James Brown tells us how he went from being a member with no coaching experience to attaining a Level 2 Triathlon Coach qualification.
Have you ever been to a Serpentine session, looked at the person coaching it and thought, “I wonder how they do that?” I did. For many years I was a typical Serpentine trainee, attending sessions, listening to the advice of my coaches, trying to take it all on board to become a better athlete/triathlete.
I never saw myself as someone who could teach others, so how did I get to where I am now? Which is to say, a qualified Level 2 triathlon coach, who regularly leads and teaches spin and swimming sessions.
Well, it all started with a little encouragement, a bit of time, and a trip to Croydon Upper School, where I took my first steps towards qualifying.
The push came initially from random conversations; a post-Three Parks pub drink here, a cross-country discussion there, and Serpie folk repeatedly telling me it was a great idea. Each time I’d say I’d definitely go for it, only to talk myself out of it the morning after. Having gone on like this for several years, I finally got around to having the conversation with Alex Elferink, the committee member responsible for triathlon coaching. Like everyone else, Alex said I should do it and like every other time, I said yep, great idea, but maybe when I’m less busy and can afford it.
That was when Alex revealed that the club would pay for it – half up front, and half after I passed.
That was my best excuse for delay well and truly busted. OK then, I figured, time to take the plunge. Alex sent me the link and I signed up for the British Triathlon Federation Level 1 qualification in coaching, starting in Croydon that autumn.
So far, so good. But, don’t think that that’s it until day one of your course. Oh no, as I soon discovered, this is the point where your prep work begins. Once signed up, you’re assigned a login and password to the British Triathlon Federation Learning Hub website, and presented with a checklist of reading, online tests and exercises.
And I do mean a checklist. This website keeps score, and if I didn’t get to 100% completion on all of the above, then there would definitely be no coaching qualification for me.
Subjects I had to read and learn about included ‘The Role of the Coach’, ‘Safety and Welfare’, ‘Coaching Process and Skills’ and specifics on how to coach learners in swim, bike and run disciplines.
But reading alone is not enough. I was also required to submit written tasks via the website, and upload documents showing I could conduct safety assessments and create emergency action plans for all three disciplines.
Sounds daunting? Well, I can’t lie, there were times I was very nervous indeed. You’ve heard of writer’s block? Well imagine coach’s block, except multiplied by all three of swim, bike and run. Daunted? You bet I was.
Then came my trip to Croydon Upper School. The Level 1 course included a full weekend of classroom teaching with a group of my fellow trainees. As well as a pen and paper, we were also told to bring sports kit for swim, bike and running sessions (plus your bike of course), and prepare lesson plans to teach short sessions in all three disciplines.
Our instructors were Jon Horsman, who is also the Head Coach for Crystal Palace Triathletes club, and Rich Brady, a professional coach with extensive experience working with elite-level triathletes.
The idea of delivering triathlon lessons, let alone doing it in front of two very senior coaches, made me feel pretty nervous. But when it came time to perform, it quickly became clear that everyone on the course felt the same way I did, and that we all wanted to help support each other to succeed in becoming tri coaches.
Each trainee on the course got put through their paces, and we all delivered sessions using the fellow trainees as pupils. It did feel awkward at first, but Jon and Rich were incredibly professional, and we quickly fell into a routine of delivering sessions and covering all the coaching points required.
Once we delivered our sessions the coaches gave us written feedback, highlighting areas they thought we needed to improve in. The emphasis was not on getting it right the first time but developing while you were there. Jon and Rich kept the atmosphere positive and upbeat.
By the end of my first weekend in Croydon I was exhausted, but had learnt a huge amount about how to be a coach. I also felt a lot more positive about the idea of actually standing in front of my fellow Serpies and coaching them.
But the course wasn’t over. There was still a final assessment day to be completed and more homework to be done.
In between, I started assisting at Serpentine coaching sessions to build my experience, helping Lan O’Connor and Paul Wilson with the Thursday night swimmers at King’s Cross. Lan and Paul helped me continue to develop my coaching skills, taking the time after sessions to provide feedback on how I was doing, and suggest ways I could improve.
Lan and Paul taught me that the lesson plan is just the starting point for delivering a successful session, and to really help the swimmers improve I would need to be able to think on my feet and adapt my plans to suit each person. They also taught me to closely observe swimmers to see where they could improve, and then think up the best ways to help them.
The day of my assessment finally arrived, but severe snow saw it cancelled at the last minute. The big day was then rescheduled and actually clashed with the Crystal Palace Triathlon, which I was already committed to competing in. What to do? Luckily, the Level 1 course organisers came up with a solution. Lan videoed me delivering a swim drill session to a group of willing Serpie volunteers, and I submitted this online via the British Triathlon Federation website. Nerve-wrackingly, it was a pass/fail situation.
After a tense and nervous wait, I finally got the message I’d been waiting for; I’d passed and been certified a British Triathlon Federation Level 1 coach.
Of course, this was just the beginning of my story. The experience gave me the confidence in myself and the knowledge that if I wanted to continue Serpentine would be with me throughout the process. I knew what I wanted to do – Level 2.
So, after another quick chat with Alex, I applied, and after more reading, more online tasks, and more long weekends of class learning and passing Jon Horsman’s judgement, I once again got the nod.
So, what was the Level 2 qualification like? It was a lot more challenging, obviously. The higher levels of testing and increased number of lesson plans clearly indicated I was taking a massive step up. My skills were tested, my coaching plans had to be more comprehensive and my focus clear. There were moments when I wasn’t sure I could do it, but again the support from Serpentine – from the experienced coaches to the athletes who agreed to be my “guinea pigs” – gave me the confidence to push through.
And that is how I became a Level 2 triathlon coach. It was hard work, and at times a bit nerve wracking. But the chance to help my fellow Serpies achieve their goals is brilliant, and I really enjoy both my continued swim coaching at King’s Cross, and also leading spin classes at the Seymour Centre on Wednesdays. I’m even considering it as a career. So, don’t be put off, if it’s something you want to try too, then there’s no time like the present.
Serpentine will support you every step of the way.
James Brown began racing triathlons in 2010, with not totally stellar performance in the London Triathlon, which persuaded him that he needed to do some actual training for the next time. After joining Serpentine, he began to improve (a bit), and has since competed in many multi-sport events, up to half-Iron distance.