Quebec: We can do better.

A great article by Denis Poulin in the FAQ newsletter asks the question: “Pourquoi la représentation du Québec aux grands rendez-vous mondiaux est-elle si faible?”

Good question. Poulin outlines four reasons why he thinks there has been a decline. He looks at cultural, linguistic, environmental and technical reasons. Then, he seeks to find a solution to some of these so-called problems. I’d like to suggest some further alternatives, as I think that, while his heart is obviously in the right place, he’s still somewhat barking up the same wrong-headed tree that has us in this situation in the first place.

First to examine his reasons for the decline. Culturally, he notes that, unlike the rest of the country, the school system in QC has four stages, not three. The extra step of CEGEP has long been a void for athletics here. While top runners benefit from the club system, the middle of the pack kids, who might one day make the jump to elite, are left with no outlet, and so by the time university rolls around, they’ve lost interest, or lost touch. I have certainly experienced this when trying to recruit for Concordia in the early days: many people said the same thing: “I used to run in high school, but then I stopped.”

The good news is that the CEGEPs have now created quite a good little cross country league, and indoor track is not far behind. At the very least, this will allow for a transition period for athletes on the edge of deciding whether to keep going, or quit. Keeping people in the sport is key to developing elite international representation.

That might seem obvious, but the structure of our club system belies this. The key to getting more, faster runners out there representing Quebec is to grow the larger numbers in the sport. The mistake that is currently being made, in my opinion, is that we focus too much on developing elite level talent at a young age. Don’t get me wrong. I love seeing Xavier Bertrand and Justin Bolduc battle it out. But at their age, it might be too soon. Encourage them, yes, but the bulk of our institutional energy should be on keeping everyone involved.

I’ve been accused of taking an “English Canadian” way of looking at the sport (as if that were a bad thing!), but I can’t help it, as that’s where my formative years in the sport took place. I was part of a high school team that dominated distance running in Ontario from 1979 until around 2005. We won the city of Toronto team championship EVERY YEAR in that stretch, in both track (actually the track streak was a little shorter) and cross country, and in that time we also had the most high school team provincial championships. We did it with a team of around 75 boys each year. Volume is the key. The more people you have, the more chance you have of someone being successful, for a number of reasons.

Adding CEGEP back into the mix is huge because it allows the numbers to grow (or at least stems the tide of departures). Another good thing that is happening is that the university cross country league has gone from three schools (pathetic) in 2006 when Concordia entered the game, to seven schools (much better!), with UQAM, UQTR and UQAC joining up. A bigger pool is going to result in better competition. I’ve spoken to some people who think that focusing on elite is the way to go: a two-person 1500m final that goes 3:47 is better than a 5-person final that goes 4:01. That’s wrong. Why? Because, first of all, anyone who goes 4:01 can go 3:47 in a year with the right training. Second of all, you’ll have 5 people who might do it, instead of just 2. (I’ll slag indoor track later, but for the purposes of recruiting, I wish Concordia would let us have a team. They won’t. That’s another story.)

The second issue Poulin discussed was linguistic. I don’t want to get political, but this is absolutely silly. Did the members of the teams in the 80s, when Quebec had a decent representation, not speak the same french as athletes do now? He claims this limits the ability to go to the NCAA. First of all, it doesn’t (he gives the example of Julie Labonté; I add Alex Mavrovik off to the US next year, Genest in Ontario, Alex L’Heureux went south. If you want it, you can get it). Second of all, Quebec needs to lose this insecurity. Learning a second language will enhance your communications skills. It will make you better at everything. Learning English will not make you lose your French. If anything, it will improve it.

The third issue he brings up is climate. He claims that Mondor and Tadili had to “exile” themselves to BC to get what they needed. Nonsense. Ever hear of Wisconsin? And Simon Bairu? This is just a poor excuse. The great coach Joe Vigil said: “You can get it done anywhere. Use what you have.” If you aren’t tough enough to run through the winter in Montreal, you aren’t tough enough to run in an Olympic final anyway, so don’t bother. Harsh, but true.

