Sunday, 26 October 2014

Ingredients for Success...Engaging Adolescent Cross Country Skiers



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In the coaching workshops I facilitate, I often get asked my thoughts about how to keep kids engaged in cross country skiing.  It seems everywhere there is a huge drop off in participation at about 11 or 12 years old and then another round of drop offs at the end of middle school.  What is it that keeps kids engaged? Is there a magic formula? What are the characteristics of places that retain adolescents in their programs through the years when kids are seeking more autonomy in deciding what they want to do with their time? What factors exist that improve the chances kids will stick with cross country skiing?  Obviously there is no simple answer but my experience would say that there are ingredients for success.

Having a critical mass - it goes without saying that when you have a big group of kids the likelihood of some of them sticking it out through adolescence increases.  Kids want to participate where there is a social environment.  It can't be just about the skiing.  Its got to also be about the relationships that kids share.  Ignore the social needs of kids and they'll find it somewhere else.  Their feet will do their talking.  So what about if you don't have a critical mass? if you're in a small town with only a few adolescents involved?  Invite more in.  Small towns are the home of some of the best cross country skiers that have competed internationally for Canada - athletes like Chandra Crawford, Sarah Renner, and Beckie Scott all grew in small town ski clubs.  For a time, Vermilion, AB was producing some of the top ski racers in Canada.  What happened in Vermilion to make this so.  Vermilion is a great exemplar of a town that created something special for kids.  So much of that was the leadership of a few people that created a vision for what might be possible for kids when they participated in a few races.  If you don't have a critical mass - build it, one kid at a time.

Give kids something to work towards - special trips, club exchanges, alternative ski experiences.  For a number of years now, one of the special trips I've accompanied our club kids in Canmore on is a club exchange with another ski club.  Over the past 5 years, our 12-14 year old skiers have had a chance to go to Chelsea, QC or Whitehorse, YT 5 times.  We've made this a priority and its kept kids involved at least till the end of middle school.  The exchanges include same age club kids coming from Chelsea or Whitehorse and staying with their families in Canmore, and then our Canmore kids staying with families in the exchange communities.  When we are there, the families organize tons of fun cultural and sporting activities.  As a result our club kids have had a chance to do the Buckwheat Classic or the Gatineau Loppet or the Quebec Midget Championships a number of times.  They have done these things without breaking the bank or overemphasizing racing.  Making kids aware of special recognition opportunities like Alberta Development Team, and encouraging them in the belief that it is possible for them to be qualify for these teams is hugely important.

Give kids exemplary technical skill instruction - its amazing how kids will stay involved when they feel that they can do something well.  When lots of top performing kids come from one club, you should try to figure out what they are doing that makes it so, especially when kids of all ages are performing well from a club and not just a two or three year cohort of kids.  These clubs exist in many places and most of these clubs are willing to share their success stories.  Usually these uber successful clubs have created a culture where everyone sees it as possible to succeed, where learning is valued, and social environments are important.  At the end of it all, having some great teachers of technical skill gives kids a huge advantage over other places. 

Keeping it fun - balancing the need for positive social time between adolescents and quality instructional time is immensely important. Too much emphasis on instruction creates an all work no play environment - which really is unappealing to most teens.  Too much emphasis on social interaction and not enough on technical instruction creates an environment not challenging enough for the average teen.  Evidence of a club that has found the right balance is found in:
- the number of kids returning to compete/participate year after year
- the average level of performance of kids from the club
- the atmosphere during a practice - are comfortable with chatting it up, and focusing when asked.
- the happiness factor - can you look around and see smiling faces and also faces showing best effort is taking place

Sometimes I get asked by participants in the coaching workshops I lead how it is that my own children http://matthewstrum.blogspot.ca/ http://mollyjanestrum.blogspot.ca/ (we have a third child as well that is too young for her own blog) have stayed engaged in competitive cross country skiing for so long.  How is it that they didn't get overdosed on my enthusiasm for cross country skiing.  How did my wife and I cultivate a space for our kids to own their own experience, to design their own dreams, to believe that they are capable of achieving their goals? We haven't done it alone, we've been fortunate to be a part of ski clubs that have a critical mass, that give kids something to work towards, that give kids exemplary technical instruction, and that focus on keeping it fun. 

Regards

Roy Strum
Canmore, AB




Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Six Signposts towards Excellence in Coaching Adolescents...


I love learning.  I love learning about getting better at the things I love to focus my energy on.  I've recently picked up a book - Richard Hattie's Visible Learning for Teachers (2012, Routledge, NY).  Its amazing really, when you find some reading that speaks to you on many levels.  This book speaks to me about what is really important when teaching kids how to learn a motor skill.  Hattie did a meta-analysis of meta-analysis studies examining teaching and learning influences on student achievement in schools. His research aims to answer the question -what effect does a type of learning influence (such as giving feedback) have on the level of student achievement. His writing has been described as 'the holy grail' of education research books by some reviewers.  He points out early and often, that simply having a positive impact on learning isnt good enough because there is very little that a teacher or coach can do that will not result in some learning.

For me, Hattie's work speaks to the important pieces of structuring learning - which is of course completely relevant to effective coaching in a sport context.  The fact is that coaches can choose to focus on so many different things while helping kids to learn.  What Hattie's research does is measure teaching and learning influences using effect size (e.g. d=.40); in doing so, it makes it possible to compare some types of teaching and learning influences compared to others.  Not all things that that teachers or coaches do have an equal effect. Some are more potent than others in helping learners achieve more.

In his writing, Hattie points to six signposts that identify excellence in teaching and learning.  Here they are:

1. Teachers (Coaches) are the most powerful influences in learning.

2. Teachers (Coaches) need to be directive, influential, caring, actively and passionately engaged in the process of teaching and learning.

3. Teachers (Coaches) need to be aware of what each student (athlete) is thinking and have sufficient knowledge of content so they can provide meaningful and appropriate feedback.

4. Teachers (Coaches) and students (athletes) need to know the learning intentions and criteria for success.  They need to know where they are at, and where they need to go next

5. Teachers (Coaches) need to move from a single idea to multiple ideas - to extend these ideas so learners can construct meaning.

6.  School Leaders (Head Coaches) need to create a culture where 'error' is welcomed as an important step in developing more complex understandings and abilities.

As teachers and coaches we need to recognize that everything we do and say is important.  How we present ourselves matters.  Being passionate about what we teach is one of the most powerful influences we might have.  Instilling a love for something is a big piece of the work we do. We need to have enough knowledge about the subject/sport so that we can give meaningful feedback.  As teachers and coaches we need to help kids see where they are at and where they need to go next. Learning intentions need to be clear to the learners - if not - no wonder they dont learn very quickly.  Developing conceptual understandings of how physical skill builds and why we learn to perform a skill a certain way is key in helping to develop mastery.  Finally, error needs to be embraced as healthy and an important step towards achievement.  Error is how we learn - not something we should feel badly about.  How many times I have provided that explanation when coaching volleyball I couldn't tell you.  Volleyball is a game of errors - a team gains a point only when the other team makes an error.

As coaches of adolescents, we need to remember that much of what we are doing is teaching - teaching motor skills, habits of mind, attitudes, and developing a love of skiing.  Not all teachers are created equal - some teachers have a little something extra - something that engages the kids they work with in a meaningful way.  I encourage you to find out more about what those coaches are doing - cause its worth replicating.

Roy Strum
Canmore, AB

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Saturday, 4 October 2014

Eliminating the Proprietary Nature of Coaching...


