Thursday, 15 July 2010

Q and A on Canadian Distance Running

After a long drought, I offer an unprecedented second post in 3 days! This one is a Q and A with former TOC club mate who is, I think, preparing a piece on what ails Canadian distance running today. (I will post a link if and when an article appears). What I intended to be a very brief reply turned into something a little more lengthy, so I thought I'd share it with readers of the blog (take that, Luke Steer, for dissing me on Facebook over my recent lack of attention to this space!!).

1.What do you think of the Brooks Marathon Project? (a Brook's Canada sponsored training group operating out of west end Toronto--SB)

I'm a supporter of the BMP idea, although I think it should be focused a little more on road racing in general. Many of the younger guys that have gone through the program have not had enough race experience at shorter road distances to become good marathoners. The marathon is, after all, just a very long road race. If I were running the BMP, I would not make it a requirement that athletes run a marathon in their first couple of years in the program, unless they were coming in with tons of road race experience, similar to what some of our best from the 70s and 80s had when they ran their first marathons.

2. American distance running, with the likes of Chris Solinsky, Ryan Hall, Kara Goucher, seems to be in the process of re-birth. Do you think this is a possibility for Canadian distance running? What would have to change? What would we need to do differently in this country?

It is certainly possible to rebuild Canadian distance running on the model of the U.S., with its many post-collegiate training enclaves. Speed River in Guelph is proof of how little is required in terms of resources to do this. What is required is a good coach with enough time, energy, and passion for the sport to convince more post-collegians to give serious distance running a chance. DST in Guelph has been that coach for a while now, but others must step forward (and I am trying to do just that in my new role as Head Coach of Cross Country and Distance track at Queen's). And I would emphasize that this is as much a matter of passion as of expertise. Before we can deploy whatever experience and expertise we might possess, we must be able to convince post-collegians that spending a few years trying to become the best runner you can be is a great life-choice, and something you will never regret, regardless of the level of performance you manage to attain.

3. Do think that Athletics Canada provides adequate support and funding for distance athletes? Why, for instance, does Athletics Canada make the Canadian Olympic Marathon standard much faster than the International Standard (with the consequence of supporting athletes who are already there as opposed to helping develop future contenders)? AC also seems to be putting an emphasis on some events over others, like sprinting and hurdles.

Through making it much more difficult for Canadians to qualify to represent Canada internationally, AC is certainly not helping when it comes to rebuilding this event group. In essentially "killing the dream" of major international competition for athletes who can meet the standards set by the championships themselves (although the COA plays a special role here too), but not Canada's special standards. However, it is important that we understand precisely why this occurs; and, when we do, we will probably learn to stop expecting AC to act as a leader in building or re-building anything to do with this sport. The fact is, AC is structurally bound through its funding relationship to Sport Canada to take the line of least resistance when it comes to event development. AC's level of funding, which determines, among other things, the number of people it can employ, is determined by the rate of top 8 and top 16 finishes in major international competitions, regardless of event group. This means that, if there happen to be a few more good hurdlers or throwers in this country at a given time, AC will, for it's own financial good, support these individual athletes by supporting their coaches and event groups. If, by chance, a few jumpers come to the fore as the throwers and hurdlers are retiring, the organization will switch focus in towards the jumps. The problem for Canadian distance runners is that their event group is dominated by athletes from the "poor majority" world, rather than from the "rich minority" world, since success in distance running, if a country has enough people determined to make it, requires relatively rudimentary coaching and few material resources, yet offers a relatively large potential pay-off for poor athletes. Canada, being itself a rich country, and therefore one that can afford good facilities and at least entry-level coaching, will always do better in these more technical event groups, even without a real development model (and at the moment, the NCAA is Canada's de facto elite development system for track and field, to the extent that it has one at all). AC, whose funding is tied to top 8 and 15 major championship finishes by its athletes, will continue its strategy of pouring resources into already largely developed, potential top 8/16 athletes, leaving development-- or re-development, in the case of distance running-- to others. Although it could do a few small but important things to mitigate this reality, it is structurally incapable of performing a serious developmental role. I actually think Canadian distance runners are pretty lucky to have access to carding; but, beyond that, they can't look for leadership to AC or Sport Canada, which are operate strictly on an "elite sport as propaganda" model.

4.Today more Canadians are running than ever before. However, despite the popularity of the sport, collectively our times have gotten slower. What do you think needs to change? Do you think anything needs to change?

