Tuesday 23 November 2010

P-K 2010 Nats X-C Preview; and Thanks for the Memories, Guelph.

A stylistic break from the customary fare in this blog for the last many posts, but long-time readers will be familiar with my fondness for X-C-- running's antidote for November; and, I have been caught up in the spirit of this year's event in particular, which will be the last in what is sure to be the most memorable run of championships in the history of the sport in Canada. (They should simply give this event over in perpetuity to the Guelph boys, of which more below). So, a little preview of the club contingent, including its goals and prospects, as well as a fond farewell to Guelph and the now storied Arboretum course.

With three time individual medallist D. Wykes off in Vancouver, preparing for the Cal International Marathon on Dec 4, and senior elites Emily Tallen and Mary Davies sitting this one out to rebuild from fall injuries (foot and hip respectively), the focus in the open events shifts to 30-something Nats senior rookies Mike Gill and Chris Mercier.

Mike is, of course, the winner of last year's P-K performance of the year award for a freakish run of improvement that culminated in his 2nd place finish in the 2009 masters' event. A year later and considerably faster, Mike is now set to take his spot alongside the big (or at least young and fast) boys in the Senior Men's event. His preparations reinforced by two successful X-C 10ks, including a 7th place finish at the provincial championships two weeks ago, Mike is looking once again like potential POY nominee. His training has been consistently faster than anything he has ever done, and the longer distance suits his preferred style of attack. A patient and observant racer, and one who never backs down when the opportunity to move through a field presents itself, Mike looks positioned to raise eyebrows and provoke the query "who is that guy?" again this year, except on a bigger stage. There is no question that the order is much taller this year, but Mike looks ready for a crack at the top 25, and perhaps a little higher, if enough of his younger and more impetuous competitors play into his hands

Christian Mercier, meanwhile, is merely looking to cap off a spectacular season of racing-- one that saw him run huge P.B.s at 5k, 15k, HM and Mar-- with a first ever appearance in our national dirt-dash. Chris has spend the weeks since his September POM-winning run in the Berlin-- a 5min personal best of 2:24-- recovering and trying to master the art of balancing and pacing on grass and trail. Although the return of winter to Quebec City this week has relegated him to the pavement for his final couple of workouts, his preparations-- including one winning X-C race effort 10 days ago-- have been sufficient for him to enter the competitive mix on Saturday. I expect he and Mike will be seeing a lot of one another between 2:14 and 2:47 p.m. on Saturday afternoon!

Shifting to the junior races, the club is team-less in the girls event, with injuries keeping potential players Clara Langley and Taylor Sills on the sidelines. Nevertheless, Cleo Boyd, Leah McGraw, and Lauren Taylor will take their place alongside 250 other brave souls, with Cleo hoping to finish her best ever season of X-C running with a top 20 performance, and Leah and Lauren aiming to run for X-C personal bests on the fast and accurate Guelph course.

Meanwhile, in the boys race, the team competition is a big focus of the action for the P-K group. Coming off their 2nd place finish last year, the team is deeper and faster still this time around, and has its sights on a major upset of the almost overwhelmingly strong defending champs, the Windsor Legion squad. But first, the boys will have to outscore a formidable side from Durham, last year's very close 3rd place team. So evenly matched is the P-K team that attempting to predict an exact order of finish is futile. Among the likely front men are:

1.Rob Asselstine, owner of the fastest 5k personal best with his close 5th place finish at the National Junior Track Championship. After coming into the season in brilliant training form, Rob struggled in training and in races till just this week, when he notched a personal best over 3k in the Dome. A naturally stronger distance runner, an on-form Rob is a definite top 10 threat.

2.Alex Hinton, last year's top man, who is returning to form following a break from a spectacular 2010 Tri season, which featured a 16th place finish at the World Junior Championships.

3.Evan Andrin, who has ass-busted his way to a breakout season with the Western Mustangs, and hopes bring the same form that produced his recent 33rd place finish at the CIS championships to bear against this field of younger, less experienced athletes.

4.Charly Allan, who, in between minor injuries, also managed to put in volume sufficient to raise his X-C game to new levels this season. Charly struggled at the recent CIS championships, but finished one spot behind Evan at the OUs-- which were, ominously, also held on the Arboretum course. Expect Charly, ever the proud competitor, to concede nothing to his teammates when it comes to finishing order.