There is something to say about splitting my life between coaching and teaching.  Noticing the stark contrast between the education world and the coaching world in the willingness of professionals to share out best practice with those less experienced and knowledgeable.  One only has to look to twitter to see the vast volume of the sharing of best practice ideas in teaching, and the almost complete lack of any sharing of best practice in coaching.  Why is this?  Why is that experienced, knowledgeable, seasoned coaches in cross country skiing do very little to no sharing of their work, their insight, or their resources with other coaches?  I'm not saying it doesn't happen, because it does.  Experienced, seasoned coaches, do share their wisdom or expertise.  It just doesn't happen very often, at least as far as I am aware of.

Maybe it is because of the proprietary nature of cross country ski coaching in Canada.  Seasoned, knowledgeable, experienced coaches are motivated to deliver their expertise to those employing them.  Often the boards of directors of the clubs that pay their professional coaches include stipulations in their contracts that their employed coaches may not do work for other clubs.  Rightly these clubs who are paying alot of money to employ a seasoned, experienced, knowledgeable coach want these coaches to serve their membership.  And so, the rich get richer, and the poor stay where they are or struggle along.

Contrast this with the world of education in Alberta.  In education, teachers are publicly funded, and a set of professional competencies is expected from these teachers, including constant professional learning and the explicit directive to create a collaborative culture where mentoring occurs, where sharing of best practice is an obligation.  Sharing of everything you know as a teacher is expected to serve the common good of children in Alberta.  What a refreshing and positive environment for professionals - a place where ready access to expertise is available, a place where those who know share with those who don't.  You just have to pop onto Twitter to see that that platform is widely and immensely used by educators across North America.  The notion of a Professional Learning Network is a broadly embraced idea in teaching.  My own professional learning network includes over 1000 other educators where everyday I both share out my work and learn from the work of others.

This morning I had a conversation with a coaching colleague about the state of our sport in Alberta.  There is lots going on that is working really well.  But the reality that surfaced in our conversation is that the ecology of our sport is maybe not functioning as smoothly or as synchronous as it might.  A theme from our conversation was that so much of what occurs happens in isolation of other links in the (to use the American phrase) athlete development pipeline.  And maybe the reason this happens is because of the proprietary free market nature of coaching in Alberta.  There is no motivation for clubs or coaches to share out their best practice.  There are no structural professional obligations to build capacity in colleagues.  Perhaps there should be.  Don't get me wrong, I am a free market driven dude.  But I think there is a role in advancing our sport through incentives for knowledge sharing and capacity building.

Its time to change the culture of our sport. Change it to a place where there is non proprietary sharing of best practice.  I started this blog with the express intention of moving our coaching culture in that direction.  The purpose of this blog is to share out best practice ideas, provide a place to stimulate some conversation about what best practice looks like, and share out my own ideas about things I have done and the reasons I have done them.  Its been two years since the inception of this blog - and I'll be honest, I have been very surprised that almost 1500 people every month have read this blog.  But it speaks I think to the interest and need for greater sharing of ideas and best practice exemplars.  I for one, would love to follow coaches from clubs across all of North America, where I can begin to expand on my professional learning network in the world of cross country ski coaching.

Imagine how much better off our young athletes would be if clubs and coaches were much more willing to share out their ideas about what is working and why.  I encourage you to start a blog and share.  I'll be one of your first followers.

cheers

Roy Strum
Canmore, AB

Sunday, 28 September 2014

Thoughts on Working with Early Teens...


We've all likely been there.  Our delightful, fun-loving, well adjusted children seemingly overnight transforming into beings from outerspace.  Whether you're a teacher, a coach, a youth leader or parent, you've likely seen this metamorphisis.  At 12 or 13, many kids become social networking gurus - responding to an innate need to grow their own branches that connect to the world around them.  Many early adolescents are driven to make choices for themselves but yet caught between the two worlds of childhood and adulthood.  How do we help adolscents navigate these unfamiliar waters.  What kind of a paddle would we recommend? What type of boat? How do we help them to read a map or use a gps device? How do we support them in charting a course? when do we step in to offer advice? when do we let them make their own mistakes? how do we facilitate a group adolescent beings?  These are types of things I think about when coaching early adolescents.

So what does it look like to engage early adolescents?  In my work with adoloscents at a residential treatment centre for 12-16 year olds with severe social/emotional/behavioural challenges, we aim to interact in a number of ways that gives responsibility to adolescents.  These include:

- providing opportunities for youth to make positive choices - hey, you know what you need to do...
- offering intentional teaching interactions that provide explanations and rationales
- offering cause and effect messages - when you do this, that often happens...
- sometimes giving directive messages is appropriate - hey, this needs to happen now...

Can we use these ideas when working with adolescents in a cross country ski coaching context?  for sure we can.  No matter what demographics kids come from, when you get a group of adolescents together, they love to talk - what do you do as a coach to get there attention on a teaching and learning task?  giving kids an instruction, and creating some understanding about what you're looking for and what you want them to do, then backing of letting them get to it is an important skill. 

Great coaches are very deliberate about their instruction and feedback.  These include providing rationales.  For adolescents, my experience tells me that these youth want to understand, they want more than just to be told 'do this, cause I'm the expert'.  Giving adolescents the message that 'hey if it takes a long time to get your attention, we have less time to ski and less time for me to coach' is a cause and effect message.  My experience is that adolescents respond well to this kind of interaction from a coach, rather than a coach who gets angry or yells.

In the end though, after being given opportunities to make positive choices, and some teaching around what and why, and then some cause effect messages, it sometimes becomes necessary to be directive.

Whats important, I think, is to use all the tools in your toolkit.  These tools are easier to use when you know that you have them.

Coaching adolescent cross country ski racers has been and continues to be one of the great joys of my life.  Good luck with your coaching this year. 

Roy Strum
Canmore, AB

Monday, 8 September 2014

Tiered Events in Cross Country Skiing - Are they Necessary for Younger Skiers...


 
 
In sports with large numbers of particpants, tiering is often used as a way to group kids with similar ability together.  The idea is that everyone benefits from playing with other kids who play at about the same level.  In Calgary, for example, over 50,000 kids play organized ice hockey.  In Calgary, kids participate in tryouts and are subsequently placed on similar ability teams.  Teams then play with other teams who are in the same tier as them.  We can probably agree that having kids play on teams with other kids of similar ability, creates more opportunity for every player to be in the game.  On the other hand, tiered training and competition groupings have been shown to make the rich, richer, so to say, and the poor, poorer.  Kids in the highest tier usually also have access to the best coaching and so their skill improves exponentially faster than kids training and competing in lower tiers.  And so while there are positives and negatives to tiered competition groupings, I am putting forward the idea that tiered competitions do have a place in athlete development.
 
Cross country ski racing in Alberta is pretty small time compared to sports like ice hockey when it comes to numbers of youth participants.  What would tiered competition look like? Is there a need for it? In our part of the world, we have great disparity in ski clubs when it comes to the expertise that is available for kids to access in their skill development.  We live in a region which has a couple of very large clubs where kids pay alot of money to access professional coaching.  We also have a number of clubs that are small, run by volunteers, many of whom are learning to ski alongside the kids they are coaching.  At races, guess which clubs dominate? In fact, guess which clubs actually show up to races?
 
