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Coach Mark Saroni, Now USAT Level II Certified Coach

Updated: Dec 10, 2021

Congratulations to Coach Mark Saroni, who progressed to a new level of coaching last week. Coach Mark is now a USAT Level II Certified Coach! He was one of eleven USA triathlon coaches who completed the Level II Short Course training. After Mark and I started dating, I hired him to coach me. I’ve learned so much about the process of high level training and racing, and I’ve seen the results of his coaching in my own race performances. I wanted to formally ask him a few questions after he received his recent certification. Hopefully, the Q&A will give athletes some insight into his background and coaching philosophy.

USAT offers a Long Course Clinic and a Short Course Clinic for Level II certification. Why did you choose the Short Course Clinic?

The short course clinic centered around ITU/Draft-Legal racing, which is the format held in the Olympic Games and NCAA Varsity Triathlon. It’s a small niche in the sport of triathlon, but I felt that it was also a good opportunity to become more well-rounded as a coach and learn what top coaches who coach at the highest level of sport are doing. I’ve gained quite a bit of experience in long-course racing the last few years, plus I read and listen to a lot of material in that area. I felt that the short course clinic would complement the knowledge and first-hand experience I already have in Ironman and Ironman 70.3 racing.

What were the requirements you completed to become a Level II Certified Coach?

The hardest part was probably remembering to check the USAT website frequently for when they published the application information! Once published, I submitted an application that included proof of my degree, letters of recommendation from athletes and coaches, and a written statement.

The clinic itself was 3 ½ days of lectures, and at the end, we had to present an Annual Training Plan (ATP) for a case study athlete, describe their training in detail, and answer a few questions by USAT staff.

Track demonstrating run drill to athlete
Demonstrating Drills to Athlete on the Track

How did COVID-19 impact the coaching clinic?

Originally, it was supposed to be held at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, CO. They changed it to a virtual clinic after a vote from the attendees and I actually enjoyed that format quite a bit. Mainly because I could still interact with my athletes that week and there were unlimited snacks in the pantry downstairs!

The Level II Short Course Clinic prepares coaches to work with Elite and Junior ITU level athletes. Have you worked with Elite or Junior ITU athletes in the past, or do you plan to in the future?

Yes and yes. I competed as a Junior ITU athlete in high school. I loved the draft-legal format due to the high intensity, technical requirements, and tactical decision making needed to do well. After college, I raced as a professional triathlete for 4 years, competing mainly in non-draft Olympic and Iroman 70.3 races. As part of my development as a coach, I hope to work with Elite, Junior, or NCAA athletes in the future.

Coach Mark leads a swim clinic at the Paragon Hill Country Training Camp

What was one thing you learned at the clinic that you’d like to share with your athletes?

Caffeine consumption after exercise helps carbohydrate absorption! Not sure how I missed that in the scientific literature before, but it validates every cup of coffee I’ve ever had after a workout.

USAT Certified Coaches have to stay current on education. Besides CEUs, what do you do to stay informed about best coaching practices?

I read and listen to podcasts constantly. Unfortunately, much of that knowledge doesn’t count as official CEUs but it’s still good information I can gather to help shape my coaching philosophies. I also work with a Level 3 triathlon coach, Kurt Perham, who I talk to weekly and often ask about other coaching topics not related to my own athletics. Thirdly, I try to attend a clinic of some sort each year. I find it’s helpful to get away from my daily environment and interact with other coaches to see what they are doing. I’m a big believer that you can NEVER stop learning and as soon as you think you know everything, you’re done.

Coach Mark leads the Texas Tough Duathlon Course Preview

You have an impressive array of coaching certifications: USA Swimming Coach, USA Cycling Coach, and now USA Triathlon Level II. Triathlon encompasses all three sports… why did you choose to become a certified swimming and cycling coach?

Same idea as why I attended the short course clinic. Endurance sports are all pretty similar in terms of their physiological requirements and I believe it’s helpful to draw from what other coaches are doing in their respective sports. For instance, I draw on my experience from running in college often with my swim coaching. The 50yd and 100yd freestyle are similar in duration to the 200M and 400M dash in running. So why do many swim programs train their sprint freestylers the same way a running coach trains a 10k runner on the track? It doesn’t make sense to me, so I train our sprinters much like a track coach would train their sprinters.

Do you have plans to become a USA Track & Field Coach too?

I had a USATF certification a few years ago but dropped it as it was a bit too much to keep up with!

You were also recently named the San Antonio Express News Girls Swim coach of the year. Do you have any lessons from triathlon that you apply to coaching the swim team at San Antonio Christian School (SACS)?

My number one goal with a private school like SACS is to get kids to show up to practice. They already have a busy schedule and a lot of demands on their time so if I can just get them to show up, that’s 90% of it. To show up, they need to WANT to come so I try to keep practices fun yet focused. The most fun I ever had as an athlete was training with my teammates in San Antonio during the summer. We trained WAY too hard but it was fun because we were doing it together. It’s way easier to suffer when you’re with teammates who share the same goal as you.

Coach Mark and the Girls SACS Swim Team
Coach Mark and the Girls SACS Swim Team

Finally, how are you going to make me, and your other athletes, faster? [I know I have to put in the work myself… But, still… It’s the question we all want to know.]

I think the biggest thing I’ve learned in 10+ years of coaching is that you coach the person not the athlete. Every individual athlete has an individual physiology that needs to be trained, BUT that has to be balanced with what is practical in the real world and an athlete’s circumstances. COVID-19 is a great example of how sometimes, a great training plan can be totally worthless if the circumstances are wrong. Coaching is about reading the athlete, adapting the plan, staying engaged and keeping the big picture in mind. I believe strongly that anyone can get faster and getting faster feels good, whatever your level. Like I tell my high school team- we’re here to have fun, and winning is fun!


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