CIS vs. NCAA: A More Balanced Perspective

(Preface: Thank you to Maxine Gravina for sparking a conversation among athletes currently training in Flagstaff. We’re three weeks into this camp, and at this point we’re so sick of each other we’re looking for every reason to argue. The NCAA vs CIS debate has been the topic of conversation in our house for much of the past two days, and I’d like to summarize some of those thoughts. Of the six Speed River males (Genest, Proudfoot, Dulhanty, Britt, Winter, and myself), three of us studied in Canada, the other three in the US. Collectively, we’ve got a pretty good idea of what both systems can offer.)

In Maxine’s video (LINK), titled “CIS vs. NCAA”, she interviews several Canadian athletes who had varying levels of experience with the NCAA system. While the conclusion of the video was good (athletes should make individual decisions based on personalities and desires), you would never have imagined that would have been the conclusion from the first 90% of the video. In it, the interviewees list many negative aspects of the NCAA system, many of which are based on opinion, or which can equally be applied to Canadian schools. As someone who spent five years at an NCAA school (Notre Dame), and now trains with a group that is closely associated with a CIS school (Guelph), I feel I have a pretty good perspective of what both systems can offer a high school athlete. Some of the concerns mentioned in the video aren’t wrong either. Many of the problems that these athletes encountered at NCAA schools can also be found within Canadian programs. Prospective student athletes need to be critical when assessing their choices regardless of where you decide to study beyond high school. Below, I will summarize the relevant points made by each speaker in the video, and hopefully offer a more a balanced perspective.

(Before I continue, a few assumptions need to be made. Comparing the experience of a walk-on athlete at a CIS school to that of a scholarship-athlete at an NCAA school is not comparing apples to apples. This analysis will be geared more towards the level of high school athlete that is good enough to earn a scholarship to a US school, who’s looking to place an equal amount of emphasis on both athletics and academic pursuits.)

Connor Darlington (athlete, McMaster): Was concerned about “limited recovery time” and “pressure” that’s placed on NCAA athletes. 

  • Never actually competed or went to school in the NCAA. While he’s a good athlete whose opinion should be respected, his knowledge of the NCAA system is limited to what he’s heard or been told by friends or coaches.
  • I never found the pressure to perform in the NCAA any different than I see from the athletes at Guelph or other competitive schools in the CIS. The reality is that coaches are given performance expectations by their athletic directors, and if coaches do not meet these expectations, their jobs are at stake. A more fair assessment is that if you choose to compete for a competitive Canadian program, you will be expected to operate at a high level just the same as if you were to attend a top level NCAA school.
  • Recovery time is also not a problem unique to the NCAA system. The demands of a full academic course load can be rigorous at any school. Training room experiences can also vary greatly depending on where you go to school, and what kind of budget the program has. When you’re choosing a school, ask about how they help athletes balance their athletic and academics. If you’re currently receiving a certain type of treatment like chiropractic care or osteopathy, ask if that will be available to you.

Paula Schnurr (coach, McMaster): Concerns about the NCAA include: “teammates spending too much time together, eating and studying. Needs to be more balance.” Also claims that the 2-season system of the CIS (no outdoor track in the CIS) is more conducive to having summer track seasons. 

  • Time spent with teammates is actually the thing I miss most about my five years at Notre Dame. Some of my most favorite memories are from the countless hours we spent together in the locker room, at the dining hall, or the (not-so-productive) studying we’d do together. Claiming that this type of behavior is limited to NCAA athletes is also pretty unfair. I’m fairly certain the cross-country runners at McMaster live together and spend time with each other outside of practice time.
  • The conduciveness of the 2-season system to having a more successful summer track season is also not backed by any type of research. I never found I had a problem coming back to Canada in the summer and competing when I wanted to. I made two Canadian national teams in the summers after having full NCAA seasons. It’s also very dependent on the school that you attend. Mississippi State allowed Brandon McBride to have a limited indoor season this year so that he could focus on having a successful summer season. While this type of leniency is not the norm at every NCAA school, it’s an extreme generalization to assume all CIS programs allow athletes to peak for outdoors, while assuming NCAA schools do not.

Amanda Truelove (athlete, Western University): Claims that a healthier balance exists in the CIS between athletics and academics, and athletes in the US are stretched too thin. Also prefers racing amongst friends within the Canadian system, as opposed to racing people you don’t know in the US. 

  • While Amanda has some criticisms about the NCAA, she speaks mostly favorably about her experience at Duke. She also makes some good points about not taking a scholarship purely for the idea of being a scholarship athlete, and that every athlete should consider both systems equally.
  • Her point that a healthier balance exists within the CIS is surely very dependent on what schools you attend. Amanda studied at Duke, which is an elite academic school that will naturally have a more difficult course load than an average state school. It’s also extremely dependent on what program you choose, as work load varies greatly by major. I studied political science at Notre Dame (which is, I’ll admit, one of the easier majors), and never had a problem balancing my athletic and academic loads. Meanwhile, my engineering teammates struggled with that balance a bit more. I imagine the same can be said for Canadian universities.
  • I also think there’s a point to be made about time management skills. I often found that my teammates who complained about lack of sleep or recovery issues were those who could be found wasting time throughout the day. Regardless of where you study, allocating your time effectively will be critical to your success as an athlete and student.
  • Her point about competing among friends is a fair, but personal opinion. As an athlete, you need to decide what’s important for you. I know that I was able to make many friends in the NCAA, many of whom I continue to race against to this day. Ross and Alex have pointed out a few times over the past few weeks that I seem to know everyone we run into in Flagstaff, much of which can be attributed to my experiences racing in the NCAA.

