Learning the hard way can be one of the most effective ways of learning what not to do. It can also give you an edge – as it has Mark Bates.
Don’t recognize the name? It’s simply a reflection of how fast the sport has evolved in the last decade. During the 1990s, Bates was the guy with a target on his back. He was Canada’s top triathlete. He was captain of the national team from 1991 to 1996 and he won six national titles, his first in 1991 and his last in 2000. He also won a silver medal in triathlon at the sport’s Pan American Games debut in 1995 in Mar del Plata, Argentina. For these dominating efforts, and other consistent high performances, Bates was elected to Triathlon Canada’s Hall of Fame in 2006.
Bates competed and succeeded against some of the best athletes of his generation including Britain’s Simon Lessing, Australia’s Brad Beven, New Zealand’s Hamish Carter and Scott Molina of the US.
While Bates’ specialty was short-course (Olympic) distance events, a second place finish at his first Ironman in Canada in 1997 proved he was more than just fast.
In one way, the simplest explanation of who he is is to say he was the guy before Simon Whitfield. In 1999 Whitfield ran down Bates and won his first Canadian national title. It’s a victory that Whitfield, to this day, recalls as one of his most memorable.
Bates, 40, is an articulate, thoughtful and soft-spoken political science graduate. And he’s a coach of both age-group and elite athletes. When Bates entered the sport as a young teenager in Kingston, Ontario in the late 1980s, there was virtually no one to turn to for advice. “It was a different era,” he says.
Through trial and error, including reading through magazines for training ideas, Bates found what worked. That experience is what forms the basis of what the now Vancouver resident provides to his athletes.
“When I got into coaching, I had to change my mindset,” Bates says, but he didn’t let go of the reason why he was successful. “I look for a level of determination, or self-motivation. It shouldn’t always be the coach’s role to necessarily motivate the athlete.
“I think it works better if the athlete, more or less, already knows what they want to do. You have to be prepared to work hard and to do the work. It’s not a sport where you can take a lot of short cuts and skip the hard work.”
Bates, through his 321 Coaching business and as director of the Provincial Triathlon Centre for Vancouver and the Lower Mainland, has a broad range of athletes under his watch. Among the athletes he has coached are Rachel McBride and Cole Stewart.
“I take a look at the goal of what the athlete wants to do and evaluate whether that’s realistic and see if they have the drive to get out there and work hard. The other things that I try to bring across are balance – whatever their life situation might be, their age, their family situation. The level of balance.”
Bates has been coaching for nine years, mostly age-group athletes. He also helps develop junior age triathletes for junior elite racing and, in some cases, for promotion to the National Triathlon Centre in Victoria. Two of his star athletes this year moved to Victoria to attend the NTC while studying at the University of Victoria.
“There’s a bit more emphasis on high performance” with the PTC work which, Bates says, he enjoys. There are three other PTC’s across Canada in Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec and there is “a real cooperative spirit” among the coaches, he feels.
The youth development system that exists today stands in marked contrast to what he experienced in his early days in the sport. When Bates started in triathlon in the 1980s there was no junior racing and no coaching support. He trained with adults or with swim or running clubs. He says he “probably made a few more mistakes in those days because there wasn’t a lot of knowledge”.
Bates thinks there is still a gap today in the development of juniors in Canada from about 12 years of age through 16. “There are not a lot of youth clubs.” There is, however, the Kids of Steel program, junior national race series, world juniors and youth Olympic Games.
Part of what keeps Bates’ enthusiasm for the sport fresh is the mix of athletes with whom he works. Some of the age group athletes he coaches through his 321 Coaching business are novices, and Bates says he finds working with them equally as satisfying as his high-performance charges.
“I think triathlon tends to appeal to certain personality types,” Bates says. While he’s reluctant to say there is a stereotype, many adults he sees in the sport are “driven” individuals who are goal focused and are inclined to think a little too much. “There are so many variables that I think sometimes the best approach is to take care of all the basics and be ready for whatever might get thrown your way on race day. You can’t plan for absolutely everything.”
While it depends a lot on the individual, Bates says he tried to help athletes avoid focusing too much on time targets. “One of things you can look at are time goals, but I try not to make that the primary goal.
“For a first-time Ironman athlete it is a mistake to think that based on training I should be able to do (a specific time). It fails to factor in things like environmental conditions (wind, heat), transition times and fatigue as it sets in over the day.” Setting time targets wasn’t a realistic exercise for most athletes and often the result could be an athlete disappointed with their race “when in fact they’ve had a successful day”, Bates feels. “I think it’s better to focus on how you execute a race, how you feel at each stage of the race.”
Of course there is a time and a place for watching the clock.
“As an athlete gets more experienced and has goals based on their placing and times, then I put a little more emphasis on that, but, again, you can’t always go on time alone because courses are unique. I think you have to look at how you perform on the day relative to other people, how you execute your race and I really think it’s important for athletes to be in tune with how they feel as opposed to relying on their heart rate information. There are many pro athletes racing at the highest level who leave the toys at home and they basically just go race. I think there’s something to that. An ability to be in tune with how you feel at each stage of the race and thinking about how you want to execute each part of the race and then see where you finish at the end of the day.”