"Be comfortable being uncomfortable" with Danielle Stefano | EP#55
Danielle Stefano has been working in high performance sport since 2003, including going to the London Olympics in 2012 as a coach for Australia's triathletes. She first began her career as a Sport Scientist working not only with Triathlon, but also with Swimming, Track & Field, Cycling, Hockey and Soccer. Today she runs the professional triathlon squad Elotik Pro Triathlon.
In this Episode you'll learn about:
- What Danielle considers cornerstones of successful triathlon training
- What she has learnt from working in other sports that she applies in her triathlon coaching today
- The coach-athlete relationship and communication
About Danielle Stefano
- I started as a sports scientist at the Victoria Institute of Sports in Melbourne wherein I worked in triathlon but also with swimming, track and field, cycling, and men’s hockey.
- I had a lot of experience across a number of different sports. My main area was in physiology. Through this I was working with the triathlon program with the head coach at that time, Jono Hall.
- Jono ended up taking the head coach position with the USA Triathlon team at the start of 2012. At that point we had 2 athletes in contention for the Olympics who were Erin Densham and Brendon Sexton.
- They came to me and asked me to coach them through to London. This was when I was allowed to take a break from my sports science duties and pursue the coaching aspect.
- When I came back to my sports science duties, I was missing the coaching part of things again. So I applied for the head coach position at the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) and was lucky to get the job. I was the head coach for 4 years.
- This year I started my own business with Elotik as a high performance program not only for Australian athletes but internationals as well.
Coaching triathlon without a background as a triathlete
- I come from a basketball background, and have never done a triathlon myself.
- It created a bit of controversy when I was appointed head coach with that, in addition to being a female.
- It didn't bother me too much, since the athletes had full confidence in me as a coach, and that was the main thing.
- With my background and not being an elite athlete I could think outside the box and not be stuck in my own training ways which I might have if I would have come from an elite background.
- Triathlon is a very physiological sport and physiology was my bread and butter for 10 years.
- Working with the individual aspects of the sport - swimming, cycling, track and field - I was highly involved with the coaches and what they were doing from a prescription and technical perspective.
- So I was able to see what the individual sports did and how they elicited different responses in training and how they got to push their athletes to be able to get a performance and then bring it into triathlon and how we can do that in our sport.
- I even learnt a lot from rowing programs and what they did in training and recovery.
- From a technical perspective, I was lucky enough to have exposure to Australia’s best coaches in different sports. Some of them are the world’s leading coaches in their fields.
- From a swimming perspective I was exposed to how these coaches worked with their athletes in trying to perfect their stroke and look at what was required to be able to swim efficiently but fast at the same time.
- From a cycling perspective I was learning what the top coaches there would do to try and improve performance for the cyclists. The same with running, and talking with top middle-distance and distance coaches and how they would setup their athletes' training.
- And finally, obviously working with Jono Hall in triathlon and see what he did with the triathlon program.
Do you have any specific examples of what you have applied and learned from those other coaches and the other sports that you now use regularly in your triathlon training?
- Ensuring the management of the training load and being able to make sure that you are still pushing the athlete and getting as much as you possibly can from them, but then also allowing for rest and adaptation for those benefits to occur.
- You can push your athletes a little bit harder in the water compared to other disciplines. So when we are in the water, we pretty much do only quality training sessions.
What are your different responsibilities as a coach of an elite squad?
- It is pretty much to lead and guide the athletes to help them have continuous improvement in their performance and help them reach their goals.
- My big philosophy in coaching is to be able to give the athletes the tools to be able to take ownership and accountability of their own development and performance.
- I’m a strong believer in creating empowered athletes and I don’t want them to be dependent on me, just listening to everything I do and do it religiously without even asking questions or understanding why we do things.
- So for me, there’s responsibility of coaching them not only from a physiological and technical perspective but coaching them as people as well to understand why they do it and to make those decisions and have confidence in themselves to be able to take charge and control of their own destiny.
With your elite athletes, do you find that they have a basic grasp of the theory and principles of training and physiology and the reasons behind them or do you actually need to teach them that?
- Some do, and they have usually been in the sport for a bit longer. But I always like when I get new athletes on board to explain to them that I want them to ask questions about things they don’t understand.
- I believe that if the athletes have a clear understanding of why I’m trying to do something with them, you’re going to get more out of them in training and they’ll push themselves a little bit more.
What are the common mistakes that you see athletes make before understanding why they do those sessions?
- You either get athletes that are going too hard when you don’t want them to go as hard as they are or they’re going too easy when you want them to go hard.