Dave Mills (Coach, Western University): “Many athletes that I have coached have gone on to the NCAA system- some had great experiences, some had negative experiences, but I’ve seen that in the CIS too. So I don’t know if it’s a CIS vs NCAA thing, or just the individuals that you’re dealing with at certain institutions. It’s such an individual thing. What works for one kid might not work for another.”

  • Dave offers extremely balanced and reasonable opinions when comparing the two systems.
  • The above quote is bang on, and should have been used as both the introduction and conclusion of the video.

Gabriela Stafford (Athlete, University of Toronto): “Competing in Canada has just as much depth as competing in the US. 

  • What Gabriela was alluding to is that there are 7 girls in Canada fighting for a spot on the Olympic team in the 1500m. While it’s great we’ve got depth in Canadian female middle distance runners, these girls are not all in university, and therefore it’s an unfair comparison. While the CIS is becoming better and better, its overall depth is still much shallower than its NCAA counterpart.
  • Gabriela made some excellent points when comparing the two systems. She talked about there being a big discrepancy in terms of quality academic institutions in the US. When young athletes are considering US schools, they should consider how well their degree will transfer back to Canada.
  • Gabriela is also in an extremely unique position, in that she’s good enough to be nationally carded. This allows her to actually make money while going to school, which is a big advantage compared to the NCAA.
  • In her position, I would have made the same decision. She’s been a member of the Toronto track club since high school, and her coaches have handled her progression well. As the saying goes, “don’t fix what ain’t broke,” especially in an Olympic year.

The conclusion of Maxine’s video actually sums it up pretty well. Deciding between the CIS and NCAA comes down to individual personalities and desires. When I was in high school, I’ll admit that I hardly ever considered staying in Canada for school. Year after year I watched as the best high school runners went down south, and I blindly assumed that was best for my own development. Do I regret going to Notre Dame? Definitely not. However, I wish I would have given Canadian schools some more serious consideration.

The CIS has also come a long way over the last 10 years. My times as a senior in high school would have automatically made me one of the fastest university athletes in Canada. I thought that in order to improve, I should surround myself and compete against better athletes. Since that time however, the CIS has gotten deeper and deeper, and has produced athletes like CPT and Ross who would have more than challenged me in my collegiate career.

The other thing that’s changed over the past decade is the amount of quality options there are for Canadian schools that balance athletics and academics at a high level. When I was in high school, looking at CIS results would have given the impression that Guelph was the only school worth attending if I wanted to push myself athletically. Now, we’re seeing schools like Toronto, Windsor, McMaster, Victoria, and many others who have become competitive at the CIS level in both cross-country and track, which gives high schoolers many great options if they’d like to stay in Canada.

What it comes down to is that you shouldn’t let the opinions of others shape your decision. I remember being told continuously in high school that athletes in the NCAA are often expected to triple at conference meets, and they become worn out. The truth is that competing at conference meets was actually one of my favorite parts about my NCAA career- I would actually ask my coach to run more events just so I could help the team any way I could. The thrill of competing for a team title is unlike any other experience you’ll have as a track athlete, since we mostly compete as individuals. Doubling and tripling at conference meets is also not unique to the NCAA. Look at how Ullman and Bellemore, or Smart and Stafford, or Ayers and Watts were utilized at OUA’s this year.

The bottom line is that you should explore every option thats given to you, regardless of what system the school is in. Take visits, ask questions (not only to the coach, but more importantly ask the guys on the team about things that concern you), and be thorough in your comparisons. Make a spreadsheet, and score each school after every visit based on factors you find important to you. Also remember that while choosing a school is an important decision, it is by no means final. Plenty of athletes have transferred schools and have gone on to great professional careers (athletically and academically).

Below you will find an attachment to a word document put together by Trent Stellingwerf called “High School Scholarship Guide”. It was a tool I relied on greatly when I was making my decision, and while some of it might now be outdated, the majority of it still applies. All high school athletes should read through it before making their decisions. If any high school athlete has questions, needs advice, or would like me to expand on any points made, please feel free to reach out as I’d me more than willing to help.


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Woody Mountain Road, Flagstaff.

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2 Responses to CIS vs. NCAA: A More Balanced Perspective

  1. Juan says:

    This is a fantastic blog entry: balanced, very well argued and written, and addressing all the weak points of the opinions expressed in the video. I’m sure this is not necessarily what you intended, but to me it feels you just made a great case for the NCAA (meaning, if you are the product, the system certainly can work). We need more articulate young people like yourself to write about running. I am not familiar with your running career, but I look forward to following your progress and wish you all the best with it.


    • Jeremy Rae says:

      Thank you so much. I actually tried very hard not to show bias towards the NCAA. That system worked well for me, but it’s obviously not the best fit for everyone (as shown in the video). I simply thought the video made blanket statements that portrayed the NCAA in a not-so-positive manner, and I wished to respond to some of the criticisms. Thanks again for the kind words, and best wishes.


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