Trimes Digs Libby Burrell – New High Performance Director for Triathlon Canada

188478_1932616080171_7688475_n[1]After London, Triathlon Canada had to make a change. It hired Libby Burrell as its new High-Performance (HP) Director. The South African successfully filled the same role for Triathlon South Africa and United States of America Triathlon before joining the International Triathlon Union as Director, sport development in 2006. From the start of her mandate, we have already seen change. From the outside, it’s getting easier to understand the actions of the federation. Trimes wanted to know more. Libby answered our questions.

What is your interaction with athletes? Are you going to regularly interact with them or just with their coaches.

It is my goal to have regular contact with the athletes and the coaches as far as possible. I believe this is essential to ensure that everyone gets heard and that the programs evolve around the needs of athletes and coaches with a view to a transparent HP model.

From my perspective, I know that some coaches don’t like HP directors because they get the feeling they are being judged and afraid to have a different coaching philosophy imposed upon them. What’s your take on this?
It goes with the territory I suppose.  I have always maintained that as a HPD I am not building a ‘fan club’ but rather a program that aims for sustained competitive excellence. As long as every decision one makes is in the best interest of HP ‘system excellence’ for the individual and the NF, you cannot go wrong.  It is when short term decisions are made just to please everyone’s immediate needs that the program often falters.

I revel in the differences coaches bring to the table. I believe it is in these differences that our strength lies so I totally refute that comment. If a coach comes to the table with good coaching ethics, strong scientific basis for what they do, a passion for High Performance and a total commitment to take Triathlon Canada back to the top of the world they are on ‘our’ team as far as I am concerned.  I judge only by those standards.

You have been HP director with USAT and South Africa. How different is the job with Canada?
Every country and every New Year brings different challenges but the objective stays the same. It remains a ‘constant search for excellence’ and a system that fosters that.

Are you going to have direct interaction with the athletes and the coaches? Is it limited to the athletes in team Canada (elite and dev)?
It is my goal to be involved at all levels with coaches and athletes although the Elite and Development Team programs will remain my focus.  Obviously at the outset of my new role I have been consumed with paperwork, strategic planning, staffing of programs and budgets.  I hope that as the programs kick in and the systems have been entrenched that it will allow me more time to interact with a broader cross section of coaches and athletes across Canada.

You were successful with USAT but when we know the popularity of triathlon in the United States, and the talent in NCAA swimming and Track & Field, it’s still hard to believe that, nowadays, they are not more dominant. Any idea as to why?
I do not think it is appropriate for me to comment on that but I do know that like all NF’s they are constantly searching for the answers to take them back to the top of the sport that they ‘invented’.

It’s relative, but Canada have already a great history in ITU and it’s quite amazing considering that the winter and the number of triathletes in the country. How do you explain this?
I believe the legacy drives the youth and Triathlon Canada has a great legacy. I was down with the NT/DT [NdR: National Team/ Development Team] in Clermont, Florida for our National Camp and the passion and the commitment of the next generation is tangible and something that has made me even more determined to build a system that serves them well.

After the London nightmare, one of the first things you said when accepting your new position was « we have to look at ourselves in the mirror. » It’s ironic, but it’s almost the best scenario for a new HP Director because people are going to be more receptive for dramatic changes in the organizations.

The end of a Quadrennial is a time that all NF’s take a look at themselves from all angles.  I believe that this is what we have been doing for the past seven months and will need to keep doing. One of the slogans that I remember from my days with the USOC is “It is not every four years, it is every day” and this is something that I take very seriously every day on the job.

What are your first actions we are going to see for 2013?
The most important aspect of the 2013 season will be the TEAM culture becoming a priority.  Other key areas are as follows:

  • The re-emergence of National Team Camps where athletes from across Canada train and work together in an environment conducive to excellence on all levels.
  • Establishing a base camp in Europe to allow our young athletes to live, train and race the very competitive European circuit.
  • Professional development opportunities for coaches.
  • Highly integrated Sport Science and Sport Medicine support (IST)

I suspect people are expecting major changes. We all know that if Paula Findlay was healthy and had won a medal in London, things would be the same. No?
Really any answer to that question would be speculation.  I have taken the lessons from the past and now my focus is entirely on the future – ‘looking ahead’ and planning day by day for that.

We currently have a strong development team with Yorke, Brown, Kretz, and Mislawchuk. We sometimes get the feeling that they need to compete more in Europe to race against the best. Wian Sullwald from South Africa who won the junior title in 2012 is a perfect example. He spent his summer in Europe racing Euro cup and WTS. For our Canadians, it’s really complicated because of the distance. But with strong juniors like Tyler Mislawchuk and Amélie Kretz, would it not better to have them race in Europe than in the National Teck series?
That is already in the 2013 – 2016 plans.  We will have a 10 week camp in Vitoria-Gasteiz, Spain leading into 2013 London World Championships. Head to head racing and training alongside world class training partners is something that is a priority in the new system.

At we are not in love with the Tri This program. What’s happening with that project?
The Tri This project has potential and is currently under review in terms of what we can deliver to the ‘discovered’ talent.  I predict we will see this evolve over the next few years into something very worthwhile.

Our major concern is that the program is still ignoring the cycling part of triathlon. Recently Laurent Vidal told us that you need to be at 7 (?) W/kg if you want to be able to run in WTS. Are you going to apply cycling standards in the future?
Here the key lies in Talent Transfer, Talent Detection and Talent Development. Clearly once talent is detected the process of development will determine the potential to deliver in terms of the Gold Medal Profile requirements for cycling.

Before being a HP director you were an elite athlete for South Africa. The last years seems to have accelerated the need to be a complete athlete to get success in WTS. Do you feel the sport is always changing?
I was a serious competitive athlete (swimmer and runner) before triathlon was ‘invented’ so I can hardly call myself an elite triathlete. I was however fortunate enough to coach several Olympic Triathletes over the years and can state categorically that I have seen the sport change almost from season to season in terms of what is required to be successful at a WTS level.  There is no doubt in my mind that you have to be a complete all round triathlete with an exceptional 10km run to make the podium in WTS events these days.

Great Britain currently enjoying quite a bit of success and has a promising future. They have a lot of financial resources and we see the success of their program in cycling. Do you think this approach could affect smaller countries and that the athletes could complain of a lack of resources if they compete in the future?
Over the years I have seen the sport grow rapidly among the ‘smaller’ nations and have seen no sign of things backing off.  I believe that as long as ITU keeps a strong development program and that the support to these nations in terms of coaching and technical education and equipment is ongoing, we will see the sport growing even further.

Currently, Triathlon Canada allows its athletes to choose their own training structure. Paula, Lauren and Kyle are with Joel Filliol. Elite athletes don’t train together anymore. Is it something we need to get used to? Do we want to bring back unity with our development athletes?
I am a firm believer in the high performance requirements of the daily training environment which includes strong groups of athletes training together and coaches being able to focus and dedicate their time on coaching delivery excellence.

This is something we are working on together with the NTC and the RTCs.  It is a work in progress and I suspect it will take a full season for us to get this back to where we want it but the results at the early season races are already showing we are moving in the right direction.

Our first National Team Camp of the 2013 season in Florida was a huge success where coaches and athletes worked side by side and the benefits of the team training approach were very evident. We look forward to another positive experience in Europe in the summer of 2013.

Our ‘Triathlon Canada System’ also supports podium potential athletes training with accredited independent coaches.  In the case of Kyle, Paula and Lauren they have an excellent program under the guidance of Joel Filliol where they get to train side by side with an international group of world class athletes.  We do not see this as being outside of the Triathlon Canada system but rather view it as a positive addition to it.

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