Sunday, March 21, 2010

Running culture equally unique as it is successful

It was last Saturday night, when my BlackBerry went into the all-too-familiar vibrating convulsions. I was waiting for one email in particular: the press release with the final results from the CIS track and field championships. The Gryphon men had gone into the final day of the weekend-long set of events with a slim lead over their longtime rivals, the Windsor Lancers.

As expected, the mobile alert contained the news that I was hoping for, headlined by “Gryphon Men Win National Track Championship.” Chalk up another national title for the Gryphons unbelievable running programs, this one decided by a mere one point in the final race of the weekend.

The Gryphons went into CIs fresh off of a less than stellar performance at the OUA Championships, where the Lancers swept the men’s and women’s titles. In talking to head coach Dave Scott-Thomas following OUs, he indicated that a few tweaks needed to happen prior to the national championships to get the team back on their game.

Apparently, all the right tweaks took place, giving the Gryphon men their second national banner in the past three years. The success of the running teams at Guelph – both cross-country and track and field – left me thinking: just what is it that makes these programs so consistently dominant year after year? These pages have been graced with success stories about Gryphons running on nearly a weekly basis this year, far more than any other sport. In sports lingo, one might apply the term, ‘dynasty.’

Scott-Thomas is without a doubt, a brilliant coach, capable of bringing in incredibly talented recruits. But, despite all this, there is a process of developing these athletes that is unique and exclusive to the Gryphons programs. So, I simply asked: what differentiates Gryphons running from the other national classes?

Like any other interview that I’ve conducted with Scott-Thomas, a five-second question quickly became a 15-minute discussion. Conversing with him on a regular basis this year has opened my mind and just started to give me a glimpse about what it’s like to be a member of the successful running programs in Guelph.

What I quickly learned is that the Gryphons running program is far more complex than just physical development. It’s about character, philosophy and team building. It’s about finding out who these athletes are as people, and how committed they are to contributing towards the program’s vision.

High school athletes come to the program with a sense of invincibility. By and large, they come from programs and club teams where they are running from a highly individualized perspective. To them, running is an individual sport and relationships with fellow athletes are less common. But Scott-Thomas’ culture, vision and program sees otherwise.

And, this team-first attitude works towards a unique strategy that the Gryphons employ that is far too complicated to be described in words. Statistics, spreadsheets, breathing strategies and understanding the physiological makeup of fellow teammates and opposing runners are all a part of Gryphon running, requiring a mature and committed individual to embrace its tactics.

Scott-Thomas and his fellow coaches stress controlled running, understanding the other runners as well as you know yourself. Understanding when to pass, when to hold back, when to go aggressively and when to let other runners tire themselves, only to be caught when they are most vulnerable. It’s a veritable game of cat-and-mouse, a fascinating battlefield-like strategy where only the strongest survive.

Gryphon running is about far more than what happens on your feet. It’s a philosophy, and a culture.

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