Sunday 10 July 2011

High Schools, Clubs and the Differentia Specifica of Running

Since my reference in the last post to the seemingly perennial "schools versus clubs" problem in junior distance running attracted attention in some unlikely quarters, I thought I'd take the time to say a few things about what I think drives it and how it can be resolved (i.e. both for the record, in the event that these parties are still looking in!). For some, the simple solution to this issue is for school coaches, backed by administrators, to insist that all athletes train with their school teams during the school season, or else quit them in favour of the club system. I'll argue that such an a approach is no real solution at all for distance running-- that is, if one is at all concerned with building the sport, including school programs, or behaving reasonably towards serious student athletes in publicly funded schools.

But first, I should say this this really isn't a problem in most instances, even in Ontario, where it has long and notorious history. Most high school runners who train year-round in clubs, including members of P-K, continue to enjoy excellent relations with their school coaches and administrators. In most schools, coaches and administrators either don't see an issue at all, and are content to allow athletes to satisfy team and federation participation rules in ways that do not interfere with their year-round training plans, or they welcome and encourage club-based athletes because of the example of serious commitment, drive, and, yes, competitive success, that they bring to school programs. It is the tiny majority of conflict situations that are responsible for the impression that there is some kind of intractable incompatibility at play when it comes to club-based athletes competing for their schools.

Why has there been such a problem in running (X-C and distance track) in the first place? (And I have heard accounts suggesting that conflicts between club athletes and their schools date back as far back as the 1950s in Ontario!)? As I see it, there are really two possible broad explanations:

1. Club-based coaches are, and always have been, uniquely and determinedly meddlesome, and club athletes particularly oppositional in disposition, such that each is determined to go looking for trouble, in spite of the availability of perfectly reasonable alternatives that involve no sacrifices on their part.


2. There is something inherent in, and specific to, the sport of running that continually recreates the potential for this kind of conflict, while athletes in other sports manage to move more or less freely between their club and school teams, or simply choose to do one or the other exclusively.

My own experience as an athlete and coach (including within a school-based program-- Queen's) attract me to the second hypothesis. It's implausible to suggest that that any one group of people can be so irrationally and unreasonably demanding over such a long period of time; furthermore, what I know about club-based coaches and athletes in other sports-- sports where simultaneous school and club participation are more or less the norm, and rarely the subject of conflict-- has led me to believe that runners and their coaches are at least as reasonable, and probably by nature more averse to conflict, than their counterparts in these sports.

And it really is true that athletes in other sports, particularly team sports, manage to participate fully, and often simultaneously, in school and club programs, just as young actors, musicians, and singers tend to move freely between their non-school and school-based programs, usually with full support on all sides. In the vast majority of cases, the volunteer coaches and instructors who operate school sports and arts programs recognize and support the year-round involvement of more serious participants (as part of the mandate of schools to promote excellence across the curriculum and extra-curriculum), and are happy to accommodate students' movement between school and outside programs during the school season, when these students express a desire to participate in the school-based program. They do so both out of concern to accommodate the goals of individual students, and because these more serious students often add considerable value to their school programs, in spite of their sometimes more limited weekly involvement. But there is a more specific reason why there tends to be less club-school friction when it comes to school activities other than distance running: In most school activities, and sports in particular, students can easily accommodate the extra practice demands associated with participating on both a club and school teams, because practice time tends to much more skills and strategy-focused than conditioning-focused (of which more below). Moreover, full participation in other school sports actually requires more or less full time practice attendance, because the vast majority of school sports (or plays/musicals, and other arts-based activities) are genuinely team-based activities that actually, functionally require active cooperation on the field of play. We could also add that most other school sports are more popular than distance running, meaning that the competition for scarce team positions enables school coaches to simply force students to choose between school and club programs when there is deemed to be incompatibility (interestingly, however, they rarely do, as club-based athletes in team sports are almost always among the most skilled, and team-sport coaches, understandably, like to win!).

