Q & A with Triathlon Coach Suzanne Atkinson

For the past 3 months Coach Suzanne from Steel City Endurance has been writing my tri plan. We have known each other for several years, taught and coached swimming together, traveled together and written a book together. I thought it would be interesting to see her responses to some questions I had, and get a little insight into a coaches mind. I think she had fun answering them too!

Before you became a triathlon coach, what quality or trait of yours did you anticipate being the most useful in coaching?

The ability to solve problems in order to prioritize and plan a course of action for an athlete.

Is that still your best quality or trait as a coach today?

My best quality now is the ability to solve these problems dynamically, sometimes on a day to day basis, with good communication, understanding their current level of fatigue and stress and how they are responding to the training activities they have been doing. So that all falls apart if myself or the athlete are not communicating well. I’d say then that communication may be my best strength and even then can always be improved.

What aspect of coaching do you enjoy the most?

I enjoy building the relationship and getting to know my athletes on a personal level beyond their athletic goals. For example getting the opportunity to meet their families and connecting on a deeper level than sports. After that I like seeing the improvements!

What range of athletic abilities have you coached?

I have coached everyone from those who have never swam or exercised before for fitness to advanced triathletes with ‘podium’ speed prior to me meeting them. The needs vary of course but what is common are the need for communication and them of course solving that puzzle of teaching or guiding them to the next step that will help them progress forward.

What is the one common quality of any level athlete that makes them easy to coach?

The ability to communicate honestly and be open for feedback. That is two but we will let it slide.

What is the most challenging quality?

Obviously things like not communicating or not doing workouts makes its challenging. But assuming they are doing that, I think strong preconceived ideas about what training should look like makes it challenging. There is a lot of good information available online and in magazines and blogs, but any individuals best course of training won’t conform to all of the things authors are writing about. One benefit of a coach is that the coach can help the athlete choose their path through that forest of information. So I guess an athlete that continuously wanders can be challenging to work with.

Can you mention the most important steps you take in planning a program for an athlete?

1. Gathering information about training background and prior race experience.

2. Understanding their personal goals and reasons for participating in their sport.

3. Gathering potential main races or events they want to prepare for.

4. Assessing strengths and weaknesses at present.

5. Planning an initial course of action based on their available time.

Then getting on with the plan and learning how they respond to it and enjoy it. The real work starts once this plan rolls into motion.

In general what workouts do triathletes skip the most?

Haha! The one they need the most! For one person it may be a day of swim technique and they just want to swim long (preconceived idea about what is best). For a different athlete it may be a long bike ride, and they will sub it with an extra run with friends. People tend to do more of what they like and if time is short and they can only do say 2 runs this week not 3, they tend to skip the one that is most unfamiliar or most challenging.

This goes back to the coaches job of guiding the athlete through the forest. I shouldn’t be giving athletes complex, difficult to understand workouts the week before their child’s wedding for example. So if I know there is a lack of time beforehand, I may only put one run on their calendar….the one they would be most likely to skip. If it is the only choice they will be more likely to do it. Then they can fill in with runs they like more.

What goes through your mind leading up to and on race day of an athlete?

Have I trained them well enough? Are they ready for race day? Oops I didn’t realize the run was 18 miles and not 13 miles. Closer to the race there will be more practicing of things like transition, what to do on travel day, reviewing emotional status of the athlete and helping them get centered and focused on the process of race day. Sometimes I stress that we did too much or not enough, but it always works out.

What do you consider success for your athletes?

Good question! I consider a success when the athlete achieves the goals they set out to with a caveat….Most goals are things like not finish last, finish top half of age group, be on the podium etc. These are dependent on outside things we can not control like who shows up on race day. So we need to reframe as process goals and compare apples to apples. Same course, faster time for example. Other athletes have less ordinal goals, not caring about placing or times, but they want to be more active or lose weight or get more comfortable on the bike. All those are successes when the athlete follows through.

What is the best feedback you have ever received regarding your coaching?

A mother of two teen triathletes said to me ‘You’re an incredible coach. I hope someone is telling you that every day’.

I always look for constructive ways to improve, but for me the drive to improve is built in. I’d seek out my flaws if no one was telling me. But getting positive feedback helps me keep moving forward knowing what I do is valued by my athletes.

What’s the most fun fact about you?

I carved a wooden duck my freshman year at college. It is about 2 inches long. I brought a block of wood and a knife to school with me and worked on it as a way to relax. My life long college pals still joke that maybe I would forget a birthday but I can carve a duck!


Coach Suzanne and Coach Dinah teaching at the National Training Center, Clermont FL








  • By Suzanne, August 29, 2016 @ 10:09 am

    Thanks Dinah, this was really fun! I enjoy your blog posts a lot. Let’s crush your next tri!

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