Danielle Stefano is an elite Triathlon coach at the Victorian Institute of Sport, Australia. She is, in fact, the only female high performance coach in Australia.
Below, our Olympic Reporter and Author of the sports novel When Girls Became Lions, had a chat with Danielle about her coaching career and her experience as Head Coach at London 2012.
Author: Jo Kadlecek is an American writer living on the Sunshine Coast of Queensland, Australia. Recently, she and Valerie J. Gin co-authored a unique women’s sports novel, When Girls Became Lions. (Watch the trailer!)
Growing up in Melbourne, Australia, Danielle Stefano played basketball. She loved athletics and so by the time she got to university, she knew what she wanted to do: study bio-mechanics and become a sports scientist. She launched her career at the Victorian Institute of Sport (VIS), and for eight years, Stefano worked under some of the best coaches in the southern hemisphere in sports such as soccer, swimming, cycling, running and hockey. And as a sports scientist, she was glad she wasn’t just sitting in a lab; in fact, the opportunity she had for a more hands on approach to training and coaching only deepened her love for athletics.
But in 2012 when the VIS head triathlon coach took a job in the U.S., it left two Olympic-bound triathletes without a coach. They approached Stefano, said she knew them better than anyone and asked if she’d consider helping them on their road to London. She said yes. Eight months later, Stefano joined Brendan Sexton and Erin Densham at the London Games—which Stefano called “an unbelievable experience.” Densham won the bronze medal.
Back in Melbourne, though, with the Olympics behind her, Stefano found herself missing the one-on-one aspect of coaching. The head coaching position still had not been filled and so Stefano put her hand up, enduring a rigorous interviewing process until finally in February 2013, the VIS and Triathlon Australia appointed Stefano—at 28 years old—the first woman and youngest ever high performance coach for some of Australia’s most elite athletes.
She was “over the moon” with excitement—until the calls started coming in.
“I’d been warned that since I hadn’t come (into the job) with years of experience, I might cop a little flack,” Stefano said. “But I wasn’t expecting what so many male coaches said to me. Many didn’t even know me. In person or on the phone, they’d tell me I couldn’t coach men, call me this or that, even a violent threat that it was my fault an athlete didn’t make the games. It was quite confronting to be honest.”
Her first few months, she set out to prove those people wrong. Eventually, though, Stefano realized she was wasting too much energy and focus on what others thought about her coaching, and instead shifted her attention 100 percent to her athletes.
Even so, Stefano said she learned a lot during that time about external noise and how to stay focused on the task, lessons that proved helpful for her coaching of individual athletes who need extended concentration while competing in three different sports, swimming, cycling and running.
“There are things you can and can’t control, and there’s no point in trying to worry about those uncontrollable,” she said. “Obviously, every coach—male or female—gets some flack, and for me, it was initially more intense just because I’m a female. But in the end I just had to learn to laugh at some of the things these guys would say and move on.”
Because Stefano has always coached male athletes who support her, “moving on” meant combining her sport science background with her new found mental toughness and getting to work. She currently trains four young men, ages 22 and 23, balancing competition schedules throughout Europe while preparing them for the 2018 Commonwealth Games with an eye on the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Stefano travels regularly with them, an advantage she believes helps build the coaching relationship and gives her an opportunity to know their strengths individually.
“When you have athletes who support you and who trust you, you’re grateful for the chance to bring them to their best,” she said. “I love the challenge of the diversity of this sport and the discipline these athletes have to perform at this level. Each is unique, which is also part of the challenge. But when you get up each morning and train with them, it makes you realize why you’re doing what you do, why you put up with the outside nonsense and keep going.”
Stefano spends six days a week in Australia with her athletes, as well as working with them during the international season. They have participated with Olympic team-building sessions as well as various levels of community involvement throughout Australia. Each athlete, Stefano says, has vastly different needs in their lives and sports careers, sacrificing much to compete at this level. As a result, Stefano often finds herself in the role of motivator, counselor and friend, making sure her athletes also have fun while embracing the cultures of the countries they visit.
“The more you focus on your athletes, and people see their success, the less you get criticized,” Stefano said. “I love coaching high performance, the challenge is great in getting to know what works for each individual athlete, making sure we have open communicate about both outcomes and process. I’m still learning a lot so I could see myself doing this for a while.”
Along the way, there’s no doubt Stefano has gained valuable insights about how best to motivate athletes, especially as a woman coach in a male-dominated sport.
“My goal is to become known as a good high-performance coach, not a female coach,” she said. “I want to be someone who gets the job done and keeps at it. There are so many other coaches out there who have done great work—or who want to in the future— that it’s important we address the road blocks that might keep them from getting the opportunities they deserve.”
And with such opportunities comes great responsibility—and sound advice for other women coaches: “Be true to yourself, understanding your own values so that you can grow confident and believe in yourself. That creates a culture that flourishes. Your integrity keeps the cracks away. We’re all going to come across hurdles but we need to learn to see them as speed bumps to endure and stay focused on what matters.”
Featured Image – https://twitter.com/daniellestefano