How do you build a strong ski community? How do we support clubs and athletes in our region so that more clubs participate in races?  One of the answers to these questions is I believe in tiered racing.  Every club no matter what level of coaching is available has kids who are just getting started with racing.  If we want these kids to stick it out, we need to be doing something more than just throwing them in with the fastest skiers from the larger clubs in every race.  Lets face it, success is important.  Kids and parents need something to encourage them to participate.  Is it fun to come in 25th in every race? or in the final 5 kids in a race in every race?  I'd say no.  Coming in last is not fun, no matter how much we try to de-emphasize results, kids notice where they finish and it sticks with them.  That's why having a couple of races in the calendar aimed at novice racers is important.  Races need to serve the developmental needs of more than just the fastest skiers who have former olympians as their coaches.  What I am talking about is 'how do we create a ski community where more kids choose cross country skiing as their sport of choice?'
 
I hear lots about how 'southern alberta' is privileged in the access to coaching expertise.  The fact is that almost all clubs in the south are in a pretty precarious place when it comes to creating the next generation of national team superstars.  That is because there is a big imbalance between have and have not ski clubs.  What can do about this?  We can create a space for clubs, coaches and young athletes just getting going to experience some level of success with similar ability peers.  We can support a few tiered events in our competition calendar.  Is it the only thing we can do? no...there is alot more...but its a start.
 
We are experiencing our first snowfall of the year here in southern Alberta today.  It won't be long to we are back on our skis.
 
Roy Strum
Canmore, AB
 


Friday, 29 August 2014

Thinking about Instructional Design in Coaching...

 
How we design learning experiences in a club coaching environment is worth some consideration.  Research focused on what works best for skill acquisition definitely points in the direction of what we call Direct Instruction.  Direct instruction refers to an instructional model typically described as follows:
 
1. stating/describing the skill
2. demonstrating the skill
3. opportunities for guided practice
4. providing feedback about how the athlete performs the skill
 
If this sounds familiar, its because this model has been around forever.  In fact educational research, such as found in John Hattie's Visible Learning meta-analysis research http://visible-learning.org/ supports the idea that direct instruction is a significant teaching and learning influence on achievement.  Hattie would point out that when learners have a clear picture of the intended learning outcome in mind they are much more successful in their acquisition of skill and knowledge.  We shouldn't be making kids guess about skilled performance looks like.  I have seen 5 year olds skate ski better than most adults because that child's coach, was successfully able to create a clear idea in the child's mind about what the skill should look like.  Granted, sometimes these 5 year olds are also the type of kid that picks up motor skills very quickly.
 
Is direct instruction the only learning platform we can use as coaches?  Definitely not.  This past year, I worked at deliberately trying different instructional design ideas with the coaching work i did with adolescent cross country skiers.  Cross country skiing is classified as an open skill sport meaning that the athletes technique/choices changes in response to changing stimuli or terrain.
 
Putting a skill in the context of terrain is important to success as a ski racer.  Teaching Games for Understanding is an approach that I learned about when I was a grad student at University of Calgary.  This approach to skill development, starts first with a tactical situation and asks students to think through what does the situation require in terms of skill performance.  The skill is performed in response to a situation, not in isolation. 
 
Experiential learning is a great learning platform to build relevance and understandings for young skiers.  Several times a season, I would plan a practice, where we took a skill and performed it in various ways to experiment with what worked best.  For example, I might have planned three downhill time trials during the same practice - the first time I'd have kids do the downhill run in a high tuck, the second time in a medium tuck, and the third time in a squat.  I'd time each run and before showing kids their time, I'd ask them to reflect on which one they thought felt fastest.  Then we'd look at their times and sometimes go back to the top of the downhill section of trail and try it again to try to beat their best time by refining the performance of their skill through some feedback I'd have given them based on my observation of their best run.
 
Integrating learning in a cross disciplinary manner is also something I've done numerous times per season.  Introducing kids to physics concepts such as 'drag forces' or 'propulsive forces' and asking them to think about how they can reduce drag or increase propulsion gets kids thinking about what they are doing in a more meaningful way than simply asking them to perform a skill and receive feedback and try it again (like we might do with a direct instruction model). 
 
There are lots of important things we can be doing as coaches to design instruction to optimize learning.  Using direct instruction, tactical instruction, experiential learning, and integrated learning are just a start to expanding your repetoire as a coach of developing athletes. 
 
Summer is wrapping up and fall training season is just around the corner.  This winter, I plan to volunteer as an assistant coach with my youngest daughter's biathlon group (she's had enough of me as a cross country coach - poor girl, having to put up with her dad as a coach for so many years).  I am going to try something new - put myself in a learning place.  I hope you do the same
 
Roy Strum
Canmore, AB

Saturday, 2 August 2014

Club Development - Supporting Ski Clubs in Broadening their Focus beyond Instruction


I've been thinking lots lately about how to best support ski clubs in engaging in racing.  If we look at a broad cross section of clubs in Alberta, and probably Canada, we will find that a vast majority are small clubs that do the work of 'instruction'.  For these clubs there isn't a direct or apparent connection between the work that they do to 'introduce kids to a lifelong, healthy, active, family activity' and an 'athlete development pathway'.  The fact is that maybe every club doesn't need to focused on technical skill development or introduction to racing experiences.  Often though, I have found, these small clubs don't participate in introduction to competition experiences because they are not aware of what is possible, or the leadership doesn't feel confident to lead children in this type of experience.

Is getting more clubs engaged with competitive skiing even important?  Sure it is.  Hugely important.  Important because competitive sport can be a real confidence builder for kids where the life lessons of resilience, effort, and improvement can be learned.  Its important because without exposure to age appropriate competitive ski experiences, large groups of kids might go without the opportunity to discover something that fuels their passion.

What kind of support is needed to smaller clubs who are just getting going with their club development?  I have found doing this work myself, that a huge part of engaging families with trying out competition is having conversations with parents.  Creating understandings of a pathway that kids can take as they grow older, creates important understandings about key developmental experiences and the benefits that derive from them.  In big well established clubs as well as small developing clubs, the conversation is essentially the same.  Its about creating a picture in the minds and hearts of parents and kids about what is possible.  Its about creating some priorities for your club about the races that you will attend each season.  Its about taking part and hosting events where your club kids get a chance to see they are part of something bigger, something worthwhile, something that adds a new dimension to cross country skiing.  This perspective takes nurturing.  In big clubs whose athletes win medals at nationals, and in small clubs who have never participated in a ski race, it requires leadership to nurture and support this aspect of cross country skiing.  This year, a goal of mine is to facilitate these types of conversations about the athlete development pathway is in our province with athletes and parents.  It is pretty unlikely that involvement will grow without this type of support.

Supporting club coaches in their own development is a vital piece of engaging clubs in ski racing.  Very few clubs have access to professional, full time coaching and expertise.  It is the job of the provincial sport organization to support coaches in developing the skills and confidence needed to move their club in the direction of racing.  Facilitating mentoring, guiding, and sharing experiences between newer coaches and seasoned coaches.

We need more clubs who see themselves as places where any young skier can become the next national or international champion.  Helping clubs get there is important work.  It is the work of the provincial sport organization and it is the work of seasoned coaches across the province.  I encourage you to jump aboard and contribute.

Roy
Canmore, AB


Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Recognizing the Role of Relative Age Effect in Adolescent Cross Country Skiers...


How do we accommodate for growth and development during the adolescent years in cross country ski racing in Canada?  Is age on Dec 31 still the primary criteria for age grouping adolescent skiers? Are there other factors considered to equalize the almost 12 months of growth and development that separates a child born on Jan 1 and another born on Dec 31? Lets face it, during the years of rapid physical growth maturation, in Canada we refer to this as 'Peak Height Velocity', our competition structure doesn't explicitly accommodate for relative age effect.


