Coaching, Podcast

Perspectives on coaching with Andy Kirkland, PhD | EP#324

 February 7, 2022

By  Bernardo Gonçalves


Andy Kirkland, PhD - That Triathlon Show

Andy Kirkland, PhD, is a triathlon coach, sports physiologist, and lecturer in sports coaching at the University of Stirling. In this interview, Andy shares his perspectives on a number of topics related to coaching from his experience as a coach, coach educator, and as a part of various high-performance environments.

In this Episode you'll learn about:

  • Getting a degree in Sports Coaching, and the master's program at the University of Stirling
  • Pathways into coaching, including graduate programs in coaching as compared to exercise science and physiology degrees
  • Beyond training and physiology: what are the domains of expertise a good coach needs to have a good grasp on?
  • How to build good coach-athlete relationships
  • The role for physiology in coaching, and common pitfalls in applying physiology
  • How to continually improve your coaching practices and skills

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Andy's Background

03:04 -

  • I have been in triathlon since the mid-1990s as an average age group athlete.
  • I was obsessed with triathlon. I did Ironmans when very few people did it. This desire led me to become a professional in the sport.
  • Since that time, I have had a varied career. I recently coached some professional triathletes, worked in local clubs and was involved with the National governing bodies.
  • There is a mix of things I have done in triathlon.
  • Triathlon is part of who I am, and I still do a bit of swim, bike and running.
  • Triathlon is my primary sport. My first sport was cycling. However, like most triathletes, I could not handle a bike in a peloton of cyclists.
  • As soon as the bunch accelerated, I would get dropped, so road racing was not for me.
  • I did a 10 km race for fun, and naturally, I did it quite quickly. After, I got dragged to the swimming pool by a triathlete, a multiple Kona finisher, and a sub. 3-hour marathoner at the age of 60. (Scott Belford is a legend of triathlon, and he lives near me)
  • Scott dragged me to the swimming pool and encouraged me to start swimming. In week three of swimming, I did a 400 m time trial in 12min03s.

Andy coaching services

06:31 -

  • I have had an exciting journey. When I came into the profession, I started as a sports scientist working with high-performance athletes. I studied sports science, biomechanics, physiology and some coaching in between.
  • However, my degree would focus more on sports science.
  • I loved it so much that I went to do a PhD related to exercise intensity and cycling performance. (looking at fatigue and physiological responses of fatigue)
  • I did it for too many years. (it is a slow process) After that, I went to the Scottish Institute of Sports to work on physiology across many programs, including cycling, swimming, rugby and winter sports.
  • It was a very challenging program. Then, I moved to British Cycling. At the time, it was one of the most successful governing bodies in the world. It was a fun time in Manchester with a basis in the Velodrome, and having friends in that environment was an essential experience for me.
  • I was a coach developer and a coach educator in that environment, so writing and delivering courses and mentoring coaches were some of my duties.
  • It led me to the present day, where I found the perfect job, a lecturer in sports coaching at the University of Stirling.
  • I work with professional-level coaches from the grassroots to the highest sporting levels.
  • So, I like to say that we work together with someone that functions as the head of performance for a Formula One racing team and people from the pit lane crew. (we have much diversity in our programs)

Explaining the program and Andy's role

10:00 -

  • My role is a traditional lecturer, meaning I do lectures provide supervision within other tasks. However, we have a unique, diverse group of coaches, so telling them what to do does not work well. What works for a U9 football coach does not necessarily work on a performance program at the Olympic level.
  • We challenge coaches to ask the reasons for their decisions, explore alternative ways of coaching, considerer evaluation practices, and be reflective of what they do.
  • I see my goal as "planting seeds" and allowing coaches to plant as many seeds as they can to enable them to germinate the most meaningful to them.
  • I also challenge them to question the status quo and their coaching methods in their environment.
  • As a triathlete coach, there are many commonalities throughout the world on how coaches should coach their athletes.
  • However, it will differ from Kayaque, football and skiing programs.
  • I want coaches to develop their coaching methods and not follow what everyone else is doing.

