Advanced, Podcast, Training

High-performance coaching with elite coach Paulo Sousa | EP#26

 May 26, 2017

By  Mikael Eriksson

High-performance coaching with elite coach Paulo Sousa | EP#26

High-performance coaching with elite coach Paulo Sousa | EP#26

Paulo Sousa, PhD, is an elite triathlon coach from Portugal now residing in California and operating The Triathlon Squad, a high-performance environment for elite triathletes.

Among other accomplishments, he coached two of the three male athletes in the Rio Olympics 2016, and was given the USAT Coach of the Year award for 2016.

In this Episode you'll learn about:

  • The origin story of The Triathlon Squad and why it came to be.
  • How Paulo and his athletes in the squad operate on a day-to-day basis.
  • Balancing athletes' individual training with benefiting from the group environment.
  • What it takes to be a professional triathlete - physically and mentally.


The origin story of The Triathlon Squad and why it came to be

02:13 -

  • ​The Triathlon Squad operates in Poway, California
  • The squad currently has 12-13 athletes
  • For some years, athletes of the squad mostly came from the US and Canada. But now, the squad is getting more international with the addition of athletes from countries like Japan, Belgium, and Denmark.
  • Well known members of the squad include Greg Billington and Joe Maloy who are US Olympians from Rio 2016, as well as Summer Cook.
  • Paulo’s previous professional life was doing scientific research in fluid dynamics. But he was also involved in coaching, and during the 2009-2010 season he was coaching some of the members of the Canadian National Team - Simon Whitfield and Kyle Jones.
  • At one point at the end of 2010, the coaching side of Paulo’s life was getting really big, while his work contract was not renewed. So he opted to try to start coaching a squad full-time, because he also felt frustrated about the limitations of remote coaching. He formed the squad from scratch, got a few athletes involved, and took it from there.

How Paulo and his athletes in the squad operate on a day-to-day basis

06:35 -

  • Paulo has a template for each athlete that the athlete might follow for a few weeks. But neither the template nor any single session is set in stone.
  • This allows for an attitude to operate on the now and what’s in front of you.
  • This also allows for making small adjustments to get a lot more from the schedule rather than being tied down to a set schedule for the week.
  • It also gives a lot more flexibility if, for example, the athlete is having a really good day. Then you can extend the session or push it a little more further.
  • A lot of times it’s just making changes on the fly - small adjustments - things that might make a difference down the line.
  • Paulo also does bike fitting, functions as a bike mechanic, meets with the athletes individually and holds 1-2 squad meetings per year. He works a full day from 8am to 5pm, 7 days a week.

Balancing athletes' individual training with benefiting from the group environment

07:38 -

  • The integration between the individual and the group is very hard to do without a coach being present on a daily basis.​
  • It’s about whether training with the group or doing the group session is going to favor an individual athlete or not.
  • Looking for individualization often happens on the number or reps that you do from a session, or doing a session altogether, rather than straying too far from the planned session.
  • Most of the time, the whole squad is going to do the same swim workout and small subgroups will be doing slightly different bike sessions. Then the run training is more tailored to specific athletes and very small subgroups.
  • Paulo creates a training environment for the squad that is sustainable for several months in a row. Compared to other squads who train for a month and then go home, Paulo’s squad typically trains together for a large number of consecutive months consecutively. For this to work, he gives his athletes a lot of space by giving them sessions that they will do on their own, but his athletes can call on one another to hook up for a session together if they want.
  • Paulo leaves it to his athletes to organize get-togethers , dinner or team building. What is important for him is sustainability of the work. So striking a balance between alone time and squad time is really important.
  • There’s not a lot of variability in training content and structure for 70.3 athletes and for Ironman athletes. On the other hand, things will be very different between ITU programs and Ironman programs. Long distance athletes also have a different mental make up and the way they do their training. Most of the time they are comfortable doing long sessions on their own. While ITU athletes, because they come from a team environment, like collegiate runners and swimmers, are more comfortable with a group environment. (13:51)
  • (21:40) Paulo may chat with his athletes individually 10-15 minutes before or after sessions. There are also monthly individual meetings which can last for 20-30 minutes.

