The explanation greatly oversimplifies Sutton’s nuanced leadership. It would be easy for Sutton to simply send his athletes out on monster rides each day with the order to slaughter each other up every climb. Instead, he trains by specificity, and splits his 15 athletes into four or five different group workouts each day. Whether an athlete is punching his teammate into shape or resting on a recovery ride depends on Sutton’s schedule.
Sutton does not share the schedule, nor does he negotiate sets with his athletes. The overriding rule of Team TBB is to follow Sutton’s direction, no questions asked.
“He tells us, ‘I want a team of morons’ because he wants us to do what he tells us to do,” said Stephen Bayliss, who has been with Sutton since 2007. “He says it as a joke, but really, there’s no point being here if you don’t trust him.”
In a sport where elite athletes regularly seek advice from nutritionists, physiologists and multiple coaches, Sutton’s my-way-or-the-highway attitude can feel tyrannical. He forbids most technical training tools like power meters. He guides through philosophical emails or private confrontations. The exchanges are always short and blunt. In interviews for this story, multiple former TBB athletes said they were partially turned away by Sutton’s controlling style.
“The snap judgment Brett makes when he first meets you, it can be spot-on but it can also be off,” said Brandon Marsh, who left Sutton after two years on Team TBB. “Whatever it is, that is the judgment he’s always working with.”
Sutton is unapologetic about his coaching techniques.
“People say I’m a control freak; they say I brainwash my athletes,” he said. “They’re right. I wash the shit right out of their heads.”
Sutton’s coaching touches all aspects of his athletes’ lives, including their geography. His top athletes follow Sutton around the world, largely on their own dime. He has held his pre-Kona training camps on the Korean island of Jeju and on an abandoned U.S. Navy base in Subic Bay, in the Philippines. Leysin sits atop an Alpe d’Huez-style switchback climb, a two-hour drive from the nearest major city. But in these far-off locations, Sutton can coach his athletes in a bubble, devoid of outside influence.
“Why would I go to Boulder? There are 450 triathlon geniuses there, and none of them know what the hell they’re talking about,” Sutton said. “This is triathlon—wherever you go you’ll have some four-hour short-course guy telling Mary Beth Ellis how she should run.”