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The Curious Case Of Darren Smith

  • By Courtney Baird
  • Published Jun 12, 2012
  • Updated Jun 19, 2012 at 12:15 PM UTC

Everyone will tell you that you can’t make a swimmer out of a runner or a runner out of a swimmer. But coach Darren Smith never cared much about what “everyone” says, anyway.

This article originally appeared in the March/April 2012 issue of Inside Triathlon magazine. Since its publication, Barbara Riveros Diaz has changed coaches and six of Darren Smith’s athletes have qualified for the 2012 London Olympics.

This past fall America got a visit from an iconoclastic Australian triathlon coach.

He chose the mountain town of Sedona, Ariz., as his base for four and a half weeks from late September to October, as Sedona provides his preferred elevation—around 4,300 feet—and has great pool facilities, which were open to his group of elite ITU athletes.

On any particular day during this training camp you would find this coach—a bespectacled, soft-spoken Ph.D. in sport physiology who often walks around with a few sunscreen streaks on his face—constantly watching, critiquing, analyzing and talking to his athletes. His voice is gentle, he is never afraid to laugh, and yet he is always firm with his demands.

“Andi, I think we said no elbows,” he remarked to an athlete during a Pilates session, calmly, and with his characteristic accent, a mix between something you’d find in Australia and England. It’s the result, he says, of the six years he spent in his late teens and early 20s with a British girlfriend.

I was lucky enough to get to know this coach when I visited him and the athletes on his squad who were attending the late-season camp. I didn’t know what to expect, but I had heard a lot about him from his athletes.

What I discovered is that he is the most hands-on, attentive coach I have ever met in my 22 years in the endurance sports community.

While in Sedona I witnessed him overseeing four swim workouts among four athletes in four lanes. I observed him filming the swim strokes of his athletes with a camera and then immediately showing it to them and asking them to adjust. I spotted him rummaging through a basket of kickboards and then selecting the perfect one for a drill that teaches his athletes to swim with their hips and not their arms. I observed him riding a mountain bike next to an athlete who was running a fartlek workout, talking to him about his stride and ensuring he was applying force properly, among other things. And I watched him ride with his athletes among Sedona’s striking red-rock mountains, talking as he pedaled. Every workout I observed, there he was—critiquing, analyzing, watching—as his athletes went about their business.

“The very first month I joined [his squad] there were runs where he was riding his bicycle next to me, constantly giving me feedback. I found it insanely irritating,” said American Sarah Groff with a laugh. “But over the long run that persistence has paid off.”

This persistent man is Darren Smith, or “Coach Daz,” as his athletes—Groff, Anne Haug of Germany, Lisa Norden of Sweden, Kate Roberts of South Africa, Barbara Riveros Diaz of Chile, Vicky Holland of Great Britain, Andi Giglmayr of Austria, and Bart Aernouts of Belgium—often call him.

Smith has received very little media attention during his career, and today he works mostly under the radar in Canberra, Australia, and Davos, Switzerland, two places that he and his squad split their time between.

But if you delve into his credentials you’ll discover that he’s one of the most successful coaches in triathlon today, and many of his current athletes are among the finest short-course athletes on the planet.

Smith, 45, coached his first international triathlete in 1993, and since then he has worked with many of the sport’s superstars, including Ironman champion Catriona Morrison, former long-course world champion Bella Bayliss, Swiss Olympian Daniela Ryf, Canadian Olympian Carolyn Murray, Kate Allen after her gold medal at the 2004 Athens Olympics, and others.

He spent the early years of his career coaching in Australia before becoming head coach of Triathlon Scotland. There, he built a program out of nothing, and many of the kids he coached are still racing with distinction today, including Morrison and Bayliss.

Jack Maitland, head coach to world Nos. 1 and 2 Alistair and Jonathan Brownlee, was quoted in The Winning Zone magazine about Smith’s time in Scotland: “It was late in my triathlon career when a Scottish coach was appointed, Darren Smith. I learned so much from him in a very short period that I should have learned a long time before. My eyes were opened to what a difference a coach can make to an athlete.”

Smith’s success stems largely from his laser focus on technique, something he believes is more important than anything else and must be mastered, even if fitness gains are put on hold for a time.

When he first began working with Sweden’s Lisa Norden in 2007, for example, she wanted to immediately train very hard, like she was used to, but Smith held her back and instead concentrated on improving her technical skills, which were lacking, especially in the swim.

