A development plan for coaches

This is sort of part 2 of what was already a very long post about development in track and field. I suggested in that post that the long-term development of the athlete in Canada ought to go through the CIS, and that in those years, it was ok if distance runners (I didn’t mention sprinters, but the fact that they have the fall off of competition means they can very easily handle CIS indoor and a full AC/FQA outdoor season) took the summers off competition during university. The FQA should then leave the development during those stages to the universities, and as such, end funding for athletes from 18-23, since funding is not likely to be a reason to stop competing at that age, and instead invest more in the transition from university to full senior competition, as well as in the clubs at the development level, to help them bring more kids up through the system to university.

To respond to some comments to that post (on Facebook, mostly), it is true that it is possible to structure a year so that university distance runners can do all three seasons. The way to make that happen is to make sure that club and university coaches are on the same page in terms of the athlete’s plan. To be honest, this is where most of the conflict comes into play. It doesn’t have to be so. Melissa Bishop managed to qualify for the Olympics last summer training out of the Windsor Lancers program, while her club was the Ottawa Lions. Another Olympian, Sara Wells has both her club and university groups in the same place, at UofT. This can be done. Charles Philibert-Thiboutot shut down his CIS indoor season to make sure he’s healthy for the outdoor season. In his case, his club coach and his university coach are one in the same. In the Quebec context generally, however, there seems to be a resistance from club coaches to committing to the full CIS season. I think the root of this problem is that we are unclear about the role a coach plays in the long term development of an athlete. Or, another way to put it, is that there is too much “peak by Friday” mentality, and not enough big picture thinking.

The FQA can take the lead on changing this by restructuring some of the incentives that are designed to target coaches. There are some issues here in that the government gives money for a particular program, and the FQA can’t just re-purpose it as they please. This is too bad though, as a bottom-up structure works better than top down. Let the people who are involved in the sport on the ground decide what to do with the money. Anyway, the following assumes we can figure this out and use the funds that exist in a different way.

As I mentioned above, funding the base, and funding the top should be the two priorities. This is actually nicely analogous to training for distance running: build a good base with lots of easy miles, and by working on top-end speed–leave the specific work (which falls in a kind of mushy middle in terms of volume/quality/recovery) for after that. So: funding clubs at the development or base level means, I think, funding coaches. Paid coaches, and educated coaches are coaches who will do right by the athletes. Some people decry the coaching education system as bureaucratic, and value years of on the ground experience more highly than they do a weekend course. Those years are valuable, there’s no question. But don’t discount coaching courses, not necessarily for the committee-designed curriculum (it’s often repetitive and boring), but for the opportunity to spend a weekend with other coaches, talking, and sharing those years of experience. THAT is valuable.

To end, here’s another controversial schema: Coaches need to be specialised. An athlete should have more than one coach over the course of his or her career. Imagine a system where each club is structured like this:

At age 9-14, provide a coach who introduces kids to track and field, understands that they are probably playing a few different sports, and has the goal of making things fun. This coach would be judged not on the number of medals his or her athlete won, but on how many kids graduate to the next level. Provide funds for coaches based on the number of kids who move on.

From age 15-18 (pre-university), a coach who understands the struggles of being a teenager, who encourages athletes towards their strengths, but still builds a base for the future career. Again, reward the coach who keeps the most kids in the sport.

From age 19-23, the university coach who integrates the athlete into the varsity program, shares with them all the university has to offer, and understands that while most people end their careers after school, the more runners who decide to keep going, the better. At this point, yes, performance matters. Varsity rosters are limited and participation is based on achieving standards. So at this point, by all means let the cream rise to the top, but keep in mind that there are 5-10 more years of running career to follow a university degree, if the athlete so desires.

From age 23-30 (roughly) a real high performance coach works with the athlete to help him or her achieve her goals of personal bests, records, wins and national teams. The groups are going to be smaller at this point, because athletes will have to make tough choices about whether or not to continue in the sport. But the more athletes we bring to this point, the more will choose to go on, and the more true high performance success we will have. This only works, however, if we’ve built the base from the bottom up.

For athletes aged 23+ who are not high performance, but because of the great experience they had in the sport, they are happy to continue to try to improve themselves, a coach to work with them towards those goals.

As you can see, in this system, an athlete has four different coaches. This is great! Four people to learn from. Most coaches want to be the HP coach. Of course. That makes sense. But it’s potentially disadventageous to an athlete to be stuck with the same coach his or her whole life. A 14-year-old or even a 17-year-old for that matter, does not need a high performance coach. He or she needs a coach to help him or her through adolescence, and hopefully, that coach will show the athlete how the sport of track and field is a great place to grow up, and maybe even stay a while.

This isn’t what we have now. What we have now is a system where a coach can make his or her bones off a single high performing junior athlete. “Discover” one great talent, ride him or her to international success, and get all kinds of praise and funding as a coach. This is fun for the coach, but it doesn’t help grow the sport.

We need to prioritize and reward coaches not for athletes’ performances, results, records, medals, etc, but for how many athletes they graduate to the next level. This is key. The best development coach is not the one with the fastest athletes, he or she is the one with the MOST athletes who continue on to the next level. I think we can recognize a few of our best coaches here: from a big group comes a fast group.

Another comment that came up on Facebook, via Steve Weiler of the London Runner Distance Club, was that part of the problem in development was segregation of age groups, both in competition and in training. This is a great point. The coaching development structure above would work best in one club, where all the coaches are talking to each other, getting ready to move the athletes up the chute. A big practice, with all age groups around, is a great thing. And sure, maybe there is some overlap where some real high performing juniors might benefit from some work with a high performance coach. The goal of this suggestion is not to hold back athletes with real potential, but to ensure that those whose potential might not yet be apparent are supported and given the opportunity they need.

Another potential qualm with this is the idea that a coach gets to know an athlete, and this relationship, developed over many years, is key to athlete performance. I agree that this is true, but if we are talking real world-class athletes, then an international career would last maybe 10 years, starting in the early 20s, and stretching into the early 30s. That seems like plenty of time to get it right, with the youth years divided among coaches who are specialised in that area. Other than Galen Rupp, what international athletes have had the same coach since they were 14 years old? Mo Farah changed coaches mid-career. Reid Coolsaet hasn’t been disadvantaged by the fact that he only started working with DST after high school. This is a red herring.

The object here is to think about a global system. It is easy, as an individual, to think of yourself (coach or athlete) as an exception. But if we are going to have a system that supports and promotes young people in the sport, we can’t focus on the exceptions. We have to consider the base.

Two last interesting things: You can go on the FQA website and see how many coaches are registered with each club. What I find interesting about this list is that there are a lot of clubs with only one or two coaches. It’s not possible for them to properly move athletes up the development train this way. Unless, they propose only to service one particular age group. That’s cool, but then you need to have another club to feed them into. This is ok (not all clubs have the resources to be “full-service”), but it makes it harder to ensure a similar development philosophy.

Another thing I noticed is that there are way more male coaches than female coaches. This is a common problem, you might say. Ok, maybe, but how does Corsaire Chaparal manage to have 9 female coaches!? That’s amazing. They have 19 coaches registered. They’ve pretty much got the right ratio there. I am willing to bet their club has a coaching system similar to the one described above. We should all strive for this, and, if coaches and clubs were rewarded for numbers, rather than results, we’d actually end up seeing a lot more results.