Monday, 5 February 2018

Coaching and the Knowledge Building Inquiry Cycle

Helen Timperley is a education researcher from New Zealand.  Her book, Realizing the Power of Professional Learning (2011) focuses on a model she created called the Knowledge Building Inquiry Cycle (KBIC).  This model guides instructional design and assessment for teachers to optimize student learning.  Although this model is designed for teachers and school administrators to improve education achievement, it is my belief that it applies equally to all learning environments.  If your goal as a youth cross country ski coach is to optimize learning, then this model has got something to offer.

The KBIC begins with identifying what knowledge and skills that you want your kids to learn.  Ideally these learning goals are individualized because every learner- youth learning to ski - is at a different place in their skill development. 

The second step in the model is to identify the gap that exists where are your kids are and where you would like them to be.  Once you identify the gap in skill and understanding for each child, then you can figure out what do you need to learn to bring this about.

The next step in the model is to identify what you need to learn as a coach so that your young athletes can learn what they need to.  This includes content knowledge, instructional design ideas, assessment/feedback, and having a sense of what the low hanging fruit when it comes to where we should put our efforts as coaches/teachers.  The low hanging fruit really is referring to where will you get the most bang for your buck when it comes to choices around how you design instruction.   Education researchers such as John Hattie, Visible Learning (2010) have identified influences on achievement such as peer instruction, feedback, teacher-student relationship as having significant effects on improving achievement.  Understanding what it is that you need to learn to improve your coaching is an important part of helping young skiers to improve their skill.

Once you've identified what the gap in learning is, and what you need to learn, and have learned it, then you give kids an learning experience.  This is followed by assessing how successful you were in bringing about the desired change in learning and growth of your young athletes.  And then the process starts again.

This isn't an extremely complex model, and makes intuitive sense.  But it is how you effectively bring about learning.  Learning isn't just the responsibility of the kids you are working with.  Great coaches own the learning that their athletes make by constantly identifying where kids are at in their learning, what the gap is between where kids are at and where you want them to be, taking time to learn how to be more effective, designing effective learning, and assessing where kids are at.

One of the big struggles for many youth coaches is not having access to mentorship.  Being able to watch someone else coach, or having someone watch you and provide feedback are rare opportunities for most youth coaches.  Often the reality is we are left to our own devices with very limited feedback or input from someone more experienced.  It is this reality over my 20+ years of youth ski coaching that led me to first initiating this coaching blog.

Let me know what your questions are - I'd be happy to have a conversation.

Happy Winter!

Roy Strum
Canmore, AB

Monday, 13 March 2017

Making Learning Inviting and Engaging

I've been reading lots lately about how to make learning engaging for children and youth.  Over the years that I have been a coach, a summer camp director, a teacher, and a school administrator, I often thought of the key to engagement being enthusiasm.  But as I've read more and reflected more on the topic, I've realized there is more at play to creating inviting and engaging learning for youth.  I've recently been reading John Hattie's Visible Learning in Mathematics (2017).  Hattie is an educational researcher from New Zealand who has conducted meta-analysis research of meta-analysis studies aiming to discern what influences on learning result in the largest gains in achievement.   For me, because of my background as a coach and athlete in cross country skiing, I often find myself building relational knowledge with the reading I do - so instead of Hattie's book simply being a 'how can I improve math achievement, for me, the learning is also about 'how do these ideas relate to creating inviting and engaging ski instructional experiences for children and youth.

Referenced in Hattie's writing is a researcher, William Purkey, wrote an article in 1992 called 'An Introductional to Invitational Theory' published in the Journal of Invitational Theory and Practice.  Purkey states that there are four patterns with which learners perceive the lessons:  intentionally disinviting, intentionally disinviting, unintentionally inviting, and intentionally inviting.  He writes that Teachers (Coaches) who were intentionally disinviting were easily recognizable because of their dismissive and harsh tone.  Coaches who were unintentially disinviting were negative and pessimistic about their students/athletes capabilities - the low expectations were evident to the children they were teaching.  They might sound like 'today we are going to learn one skate, this is really hard, and many of you will struggle with this, so you will have to pay close attention'.  Unintentionally disinviting coaches (teachers) are in essence telling their kids that they will not be successful in the lesson.

Another group of coaches (teachers) are those that are enthusiastic and energetic, but lack a clear plan for the journey of learning.  Children/youth like being with these coaches, but don't benefit as fully as they could because instruction is inconsistent and naive.  This type of coach might sound like 'Good morning future ski champions, today we are going to learn more about offset, and I can not wait to get started'. The instruction is unintentionally inviting because although the focus is on getting the kids excited, what the coach (teacher) says doesnt talk about the kids will learn or why it is important.

