Podcast, Training

Long-term athlete development with Rick Velati | EP#312

 November 15, 2021

By  Bernardo Gonçalves


Rick Velati - That Triathlon Show

Rick Velati is a national coach with British Triathlon's World Class Programme, where the ultimate goal is to achieve Olympic medal and gold winning performances. Prior to his current role, Rick spent almost 12 years as the Head Coach of the Great Britain and England Talent Programme under British Triathlon.  

In this Episode you'll learn about:

  • Reasons behind the massive success of Team GB at the Olympic level over the last few Olympic cycles.
  • Rick's coaching and training philosophy
  • Long-term athlete development
  • Early specialisation or range?
  • Talent identification
  • Main stumbling blocks in developing youth and junior athletes, and tips for coaching youths and juniors
  • Rick's top pieces of advice for amateur athletes

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Rick's background

03:12 -

  • My name is Rick Velati. I work for British Triathlon. I began in triathlon in 1999, when I came to Loughborough University to study English but with a passion for football. I did not know much about triathlon back then. I only found my way to the sport through coaching opportunities.
  • I became involved in coaching a student’s club, where some of my university friends were. That coincided with meeting some good people in the triathlon world, and I desire to teach. It is this reason that leads me to coach.
  • In Loughborough, at that time, the first phases of the junior programs started being established in British Triathlon. And I started working on this project. I started with a coaching apprentice role (because of a partnership between British Triathlon and Loughborough University).
  • The next few years, I had the chance to work alongside the national program. From there, all my opportunities came from British Triathlon. I went to Wales for four years to work with Chris Jones with athletes like Helen Jenkins.
  • I returned to Loughborough to work for the Beijing Olympics in 2008. Then, I became responsible for the talent and junior program in British Triathlon. I did this role until the pandemic started.
  • In late 2019, my role focused more on the under 23 programs. Now, I am more of a national coach within the British Triathlon. I am not a person who contacts daily with athletes. I consider myself to be a "grey area coach". I am not working on the top of the coaching scene. I am more involved in working with these under 23 athletes and understand the structure and challenges.
  • I did one triathlon (University Olympic Triathlon race in 1999). I enjoyed the challenge and the people I met in the triathlon. When I was 18 or 19 years old, I loved sports and wanted to teach. And I fell into triathlon and owe much debt to it because of the opportunities it gave me.

Explaining British Triathlon success

08:27 -

  • There is a lot of depth right now in British sports. Many athletes contributed to that over the years. The infrastructure built also plays a role. (Training opportunities, medical support)
  • We have a healthy domestic competition structure and a good presence internationally.
  • I think British Triathlon aimed to be good at learning. It took experiences back, even before Sidney 2000. In Sidney, we had a great spirit with Simon Lessing and youth with Tim Don making his debut there.
  • In future cycles, we tried to learn from those experiences we got there. For example, we try to deal with injury management. I was living with Paul Amey, who qualified for Athens 2004. Suddenly, he injured himself beforehand and missed out, and Marc Jenkins came in.
  • In Athens 2004, Marc had the desire to run with his bike after crashing. And it was that attitude that shaped our approach to Beijing 2008.
  • We had Tim in his third Games and Helen, Hollie Avil, Will Clarke and Alistair Brownlee at the first Olympic Games. That changed everything.
  • We learnt that if we invest time and money in the development of athletes, they will rise to the top.
  • The athletes that came through British Triathlon created a lot of momentum in each cycle. Moreover, the ability to focus on the Olympic Games is a real strength of the federation.
  • Of course, from all the athletes that come, there will be some that will not succeed. But that leads to the development of healthy competition and the formation of many great athletes. All of this raised the standards of the sport.
  • We are in exciting times with many young athletes getting to the world stages. However, I feel that part of it comes from the successes and challenges athletes had before them.
  • Besides that, we built healthy coaching structures with many opportunities to provide coaching and medical support to athletes. Ultimately, the goal is to aid athlete development.