There is lots of research published that would point us to the need to treat this age range with great care and attention. http://canadiansportforlife.ca/resources/monitoring-peak-height-velocity-phv   http://www.perception.psy.ulaval.ca/sites/perception.psy.ulaval.ca/files/musch_grondin_2001.pdf

The first few minutes of the following video does a nice job of pointing out the relative age effect and its effect on the number of NHL Hockey players born in each of the four quarters of the calendar year (Jan-Mar; Apr-Jun; July-Sept; Oct-Dec).


Is this at all relevant to developmental experiences in cross country skiing?  I believe it is relevant.  I also believe it is not adequately addressed in our current sport system.  Let me explain.  In Alberta, our current selection criteria for Alberta Development Team for 14 year olds doesn't include any explicit criteria related to development age or accommodate for relative age effect.  Why does this matter?  It matters because research would show that relative age effect within a calendar year of birth is a valid phenomenon.  Kids born earlier in the calendar year are often bigger and stronger than kids born later in the calendar year.  But still, why does it matter?  It matters because we select kids to a team in Alberta that doesn't presently accommodate for relevant age effect other than through subjective criteria.  I believe that this puts kids born later in the calendar year at a disadvantage for selection to these teams. 

We are at a point in our yearly planning cycle with our provincial sport organization where we take a look at what we are doing and what changes we need to make to advance competitive cross country skiing in our province.  I think its time we more explicitly address the unique developmental characteristics of adolescents in our sport.  Who gets selected to these teams matters.  Should we be supporting relevant age effect in our sport when everything current literature and sport research tells us is that it makes a difference what month of the year you are born in.  In cross country skiing in Alberta we still don't have tiered competition for children as they do in ice hockey in Canada.  So the relative age effect is I think less pronounced.  But it is still present.  Bigger adolescents usually win ski races.  On average, kids born in the beginning of the calendar year are bigger than kids born in the last quarter of the calendar year where age on Dec 31 is used to create competition groupings.  Not always, but usually.   Are the development training and coaching experiences made available through Alberta Development Team significant and meaningful in an adolescent's athlete development - I would hope so.  It is why I put forward the idea the idea that accommodating for relative age effect for team selection for adolescents in Alberta makes sense.

I have been enjoying the opportunity to convene conversations with coaches and colleagues from across Alberta about what changes, if any, need to happen to advance competitive cross country skiing in Alberta most effectively.  If you have some ideas that you'd like to share here or to continue the conversation in another way, please do. 

Its Canada Day today and what am I doing, thinking about skiing again.  :)
Roy
Canmore, AB

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Pardigm Shifts - why its so hard to chart a new course

Change can be difficult .  It can also be very exciting.  I've seen this alot in my work with a local school division.  Our province's education department is experimenting with a new process to redesign curriculum.  The government department has contracted out the work to several school divisions.  The intent is that the school divisions will inform the goverment on what is needed to prepare our students for a world that we can't yet imagine.  They 'll do this work by engaging teachers, administrators, parents, and the community in conversations about what good learning looks like, what is worth knowing, and thinking about how design of learning outcomes affects the quality of learning.  Its pretty exciting work - rather than a bunch of PhDs in Edmonton answering these questions and sending them out to teachers for comments and piloting, the government department is going to start with the ideas from practicing teachers about what really works well to advance student achievement.  I've had the great fortune of facilitating numerous conversations about these topics over the past few months.  You see, what Alberta Education is trying to do is create a paradigm shift in the way curriculum is redesigned - in essence to create a new prototype that can be replicated in the future.  They are attempting to capture best practice ideas from teachers  who know better than anyone what great learning looks like, what type of learning outcomes bring about engaging learning, and what is worth knowing.  Exciting stuff.

When is a good time for change? my response - anytime is good - when it grounded in best practice, aligned with current best practice literature, and includes the voices of athletes, coaches, parents, and communities.  In Alberta, the opportunity exists right now for this important work to happen.  For a majority of years in the past decade, Alberta has been a development hub for high performing cross country skiers.  For the past two or three years though, that development hotbed has shifted east to Quebec and more recently also Ontario.  No longer have Alberta athletes dominated world junior trials, national championships, and noram races.  What's going on here? what is that we need to do to support athletes and clubs in creating spaces where young athletes get inspired and develop fitness, skill, and confidence to be the best in the country.  Don't get me wrong, its not that Alberta isn't producing national champions anymore - Fact is, a good number of Alberta athletes won national championships this past winter.

There are several valid indicators though that the time is right for some renewal of the Alberta Team program.  Fewer Alberta juniors are applying to or being accepted at National Training Centres than what was typical even 3 years ago.  Fewer Alberta athletes are qualifying for World Junior Championships teams. There just seems to be fewer high performing Alberta athletes at Nationals than was typical not very long ago.  Is this a problem? maybe not.  Should we panic? definitely not.  Are these indicators that Alberta can be doing something differently? Ya maybe. But maybe not.  Fact is there are still some very strong clubs in Alberta producing disproportionate numbers of athletes who are 'in the game' at Nationals.  Is it time to do a critical reflection on what we're doing and what we might do to optimize the role of the Alberta Ski Team in supporting clubs and athletes in becoming their best - I'd say yes.  If we weren't willing to make changes then what is the alternative?

They are doing some interesting things in Quebec that might be helping to create a space there where sucess is nurtured.  They have an engaging provincial youth championships that gets kids hooked on racing. They provide opportunities to apply for funding to help get athletes to big competitions.  They focus on a broad range of ages in their provincial program - right up to U23. Athlough not part of the formal Quebec Ski Team program, national level athletes are recognized as being part of Team Quebec, and are welcome to attend provincial level training camps if it meets their needs.  What a cool possibility for a 16 year old, "hey, I might get to ski with Alex Harvey this weekend".

Lets face it, one of the most important raison d'etre for provincial teams is recognition.  How can we expand the impact of a valuable commodity like recognition and still have merit based team selection?  The fact is that the core of the work that helps athletes achieve success is done by athletes doing the work everyday with their club coaches.  The club coach designs the technical and physical training programs that gets athletes to high levels.  So maybe a important part of a provincial team is about building the capacity of club coaches.  But maybe a more important reality is that one of a provincial program's biggest impacts is the earned recognition.  How can we maximize this benefit?

What can we envision for a provincial ski team in Alberta?  How can we build on the incredible legacy of success in our province?  What, if anything, needs redesign?  I certainly have some ideas about these questions.  I am interested in hearing yours...

Roy Strum
Alberta Ski Team Director 2014-16


Friday, 20 June 2014

Working with Boys - ideas on getting it right...


Are there things about boys that we should consider to help them flourish? Are these things any different than what you might do to help girls flourish?  Are there ways of working with boys that optimize the engagement, the learning, the relationships? Can these things help boys commit to something in a deeper way? be more willing to work hard to achieve something challenging? 

Don't get me wrong, My work here isn't about diminishing the important needs of girls (I have two of my own daughters) and I'm not suggesting for a minute we need to segregate sexes in training sessions - at least as the norm.  But would there be value for girls and for boys to spend more time in same sex training groups as adolescents?  These are some questions I have been thinking and talking about for some time.  I think its our role as men to do the important work for boys that incredible female role models in our sport such as Chandra Crawford or Kikkan Randall have been doing for girls.  