The last group of coaches (teachers) consists of those were consistently positive and are sensitive to the needs of the children/youth they are working with.  They take action and promote a growth mindset. Mostly they have an ability to create a sense of instructional urgency.  They share out learning intentions and success criteria and set a tone of achievement with their kids.  These 'intentionally inviting' coaches (teachers) might sound like 'Good morning athletes, you may recall that week we worked on having an upright posture as we offset.  Today we are going to add to that by responding to the terrain by either becoming more upright or less upright depending on the steepness of the hill we are climbing'.  Hattie says that learning intentions are more than just statements to convey what is important about what is to be learned, they also a means for building relationship with each athlete.

A great deal can be learned from educators about how to optimize learning, especially with children and youth.  Its great to reflect on your own coaching and on the type of messaging you give your athletes and to what degree your comments or framing make learning inviting and engaging.  We only get the kids we work with for a short while, lets make the most of it by thinking about how we go about the work

Roy Strum
Canmore, AB

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Educational Research and Coaching - any connections worth noting?

My world has changed alot over the last year and a half.  One of the biggest shifts has been moving into an administration position at an elementary school.  It has been a full on transformation in time and focus.  I'm loving it, and yet I miss the day to day immersion in the world of ski coaching.  Nonetheless, I reflect often as I learn and grow in my new role as an Assistant Principal on how so much of what drives good teaching and learning also relates deeply to what is effective in working with children in cross country ski youth development.

My Director is a brilliant woman who thinks about, talks about, reads about, writes about improvement in student achievement.  She has introduced us to a researcher out of New Zealand, Helen Timperley, who has researched and written extensively on improving student achievement.  Her book, Realizing the Power of Professional Learning has become the major piece of professional literature driving improvement in learning and academic success.  She has created a model she calls the Knowledge Building Inquiry Cycle that describes both what teachers ( and I think it applies equally to coaches) need to do bring about the largest impact on learning possible.

Timperley says that as coaches (teachers) we need to start with having a clear idea of what the intended learning outcomes are.  The next part of her model is identifying the gap between what children know and what we want them to know.  Next, Timperley's model asks what do we need to know as coaches (teachers) to close the gap.  This is followed by designing some instruction that addresses that gap and doing some assessment to measure the impact of the instruction.

Not rocket science - and yet one thing I have come to know over time is that the more you know about something, the more realize that you don't know.

The reality is that most coaches and teachers enter into coaching or teaching using the methodology that is most familiar to them.  This often means coaching or teaching that replicates a coach's own experience as a child or youth.  The problem with this is that I don't think it is really possible to fully replicate another adult's methodology; we bring too much of ourselves to the creative work of designing instruction and assessing the impact.  So when we replicate someone else's way of doing things, we end of often missing  some of the key parts that made it so effective.  In addition, if all we do is replicate what has been done before, we miss out on the possibility of taking advantage of what has been learned by others through best practice research or experience.

As a coach, I was lucky to have attended lots of workshops and conferences where I had the chance to listen to someone speak and have conversations with others.  My experience was often that the learning was often shallow and not very impactful on my own coaching practice.  So we end up in a loop of doing things that is mostly informed by our own experience as children or youth.

This is why a model like Timperley's Knowledge Building Inquiry Cycle is so valuable.  It gives us an important starting point and recognizes that we don't always have the answer or the expertise to close the gap that is present in the learning of one or a group of children that we are working with.

- start with what you want kids to learn
- identify the gap that exists between where you want kids to be and where they currently are
- learn what you need to do to close this gap
- design some instruction aimed at closing the gap
- assess the impact of your instruction
- move on to the next learning objective

The key piece for me is taking the time to learn what is most impactful to bring about a change.

Where do we access that kind of expert knowledge in our sport?

I'm interested to hear where you access expert knowledge...  Please respond here so we can share out the learning.


Roy Strum
Canmore, AB

Monday, 1 August 2016

Ability Groupings in Youth Sport Instruction - what does research tell us?

Research tells us that grouping learners into ability groupings does not lead to significantly improved achievement. Let me say that again - putting developing skiers into ability groupings does not significantly improve their rate of learning.  I know that this sounds radical - putting the better skiers with other similar ability skiers is supposed to be good for them isn't it, or putting more novice skiers with other novice ability skiers is supposed to help them isnt it?

John Hattie is an educational researcher from New Zealand, and his Visible Learning research included over 900 meta-analysis studies looking at the impact of various influences on learning.  Ability groupings is one such influence.  It is commonly understood that ability groupings are an effective strategy to improve achievement.  Research tells us something different though.  Hattie's research tells us that ability groupings have an r value of 0.12.  This tells us that there is some positive benefit to this intervention, however it is small relative to dozens of other interventions that we could use to raise the level of achievement of kids as they learn to ski.

