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Kristopher Hildebrand - | Exceleration Multi-Sport & Triathlon

Triathlon Coach Kris Hildebrand

We spoke with Kris Hildebrand from the Exceleration triathlon club in Vancouver, BC. Kris is an experienced coach with 32 years on deck in both swimming and triathlon. He's been at the Exceleration triathlon club for the last 14 years. And today, we're here to talk to him about his philosophy behind why he does what he does and his program.  Kris shares his philosophy on training, his view of sport and its place in society, and what makes the Exceraltion Triathlon club what it is. You can find the Exceleration Triathlon club and Kris at https://www.excelerationtriclub.ca/

What follows is an except from our hour long conversations.  The full video interview can be found on our youtube channel and by the link here. The full audio can be found by Clicking here

Your story begins in Winnipeg You were a very high-level swimmer in Winnipeg, then moved into coaching, started a business in Winnipeg, and life kind of slowly dragged you out West from there. Who did you swim with in Winnipeg? 

I was with the Marlins and then U of M University of Manitoba.  I didn't really improve through my years of university swimming, but swimming was an engineering outlet. My background is in engineering. When you've got a full course load, and you're studying a lot, you need an outlet and swimming, was that outlet. I wasn't eating well, I wasn't sleeping well, I was surviving for a lot of it, which was not conducive to good swimming, but it's good to get through engineering.

Your background as an engineer certainly must help you with the technical aspects of kinetic connect, the energy of movement, biomechanics, and so forth. 

Yeah, I'm not afraid of the math is really what it comes down to. You know, it's not a big deal to open up a book on biomechanics, pacing, or energy systems. The math and the technical jargon never scared me, which is, I guess, pretty good. Because a lot of, coaches I think, get scared by that. 

Fair enough. Talk to me a little bit about balance and creating the right environment. Pathways for everybody in this sport are different, and

you've mentioned before, the chances of getting a really big payday out of this sport are few and far between. So it has to be about more than just that. 

I think a lot of this comes back to the fact that triathlon is cradle to grave.

You can literally start at zero years old, and you can go until you no longer there. It's a sport that has many avenues for an athlete. They can start in a competitive stream and move to less competitive or vice versa. At the end of the day, we don't put our kids in the sport to make the Olympics; maybe some do & perhaps I'm wrong. Some people may do that. But the reality is so few people actually go on to high levels of the sport. There are so many barriers along the way and the need to get the right lucky coincidences. If that is your goal, then it's like trying to become a millionaire by buying a lot of lottery tickets and hoping to win the lottery; that's not the best way. The best way to become a millionaire or be successful is to develop habits. Those that are required to be a millionaire. You know, you need to be pseudo frugal, or you have to understand money. You have to have good work ethics; you have to have the drive; you need the ability to follow a plan; those are all things you learn in sport. There's a reason why many of the most successful people on the planet that we're in sport at some level and often at reasonably high levels. They may have attained a certain level of performance in their sport before something else pulled them away, or they realize that that was the highest level they're going to achieve for their ability in their sport. As they then move into other areas, they find out that this sport thing really helped. It taught me diligence; it taught me how to get up early in the morning, do things even when I'm tired, or even just the idea that I can plan, set a goal, and attain it. That, in my mind, that's the real value of sport to society and the kids. So if that's the value, the real value of sport, that should be included in your sports program.


Then we put that front and center and we talk about that regularly with the kids. 

That's brilliant. And how much of that conversation trickles down or is also had with parents? 

That's part of the indoctrination process. Most parents get the concept that they're the kid's job is school and that 99.9% of their future is how well they do in school. Sport is going to teach them a lot, but the sport itself is probably not going to give them a career. What they learn from sport will provide them with a career and give them the life skills needed for a successful future.


As a coach, you always have to put school first, but I also recognize and have to help parents with the idea that yes, school is first. Still, you can't neglect other things; if you become mono focused on school, kids often do worse; if they're not busy enough, then they're going to fill their time with other things, and those other things may or may not be beneficial to them. Sport gives you friends, provides an outlet for your studies, and all the stresses you're dealing with. It gives you something to do, which, you know, 


Looking at the COVID situation going on, I'm continually seeing large groupings of teenagers gathering together, vaping and loitering, which is not unusual. The fact that they have no place to go. Now they're doing this in gathering rain at sub-zero temperatures when it ugly out. I am not even running outdoor practices to avoid the kids getting sick. 


These kids are out hanging with their friends because it's, it's important. It's stress relief. And a clear demonstration of why we need to have sports in society. We need to have outlets for these kids. And we're one of the outlets. As a coach, I think it's important to understand your place in society and where you can add the most value.

