© Copyright – 2008 – Athletics Illustrated
Although Dave Scott-Thomas is not an official Canadian Olympic team athletics coach, rather a varsity coach with the University of Guelph Gryphons, he is in Beijing anyway for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. Scott-Thomas is there to view the track action and discuss pre-race strategy with rising stars, Eric Gillis and Taylor Milne, who have already competed in the 10,000 metre and 1500 metre, respectively – by the time of this interview submission.
Oddly, getting a hold of Scott-Thomas is easier while he is in Beijing than when he is at home in Guelph, Ontario. Perhaps he has more free time in Beijing with family and work getting all his attention in Guelph. He is after all a dedicated coach and Dad.
Dave says, “I know it’s a drag to have to wait for people, so I’m trying to get back to you ASAP – but am also running on about 3hrs sleep in the past 38 and in a pretty crowded, noisy bar – I think it’s 8am!
Anyway, fire back at will”
Three hours of sleep? This is the same committed coach who worked through the night on behalf of Eric Gillis’s appeal, when Gillis was told unceremoniously that he wasn’t going to Beijing. He was told this even though the criteria preventing him read sketchy and gray at best and left the decision makers open to the appeal.
Obviously the appeal worked. This is the stuff of champions, in this case a champion coach, who has been recognized with enough Coach of the Year awards to sink a tornado class sail boat competing in Fushan Bay, Qingdao, China.
Christopher Kelsall: You have earned 12 CIS Coach of the Year nods, 17 OUA Coaching awards and two of the Fox 40 Coach of the Year, for all sports.
DST: The best recognition I get is free baby-sitting from the team! I don’t think about the other stuff too much so there’s no real sense of getting stale. Every season, every team, every runner is different so there’s always a sense of renewal. You don’t have to do this too long before you realize you can’t get too fully invested in external factors. I’m only one off-meet away from looking out of touch.
Coaching-wise, during some of our stronger years, well, I wasn’t doing brain surgery….and some years I feel I feel I’ve done my best coaching and we’ve not placed so high (our women’s xc team finishing 4th in xc in ’98 is one of our relatively best accomplishments in my opinion. We really weren’t that strong a team).
Coaching recognition is team recognition anyway. Particularly in the CIS, coaching awards go to whoever is in charge of the winning team. While I appreciate the nods from my peers, our team’s success is clearly indicative of an overall effort amongst a huge number of people AND, without sounding ungrateful, I think our awards will gain credibility when we start to really dig deeper into who’s doing what. Look at Bernie Chisholm at StFX, or Dick Moss at Laurentian… man, there’s some damn good coaching going on in lots of places with fewer resources than we now have.
CK: In your opinion, what are a few key strengths of an effective coach.
DST: Too many to mention. For me, I think the key is rapport. You’ve got to really care and be genuine about the people you’re working with. Certainly at a national level, a coach with modest technical skills but great rapport will build a better group than an excellent technical coach who just doesn’t get the people end of things.
CK: You keep winning the awards and you can start repeating your original acceptance speeches.
DST: I really dislike speaking in front of large groups of people – even with my own team! I’m more of a one-on-one or small group guy. If I know I’ve got speak and prep, then I tend to rush through it so I tend to just wing it, which might not sound as slick and which makes me more nervous, but I think comes across as more genuine.
Anyway, I’ve got three daughters and about 100 surrogate “kids” who I think keep me bailed to the floor. I was out at lunch with some of the post-collegiate group the other day and we were chatting about the past years and roles and Reid (Coolsaet) said “I never thought of you as an authority figure!” – Hah! Good I suppose in what it says about our partnership and in the confidence of the guys to “take the piss”.
CK: Your Guelph Gryphons varsity team successfully defended the men’s and women’s Canadian University titles. This is the first time for any Canadian coach to manage. What is the foundation of your success; is it more recruitment and recognizing potential in athletes or is it the development, working with what you are given.
DST: I think you can see evidence of both. I know there’s a tendency to think that we get a lot of good athletes who just show up. That’s truer now than when I started for sure, when we weren’t really a strong program at all, but the group and I work, very, very hard at talent identification and recruitment. Most of it is “soft” since the nature of our team is to focus on internal motivation rather than external, we look long-term (i.e., post-collegiate) and for most of my time here we really haven’t had much in the way of “stuff” to offer. Despite that, we’ve had our share of studs come in. We’ve grown a lot of good athletes as well. When I look at Josh Roundell or Courtney Laurie (to give two contemporary examples) and see them grow from modest high-school runners into good senior athletes, it’s just a great feeling.
On the free babysitting
CK: Does the co-efficiency of quality babysitting function in parallel to ability to run?
DST: There is zero correlation! Actually the quality is extremely high, and the variety of experiences gigantic. My kids have seen some strange sights over the years……we’ve had a number of volunteers with big hearts, but no hands-on experience with kids and who treat them as really short undergrads. College is going to be no big deal for my three girls.
