COCHRANE— Travis Cummings, a local teacher and cross-country coach, recently won Athletics Alberta’s 2019 Grassroots Coach of the Year Award.
The award is given to a coach that makes a significant contribution in their sport and helps to push it forward at a community level.
Several of the criteria are that they must make a significant contribution to the sport, able to organize a successful training program, put an emphasis on training, not winning, and the students they coach must carry on beyond the entry-level.
Examining Cummings’ coaching resume and his philosophy, it is clear why he won the award, and why many of his athletes compete at a high level.
In 2018 Cummings founded the Cochrane Endurance Project, a local running club comprised of athletes from the community and past and present students from St. Timothy High School, where he teaches sciences.
Cummings said he has masters athletes who are over 30, a masters women’s team, seniors, high school students and athletes in other provinces.
“Running is a really long term sport. The goal is to get them to learn the right tools so they can run at a high-level long term. If you do things right, your peak as an endurance athlete, you can maintain it well into your 30s and 40s,” he said. “If they’re running their best in high school and then they quit, I haven’t really done my job.”
He said he hopes to see the younger members of the club make running a part of their lifestyle.
Many endurance athletes hit their peak much later in life, he said, including Canadian Women’s Marathon record holder, 39-year-old Malindi Elmore, who smashed the previous record in March 2019, covering more than 42-kilometres in 2:26:56.
In November 2019, nine athletes represented the Cochrane Endurance Project at the cross-country nationals.
Although many of the members of the Cochrane Endurance Project are students of his, Cummings said he is dedicated to building a diverse group of runners.
“As we kind of get the name out in the community, there are more and more athletes that are coming into the club… I think it’s good for all the kids who are involved— They get to know kids from other schools,” he said. “I actually want to see more of that.”
Cummings said he approaches coaching with the longevity of the athlete in mind.
“We want them to be good enough in high school so they get some confidence and they want to compete at a high level,” he said. “If they top out when they’re 17 or 18, then I’ve been coaching for my own accolades, that’s really what it is. In my opinion that is not a good way to coach, because you’re not only doing the sport a disservice, but you’re doing the kids that you coach a disservice, and as a coach, you’re stunting your own growth, because you’re not really learning how to do things properly over the long term.”
Cummings and the other coaches of the Cochrane Endurance Project approach the sport with the philosophy of building a solid foundation of skills that will lead to the longevity of the athletes at the forefront of their program. He suspects that is the reason he was chosen to receive the award, and why the club is seeing some success.
“I think when you’re coaching you always have to ask the question who you’re serving,” he said. “You have to have that balance between enjoyment and excellence and enjoyment. It can’t always be about enjoyment and it can’t always be about excellence.”
In endurance sports, there is no way to fake fitness. In a sport like running there is no substitute for hours and miles.
“How do you teach kids delayed gratification when everything is instantaneous today?” he said.
He explained those lessons are learned through the sport itself, not the coach.
“It’s not me directly teaching those lessons, I think that’s arrogant. It’s my job to empower them to go on their own journey about what running means to them,” he said. “Individual sports are a lot different from team sports, it’s very much a personal exploration.”
He noted that coaching the person, as opposed to the athlete, is key to leading them to reach their full potential.
“It’s not really about what I can get out of them, it’s what they can get out of it for themselves,” he said. “[Running] kind of teaches us deeper lessons, not immediately, but if you’re willing to commit to struggling to understand what it takes to perform at a high level in sport you learn a lot about yourself. It’s not always fun, it hurts and it sucks a lot of the time.”
Cummings noted that the award he received was not won in isolation. The philosophy that he brings to the table is a collaboration that has been adopted by the club and its coaches as a whole.
“It’s not really an award just for myself,” he said. “I think it’s a reflection of the commitment of everyone who has been involved in the club over the last few years to get it off the ground.”
Cummings said that he and the other members of the club have all brought their experiences to the club, and that’s what makes it a unique, award-worthy, training program.