5.Jeff Archer, who, as his teammates well know, could easily lead this team, were he to find the form that saw him finish 10th at OFSAA and 5th at the AO youth championships last fall. While he made his Queen's U championship side, Jeff has struggled to realize his full potential this season. Were the 2009 Jeff to suddenly reveal himself on Saturday, this team could well realize its dream of unseating Windsor.

5.Dylan O'Sullivan, who has struggled on-and-off with an diabolical series of minor injury setbacks, but who, like Jeff, could easily find himself running alongside the others on Saturday, were he to hit a groove. Dylan's shape has been improving by leaps and bounds since his modest return to racing barely a month ago (with his recent 11th place at the AOs junior race marking a significant leap forward). A feisty racer with a knack for moving rapidly through exhausted fields of faster-starting pretenders, look for Dylan to make the most of whatever shape he possesses on the day.

After these five members of last year's silver medal team come four younger athletes with the potential to keep the P-K boys in the hunt for national honours for a few more years to come. Leading this group is Blair Morgan, who looks to complete an outstanding 2010 X-C season that saw him qualify for OFSAA as an individual. After somewhat sub-par performances at OFSAA and AOs, Blair returned to form last Saturday with a personal best over 3000m. After Blair is the renascent Kyle McKellar, who is coming off a hard-fought 26th place finish in a very deep and fast AOs youth boys' event. Rounding out the group are Cam Levac, who has been very strong in training this season, in spite of coming off nearly a year of injury, and Hunter Andrin, who, like his older brother before him, continues to earn his longer distance chops (Hunter, who will attend Queen's next fall, will be a valuable member of that team, should he follow in Evan's footsteps as a later-blooming X-C runner.)

The P-K masters men's contingent will also be in search of team victories, although the upsets will come if they (we) fail to win (at least in the 40-49 division, where we are two time defending champions, and are fielding perhaps our strongest side ever). The 50-59 team also stands a good chance of winning, but faces a stern challenge from a surprisingly improved Newmarket Huskies group.

The 40-49 team includes: yours truly, a two time individual champ, who is very fit, if perhaps somewhat short of tune-up races (like, none at all, and no results worth mentioning since late May); Rich Minichiello, who is coming off a spectacular season that saw him vault to the fore of Canadian masters distance running; Roddy Loeppky, who has also had a banner year, winning provincial masters indoor titles at 1500 and 3000m, and a national title at 5000m (to go along with a road 5k best of 16:11); and rapidly improving local group member Rob Miller, who will be running his first ever National X-C championship. Meanwhile, the race for the individual honours will be the most interesting in many years, with a four-strong contingent of crack B.C. athletes (Paddy McCluskey, Craig Odermatt, Kevin O'Connor, and Colin Dignum) lining up against Minichiello and Boyd from P-K and defending champ Bruce Raymer from Ontario. Favourite status must go to the younger Minichiello and Raymer (with the nod to Minichiello, on account of his finishing speed), but the B.C. boys are up to their ears in championship X-C experience, and I hope to show at least a little of the form that earned me runaway titles in 06 and 08 (and did I mention that getting older sucks!?).

The men's 50-59 team is hoping to complete the old-guy team sweep by beating a vastly improved New Market Huskies group, who bested them at OAs two weeks ago. To turn the tables, Bob McGraw will have to be his usual steady self, Clive Morgan will have to be able to get his shoes off, and thus knock 20-30 seconds from his time, Rich Raflaub will have to regain some of the form he lost during his nearly two years of injury down time (chronic plantar fasciitis), and senior team member Wayne Chee will have to produce a fitting finale to his strong season of road racing. None of these things is at all unreasonable, so hopes are running high within this group.

Finally, and disappointingly, the P-K masters women will be without at team for this final Ontario edition of the Nats master X-C championship. One minor thing has led to another, keeping this team from coming together to form what would surely be a winning side (we have horses to spare in this category). Left to face the field alone are on-line athletes Christine Ross and Marie Elliot-- both formidable competitors, who will be hard to keep out of the top 3 in their respective categories.