Are there any coaching programs in other universities like this one?

12:48 -

  • Coaching programs are becoming more common, primarily at an undergraduate level. But many universities have "Master's programs" too.
  • What is unique about our program is that coaches can study from anywhere in the world. So, it is a distance program.
  • A few years ago, I had coaches from Portugal, the Alps, China and Singapore. So, we bring that cultural mix which is a real strength.
  • We have a close-knit teaching team with a good working environment. We look at sports and coaching performance from different angles. Nevertheless, we focus on the same primary things. We are trying to develop new methods and avoid accepting only the status quo.
  • This point is our selling point by giving different coaching pathway alternatives. You apply other models in different areas and try to come up with a better understanding of performance.

Pathways to coaching

15:42 -

  • There are no clear coaching pathways.
  • Many coaches at the top level were good athletes beforehand. At the same time, others take pretty different paths.
  • I had a chat with another triathlon coach, and we followed two completely different pathways. I was more academic, more high-performance focused. He learnt more with practical experience and working out as he went along.
  • Interestingly, we ended up finding similar conclusions about the points needed to coach effectively.
  • I would suggest that the ideal path is to do as much coaching as possible. Experience is a craft process, where most coaches learn by doing, learning and practising from others.
  • The best way to learn how to be a coach is to do the job and work at multiple levels if you can.
  • My first coaching job was not even a coaching "job". It was a teaching work, where I would text 3-year old kids how to swim.
  • And that experience taught much about human emotions. Kids are not good at controlling their feelings until they get to four or five.
  • If you are not doing a good job, a kid will tell you that it is boring or will start misbehaving. Therefore, you quickly decide what works and what does not.
  • I have also worked in community clubs and high-performance environments. And getting that experience in different areas is very important.
  • My job is good because I work with coaches who bring experiences to the group and academic world. We have coaches with an idea of their coaching style and what is involved in their job. And when they get to that stage, we can start to challenge their practices and methodologies.
  • In that way, learning and change can happen faster and more dramatically.
  • So, I think the combination of practical experience and a higher level of education is a good way of becoming a coach. Some of the learnings at an undergraduate level does not base on experience.

Coaching experience to enter Andy's program

20:16 -

  • A critical aspect of learning is pre-existing knowledge. We might have someone that has transferred from a business environment to sports. (just because of the joy for it)
  • These people also bring many coaching skills that can transfer to sports. They might have two years of coaching but demonstrate a more profound coaching experience in different industries.

Taking a Master's Degree in Sports Science vs Sports Coaching

21:40 -

  • With my experience going through the Sports Science pathway, I have developed excellent tools. For example, understand the sport's demands, measure them, and decide the most critical measurements.
  • If we do a performance test, we must understand how it relates to the sport and influence the performer's behaviour.
  • We have also to see if we are creating precise and reliable data that we compare against in the future. These are fundamental tools in my coaching toolbox.
  • There is also a philosophical perspective in learning the sports science discipline. We might think about sports in a more reductionist way. (looking at single causation)
  • VO2max is a measurement we may use in sports science. However, VO2max is a complex number that takes nuances to apply effectively in a performance environment.
  • It is about understanding how VO2max fits in the bigger picture and its influence on your coaching decision-making.
  • And there is a philosophical basis on how we create knowledge from things.
  • An effective coach who understands sports science can operate autonomously from sports scientists most of the time. Or, if they collaborate with a sports scientist, they can guide the process to meet the coach's expectations.
  • Often, I would have to test various things on a performance program. In my toolbox was lactate testing, VO2max testing, efficiency testing. And I would apply them regardless of what the sport was.
  • Most time, coaches did not know what I was talking about and let me go on with it without understanding what and why I was doing specific tests.
  • What you choose to study is dependent on what you want to do. If you're going to be a coach, enter a program like ours or another coaching program.
  • If you want to be a sports scientist, learn sports science, and consider the philosophical basis of science. (how you create and apply your knowledge in the real world)
  • Many ways of doing that relate more to coaching and human interaction than traditional sports science programs.