Athlete depth in the British Triathlon scene

13:45 -

  • I do not know the numbers across other federations. We would have 400 junior student triathletes attend our national selection weekend. We know there is a healthy body of athletes that want to be triathletes in their teenage years.
  • We can provide other different regions coaching support to those athletes. There is a desire to keep a wide net and not only focus on cherry-picking the best ones.
  • We have various pinch point moments in the athlete's development for different reasons. (Going to the university, turning junior or senior, moving from home or going to training centres)
  • There is a natural selection on who wants to keep pursuing triathlon on a higher level. Our role is to support a manageable number of athletes in their junior years. And work with them until their best come years later.
  • There is a limit on the number of athletes we can support at a regional level. However, it is in the double digits. It is not only having six from a large region. As you get to the national camp level, the numbers get smaller. But there is knowledge on the context of how athletes progress over various stages.

Culture of triathlon in the UK

17:36 -

  • We are lucky the athletes that perform at the highest level are brilliant people. They are good role models, accessible to people, tell good stories about the sport.
  • Everything that the Brownlees did for the sports was for everyone to see and contribute to the sport. And I think the impact of London 2012 across all sports was massive.
  • More recently, we are seeing Alex and Georgia, who are our silver medallists from Tokyo. These great athletes communicate well, push the limits of their sports and enjoy triathlon for the right reasons.
  • It is this culture that we have across both the female and male sides of the program. There is competition for places on the team, but there is an ethic of hard work, being ground and accessible.
  • Many athletes did Zoom and online calls for junior and teenage athletes because they had more restrictions on their training during the pandemic. That culture of giving back to the community in the different stages of the sport is healthy for the triathlon.

Rick's coaching and training philosophy

20:31 -

  • My coaching philosophy is about coaching the person first and the athlete second. You have to try to help the person, and triathlon goals fall from that.
  • I believe in creating relationships with athletes, and you can only do it by having an open, honest relationship with them.
  • Athletes will not trust in you if you do not show interest in them. I spent so much time with youth and junior athletes. They are someone else's child. And that level of responsibility we take as a coach shapes my coaching philosophy.
  • I try to take care of the athletes, regardless of their age.
  • The training side connects to this philosophy. It pays attention more to health first, and it became clear over the years. A healthy athlete physically will always have an opportunity to perform.
  • A healthy athlete mentally will think clearly and be happier and content with themselves. They have more self-confidence and self-esteem. The development of those characteristics is as crucial as physical training.

Maintain physical and mental well-being of the athletes

23:33 -

  • One point I focus a lot is on intensity management. They need to do a lot of aerobic training. However, it is easy to overdo it across three different sports.
  • If you are doing only one discipline as an athlete, you may overcome training too much. But if you go too hard and too often across the season, you will accumulate too much hormonal stress and fatigue.
  • It is not clear at first, but you see athletes getting more fatigued as time progresses. And you lose time as you overstress the body with simple aerobic work.
  • Simple aerobic work should be easy to manage. However, if done too hard, it will compromise the higher intensity sessions.
  • You will complete them, but you go into them already with fatigue that does not need to be there.
  • With younger athletes, we have to focus on the overall load of what they do. School and university work can compromise recovery and sleep.
  • If you do not do those simple things, you will jeopardise your immune function by doing 20 to 25 hours of training per week.

Intensity management in younger athletes

26:19 -

  • Heart rate zones and power become more accessible to the public. However, I manage it differently for different athletes because of the relationships we develop.
  • We try to educate and support athletes to help them understand how different intensities feel. We could do it by prescribing heart rate, pace, RPE or power.
  • You want to guarantee that most work is at a 3-4/10.
  • The tricky balance comes with high-intensity sessions. Many athletes will be doing sessions in a club. Therefore, a triathlon coach might not have control of the intensity.
  • Most of the time, you are reacting to what athletes did. You want to protect recovery around sessions. (Or any aerobic work athletes might have scheduled to do)
  • So we focus on having those sessions easy.
  • As the athletes get older, you tend to control better those quality sessions. Therefore, the education on how much and how hard sessions should be, become clear.
  • It is a challenge to evaluate the intensity of the different sessions.