Here is why ability groupings don't work:

- ability groupings disrupt the learning community - learners feel some identification with the learning community as a whole
- ability groupings socially ostracize some learneres - kids learn 'I'm in the slow group' and this effects their level of achievement
- ability groupings compromise social skills - all of the sudden kids don't get to socialize with others leading to mini-groups of 'I'm fast' or I'm slow' groups
- ability groupings effect on minority learners is even more pronounced - if you're the only non-norwegian child in the group, and you don't get to be with the others, it has a more pronounced effect because of the already present barriers that may exist.

As coaches of children and youth, we need to be guided by what best practice research tells is best to help kids learn.

Have a great August!

Roy Strum
Canmore, AB

Friday, 25 March 2016

Alberta Youth Cross Country Ski Championships - Revisited....

What makes a great event for kids? This is a question we have been tackling for the past number of years in Bragg Creek, AB.  Our ski club, XC Bragg Creek, founded in 2009, sits directly halfway between two of the largest and most successful ski clubs in Canada - Canmore Nordic and Foothills Nordic.  2016 was our fifth year of hosting the Alberta Youth Cross Country Ski Championships - and we have this feeling that it just keeps getting better and better.

There are a number of things that make this a great event for children. 

Firstly, there are no events for older teens, juniors, seniors, or masters athletes.  The whole focus is on 10-14 year olds. 

Secondly we've built in a few key features that kids really like.  We hand medals to 10th place in each single year category.  That adds up to 160 medals for individual race events that are handed out over the weekend.  The magic of this is that more kids are battling for medal positions.  So why not hand one out to everyone?  The fact that you have to finish in the top 10 of your group means something to kids.  Its earned recognition, and kids know that.  Add to that the Alberta Youth Champs are the only provincial event that does this and you've got something good going on.

Thirdly, we throw in more than one event per day.  We run a relay on the Saturday in addition to an individual race.  Kids dig this.  Teams are encouraged to wear costumes.  Kids love this as well.  Plus we have official, unofficial, and coach's categories for the relay.  Kids love seeing their coaches participating in a race.

Fourthly, we have a banquet on the Saturday night with the biggest award show in the world.  Medal presentations, Spirit awards, draw prizes, and a dance for kids only.  Coaches and chaperones are invited to attend a wine and cheese social event to encourage club coaches from across the province and beyond to get to know each other socially.  We also have a guest athlete speaker.  Over the years we have had the likes of Olympic Silver medalist cyclist and world jr ski championships medalist Tara Whitten to share their story of how they went from being a kid growing  up in Alberta to one of the best in their sport in the country and beyond.  This year we had @matt_strum share his story.  Matt is a former provincial team skier and current national jr team and national jr champion biathlete share his story of growing up in Bragg Creek, how he dealt with numerous years of finishing near the back of the pack as a late developing athlete to coming into his own. 

Fifthly,  we all stay at a summer camp facility where kids stay in bunkrooms with their team mates and coaches, chaperones, and eat meals in the same dining hall with all of the other kids from around the province.  This provides a unique chance to build friendships with kids from other places and enjoy a camp experience.  This idea came from the Noram Midget Champs in Joliette, QC. 

Six, we use a ski venue that isn't the regular race venue for kids.  West Bragg Trails are at 1400m and were designed as potential race trails for the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics.

Seven, the event has grown into the largest provincial event for this age group in Alberta.  Plus its the provincial championships event for 10-14 year olds.  We have been lucky to attract clubs from all over Alberta as well as Saskatchewan, NWT, BC, and Ontario to the event.  This has built some anticipation for young skiers who can't wait to be old enough to attend.

Eight, AYC is a big deal for @xcbraggcreek ski club.  This is our club's big event.  It has grown the club.  This is a town where hardly any parents had ever seen a ski race before and now host this big and important event.  Events build clubs, and XC Bragg Creek Ski Club is a testament to how this can happen.

If you're wondering how to build momentum in your small town ski club, I'd say, GO BIG! host a big event, do it every year.  It has been working for us.

Every year we get feedback from coaches, parents, and kids about Alberta Youth Cross Country Ski Championships.   Have yourself a great end to winter!

Roy Strum
Canmore, AB

"Hi Roy:  I wanted to follow up to the great weekend down in Bragg Creek –once again it was fantastic!  Our kids love the course, the accommodations at Kamp Kiwanis and staying with the other athletes, the awards etc. etc..  2 years we have attended and it is our favourite event of the year.  It was especially compelling for my daughter and she now says that her primary focus will be Nordic skiing. 
Thanks to the Bragg Creek team for all of your hard work.
Warmest regards,
Stephen Spencer, Coach, St Albert Nordic Ski Club"

Monday, 29 February 2016

Coaching - deliberate action to help adults get results from young athletes

The other day I had a chance to listen to the new CEO of Cross Country Canada, Pierre Lafontaine, speak about his vision for cross country skiing in Canada. It got me thinking about the profound need for capacity building of coaches in our country.  I reflected after his talk on the important perspective that someone new to a sport culture can bring to shifting the focus to something different. I thought about the importance of working within a shifted paradigm.

