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Cross-border coaching: Track and field coaches pool resources to provide opportunities and improve performance

May 22, 2013


Luke Kilpatrick allows that it’s a phenomenon you don’t often see in competitive sport.

“I wouldn’t see soccer players (from different schools) running around with each other,” said Kilpatrick, a senior triple jumper from Regiopolis Notre Dame.

Kilpatrick was fresh from a training session Tuesday, typical for him but unorthodox in that it involved athletes from two other Kingston-area high schools — and a coach from yet a third.

Think of it as cross-border coaching, a setting where track and field coaches with specific technical expertise gather to share advice and encouragement with young athletes from, well, any school in the county.

On this particular day at Caraco Field, Wayne Bulak, Tom Worthy and Darcelle McCutcheon are tutoring a dozen or so hurdlers from half a dozen different county schools; Kim James is training about that many pole vaulters from across KASSAA, and Janey O’Rourke is working with a group of horizontal — long and triple — jumpers who some days represent as many as seven different schools.

“It is very much a cool feel when you get to the track these days,” James said. “There’s a lot of cool stuff going on.”

In a milieu where the team is often the thing and the us-against-them mentality often manifests itself, this coaching cross-pollination is a concept that, though unusual, is one that makes total sense, given the special nature of the sport.

“Technically you need to know about 10 events and that’s just not realistic (for a coach),” said O’Rourke who, though she’s been at it for almost 40 years, freely admits, for example, “I don’t really know how to train distance runners.”

With its diverse disciplines, athletics offers opportunities to people with a wide variety of body types and physical attributes. The challenge of high school track and field, James said, is to match young people with the appropriate opportunity. “A kid might really excel at javelin,” she said, “but you may not have anyone (at the school) who can coach them javelin.”

The essence of what they’re doing, James said, is bridging the gap between fostering school pride and rivalries “and all that healthy stuff that comes with school programs” while at the same time strengthening track and field in the city.

“I think we’re better in Kingston if we’re supporting each other and meeting the needs of kids from a variety of schools.”

The solution — match the good athletes with good coaches — might be obvious but there’s more to it than that. James recalls the days when she and Geoff Stewart, for instance, would try to assemble a training group of vaulters. “We struggled to do it effectively” she said, at facilities that were, at best, sub-par. It was difficult for people to realize their potential if they didn’t know they had any, and who would want to experiment with a new, possibly daunting, activity at a crummy, dreary facility?

Through a Kingston Area Secondary Schools Athletic Association sport advisory committee, James, who teaches at Kingston Collegiate, broached the idea anew a couple of years ago when she realized that the new Caraco Field would be the kind of place that might actually attract young athletes.

It seems to be working. Take the cases of Kilpatrick and his Regi teammate, Vadim Ignatov. Last year, they finished 13th and 12th at the county championship in senior boys long jump, at 5.22 and 5.29 metres, respectively. This year, Kilpatrick won the event (5.78 metres, an improvement of almost 11 per cent) and Ignatov was fourth (5.51 metres). Both are advancing to the eastern Ontario championship Friday in Brockville.

It’s no indictment, Ignatov said, of the coaching he received in his first four years at Regi. “Not a lot of schools have coaches that have a lot of experience in track and field, especially in certain events,” he said. “We’d have 30 kids and have only two or three coaches, so you didn’t really get any (specific instruction).

“I’ve found this a great opportunity for everyone in the city to come together to better themselves as athletes.”

The other reason it works, Ignatov said, is that track and field is based on individual performance. “It doesn’t really matter what coach coaches whichever athletes from whatever school. It’s more your performance, how can you do better as an individual, so I find this is a great opportunity to see what I’m doing wrong, have somebody watching, encouraging, teaching me things.

“I really regret that I haven’t had this opportunity earlier in my track career.”

Bound for St. Lawrence College in the fall, Kilpatrick said any given school might not have a lot of people in a given discipline. “It’s great not jumping just by yourself,” he said.