And a very fond adieu to Guelph, the Speed River organizing committee, and the Arboretum course (whose distinctive features-- DST Junction, the Hill, the Orchard-- will form the details of 10,000 stories rehashed between old friends and competitors for decades to come). The end of the superb "Guelph Series" of championships comes at a watershed moment for the sport globally and nationally. After this year, the IAAF will move its 100+ year old championship to a biannual format, rendering our own championships less meaningful in non-national team selection years. Add to this AC's obvious lack of interest in this entire branch of the sport (what, really, is in it for them and their bottom line?)and the future looks decidedly less bright for this event. While there are arguments from a national sport development point of view for moving this championship around the country on an annual or bi-annual basis, there are yet stronger ones for making Guelph and the Arboretum course a permanent venue for the X-C nationals. While not a national training centre, Guelph/Speed River is now the undisputed heart of Canadian distance running; Chris Moulton and crew now manage the whole hosting thing as effortlessly as the Speed River boys pile up championships; the course is permanent, and as close to perfect as we can get in this country; and, steps could easily be taken to share the wealth and ease the financial burden of yearly travel for non-Ontario racers. (The relative health of the economy of Ontario will surely reduce the numbers of Ontario athletes willing and able to make the trip to B.C. next year, which will hurt the quality of the championship much more than would keeping it in Guelph.) The moment to seriously consider giving the event to Guelph in perpetuity has likely now come and gone (knowing Moults and DST, they were probably making the case two years ago!); but, it is still possible to make it the permanent Ontario site. As much as I'd love to see Canada's best take to the Fort Henry course here in old K-Town on some November afternoon, I think the sport would be best served by not attempting to fix that which is emphatically not broken. Credit must be given where it is due. Back to Guelph in 2013!

Wednesday 3 November 2010

The Knowledgeable Bystander: What do good coaches actually do?; October POM (He's baack!)

In what is a essentially a coaching blog, I have thus far, and to my own amazement, never spoken at any length about what I think actually constitutes effective coaching and what attributes coaches need in order to be able to provide it. (In my second post ever, I addressed the question "who needs a coach?", in the course of which I discussed the apparent contradiction inherent in the idea of a formerly successful self-coached athlete offering his services as a coach; but, I have never said much about what I think makes for a good coach, and what he/she should actually endeavour to do in his/her role.)

So then, what makes a good coach, and what is the essence of effective coaching in this sport?

To begin with, a basic distinction: There are two broadly different kinds of coaching relationships in running-- that between an athlete and his/her freely chosen/contracted coach, and that between an individual athlete, or "team" of athletes, and what I would refer to as an "institutionally appointed" coach (in Canada, usually a school or national team coach.) In North America, most serious runners will have been party to both of these basic types of relationship over the course of their careers, with the more common one being the latter. Although there are significant areas of overlap, the criteria of effective coaching in each of these kinds of relationships differs somewhat, as I will explain. The principle driver of this difference is the broader context within which the coach-athlete relationship unfolds, which has implications for the basic freedom of action of both parties. In spite of the differences between the basic challenge in each of these types of coaching relationship, there is, I think, a master principle that equally forms the basis for effective coaching in both contexts, even if it may be perhaps a little more difficult to apply in one than the other.

What Makes for a Good Coach?:

1. Knowledge of and the ability to impart the science and lore of running:

Unsurprisingly, the most successful coaches tend to know a great deal about the sport, including not just the science behind the training stimulus (which, subject to the odd new basic discovery, is not all that difficult to learn), but also its history and lore. A coach who is not him/herself also an enthusiast, whether or not he/she has ever been an actual participant, is a curious phenomenon. It's something of a cliche that good coaches are passionate about what they do, and are able to impart this passion to their athletes. I'm not sure how coaches who have no knowledge of the history of the sport, including its legendary figures, or who are not well versed in the competitive scene today, can begin to nurture in their athletes (particularly their youngest ones) the necessary passion to train and compete. Any of the top coaches I have had the priviledge of meeting and/or seeing at work have been great teachers and storytellers, able to explain in their own often very distinctive ways both the principles of effective training and the sheer excitment of being a participant in this most difficult and venerable of sports. The best coaches are invariably familiar with the ideas of other coaches, past and present; chances are great that they will also know the personal bests and competitive accomplishments of the top athletes at the local, national, and international levels, past and present; they will very often have their own experience as competitors on which to draw (of which more below); and, they will quite often have engaging stories to tell about all of these things. In other words, the best coaches will tend to be knowledgeable and passionate teachers. This is a variable that is somewhat dependent upon whether we're referring to a personal versus an institutional coach-- with the latter sometimes being able achieve success due to factors beyond his/her personal coaching style and acumen, such as the reputation of their school, their skill at self-promotion within a national sport bureaucracy, or accidents of geography. But, whether the coach operates inside or outside of a formal institutional structure, his/her long term success will tend strongly to be a reflection of his/her level of sport-specific knowledge, passion, and skill as a teacher.

