Friday, 10 June 2011

P-K Juniors: Reflections on Cycle One

OFSAA track 2011-- at which P-K junior athletes had good success, including two medals by grade 9 phenom Nicole Armstrong-- marked the end of the first 4 year cycle since the inauguration of the junior division, which has remained steady at between 12 and 17 members. (Before September of 2007, P-K had been comprised mainly of masters athletes and a few senior elites.) Now would thus seem to be a good time to take stock of the successes of the younger members of the group, as well as to record some of the lessons learned by this foray into what I called, in an earlier post, "the funhouse of coaching", where things are rarely as they appear, and nothing can be taken for granted.

I'll start with the competitive successes:

-one national team medal (the 2009 Junior Boys X-C team).

-two OFSAA team medals (won by the KCVI and Sydenham senior boys teams, both of which were comprised of athletes who trained exclusively with the club group.)

-3 Athletics Ontario team medals (the youth and midget boys in 2008, and the midget girls in 2010)

-one individual top 15 national X-C finish (Rob Asselstine).

-one top 5 national junior track finish (Rob Asselstine).

-two OFSAA track medals, one gold and one bronze* (both by Nicole Armstrong).

-three individual top 10 OFSAA X-C finishes (Jeff Archer, Cleo Boyd, and Nicole Armstrong).

-sixteen OFSAA track final appearances or top 10 finishes by 12 athletes (Kyle McKellar, Cleo Boyd, Alex Hinton, Charly Allan, Jeff Archer, Rob Asselstine, Clara Langely, Brianna Bradley, Rebecca Jaros, Dylan O'Sullivan, and Nicole Armstrong.

-two successful NCAA D-1 recruits (Dylan O'Sullivan and Rob Asselstine).

-one successful CIS scholarship recipient (Blair Morgan).

*Three if one counts Clara Langely's second place finish in 2010, for which she was (I'm convinced) wrongly DQ'd.

Since I have not made a point of keeping precise track, I've no doubt overlooked some noteworthy performances. And, this list does not take account of the record of individual improvement of group members; there has not been a single member who has spent more than a few weeks in the group who has not enjoyed improvement, and most have done so significantly, many dramatically. Nor does such a list say anything about the closeness of the social bonds that have been forged within the group. As is almost universally the case in the best training groups, many lifelong friendships were begun at the P-K training sessions and social gatherings over the past four years, I'm certain. I would thus considered the P-K junior division to have been a great success on every level, making it source of pride and satisfaction to assistant coach Pat McDermott and me. With the new track facility nearing completion, and a new crop of very keen eighth-graders ready to embark on their first season of high school X-C, we look to the next four years with great enthusiasm.

And what of the lessons learned?

Against the great record of success of the group, it must be said that we have also seen a handful of potentially very successful athletes abandon the group prematurely (in our view). While it's true that most have remained active in team sports, we count it as something of a failure that we did not manage to make the case to these athletes to stick with running. As I discussed in the aforementioned earlier post on coaching kids in running, there is often a frustrating mismatch in this sport between talent and potential on one hand and motivation to train for it on the other. Thus, while we take responsibility to failing to retain these athletes, we have also begun to recognize that the emotional and physical demands of training properly for this sport tend to elevate non-physical attributes-- such as emotional resilience, patience, a tolerance for loneliness, and an ability to defer gratification-- to nearly the same level of importance as natural speed and stamina when it comes to determining long term success. Simply put, running, though a simple sport, is not an easy one on any level, and requires a unique (and I would say stronger) kind of character in order to succeed.