CK: With all this babysitting you are getting, you do realize all these athletes will have children one day too and you will become the surrogate grandfather. Maybe you can represent your kid’s future babysitting and profit from the work? Look it’s a brilliant revenue stream, you get enough surrogate grandchildren and you can basically run a sitting factory, 10% skimmed off the top, could be better than a successful pyramid scheme.
DST: It’s a long-term passive recruiting scheme with a confirmed genetic component and guaranteed high degree of compliance. I’ve been coaching long enough that there’s now a steady stream of weddings to go to – two this Sept. – and bring on the kids! I’m more proud of those life happenings than any race run.
Back to coaching talk
CK: Who are your coaching mentor(s).
DST: Pete Grinbergs and Allen Keele were my club and university coaches and I learned a ton from them; about running but also, and I know it sounds trite, about growing up and being an adult. Awesome guys, whom I really admire for their perspective on life and their values. I am very lucky to have continued my relationship through life and now count them both as really good friends.
I also was lucky enough to be a part of the older NCI system, which involved moving to Victoria for a year to study coaching full-immersion. Brent Fougner was my Master Coach and he and Ron Bowker both really opened up their doors (metaphorically and literally) and taught me a lot. Technically about running, but also about the attitude and development of all the other pieces of building a group that are below the surface, and also about being driven by your heart and passing that value on to your athletes.
All of them: great coaches, great guys, great friends.
CK: Who’s or which training method do you emulate or draw upon as a coach.
DST: Aaagh. I’m too old now to know. I started off intuitively using what I knew from my own experiences, and will always be grateful to the athletes at Queens in those days for being open-minded and trusting while I learned!
Then, as with lots of bodies of knowledge, I really ploughed into the structured theory behind everything, read a ton, traveled around a ton, asked lots of questions, set up clinics and so on to try to cement what I felt to be so.
I was a bit ignorant about protocol: I called Alex Gardiner (former CEO of AC) up in his office one afternoon to ask questions about speed work, which to his credit he took time out of his day to answer; I wrote a 10 page letter to Ron Bowker back in the days when you actually sent hard-copy, and when I met him in person he sat down and went through concepts with me; cadged enough money for a Canada3000 ticket to Winnipeg and slept on the airport floor for the first level 3 course in Canada in 3 years…on and on….you really get humbled by the process about learning what you don’t know.
But somewhere in there I came around to just trusting my instincts, so there’s no one methodology I’d follow. Most of the time when I’m planning I think of what feels right. I plan way ahead of time but our system is pretty liquid and changes a bit every season. I love the feeling of tinkering with a session and will often call one of the guys up to get their opinion – lots of feedback and adjustments and you get those beautiful eureka moments when everything just clicks.
CK: Reid Coolsaet the 5000m athlete seems to also be a 10, 000m competitor now with his sub 28 minute surprise run. Now there is suggestion of his possible move up to the marathon.
Is he moving up to the marathon in 2008/09.
DST: We don’t know. Certainly Reid and I have discussed the marathon, and the possibility of him running one this year. At this point though, he’s still getting rolling again after his injury. The ensuing couple months were emotionally very tough – he cross-trained very, very hard and with all the therapy etc was pushing his body and mind to the limit. We didn’t really call it a season until close to Nat’s when it was evident Beijing wasn’t going to happen.
So now he’s building back up and isn’t fully rolling yet and until that’s the case we won’t lock too much in. I’d still like to see him race a few 10, 000’s yet since I think there’s plenty of room to move into there and in the 5000m.
I don’t think his sub 28 was a surprise! One of Reid’s strengths has always been his ability to be composed and to appreciate the long-term. I knew it his first year at Guelph when after the year was done we talked in my office about what doors might be open to him. Many young athletes glaze over when you start talking 3-4 years down the road, but Reid always “got it” so we’ve been able to work on a sensible long-term plan. For example his second year we sacrificed some performance ability indoors so he could emphasize volume more, train like a 10, 000m guy, get in some good base for a year and really be ready to roll. He might have said “I’d really like to run 8:28 NOW” but instead we played for the bigger long-term outcome.
So with the marathon – we’ll look at motivations and outcomes and what the best timing will be.
“Dave has been my coach for over 10 years now and I have brought my 5000m time down by two and half minutes under his guidance. He has a science background, but more importantly has a great feel for his runners. Dave always has me peaking well for championships and is constantly looking for different training methods to get the most out of my ability.”
CK: Since you mentioned the ‘base phase’, what is a fairly typical week look like?
DST: It isn’t mind-blowing. Volume varies widely within the group so I’ll use an “average” senior/post collegiate guy as a model:
Sun – 110-130′
Mon – am 20-30′ + strength/core, pm 60-80′
Tues – 40-45′ tempo; could be straight up, could be shorter “cruise” sections, might involve some gear changing (what we call the foxy-frog) later base phase + drills
Wed – as Mon
Thurs – as Mon
Fri – fartlek i.e. 8-9 x 4′ / 2′ + drills.