Balancing general load

28:48 -

  • With younger athletes at home, we try to work with them to understand the other life stresses.
  • Parents are a crucial influence. If an athlete cannot have eight hours of sleep per night, we should access the schedule.
  • Addressing pinch points like too many late or early morning sessions is something we work with athletes. There are always points and potentially problematic areas of younger athletes that we need to be aware of in their lives.
  • Now, they can report on TrainingPeaks how much sleep and rest they had, and you can track it. But I think talking with athletes gives us much more knowledge of them. Therefore, we can educate them on how to live around training.
  • They need to know how they should behave when doing so much training every week. Recovery is valuable, and athletes need to appreciate rest and sleep.

The role of parents in the development of athletes

31:08 -

  • What we try to do with British Triathlon is to reinforce good habits for our athletes. We use our network of coaches across different regions to do that. These athletes will be triathletes at least until the age of 18.
  • In the period of 16 to 18 years old, it is a crucial period of athlete's lives. They are trying to understand what they will be able to achieve in triathlon. They put a lot of aerobic training in a structure that is heavily club based.
  • This period is a challenging period for the athlete and personal development. They have school and exams, as well as trying to qualify for national teams or world championships. You recognise that maintaining health is not easy to achieve.
  • We desire to understand the athlete's support network and their support team as early as possible.
  • In my role, I am not there every day. But it is the responsibility of a national program to reinforce healthy messages to athletes. (so that they have the best opportunities to develop)
  • It involves many people, and you have to work with all of them to help athletes grow.

Development arc of the athletes

33:38 -

  • As coaches, we have to be more open to a whole range of development profiles.
  • We can have fantastic swimmers with a swimming background but never ride a bike or only run a bit. Or we can have a mix of everything.
  • What we are trying to do is to look at different strengths and weaknesses. And then, we try to find a way to support them and give them time to develop. They need time to address the weak areas they have.
  • When focusing on younger athletes that train at home, we need to maximise what they have around them. If they have a good swim club they can access, athletes should take that as far as possible.
  • They should not think they need to do a certain number of swims per week to be a good triathlete.
  • Another athlete might have access to a triathlon program. If that program has a coach most days, that is the best decision for them.
  • We need to be more manoeuvrable to support athletes as we see them. The idea is to maximise what they have around them at younger ages, and then, it becomes clear what areas they need to address. If you try to address that too early, you might cut off the triathlete's range, which might be their strength.

Specialisation for younger athletes

37:12 -

  • Now, kids are doing triathlons at younger ages. So, having technical models for the different sports (e.g., swimming) helps us develop the future generation of open water swimmers. This path was not as clear ten years ago.
  • It is the same with cycling. There should be a technical model so that athletes can be confident in pelotons or when cornering.
  • The skillset athletes have around them is the same it was a few years ago. However, I think the coaching community is more aware of those technical aspects.
  • The running technique should also have a technical model you can work on with athletes.
  • It is great for triathlon that it is more accessible to more young people doing triathlon. Nevertheless, if you can compete in athletics or swimming, you do not want to cut things off.
  • If an athlete has strength in triathlon and other sport, we should not take those opportunities off the table.

Talent identification process

40:33 -

  • I think talent might be more of an attribute (a mental trait), meaning a person willing to do the work and persevere during tough times.
  • We called it a talent program in the past. But we changed the language to be regarded as the next-generation program. It is not about the "talent" you have now. It is more on giving the opportunity and supporting the athletes.
  • We know the standard level of the top youth athletes. It varies much, but we have performance markers across athlete development.
  • We are looking more at how the athlete will persevere, stick with things, and have that mental fortitude to overcome tough times.
  • It is not only identifying perceived fast kids. There is more to it than that. It is about providing a safety net, emotional support, and physical knowledge for athletes.
  • We present the range of speed; aerobic and strength work athletes need to do to develop and perform at the different stages they go through.
  • The "talent" is how the athlete takes that work and the challenge ahead of him. That long term self-thinking and desire is the talent you are looking for at a young age. (Knowing their motivational drivers and why they take on this challenge)
  • We evaluate if they are mentally healthy, and when you are open in that direction, the physical side is easier to obtain.