Canadian's times have gotten slower for two reasons, one demographic (we're older, on average), and the other sport-specific (Canadians, beyond the age of about 18, no longer actually train for running). We can't do much about the former, but we can do something about the latter, and the solution starts with better elite development programs at the age class level (much as Canadian soccer, which faces a similar problem, is now attempting to do). We need greater cooperation from high schools-- which is where the vast majority of young athletes get their first real exposure to the sport-- in supporting the development of year-round training groups for serious and talented young athletes. At the moment, the high school system (e.g., here in Ontario, which is the nation's hotbed for the sport), jealously guards its control of top athletes through participation rules that inhibit serious athletes from following their training and competition plans year round. As a result, most young athletes begin the sport without any concept of a long term development plan, because the vast majority of school coaches lack the will or expertise to develop one. Most school programs, if they have any success at all, do so with only the most abundantly gifted, or early-maturing, athletes, and rarely prepare their athletes for the longer term. But, of course, most programs have little real success at all, even as they require their most serious kids to spend 4-5 months of the year working in well-meaning but amateurish school programs. The net result, as you have observed, is that serious running becomes, like soccer, a sport for kids and a few fitness-minded adults; the elite level all but dissappears, as potentially successful young athletes drift out of the sport during or after high school. If more Canadians had exposure to real training programs when they were school-age, the average times in Canadian road races would be faster than they are, even with the changes in demographics. This was the case years ago in Britain, when thousands of young people got experience training in clubs, and went on to be fairly decent adult runners, even if they were not elite. Through working with my local and on-line adult groups, I see everyday how much faster Canadian runners can be with exposure to serious training programs. The level of general knowledge of running as a sport in Canada is pretty abysmal, in spite of the fact that the activity is now wildly popular.

5. Most runners today are both older and younger today. How do we inspire kids to run past elementary school?

As I've been saying for years to anyone who will listen, I actually think the way to inspire kids to continue beyond elementary school is to actually restrict elementary school competition to the older grades. In my board, where kids start competing in grade 3, the challenge is to retain them beyond grade 6! If you expose kids to distance running too early, many are instantly turned off and/or convinced that they have no ability if they are not winning right away. If we can restrict their involvement to say, grades 7 and 8, we will have many more kids this age coming out, and a few more interested in continuing in high school. Adults often think it's "cute" to see 8 year olds huffing and puffing around a cross country course. I can assure them, however, that, cute or not, the cost of this early involvement is the early and permanent exit from the sport of many, many future running talents. I refer to the example of my own son, who wanted to try a cross country race in grade 3. He finished 63rd out of 100 or so in his first race, which was a bit of a shock to him, considering how hard he felt he had worked. It took some convincing over the next couple of years to get him to believe that he might eventually be able to do much better, and even one day finish near the front, if he allowed himself time to grow, mature, and try a little bit of training. He's now showing real talent; but, he's only still interested because he's bullshit-lucky enough to have a dad who understands how early development typically works in this sport. Whenever I see him run (and he is now in grade 7), I wonder how many kids with his basic talent walked away in grade 3, never to return, as he no doubt would have without my knowledgeable encouragement. Of course, a similar thing occurs in grade 9 when kids try the sport for the first time (i.e. if they don't succeed right away, many decide they have better things to do); but, it is far easier to explain to a 15 year old about variable development rates than it is to an 8 or 9 year old who's just experienced the shock of extreme exhaustion, coupled with a the feeling of having failed competitively! We need to remember that distance running, when done seriously, is not really a kid's sport. There is little or no play element, it can take a lot of work before you get to see how much ability you really have, and getting there can be very frustrating indeed. Kids need to be fully ready for this reality before being introduced to the sport. If they were, we would retain more of them post-elementary school and beyond.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

So the model to attract and keep high school runners is.........

29 July 2010 at 21:48  
Blogger Steve said...

The attraction part remains something of a mystery, but I think later exposure in primary school might lead to more curiosity about trying the sport in high school, which could lead to more kids sticking with it beyond grade 9. The keeping part entails convincing kids that, no matter how they might be faring in grade 9 or 10, then can improve significantly, even dramatically, if they stick with it and follow a well-grounded year-round program. Knowing and referring to some good examples really helps here. Of course, you then have to be willing and able to create and administer that well grounded year-round program. And, if you aren't willing or able to do this, you need to direct kids to the nearest person who might be so willing and able, and stand aside (I discuss some of what I think are the basics of this kind of program in a much earlier post.)

29 July 2010 at 22:28  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

time for a new blog...plans/thoughts on upcoming Queen's season?!?!

24 August 2010 at 21:38  
Blogger Steve said...

Don't worry. Now that the summer track and vacation seasons are over, I'll be back to my old schedule of every week or two. In fact, I'm halfway through a post on my NL trip, which will be followed by something on Queen's prospects.

24 August 2010 at 21:44  

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