I know that you deal with athletes of all ages and, you know, some relatively high-level athletes as well. Being where you are in the Templeton area of Vancouver, where there's a wide variety of socioeconomic situations, I imagine you must see kids coming back to you that could have gone down a pretty dark path to say, Hey coach, thanks for that.

Truthfully in triathlon, I don't. At least not that often; we tend to attract more fringe kids, which means parents are more engaged with their kids. And the reason I say that is I've been involved with a downtown eastside group; I spent six years with a group called More Sports. We put on soccer, basketball, and other activities on for inner-city kids; in that area, I saw kids who, if they didn't have access to sports, would have been susceptible to other influences with potentially very negative consequences. Some of them ended up being my number one best coach in the program, as they grew up in a sports culture, and if they hadn't gone that direction, they probably would have gone down a very dark path. More Sports engage kids well. Now, one of the fallacies that I found in the More Sports was the program is we tend to get caught up in the idea that we tend to get caught in the idea that we are saving kids or saving lives, when in fact you're providing something that acts as part of a net that's that catches kids that are falling out. The example I always give is we had a skateboarding program running at a school, which appeals to kids that are not into mainstream sports. We had a kid join us, and he turned out to be quite a good skateboarder who went on to become a coach later on. He was in grade four; his teacher came to me at the end of the program; this kid learned how to read because of your program. My response was, "Skateboard doesn't teach reading, does it ?" 

The teachers responded with, "He loves skateboarding so much that I brought in skateboard magazines, and we went through them, and I taught him to read through those." Yes, there are definitely kids in our world, but I don't think it's socioeconomic anymore. Kids are falling off the straight and narrow or more successful pathway because there are not enough hooks for them to stay on the successful pathway and triathlon or swimming or any other sports act as a hook to keep a kid moving forward in a more successful pattern, more successful path.


So it's not the hook; it's a hook. In our sport, we tend to see parents who are fairly engaged, but I've definitely had kids who were exceedingly stressed or drifting. In fact, one of our best coaches. His mom spoke with me when he was in grade nine or 10; she said he was falling in with the wrong crowd, his buddies were getting into drugs, and getting into drinking. He wasn't in the crowd yet, but he was hanging out with them. In and around grades 9, 10, and 11, you start to figure out who you are, where you fit, and all the rest. And, you know, we were able not to intervene, but rather changed his mindset to I'm a triathlete and triathletes need to sleep. I can't drink all the time, and that probably changed his trajectory. That's wasn't the program alone. It was the program, his parents, school, and friends in the program and outside the program all combined to keep this kid moving in a good direction.


It's easy to say that we're the solution, preventing these kids from becoming gang oriented, developing unhealthy habits, or drug dealers. It's hard to make that case, but I will say every program out there has the same pattern; one of the fallacies is that low-income kids are prone to drugs and alcohol when low-income kids have less access to drugs and alcohol.


High-income kids have massive drug and alcohol access. I, you know, I have friends of mine who were social workers, and they talk about how kids in the downtown East Side will go on a bender because they'll get a hundred dollars, and they'll buy a bunch of alcohol. In West Vancouver, kids will have a Friday night party and drop ten grand on drugs. It's just a different world. So it's not, just that we're in this, in the area we're in. I think every sport has the ability to keep kids focused and moving in a good direction. Again, it's not that they can't come back into that world if they get pulled off. It's just harder to get back there. You might find yourself as a 26-year-old with a drinking habit. The idea that you can't come back to being a 27-year-old productive member of society who has kids moving forward like a stable adult is wrong. It's just, it's harder. If you don't go down that path in the first place, it's just an easier life that you have in the future.


That's our pattern.


The big challenge that we run into being in the area we are is recognizing that there are people who can't access our program because they can't necessarily afford it.  


We have a policy in our club that basically says that if you can't afford it, talk to the board; we'll try to find you financial assistance because we still have to pay our coaches, if worst comes to worst, if everything fails and we can't find you outside financial help, you're in the club there's just no two ways about it. At the end of the day, in general, coaches don't get paid enough to coach; you really don't; you're never going to get value from it. So there has to be something else there. And for us, it's the fact that we'll never say no to a kid. If you want to be in our program, we will figure out how to get you enough program. That's been a tenant that Kristine and I have lived, our board follows it also.

You've talked about the need to create that environment where you have great balance between all things, which will lead you down that successful pathway. It seems at a time where things are changing so fast and now we're at a point where you are fighting a battle against distraction and a battle for attention daily. Given that, How then do you create balance and a balanced environment? What are your tricks to keep your kids engaged? 

