The Curious Case Of Darren Smith

Triathlon coach Darren Smith will send six (of a possible six) athletes to the 2012 London Olympics.

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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

Indeed, in early 2011 she was still dealing with the consequences of a broken sacrum from a bike accident and was unable to train, forcing her to miss a large portion of the squad’s base work on the bike.

“I still have a lot of fitness to be gained where we haven’t done tons of the hard work that I know we can do,” Groff said. “But he didn’t want me doing the hard work until I had the technical ability to execute it. So there’s this progression over time where we had to turn things back a bit, deal with technique before you can layer on the hard work. Or you’re going to end up with somebody being injured, or they revert back to their old patterns of inefficient running or what have you.”

The time I spent with Smith bore Groff’s words out. During a swim session in Sedona attended by Barbara Riveros Diaz, the 2011 sprint world champion who has worked with Smith since 2009, and squad newbie Anne Haug, Smith watched Haug closely. He was analyzing whether she could let Riveros go during a set where Haug was supposed to be swimming at 70 percent and Riveros was supposed to be going harder.

“Somebody’s supposed to be at 70 percent,” he remarked to Haug after she got a little overenthusiastic.

She settled down, though, and Smith said afterward that he was “pleased” that Haug could do exactly what she needed to do without worrying about others.

Smith also remarked that he will stop a swim workout if he feels that an athlete is too tired to keep swimming with proper technique.

“Instead of doing 2K of rubbish, it’s better to turn up later and do another 3K of value,” he said.

During another swim workout, Smith mentioned that he had changed Riveros’ scheduled morning bike ride to a run because it was particularly frigid that day and when it comes to Riveros, “If it’s too cold on the bike, the swim is just going to be worthless,” he said.

He then went on to help Haug get the feeling of using her entire forearm as a paddle instead of just her hands, giving her the “anti-paddle”—a paddle that forces you to slice through the water as if you were swimming with fists—to accommodate her in this endeavor.

All the while, he was constantly watching, analyzing and scanning his athletes from various different positions—atop a starting block, crouched near their heads. He stopped his athletes often and critiqued them on everything from how relaxed their hands were to the frequency of their kick to a subtle movement in an athlete’s fingers.

“[Darren] has a good eye for what actually needs to be addressed and he’s willing to tell an athlete that without worrying about hurting their feelings,” Groff said. “If you can listen to it, then it’s all good stuff.”

To put it another way, Smith isn’t afraid to ruffle feathers.

“[Darren] always thought I wasn’t pushing myself hard enough,” squad member Andi Giglmayr said. “He was quite tough on me in the first year, especially—quite tough. I found it a bit unfair at the beginning sometimes, but now I see he was doing it not because he likes someone more or less—it’s his way of getting the best out of each person.”

It’s this detail-oriented attitude and individual attention that has allowed Smith to accomplish something that most would say is impossible: morphing non-swimmers into strong swimmers on the ITU circuit, where, unlike in Ironman, swimming is of utmost importance and can be the difference between first and 30th. The success of Norden and Riveros, who both lacked swim backgrounds, are case in point.

“Darren is a true professional in making especially short triathletes with no swim backgrounds into really good open-water swimmers, and swimming is my worst discipline,” Haug said in explaining why she recently joined the group. “Now I’m on the best squad in the world with the best coach.”

Many of Smith’s athletes who lack swim backgrounds have similar words of praise.

“I went from being a really bad swimmer to someone who, like this year in Mooloolaba, I was out of the water and immediately with the first pack,” said Giglmayr, who has been working with Smith since mid-2009. “It’s a big improvement.”

But getting on Smith’s squad to potentially make these sorts of improvements is no easy task.

Before anyone is allowed to join the squad, Smith screens the athlete, ensuring that they will contribute to the squad just as much as they will benefit from it—and that they won’t disrupt the all-important yet tenuous environment within which his athletes train, an environment where his athletes espouse to his core values: honesty, hard work and innovation.

But beyond the values that Smith feels his athletes must adopt, he also believes that an environment conducive to success and happiness is one where he is always egalitarian.

“As soon as there is a suggestion that there’s favorites, then it all goes pear-shaped (goes wrong) very quickly,” Smith said. “So guess what? I don’t do favorites. Never have, never will. Everyone is special. Nobody is more special.