I'd like us to think about our role as coaches in helping other coaches get results from young athletes. If there is one truth about coaching in Canada it is that not many people own the expertise that comes from apprenticing under an experienced, knowledgeable coach.  What we have are workshops that are structured well, but become a point in time 'fill up the empty vessel' reference.  These workshops are competency based, meaning that coaches need to be able to demonstrate their understanding or skill in the various learning outcomes.  This is lived through evaluation by an experienced NCCP facilitator of the skill or understanding of the outcomes.

Evaluation of skill, practice, and understanding are important.  But really what is missing is the apprenticeship that comes in any profession.  As adults, we need to be given the sustained opportunity to work alongside a mentor - a seasoned coach - someone who we can watch and have regular conversations with about what we did, whether it had the intended outcome or not, and what we can do to make improvements in our practice as coaches.  I firmly believe that in coaching, we need these opportunities to grow and learn.  Without apprenticeship, we work in the silo of our own coaching practice and the only feedback or growth we experience comes from casual conversations between coaches.

Changing processes for how we train, mentor, and help coaches may be a radical idea.  I seem to be full of them at times, and the pressure to maintain the status quo is huge, particularly when 'expert' doesn't really mean very much.

So I put out there a radical idea, that the money we spend as a sport in Canada on coach training be thought about differently so that richer learning can take place for coaches - both volunteer and professional.  In my other world, that of K-12 schooling, we have professional learning communities (PLCs).  When PLCs are done really well, they provide opportunities for people to seek out others who they think they can learn something from, and they engage in rich conversation about what didn't work.  Expertise exists in the cross country ski coaching community in Canada.  It is just so siloed, even within clubs, that the general level of coaching remains far below what it could be.

Radical idea - maybe.  Rebel with a cause (to improve the level of coaching by challenging the status quo) - maybe. Nice guy - always.  Open to conversation - always.  Have all the answers - definitely not.

We are moving into the home stretch of our ski season.  In Alberta, for 10-14 year olds that means attending the Alberta Youth Cross Country Ski Championships in Bragg Creek.

Enjoy the rest of your winter.  Consider coming to our event in Bragg Creek.  I think you'd like it.

Roy Strum

Friday, 15 January 2016

Financial Elitism in Youth Sport

At what point does expense become a barrier to participation in youth sports? I have been tackling this one for a number of years.  The idea that more money has a cause effect relationship on athletic performance is an idea worth talking about.  In Alberta, our provincial ski team fees have been way above most other provinces over the past number of years, with a program organized and delivered by our national training centre in Canmore.  Despite this, Alberta as a jurisdiction has had a downward trend in provincial rankings over the past 6 years; #1 in 2010, #4 in 2015.  Alberta was once the powerhouse in Canada in terms of producing high performing athletes, dominating world junior championships teams for a good number of years.  Times change.

This notion that paying higher fees leads to improved performance is in many ways false.  Unless you are independently wealthy or are in the top 10% of income earners, paying higher fees is not a great thing in a number of important ways:
- it forces families to opt out earlier than they might, because parents need to get 2nd and 3rd  jobs in order to afford the travel, coaching fees, wax fees, club fees, team fees, equipment expenses, etc.
- it causes stress many average income families - should you have to choose between healthy meals and sending your child to Ottawa for Easterns?
- it creates a culture of excess where teams of waxers expenses are covered along with coaches, etc. Why is it that parents can't be doing this important jobs who might be travelling there anyway.
- it creates a barrier for anyone not working with a greater than average income.

It is a reality that at a certain point participating in competitive skiing becomes out of reach for average income families.  But why do clubs and provincial sport organizations need to operate in a way that makes it extremely difficult for the average family to stay involved.

I've just started a new job as an Assistant Principal at an elementary school.  Its work I love.  Before I got the position I had planned to start a new ski club in Canmore that targeted lower income families because for these families, even though they live in a town where world cup and national level events are held regularly, cross country skiing is completely out of reach.  My plan was to work with the local catholic school and reach out to all of their new Canadian students many of whose parents work in the service sector in our tourist town for minimum wage. I hope once I am settled into my role I can pick that work up again, because there are tons of kids who will never get the chance to ski because the costs is completely out of reach.  There are some grants available - kidsport, jumpstart - but after 10 years old, these grants don't begin to cover a small portion of the actual expense of participating in cross country skiing.

Its all about elitism.  What role does financial elitism play in the current reality of performance levels of Alberta athletes at nationals?  You see it all the time, people shaking their heads wondering why kids are dropping out at 13 or 14.  Or you hear the justification of high expenses in statements like 'attrition is normal'.