What does it take to be a member of The Triathlon Squad​

14:40 -

  • Becoming a Squad member is an organic process, very similar to the way other coaches operate.​ 
  • Athletes may be interested in the squad and reach out, or Paulo may be interested in coaching some athletes because he feels that it will be a good match. Basically, it depends on the individual.
  • Most of the members of the squad right now are coming in by word of mouth, or by knowing Paulo, or knowing the work that he has done with his athletes. This is how the squad is growing right now.

How Paulo feels about the squad’s achievements and being the 2016 USAT Coach of the Year

16:33 -

  • By and large, Paulo is happy with what his squad and he achieved in 2016.
  • The year was like a whirlwind for Paulo. The olympics was a life changing experience for him. And then the next day it was over so somehow he felt the emptiness.
  • It was also the culmination for Paulo from a lot of years of work and grinding.​

What are Paulo’s goals and his vision for the squad

18:34 -

  • Try to get a sense of who the new athletes are and how to work better with them.​
  • Working towards the Olympics but since it's still far from Olympic qualifications, it's also an opportunity to test out new things and methods
  • 2017 will not be an "easy" year, but a year where making mistakes will not have big repercussions in the future

Do some athletes take part in creating their training program or is it all up to Paulo

22:54 -

  • ​Paulo discusses with the athletes the big picture questions and listens to their input.
  • However, he tries to stay away from in-the-moment decisions and à la carte training in order to get the big picture right. Then Paulo makes the day-to-day decisions. The vast majority of an athlete's program has Paulo's handwriting on it.

What it takes to be a professional triathlete - physically and mentally

24:42 -

  • ​The biggest thing is talent for the sport. Natural ability is a big deciding factor.
  • Mental make-up is where the biggest variation happens with athletes. Mental approach and creating a performance mindset is something that is a blend of natural ability, learning what works for you as an athlete, and support and guidance from your coach.

How did Paulo get into triathlon as he is a mechanical engineer by trade and has a Ph.D. in computational fluid dynamics

26:50 -

  • It started when he was in engineering school, the triathlon team in his school is one of the oldest triathlon teams in Portugal since triathlon started in the country in the mid 80s. He became interested in the sport.
  • Around the time that he was graduating from his undergrad, nobody was taking care of the team. So he started organizing and managing the team and making it grow. They got to the point where they were one of the biggest triathlon teams in Portugal. This was like mid or towards the end of the 90s.
  • Then he quickly started seeing that the coaches were not good enough and he had to start coaching the athletes. This is how he started coaching athletes on the team. And that’s how he got into coaching. As he pursued his graduate studies, he also continued coaching. That was the beginning for him to start coaching. He had a day job and then coaching being his hobby.​
  • He came to the US in 2005. This was after he finished his Ph.D. While in the US it was easier for him to build a practice of coaching - coaching age groupers.
  • At the same time he also started coaching some pros. He still had some Portuguese athletes that he was still coaching. At that time he was coaching Sergio Marques who is a pretty decent Ironman athlete. Sergio became his seed to start coaching elites.

Rapid-fire questions

  • Personal habit to achieve success: Drinking coffee​
  • What do you wish you had known or wish you had done differently at some point in your career: Maybe sometimes a little bit of luck here and there. I could have made things better but they could have also made things worse. I am were I am today because of the experiences I've had as a coach, good and bad.
  • Mentors in triathlon: Joel Filliol and Simon Whitfield
  • Wrong things that coaches might focus on: focusing too much on creating training plans and session structure, being bogged down by details, not being flexible.

Links and resources

Listener questions

​If you have feedback, questions that you want me to answer on the show or off the show, send me your questions via email: or Twitter: @SciTriat

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Mikael Eriksson

I am a full-time triathlon coach, founder of Scientific Triathlon, and host of the top-rated podcast That Triathlon Show. I am from Finland but live in Lisbon, Portugal.

Please contact me if you have feedback on the podcast or want to make suggestions for improvement or send in a question for a Q&A episode.

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