And perhaps the greatest test of character in training to race is injury. While the injury rate for the junior group is below average for the sport as a whole, it is always distressing to see young athletes sidelined by injury, even if only for a few weeks. (Dealing with injury is developing athletes is also the most nettlesome of all coaching problems.) Over past four years, we've learned a lot about the kinds of injuries and other health problems that tend to beset developing runners. Most of these are the same things that afflict more mature athletes-- e.g. anemia, asthma, minor tendonitis and muscle strains of various sorts-- but younger athletes, and girls in particular, seem far more prone to problems in the lower leg and hips, especially during and immediately following periods of rapid growth. We've learned that there is always potential danger when an increase in a young athlete's training load is accompanied by a significant growth spurt. In fact, this observation has led me to adjust my understanding of the proper age for younger athletes to begin significantly increasing their training loads. Age 15-16 for girls and 17-18 for boys remains an excellent rough guide, but these numbers need to be revised upward by a year or so in the case of physically later-blooming athletes, or athletes who have recently gone through very dramatic growth spurts. We have also come to a renewed appreciation of the importance of strength work-- particularly of the core and lower legs/feet-- in preventing and treating injury in young athletes. But, as anxious as we have been to avoid them altogether, we have also learned the continued improvement is possible in spite of injuries. In the P-K junior group, a small group of athletes account for almost all of the injuries the group has suffered; however, among this small core are some of the most successful, both in terms of rate of personal improvement and of absolute success. With timely and aggressive cross-training, and with effective rehab, the injuries typically suffered by young athletes need not be a barrier to success, nor to long term enjoyment of the sport. Besides, running injuries are very rarely serious or permanent in nature, unlike those routinely suffered by team sports athletes (e.g. concussions and serious trauma to the knee), and are an unavoidable risk for all serious runners at any age. The only alternative to courting the risk of injury in this sport is not trying at all. P-K juniors, like all serious athletes, have not shied away from this risk, even as they have done their best (for the most part, anyway; they are kids, after all!) to avoid injury and to deal effectively with its consequences.

And, perhaps most unfortunately, work still needs to be done ensure that junior group members retain the free and fair access to the publicly funded high school X-C and track programs to which they are duly entitled. The little they have asked for in terms of maintaining continuity in their year round training programs-- i.e. that they be allowed to carry out their two hardest workouts of the week with their regular club training partners, in return for completing easy runs with their school teams-- has not yet been granted by all schools in the system, in spite of concerted efforts on the part of some of their parents. And P-K kids in some schools have been subjected to a blatant double-standard when it comes to school participation rules, in which less serious athletes, or those playing on other school teams during the track and X-C season, are allowed to miss school practices without consequence, while they are threatened with expulsion from their teams for refusing to perform key sessions in the presence of school coaches. Their would appear to be no easy long term solution to this problem that does not involve completely useless sacrifices on the part of P-K athletes themselves-- who, ironically, remain the only kids in the city serious about pursuing this most demanding of sports.

Finally, my experience of working with young athletes over the past four years has done nothing to change my sense of the often maddening unpredictability of the entire enterprise. We are regularly confounded by apparent randomness of the pattern of our young athletes' performances, and by degree to which these performances can fail to match what we see in practice. While the general trend for the group has always been a positive one, we are continually surprised, pleasantly and otherwise, by the distribution of good and bad performances among its individual members on a given day or week. We are thus resigned to a faith that, if we continue to learn, and to apply our knowledge and experience as effectively as we can, the latent potential of every member will eventually surface, if not always at the appointed time and place!

May P-K POM:

Apropos of the theme of this post, the May POM goes to a junior member (indeed, most of the racing action by P-K athletes this month involved the high school athletes). For junior members, spring track is dominated by the quest for a ticket to the Ontario Federation of Schools Athletic Association (OFSAA) championships, which is earned by negotiating a series of three increasingly competitive qualifying meets. In the final round--the regional qualifying meets-- athletes must place in the top four of their event to be entered in the championships. This month's POM winner-- Adrienne Morgan-- chopped 20 seconds from her personal best over 3000m, leapfrogging several higher seeded athletes in the process, to punch her ticket to OFSAA by a mere .2 secs. Add to this the fact that she ran the most tactically disciplined race of her young career-- sticking to her pacing schedule while watching the other would-be qualifiers mixing it up some 50m up the track in front of her, before launching a powerful finishing drive over the final 200m to claim the final qualifying spot-- and you have the makings of a slam-dunk choice for POM. Congrats, Adrienne!

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