Common mistakes that prevent youth development

44:42 -

  • The sport needs to be fun in those teenage years. Athletes need to find a balance between fun and focus.
  • At that stage, they are genuinely so excited, fearless, do not know what they cannot do. And our role is to push the athletes to find out that.
  • You can do that by creating an environment where they can have fun and express themselves. And at the times when it requires focus and attention, they have a license to push themselves.
  • The challenge is there, with the pressure of everything in their lives at that point. (school, exams, high-performance competition, expectation of others, social media)
  • Coaches work with those young people, and that support is fundamental. We should recognise that work and should not underestimate it.
  • The other physical aspect is their body development. Athletes grow and become less coordinated at different stages in puberty. There is also frustration with changes in performance levels.
  • There is so much going on at those ages that we cannot underestimate anything.
  • The fact of not being selected for things hurt athletes. How athletes and people around them deal with it is crucial. You are trying to manage frustration and failure much more than success.
  • As a coach, understanding how to deal with failure, injury and frustration are more crucial than dealing with an athlete that might win a championship.

Tips for coaches and parents

47:55 -

  • The best advice is to be patient. We should not look at a youth and junior career as a youth and junior career.
  • It is only the beginning of their work as athletes. Many remind me they want to do their best at everything they do. If you have success in your junior years, it is good. But it is the handling of that context that is important.
  • By patience, I mean having athletes who are successful and others that do not. It does not matter if they are successful or not if everything you are doing prepares them for what comes next.
  • The passage from junior to under 23 is only a division change. By being an under 23 athlete, you are a senior. You race only twice in that category.
  • Mentally, things also change. You could be out of education or in debt from university stuff. You might need to self-funding what you do if you are not on a nationally funded program.
  • All those stresses come in and being mentally open about them becomes essential. Physically, you are developing a technical model in the bike, swim and run that enables you to take on higher training load and volume later. Therefore, the youth and junior years are only preparation for what is to come.
  • We have to pass this message to younger athletes that their youth career is a platform that might give them much success. But even if you are not successful, you still have many racing opportunities and experience of the racing environment.
  • Every race is an opportunity to learn, and capturing that knowledge is fundamental.
  • Learning should be the central goal of younger athletes and focusing on the process. (Not the outcome)

Amateur takeaways from this development process

51:31 -

  • Regardless of age and experience, objective goal setting is the first step for a successful triathlon journey. Athletes should understand what they are getting ready for and what they want to achieve. With this, they should work from that.
  • Another point is to maximise what is around you and what you can do on a day-to-day basis. You have to conciliate your triathlon life with your working and social life. Recovery is an essential aspect of performance, regardless of the athlete's level.
  • Athletes should also focus on the technical aspect of the sport. You can have technical goals for every session you are doing. Moreover, look at the intensities you work on and do that management wisely.

General questions

53:21 -

What would you tell yourself ten years ago if you could?

I would tell two things. The first would be to keep curious about everything, as you might stop asking questions. In sport, you always aim to the top. I would remind myself that not everything should go up because there is a place where coaches can be at their best. Not everyone will achieve that Olympic destination. However, you should try to be the best you can be and do not think you have to go to the top to be successful.

What is one thing within coaching or training you are now learning/curious about or fascinated by and why?

It is a bit linked to the pandemic situation and how coaches can stay mentally engaged and creative. You heard stories of athletes needing to get creative to do swim sessions. However, I am focusing on how you can stay creative as a coach. What I mean is the ability to use your own mind and intuition. For example, last year many people bought pools to have in their gardens and do a lot of resistive swimming. Even though the restrictions are lower, we can see people still doing it because it helps with shoulder robustness.

Rapid fire questions

56:35 -

What is your favourite book, blog or resource?

Better Training for Distance Runners by David Martin

It is the best book I read in terms of physiological education.

What is an important habit that benefited athletically, professionally or personally?

Day-to-day consistency and the desire to be healthy. As a person, you see many that are not healthy. And I think that is a treat you see in athletes and their discipline to train consistently.

Who is someone you have looked up to or who has inspired you?

The person who impacted my career the most was a guy named Chris Jones. He was the head coach of British Triathlon a few years ago.


Bernardo Gonçalves

Bernardo is a Portuguese elite cyclist and co-founder of SpeedEdge Performance, a company focused on optimising cycling and triathlon performance. He writes the shownotes for That Triathlon Show, and also produces social media content for each new episode.

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