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  • Writer's pictureJonathan Yue

“It has changed forever,” Canadian track and field programs adapt to new forms of athlete evaluation

The theme of adapting has been dominant over the last year, and with what would have been a time when indoor track and field would have started to pick up, Canadian coaches and athletes of all levels are put into positions of change, coming in terms of training facilities, team practices and activities alike.

Coaches from around the Canadian university system are constantly in a state of adapting their programs and teams around the changing protocols. How have the teams changed during this time? How much has the athlete recruiting process changed and what could that mean for future student-athletes?

“It has changed completely,” Jason Kerr, coach at the University of Guelph Gryphons, says.

A handful high-performance athletes have been able to find facilities and bubbled environments to continue training, as the Olympic Games in Tokyo remains in sight and only six months away.

For the next generation of rising athletes, it is not as clear cut. High school level athletes continue to complete their studies at home, away from the organized extracurriculars that have led to their goals of pursuing post-secondary sports.

During the pandemic, the opportunities for universities coaches to scout athletes has diminished, athletes being able to showcase their abilities at meets has become nonexistent, so what is next for high school athletes looking to take the next step in their athletics careers?

The StartingBlock Canada spoke to three coaches around the U Sports conferences, Hilary Stellingwerff (University of Victoria Vikes Athletics), Jason Reindl (University of Saskatchewan Huskies Athletics), and Jason Kerr (University of Guelph Gryphons Athletics), asking them about how their recruiting process has been like during the pandemic, what can athletes do to pursue university athletics beyond high school, and how their teams have been able to adapt.

Questions and responses have been edited for clarity.

1) During a normal track and field season cycle, what does your recruiting/scouting routine look like?

Jason Reindl: "It normally starts with introductions, either via email or in person, and from there we determine initial fit and mutual interest from both parties on the academic, athletic, and overall goals and life interests. We know that we won’t be the right fit for everyone but if that mutual interest is there, it leads to more conversations, phone calls, and even meetings and tours."

Hilary Stellingwerf: "Usually we do a mix of provincial and national championships to get to know athletes. That would start with talking to both Grade 11 and 12s at BC Championships, cross country national championships, and then the same for track. It’s about looking at results and targeting athletes who have run our recruitment standards, and about connecting with them through whatever social media is the new thing. We have a process for them to fill out recruiting forms and then from there we can split them up into those who have hit our standards and those who are top recruits. And then finally it comes to recruiting visits after that. Those are the steps that we take to connect with athletes."

Jason Kerr: "Nothing fancy. A combination of personal identification, i.e. people I’ve seen at meets, and an overview of results/rankings. I’m looking for a few things; results achieved, success across multiple events, success across multiple sports, experience, body type etc. You have to try to get into contact with them, either through their online profiles or their coach. From there I try to determine if they are the right fit for the program and our culture."

2) Now, with the restrictions of the pandemic, how has that recruiting/scouting changed? How have you made adjustments so that you are able to scout the best athletes/athletes of interest?

JR: "We are still working through all of these new elements but thankfully are currently having lots of conversations with those who are interested in our program and us in them. With limited in person opportunities, we are engaging with prospective recruits through emails, phone calls, and Zoom calls. We have a great relationship with Streamline Athletes who have helped get our institution out to a wider base of prospects. The biggest difficulty right now is that lack of information on the recent performances and as such the process has shifted and we are focused more on those with the right attitude, goals, and understanding of our program."

JK: "No in-person visits or meetings. I would say our most attractive recruiting asset was our on campus visit experience. Anyone we get on campus who can observe and experience our training environment becomes well aware of how unique, fun and performance-oriented Guelph T&F is. COVID has made the recruiting process Zoom and phone call based. I won’t sugar coat it…it sucks for the coaches and the athletes."

HS: "It’s a challenge, and I feel for these athletes because they have not competed, some of them are using grade 10 times, they haven’t competed since their grade 10 track season, maybe a little bit last year and now they’re in grade 12 trying to prove themselves so we’ve been a little bit more flexible to take time trials, I’ve been doing a lot of talking to high school coaches, and connecting with them and where they see their athlete’s potential and then doing Zoom calls to connect with the athletes."

3) What do you look for when recruiting/scouting athletes?

JR: "We are a performance program with very clear team goals so we can never get away from the results and rankings which are readily available on Trackie. Great teams are comprised of individuals of varying ability levels but there is a minimum that we are looking for. So we never stop looking at results and rankings but this is only a part of the process. We want individuals who have a clear understanding of the need for academics to play a major role in their decision."

"It might be cliche but the big elements are a sense of personal and group responsibility, commitment, motivation, and are just overall a great person. From there it ties into the team. We don’t shy away from promoting and pursuing individuals goals and achievements but the biggest prizes are the team trophies at the conference and national levels and those are always on our mind and we want individuals who can see that team focus. Those are the individuals that seem to fit best with our program."

JK: "It’s not that complex, however I do think that there are elements of talent identification that are difficult to quantify and likely separate good recruiting coaches from the pack. You need proven results or indicators of true physical potential. Beyond that, the most important thing is to remember that the relationship needs to work for 4+ years, it needs to be fulfilling, trusting and enjoyable. If you don’t enjoy working with someone, you’ll never fully buy-in. This goes for the athlete AND the coach. The personal fit needs to be right."

HS: "I’m a very autonomy-based coach and that’s how I was as an athlete. Believing in an athlete, at least evolving to have good independence and understanding what they are doing and why. I’m looking for an athlete who is not afraid to email me and ask questions, initiate conversation and just knows what they want and where they want to go."

"I’m looking for long term development in our program. I want to be able to develop an athlete and see that they have room to grow, that they are keen and fit with the team culture and are committed to working hard and want to be a part of the team."