“It’s good to be around a bunch of people, to be able to learn from them,” he continued. “You can learn a lot more from other people, not just from your own mistakes but their mistakes. You get better every day.”

Ignatov, whose studies will take him to the University of Ottawa in September, agreed.

“If you see other athletes, and they’re doing something really well or they’re having better results, it pushes you; it motivates you to do better. It’s not like coming in every day and doing the same thing over and over again. There’s motivation to push yourself.

“I don’t know where I’d be if didn’t have this.”

McCutcheon, an OFSAA champion hurdler in her scholastic days at Napanee, now coaches at Frontenac. She said allowing these pockets to happen helps athletes from schools that may not have six or seven coaches or may not have a coach who feels good about teaching a particular activity. “Track is the type of sport that needs a lot of technically specific coaching,” she said. “Kim James is a perfect example. I would never presume to teach a kid how to pole vault.”

Another benefit of this communal approach to coaching is less tangible than improved results or increased participation, but is just as palpable, McCutcheon said, as the athletes become a training team.

“When you’re at EOSSA, we’re kind of one big team now, and you can warm up with those kids because you know them from every day.” she said. “When you’re on the start line you have someone to say good luck to. It’s nice that they can have those conversations and support each other. I just think it’s a really cool environment.”

McCutcheon said track is not the type of sport where athletes need to be working against one another. The more opportunities you can provide, therefore, the better.

“As much as you’re training next to people and pushing each other you’re also racing against them and you’re competitors and you have to figure out how to maintain that balance,” she said. “When we bring other athletes in from other schools to work together, it just extends that family. Yes, you’re competing and, yes, you want to do your best and continue to qualify forward and set personal bests and all of those things but the cool thing is they’re all excited for each other when they do.”

McCutcheon spoke of a unique culture in athletics, a social aspect quite aside from developing a competitive drive.

“There’s a really great camaraderie among athletes that maybe doesn’t exist in other sports,” she said. “You can be excited to be part of something, not just because you’re good at it and you enjoy it and it’s your passion, but because there’s other people there that support you and want those things for you as much as they want them for themselves.

“It’s a cool space to be in.”

That’s not to say there aren’t competitive benefits to a large training group, particularly one with different levels of ability. Working beside the novice hurdlers, for example, are Katie Zohorsky, Alex Leggett (Bayridge) and Shayla Moore (Holy Cross), all of whom raced at OFSAA last year.

“I always found the best way to learn was watching,” McCutcheon said. “It’s good to be able to say, ‘Hey, Katie, watch Alex do this, or ‘Alex, watch this, this is what I’m trying to say.’ When you have a large group of people working toward the same goal there’s added motivation, not because you want to win or be better than the people around you but because you want to do great for everyone who’s there. You want the group to be better and there’s a level of support that comes with that atmosphere.

“I know had I not had (sister) Lisa (also a provincial-class hurdler) growing up, it would have been a pretty lonely sport. It’s nice for them to have a larger group. It makes training fun, and you want it to be. Does anyone get up in the morning and think, ‘Yes, I want to go and do repeat 200s?’ Maybe not, but if you have this group of people who are doing it and supporting one another it makes it a little easier to get through the tougher workouts.”

O’Rourke has been a proponent of the concept of collective coaching for years. Now coaching at Bayridge, she’s grateful to have the opportunity not only to share her knowledge, but to have her athletes benefit from the input of others.

“For a school like me, where I have two coaches, a throws coach and me, I can’t possibly do everything,” she said. “Back in the day when I was at KC all by myself, Id say Monday I’m going to work with the javelin throwers, Tuesday with the high jumpers, Wednesday with the other jumpers. No one’s really getting good attention.”

There are unexpected benefits to cross-border coaching, O’Rourke has noticed: Besides athletes, young coaches from other schools have dropped by her sessions to watch and pick her brain. Senior athletes, she says, have also stepped up to mentor the younger ones.

“I’ll say, ‘Okay, I need you to show the others the drill while I go run off and work on relay exchanges.’ I can hand pick the kids who know how to do the drills … and rely on them to demonstrate for the other kids. It works well.”