It started for me because I am a father. When my son was about 12 I read a book that changed the way I looked at my role as a dad in his journey to manhood.  The book was The Wonder of Boys, by Michael Gurian from Washington state. Oh, I had always been a super engaged dad even up to then.  But the epiphany for me at that time was around realizing the important role that men (most importantly Dads, but also coaches, teachers. etc) play in helping boys grow into men who have purpose, passion, direction, and most important have a sense of the important role that men play in our world - as parents, as spouses, as coaches, as teachers, as community leaders.  This is important work.  

Yesterday evening something serendipitous happened.  I had a bit of free time and so wanted to tackle tidying a corner of the basement that was in disarray.  In doing so, I opened bins full of things that came from a different time in my family's life and consequently spent a couple of hours doing work that might have only taken 30 minutes.  I came across notes i had written to myself while reading Gurian's book.  I came across artifacts of relationship between my son and myself - from a time in his life when he was a toddler, a preschooler, a school boy, an early adolescent.  I'll admit, I was captivated by the reflection.

The timeliness of this reflection was profound for me - this year my son graduates from high school.  An honour student from the National Sport School, a national junior team biathlete, a descent human being with ambition, direction, passion, and a caring and fun being.  Finishing high school, I realized is one of only a few societal rights of passage for boys to transition to being an adult male in our world.  An important acknowledgement of accomplishment and effort.  Gurian points out well in his writing that sadly in our north american culture these cultural opportunities to transition boys from childhood to adulthood are few and far between.  And so, as men, as dads, as coaches, we need to provide this important input to boys lives in a deliberate and thoughtful way, if we wish to ground boys in becoming men who give to our world, who respect women, minorities, children, and community.

What things can we do as male coaches to support boys in growing into men who are strong, independent, caring, nurturing, responsible, and who have vision and passion for their dreams?  Some of the things I have tried to do over time are as follows:

- show my own son that men can have deep and meaningful friendships with other men - I have found that men need other men to talk to about things that they might not be able to talk to with anyone else.  Boys need to see that men respect and love women in their lives as well - cause this models for them how to be a partner in life.

- surround boys with positive male role models - It was extremely gratifying to pull together a couple of world snow day boys' events we called 'boyz got game' aimed at creating an experience where young male skiers could spend a day with national and provincial team role models.  Drew Goldsack, Sean Crooks, Phil Widmer were only a few of the Olympic athletes who helped with the intiative.

- provide boys with physical challenges - give them something they can feel proud of having accomplished.  Immerse them in healthy competition.  Model the separation of competition in the arena of play and friendship at all other times.

Supporting the needs of boys is important work.  Its work for everyone.  But I think its particularly the important work of men to think about helping our boys find purpose and passion in their lives.  For some boys this comes easily.  For many. many boys they need the helping relationship of a caring, compassionate, positive man to guide them as athletes and more importantly as adolescents growing into our next generation of men.  I know of many, many men who do this important work.

C'mon men - we can do this!

Roy Strum
Canmore, AB

Sunday, 15 June 2014

Reflections on Selection Criteria...


I'm at an interesting intersection and pretty grateful to be there - I was elected last week by the membership of cross country ski clubs from across Alberta to direct the Alberta Ski Team program - elected to think about not only what is important in a provincial ski team program but also reflecting on the criteria that determines who gets to participate.  It leads me to pondering about the bigger purpose of a provincial ski team program - because if you have a clear idea of why a ski team exists, that'll lead you pretty quickly to figuring out who should be there and what they should be doing.  There are no textbooks or reference guides for answering these kinds of questions - there are only ideas that come from experience. 

I've had great joy this past month reading a book written by Richard Taylor of Bethel, Maine.  Great joy because his ideas reflect his rich experience as an athlete, a parent, a coach, an administrator, and cheerleader for cross country skiing.  No where have I come across a coaching book that offers insight and opinion grounded in experience and best practice literature focused on cross country skiing quite like this one.  I bring up Dick's book here because in reflecting on my upcoming work of directing the Alberta Ski Team program for 2014-16, I am reminded that a common reaction to something not working is to do it again, only this time with renewed and augmented effort - if it doesn't work, do the same thing harder.

I'd like to avoid that pitfall in the work I am leading around rethinking the Alberta Ski Team.  The first question that comes to me is - is what we have been doing working? to answer that one, you have to start with what the purpose was for the program.  By all accounts, the actual program delivered by the Alberta World Cup Academy has been outstanding the last number of years.  My own children who have experienced the program as athletes, have raved about numerous aspects of the experience. 

Something I have witnessed over the past 10 years or so is the very high rate of athlete drop off at the end of high school.  By my observation, 80-90% all athletes who participated as high school age athletes on the Alberta Ski Team drop off the radar completely at the end of high school.  Considerable investment is made in these athletes by the provincial sport organization, and many other athletes never get access to the specialized coaching opportunities that come along with being named to a provincial ski team.  The big question is - are we reaching the right athletes in our current program?

The answer to the question of 'who' should be named to provincial teams is an important one.  Certainly, demonstrated ability and race results are crucial.  But is there some different way that we can imagine that creates stepping stones for developing athletes and provides the important recognition while honouring that ultimately cross country ski racing is about being the fastest.  Is there a way to think differently about what the Alberta Ski Team is and its role in supporting clubs and athletes in becoming successful in a more long term way.  If many of  the young athletes who receive the benefit of recognition and specialized coaching for 4 or 5 years on the Alberta Ski Team do not carry on to race in college or as U23 athletes, is it a worthwhile investment?  With limited funds, is there a way to broaden the reach of the program while maintaining its integrity so that the likelihood of athletes continuing on after high school is enhanced?  I'm not suggesting a throw the baby out with the bathwater approach, or scrapping the great work that has preceded my involvement.  I am saying it is time to think about why we have an Alberta Ski Team program, what learning and support is critical to advance athletic achievement, and who it is that these experiences should target. These are some good questions and ones that I will think more about.  If you're in my neck of the woods and want to have a coffee sometime, I am definitely interested. 


Roy Strum
Canmore, AB



Wednesday, 4 June 2014

The Grit:Success Ratio...teaching dogged determination

I'm a huge twitter user - as a space for professional learning, sharing, focused searches for desired content, or connecting with a network of folks who you get to choose - twitter has added a new dimension to learning for me.  If you are looking for new ideas about just about anything, twitter is the place to be.  Where a website is a place to share out ideas, and facebook is about seeing where your friends went on their holidays, twitter is the space where you can find articles, resources, videos, from a huge number of people all gently brought to your attention in one place.  If you are not connected to twitter yet, I would suggest you stop reading right now and sign up - you can follow me there at @RoyStrum
One of the videos I watched today from a twitter feed was 'The Key to Success: Grit' by Angela Lee Duckworth.  Success in life, she shares, is much more than just being able to learn quickly and easily.
Duckworth shares that success comes to those who have grit.  She describes grit as:
- passion and perseverance for very long term goals
- having stamina
- thinking about the future
- working really hard to make the future a reality
Grit, she shares, is living life like its a marathon not a sprint.  Grittier kids, she notes from her research, are significantly more likely to graduate from high school.  This is especially true for kids who are at risk of dropping out of school.
Asafa Powell is a Jamaican world champion sprinter. His story is a good one to look at when thinking about grit.
So if grit is so darned important, there must be volumes of research and shelves full of books about how to teach this skill to children.  The fact is, Duckworth shares, that it is shocking how very little we know about building grit.  Especially, in light of her research that shows that grit is often unrelated or inversely related to talent.  I will say that again, because it is a big idea  - grit is often unrelated or inversely related to talent.  The implications of this idea are huge and we've seen this in action alot.  It isnt always the young athlete who learns something easiest and quickest who ends up persevering in our sport.  Sadly, the reality is, that if you are an early developer or show lots of early talent, its almost your destiny to fade away by your mid teens.  I hear it all the time - 'oh just wait, those early developers will drop out by the time physical maturation or skill development levels out.
How do we do this - teach grit.  Duckworth says we need to be gritty about making kids gritty. What does that look like when coaching adolescent cross country skiers.  This is a good question and one you might have a number of own ideas about.  For me, its about providing a 'growth mindset' environment - one where Carol Dueck's ideas that when failure happens, people with a growth mindset see that the ability to learn is not fixed - when failure happens learning is possible. For me, its about framing and reinforcing effort.  Its about helping young people to set challenging goals for themselves, and too create a space where kids can see themselves achieving something important to them.  Grit is about not giving up.  Grit is about seeing setback or achievement as a stepping stone to the next set of goals.  Grit is a skill that is learnable.  Grit is something that can be modeled by coaches.  Grit is a key to success.  The challenge for us coaches is to be gritty in our role as teachers of grit.
Roy Strum
Canmore, AB