“A lot of coaches are a bit scared of investing the time, because you can’t train really hard and swim really hard and work on your skill,” Norden said. “At times I was frustrated because he held me back. I wanted to go hard. ‘You will,’ he said. ‘You have to get this [technique] right first. Put in the time, invest in basics, and then add on volume and speed.’”

The investment paid off. Under Smith, Norden went from an “average athlete,” as she would tell you, to a 2008 Olympian, the 2010 sprint world champion, winner of World Championship Series races in Hamburg, Germany, and Yokohama, Japan, the overall silver medalist in the 2009 World Championship Series, the overall bronze medalist in 2010, and the 2011 Hy-Vee champion, which earned her $151,500 in prize money.

Groff had a similar experience and improvement under Smith. Prior to working with him, she said she was a “meathead” of sorts—someone who believed that as long as you put in the work, technique be damned, you’d see the results.

But when it came to racing, she had a hard time dealing with anxiety and managing stress, zapping her energy before her races even started. She was terrified of riding in a pack, had terrible bike-handling skills, and her run form was less than desirable.

“I was absolutely scared to death of technical pack riding, and it was a massive source of anxiety, so that by the time it came to the run, I was so drained of energy that I could never execute on the fitness that I was carrying going into that race,” Groff said. “It was like starting the run at 60 percent.”

Over the two years she’s worked with Smith they’ve managed her pre-race anxiety by limiting variables, mapping out everything that needs to be done on race day and leaving little to chance.

“We’ve just taken a very strategic approach to racing where the more formulaic it is, the fewer variables, the fewer areas of stress,” Groff said. “Like, before the race having a really set procedure of check-in and transition and everything pretty much down to the minute and very well-planned.”

They’ve also improved her bike-handling skills and running form, and even tweaked her swim stroke—something Groff wasn’t on board with at first, given her background as a swimmer. (In fact, Groffy, as Smith calls Groff, wasn’t on board with much when she first joined the squad, as they initially butted heads.)

“Over the course of two years we’ve been trying to clean up my stroke,” Groff said recently. “Actually, this morning we took a look at some video of my swimming, and it has definitely changed.”

But perhaps most important, Smith insisted that Groff become “process oriented” instead of “outcome oriented,” as he insists with all of his athletes.

He gives his athletes a scorecard of items to focus on during any race—such as getting in a proper warm-up, drinking all of their fluids, leaning into a corner on the bike the proper way, having a good transition and ensuring they’re running with the right form.

Instead of focusing on other athletes and what they are doing—i.e. what place they are in—he has his athletes focus on checking off everything on their scorecard and racing to the best of their ability. If they do so, he is happy, and he expects they should be too, even if they finish 50th.

But the funny thing about the scorecard is, if the athlete focuses on ticking off all the boxes in the scorecard instead of what her competitors are doing, the outcome will likely take care of itself.

I got a firsthand look at a scorecard discussion while I was in Sedona, when Smith sat down with Jesse Featonby, an athlete from Australia who was in Smith’s squad for a brief period last year. Featonby, who sported a blond faux-hawk and a Mossimo shirt, walked into Smith’s condo with a piece of paper on which he had written out a few process-oriented items he was to concentrate on during the second World Cup of his career, in Huatulco, Mexico. He and Smith discussed being aggressive at the swim start but not racing so hard that he is completely gassed by the first buoy; not allowing his arms to cross over in his swim stroke; properly managing the bike course’s U-turns; riding in the most energy-efficient position in the pack; properly preparing his gears for each lap’s two hills; doing everything in his power to get to the first bike pack if he misses it out of T1; being aggressive about getting into a good position into T2; adding a little extra salt in his pre-race hydration strategy to combat Huatulco’s notorious heat; and using every opportunity to be efficient, including with his running stride.

It’s these sort of discussions—ones that distinguish a difference between process and outcome—that have been especially important for Groff, Smith said, something that became crystal clear to him after her disappointing performance at the 2010 World Championship Series Grand Final in Budapest, Hungary.

Prior to the race, Smith says she was the best prepared she had been all year. But she was focusing on outcome and not on process, and by the time T2 rolled around, she didn’t even know what lap she was on in the bike, he said. She placed 28th.

“So it was clear to me that we had more work to do and it wasn’t physical,” Smith said. “It was psychological. In the way we were going to approach races and keep things clean and not get caught up in all that B.S. of expectation.”

This focus on technique and process has transformed Groff from a moderately successful ITU athlete to the overall bronze medalist in the 2011 World Championship Series and a 2012 London Olympics qualifier, making 2011 the best season of her life despite not being in the best shape of her life.

PHOTOS: Darren Smith

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