I don't know if I have any tricks. I didn't even know how well I do at this. Our program is full. One of the things we communicate about in our club is you don't have to be all in. You can be partially in. So when a kid signs up for a program, they sign up for maybe a single day, or a couple of days or they can sign up for the full week; they don't necessarily come every day.


That's partly because some kids can only commit to twice a week or three times. Some kids are playing soccer or volleyball and other things. So that's consuming them for parts of the week. So we only get them a couple of times. And that's one of the things that makes us unique is, you know, we want kids to do other sport.  


When we require them to be so busy with our sport that they can't do other sports, they don't benefit from being exposed to other sports. Whereas we've said as soon as you join one day, you're in and then this, and then it just scales. If a kids' goal is to be elite, they have to train, so we sit down and talk about that. Then other kids just want to be fit; other kids just want to see improvement, other kids just want to be able to go to these series and travel with triathlon. If your goal is to be a high elite athlete and you're training twice a week, it's not going to happen; So you, you're just honest with them. They can go look that up on Google. The other aspect is if you require them to engage at a level that they don't want to, that leads to burnout. If they only want to go to a couple of races. They are there for social, and they're required to be at seven practices a week. That leads to burnout. I've always found that burnout is not how much you do. It's how much you are forced to do versus how much you want to do.  


If you're a kid that likes to run every single day and their idea of fun is let's do a 10 K run, they'll do that every day, every second day, you're almost holding them back. And, at that level, you are, you're trying not to let not to let them do too much. They're not going to burn out. It doesn't matter what you give them. They're not burning out. Another kid who doesn't really want to be at practice even once a week will be a burnout because they don't want to be there. Right. Kids are extremely good at knowing how much is too much; when they get tired, what do they do? They sleep; when they get over fatigued, they don't want to do stuff. So if they're over fatigued and don't want to do stuff, well, then why are you forcing them to do stuff? Their body's telling them something. They may not know what it's telling them. It is a long-term education process and a learning to train process; you have to go through those, at that stage, and at that level. It not just do more; it's learning how to do more. The end goal is for them to push themselves at the highest level; it's not a coach pushing you. It's you pushing yourself and the coaches helping you along. That's what we've set up. Most people like to exercise. People like to move, they feel good. They like their friends; they like doing healthy stuff. You feel better when you're helping.

What is at the core of the Exceleration Triathlon Club

Our club has three values, and it comes from Christine and myself. We've talked about these extensively, and it comes back to our coaching. The first is inclusion. Everybody's included; I don't care who you are. I'm going to coach you. 


If you show up that never done anything before in your life, I will figure or how to coach you. 

In fact, we just won an award as a club for our inclusionary policy. We have many kids with autism in our club, and we don't differentiate them. They're not in their own little group; they're part of our main program. I don't see a difference between an autistic kid and a super high-performing kid.


They both have unique challenges that they need d to get met. The autistic child might need more visual aid. It's the same as what a high-performing athlete and an unfit athlete need. They both need something. They, they both have a deficiency somewhere. The high-performance is they're not fast enough yet. The unit they're not fit enough yet. There are different strategies on how you get them to the next stage, but they're there. I'll coach anybody any time; just show up. 


Number two is respect. We talk about respect in the way that I respect you as a human being. I will never know you as an athlete, as well as, you know, you as an athlete. Let's respect that. We also show respect to the kids; it's incredible how a teenager will respond when treated with respect when they're not used to it. I'm shocked with how our society treats teenagers. They either treat them like children, or they treat them like adults, and there's no in-between. They talk down to them or assume they just don't know, and teenagers are insanely bright, but they just don't necessarily know all they need to know yet. They haven't experienced it. We haven't really understood that. 


And then the last aspect is personal excellence. I've got kids in the same group, some of them are swimming, two minutes, 100 freestyles, and some are swimming 59 second, 100 freestyles. Because they're the same age, they're friends, and they can coexist. They're in different lanes and get completely different sets or get a modified set on either side; they are given what they need at the time. The kid who goes 2 minutes, works his or her but off tries is focused that improves to 1:45 should be celebrated as much as the kid who goes 59 and breaks a minute for the first time. 


They're both accomplishments for them, it's about hard work, it's about dedication, and that's how you get personal excellence. 


And, you know, so, you know, that's, that's our club. And through that we've seen some fairly high-level performances. 


I love our kids. Like I love the kids I coach they're awesome. There are people. So there's nothing else to it. Everything boils down to those three things. 

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