- For instance, we might do a swim session where I’ll start off the main set and it might be 4 x 50 meter repeats from a dive at max effort. And I want them to go absolutely max, and then they’ll go into some threshold work. The purpose of that, for me, is to try and simulate a start of a race. So it’s an all out sprint to get to that first buoy to try to get a good position and potentially clear water around that first buoy.
- So if the athlete does not understand the purpose of these first dive 50s, then they can sometimes hang back and save themselves because they know what is coming up next. Whereas for me, I’d rather have them go all out and potentially fade. That to me gives me more information than somebody holding back and saving themselves just to get through the set.
Can you talk about the coach-athlete relationship and the different dimensions to that?
- I not only end up becoming the athletes' coach but also their psychologist, mom, big sister, and everything really - you kind of take it all on board depending on what’s going on.
- I try to really have a strong and open relationship with my athletes. Because I do think that when we are away and there isn’t too many people around but our squad, if they do need to talk to someone about what’s going on either within or outside triathlon that they should feel comfortable that they can talk to me.
- I play a big role with them from a mental perspective as well.
- I also can give them advice on some of their nutritional aspects for racing and training as well for performance and recovery.
- Finally, I also help them out with their sponsorships.
Do you change a lot in their program, is it flexible and dynamic? Or do you want them to try stick to what you have laid out for them?
- It is dynamic depending on how they feel. The advantage of me being a face to face coach is you can get not only the feedback from them but you can also see the athlete. And you can collect data from their gadgets. So you’ve got a really holistic view of how they’re responding to the training load and whether you need to adjust things.
- The communication from the athlete is imperative and this will dictate whether I change their training slightly for them.
- My big thing is consistency in training. There’s no point smashing an athlete if they may be out for a couple of days. I’d rather push them to the point just before they break and still be able have them training at a lesser intensity rather than having them do no training at all because they have to recover.
Do you ever add more sets to their workout or make it a little bit longer?
- I don’t necessarily make it longer. I might surprise them with an extra effort not because of how well they’re doing in a set but it might just be something that I’ve got up my sleeve that I think they can do if they’ve handled the workout really well.
- For example, I might get them to do a 100 meter best effort at the end of a race pace session in the water.
- Normally, if I have a hard session planned and they do it really well then that’s great. I don’t need to add anymore to it.
- I might push them to go harder in the set but I don’t normally add extra to the set.
How do outside stressors affect the program and how you push them or hold them back in workouts?
- You can really tell if they’re struggling with some stuff outside triathlon. With so many athletes that I’ve had in the past, there’s personal issues, whether it’s family or relationship issues and they just need a bit of time to get over it or sort that out.
- A lot of times in the past it’s been beneficial for the athlete to have me as someone that they can talk to.
- Normally, if they’re really struggling I just get them to have a day off and go to the beach, try to clear your mind and don’t worry about triathlon for today, and have your own space, and do what you need to do.
How do you manage training load?
- I do use Training Peaks in terms of putting everything up there and having all the athletes files in there.
- But to be honest, it is probably more intuition and knowing the athlete, and having an understanding of what you want to get out of them and what’s actually occurring.
- The performance management chart and the data that you do get from Training Peaks is more of a backup for me and something that reaffirms what I’m thinking a lot of time. I don’t make decisions based purely on what Training Peaks is telling me but I do use that as a reference.
What are the key points for successful triathlon training?
1. Communication between the coach and the athlete is imperative. It needs to be open and honest both ways.
2. Challenging the athletes to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. If you’re putting yourself in an uncomfortable position in training then that’s going to become natural in competition.
3. Having a skill checklist for yourself to go through not only in a race but in training under fatigue. On the run for example, ask yourself, "Am I keeping my hips high, am I driving my knees off the ground" etc.
Favorite book, blog, or resource related to triathlon or endurance sports:
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Person in triathlon that you admire or look up to:
Links, resources and contact
Links and resources mentioned
Connect with Danielle
Danielle is about to start coaching age-group athletes in addition to her elite squad. If you want to learn more about her coaching and see if it's a good fit for you, do reach out to her through the links below.
Connect with host Mikael Eriksson
Hi! I'm your host Mikael,
I am a full-time triathlon coach and an ambitious age-group triathlete. My goal is podium at the Finnish national championships within the next few years.
I first started the website Scientific Triathlon in autumn 2015 as a passion project to share my learnings with a larger triathlon audience. Later on, in early 2017 I started the podcast That Triathlon Show.
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