2. Having Direct Experience:

A frequent topic of sport-related discussion in general is the question of whether the best athletes necessarily make the best coaches, or whether the less athletically accomplished tend to do a better job of stewarding athletes. This question is largely an empirical one, and much depends on what one means by the "best" or "star" athletes (there are, by definition, relatively few of the truly "top" athletes active in coaching, because there are so few of them relative to the number of available coaching opporunities). And the answer will depend to some extent on what sport one is referring to. In running, quite a few of the top coaches were themselves what could be called, at the very least, accomplished athletes, and the vast majority of them, whether independent or institutional, have some personal experience with run training, with many continuing to run, and even compete, themselves. A not insignificant number, however, have no experience with running at all,including an even smaller number with absolutely no personal experience with aerobic sport of any kind. (I have no hard data to support this, but I strongly suspect this phenomenon may be exclusive to running. I have never met a soccer, hockey, football, basketball, tennis, or gymnastic coach-- although I have met one somewhat successful swimming coach-- with no personal competitive experience in their sport.) While a handful of highly successful running coaches fall into the category of having no personal competitive experience, successful coaching strongly tends to require a "feel" for the sensations associated with different training intensities and mid-race states of physical and mental being. Without at least some personal experience with how it feels to be aerobically stressed, coaches will tend to operate based on visual appearances only (and things are very often not as they appear in running). A few coaches-- those with exceptional intuition and considerable accumulated experience in talking with athletes about their experiences in training and racing-- have managed to operate quite successfully based purely on what they see and hear, and without any internal referencing. For the most part, however, coaches who can only operate on the level of outward appearances make up the ranks of the least effective coaches in the sport. (A purely appearance-based approach to coaching can lead to such gems of coaching misguidance as the following: "Always try to get out there near the front at the start, because race winners almost always come from the lead pack"; or, "In the end, winning a race comes down to sprint speed, because races are so often won with sprint finishes." A word of advice: If you see nothing wrong with the logic of these statements, please stay out of coaching!)

3. Empathy and Intuition:

Among the indispensable qualities that direct experience in the sport reinforces are those of intuition and empathy (both "motor-empathy", or the ability to physically feel things by watching them, and the everyday ability to put oneself in the position of another-- in this case, that of other runners). All other things being equal, coaches who have been or are runners themselves will have a better chance of being able to "read" the physical states of their athletes, both at rest and while training or racing. Coaches who have been runners will also have a better chance of truly understanding athletes when they talk about their hopes, fears, and other concerns related to training, racing, and simply living the life of a serious runner. Along with giving coaches greater credibility with athletes, and thereby instilling a certain amount of confidence and trust in them, these abilities form the basis for a proper understanding of the training process as a day-to-day undertaking. Coaches without much direct experience in the sport can sometimes make up for this lack by combining second-hand knowledge with keen intuition regarding the inner states of their athletes. (And I have met or heard about a few highly successful coaches from non-running backgrounds who appear to possess this level of intuition-- a quality that has always seem somewhat magical to me, a primarily experience-based coach). When empathy born of direct experience is combined with superior intuition, however, we are usually in the presence of a truly great coach-- a coach of Bowerman or Daniels-like dimensions.

4. Humility and Respect for Athletes:

Even the most knowledgeable and sensitive coach, however, can ultimately fail if he insists on making himself the centre of the training process, or placing too much store on her contribution to the success of the athlete on the field of play. Yet another valuable byproduct of having tried this sport in a serious way is the opportunity to experience it from both sides of the coach-athlete relationship. My own experience has taught me how much more difficult it is to be the athlete than the coach, and how much more a talented and determined athlete brings to the coach-athlete relationship than does his/her coach. In an non-skills-based, individual sport like running, it is often possible for athletes to maximize their competitive potential with little or no direct, hands-on coaching of any kind, or with the support of a merely competent coach. In the end, the qualities required for success in the sport are found much more rarely in athletes than in coaches; for every potentially good, or great, runner there are, in my experience, literally dozens of coaches with the basic requirements for the job-- which, in the presence of a highly talented and driven athlete, often amounts to simply not messing up! There are, without question, a few bona fide geniuses and visionaries in the coaching ranks; but, the majority of their brilliance is, in my view, surplus to the task at hand, and secondary to what athletes of even average ability and determination bring to the process. It is simply much more difficult to actually do the training and racing oneself than it is simply to plan it and watch it. Coaches who overestimate the value of their contribution to the success of their athletes (an extreme case being a coach I knew who liked to refer to his athletes as "my little sculptures"!) are bound to be less effective than they might otherwise be, and are quite likely to alienate athletes in the process. They are also likely to over-subscribe to their personal "systems" and, ironically, to blame athletes for failures that often stem from their own mistakes (while always taking credit for their athletes' successes). Unless they have strong institutional protections of one kind or another, such coaches are likely to become lonely figures within the sport.

