Friday 17 March 2017

Farewell To, and Reflections On, Junior Coaching.

Apart from the rookies who enter my team at Queen's in the future, and from the precocious Brogan MacDougall (who, while still in the junior ranks for another 3 years, is already a senior elite athlete in terms of performance), I ended my career as a coach of age-class athletes effective last spring. I have no regrets about this decision, and many reflections on the 8 odd years I spent doing it. Some of these latter may be of benefit to those contemplating--or perhaps just beginning to negotiate the gauntlet of-- junior coaching.

I have no regrets because I leave the PK Junior group-- now as big as it has ever been, but not too big to be effective-- in good hands (those of Queen's and PK Elite Assistant Coach, Brant Stachel), confident that the kids will continue to get the start they need in the sport.

And it is impossible to overstate the importance of a proper start in a sport as initially lonely, daunting, and unfashionable to mainstream youth as serious distance running. If the emotional demands of training and the (for many) terrors of competition are not managed with skill and wisdom, young runners are apt to abandon the sport early and for good. And no coach has ever achieved a perfect record when it comes to creating lifelong runners, or even just happy and satisfied ex-runners. Most of us don't even come close, even when we make it our main intention.

With nearly 40 continuous years in the sport and 125,000+ miles etched into my tissues, I consider myself to be, for better or worse, among the life-longiest of life-long runners. Yet, because my own start in the sport was so haphazard and luck-dependent, it could easily have been much different. Like the dozens, even hundreds, of young athletes I have seen come and go over the decades, I could just as easily have entered and exited the sport quickly and disillusioned, without ever having glimpsed my true competitive potential or experienced the manifold benefits, both mental and physical, that the serious pursuit of running offers to those who abide with it. Granted, I may eventually have discovered a suitable replacement for serious running; but, I can't imagine I would have found something better, all tolled. And I know I could easily have done much worse. Along with its own benefits, I simply can't think of another activity that fits so well with, indeed supports the pursuit of, life's more non-negotiable responsibilities, such as work, raising a family, and coping with aging and loss. Just ask anyone who did it long enough to love it, then lost it permanently to physical debilitation. It is relatively cheap, logistically uncomplicated, portable, and suitable for people of any age living almost anywhere. If you could give lifelong running as a gift, you would, without hesitation. And it turns out you can!-- by giving young runners the kind of start in the sport that will keep them at it long enough to acquire a deep taste for its strangely satisfying rigors.

The broader context within which I discovered the sport has changed (more people of all ages now run, and the running industry is now a multifaceted behemoth within the even larger "health and fitness" mega-complex); yet, when it comes to introducing young people to the sport, there would appear to be some eternal verities. If, as coaches of young runners, we abide by these, we give our charges the best chance of realizing their full athletic potential and, perhaps more importantly, of becoming life long runners.

Start Later

The first of these is that, while children can indeed enjoy a little racing and training in their formative years, running is not really a children's sport. Real proficiency in the sport is determined much more by training than by so-called natural ability. In the medium and longer term, even the most gifted runner can't beat one of average ability, if the former is completely untrained and the latter has spent years increasing his/her gross capacities; and, the ratio of time spent training versus time spent racing is vastly skewed towards training when compared with almost any other sport. In short, to be a runner is to be, primarily, an athletic labourer (there is a reason we refer to our training in terms of "work", as in "workouts", rather than in terms of "practice"). Because children's athletic pursuits need to be primarily playful, serious distance running is best avoided in kids. Over my 10 years coaching kids, my original, intuitive belief in later-starting (age 13 for actual training) only became stronger.

Train by age, not ability

Second, a good intro to the sport can be insured by establishing training loads by age rather than ability. The six different individual OFSSA (Ontario high school) champions who emerged from the PK junior group during my years directing it all followed the same basic training plan-- one determined not by their ability but by their grade level. Grade 9s of both genders ran 5 days per week at 30-45mins, including 2 workouts; most did not compete more than once or twice indoors or in the summer months; and all had extended breaks between seasons. The plan for grade 10s was similar, but included an additional day of running per week and a few more minutes of running per day. And so on it went through grade 12. All runners had very similar four-year rates of improvement (meaning that the more precocious ones tended to become very good), and the vast majority (well over 90%) went on to compete at the university level in Canada and/or the U.S. About the same percentage continued to improve their personal bests after high school. The ones who have now graduated, furthermore, are well on their way to being life long runners, even if only for general fitness.

