I have been involved in Hong Kong triathlon over the last decade and have experienced what it's like as both a full time athlete and a coach. Hong Kong has not sent an athlete to the Olympics for the last two cycles and those prior to that, only qualified via a development country ranking slot. Hong Kong triathlon enjoys a sizeable budget, great facilities, hard working culture and tremendous talent at its disposal; I believe we could be seeing significantly better results.
I was delighted to see the Junior boys take the top 3 places at the Asian Championships last weekend however, Hong Kong did not have an athlete inside the top 10 in any other category making it one of our weakest champs in a long time. The biggest disappointment for me was that out of the 36 places we had allotted for our athletes, only 13 people were sent. I know our local pool of athletes well and some great athletes were overlooked, but in most categories we actually did not have anyone of the right standard to send. This motivated me to write a few suggestions down and get everyone in the triathlon community thinking productively. The way I see it, the elite results achieved internationally are representative of our local triathlon community.
Here are my top 6 areas of focus to transform HK into a competitive triathlon nation.
1. Hire an International performance director - Most successful sporting nations hire a performance director who will work with the head coach on all issues related to performance. In our situation we would need someone who can focus on development as well as high performance. Our current HK setup has a self-selected committee who sets policy on all aspects of elite sport such as selection. My experience over the years have seen many head coaches overruled in many sports by these committees and triathlon is clearly suffering from the same scenario. Everyone appreciates all the committees time and effort put into the sport but a shift in focus is needed from them, into areas other than elite sport and development.
2. Transparency - Basic and fair selection policies should be transparent and posted on the Hong Kong triathlon website well in advance of selection events. Clubs and schools are avenues for advertising and promotion. A clear development pathway needs to be identified. Many of the big International Federations have clear athlete development pathways which give athletes clear goals and the opportunity to set the bar high, with the aim to race internationally. Once a good objective framework is in place athletes can be self selected via their race results. This is common practice and has shown to produce results consistently. Over the past few years I have seen no committee meeting minutes, no time trial results or no selection race results posted. Selection criteria are sometimes posted but are usually to subjective and posted to late for athletes and coaches to train towards. The ICAC have guidelines on their definition of fair practice in HK. An example document of British triathlon guidelines for recent major events can be found here.
3. Recruitment - Countries throughout the world recruit from other sports. Swimming is a prime example as there are huge numbers in Hong Kong who are never going to make it as Elite swimmers but could make it as Elite triathletes. Our current Junior Asian Champion is a great example of an athlete who was not suited to swimming. Swim coaches need to be educated that cross training can actually improve swim performance, especially if it's increasing the weekly training load. Internationally swim coaches have become more receptive to allowing triathlete’s into their squads. Mainly due triathletes strong work ethic and high standard of distance swimming which help motivate and are great contributors to squad moral. The recruitment process itself is very simple, but will not work if triathlon is not an attractive sport to be a part of. Nobody will leave their current sport if there is no objective pathway or transparent information for them to get to an Elite level.
4. Promote the clubs - Encourage clubs to produce elite athletes and reward them for doing so. Making it worthwhile for clubs to nurture athletes will produce a strong pool of youth and juniors who feed into senior ranks. The pool must be big at youth and junior level in order to produce athletes of elite level as seniors. The current practice of forcing fast athletes out of clubs to train with official TriHK programmes (even if its not best for the athlete) has encouraged clubs to focus more on age-group athletes where they can make consistent income with less effort. Training development athletes is very labour intensive. Currently there are only 11 junior athletes and 4 seniors in HK who are eligible to race ITU under our own self-inflicted guidelines. This will never be enough depth to create truly world class athletes. Incentives are needed for clubs and their coaches to start producing athletes and encouraging athletes to train where is best for them. This will produce better results and create role models for upcoming athletes. One such incentive is allowing logos on National squad uniform which have been banned in recent years.
5. Coach Education - Hosting continual professional development for coaches will give them confidence and expertise to train athletes to an Elite level. By rewarding clubs and their coaches who produce athletes will motivate them to put in the hard work necessary. We should be offering coaches yearly opportunities to gain international qualifications via the ITU. Only once has an ITU level 2 course been offered in HK. A framework should also be set up whereby development officers or the head coach visits local club coaches to give advice on their programmes. The coaching industry is booming worldwide yet in HK most coaches I know are only functioning on a part-time basis. Setting up monthly education seminars conducted by the head and guest coaches is a simple example, of what can easily be implemented.
6. Competitive race series - there are no training sessions that can quite match a race. By racing and experiencing race conditions at a variety of events throughout the season. Athletes learn to deal with pressure and get the opportunity to practice all the skills needed to race hard. Within Hong Kong Juniors and seniors must race together to create a more competitive environment with a bigger field. Race results should then be used for team selections for international races rather than the time trials that are currently used as these do not simulate a race experience or show the selection committee how well an athlete will cope under race conditions. Our juniors do not have enough competitive races and they suffer when racing outside of Asia because of it. A competitive environment is what drives and motivates athletes to reach the next level. This can only be created with better local races or allowing all junior athletes to race ITU events internationally.
To improve our international status and results, HK needs to create a competitive, fair, and favourable environment for athletes to train and race. Barriers to entry need to be reduced as do the many requirements and difficulties that are faced by athletes and coaches in HK. We could have an influx of potential athletes immediately if they could see the benefits of taking up triathlon. Make policies transparent, objective and based on results and we could have an immediate influx of potential athletes who want to take up triathlon. If combined with educating coaches on how to develop these potential athletes, HK triathlon will surely have an Olympic qualifier in the next cycle. Elite sport should be left to professionals with international experience, specific to triathlon. I hope to see some positive changes in future as well as a full development plan written by industry professionals. Once and for all we need to put triathlon on the pathway to success.