Interview: First Off The Bike - Part 2

By Shawn Smith,

Published on May 31, 2016   —   8 min read

Who the hell is Shawn Smith? It turns out that he's the man behind the men responsible for some of the best triathlon racing in the country over the last year. Shawn manages Tim Van Berkel, arguably Australia's best 8-hour racer and Aaron Royle, Olympic hopeful and ITU rising star. Shawn isn't your stereotypical athlete manager for one thing, he's in it for the love, not the money and that gives him a unique perspective on the sport, on management and on professional triathletes.

In Part I of our interview, Shawn talked about developing an athlete/sponsor relationship, constructing an effective rating system for triathletes and why a good manager needs to have a personal connection with their client. In Part II, we get the inside story on maximising social media impact, how an athlete can develop their brand and why scampering after races is a bad idea.

FOTB: Welcome back, Shawn! Although managing triathletes isn't your full-time gig, I understand that you're no stranger to the pressures of high-level racing?

Shawn: True! The competition can get pretty intense at the Footscray Cycling Club and I can only describe the atmosphere in the A-B Grade Criteriums as cut-throat?! Seriously though, as a youngster I had a degree of sporting success which did give me some insight into what it means to compete at a high level the potential highs and lows that athletes face, the pressure and the sheer hard work that it takes to excel in any area of life. I like to think that I've taken that desire to win and the serious work ethic that it demands into my business life.

FOTB: Last time we spoke you talked about the importance of athletes running their brand like a business. You said that they really needed to get their head around social media. This is an area that you've been developing with both Berks and Aaron. What advice would you give to athletes wanting to expand their profile on social media?

Shawn: Let me begin with a word of warning when it comes to social media, remember that your livelihood, certainly as far as sponsors go, is actually based on two things your performance and your behaviour. It's a small industry and people talk, so it only takes one dodgy tweet to make sponsors run a mile. Always assume your sponsors will see everything you post on social media, so be aware of what you're putting out there. This is Social Media Etiquette 101 it's good advice for everyone, not just athletes. Assume your boss or a potential employer is going to be checking out your social media stuff and post accordingly.

While we're talking social media, how can athletes maximise their impact online?
I visit a lot of athletes' websites, and the first thing I notice is that usually they turn their comments off. Secondly, if they have their comments on, they don't bring their comments from different social media platforms all into one space, so they're always there. It's about creating a conversation with your audience. Let me give you an example?

It's no secret that Berks had a disappointing outing at Kona this year. It would have been easier for him to just brush it under the carpet, but he chose to be honest about it online, didn't make excuses and talked about why it was so important to him to actually finish the race when he could have just pulled out. The fascinating thing was the comments he got back on Facebook and on the website were really positive which was good for Tim and good for his brand. And sponsors notice this stuff!

If we take it back to absolute basics:

  • Have a Twitter account that's yours and that's specific to what you're about.
  • Be a little tongue-in-cheek if required in your bio, but make it real.
  • Be acutely aware of what you're posting and tweet often, but not too often.

Once a week is not often enough!

  • On Facebook you should have a fan page, not just your own personal one.
  • Lock that personal one down, so if you want to post some inappropriate stuff dancing on the table at Aunty Gertrude's 90th, that's where it ends.

The bottom line is gone are the days when you could get away with doing nothing. Everyone's lifting the bar and if you're not doing some of it, or most of it, you're going to be swept away.

FOTB: This is totally separate to actual race results. This is the other side of professional sport.
Shawn: Exactly! As a manager, I'm constantly thinking about how to help Aaron and Berks perform better in this area. Doing things differently that's important. We're constantly trying new strategies.

How do the boys stay relevant and connected with their readership?
I think the key is to make sure that they are giving something back. If you look at Tim's site he's got useful info about nutrition, going aero, core strength it's not just race reports. We're thinking, What will age-groupers appreciate? What's going to help them? We're not just keeping people informed we want them to feel connected and appreciated.

So again, just a few basics have a website a good website, make sure it's updated regularly, give your readers some insights into who you are, what you're doing and how that connects back to their lives. This stuff isn't rocket science, but I don't see a lot of it happening out there.

FOTB: Both Aaron and Berks have big years ahead. They're both at the top of their game what's your plan for their futures?
Shawn: Obviously I can't control Tim and Aaron's performance as a manager I'm there to give them all the assistance I can, but both of them have extremely accomplished coaches in Jamie Turner and Dan Plews. That's not my area of expertise. So I'm constantly thinking, what are the things I want to do with them from a management point of view this year?