I would thus submit that there are certain fundamental differences between running (and distance running in particular) and the vast majority of school sports and other activities that uniquely generate pressures, year-in and year-out, leading to conflict over simultaneous club-school participation. (A fact that is actually born out by the existence of "minimum practice requirements" at the Ontario federation level in X-C and track-- something that does not exist for team sports). Among these differences are the following:

1. That training for it is grossly physiological in focus (i.e. aerobic). If there is any "skills" component to running it is very small (witness the number of athletes who have become world class without any formal coaching at all). This means both that athletes serious about doing their best must do at least some running year-round, and that the vast majority of the training runners do can be, and often is, done without any "team" cooperation (although runners will often train in groups, of which more below). It also means that there are strict limits on the amount of really intense training a distance runner can do in typical cycle (e.g. one week). As a result, there really are not 7 training days in the weekly cycle of a distance runner; there are 2 to 3, surrounded by several days of easier "recovery" efforts.

2. Distance running is not a team sport in any meaningful sense. As a result, it is entirely possible for athletes and "teams" (which, in running, are really aggregations of individual performances, or placings) to reach the highest level without engaging in any group or "team" practice whatsoever. For instance, in cross country, members of national "teams" rarely, if ever, train together, and may not even have formally met until convening at a championship event! The simple fact that it is possible to train for running alone (and very effectively so) means that distance runners, including very young ones, will often want to do it this way, creating the potential to run afoul of school coaches and administrators who insist on treating running as a team sport like any other.

3. While not a team sport in any meaningful sense, running is nevertheless an activity that athletes of similar levels of experience, ability, and commitment choose to do in small groups. Such groups usually evolve in a club rather than a school setting for a variety of reasons, including that volunteer school coaches cannot be expected to run the kinds of year-round programs that serious athletes must have in order to realize their potential (see point 1. above), and because school programs are often much smaller in size, and tend to be comprised of athletes with very widely varying levels of ability. Year-round running clubs are the vehicle of choice for athletes choosing to train in a group setting because within them it is possible to train directly alongside athletes of similar levels of ability and interest (and of the same gender, which often makes clubs more socially attractive for serious female athletes). The attachment of runners to their club group training environment thus tends to be very strong, making it inevitable that these athletes will seek to maintain them during the school season. Add all this to the fact that school teams don't functionally require a "team" approach (i.e. unlike a basketball team, which can't function at all without a team approach), and that serious athletes often lack suitable (or any) training partners within their schools, and it is inevitable that club athletes will seek the kind of dispensation that can lead to conflict with a certain kind of school coach.

4. Underlying much of the above is the simple fact that distance running is a uniquely challenging form of sport activity-- one that increasingly goes against the cultural grain for young people, for whom the most strenuous form of physical activity is likely to be their daily gym class. As a result, distance running is likely to remain a fringe sport in the vast majority of high schools, in spite of the best efforts of volunteer high school coaches to build numbers. And, when a school coach is moderately successful at attracting more than a handful of athletes, the disparity in their levels of ability and interest in the sport are bound to be huge, making effective group training all but impossible (something that is simply not true of team sports, in which participants come from a much narrower range of ability and interest). The inevitable result is that the tiny minority of serious athletes (very often only one or two athletes, in fact) in any one school is likely to prefer training alone (particularly when this is what they invariably end up doing at school "team" practices anyway), or will tend seek out training partners of similar levels of ability at other schools. The result is that, if year-round clubs/training groups for serious runners did not already exist, chances are the athletes themselves would create them-- either that, or the sport would collapse completely in many communities.

5. Because serious distance running (i.e. not the weight-loss activity we see at the average road race) is increasingly a fringe activity, the level of coaching expertise in the sport varies much more widely than in the more popular team sports, where literally thousands of ex-participants with moderate to high level experience are available to work with young athletes in and outside of school programs. The result is often that there is a considerable difference in the quality of guidance on offer from club versus school coaches in running versus team sports. Serious young runners are able to recognize this difference immediately, and will be inclined to want to continue accessing the best available coaching guidance available, even when the difference is not all that great (because success in sport is, after all, often a matter of very small differences multiplied repeatedly). If, all other things being equal, athletes perceive that the quality of coaching is superior in a club versus their school program (and, because there are no measures of coaching prowess beyond the actual preferences of serious athletes themselves, perception is all that matters here), they will want to continue receiving principle guidance from their club coach on a year-round basis, even if this brings them into conflict with a school coach or administrator. This is, after all, only human nature, and would be equally true of serious school-age musicians and scholars, many of whom retain outside teachers and tutors during the school year. And any policy that seeks to force a person who is serious about developing his/her full potential in a particular area of expertise to compromise his/her efforts will tend to encounter resistance. Imagine, for instance, if students in an enriched science or math class were asked to give up their special instruction "for the benefit of the 'team'".

