Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Queen's No Longer Quiesent; its Quest for Quality No Longer Quixotic?

Those with the patience to read my long opening post in this blog-- the one in which I detail my own athletic genesis, and much else besides-- will know that I am a graduate of Queen's University here in Kingston. And some of you will have read, or will perhaps have already known, that the Queen's men managed to win 3 national team titles in 5 years during and just before my era-- a time in which there was probably greater quality and depth of performance than today, and in which the competition was far more balanced between schools. And whether or not you have ever seen this blog before, you will likely know that Queen's has not really come close to a national title on the men's or women's side in the decades since, in spite of having had a few very notable individual performances over the years. With my recent assumption of head coaching duties for men's and women's cross country and distance track (effective just last week), I plan to take my shot at remedying this situation, as challenging at it will be to make any headway against the juggernaut that is the U of Guelph/Speed River-- a program that has become its own very effective athlete recruitment campaign.

Without speculating on the underlying reasons, it is a fact that, in the decades since a Queen's team last bestrode a national podium, it has fairly consistently failed in two areas that most determine success in university distance running: Athlete recruitment, and performance delivery in championship meets. Teams that are able to recruit more top high-schoolers can often win in spite of sub-par championship race execution; and teams that cannot, for whatever reason, attract top recruits can sometimes still surprise on race day, if they are particularly well prepared; but, teams that can for one reason or another neither recruit their share of top talent nor consistently execute to the best of their ability on race day are doomed to ignominy.

As the best university sports programs repeatedly demonstrate, championship success tends to be self-replicating. Without a draft system to balance the distribution of talent from year to year, teams that experience a brief period of success, and who have recruiters who can convince serious young athletes that this success has been the result not simply of luck but of good programming (and often it is initially a matter of both) can begin to build dynasties. In the U.S., money for scholarships can be a significant driver of success; but, even here, there are many examples of winning programs that started with relatively few resources. In Canada, where tuition is generally much lower, and where scholarship amounts are regulated, and hedged by fairly stringent academic requirements, up-front money of this kind is not as nearly as significant a driver of program success. When it comes to fixed resources, things like good athletic facilities, including congenial environs for easy running, can also make a difference. But here, the minimum threshold is not difficult to reach, and universities with the best facilities and training venues by no means consistently best those with merely adequate training and competition amenities. Another important variable is the minimum academic admission standard at a given university. In the NCAA, it is a general rule that the higher the admission standard the less successful the athletic programs. This is attributable to the simple fact that, all other things being equal, a higher academic standard effectively limits the pool of potential top athletic recruits. It is a fact, however, that high academic standards are a greater barrier to recruitment in some sports than in others-- and distance running is one sport in which, for a whole host of sociological (and perhaps psychological) reasons, athletic and academic success are more often associated. (As I often point out to people, the winning teams during my era at Queen's were made up of some of the school's top academic performers-- and this at a university that, then as now, boasts the highest admission standards in the nation. And to this we can add the examples of the women's cross country and track programs at Ivy League's Princeton and Columbia Universities, or Stanford's men's and women's programs, which have routinely produced top 10 teams in Division I championships over the years).

What, then, is the secret of long term post-secondary sports success when the above variables are correctly weighted?

In distance running, which is not a skills-driven discipline, but rather sport in which the development of gross physiological capacities over a period of months and years is the secret of success, the ability of coaches and other recruiters to identify athletes with the right basic attributes, to persuade such athletes to invest some of their prime developmental years in a particular training environment, and to follow through by creating a year-round training program that encourages that development, are the keys to long term success. And, of these variables, the one that is indispensable for long term success is the final one. A training program that is grounded in sound principles, and which has had time to prove itself in practice, will tend to make talent identification and recruitment somewhat redundant, as the best talent will tend to choose the program without much inducement. There are, of course, a few other significant intangibles-- such as the personal agreeableness of the coaching staff, which can affect the willingness of the average athlete to invest in a given training program; but, even here, the soundness of the program will tend to win out in the end, even when athletes are not inclined to befriend the coach (although basic fairness and reasonableness are, of course, great values in themselves).

As the person now directly in charge of both athlete recruitment and program development at Queen's, my aim is to trade rather shamelessly on my own long term success in the sport (going back, in fact, to my membership on two of Queen's three olden times championship teams) as a means of convincing academically serious, Canada-bound high school distance stars to come to the university. Many, but not all, of the most successful NCAA programs are headed by former star athletes, and often alumni. Such coaches are often favoured because they have knowledge not only of the requirements of success in the system as a whole, but of the attributes of the school in question, along with an established profile within the system and among alumni (who, as the mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles and neighbours of potential recruits, can be very important players within the system.) If these former stars-turned-coach also happen to have the wherewithal to create sound training programs, the result is almost always competitive success. And, of course, I am convinced that my years of almost total, full time immersion in the sport have given me the requisites to develop a successful training program. In any case, I very excited about putting my knowledge and experience to the test within the unique constraints of the Canadian Inter-university System. Since I have the full support of the Queen's Athletics admin in my quest, the immediate challenge will be to introduce myself to eligible recruits, their coaches and families, make them aware of my record in the sport, and to convince them that they might have a great athletic future at a Canadian university other than Guelph! The program at the U of G under Head Coach Dave Scott-Thomas (once, briefly, the coach at Queen's)-- fusing as it has the university team with a senior elite club with a proven record of putting athletes at the top of the Canadian rankings and onto World Championship and Olympic teams-- currently resides on a level of its own in Canada, both because of its great quality, and because of the declining calibre of most other programs in the system. Successfully challenging the U of G-- if, indeed, a successful challenge is even possible within the foreseeable future-- will require both the faith of few talented high school athletes and a training program that hits the ground running, if you'll pardon the pun. Making a reality of this will be, for me, a difficult but not a daunting task; for, as lifelong lover of running and of those who, like me, have a passion to do it seriously, I can think of no more pleasurable challenge!

If you are a supporter of P-K and know of an athlete who may be interested in becoming part of what I hope will the beginning of an exciting new era for Queen's X-C and distance track over the next 4-5 years, do not hesitate to contact me at either steve@physi-kultrunning.com or qxc@queensu.ca Thanks to the excellent work of the outgoing coaching staff last season, I'm lucky to have a good core of runners, to which I have already managed to add a couple of very strong candidates from the junior P-K group, making it possible to begin moving up the ranks as early as this season. And, in the next 3-4 season, who knows!

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