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Pain and the paper tiger

Updated: Dec 14, 2023

trisutto triathlon Brett Sutton pain paper tiger Bushido

Ironman is about ones-self and the internal discovery of your limits. It’s about asking questions of yourself and then challenging yourself to overcome them. Not just on race day but on training days too.

All who have joined my pros in age group training camps have commented on how it is nothing like how the triathlon world perceives. Apart from meeting centrally at the pool, my guys rarely do the same sessions and very few, if ever, go head to head. The Ironman guys don’t all ride and run together, and I don’t think we’ve ever seen the Angry Bird (Daniela Ryf) and Nicola (Spirig) on the same ride or run sets.

People come expecting a squad of 15 guys who go out the gate together, do the same set, and come back to be given a raging motivational blast by myself. It’s just not like that. It doesn’t make for champion athletes.

As a professional boxer in my youth I not only studied boxing history to coach myself, but looked at all the great warriors – the Spartans, the Samurai, and the order of Ninja that followed the Samurai. While different, all had a code of ethics where the honour of their fighting process rested on an internal struggle with pain and suffering and overcoming it in a near spiritual journey of self discovery.

Sport today is full of support teams, tribes of hangers on who are there to care for every whim and whimsy of the ‘star’ away from the field of battle. Many athletes now hire professional nannies, who are there for no other reason than to tell them how great they are.

Most of the honour is now gone. Money has taken over and to talk of Bushido seems strange in a triathlon blog.

However, such teachings have helped me set many people who couldn’t win big prizes on a journey that would eventually take them to that big final step in their athletic careers.

Rather than telling people what sessions to do, my coaching and teachings are about learning how to control and make honest appraisals of oneself. How whatever success you receive is your own doing and not mine, not your assistant coach’s, not your physio’s, not your masseuse’s, not your sport’s psychologist’s, but yours and yours alone.

I strive to make a whole champion. One that decides the destiny of their career by learning every day in training how to stand-up under pressure on their own two feet. I think big entourages are not conducive to the big pressure performance, unless your own psychology is weak and you can only perform for a team.

I’ve seen the truth of this consistently throughout my own career. Every day pain will come to defeat you and in every session, as the great US swimmer Tim Shaw once described it, ‘the paper tiger’ will be waiting.

Each and every day you know that somewhere in that evening’s main set, he (pain personified) will be waiting for you–looming. Go after him. Look him right in the eyes, and don’t back down. Don’t be fooled by the look on his face that he has ‘your number’’s a facade. He’s a paper tiger. Blow right through him.”

The more my athletes face the paper tiger head on, challenge him and teach themselves to internally say ‘bring it on, because I’m not backing down’ the fear of the tiger is diminished. Every day you face him and call his bluff in training, the less effect he has on race day.

It is years of fighting the paper tiger that makes you strong. When you’re able to defeat him on the biggest day of your career, that is about being an ultimate champion.

I want my champions to wear the Winner’s Wreath in Kona and the Gold Medal at the Olympics knowing: ‘I relied on no-one to defeat all. I am the ultimate champion.’

Doing it without me their holding their hand is the greatest honour I can bestow on an athlete. It means they did it and they did it on their own.

Ironman invokes Bushido in my mind better than all other non-contact sports. If I’ve done my job as a coach right I don’t need to be there. A happy back-slapper I’m not. Kona doesn’t need me and neither do the ultimate champions. Their honour is cemented for their lifetime.

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