“And also I think very clearly and carefully about who I allow into the squad,” he continued. “I know the whole dynamic of a squad or a business. Your office will change if you have a bad egg, somebody who is too selfish or just has the wrong way of operating. I’m the same. So it’s certainly not worth my while, is it, to have somebody who is very talented but who is a rat bag. I just don’t go there.”

The group environment was often the topic of discussion among Smith and two young coaches he invited to tag along with him in Arizona: Tom Bennett, head of T2Coaching who works with athletes out of London, and Zane Castro, who coaches Olympic hopefuls out of Austin, Texas.

When the athletes were resting between workouts, Smith, Bennett and Castro were in their shared condo sitting around a dining table, lost in conversation about how to make themselves and their athletes better, including how to improve their environments.

“Most squads will have one or two lead athletes, but with Darren’s squad you’ve got a number of potential Olympic medal contenders,” said Bennett, who was also in Sedona to serve as the squad’s on-site massage therapist. “As a coach, Darren works hard to balance each athlete’s needs and individual personalities on a daily basis—not favoring one over the other.”

Smith also never coaches more than one athlete of the same sex from the same country, ensuring that his athletes will never be vying for a spot on the same Olympic team.

“When I accomplished my one goal of the year, which was to qualify for the Olympic team, I knew that I had the support of my training partners at that moment,” Groff said. “Being able to celebrate with them is something really special.”

Smith’s environment also includes a world-class support team: a sport psychologist, physiotherapist, a full-time rehab person and coaching assistant, and a dietician—who happens to be Smith’s wife, or “boss,” as he often refers to her.

Smith receives additional feedback from a running coach based in Kenya and a former Ukrainian swim coach, and he is always quick to seek the advice of world-leading experts in whatever topic is relevant to his team at any moment (including overtraining, baffling calf injuries and sports biomechanics). He’s quick to tell you that he realizes how lucky he is to have access to such expertise.

But as willing as Smith is to broaden his horizons and seek the advice of others, he remains ever the iconoclast—someone who isn’t afraid to buck the trend and do what he feels is right, even if everyone tells him it isn’t.

“Some things come pretty natural to me,” he said. “I think I’ve got some rare combination of being reasonably smart, very hard working, relentless and having good common sense. There are not many people who have all of that.”

His philosophy on swimming is a case in point.

If you have a traditional swimming background, you were probably taught to glide at the top of your stroke, swim with an S-curve, and generally follow the pattern set by Olympic superstars such as Michael Phelps, Grant Hackett and Ian Thorpe.

But when Smith began to learn how to swim for himself in his mid-20s, he slowly developed the theory that perhaps their style of swimming wasn’t the most appropriate style for the open water—or for him.

Smith initially worked with a coach who was big on fitness but not technique, and he improved marginally. Then he moved to another coach who used the opposite approach and they “took loads of time off without huge physically tough sets,” Smith said.

Smith later noticed that the swim strokes of Hackett, a pool swimmer and two-time Olympic gold medalist in the 1500m freestyle, and his brother, an elite open-water swimmer, were different.

“I saw two different models for two different environments from both elite people,” Smith said. “So they’re specifically designing themselves to be capable in that environment.”

Smith posited that what was right for swimmers like Phelps, Hackett and Thorpe—men who are more than 6 feet tall, have freakish range of motion and enormous hands and feet, and deal only in pristine pool water—probably wasn’t right for him: a short triathlete interested in moving quickly through choppy open water, made even more turbulent by a pack.

These days, after a long process of determining the best open-water swim stroke (which included publishing the paper “Some Ideas for Improving Open Water Swimming” with Ross Sanders, currently chair of sports science at the University of Edinburgh), if you ask Smith about swimming, he’ll flood you with useful information on the topic, and the information will likely oppose what you have heard from traditional swim coaches.

“Swimming is about applying force to a very slippery medium, water, so that the body can go past and go forward,” Smith said. “It’s not about pulling the water—it’s not about anything other than putting your hand in, holding tension and then pulling your body past that hand or forearm.”

He will tell you that gliding in the open water is the worst thing you can do, because your body position and forward velocity drop very quickly in turbulent water, much more quickly than in a pristine pool environment. In other words, “You need to get rid of the time where you’re not doing anything productive,” he said.