Attrition isn't normal.  Attrition is a signal that things aren't going well.  As coaches we need to be asking ourselves, what responsibility do we have to create a program that is accessible for 90% of the club, instead of just for the 10% of top income earning families.  Financial elitism is having a negative effect on participation in cross country skiing.  Not for the financial elite, but for average income earning families.

What can we do?  Well, in my role as Alberta Ski Team Director, I have been advocating for $0 fees for participation in the program for the 2016-17 competition year.  The idea is to create a program that uses just the funding that we get from the provincial government, which although is being reduced by 25% for the 2016-17 year due to a recession in our provincial economy, is still a substantial amount of money targeted at athlete development by our provincial government.  Participating in the Alberta Ski Team should be a benefit not a burden to the average family.  It may be that we have to charge families something, but the goal is to reduce fees by over 80%.

My perspective is shaped by the fact that my own children have won national, western, and eastern Canadian and provincial championships.  I will be travelling to Romania next week to cheer on my son, @matt_strum who is competing in his third world junior biathlon championships.  I have a real sense of what it takes to make these things happen for your children, and I do this on an educator's salary, which is not substantial, and has required me to have 3 or 4 employers over a year just to make it all happen.  I have done this as many parents do - help your children live their passion and dreams.  But it is not easy, and I would say most average income families, would not be willing to do all the work it takes to pay for it all - i believe this contributes to high attrition starting at 13 or 14 and especially in high school.  Finding ways to make participating more accessible is important.

Is cross country skiing just for the financial elite? I'd say NO. Are there different ways of organizing sport to promote high level skill development and performance that don't require huge pay out of expenses for families?  I say YES.

I'm excited about my trip to Romania.  I will staying in a guest house adjacent to Dracula's Castle in Bran, Romania. Look for pictures of the Canadian team on my twitter feed @RoyStrum

Enjoy January


Thursday, 31 December 2015

What can Coaches do when Kids don't Show up at Practice?

I have been coaching for a number of years and I've noticed over time that many coaches do little to nothing in response to kids not showing up to practice.  I scratch my head about this one, because if coaches don't care enough to call up kids and say 'what's going on? how come you weren't at practice today?' then who is going to say that.  Despite that, my experience is that almost all coaches don't reach out to kids who are not attending practice.

You have to understand, my other life is as an Assistant Principal at an elementary school.  In that setting, when a child doesn't show up, they get a phone call.  If it happens again, they get another phone call.  And if it happens enough, a meeting is arranged to bring together parent, child, and teacher to talk about strategies to get the child to school.  This type of follow up from the teacher or the school does a few very important things.  It says school is important, and its important to be at school.  Its so important that we (teacher and school) will work with you (parent and child) to find out what is going on, and to support the development of some strategies to get to school that deal with the issues that are standing in the way of the child getting to school.  Schools are in the business of student achievement.  Aren't ski clubs in the business of athletic achievement?

If children and youth are not at practice, they are not doing what they need to to achieve.  If ski clubs are really in the business (volunteer or otherwise) of helping children to learn to be great performers of skiing ability, then they need to take the job seriously and call up kids when they dont show up.  This action by the coach sends the message to the youth or child, that he/she is important, and that its important to show up.

There is so much constant chatter about attrition in competitive skiing in Alberta and probably elsewhere.  People shrugging their shoulders and saying 'thats what happens, kids drop out'.  From my perspective this is an unacceptable response to the real problem of kids dropping out of skiing.

Studies (Hattie, Visible Learning) show that the relationship between and teacher and students is one of the most significant influences on achievement.  I think is equally as relevant in youth cross country skiing.  If a coach doesn't bother to contact kids who don't show up, the message that gets sent is 'you're not important to me'.

Kids need to be important to coaches.  Every kid needs to be important, not just the one whose parent makes big financial donations, or not just the child who wins all the races.  But every single child.  Every single child deserves a coach that says through his or her actions and words 'you are important to me, it is important that you are at practice'.

I encourage to reflect on your own responses as a coach to the children who don't show up regularly.

We are having a stellar winter in Canmore.  I hope you are too.

Roy Strum
Canmore, AB

Monday, 21 December 2015

Rethinking the Role of Coach in Youth Cross Country Skiing

If you've followed my blog, you'll see that this is a topic I've touched on in various ways over the past couple of years.  It resurfaces because of the recursion I deliberately embrace in my growth and learning as a youth cross country ski coach.  Recursion is an interesting word.  It refers to a type of reflection that is purposeful in looking at what you know in relation to what you thought you knew.  Its recursion that allows us to replace faulty knowledge or process with improved practice and thinking.

