Swansea journey which started 16 weeks earlier with a “Rest Day” – the best day on any training programme. 

This isn’t my first Ironman 70.3 (and hopefully not my last) but I still feel the same as when I did my first one some 12 years ago – a mixture of excitement and apprehension.  I know I have done enough training and know what I am capable of, but I can’t predict everything that can happen once I hit the water at the start. 

In many ways, this is just like starting out in any leadership role – you can prepare yourself but you can’t be prepared for everything that comes along; what will get you through is “being you”. Triathlon and Leadership is often how you react to adverse situations and these reactions will generally define your performance. 

I have found that there are leadership principles that you can relate to triathlon which you may think is odd as triathlon is an individual event – these are: 

A Clear and Compelling Purpose (CCP)After a brutally honest self-assessment of my fitness and a look at the profile of the bike course, my CCP for the Ironman 70.3 was simple:  

To finish the event within 7 hours 15 minutes. 

All my training was based on this time limit and allowed for a little bit of “wriggle” room as the transitions (changing from swimming to cycling and cycling to running) vary and there is always the threat of the dreaded flat tyre.  Having this CCP allowed me to keep focused throughout the training and to deal correctly with the distractions that come along the way – whether these be related to the actual event or other “Life” issues.  In the same way, whilst in a Leadership roles, having a CCP will allow you to focus or refocus when distractions come along.   

Pause and Allow. Schedule time in your training and your event to have a rest and take stock.  Whilst training we always want to see a gradual improvement but sometimes it just doesn’t happen; there will be peaks and troughs and I have found that taking a few days off during the training can make you come back stronger.  Every Leader should do the same; set time in the calendar for some “thinking” time and to reflect on how things are progressing.  During the event, I will free wheel for a bit on the bike or walk through the drinks station on the run.  I use this time to refuel and assess where I am in relation to my “Clear and Compelling Purpose”.  Sometimes, this even means slowing down; it is no good being 30 mins faster on the bike if, by expending the extra effort, that results in you taking 45 minutes longer on the run. 

Respect and Dignity.  Clearly you aren’t leading a team of people in a triathlon but the principles of how you treat your kit apply to how you should treat your team.  In triathlon, the bike ride is where the largest window opportunity for failure exists yet many triathletes take the bikes for granted and treat it with little or no respect; when it all goes wrong, they then blame their bike.  If you have a high performing bike that suddenly starts slipping or going sluggish during training, ignoring it won’t help and eventually it will stop working – normally at the worst possible moment on the day of the event.   

This is no different to a highly performing team member that starts to underperform – ignoring the changes and hoping things will sort themselves out doesn’t normally work, just like your bike!  The issues will become worse and the team member will then become ineffective at a key moment.  Addressing the issue doesn’t mean that there won’t be disruption in the short term, but it will greatly reduce the chances of long-term damage.  Listen to your team, treat them with respect and dignity and give them the opportunity to excel – just like your bike!

Back to the event.  The swim went well even though there was jellyfish everywhere – nobody mentioned them in the pre-race brief!  As I was getting ready to go on the bike, the rain started to fall a bit heavier, and I decided to put a waterproof Gillet on – what a good move.  After 10 mins of cycling the heavens opened and for the next 3 hours it absolutely poured down – to coin a phrase, I was “wetter than an Otter’s pocket”.  This turned the first 35 miles of the cycle into an absolute slog as, in addition to the rain, it was mainly uphill, into a headwind and the few downhills were treacherous.  All the time – I had to focus on my CCP and not panic trying to make up time which ultimately would have been detrimental. 

However, the rain began to ease, the uphills got fewer and the wind was now behind us.  Cycling got easier and I made it back into the second transition pretty much on schedule. 

Onto the run and the challenge of a half marathon!  As  the afternoon moved on, the sun got hotter and the wind got stronger.  The only plus was that for half of the run course there was a tailwind but the other half… 

By now, I was down to running between the drinks stations and walking through them whilst taking on some drink and food.  At each station, I would keep moving forward and just have a couple of seconds to gather my thoughts before the next bout of running.  After spending nearly 4 hours submerged in water, it was ironic that I now needed water pouring over me to keep me cool.   

The finish line was an immense feeling of relief and satisfaction – the day had thrown up challenges of which I had no control over – Jellyfish, torrential rain, strong winds and treacherous roads but I stuck to my plan and finished in 7hrs 3 mins!  Only a mere 3 hours behind the winner but their “Clear and Compelling Purpose” would have been different to mine! 

I can thank Neil Jurd’s “Leadership Book” for identifying the leadership principles that I have used in many endurance events over the years without knowing – but the blood, sweat, tears, memories and laughs are all mine though. 

Tony Armstrong – beer lover, social triathlete and fading endurance runner* 

* The order is interchangeable depending on the time of year 🙂