Most important domains to be effective as a coach

26:43 -

  • Coaching is complex, dynamic and ever-changing for me because it influences the behaviour of others.
  • If we talked in a medical view, we would not be speaking in a holistic practice but rather a biosocial frame of work.
  • That means understanding the differences between the psychological and physiological processes. (access how the body works and how people think) Then, you have to address the social interaction between humans.
  • So, I suggest that knowing more about behaviour change (an area I research) is crucial. What we do is influence the behaviour of others. If we are effective, we will influence the behaviour positively if we are good at what we do.
  • And there is excellent science behind this topic. To change other people's behaviour, we must know people's physical and mental capabilities. We also need to look if there are some opportunities for change to happen and their motivations. These points are essential to decide our approach for guiding a person.
  • Sometimes we focus on performance enhancement through physiological development. However, what we do is behaviour change.
  • And much of the coaching practices to implement behaviour changes does not consider the science behind it.
  • We talk about soft skills, but coaches can apply those soft skills in different scientific approaches that have not come to sports yet. So, we must recognise how critical social interactions and behaviour changes are in coaching practice.

Getting more information regarding social interactions and behaviour changes

30:44 -

  • A picture can summarise many things. As coaches, we like illustrations and something as simple as possible.
  • The Behaviour Change Wheel by Susan Mitchie is available on the internet, and it is an excellent resource to have and understand these things.
  • It is crucial to understand their capabilities and knowledge of performance when working with athletes. I also check external factors that influence their performance and their performance behaviours.
  • You might suggest a method of training to an athlete, but they train with other professional athletes who do something completely different.
  • This point brings doubt to the athlete's mind, and it challenges the coach on if they are doing the best for the athlete in question.
  • Their beliefs and understanding of performance are fundamental before we can say, "My way is better". If you discuss these things with athletes, you get a greater insight into what and why they do some things. And that can challenge our ways of coaching.
  • Another important thing is recognising that humans are not always logical or rational. They might do blind things for unknown reasons.
  • If we apply behaviour change to health, we would only need to tell people to stop smoking, and they would do it. Everyone knows that smoking is not appropriate for your health and makes you feel rubbish.
  • If we applied a traditional coaching model, I would only tell you to stop smoking, and if you do, your performance will improve.
  • Everything is alright with this, but other things at play prevent people from stopping smoking.
  • It is the same when an athlete is training too hard. Telling them to do less does not work. It may take months and years to influence their behaviour and avoid overtraining. There are psychological reasons for this to happen. And some of those reasons are not rational and take time to explore and find out.

Tips to help athletes change their behaviours

35:46 -

  • I would tell athletes that they are training too hard, and we do not see the progression in their performance. Then, I would ask the reasons for them to train too hard.
  • If athletes answer that because other athletes that are fitter train harder, they also need to work at those levels to have a chance to beat them. Then, I would ask them the pieces of evidence athletes had concerning other people's training. (which athletes might respond addressing social media posts and activities)
  • I would suggest athletes understand the concept of "dose-response to exercise or human growth hormone".
  • For example, if you take one paracetamol for your headache, you can solve your problem. However, if you take ten pills, you could die from doing it.
  • So, we have a "dose-response" to exercise as well. When we start taking something or doing exercise, the dose to change our performance could be relatively low for us to get better.
  • As we progress and do more and more, we will need a higher training stimulus to get better. However, there might be a time where you need that feeling to be doing more to think you need that more to be better. But like paracetamol, if you do more, it is likely to damage our health.
  • So, we have to find that individual dose-response for you, and I would say it is the minimum dose possible to maximise the physiological adaptation that counts.
  • It does not matter what people are doing in your environment. I would suggest that most athletes overtrain. Most only present their key sessions on Strava to be proud of doing. What pros talk about in the magazines of training hard is misleading.
  • So, they do not need to worry about what others are doing because we understand that what they talk about doing is incorrect. They do not smash themselves consistently.
  • What we need to do is to find the correct dose for each athlete.
  • There are two ways of doing this: trust the coach to help the athletes find the correct dose. Or they continue to train the way they want to, and we monitor performance.
  • If they continue to get better and beat these other athletes, they will prove me wrong. However, if they become injured or performance drops, the question they are doing too much will arise. Or even if they need more to achieve the change to improve.
  • This process often takes six months to complete. Sometimes, allowing athletes to break and giving them autonomy to do their methods whilst giving guidance could be the best approach in the long term.
  • Most often, athletes break or do not get better.