The Master Principle: Athlete-Centeredness

Whether working independently or within an institutional setting, truly effective coaches tend to be athlete-centred in their practice. For the best coaches, in other words, the process begins and ends with individual athlete and his/her specific needs. Various bureaucratic strictures-- in particular, those that aim to turn this most solitary of sports, for good or ill, into a team-based undertaking-- make it more difficult for coaches to attend to the needs of individual athletes. The best institutional coaches, however, still manage to do just this at all times. Athlete-centred coaching can run the gamut from tweaking a particular workout to the needs of an individual athlete, to respecting the desire of an athlete to work entirely outside of a group environment, and according to his/her own perceived needs (for, such is the difficulty of the sport, no athlete can perform optimally without first, and at all times, believing that he/she is preparing in the optimal way). For independent coaches, athlete-centeredness will entail always attempting to tailor a training program to full range of an athlete's needs, both inside and outside the sport. And, again, it may entail accepting, without malice or acrimony, that an athlete needs to go his/her own way, in spite of the coach's belief in the soundness of his/her approach. The opposite of the athlete-centred coach is the coach who tends to place service to broad abstractions-- "the team", the "federation", the "rules" (except for those that actually define the sport, of course), or even "the sport"-- over the needs of individual athletes; or, the coach who considers his own personal ambitions and ego before the needs of his athletes. Again, professional coaching in an institutional setting can sometimes make this a very difficult balancing act; but, those coaches who struggle most to address the needs of individual athletes-- occasionally by risking conflict with the larger structures within which they operate-- are almost always, in the end, the most successful where it ultimately matters: in helping individual athletes realize their full competitive potential (and, in this sport, "team" success really is a direct, non-synergetic, function of individual success). Finally, athlete-centred coaching does not mean athlete-directed coaching. No one should assume the role of coach in anything but an emergency situation unless he/she is clearly more experienced and knowledgeable than his/her most experienced and knowledgeable athlete. Unless merely acting as an advisor or sounding-board for a highly experienced and knowledgeable athlete, a coach is not a coach unless he/she assumes an authoritative (not to say authoritarian) role vis a vis the athlete. An athlete-centred coach still assumes the role of initiator/mentor within the relationship, but always in a flexible, respectful, and empathetic dialogue with his/her athletes.

To sum up, good coaches know their sport and can teach about it with a flair that inspires; they draw on their own experiences and intuition in order to "feel" their athlete's states of mind and body using their eyes and ears; and, they place their athletes at the centre of coaching process, relegating themselves to the role of knowledgeable and supportive bystander.

August POM:

The two very worthy nominees for this months POM honours-- Bob McGraw and Mike Gill-- are first-timers in 2010, although both were nominees in 2009, with Mike carrying away POY honours for an outstanding run of improvement that culminated in his improbable runner-up finish in the National Masters X-C championship race nearly one year ago. Bob earns a nod for his very impressive HM personal best in Niagara Falls. Two years ago, Bob executed his race plan perfectly in converting a perfect season of training into a very fine 1:19:30 to win his age catetory (50-55) in the Honeymoon Capital. To top this performance two years later-- and, of course, two years older-- would be a tall order. But, top it he did, with a flawlessly paced 1:18:44! As a testament to the depth of masters running these days, however, Bob actually missed winning his age group, albeit by a scant 26 seconds. Meanwhile, Mike Gill, after a quiet summer spent grappling with a small but tenacious case of patellar tendinitis, was up to his old tricks. Still not able to run more than 6 days a week (5 on most weeks), Mike nevertheless managed to dramatically readjust his 5k p.b. while winning the Guelph Thanksgiving Day by the preposterous margin of 1:44. Using his trademark perfect pacing, Mike got over the line in 15:03, 30-odd seconds faster than he ever had before on any surface. Once again, Mike managed to astound even me, his most ardent supporter. To put it bluntly, I just did not think he could do this, at least not at this time! And now, I shall refuse to be surprised by anything he does over the remainder of the season-- because, as I say, he has yet to be able to train at full capacity (although Mike has been exuding a quiet confidence in the weeks since this performance, and his training has gone exceptionally smoothly, perhaps foretelling more earthquakes to come!). With all due respect to Bob's fine run, October POM honours go to Mike Gill.