So what have I learned that has shed light on what I thought was true prior to my experiences?  Lots.  I've realized that coaches in youth sport have the most important job at any point along the athlete pipeline.  Despite this, clubs, provincial sport organizations, national sport organizations assign most of their resources to services for athletes 16 years of age and older.  Is it a problem? you decide.  In Canada, our Long Term Athlete Development model, in place for over a decade, would say that the most critical time for motor and physical development interventions happens in the 7-14 year old age group.  Why is this age group the most important in developing athletic potential? Because it is at this time when several important windows of opportunity are open for motor skill development, coordination, aerobic capacity development, flexibility.  How many times have you heard a high level stating how important the work is of youth coaching? And yet, how rare it is to see the sharing of expertise with coaches of younger athletes by those with the highest level of expertise.

I think as a sport, we need a fundamental mind shift in the way we look at the value we place on coaching of children in cross country skiing.  There are many reasons why coaching of children has lower value placed on it - these coaches are often volunteers, or parents, or sometimes, tragically just bodies to supervise and make sure no one gets hurt.  High quality sport instruction, as a private entrepreneurial enterprise, operates within the age groups where parents are willing to pay whatever it takes to help their child learn and grow.  Most parents of 10 year olds aren't willing to pay the true cost of hiring a person with expertise in helping children learn to ski according to age appropriate.  And really, I would challenge the idea that simply because one is a national team coach, that they also possess the same level of knowledge and experience to optomize the learning for a 7 or 12 year old.  Not that they can't learn how to be a great coach of children, but being a university professor of astrophysics, does not predispose that same person for being successful in a kindergarten classroom.  There are very different things going on in the minds and bodies of children than of high school age kids and senior age athletes

So, what is the answer? The answer is in rethinking the role of coaches, the social constructs of our sport communities that separate coaches and discourage the sharing of knowledge and experience with each other.  My experience is, that there is very little mentoring, sharing, capacity building work that happens between clubs in the same town, the same region, the same province, or country or sometimes even withing the same club.  Its a dog eat dog world in cross country skiing in some places in Canada.  For those people who are willing to pay the big fees, there is access to expertise - but if you can't pay those fees, your kids aren't accessing that expertise.  And there is very little to no sharing that happens between clubs.  This is particularly pronounced in Alberta, where there are three or four large clubs with professional coaches, where kids pay alot of money to participate, and there are 95% of the other clubs who have moms or dads instructing their kids, doing their best, but without the expertise and training that professional coaches have. I think this is one of the reasons why Alberta has gone had decreasing performances at National Championships over the past 6 years. Whose responsibility is it in our free market world to give equal access to everyone regardless of ability to pay? no one's really.  But can we be generous for the good of our sport? Can we share expertise with others without it threatening our livelihoods as professional coaches?  Can boards of directors of clubs paying these professional coaches see the value in generosity as well?  maybe, probably not.

In Alberta, we have a real problem where clubs outside the big 4 struggle to compete with athletes from the larger clubs.  It has nothing to do with geography of where these clubs are, but it does have something to do with the kind of sport culture that exists between clubs where knowledge and expertise is often tightly guarded by those who possess it from those who don't have it.

What we need is a more collegial sport culture where less experienced coaches can shadow coaches who have things cooking.  The benefit of this type of culture would be more kids could learn to ski well, more kids could find success in their efforts, more kids could aspire to being the best skier in the world, or at least enjoy the incredible benefits that come from working hard at something.

Merry Christmas

Roy Strum
Canmore, AB

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Becoming a Better Youth Cross Country Ski Racing Coach

So, you're interested in becoming a better youth cross country ski coach...How do you improve your coaching? How do you measure the improvement? How do you know when you its time to seek some guidance? How do you find a mentor? Why do you coach? Why is it worth it to do a great job?

Here are some ideas to ponder.  Most coaches can identify someone who they think does a great job of coaching youth.  The fact is, coaches will seek out the people who they think they can learn something from.  We might call these experienced coaches who you want to emulate, master coaches because they have achieved a level of mastery in the work that they do.  Often these master coaches have worked diligently at their craft, thinking carefully, planning deliberately in a cycle of planning, instruction, assessment of the impact of their coaching and adjustment to accommodate deficiencies.  These folks have something valuable to offer - they offer not only physical skill, or the fun learning environment, they also offer ideas around structuring instruction and building in feedback loops that help kids to see where they are at with a skill, where they are going with that skill, what it will look like when they get there, and how they will know that they have arrived at skill proficiency.

I have found over time that conversation around the structure of learning environments and the sequence  of instruction is not a common discussion in the coaching circles.  What is common, is a sharing of games and activities to make it fun, or a skill progression of a technical skill.  How to structure learning so that learning intentions and success criteria of your teaching are clear is the realm of a master coach.  How to provide feedback that is timely, relevant, personalized that provides evidence of their present position in relation to the goal, and guidance on the way to close the gap between the two is the realm of the master coach.