Monday, 26 May 2014

Building Capacity in Beginning Coaches


A few weeks ago some good fortune dropped on my lap.  Dick Taylor contacted me via this blog.  Dick was a national team coach in the US for a number of years, as well as a national team skier.  He sent me his book - No Pain, No Gain. 2002. Mechanic Street Press. Bethel. Maine.  I need to tell you, Dick's writing is brilliant, insightful, intelligent and reflects intellectual and practical wisdom that I have so rarely found coaches taking the time to share. This book needs to be a must read for any beginning coach because it provides a frame of reference that is a great jumping off point for those of us who love coaching adolescent cross country skiers.  What is truly remarkable to me is the relevancy of the content to our present context.  No where have I come across such an incredible resource as this one.  In addition, Dick has created a website http://www.nordictrainingsources.com/index.html  that aims to share out best practice and current knowledge.

I've set out as the purpose of this blog to create a space where beginning coaches can be stimulated with some ideas about the important pieces of coaching young skiers - who want to do the work of transitioning kids to a love of going fast on skis.  The piece I have found most beginning cross country ski coaches want to start with is the technical pieces - what are the priorities in technical skill development.  Helping kids learn to ski technically well is super important, but equally and maybe even more important is having a solid understanding of the physiological priorities of working with adolescent skiers.  Predating Sport Canada's Long Term Athlete Development Plan, which is still the focus of current best practice discussion, Taylor speaks to the important physiological windows of trainability that exist for adolescent cross country skiers and many of the challenges that exist for our young skiers when faced with the lure of school sports which are predominantly high activity-relief sports.  This insight is one that I haven't come across in the Canadian LTAD and yet represents key understandings that are just as relevant today as they were ten years ago.

You'll find me reflecting again on Taylor's writing,as it is rich in substance and process; linked to cultural lenses that affect how athlete development in cross country skiing has been actualized in North America.  I'll be honest, this is the sort of book that will change my practice - well written, not as a textbook or a summarized/bulletted coach training manual, but instead as a refreshing, insightful and richly deep and broad perspective of our uniquely North American context of athlete development in cross country skiing.  Thank you Dick for creating a resource that is engaging, useful, and discerning and which every coach should have in their professional library.

Roy Strum
Canmore, AB

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

The importance of knowing why you do the work you do



I'll admit, balancing career and family and community is a juggling act. Which ball I've chosen to keep in the air has fluctuated over time. Finding the courage to advance your experience and ambition in one area of life, has effects on the others.

I stand at an exciting time in my life. I realize my whole life has been an exciting adventure of choice and passion and actualization.  My choices today are the same as they've always been and are centred on answering the question of 'what next?

Mid life has an interesting way of encouraging you to look backwards and forwards at the same time helping you to recognize how passion has directed your choices along the way - every step along the way has been full of big choices - most often very easy to make. Learning, Love, Family, Friends, Success, Ambition, all have provided guideposts for my pathway. And so as I reflect on how I have gotten to where I am I know clearly what those guideposts have been.

Finding a woman I love and having children has been the singlemost important piece of work in my life. Like most parents, I want the very best for my kids, to give them the very best start in life, to provide them with as many diverse opportunities to grow as confident, intelligent, athletic, creative, caring, empathetic people who strive to be their best in their ambition and relationships. My children have been my biggest passion. Being a father has been and is my most important life work. I place it above all else. It is not the only important thing in my life, but it is the most important - without a doubt. I have been a very fortunate person to have had career choices that have let me fulfill my ambition to be a great dad. I'll be honest, climbing the corporate ladder has not been my biggest priority. Finding fulfilling work that is creative and enjoyable has been important to me and continues to be.

My passion has directed my life and will continue to. My next step is to become an instructional leader at a school. I am ready for a new challenge. Not going to stop doing much of what I am already doing, but ready to put on a new hat not because my present reality is in any way unfulfilling. I am ready to be an Assistant Principal because when I look at my toolkit, its shouts out to me, this is where you need to be. Supporting achievement has been my lifework. Mentoring and leading learning communities has been my passion. Whether as a teacher, a consultant, a coach, a camp director, my life work has been about improving the state of being for those I work with. It is why as I enter mid-life I reflect confidently on my choices - I have with no doubt in my mind made a huge difference in the lives of hundreds, maybe thousands of children - supporting their path towards personal growth and excellence. It is why I have no regrets. Like so many other teachers, principals, camp directors, coaches, I look back and say, wow, I have done some great work - work that is humble and yet glorious. A servant of others.

As I move ahead, I embrace the challenges that I know will come from putting myself again in a place of vulnerability, risk, and leadership. I know that my passion for doing the work of helping others be their best gives me much more than I offer. It is through giving that I have found the most satisification in my life.

Giving to my children - my love, my passion for physical activity, my time.

Giving to young people in schools, at camp, in sport - my guidance, my love of learning, my passion for excellence; my joy of life; my desire for positive, engaging experience.

Giving to my peers, those I am tasked to mentor, lead, and help grow - my incredible need for creating positive space; my willingness to support, to help, to recognize strengths in others, to build, to learn, to share.

Giving to my friends and loved ones - my unconditional positive regard; my yearning to build meaningful, substantial, and intimate relationships built on respect, compassion, and good humour.

So am i ready for the next steps in my journey - I sure am. I've always been ready.

Roy Strum
Canmore


Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Learning from a Master Coach - reflections on John Wooden

John Wooden is probably one of the best known coaches of all time.  UCLA men's basketball coach for 27 years.  Coach of numerous players who went on to be NBA superstars.  Orchestrated his team to become one of the most successful teams of all time in any sport.  Polite, respectful, humble and with a clear vision of what he wanted his players and his team to be.  There is alot we can learn from a man like John Wooden. What follows is his classic ted talks 'The Difference between Winning and Success'. 


John Wooden was a master coach.  In my mind, a master because of the higher order thinking he developed in his players, because he developed a higher purpose and mission of his work.  It wasnt just about winning championships - it was about helping young people be the best they could be.  Wooden believed that success is "the peace of mind attained only through self satisfaction of knowing that you did your best of which you knew you were capable".  He believed that "if you make the effort to do the best you could, the results will generally be what they should be - not necessarily what you want them to be, but what they should be".  Being the best you can be is all that is really under control.