Additional points that coaches need to consider

41:55 -

  • There is a bio-physiological bias in triathlon, for example. So, we focus on physical development most of the time. With my study and understanding of oxygen uptake kinetics behind training intensities, I suggest that there is no need to adhere to strict training zones. Academic research developed much of the physiology science on constant metrics (power output, running pace)
  • However, we deal with hills, wind, and other external factors in the real world. In my opinion, the physiology underpinning behind exercise intensity and questioning standard methodologies are crucial areas. It influences how I prescribe training intensities.
  • We cannot forget that we are dealing with complex systems. Athletes feel different daily, and parameters like heart rate response and substrate utilisation vary.
  • Because of that, I do not think precision is that important. And there is good science that explains why that is the case.
  • There is no such thing as "aerobic/anaerobic intensity" because both systems are active all the time.

How Andy prescribes workouts for athletes

45:48 -

  • It will depend on the session purpose. I could specify it based on pace. For example, I have been working with a pro-athlete, and we know the times he needs to do in specific events.
  • We know the power/pace outputs required to achieve these demands. Therefore, the prescription will relate to the needs of the event.
  • For Ironman race pace, we would do power outputs that we would need to sustain for five hours, as an example.
  • We use race pace as a starting point, and we bring it up or down, depending on what we want to achieve through the session.
  • Another way is with the rate of perceived exertion (RPE). I usually scale it from 1-10, with 1 - easy and 10 - all-out.
  • We can use that because it does not need to be complicated.
  • I would rarely prescribe a VO2max session because first, we would need to measure VO2max in that session. Moreover, a VO2max session depends on your age and stage of development.
  • It will depend on how long you have been training and other parameters.

Coach/Athlete relationship

48:19 -

  • It would be good to have a coach/athlete dating site. For example, how do you select a partner?
  • First, you have to like and engage with them. For the relationship to last, you need openness, integrity and features that affect social relationships.
  • Moreover, coaches time is valuable. So, if I am going to spend four hours on my Sunday prescribing training for someone, I am not bothered about the money. I have to like them and feel the need to help them succeed.
  • I have to give up my time with my partner to help someone else. Therefore, the respect level is fundamental.
  • For a coach, I think it is critical to like people. Having worked in several performance environments, I have seen coaches that do not like other human beings.
  • I have seen it more prevalent in swimming. And it would be best if you liked people to drop your ego and help them achieve their potential.

Selecting the best athletes for each coach

51:54 -

  • I will not start working with someone overnight. It suggests that we have a couple of weeks talking with each other, where we have some meetings addressing different topics.
  • You have to build respect and trust. In an initial meeting, you have to know someone. Athletes might want to tell me how good they are and how well they will be training.
  • However, it takes time for me to understand whether they are being honest and if they have the capabilities of doing these things as well.
  • My process is typically a trial period of some months, where we see what training they have done in the past, how good they are at giving feedback and how good the interactions are in our chats.
  • Over that period, I would have built a picture of strengths and weaknesses in that athlete, and invariably, at the end of the process, we would decide together whether we wanted to work or not.
  • It has to be a mutual process in which we both consent to working with each other.
  • I will walk away from a discussion unless I see evidence that they have done their homework and spoken to other coaches. You would not go on the internet on a dating site and pick the first person that matches your profile. (you would check what the options are)
  • That point is what I expect from athletes. (that they explore their options)

