The art and science behind the best training environments
When six-time Ironman champion and one of the fastest ever female long-course triathletes Rebekah Keat decided, in 2013, to train with coach Siri Lindley and her “Sirius Elite Squad” in Boulder, Colorado, she had no idea she’d fall in love.
“I was excited to train in a new group environment, but the draw card was Siri herself,” says Keat. “I remember wanting to work with her because of her passion, positivity, deep knowledge, and experience.”
It wasn’t long before Keat realized that Lindley wasn’t just an amazing coach, but an amazing person, too. The growing attraction was mutual and soon Keat and Lindley–athlete and coach–were falling in love.
“There is a rule in coaching not to develop romantic feelings for your athletes,” admits Lindley, “but love is a powerful force.”
After sharing their feelings with each other, the pair was faced with some difficult questions: Should Lindley continue coaching Keat? How would they tell the rest of the squad, the other eight world-class triathletes who train under Lindley’s tutelage?
Lindley and Keat decided to continue their coach-athlete relationship in parallel to their budding romantic one. “There was no point in trying to hide it from the other athletes, so Siri just sat everyone down and told them about us,” recalls Keat. “Now that I think about it, it actually wasn’t that big of a deal. Siri had already created an atmosphere with so much trust and respect.”
The group responded to the news positively, and what could have been a tense meeting and the destruction of a training squad turned into a small celebration. Lindley and Keat would go on to get married a little over a year later, and both their romantic and coach-athlete partnerships remain strong today. The other athletes on the Sirius Elite Squad continue to be supportive, something that is easy to do when you are regularly improving and winning races.
Still, this kind of openness and vulnerability is rare, if not unmatched, at the top of triathlon, where many elite training groups are known for their hard-ass coaches and dog-eat-dog environments. But what if the love radiating throughout the Sirius Elite Squad is the very source of its lasting success?
When it comes to high-performing teams, researchers in the field of organizational psychology often focus on something called “psychological safety.” Psychological safety exists when individuals in groups feel completely comfortable being themselves. Psychologically-safe groups are characterized by deep trust and mutual respect. Risk-taking is encouraged and fear of failure, judgment, and alienation is minimal or absent altogether.
For his most recent book, Smarter, Faster, Better, author Charles Duhigg dove deep into the science of high-performing teams. He found that psychological safety is particularly powerful because it “seems to remove ego elements from teams,” making it easier for individuals to reflect on their own performance and learn from others in a non-judgmental way.
This does not mean that competition is lacking. But, Duhigg discovered, in teams with psychological safety, tension between members is often positive, prompting individual members to push themselves in a productive manner. “The competition is healthy and doesn’t spill over into defensiveness or become self or mutually destructive,” he says.
Put differently, in psychologically-safe environments, competition raises everyone up. But when psychological safety is lacking, competition often breaks people down. In a sense, psychologically-safe teams function similarly to many families: Individual members may push each other and not always get along, but at the end of the day, they are united by trust and respect. They are in it together.
It is easy to see why psychological safety may be one of, if not the, most important attributes for a group of world-class athletes who on Friday train together and on Saturday compete against each other for prize money and sponsorship. But this kind of culture does not manifest magically or by accident. According to Duhigg, “The tone set by the coach or leader is absolutely, 100 percent critical in establishing psychological safety.”
From 2000 to 2002, Siri Lindley dominated the International Triathlon Union (ITU) racing scene, winning 13 world cup races and a world championship. When she retired from racing in 2003 to begin her second life as a coach, she went out on top, as one of the best ever short-course racers, a sentiment validated when Lindley was inducted, in 2014, into the inaugural class of the ITU Hall of Fame. Prior to going on her tear in 2000, however, Lindley struggled mightily. She had developed great fitness and executed insanely difficult training sessions, but she could never fully put it together on race day.
At the time, triathlon for Lindley was a solitary pursuit. She completed nearly all of her training solo and was living a monkish life. In 2000, however, thanks to the encouragement of her close friend and Olympian Loretta Harrop, Lindley decided to join coach Brett Sutton’s training group. Within weeks, she was standing atop podiums. “My experience training with Brett’s group, and the results it yielded for me personally, made me realize the power of a squad,” she says.
What’s interesting is that outside of the group environment, Lindley’s approach to coaching differs dramatically from Sutton’s, who is known as a rigid taskmaster. “I learned a lot from Brett,” Lindley explains, “and it’s reflected in my coaching. But at the same time, I’ve created a quite different atmosphere.”
Lindley exudes positive energy.
“She’s so dang enthusiastic,” says three-time Ironman World Champion Mirinda Carfrae, who has trained in Lindley’s squad for 10 years. “When I first started working with her, I thought it was fake. But it’s not. We could be doing a long swim at 5 a.m., when it’s freezing cold, and there’s Siri, smiling ear-to-ear, so happy to be there. When you have that kind of positive energy around you all the time, it’s hard to be an angry person.”
Long-course specialist and newcomer to the Sirius Elite Squad Rafael Goncalves says that while the positive energy helps, “more important is athlete fit and shared respect.”
The Sirius Elite Squad intake process is meticulous. All prospective athletes complete a questionnaire with over 100 prompts. “Even detailed things like, ‘if someone pushes the toothpaste in the middle of the tube instead of the top, will that irritate you?’” remembers Goncalves. “She’s really trying to get a thorough idea of who you are not just as an athlete, but also as a person.”
Lindley says she seeks individuals who have big but realistic dreams, are 100 percent invested, and most important, will be a positive addition to the group. “Total commitment without ego,” she says.
While the athlete intake process is a good starting point, the real magic happens on the ground in Boulder, where Sirius Elite Squad athletes train together. Lindley leans on veteran members to set an example for new athletes. Past champions like Carfrae, Keat, and Yvonne Van Vlerken model desired behaviors. When Goncalves first joined the squad, he was struck by what he calls a powerful unspoken code: “Everyone is training hard and pursuing their own individual excellence, even competing at times. But rather than try to beat each other down, everyone is working to raise each other up.”
Lindley is extremely thoughtful about how and when she pits athletes against each other in training sessions. These decisions, she says, are often more about psychological factors than physiological ones. Early in the season, the group does a fair amount of training together. But as key races approach, Lindley often separates certain athletes “so they don’t feel toxic pressure or start to harbor negative feelings toward one another,” she says.
“Siri splits up athletes at the right times,” explains Carfrae. “It takes the ego out of it and ensures everyone is trying to get the best out of themselves and help one another.” At the same time, says Carfrae, Lindley never plays favorites and sees to it that all the athletes have a voice that is listened to.
Outside of training, Sirius Elite Squad athletes are encouraged, but never forced, to spend time together. Team dinners and barbecues at the Lindley residence are common occurrences. “I think it is really important that everyone gets to know each other not just as athletes, but as people, too,” Lindley says. “I want [the athletes] to feel comfortable coming to me, and each other, with whatever is on their mind, be it triathlon-related or something else entirely.”
What results is a supportive environment where athletes feel comfortable taking risks and making themselves vulnerable. “It’s OK to be beaten,” says Keat, “and it’s OK when someone else has a better training session, or even a better race, than you because everything we do is built on respect.” In the Sirius Elite Squad, a rising tide lifts all boats.