United Front

Personal bonds and a team-over-individual mentally gives Western's track and field team an emotional advantage over its stiff competition

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

Track and Field

Chemistry.

It’s something often considered vital to success in team sports, but when I left for South Bend, Indiana last weekend to visit the University of Notre Dame, I wasn’t sure what to expect from Western’s track and field team. After all, aside from a few relay events, the track and field team is really a collection of individuals. Did the team work together, and did it even matter if it did?

Head coach Vickie Croley believes the “team” versus “individual” mentality is crucial to the Mustangs’ success, arguing it eases the burden on each athlete so none feels they must carry the team on their own; rather, the pressure of competition is spread across the team’s collective shoulders.

“If you’ve got individuals competing, even if they’re not doing well, they need the support of their team to get over that hump,” Croley says. “[It gives them] the support that they need if they’re injured or not competing well; they know they’re not in a situation where they’re by themselves.”

Croley, who has coached at Western for 13 years, said many of the team-oriented traditions were already in place. It was something much different than what she experienced at York University, where the track and field team broke off and trained individually. She even heard of teammates being introduced at the Ontario University Athletics championships.

Jen Cotten, a second-year Mustang and last year’s Canadian Interuniversity Sport Rookie of the Year, has witnessed similar things.

“In my club back in Barrie, distance runners train on one day, jumpers on another day " when we went to meets we didn’t even know who jumpers were,” she says. “It was like, ‘who is that person over there?’”

The Mustangs function much differently, however. Teamwork is one of the reasons Cotten chose Western.

“I loved when I came for ‘Meet the Mustangs Day’ last year,” Cotten says. “I really noticed ‘Oh, that pole vaulter is friends with that hurdler and that jumper.’

“You could just make friends with anyone; I just thought it was really cool.”

Randy McAuley, a fifth-year sprinter, knows a little something about teamwork. He doubles as a running back for the Mustangs football team, and although football and track seem polarized in terms of the team-versus-individual concept, McAuley likened the latter to a family.

“Sometimes people are tired or it’s been a long week of workouts or practice, and someone just decides it’s time to step up and the rest of the guys or women will follow,” McAuley says. “People feed off other people’s energy, and our team has been really good at not only feeding off energy but being real supportive.

“When someone else does well, you’re happy for them and you want to do well to return the favour.”

McAuley cited an example from a few weeks ago. Second-year jumper Andrew Judge was feeling ill and didn’t compete at a meet. McAuley assured Judge he’d have a great week for him, and did. In South Bend, Judge felt he had to return the favour by setting a personal best in triple jump.

And the cycle never ends. McAuley, who performed poorly in the 300-metre Friday night at Notre Dame, backed up his words the next day. After several Mustangs set personal bests, he joined the fun by running a blistering 47.5-second split to lead the men’s 4x400-metre relay team to the best Canadian time this year, automatically qualifying the squad for the nationals.

“We do that for each other all the time,” McAuley says. “We’re supportive and we always want to do better.”

Veterans like McAuley and fifth-year jumper Alanna Boudreau try to ensure newcomers buy into the team creed. When everyone does, titles and medals become possibilities.

“When you get rookies and new people on the team [it’s something] we instill in them " it’s a team sport,” Boudreau says. “We’re doing individual events, but... we’re going for team titles. We want you to [set personal bests], we want you to run crazy-fast, and jump really far for yourself, but we want you to do it for us too.

“At the end of the day, we’re trying to win team championships.”

Croley has a few tricks to help foster this mentality. Each week, athletes are recognized with “popcorn awards,” which are awarded for placing in an event, setting a personal best, and so forth. She also distributes “Purple Heart” awards, which aren’t performance oriented. Instead, they’re given to Mustangs who have gone beyond the call of duty, like competing in multiple events, subbing for an injured teammate, or finishing a race despite falling.

These, coupled with social events organized by team captains, lead to bonds between not only teammates, but friends, Croley says. The hope is those bonds translate into results and, so far, it’s working. Both the men’s and women’s squads are ranked second in Canada.

At Notre Dame, the Mustangs just felt closer than their American counterparts. While the big-time American programs like Michigan, Wisconsin, and Georgia Tech seemed very business-like, Western enjoyed itself on a different level, be it starting claps or chants not only for teammates but other schools, or having teammates’ personal bests memorized.

Winning, it seems, isn’t enough for Croley and the Mustangs. They aren’t just a team of competitors; they’re a group of friends competing.

“The bottom line is it makes it more enjoyable for the athletes who are on the team " I think it keeps them on the team,” Croley says. “If you’ve got a fringe athlete who has to work his butt off to make the team, but they’ll do that, they might not get the success of winning a championship medal, but they’ve gained a lot of friends.

“We need those people on our team... to add to the positive atmosphere at the track.”

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