6. School competitive programs are very attractive to school-age athletes, and students at publicly-funded schools, who were assigned to them by administrative fiat (unavoidable in a publicly funded system, but still a fact), feel as though they have a right to access such programs on terms that are compatible with both the nature of the sport and the needs of others. Even where club competitive opportunities exist, student athletes, runners included, enjoy participating in school-based programs, and feel they have a right to do so if their abilities qualify them. In Ontario in particular, the high school competition program is top-notch and highly elite-focused, with athletes participating in qualifying competitions than winnow fields down to a highly select few at the championship (OFSAA) level. But, as it happens, there is also space on 99% of school teams for every interested student athlete to participate (i.e. running is a "no-cut" sport in almost all schools). What this means is that there is a great demand for participation in school-based cross country and track programs by club-based athletes (indeed, the vast majority of the top athletes in the system are club-based), a widespread feeling among club-based athletes that they have a right to participate in these programs, and an understanding that simultaneous participation in club and school programs is very easy to facilitate (much easier,in fact, than in team sports). Once again, the result is the potential for conflict between club-based runners and school coaches who insist that X-C and track teams are no different than teams-proper, and make no exceptions.

Recognition of the above, combined with a desire to accommodate the legitimate aspirations of serious student athletes to participate in publicly funded sports programs at the schools to which they have been assigned, without compromising that seriousness, is the secret to ending conflict between club-based athletes and their school coaches/administrators. Indeed, it is precisely this kind of recognition that happens in the hundreds of schools where this conflict has never been allowed to develop. Club-based athletes can also help avoid contributing to this conflict by actively suggesting way that they can participate in their school programs without compromising their year-round training plans. For instance, in the vast majority of cases, performing easier, recovery sessions with the school team (if there is an active team), or pacing younger, slower members through their harder sessions on recovery days is considered more than sufficient to satisfy school coaches and administrators. This way, it is often possible for club athletes to spend even more time training with their school team than the average school-based athlete!

But none of this matters in those rare instances where a high school coach or administrator is determined to treat the school cross country and distance track teams, and distance running in general, as though they were no different than any other team or sport in the school, and to set about enforcing participation rules that they have have been informed (and should reasonably know in any case) will interfere with the desire of more serious athletes to maintain continuity in their year-round programs. Such a course of action will ultimately serve no one but the coach or administrator bent on having his/her way*. School distance running programs are not likely to be more successful, either in terms of competitive results or participation numbers, using such an approach. The subjection of serious athletes to rules that neither serve their interests (as they, as young adults, understand them) nor do anything to promote broader participation in school programs are doomed to fail everyone concerned. Serious club-based athletes will either abandon school teams entirely, or will be forced to make compromises for which they will see no legitimate justification, and that have no real parallel is an education system that is meant to encourage both independent goal-setting and initiative, and the pursuit of excellence in all areas of the curriculum and extra-curriculum.

*Looming over this entire discussion is the curious power that has been bestowed upon volunteer school sports coaches to exclude student athletes from school programs for reasons other than ability or poor behaviour. Imagine the fate, at the hands of parents and administrators, of the school teacher who insisted on failing students for poor attendance, regardless of performance on assigned work! Yet, I have seen and heard of highly qualified young runners being threatened with expulsion from their school X-C and track teams for failure, not just to attend team workouts, but to perform at designated effort levels as specified by volunteer school coaches-- and this, with the full backing of school administrators! Thankfully, these examples remain in the extreme minority; but, one wonders-- given, among other things, the great power within the system of the disgruntled parent-- how they are ever allowed to stand at all. Perhaps the martial tradition in sport, according to which the coach is the unquestioned commander and the athletes his/her troops, is at work here (misapplied though it would be in distance running, where collective cohesion on the field of play/battlefield is not among the relevant variables).