Talent pipelines and talent development in a business setting are something that I give a fair amount of attention to in my professional responsibilities. Lately, I got to thinking about this topic as it relates to triathlon.
The inferred message is that there’s huge room for improvement in triathlon talent pipeline system. To be brutally honest, perhaps system is too generous a term for what’s in place now. How about the haphazard non-synergistic patchwork of efforts that exist? That sounds fair and consistent with observation.
Here’s an interesting read by a circumspect Dan Empfield, where he prognosticates who among the top young talent in the U.S. 2005 has(had) the goods to make it big as a professional triathlete. However, Dan’s approach is about the who of talent and what best pre-pro talent looks like, while I’m thinking more of a systems issue.
What kind of system best generates and develops a triathlon talent pipeline?
First, consider which parties are best suited and most incented to ensure young elites and neo pro’s receive the support necessary to optimize their long term performance. Let’s analyze some possible answers to these questions in an attempt to get closer to a good answer:
In practice and in light of recent policy adjustments, WTC doesn’t appear to want to take that role on and maybe they shouldn’t. Perhaps they should stick to their path of providing the whiz-bang promotional know-how that leads to better widespread media exposure, which is an equally important part of developing the sport for a broader audience. The WTC’s size and stature in the triathlon community does not necessarily imply responsibility for developing or simply supporting the development of an elite talent pipeline. Yes, they have resources, but where’s the incentive?
USAT. This would, of course, be just for the United States, not worldwide. For the sake of relative simplicity and due to the fact that I’m a U.S. citizen and USAT member, let’s stick with the local organization although similar arguments could be made for other national triathlon associations.
According to USAT, “Our mission is to encourage, support and enhance the multisport experience in the United States.” Additionally, elite athletes are considered to be one of the core constituencies (plus 16 other groups), and there are several programs that serve to enhance talent development by creating pipeline events (see page 10 of the 2010 Strategic Plan). These fall under the umbrella of Sport Performance with a directive to develop a long-term plan that emphasizes systematic development of elite athletes in the quest for medals in the Olympic Games, Pan Am Games and World Championships.
Yet, some critics would argue, that USAT emphasizes development in short course triathlon, particularly draft legal. This often comes from those whose bias is toward the superiority of non-drafting, long course triathlon. There are errors in that position, with three of the largest being that (1) long course is not superior, it is simply different, (2) USAT provides both drafting and non-drafting pipeline events (see Collegiate and Age Group Championship events), and (3) as we are seeing in recent years, it is the athletes with proven success in short course moving into longer events that are overwhelmingly the most successful in these highest profile long course events.
Sponsored Triathlon Teams. Nationwide sponsored triathlon teams like Timex and others ones that are popping up. Over the past few years, the number of team sponsored opportunities for age group elite and pro elite athletes have multiplied. Unfortunately, these same groups have a pattern of selecting their roster based only on past results, not a mixture of results and potential. Even with the greater number of sponsorship opportunities, it is easier for an almost over the hill masters athlete like me with a list of palmares than it would be for the 2003 version of me– new to the sport with some early promising results and on the cusp of a breakout season.
Now, I realize that some sponsored teams target a mixture of top performing talent and other influential mid-packers based on a specific target profile (i.e, Trakkers), but those seem to be the exception rather than the rule. If a triathlon team’s mission were truly to support development of elite triathlon talent, what would that look like? I know from my experience on the board of a local elite tri team that there are wide-ranging opinions on that topic.
- Should the team focus on financial support of the young and cash-strapped?
- Should there be performance bonuses to incent the type of race performances that might best lead to a pro career in the sport?
- Should there be cash changing hands at all, or should the support be in the form of discounted and free gear and supplies?
I don’t have the answers to those questions outside of my personal opinions and biases. I do consider how other sport teams build talent pipelines. Look at baseball, for example. Sure, it’s a team sport unlike the individual sport of triathlon, but is there a value in having a developmental and pro squad?
The athlete. In the end, we are all ultimately responsible for our own development. It’s an early indicator of not having the right stuff to make it big for a neo-pro to be heard whining about not having all the support they think they deserve. Part of the process is figuring out how to GET that support. Besides, that smacks of the same sense of entitlement attitude that drives the rewarding of mediocre results in any sport, business or forum of competition.
Who’s in charge? Sure, if the powers that be want to see greater exposure of the pointy end of the sport beyond participants and their spouses and thereby up the value of sponsorship income, it behooves them to not impede pro-level elite development. This in no way takes the onus off of the athlete from developing a team of supporters and advocates, but an individual can impact only so much. Who stands to gain the most by orchestrating all the major groups – the national associations, race directors, elite and upcoming athletes, participants– to enhance the effectiveness of the triathlon talent pipeline?
Answers. I think I’ve asked more questions than I have anwers to here. This is a big topic and I’ve only just glossed the surface. Maybe I’ll post this, read it later, and then have a brainstorm of smart suggestions. Or maybe you do. If that’s the case, please share.