Which way to the top? Bottom-up or top-down?

The Quebec Athletics Federation has taken some great strides in the last year. The new president, Laurent Godbout, is a guy who is not afraid to say what he thinks, not afraid to go after sacred cows, and not worried about rocking the boat.

I enjoy discussing the big questions in our sport with Laurent. He’s not afraid to argue. Neither am I. It’s fun. We had a good chat the other weekend as he was updating the scoreboard for the Ontario/Quebec/Maritimes juvenile challenge at Claude Robillard. It turned on the question of what role the CIS and its programs should play in athlete development in the larger sport of track and field.

Right now in Quebec, we have some schools that are real high performance centres, and others that are just trying to get off the ground. The question that was asked was where do universities fit in the athlete’s career? From a distance runner’s perspective, running in a CIS program means a big cross country season that ends mid-November, followed by a short, but intense indoor season that ends either at the end of February, or early March, if you qualify for the CIS championships. This is about 5 months of intense training and competition (at least the way most programs work), and although it leaves a good amount of time to build up for the real track season in the summer, one might view trying to peak three times in one year to be too much, and many university runners take the summer off competition. A break after CIS in March, then some easy build-up in April during exams, then back home to a local track club, maybe some road races, or some track to keep sharp, then in July and August start building mileage for cross.

It seems to me that the role of the CIS is kind of like U23 in triathlon: a development stage so runners can get good competitive opportunities, and prepare for their senior-level careers. Steve Boyd, one of Canada’s top masters runners, and cross country coach at Queen’s university, suggests that the CIS is “the last age-group.”

The FQA would like its members who are part of the CIS to be available and to compete in the summer season, the “real” season for track and field. This makes sense, after all, this group of athletes are in fact, our best runners. What I would like to suggest, however, is that this is the hidden development problem we face, and why Quebec has not been able to build up a strong national team presence, nor a depth of distance runners at the post-collegiate level. Our university runners should not be our best runners! Instead of putting pressure on CIS athletes to compete year round, the FQA should focus its mandate on keeping runners in the sport when they graduate. It would be awkward at first, and disappointing for some, but in the long run, this tactic would build a stronger sport culture overall.

Here’s the thing. Most people would view the fact that our best runners are only 20-25 years old as a sign of a hopeful future. Indeed, the group of runners at the top of the distance running heap right now are good and fast runners, but this does not mean that they will be for years to come. This is no slight to these guys. Even among the best them, there is caution, and a tempering of expectations. But you have to ask the question: why are there no 25-30 year old men (the women’s side is in similar shape) in the rankings when that is supposed to be the peak age for record-breaking and lifetime bests?

I propose that the reason is that we push our U23 cohort (and everyone younger than them) too hard, with too much competition (three peaks a year), such that they get injured, or leave the sport, or are more interested in the less intense road race circuit. Another argument could be made about how we are mismanaging our youth athletes, but I’ll leave that for another day (Have you heard of Raphael Cote-Dubuc, Dave Boily or Nicolas Bouillon? They are the top 3 15 year-old 1500m runners from 2008. They would be 20 years old this year. Where are they now?).

I’m not saying CPT or Annie Leblanc should not race in the summer or try to make national teams. There are a handful of exceptions, as always. That being said, did you know that Philibert-Thiboutot broke the Quebec indoor 1500m record without any specific 1500m workouts under his belt? He and his coach are wisely using the indoor season to prepare for a bigger outdoor season. There’s a precedent for this, as Geoff Martinson won a CIS medal in the 1500 on a similar strength-based plan. A few runners who are strides ahead of the competition can do this. The problem is there are very few of these types. The bulk of the CIS cohort treat indoors as their main season, and this can be damaging.

(A short digression: I was a CIS coach for 10 years. A sort of blessing in disguise in our case was that Concordia was too disinterested to help us start up an indoor track program. This was good for the athletes we had, as they tended not to get burned out by the winter season. On the other hand, it was tough for recruiting, because there are a limited number of distance runners out there willing to come to a program that only offers cross country. So I didn’t have to make a choice as a coach about what to do in this case. This is a good example of how what is good for certain individuals may not be the best for the collective, and vice-versa. I think that explains why I am both anti-indoor season, and also why I left because Concordia wouldn’t give us one.)

There should be a top tier of senior level athlete that is well-taken care of, motivated to stay in the sport, and supported to perform at the national and international level. The reason we don’t have this is not because we haven’t identified talent, or pushed people hard enough: it is because we have identified talent too early, and we have pushed people too hard. Anecdotally, a big reason for leaving the sport I’ve heard from people is that they are turned off by our competitions. Either that, or they are injured, or they can’t afford to balance training and life post-school.

Our best runners shouldn’t be our university runners. It makes sense that we want the existing group to have full outdoor seasons, because if they didn’t, track meets would be essentially just kids meets. But are we just keeping them in a cycle of competition where we burn them out early?

How do we fix this? I don’t propose banning university runners from the summer season. That’s an individual choice, and the federation shouldn’t meddle with that. No, we need to do things at the lower levels in order to have the effects trickle up to the top.

Numbers and longevity are the two main goals we should strive for as a sport. Last year (2011) at the FQA coaches’ meeting, Rova Rabemananjara gave a presentation on how to increase Quebec’s representation on Canadian national teams. The solution is actually pretty easy: get more people in the sport.

Surprisingly, we are not in as dire a circumstance as one might think. There are over 30,000 kids who participate in cross country at the elementary school level. We lead ALL OTHER SPORTS. Let me just repeat that. IN ALL CAPS. MORE KIDS RUN CROSS COUNTRY IN ELEMENTARY AND HIGH SCHOOL THAN DO ANY OTHER SPORT. Unfortunately, only 1% of those kids go on to run xc in CEGEP. And half that many run at the university level. 36,356 kids, down to 361, down to 137.