Wooden's early life was in southern Indiana.  He grew up on a farm without electricity.  His Dad would tell him and his siblings 'don't whine, don't make excuses, get out there and do your best, to the best of your ability and no one can do more than that.'  He embodied in his work a message to his players that they should have faith that things will turn out as they should, provided that they do the work that they needed to do to make things a reality.  Wooden points out that often people in general don't do what they need to do to turn their potential into reality.  You need to do the work to reach your potential.  The message is the same whether you are coaching a team sport or an individual sport - be the best you can be.  In the ted talks above, Wooden shares a poem that captures this idea well.  A poem by an major league baseball umpire called 'the road ahead and the road behind'.  Here it is so you don't have to google it


Sometimes I think the fates must grin as we denounce them and insist,
The only reason we can’t win is the fates themselves have missed.
Yet, there lives on the ancient claim – we win or lose within ourselves,
The shining trophies on our shelves can never win tomorrow’s game.

So you and I know deeper down there is a chance to win the crown,
But when we fail to give our best, we simply haven’t met the test
Of giving all and saving none until the game is really won.
Of showing what is meant by grit, of fighting on when others quit,

Of playing through not letting up, it’s bearing down that wins the cup.
Of taking it and taking more until we gain the winning score,
Of dreaming there’s a goal ahead, of hoping when our dreams are dead,
Of praying when our hopes have fled. Yet, losing, not afraid to fall,

If bravely we have given all, for who can ask more of a man
than giving all, it seems to me, is not so far from – Victory.
And so the fates are seldom wrong, no matter how they twist and wind,

It’s you and I who make our fates, we open up or close the gates,
On the Road Ahead or the Road Behind.

George Moriarty

What can we learn from Wooden's example? Are there things we can learn from his work?  There sure is.  I love Wooden's Pyramid of Success.


What an awesome tool to focus your interactions with athletes.  If you've been coaching for awhile, you see the positive potential, and you are doing this work with your athletes - thinking about bigger outcomes that propel athletes to high levels of performance both in sport and life. 

As a coach of adolescent cross country skiers, my mind races ahead to next season, thinking about the things I might try, I might do differently, how I might reach the kids I work with to help them embrace their ambition in a learning environment that is rich with meaning and learning.  As I look ahead to the coming year, my heart and mind trembles with excitement at the possibilities, at the coach-athlete relationships that I want to create, at the bigger goals I'll aim for.  I love the work of coaching.  I love the work of teaching.  In his ted talks linked above, John Wooden talks of a teacher he had as a youth, and some thoughts that stuck with him as she responded to a question about why she teaches.

'They ask me why I teach, and I reply, it's where I go to find splendid company'

There is nothing like working with children.

Roy Strum
Canmore, AB

Sunday, 27 April 2014

Re-Envisioning Excellent...









Its  that time of year - a beginning of an other season.  As you look ahead its helpful to first take a look back, but not focus there too long, just long enough to recognize things that went well, and things that didn't go as well as planned,  Reflection is a key piece of meaningful learning.  It helps with metacognition - being able to know what you know. 

As you think about what you want you want to do this coming season, I encourage you to not set the bar too low.  The fact is that being an excellent coach has a lot more to do with the energy and enthusiasm you bring to your work, than your highest level of accomplishment as an athlete.  Don't set the bar too low for yourself.  Think about those areas that you felt less confident with last year and aim to tackle those first. 

This week I have been engaged with conversations with teachers about provincial curriculum redesign with the provincial education department.  Interesting, in that the discussions have not focused so much on content, but rather the conversations have focused on process.  Certainly 'what is worth knowing' is a part of that conversation.  But more importantly, being intentional and deliberate about how learning is framed, assessed, and made personal and meaningful has been at the core of teacher's discussions.

As coaches, its important to have similar conversations with other coaches.  Asking 'what is worth knowing' is the easy part of the conversation.  Talking about how to make that learning engaging, relevant, exciting, empowering, and meaningful is the tough part of the conversation.  Really, this is a bit easier with older athletes who have self selected to be a ski racer.  Being able to create engaging learning with 12-13 year olds takes a different skill set. Here are a few ideas that make my short list of important things to do:

- build relationship with kids - they should have a sense that you like them as individuals

- have a sense of humour - tease kids in a kind and caring way

- be excited about what you do - its way more fun when a coach isn't too serious

- surprise them - be prepared enough that what you offer isn't the same every practice

- help kids to reach beyond what they currently see as possible - help them dream a bit

- be positive - adolescents need way more 'you're doing this well' than 'work on this' - kids will be way more receptive to your input if they think you see them as competent and capable

- and above all, don't take yourself too seriously - the work that we do as coaches of adolescent cross country skiers is about helping kids to see what they are capable of while developing a love of being active and going fast on skis

So as you begin to look ahead to the coming ski season, I encourage you to find your edge.  The place where you want to improve.  If you're like me, its familiar work, and work that continues to bring great joy.

Roy

Friday, 18 April 2014

Expertise and Influence - the upside down reality of amateur sport


In cross country skiing in Canada, what is completely normal is to have the highest educated and most experienced coaches working with the athletes farthest away from the place where they might have the most impact.  Not trying to be a jerk here, but I've noticed over time that this is the reality.  On the other hand, when we look at sport research around windows of trainability, what jumps out is the fact that the period of time when coaches have the most impact on motor skill development and flexibility is in the pre peak height velocity time frame - usually in the range of ages 9-14.  

We know why this happens.  Parents are willing to pay for expert coaching when their children are in high school or beyond, but the same willingness to pay does not exist when it comes to paying for coaches who work with younger ages.  It doesn't happen this way in every club.  Some clubs in Alberta are able to earn upwards of $90K every 18 months from volunteering at a casino for two days.  This doesn't happen outside of the major cities in Alberta, but it does happen and it does create some real inequity in opportunity for younger kids to benefit from expert coaching at younger ages.  The clubs in Calgary and Edmonton are not blame for their good fortune, it is the way the provincial government has casino revenue organized.  But I do believe it makes a difference and puts clubs on uneven footing, especially smaller clubs from small towns dotted across the southern region of Alberta.

The bigger issue I think around coach expertise in working with pre peak height velocity athletes is that little opportunity is provided for many of these coaches to mentor with a seasoned experienced high level coach.  The learning happens for coaches of adolescents usually through some good hearted soul who is willing to share expertise.  The fact is that career coaches are few and far between in the ranks of those coaching adolescent cross country skiers. 

What can be done about this?  First, provincial sport organizations (PSO) should be working towards recognition initiatives for coaches of younger athletes - why is it that the only coaching work worthy of provincial recognition is that which happens with junior or U23 athletes?  Secondly, it might help if PSO's provided some more mentorship experiences for developing coaches - this has happened in the past, and it would be nice to see again - what an incredible experience it would be for a developing coach to tag along on a Team Alberta trip to Canada Winter Games.  Thirdly, experienced, lead coaches in clubs could be providing more opportunities to developing coaches to learn the work of advanced waxing, high level coaching - sadly it is the reality that in some clubs, these opportunities just aren't provided to those who coach younger athletes.  

Important work happens during the pre-adolescent and adolescent years as cross country ski racers.  The important work of transitioning kids from 'my parents signed me up for this' to 'i love this stuff'.  The important work of technical skill development during a window of time when kids' bodies are ready to learn and refine cross country ski motor skills.  