Additional tips for coaches to improve their coaching practices

54:51 -

  • The most prominent tip for coaches would be to avoid being mean to people. I believe that is a good rule for life.
  • Look for inspiration in everything you do. I learned much about my coaching practices through engaging with the art. I would go to art exhibitions and look for things I could apply to understand the world and the people who operate in it.
  • For example, I learned so much about coaching by teaching a puppy how to do stuff. So, I can make the pet sit in five or six different ways. However, the puppy will only respond by saying "sit" in a tone that it understands. It has taught me the importance of tone of voice, eye contact, posture at a level that a coaching course would never teach me.
  • The puppy will bite me, pee in the corner, or not listen if I get it wrong.
  • Do not constrain yourself by trying to read every book about triathlon. It is helpful to read one or two. After a while, it becomes repetitive. Be open-minded to new things, and do not look for simple top tips to be better.

General tips for age group triathletes that want to improve their performance

58:34 -

  • First, they should reflect on the reason that leads them to follow a specific approach to sports. They should ask themselves if that is the best way and look for other alternatives.
  • Secondly, they should never accept things on "face" value. Athletes need to be careful when looking at different sources of information about training.
  • Thirdly, be challenging and continue to ask questions. Ask questions all the time and make up your mind to yourself.
  • Most age groupers should recognise that sports are not life and death. It is about enjoyment. Unless you are a world champion, think about other things and life.
  • Even if you are a world champion, other things in life are also essential.
  • Look for something that you enjoy doing consistently. And when you are not enjoying it, look for different training methods.
  • I still train, and I love training. Therefore, I am constantly finding new ways to keep myself engaged.
  • For example, I cannot remember the last time I was at a swimming pool. So, I try to swim in the open water and find different environments. In that way, I get excited if I see a jellyfish or a starfish.
  • I swim in challenging conditions, which brings a lot of excitement.
  • I got inspired by Michael Crawley and his book "Out of Thin Air: Running Wisdom and Magic from Above the Clouds in Ethiopia".
  • I met Michael a couple of years ago before going to Kenya to research Kenyan athletes. And I read an interesting paper that he wrote about Ethiopian runners. And he helped much with my work in Kenya.
  • He was doing a PhD in the anthropology of Ethiopian runners, and then he wrote that book. He talked about how these athletes used their environments and GPSs differently. They do not use the GPS to fix a pace.
  • These athletes use the GPS to run as slow as possible. They do not use paths when they go out running and follow the best environment for their training.
  • It has influenced me as well. I go out, and instead of starting running an out and back course of 15 km at 5min/km pace, I run in the park, around trees through mood. The goal is to do different things in the long run.
  • I even take a camera with me and do some photography. I stopped if I wanted to take a picture.
  • It is a different way of training, but if we look at the Ethiopian runners, they are good at running. It is only a different approach to building a training session.

General questions

1:04:20 -

Can you give three pieces of advice to athletes to take from this interview?

In my job, I am constantly reading things for my research. That continuous professional development happens not only with that but also with conversations with other coaches. So, it is not intentional. I learn more about things in my photography. I am currently learning how to use the technology, frame things and interpret your environment. Some of these skills transfer to coaching. For example, I went to watch waterfall kayaking with a coach. And through my photography and framing different segments of the course meant that I could engage in a sport I did not know about and did not have any experience of only with photography.

Rapid fire questions

What is your favourite book, blog or resource?

Michael Crawley and his book "Out of Thin Air: Running Wisdom and Magic from Above the Clouds in Ethiopia".

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

I have a life away from sports intentionally.

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

I have three people in triathlon: Darren Smith, David-Tilbury Davies and Chrissie Wellington. I got to know her when she was writing her second book, and she has pushed me and challenged me to work at my best.


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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