Wednesday, May 27, 2009

To Improve Performance

USA Track and Field filled its position of Chief of Sports Performance by hiring former hurdler Benita Fitzgerald Moseley last week. Fitzgerald Moseley will be responsible for overseeing USATF's High Performance and Sports Science Programs, and the person that will ultimately be responsible for seeing that CEO Doug Logan's goal of 30 track and field medals in London (2012) comes to fruition.

Not sure exactly what "High Performance" and "Sports Science Programs" really means, although her oversight will include USATF's athlete development, USA team management, national relay management, elite athlete services, sport science programs, coaching education, and management of meet officials. But the bottom line in plain speak, is that she is supposed to see to it that we win more medals in London than we did in Beijing! And staying in the mode of plain speak, I don't think that is as complicated as all the aforementioned might make it sound.

I would suggest to Ms. Fitzgerald Moseley that generally speaking if it ain't broke don't fix it - but in this case we know its broken so a major overhaul is needed! And I would start by breaking everything down and K.I.S.S. it (Keep It Simple Stupid)! Go back to square one and realize that what we are really talking about is the development of one very large track team. As such the same principles that apply to the University of Oregon, or the University of Florida, or previously successful club teams such as the Santa Monica Track Club or Hudson Smith International still apply.

Looking at things in this vein the development of Team USA should be very simple and based on the following premise: your two most valuable resources are the athletes and the coaches! They are the ones that ultimately have to get the job done. And they are the ones that deserve the benefit of whatever resources you have to bring to the table! Resources meaning dollars, facilities, training, etc.

So one of the first things I would look at is securing recourses for your athletes and coaches. First on my list would be securing facilities for both that are located where your athletes and coaches are located - or at the very least in close proximity! Having training centers in places like Chula Vista and Colorado Springs simply makes no sense. That's not where your athletes or coaches are - and therefore really don't contribute to your bottom line of winning medals - or improving performance.

For whatever reason, the majority of US track is currently based "Off Broadway", in places like Chula Vista, Colorado Springs, Indianapolis (the home of USATF), Eugene Oregon & Des Moines Iowa (two Visa Series locations) and Fayetteville Arkansas (home of our top Indoor facility and meet). No offense to any of the above, but I think this creates serious marketing nightmares for the sport which I will address in a post in the near future, but more importantly with respect to the issue of Performance and winning medals, that's not where the large majority of our athletes are! So basing performance centers, or training centers in these areas poses huge logistical problems when looking to "develop" national teams.

The majority of athletes in this sport, tend to come from, or reside in or near, California, Texas, and Florida. Not coincidently, these areas also have the best weather for training the majority of the year. So it would only make sense to have our training centers, or some of them, located very close to Los Angeles, San Francisco, Dallas, Houston, and Miami. Georgia and Arizona also both produce a fair amount of talent, AND have training conducive weather, so adding centers in or near Atlanta, Phoenix, and Tucson would also make sense.

Now rather than recreating the wheel, I would suggest that what USATF should do is look to pair up with colleges to develop training centers. And I would start with State subsidized four year schools AND community colleges - because over the years states have put a lot of money into developing outstanding facilities at their schools. At the same time, the economy has recently made life difficult at state run institutions so a "marriage" between USATF and state run schools regarding facility usage might fit a need on both parts! Providing additional revenue for state run schools while at the same time providing our athletes and coaches with excellent facilities for much less than the cost of construction for
USATF. These facilities are ready today and our athletes and coaches would not have to wait years for fundraising and construction - putting us right on target for that 2012 date!

Taking care of one of the most pressing needs - places to train - the next thing I would do is ensure that our athletes have the BEST coaches available! Ironically we have some of the best coaches in the world right here in the US. Unfortunately they DO NOT work for USATF! Instead they get some payment from shoe companies, and some payment from individual athletes, but only a few make the kind of money that you would think a world class coach should make. So a PRIORITY for USATF should be to secure funding to put High Level Coaches on its payroll and dispense them to our regional training centers.

Regardless of how you may have felt about previous programs run by the Soviet Union and East Germany, having national coaches gave them a continuity of program, to go with expertise and excellence that created outstanding performances and in turn medals. Having the expertise of coaches like John Smith, Bobby Kersee, Vin Lananna, Kevin Reid, and Alberto Salazar, among others, restricted to a handful of athletes almost seems a shame. Putting them on a "national" payroll would expose so many more athletes to their expertise.

I would also look at utilizing former coaches. Coaches that have retired and do not have the energy to coach on a day to day basis, but who would be great at running off season seminars. As a matter of fact there are some retired athletes that would be good at this as well. In short, putting together a team of "consultants" that would basically work the off season with both active athletes and coaches to provide them with insight and knowledge gained through years of competing and coaching. These consultants could be used to create off season camps and symposiums. The first such camp that comes to mind would be a Relay Camp during the offseason for those athletes looking to perform on National Relay Squads! Run at a time that doesn't interfere with an athlete's competition season, it would be a perfect time to get athletes together to work on relay skills and develop some semblance of familiarity and continuity. Of course, camps and symposiums could be put together on any topic related to the sport and would only be limited by the "consultants" recruited to put them on.

And while our fundraising hat is on, we need to look at developing some sort of Training Stipends for our athletes. Not an annual salary, though eventually that needs to be put on the table, but a stipend to hold them through the training period for those athletes that come to live and train at one of the aforementioned training centers. If we want athletes to come to a center and spend time to train, we need to look at footing, or assist in footing, that bill. At the very least provide room and board. Either in the form of a stipend, or via some deal worked out perhaps with a local college, hotel, or some other form of temporary housing.

Finally, in an effort to improve performance, we need to take a look at developing internal competitions that would give high performance experience to those athletes outside of the three per event that make our national teams. Back in the 1980's we used to have what were called "Olympic Festivals" where we broke our athletes up into four regions and ran our own National "Big Meet". Calvin Smith (9.93) and Evelyn Ashford (10.79) both set then World Records in Colorado Springs at such a "Festival". The increase in World Championships filled the gaps between Games and so the "Sports Festival" died. But I see no reason why it couldn't be revived and run annually using those athletes that did not make the year's Olympic or World Championships team.

Having such annual meets would serve several purposes. Primary it would give those athletes not competing on the Big Stage a similar performance. Yes, going through the Trials is one such experience, but being on a Regional Team brings new dynamics. Being part of a team, competing for points and towards a common goal with others from other parts of the country. Relay competition at this level. And the big one is going through a Trials meet and then having to come back, peak again, and compete once more in a high level Multi Day meet. Something that would prepare our athletes and coaches for the rigors required to do well at both the Trials and a Major competition.

These meets could be rotated around to the various training centers and used as a marketing tool for the sport. Giving fans and potential fans an up close and personal look at some of the best athletes we have here in the US. They would also help to prepare various locations around the country in the event that we put in bids to host World Championship meets - and we should. As a side note, we should look at regular rotation of our National Championships as well, for the same reasons.

These are some "basic" things that seem to be missing currently from USATF and our programs to prepare our athletes to win 30 medals in a Worlds or Games. Yet it is my belief that this simple focus on the needs of our athletes and coaches, at the end of the day is what will bring success to our athletes and likewise to our national teams.

I understand that what I am proposing will take money. But then just about any improvements in the sport are going to require greater amounts of money than currently exist in the sport. But the phrase "there's no free lunch" is as applicable in track and field as it is anywhere. So while Doug Logan has seen fit to hire a Chief of Performance, his next high level hire should be in the area of Fundraising and Marketing. Because ultimately those 30 medals are going to require a hefty investment. But then as the world's largest track power that is how we should be operating.

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