While these last two reasons are weak, the fourth one is probably the most significant, as it ties back to the idea of growing the base of the sport. The “technical” or coaching side of things, as Poulin notes, is a thorny issue. No one wants to come out and say the coaches are not doing a good job. I’ll say that coaching is less of an issue than the way clubs and coaches are administrated. But to Poulin’s point that athletes are leaving Quebec coaches to go and get what they need elsewhere: so what? Coaches (and federations, and provinces) you do not OWN athletes. Athletes need to do what they need to do. Sometimes, changing coaches is a good idea. Let go a little bit.

Poulin suggests singling out and following the top 14-17 year-olds as they progress through the system. Again, this is missing the point. Think long-term, and think broadly. Make sure that there is a place for anyone who wants to train and compete, at all levels. If that’s the case, the best athletes will out. It’s ok to go away to university for 3-5 years, and train in a different system. That just might benefit the athlete. I suppose I am more of a libertarian in this respect, but I don’t think the Federation should be providing advice to athletes. The athlete, his or her parents and maybe a coach, should help in these decisions. The Federation should give them what they want, instead of telling them what they need. Don’t make athletes conform to a system: conform the system to the athletes. The same goes for coaches.

As for the actual training, here are my thoughts on why Quebec is not as strong as it once was, at least in the distance events. 1) too much interval training at too young an age. 2) not enough aerobic development. 3) fractured training groups.

The first two work together: instead of focusing on track training, kids in high school should be doing lots of aerobic activity. I’m not saying they should be running 100 miles per week. I know some people will probably take that from this article, but I do not believe that at all! They should be playing soccer (or reffing soccer!), in the summer, hockey or basketball in the winter, and running should be part of a full plate of sporting activities. Yet, we glorify age group records and push kids to hit them. This results in stars burning bright, but fast. By they time they get to university, they are sick of training so hard, or injured. (As an aside, the obsession with indoor track contributes to this. Why the need to pound the body 12-months a year? Has no one ever heard of a build phase?).

The third issue, fractured training groups, results from a few things:
1) coaches’ possessive mentality: Last winter we tried to get a few coaches together to coordinate workouts so that we could get a bigger training group. The will was not there. The athletes lost out.
2) focus on intervals as the “magic bullet” or “secret sauce.” If the 6x600m workout is going to be the key to the training week, then it becomes much more difficult to replace it with 8×400, even if the workouts are basically the same. If we focused on aerobic development first, and recognized that about 80% (sometimes more) of the training week is simple aerobic development, which can be easily done in very large groups, you solve this problem. And then, when it comes time to do the workouts, everyone is stronger, and they have a bigger bond. Nothing like hanging out with someone for 1h-2h every day to get close!

This works. How do I know this works? Well, let me give you an example of what is currently the best distance running group in Quebec, the Rouge et Or group. They are a big group, they run a lot of miles, they have a coach who is open to collaboration (with triathletes, for example, which is a real untapped market, so to speak!), and lo and behold, they dominated the medals at the provincial championships and have most of the fast distance times this summer.

I’m not saying, let’s all move to Quebec City. I’m saying, look at what is working, and follow that example. Look at Guelph: they are relentless recruiters. Talk to anyone from there, and within minutes they will be inviting you to come and run with them in Guelph. We saw Gen Lalonde in Quebec City, and of course, she sent out the invite. Why do they do this? Because they know the value of a big group. Look at what their athletes are doing: lots of miles. Ok, Reid and Watson are doing marathon training, yes, but if you go down there, you won’t find them hammering the crap out of VO2max intervals all the time. Successful groups are patient, and strong.

The best part: none of this costs money (or much more than it already would). You don’t need facilities to go for a long run. You don’t need a track for a workout. You just need athletes who are willing. That’s all it takes.

How do we fix Quebec track? Denis Poulin says: avec “une volonté de changement, une rupture avec certaines pratiques et des efforts plus concertés.” I agree. I also say: Slowly. I know it’s counter-intuitive, but just like running lots of easy miles DOES make you faster, having a patient, long-term view of development will lead to a larger pool of athletes exiting university, which will lead to a larger pool of post-collegiate elites who can represent Quebec (and Canada) on the international stage.