Fighting to keep our university runners around and competing in the summer is like closing the barn door after the horses have run away anyway. We are doing a horrible job at keeping kids in the sport. In the past, I’ve suggested that there was a “gap” at the CEGEP level, but these numbers, from 2010-11, show that the college level is already beyond CIS participation in Quebec. There is a gap in track as the numbers there go from 12,000 to 0 for CEGEPs, and back up to 181 for universities. We need to fix that, too.

We need to figure out how to keep people in our sport. I would suggest that there is a simple solution, that is in some ways already underway. Fewer competitions for younger athletes. This idea comes from the LTAD (Long Term Athlete Development) model. While it is certainly open to criticism, it seems as if most clubs and coaches are operating without any kind of model, other than: intervals twice a week and a race on the weekend. This is probably why kids leave the sport. The LTAD suggests that at 15-16 years old, the athlete should be “training for competition” and then at 17-18 “training to win.” Yet it seems as if we put this idea of “training to win” in kids’ heads as early as 11 or 12 years old!

There’s a saying: if you love something, let it go. The same applies to athletes. The LTAD suggests they should be doing more than one sport up until the age of 14 or 15. We are being used in this regard by many other sports. Those 36,000 kids running cross country are likely made up of a big group of hockey, basketball and soccer players. So we need to recruit some of those kids to our clubs, make a deal that, yes, they can still do other sports, and the more athletes we get, the more likely it is some of them will stay. That’s it. It’s a simple equation. Just show as many kids as you can a good time and some will stick around. Some of those will be good, and some of those will be very good. But if you pin your hopes on one 11-year-old girl who has great natural talent but hasn’t even grown into her body yet, you are going to be disappointed. And so is she because she could have been doing so many other things, and maybe gone on to greatness in something. Even if it isn’t track, why should we deprive someone of that opportunity?

Some ideas for racing. Either just straight up reduce the number of meets, or modify the meets so that only a few events are offered. Instead of 400,800,1200,2000, offer just a 1200. That way, you get all the kids together in one race. This is more fun, and the meets run more smoothly. There’s less pressure on the kids because 1200 may not be everyone’s best event, so some weeks, the focus is less on the race, more on training and learning the experience of the race. You can offer a 2000m the next week. Maybe some kid who would never have done it has a try and is surprised by how well she does. The “competitions en gymnase” that are happening around the province are a great way for the under 15 group to experience competition without too much stress, as long as coaches don’t put too much pressure on the athletes.

By the way: I certainly don’t think that we should ask less of our athletes. Just that we need to shift the balance of the load. I don’t think this is at all in conflict with my post from earlier this year regarding cross country distances. I think an appropriate challenge is motivating. There is also a big difference in the atmosphere of competition between cross country and track seasons.

Reducing the number of meets is probably a good idea though. This would reduce the burden on coaches, parents, officials, and meet organizers, not to mention athletes. When I’ve suggested reducing the number of meets in the past (at the RSEQ XC coaches meetings), I’ve been told that it is an impossibility, and that programs rely on these events for funding, recruiting, and promotion. I think the only element of truth there is related to funding. The rest is b.s. Perhaps clubs would need to look elsewhere for funding options. It’s a bit of a catch-22: put on the meets to fund the club that no one joins because kids leave the sport because there are too many competitions or cancel the meets so the club doesn’t have funds to support the athletes who stay longer because they haven’t been burnt out.

Back to the elite senior group. What is the connection? The longer people stay in the sport, the more likely they are to become elite. This is a simple matter of math. Don’t focus on quality when they are young, focus on quantity. Keep focusing on quantity until they are out of university. Then pick out the quality.

This is perhaps where the FQA could step in, by modifying the “Programme D’Excellence”. Instead of funding elites from 18-22 years old, shift some of that “relève” money to the clubs for development of their base, and move some of the “elite” money away from those 20-23 who are in school, and reserve it for those who choose to commit to training post-collegiately. Essentially, place the burden of supporting student-athletes on the university system. Trust them with that, and trust them with development over 4-5 years, where we don’t place demands on these athletes to compete in the summer.

My reasoning for this is simple: the top athletes in Quebec aren’t making a choice whether or not to continue in the sport as they undertake their studies. Being in school is an ideal training situation: flexible schedule; subsidized training, coaching and travel to competition (for the most part); and plenty of high level competition opportunities. It’s after school ends that people are left wanting. Support athletes at this moment of choice, rather than when they are in a pretty safe environment to begin with, and maybe our senior rankings will include more 25-30 year olds, and more national team members. If you look at those who do stick around, it is because they are in a collegiate-like training environment.

Extend this support to clubs as well. Instead of throwing all kinds of money into a mushy middle, fund the base and fund the top. Push kids up through the system with fun and a ton of support, let the universities take over at the more difficult moment of transition between junior and senior ranks, and then reward those who decide to stay on after school, who have a real shot at making national teams.

There’s much more that we could do, but this would be an interesting start. I have more ideas, but this is already too long. A related idea is how to spread out coaching to match athlete development. I’ll post that separately.

To sum up: we have some great university, U23, or Espoir athletes, but we are pinning all our hopes on them in the absence of a true, senior, international cohort. The way to build a strong Quebec presence on national teams is to keep people in the sport as long as possible, and to focus on supporting athletes in difficult transition areas: high school to CEGEP and post-university graduation. Focus on the extremes: quantity in the base, and quality at the elite level. The elite level starts after university.