By Amit Shilton
When it comes to Master Plans, Dominic Kahn isn’t concerned with shutting down Gould Street or rebuilding Kerr Hall. His first concern isn’t about expanding Ryerson’s recreation facilities either. The 41-year-old rowing coach would rather talk about the long-term development of athletes.
“We have a chance to change the world,” he says of a Sport Canada-approved training model he wants to implement to harvest Ryerson’s next generation of elite athletes. “We’re saving the world.”
It’s probably for the best that the rowing coach is looking to athletes instead of facilities as the solution to the Rams woes. The Master Plan — Ryerson’s blueprint for 20 years of development — doesn’t talk about athletics. In fact, flipping through the 139-page Master Plan manual, a reader wouldn’t even know that Ryerson had a sports program. And it is the most cramped department in the school.
As it stands, the men’s hockey team now plays over an hour away from campus, the soccer teams don’t have a home field, and everyone else fights for time in the Kerr Hall Gym. Last October, Ryerson President Sheldon Levy announced his intention to build a new sports complex on the parking lot next to the Sears building at 222 Jarvis St. The building would be a relief to the overcrowded sports and recreation — but with development plans that hinge on cooperation with the provincial government, it’s far from a done deal.
And though Kahn says a new facility is definitely needed, he wants Ryerson to focus on athlete development in the meantime. As he sees it, that’s the future of university sport.
“I don’t want Ryerson to miss the boat.”
Kahn has been trying to change the world through rowing for the past 15 years. From his seat as president of the Bayside Rowing Club, he’s organized outreach and fundraising programs with Toronto’s inner city youth and high schools. His goal is to take the sport out of the private school system and make it accessible to everyone.
“Anyone is welcome to row in the public program,” the Trinidad and Tobago native says. “Someone did it for me.”
This summer, Kahn will open a summer camp at Camp Kennebec in Arden, Ont. dedicated to rowing. Eventually, he plans to use the camp to train 40 youth into Ryerson’s next class of elite athletes. By his side will be a 66-page guide on how to develop champions.
After Canada finished with only 12 medals at the 2004 Summer Olympics, Sport Canada unveiled a resource paper dedicated to long-term athlete development (LTAD). Released in 2005, the document is a 7-stage model that focuses on athletes’ developmental age — the way they mature — and their trainability at each stage rather than their chronological age. Its aim is to introduce sport and physical activity to every Canadian early in life, and help them develop basic skills while giving them the option to become top athletes and focus on specific sports later in life. According to LTAD, it takes a cycle of 10 years and 10,000 hours of training to become a topflight athlete. But with no coordination, known as integration, between Canada’s elementary, high school and university levels and with a lot of schools slow to adopt the program, many athletes are still learning the basics of athleticism when they enter university.
Research conducted by Sport Canada also analyzes the trainability of athletes, and the optimal age to learn certain skills. For example, males should hone their speed and stamina between ages 13-16 and focus on strength training at the end of their growth cycle at age 18.
It’s this information that will help Kahn run his camp and develop his rowers. Not only will he be able to train them using the LTAD model, but he will also hopefully develop a coach-athlete relationship with the individuals — urging them to choose Ryerson when picking a university.
“Reaching back to elementary schools and high schools really looks good on Ryerson,” he says. “Part of it is goodwill, part of it is taking initiative to develop athletes.”
Lynn Kaak, the head athletic therapist at Ryerson, agrees that most of the athletes who come to the school are either lacking sports specific skills or are simply not athletic enough. By the time those athletes graduate, they’re often at the level they should have been in their first year of university.
“If it becomes a priority, it’s not just Ryerson, it’s not just the coaches, it’s our whole education system and model in Canada,” she says.
Ryerson’s volleyball team recruited two athletes who spent their summer at a volleyball training camp. But those athletes honed their skills at McMaster University, not at Ryerson. Athletes often take the skills they learned with one school when they head to a competing team. It’s one of the reasons men’s volleyball coach Mirek Porosa, who scooped up the two players, thinks camps developing athletes at a younger age risks wasting time, energy and money. Porosa points to his team’s winning record and several consecutive playoff appearances as evidence of his success. But, he admitted that if he were to work at the same rate he does during the season over the summer, he’d probably suffer a heart attack before turning 50.
On the other hand, men’s basketball coach Glenn Taylor says he’s one of the biggest advocates of LTAD. But a lack of practice time and gym space at Ryerson only allows him to squeeze in three practices a week for his varsity squad. He worries about developing his own players first before thinking about training high school students.
“We’re not given the tools to do the job,” says Taylor, who has also coached at Memorial University and at the club level. “If they want us to win, they’re going to give us the tools to win.” The biggest tool that Taylor says is missing is a new facility. The RAC has outgrown itself, straining to support the 24,000 undergraduate student body and surrounding community. A new complex would not only give Ryerson’s sports teams better facilities, but also more time to practice on their own time.
Building a new athletic facility is a move Taylor thinks the school needs to make if it wants to contend. But so far, Ryerson hasn’t made any concrete commitment to building one.
A new permanent athletic director will take power on July 1, and Kahn thinks this is the perfect opportunity to embrace the new training model. He admits that while it may not be the coaches’ role to train high school athletes, a new athletic director with a vision and direction will force coaches to adapt.
“The coaches can’t do it, it starts at the top,” Kahn said. “If we had an athletic director who knew and understood what LTAD was, the coaches would buy in.”
He also argues that a new facility will not only give Ryerson’s varsity teams room to train, it will benefit the student population’s personal fitness. The new centre can also be a hub for summer camps and serve the rest of the surrounding community. It’s only fitting that an inner city school help the city’s inner city youth, he says.
Last October, McMaster University hired Steve Lidstone to be their strength and conditioning coordinator, one of the first ever in Canada. Lidstone says the school’s athletic director, Therese Quigley, is the reason strength and conditioning at McMaster has been emphasized. He now has 11 training coaches working for him, one assigned to each varsity team, and 29 student volunteers working under them. The creation of the department comes in coordination with the opening of the state-of-the-art New David Braley Athletic Centre.
“By the time [athletes] get to university level, I’m spending more time breaking them down and building them back up,” Lidstone says.
This summer for the first time, the school will run a training program for athletes aged 12-16 based on the LTAD model. Lidstone isn’t worried about other schools recruiting athletes after they’ve trained at McMaster. He’s more concerned with increasing the level of competition among athletes and spreading awareness about the program.
“Hopefully we’ve at least helped in raising the level of participation in Canada,” he said. “This is what every grade school and high school needs to be aware of.”
At the end of last year, the Ryerson men’s volleyball team squared off against McMaster in the provincial semi-finals. The game developed into a marathon match, lasting a maximum five sets. By the end, Ryerson’s players were out of breath while McMaster was still going strong, easily winning the game and a spot in the finals. Kahn says it’s an example of a school with an athletic plan and one still trying to find its way. “I just hate to lose to Mac every year knowing that they’re doing something different,” he says.