If you learned how to swim from Smith, he would teach you to swim with your hips and not your arms, as most triathletes tend to do—a lesson he gives in part with a drill that involves a kickboard.

During the several swim workouts I watched in Sedona, his athletes grabbed their kickboards at various occasions—theirs were about half the size of your typical kickboard—and held them between their thighs, like you would a pull-buoy, so they were sticking up, almost perpendicular to the water as opposed to flat against it. Then they would then start swimming—just like you would with a pull-buoy—and the kickboard would increase resistance to the hips, forcing the athletes to “work the muscles of the core a lot,” Smith said, and rotate in the way a real swimmer would.

When the kickboard was removed, “Whamo! Lovely swimming with the hips doing the work they should,” Smith said.

Range of motion is another biggie for Smith, as he insists that his athletes develop the range of motion needed to swim fast—and this can require work with a physio and lots of stretching.

Squad newbie Haug was one such athlete who came to Smith with limited range of motion, and whenever she stepped on the pool deck in Sedona, she could be seen at various intervals with her hand high aloft her head and the squad’s massage therapist, Bennett, behind her, helping her with her stretches and working on her shoulder.

Bennett’s job as a massage therapist was also to help keep all of Smith’s athletes injury-free, something that is of utmost importance when it comes to one of Smith’s most basic principles for improvement: consistent work.

Smith says that under-training an athlete by 20 percent all the time, and all the while keeping them from getting sick or injured for months, packing in uninterrupted training in the process, is better than constantly sitting on the precipice of overtraining.

He looks at it like this: If an athlete trains for 18 months without ever having to back off, even if he is under-training a little, this athlete would be more fit than if he were to train right on the edge for a few weeks, have to back off for a few weeks, then train on the edge for five weeks, get sick for two weeks, then train on the edge for six weeks, get injured for six weeks, and continue this endless cycle that so many endurance athletes follow.

“Since I started to work with [Darren], I’ve been free of injuries,” said Riveros, the 2011 sprint world champion and winner of the Sydney leg of the World Championship Series in 2010. “I would say that’s the main thing for me, because before I used to have a lot of injuries. I think because I’ve been training consistently and am free of injuries, that’s the main reason I’ve gotten the results I have.”

This insistence on consistent training is part of the reason why Smith prefers to train in elevations around 4,500 feet.

Indeed, most athletes who travel to the region of Arizona in which Sedona lies do so to train in Flagstaff, which sits at around 7,000 feet. These athletes training in Flagstaff will often descend to Sedona to partake in the “live high-train low” theory of training.

Not Smith, as he fears that living high and training low might put too much of a load on some of his athletes, forcing them to overtrain and then take unwanted breaks. The lower elevation of Sedona and his other camp in Davos, Switzerland, which sits at around 5,000 feet, still grants athletes some of the physiological benefits of altitude training but doesn’t put them at as much risk of overtraining as it would if they were sleeping higher up.

“I’m not saying I’m right [about this], but it works for us,” Smith said.

Smith also asks that his athletes keep track of overtraining markers daily. He speaks with them about these markers every morning, asking them about their resting heart rate, their sleep quality and how long it took them to get to sleep, how sore their muscles are, what their mood is like, how high their anxiety level is, any stresses in their personal lives and other such indicators.

“We’ve had a long history of not getting that ill and so forth,” Smith said. “We’ve had two cases in 12 years where I’ve really overtrained people. … So we’ve got a monitoring system that includes mostly perception on stuff: anxiety, sleep quality and various other bits and pieces that give us some indication of what the nervous system is doing. Because when your nervous system is really tired—if you’re overtrained, you can’t sleep, you’re anxious. You can sleep hours, but maybe you toss and turn getting to sleep. So that gives us an insight into the nervous system fatigue, which is the main driver of overtraining.”

And in between these discussions about overtraining markers Smith is always watching, analyzing, critiquing.

“Good. Just do that for the rest of your career,” he remarked to Giglmayr after they adjusted something in his swim stroke.

If Smith’s success as a coach is any indication, he’ll be the better for it if he does.

Additional reporting by Bethany Leach Mavis.

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