"We’re looking for times, we want athletes who run fast but it’s not always the fastest athletes that we’re looking for and we’ve adapted to talking to head coaches and using time trials."

4) What traits do you look for to judge a good athlete and a fit for your team?

JR: "The whole person. While we are extremely successful athletically, we are equally successful in the classroom and in the community. We want individuals who can buy into that whole system, support their teammates, and want to see the program achieve its highest goals possible. The pathway to success is different and we never know exactly what someone can achieve but if they are a great person, understand the process and realities, and are committed to our program, training, goals, and their academics then I know we are in a good spot. I could name dozens and dozens of athletes who came to USask unranked, unknown, and overlooked but bought in and ended their careers as conference and national all-stars and part of some amazing teams."

HS: "It’s the conversation of, are they all about them and their goals and sometimes that’s okay in some sense, but they have to be committed to being a part of the team. We do fundraisers, we do team challenges, and it is about being a part of the team when you’re in university. So I’m just looking for that right fit, where they are willing to put themselves out there and then be independent because when you have a full team, you need athletes who are following the program and asking questions when they are not sure and taking responsibility for what they are doing."

JK: "As I do this longer I’m less likely to go out of my way for someone purely because of their results or physical talent. I’ve lost a great many nights of sleep because I’ve chased talent when I knew the personal fit wasn’t the best."

5) With less exposure, what would you recommend athletes do to get noticed and get their name out there to universities?

JK: "Talk to coaches, include videos of updated training runs or practice performances if you have them. It’s a strange time, and I suspect most coaches will be much more willing to take chances on prospective athletes that don’t have the usual performance result. Make sure that as a recruit you are communicating early and often with the schools you are interested in."

HS: "I recommend they not wait for a coach to contact them and not be afraid to send an email. You can find coach’s emails on most university websites. It’s just reaching out and saying, “Hey, I’m interested in your program, are you willing to have a conversation with me.” Because that helps. We can’t capture every athlete. Sometimes we talk to athletes who are coming from soccer and they haven’t done a lot of track but talking to their coach, they can tell they have a lot of potential. So that’s why it’s something I encourage. I try to answer every email from a recruit and just try to have a conversation with them and if they are a good fit. If you don’t ask, you might not ever know, you might miss an opportunity."

JR: "The #1 thing is to reach out to the head coach of the program. Sending an email is a simple way to make an introduction. If you like a program and a school but haven’t been contacted then make contact. There is no harm there and it shows a lot of responsibility, which isn’t a bad thing either. Introduce yourself and attach a brief athlete/life resume that paints a picture of you. We know that athletes develop at different rates and have different achievement levels in high school. Added onto this is the fact that scholarships are limited but team spots are prevalent. Lots of athletes think because they can’t get a scholarship off the bat means that they aren’t wanted, which isn’t the case but just a reality that we all have to live with."

6) How has your team adapted over the last year, with limited training facilities and competitions?

JR: "We had a great fall of outdoor training and got in a few weeks of indoor training before we got a brief shut down from COVID. We were actually working on some competition plans for the new year (local twilight intrasquad competitions) but have had to put the pause to those plans given recent government restrictions. Right now the athletes are in a “self-training” period. They can still access the track (city owned) and gyms on their own but just not as part of large official team practices. The majority of our student-athletes have still maintained consistent but significantly adjusted workouts. The main focus right now is being happy, healthy, academically successful, and looking at small improvements in performance domains. We might not be able to run or jump or throw as much but we can hit the gym, address some injury concerns, and focus on the mental aspects."

JK: "Until the provincial lockdown, we were training consistently without any major shutdowns. Things have obviously been very different with all of the new COVID policies and procedures, but we were able to get the job done from September until the holiday break at a very high level. In many cases our athletes were well ahead of where they’d been in previous years at this time. We’re now in for a totally new challenge with everything being shut down for a minimum of 28 days. Lots of at home workouts, and creative ways of staying ‘close’ to performance fitness. I guess we will find out who is REALLY motivated on the other side of this."

HS: "Adapting is a good word. I feel like we’re constantly adapting. We’re really lucky that in Victoria, we have great weather and aren’t restricted to training indoors. Last March, we were shutdown, we had athletes training on their own and then we were able to train in small groups at the end of the summer. We gave training programs throughout, sometimes training on their own and sometimes we were able to come back into smaller groups. We had a safety plan ready, so that we had small groups and then we were able to go into a larger group. We have been able to adapt with the phases as everyone has. At this point, we are able to train with everyone as a group but we have to be distanced and have masks. The athletes have been great, they say it is the best part of their day because for some of them, the only social interaction they’re getting right now. From a mental health perspective, it’s so great to continue."

"So we’re still training, still having practices and we’ve just started to get back indoors for weight training and drills and we just wear masks inside. We have had several time trials all through the fall. We did a 5K road time trial, a cross country time trial and now planning on three track mini-meets within our team in the winter and hopefully some more in the spring and summer if we don’t end up having a track season, but hopefully we do."

(HILARY STELLINGWERFF): As a former Olympian, what words of advice do you have for Olympic hopefuls now as they continue to adapt and train for Tokyo 2020?

HS: "Be flexible and try not to panic because I know it’s really hard. Not everyone is in the same situation and finding races is challenging. You try and go about as if things are as normal as they can be meaning staying focused day to day, getting the training that you need to, but also, I learned from coming back from pregnancy after my first and second Olympics that you can do more than you think you can with less ideal situations so you just have to be confident that you’ll get the training in and when the races come you’ll hit those times and do the best. Everybody is generally in the same situation with restricted competition schedule so it’s just about going about it the best you can. Stay calm and know that we will get through this."

© Jonathan Yue
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