Race sparingly

Third, racing should be relatively infrequent (10x per year is more than sufficient to develop the necessary skills and to fully realize the benefits of the year's training). Too often, team sport schedules, which can have kids competing almost as often as they practice, are sometimes used as the standard when setting youth track club competitive schedules. And, since kids like to compete, a busy competitive schedule is sometimes good for short term athlete retention. I have always found something perverse in having developing distance runners compete up to twice as often as their senior-elite counterparts (who have been known to race as little as 5 times in a year). Racing is no less stressful for younger athletes, and can be more stressful for some. And pressure to race when things are not going particularly well in training-- and, for a number of reasons, training goes poorly for younger runners as often as it does for mature athletes-- can lead to an early exit from the sport. Very young athletes can have a difficult time putting a string of poor race results into proper perspective. When you're very young and have only raced a few times in your life (and usually with a chance for a personal best every time out) even 2 or 3 poor outings in a row can lead you to question your commitment to the sport, particularly when other recreational options are readily available.

Be athlete-centred

Finally, coaching at any level, and particularly at the age-class level, should be a form of service to athletes. Effective coaches strive for competence and let their athletes supply the rest. At the age-class level in particular, potentially competent coaches are far more common than athletes with the necessary drive and focus to succeed in the sport. Stories abound of relatively inexperienced high school and club coaches presiding over very successful teams simply by sticking to the basics, remaining humble, and putting athletes at the centre of the process. Age class coaches, whether school or club-based, who start with a structure built according to their own "vision" of what a training group of kids should look and act like, then attempt discipline kids according to that structure, are more likely than not to fail in the long run, particularly if their knowledge of and personal involvement in the sport is limited. As coaches, we have a right to be proud of "our" athletes' success in reaching their goals; but, we should understand that we don't create that success, and that we don't "mould", "sculpt", or whatever other shaping metaphor you prefer, our athletes as people or as competitors. If we're being honest with ourselves, or if we simply listen to our athletes talk about the sport, we will understand that who their coach happens to be is usually very low on their list of concerns, unless that coach is excessively demanding or otherwise unpleasant. In my years as a junior coach, I simply tried to make my group as accessible as possible. I never charged a fee, required regular attendance (I was going to be there anyway, regardless of who showed up), or made demands of athlete regarding adherence to the training plan. The net result was an atmosphere that fostered a simple love of running; that permitted less serious runners to pursue their more limited goals; and, that created the conditions for highly motivated and talented runners to succeed at unprecedented levels for a community as small as Kingston, Ontario.

P-K Junior Group, 2008 to 2016:

In the 8 years since its inception, the PK Junior Group, which at no time during this period contained more than 17 athletes, produced the followed record of competitive success:

-6 individual OFSAA Champions (Nicole Armstrong, Heather Jaros, Kieran L'Abbe, Branna MacDougall, Brogan MacDougall, and Cam Linscott), including 2 OFSAA Records (Heather Jaros and Brogan MacDougall)

-6 individual National Junior medals (Nicole Armstrong, Dylan O'Sullivan, Cleo Boyd, Branna MacDougall, Brogan MacDougall, Cam Linscott.

- 7 National Team berths by 5 athletes (Heather Jaros (1), Cleo Boyd(2), Branna MacDougall(2), Brogan MacDougall(1), Cam Linscott(1)).

-1 National Junior Record (Branna MacDougall, 5000m, 15:48).

-8 NCAA/CIS scholarship recipients (Jeff Archer (Queen's), Blair Morgan (MacMaster), Dylan O'Sullivan (Dartmouth College), Cleo Boyd (University of Virginia), Clara Langely (Tulsa University), Nicole Armstrong (Villanova University), Branna MacDougall (Iowa State University), Cam Linscott (University of Toronto).

-1 National XC team title (Junior girls-- 2014, at a time when their were only 7 junior girls in the group!).

-1 National XC team silver medal (Junior boys-- 2010).

In short, in these 8 years, athletes from the small PK group produced significantly more provincial and national level success than all other age class distance athletes combined in the city's entire history.

And long may they run!

2016 PK POY

From a lengthy list of outstanding performances by PK athletes of all ages, some of which are mentioned in previous postings, and others detailed on social media, I have selected Branna MacDougall's personal best and National Junior Record, set at the World Junior Championships, no less, as our Performance of 2016. When it comes to surpassing personal performance, you simply can't do any better than a lifetime best in your target race of the season. And when that target race is also a major championship, all the more impressive! Congrats, Branna!