Outside of the big centers in Alberta, where almost all clubs do not have former world jr championships athletes coaching their adolescent athletes,  coaches of younger athletes need support, mentorship, training, recognition, feedback, and encouragement.  Whose job is this?  It is the job of the highly trained head coaches to do this.  I know this occurs in many places, but my feeling is it needs to happen more if we want to help young athletes become the next generation of national team stars.

Its snowing in Canmore today.  I'm grabbing my skis and heading out to the trail.

cheers
Roy Strum
Canmore, AB


Saturday, 12 April 2014

Professional Learning Networks for Coaches - do they exist?


I've been at this coaching thing a little while - mostly focused on developing adolescent age athletes.  Over the years I been coaching, I have sought out mentors and opportunities to learn.  I've learned lots from these folks and appreciate the many times when someone with more knowledge or experience has shared some insight, learning, or wisdom about what it means to be an excellent coach. My experience as a coach in general though is that coaching in cross country skiing is closed business.

What I mean is that most coaches keep their coaching wisdom pretty close to their chest.  Sharing of wisdom and knowledge, although fairly common within a ski club, is a pretty rare occurrence between clubs and sometimes within clubs.  If you come from a small club without someone with advanced knowledge or experience, good luck trying to learn from folks with advanced knowledge from other clubs.

My observations are that there is something very proprietary about coaching knowledge.  Although NCCP offers coach training in the form of workshops and certification levels, most of the important learning happens when you work with a master coach directly.   Just being able to work alongside a master coach allows some osmosis to occur, but significant learning can occur when that master coach is willing to share out ideas of best practice.   I know there are many master coaches who share out their knowledge freely and liberally.  My experience is though, that this sharing happens far less in coaching than it does in the world of teaching.

The reality of learning to be a better coach is in stark contrast to my experience of learning to be a better teacher.  In the formal education world of teaching, professional learning networks exist whose sole purpose is to share out best practice.  These are groups of educators who share out what they do and why they do it to advance learning.  Twitter has become the primary conduit for professional learning networks in teaching.  Pinterest is also used extensively.  Thousands of teachers have blogs where they share out their experiences, their learning, and the effects of their attempts at innovation with their students.  No where in cross country ski coaching does a parallel to this exist.  Why is this?  How much better could our young athletes develop if ideas were shared more freely between clubs and by experienced coaches?  Why doesn't this happen in our world of cross country ski coaching?  I don't want to come off as a cynic, but really, I think that there is this mentality in cross country skiing that parents pay for a specific coach's experience and that if other kids want to access that coach's expertise, then they should pay just the same as every other kid who wants that specific expertise.

Its time that we move beyond this approach.  Narrow self interest such as what seems to exist in cross country ski coaching in many communities doesn't exist in the same way in teaching.  Its sad really, because how much better could beginning and intermediate coaches become if they had access to professional learning networks where coaches openly shared their ideas.  How much better could our kids become as skiers and athletes if professional learning networks existed?  Its time for a shift in culture in the coaching community.  A culture that supports coaches in their professional development.  In teaching, every classroom is still unique, teachers still struggle with learning to become better at what they do, but in education world, teachers live in a culture where everyone's best ideas and leading practice is shared openly.

Its time for change.  Its time to change the culture of how cross country ski coaches share out knowledge and experience to advance a broader community of coaches.  Right now, there is very little evidence that professional learning networks exist in cross country skiing.  I'd like to know of some coaches who write blogs sharing out their best practice.  I'd like to follow coaches who share out their best practice with other coaches.  I'd like be part of chats on twitter with other coaches interested in sharing best practice.  Sure, some coaches have blogs - but most often the content of these blogs is more about the trips that these coaches take their athletes on than about the nuts and bolts of coaching.  Please , someone, point me to a group of coaches who do this work. I'd like to meet them and grow with them.

Roy Strum
Canmore, AB



Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Alternatives to Mass Start races for Adolescent Cross Country Skiers


OK - I'll admit, I am an advocate for change.  Not just any change, but change that increases the profile of ski racing for youth, and change that increases engagement of youth.  I've talked in previous blogposts about some of my thoughts about why our racing community does what it does when it comes to youth racing, and some of the positives, challenges, and downsides of our current youth racing reality.  What I haven't done much of is share out some ideas that we could use to enhance development and engagement of the youth we organize events for.

I never cease to stop learning from others.  This weekend I was in Red Deer, AB working with beginning coaches from central Alberta.  Its amazing really, when you work with a crowd like this, because most often they are a pretty open slate when it comes to thinking about what is possible.  Often, they have young children who they want to engage in a lifelong love affair with cross country skiing, being positive and active people, and they are not tied up in the advancement of their own children on a pathway to excellence, or engrained with a way of doing things - they simply want to create engaging experiences for their children with cross country skiing.  What is always remarkable to me is their openess to the value of competition regardless of their own personal history... if competition is done well.

So as a community lets throw off the shackles of historic conceptions of scaled down versions of adult format cross country ski competitions and replace it with something better - we need to be smart about what we do when we have a small pool of kids to draw from.  This past weekend, we had a creative and engaging discussion about how to create stimulating and rewarding competitive experiences for children.  Here are some the ideas that surfaced:

- rethink competition groupings - why not do something different than age on december 31 and two year age groups?

- individual time trials - why not do more interval start races with novice kids? - there is alot to be said about racing the clock.

- wave start races - why not group kids with similar ability kids and have them start together? this way kids could actually be in the race instead of left far off behind after the first 100m of the race.

- club events - every club should host a club race that is primarily intended for their own club kids.

- relays - why is it that there isn't a relay event for kids at every weekend event?  lets think about creative ways to emphasize the team instead of the individual as youth begin to see themselves as racers.

- skier cross - could you imagine an event where five kids start together and race to the bottom of a mostly downhill course?  hmmm...lots of fun built into that idea.

- single technique races - why don't we do more 'double pole' drag races? or uphill diagonal stride races? or two skate races on appropriate terrain?  why not isolate a skill and give kids more ways to identify with what it means to be a skilled cross country ski racer?  why do we have to jump to the adult model of what a ski race is?

- tiered competitions - they do this in hockey, why not in skiing?  the Built for Speed event series in southern Alberta has had great success with this idea this year - http://builtforspeedeventseries.blogspot.ca/

- team competitions - gymnastics does a great job of structuring a team event made up of a bunch of individual athletes each doing an event that they are good at.  what could this look like in cross country skiing?

Its time to redefine competition for children and youth involved with cross country ski racing.  Its time for race organizers to broaden their conception of what to do with children at a ski race.  Its time for provincial sport organizations to lead the way with encouraging and supporting this type of development - bravo to @xcountryab for leading the way with this work.

We are into our last couple of weeks of the competitive ski season here in Canmore.  I am super stoked for our 3rd Alberta Youth Cross Country Ski Championships being co-hosted by Canmore Nordic Ski Club and XC Bragg Creek Ski Club on April 4-6.  These are a couple of clubs who get it, who understand the importance of doing something a little different.  The real challenge of transforming ski racing for kids is that the folks who organize the events often have children who are well past the development age group - so its not on the radar of these folks - can't blame them, they're just organizing the event the way they know how.  The real challenge is that it takes some negotiating with the people in positions of power in ski clubs to advocate for doing something different for children.  

I believe most clubs support great ideas to expand youth engagement.  I encourage you to be that agent of change in your ski club.  This is a conversation I love to have.  Follow me on twitter @RoyStrum and we'll exchange contact info to see how we can collaborate on increasing engagement of youth in cross country ski racing.

cheers
Roy Strum
Canmore, AB