Reflecting on Mentorship in Triathlon
Triathlon has the potential to be a very individual, and at times, self-serving sport. Proper training protocols are almost always built around a particular athlete's current capacities and future goals. Additionally, given the significant amount of time that it takes to train, workouts tend to be executed when they fit in; one athlete's 4AM ride may be another's 9PM ride. Although it is certainly possible to find group training opportunities, my own experience has shown me that
they are hard to come by and even harder to maintain in any consistent fashion. Generally speaking, we are a group of athletes with very personal goals and are often forced to take highly individualized routes toward achieving them…which is why it strikes me that when you ask any triathlete about his/her favorite aspects of the sport, most include the strong sense of community in their response.
And this is no illusion. While the reasons are numerous and could easily be the topic of an entire article, it seems that a shared sense of challenge, struggle, and accomplishment work to create a strong bond amongst triathletes. Maybe more than any other component of this community, I hugely appreciate the value of mentorship, and with Thanksgiving around the corner, I found it fitting to reflect on just how appreciative I am to have a mentor in this sport.
In my mind, a mentor is someone who can draw upon their own experiences to teach, counsel, and guide around a particular topic, while being a strong listener at the same time. They are open and honest, and in the context of triathlon, go much further than simply recounting their past glory days…although some of that is definitely allowed too! The mentor/mentee relationship constantly evolves, and ideally, becomes stronger over time. In a sport that is so complex both physically and emotionally, I am fortunate to have found someone that is starting to fill this role.
I met Marty on an 8-hour bus ride across Spain en route to the Duathlon World Championships. To be totally honest, at first, I thought to myself, "Great, this old-timer is going to sit here and talk my ear off about how epic he was for an entire week." Turns out Marty is pretty damn epic, and that I couldn't have been more wrong about his intentions. Marty has had a long and successful career as a dominant age-grouper; with five trips to Kona, National Championships, and most recently, a World Championship in the 50-55 age-group [in Duathlon] to his name. Marty is also a loving husband and father, and a successful professional in something other than triathlon. I quickly realized that if I could paint my future progression in the sport, it would look a lot like Marty's past.
Over the course of our time together, Marty spent more time listening and reacting to my goals than recounting his past…even though the latter was far more exciting 99% of the time. He could always go back to his vast inventory of experiences and pull forward the one that aligned most to what I was wondering about at the time; be it training, racing, or balancing our obsession with a corporate job. He never held himself up on a pedestal, and always focused his story-telling around what I could learn from it to forward my career as an athlete.
Since parting ways at the end of the World Championships, we have stayed in contact (a big thanks to modern technology and yes, I admit, social networking) and I have no doubt that we will continue to for years to come. Whenever something comes up that is outside the athlete/coach relationship, odds are, Marty will be my go-to. I realize how lucky I am to have such a good mentor/mentee fit with Marty. Form a very pragmatic standpoint, I met someone that has achieved goals similar to those I am aiming for (e.g., age-group dominance, balance with a family and job, staying competitive into the second half of life), and is at a time of his own career where he is prioritizing "giving back" to the triathlon community…whereas most of my focus is still on taking from it, but in the most gracious way I can.
With the off-season reflection period in full swing, ask yourself if you could be a mentor to someone or if you could benefit from having one…and remember…the two aren't mutually exclusive. It is these types of relationships that take our often individual and self-serving sport and turn it into something much more.
Brad is a graduate student studying public health at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, a competitive age-grouper, and extremely passionate about all things multisport. You can reach him at email@example.com.