The first thing is to get them in front of more eyeballs expand their readership. The second is to expand their brand into other regions, geographically Asia Pacific, Europe. Now obviously the sponsors love that, but it's really for Berks and Aaron to expand their own brands.

While they're on the natural high of performance you need to capture that when you're succeeding people want to know who you are and read about that and really immerse themselves in the brand. For example, Aaron is heading into an Olympic year, so we've really got to take hold of that and run with it.

It's all about engagement with your audience. I think both of them are doing a pretty good job with that, but there's always more that can be done. Personality is at the heart of it too and people want to connect with a real person. Both my guys are very different in that regard. But here's the thing everyone has a story. The trick, and this also relates to life after triathlon, is being able to tell your story in such a profound way that it connects with and has an impact on the audience.

I watched Aaron do this recently. I invited him to come and talk to a bunch of execs at work. He didn't just lob up there thinking, I'll just have a chat with these guys.? He prepared for it like he was preparing for a race- he really went the extra mile. On the day, the response was fantastic it really resonated with the audience. Sure, there's an element of "This guy is just an exceptional athlete so I want to listen to him?" but what really connected were the similarities Aaron was able to pull out of his story and apply to the corporate world.

FOTB: When you're thinking about the future, you've also got to be talking about what happens when these guys stop racing. Is that part of the plan?
Shawn: That's an important part of my job making sure the boys think about life after triathlon. Aaron has a bit of a passion to do speaking and some coaching. Berks, I don't think he has any clue about the future yet! But I've instilled into both of them the idea that they need to start thinking about this stuff. It's just baby steps at the moment.

I think this connects back into the question of what does their business look like? For example, by this time next year I would hope that both Aaron and Berks have done two or three sit-down sessions with their sponsors, where they've been able to add value to those companies. You know, they've spent a day with them and their staff and had the opportunity to give back in that way.

Some athletes find this easy, some don't. Like everything you've got to start small with this stuff. You don't start a public speaking career in the big league you start with low-key gigs and work upwards. It's just like sport you start with the little races, you train, you build up proficiency and you move up through the ranks. Part of it is finding your unique story and what is going to resonate with your audience that's the place to begin.

FOTB: You've stressed the importance of planning for the future. What advice would you give to athletes about this?
Shawn: There are too many athletes, especially in the Ironman space, who just go chasing races. They think I can get a couple of thousand dollars for this race and I'm getting free accommodation and flights and I might even get paid some dollars to turn up.

If that's what you're doing, my advice to you is Don't be silly! Stop what you're doing. Sit down, take a couple of deep breaths, pour yourself a vodka and look over the sheets at the races coming up in the year and plan them!?

There's no point in just randomly chasing races on the basis that you might get some money out of it. It does nothing for anyone. I've seen it time and time again. These guys just burn themselves out and they have nothing left. Before they know it, the year's finished and they're trying to back it up the following year and they're looking around going, What have I done? I didn't accumulate enough points, I can't go to the World Championships? They're just scampering. I'm not saying put all your eggs in one basket. But plan for it as best as you can. I know things change? You might get sick, but that's my tip - plan the thing as best you can.

FOTB: In terms of doing that, what are the priorities, what are the criteria that you should be taking into account? Let's say you've got an athlete sitting down to look at 2016, what would you say to them?
Shawn: You have to accumulate points to go to the World Championships or be ranked so;

Step One

Look for your big races. Ultimately, most athletes want to go to the big races, they want to compete on the biggest stage and see how they perform that's what drives them to continue to do what they're doing. So plan those big races ahead of time.

Step Two

If you can, do as little traveling as possible. Travel is stressful. The ITU and WTS are a little bit different. Aaron falls under Triathlon Australia's care so he has access to a whole team and the support that comes with that. Long course athletes don't really have that. Berks doesn't have that luxury where he's got people around him to travel with him. He's really got to be quite strict in what he does. I think he's done that much better in 2015. Tim's learned from some of his mistakes and worked out that less is more. It's a bit different for Aaron with the shorter stuff as you can pack in a bit more.

Step Three

Work out what your sponsorship obligations are and make sure those contracts are adhered to as well. In the end, there's no magic formula around this stuff, but my advice is plan and be sensible and realistic about the way you use your time and energy. And if you're lucky, you'll have a good manager to help you along the way!

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