Sat – rest or easy 60-80′
So only 2 work-outs per week. We don’t do too much in the way of intervals during this phase, most work outs are time based as I think you develop a better feel for your body that way, but we’ll run a good V02max session of 5 x 1 mile (measured XC loop) with 5′ rest once every-three-weeks. We’ve got a number of “Guelph” sessions: the Nutcracker, Bridges, Yaegermeister, and Kyle’s Colon all of which mean different things.
We used to get new people coming in saying we were high-volume but that’s disappeared (most of our sr. guys are running 140-180km/week); sessions can be long because we’re doing a lot of work aside from the running. It might be 45-50′ after the “running” is done before the session is done. Something like: X’s, machs, plyos, then begin refuelling and move to cold tub and post-workout analysis. Core and strength work is dynamic as well i.e. loading with movement, very little traditional lifting.
CK: Unfortunately Reid Coolsaet of course suffered that injury, but he was no closer to the Olympic team when healthy, yet he ran I believe the fourth fastest 10, 000m by a Canadian and met the B standard in two different distances. Is this an example where Athletics Canada should consider using the IAAF standards and remove subjective aspect to criteria.
DST: Honestly, I’d love to see us use the IAAF standards. Especially in light of the recent news from the Russians and Romanians in the women’s 1500m we know the A+ standards are skewed, and I don’t think that’s isolated event.
CK: What have been your suggestions to Taylor Milne in his Olympic 1500m. Should he sit near the front and let her rip out of the last corner. What sort of race do you think will play out with all those sub 3:40 guys?
DST: He just ran last night (at the time of this conversation) – I’m sitting in a hole-in-the-wall in the Hutongs to type this and haven’t spoken with him yet. Post-fact, though, the plan was yes, to be in touch with the lead 3-4 athletes, be off the rail when the break was coming and drop the hammer.
CK: Who do you have picked to win the Olympic men’s marathon?
DST: I’ll be lame here – no Canadians so my interest is down a bit and there’s so many variables with the athletes I don’t know about, I’m just going to let it unfold.
CK: In regards to the Rising Star criteria for athletics, what are your thoughts on the subjective aspect to the selection process in a sport that otherwise requires no judgement (like synchronized diving) but hard and fast placing or specific time requirements within set distances and other clearly defined parameters, such as windows of opportunity.
DST: Subjective decisions are made all the time. You can’t get away from observer bias. To a large extent, we’ve become so litigious and whiny we don’t allow an expert body to just make a decision. It’s sometimes contentious, but that’s their job and we’re not as hard-wired in our sport as all that. So I think the Rising Star concept is great and I have confidence in the committee to do the best they can.
Overall, though, I don’t think our selection process is as smooth as could be. It’s clear that there’s going to be a bit of a shake up in the national sporting scene post-Beijing, I’m not just talking track, and if we want to sustain federal monies coming in then we need to understand the game. When that happens you take a lot of the artistry and the human element out of selection.
CK: Eric Gillis’s successful appeal hopefully won’t move the Rising Star category to the proverbial round file of course…
DST: I don’t know about that. If the system is flawed then let’s fix it and not be afraid of change. That’s like saying let’s ignore it as long as it’s working for “us”. The staff at AC (Athletics Canada) are pretty smart and generally want the same thing that most of us in the masses of Canadian T&F do – they want our best, motivated athletes, in the best situations, to get the best opportunities. It’s fair enough to ask questions and for change to result because of that. I think the goal is keep moving towards the best system we can develop, and it’s going to continue to be a moving target.
CK: Now Dave Moorcroft echoed sentiments that always come up in my mind and that is: How do you motivate the youth of Canada to work hard, take a vow of poverty (while training) and face tough criteria that doesn’t help them get the international exposure they need, to develop.
What do you think is a logical solution?
DST: Hmmm, it’s not a bad as many of us would like to paint it. If you really love it, you can make a go of it. Living modestly in Canada is darn better than living in most of the rest of the world. If your value system is such that you feel you need to have x job and earn y money by z years of age and that’s incompatible with training/racing, then don’t run. If you’re really passionate about distance running and chasing your dream, you can make that work, though.
I basically lived as a grad student until my mid-30’s, and yeah, there’s days when I do the math and look at the lost income (I was trained and worked as an environmental physiologist and as a high school teacher, both of which pay way better than coaching, which isn’t saying much) but there’s more days when I drive a van full of highly-competent people to a meet, or sleep 6-8 in a dive in Hillsdale, or shovel a ton of dirt for an xc course, or see my kids grow up with the best role models on the planet when I wouldn’t want anything else.
So – what to do? Build some kids programs! We’ve hit 2000+ per year in Wellington County with home-grown programs we built from the ground up and the city has now come up with funds to sustain it so we now pay a coordinator and staff (our runners) to manage it. We’ve built a strong package of camps, road races, and youth programs to balance out our elite brand.
Corporate money is coming in – the New Balance support this year was huge and PowerBar is stepping up as well. You need to have patience and be willing to work your butt off and not be afraid of getting hammered from time to time.
There’s no problem with Canadian youth.