James hopes the system can continue to flourish.

“We’re trying to meet the needs of a broader spectrum,” she said, “mostly in the more technical events. Not just anyone can coach hurdles effectively or safely. In pole vault I don’t think that many people have that familiarity and background.

“We’re going to live and grow and keep trying to make this better.”

  1. Dylan O'Sullivan permalink

    As a former KASSAA athlete I’m glad that coaches are finally putting their egos aside and trying to do what’s best for the athletes of this city. This has been a long time coming, and will greatly increase our success on both the provincial and national level. More importantly, it will open up doors for these athletes that may not have been possible without this type of “cross-border”, or outside coaching. As a high school athlete, I, among others, struggled against a system that frowned upon such coaching and condemned the athletes for not being “team players.” By struggling against this system and receiving the outside coaching that I desired and deserved, I was able to catapult myself to becoming a national junior medalist in track, and a division 1 NCAA athlete at an Ivy League institution–Dartmouth College. From this experience, I can attest to the benefits of such coaching and the doors that it can open. I applaud the individuals that have helped make this setup possible and encourage the individuals that are resisting it to put their egos aside and do what’s best for the athletes. In the end, athletics is about the individual athlete and not the coach. If a coach lacks the expertise in a specific event area, this coach should have the fortitude and decency to allow this athlete to receive outside help. This coach, rather then being upset that they can’t take pride in the athlete’s direct success, should take pride in being a good person and doing what’s best for the future members of our city. In the end, coaches need to be more mature when it comes to these situations and allow the kids to do what’s best for them. If you can’t do that, then you probably aren’t mature enough to be coaching at all. To quote Oklahoma State’s football coach, Mike Gundy, “Who’s the kid here!? Are you kidding me?”

    -Dylan O’Sullivan

  2. Thanks for giving this issue some profile, Claude. However, conspicuously absent from these coaches comments is the long distance side, which has been, along with the throws, consistently the top performing event group in the city on the provincial level, a trend that has continued strongly into the current season, with multiple OFSAA medalist Nicole Armstrong, OFSAA X-C medalist Heather Jaros, and emerging midget star Branna McDougal leading the charge. And in the past 6 years, KASSA distance athletes, including Dylan O’Sullivan, Jeff Archer, Blair Morgan, Charly Allan, Cleo Boyd, and Clara Langely, have begun successful careers in the CIS and D-1 NCAA. In spite of fairly modest beginnings,Cleo and Dylan both became National Junior medalists, with Cleo going on to represent Canada at the World Junior Championships in Spain last summer, a feat accomplished by only one other athlete in KASSA history. These athletes and many more like them took the initiative to work “across borders” starting years ago and have reaped the benefits ever since. Unfortunately, as Dylan outlines, they have not always been met with the kind of understanding and cooperation one would expect from coaches interested in putting their athletes’ needs first. Let’s hope this year marks the beginning of a new era of putting individual athletes first in this most individual of sports. There are many true team sports on offer for high school athletes, but only one that allows individually minded athletes to determine their own level of commitment and pursue their own goals, whether this be making it out of KASSA or making the World Junior team. With enough good will and understanding, there is room for everyone.

  3. Joan permalink

    Our daughter has seen 13% performance betterment through participating in a year long middle distance training program. This type of result would never happen with a high school program running March through June. She has greatly benefited from a long term training plan, initiated in stages, designed to have her be her best for the racing season. The benefit of consistent year long training with competitive training partners is very large. In addition, the social aspect and sense of camaraderie amongst these elite athletes is very important in keeping the sport fresh and enjoyable for them.
    It defies common sense that any teacher/coach would not want the student/athlete to be the best that they can be. I doubt that the Chess Club or Band is telling members that they cannot receive outside instruction. If a student is struggling at school parents usually find qualified help to improve their understanding. Similarly, if a student excels in a certain area parents look for ways to open up opportunities for them. Athletes and their parents should be the ones making the decisions around training choices as they best know the ability and intent of the athlete.

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