A common misconception is that younger athletes don't require expert coaching.  Anyone can coach kids.  The problem with this construct is that science would show that the biggest window of trainability for motor skill development happens during childhood and early adolescence, not when skiers are on the national team.  This is much the same as in school, where the literacy and numeracy work done in the early years has a profound effect on what learning can take place later. If kids are not reading by the time they are in grade 2, remedial action is required.  Schools do not put the least qualified and experienced teachers with the early years of formal education.  These early years are incredibly important in schooling - if kids don't know how to read, they will not succeed.

We need to adopt the same approach in cross country ski coaching. Higher value needs to be placed on developing younger athletes.  The big hurdle is of course, that we don't pay coaches the way that society in Canada compensates teachers.  Given this reality, how can we do it?  How can we elevate the level of coaching practice in the years when quality instruction makes the biggest difference?

I think there are answers to these questions.  I have alluded to some here.  But I'm not going to give you the answers.  Telling people what they need to do only allows to throw their hands up and say 'that approach doesn't work for me'.  Letting people struggle, encouraging the struggle, asking the right questions, these are things we can do to support others.

There is a huge need to talk about how we can elevate the coaching practice of youth cross country ski coaches.  This is a conversation I enjoy having.  Adding rigour, creating intellectual engagement, building in assessment/feedback, thoughtfully designing learning tasks, developing adaptive expertise, fostering a growth mindset, integrating educational knowledge into coaching practice, finding ways to challenge kids, and doing so in an environment that is safe and caring are all things I do intentionally when i work with young skiers.

So, if you want to make a difference in the lives of kids, if you're interested in really hooking kids on cross country skiing, then we need to do something more than play a few games on skis, or do skill drills.  So, seek out a mentor, someone who you think does a great job of coaching.  Ask them if they will work with you, watch you, give you some feedback, give you some ideas about some directions you might go with your work.  Seek them out.  That is how we learn.  By finding someone who can support us on our path to being a great coach!

It is winter in Canmore.  50cm in the past 24 hours.  65km of trails open.  I feel like the luckiest guy on earth.


Roy Strum
Canmore, AB

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Improving Instruction in Coaching Adolescent Cross Country Skiers

As coaches of adolescent cross country skiers, we've got busy lives.  Who really has time to identify and review best practice literature about instructional design and assessment in sport.  I recently came across some material from a UK based educational researcher, Dylan Wiliams, whose video ties together some nice ideas to reflect on about how we can be more effective in how we deliver feedback to the young athletes that we work with.

Dylan Wiliams on Formative Assessment

Wiliams has five big ideas about formative assessment that are relevant in every way the work we do advancing skill acquisition of our athletes.

Clarifying, Sharing, and Understanding Learning Intentions and Success Criteria

To improve learning for athletes we work with, we need to make sure that the learning intention is explicit. 'Today we are working on our flexing at our hips to 45 degrees when we one skate'.  Learning is enhanced as well when we make the success criteria clear.  'Start in a tall position, with our hands in front of our face...'

Pretty simple thing to do, but very important if we want to help learning take place more quickly.

Engineering effective discussions, activities, and learning 

Asking questions is a good way to gauge how much your athletes are understanding what it is you are teaching.  Coaches often listen for the correct answer, rather than listening to what it is that athletes do understand.  By listening, we can get an idea of what understandings are still missing and focusing our instruction on those things rather than moving on to new understandings.

Providing Feedback that moves Learning Forward

Wiliams writes that feedback needs to create thinking to be effective.  'Good job' or 'way to go' do not stimulate thinking that moves learning forward. As coaches, we can be reviewing the success criteria, showing the athlete the video clip of them performing the skill and asking them to identify which part of the skill they still need work on.

Activating Learners as Owners of their Learning

This idea is about creating a shared responsibility for learning.  Wiliams shares an example of giving students a red card and a green card where red means 'I don't understand' and green means ' I do understand'.  in a ski coaching environment this might look like putting some green tape around one pole and red tape around another pole, then when checking for understanding asking athletes to hold up the appropriately coloured ski pole as to their own level of understanding.

Having athletes do a self assessment is another method of creating ownership.  If success criteria are clear, students can self assess or peer assess their level of skill acquisition and understanding.

Activate learners as Instructional Resources for One Another

When learning intentions and success criteria are clear, and athletes have a clear picture of the intended learning, they are very capable of giving each other feedback as to their performance relative to the success criteria.  This is particularly possible when an exemplar of performance is provided for students via a video clip.

Improving our abilities as coaches is important.  We can learn much from the educational world, where researchers do extensive investigation in improving instructional design and assessment.

I am thrilled to announce I will be coaching this year with @xcbraggcreek ski club.  I have taken a year off of coaching to reflect on where I have come from and where I want  to go next.  I am glad to land in Bragg Creek where I will work with former national team and Univ of New Mexico athlete, Flora Giesbrecht.

Happy September!


Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Integrating Technology in Coaching Adolescent Cross Country Skiers

Integrating technology is a great idea to reach kids.  Today's kids are tech saavy.  Learning somehow seems more engaging when you're looking at a screen.  Traditionalists would say, no, what I have been doing has been working, so why change.  The fact is that there are some useful tools that you can, that you probably are already using, but are worth mentioning here.  Here are a few I have accessed with my coaching work.

Image result for ubersense image
Ubsersense -

available free on itunes - this app is great for video work of skiers especially when downloaded onto a tablet. The app allows you to record, play back in various speeds, split the screen to compare two files.  All of this with great tutorial support, online blogs, and youtube instructional videos.

Highly recommended.

Image result for coach's eye
Coach's Eye -

the free version of coach's eye doesnt include as many bells and whistles and as much storage space as Ubersense, but has many of the same features.  The last version I used doesnt include a drawing tool that ubersense has, which is quite useful for focusing on a specific piece of technique.


Image result for dartfish
\Dartfish -

I havent used this one alot, and is one of the original video analysis software programs.  Last i checked there was no free version.  I first saw this one 10 years ago when a national team coach shared his work with athletes with a group of coaches.  Many clubs purchased the software.  Not sure really how esay this one is to use, as the last version i saw, you downloaded your video to the software and then used the analysis tools.

Here is a video comparing Coach's eye and Ubersense

Summer is drawing to a close in part of the world.  In fact we had snow above 1800m a couple of days ago and -2C

Enjoy the rest of your summer

Roy Strum
Canmore, AB

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

A Note for Parents of Adolescents - The Importance of Sitting on the Park Bench

I've been busy reading a book this last few weeks by Toronto School Psychologist, Alex Russell, called Drop the Worry Ball.  Its been a great read and one that has got me thinking about the crucial role of parents in the development of lifelong passion for being an athlete.  Adolescence is a key period of growth for children.  Kids seeking increased autonomy over their life often leads to a showdown between parents and kids that youth always wins.  How can we best support adolescents in their need for ownership and autonomy and continued involvement in sport?  How can we best help our own adolescents and those that we work with as coaches grow in independent self motivated adults?

Alex Russell says that the most important job of a parent is to help your child become an adult, emotionally separate from parents, and who have their own relationship with the world.  What stands in opposition to this happening is a change in parenting culture in North America - the bubble wrapping and sterilizing of children that never lets kids fail.  Its becoming more common in our culture to just hand out participation awards for kids instead of letting kids develop the resiliency that comes from not winning.  Competition has become a bad word, everything needs to be cooperative to protect the fragile self concepts of young people.

According to Russell, and I agree, for much of childhood, kids live in an appease and please world.  Motivated primarily by doing what they need to to gain the positive favour of the adults in their lives.  At adolescence, just as during the 'terrible twos', children seek more autonomy and independence.  And its crucial that if we want kids to own what they do, we need to, particularly as parents, increasingly give adolescents the responsibility for everything outside of home, including sport.

As parents, we need to be willing to give up the roles of organizer, manager, director, and teacher; and we need to be willing to give these to our adolescent children.  Russell, talks about 'letting go' to describe the role of parents.  That's not to say that as parents we don't have an important role to fill.  Russell talks about this role as 'sitting on the bench'.  As parents we need to be able to sit on the bench and lets kids play, celebrate their successes, and empathize with their setbacks.  We need to avoid getting up off the bench and interfering with a child's world outside the home.  This was much more common a generation ago.

A couple of days ago I caught up with an enduring lifelong friend of mine. Lana, lives in London, England and she was visiting her parents in Calgary.  We got talking about this topic and she shared a story that exemplifies Alex Russell's 'sitting on the park bench' parenting.  When Lana was in Junior High School, her mom had to get to work by 8am, Lana, like most 14 year olds had trouble getting up in the morning and was consistently late for school.  Her mom would wake her up several times in the morning, and needed to get to work, so would leave Lana to her own decision making.  Lana was late alot.  Eventually, her school called home to say 'Lana is late all the time for school, what are you going to do about it?'  Lana's mom said 'nothing, what are you going to do about it?'  Nowadays, this would be considered extremely questionable parenting, but it is exactly the type of type of parenting that Alex Russell says in needed to help adolescents be responsible for their choices.

To build an adult, or create conditions where adolescents choose to be an athlete is about 'sitting on the park bench' as parents.  We need to ensure there is not catastrophic failure, but we need to let kids fail.  When adolescents fail, and parents respond with interested and empathetic responses  like 'that's too bad, can i make you some soup?' instead of 'I am going to talk to your teacher or coach about accommodating your special needs', adolescents develop some independence and start being receiving feedback from adults in their life, who are not their parents, about their conduct and choices.  Russell says this is crucial to helping kids engage in their world.  In Lana's example, it worked, eventually after enough detentions, she started getting herself up and to school on time, but not before it got worse.  A generation ago, parents didnt helicopter or hover, or snowplow a path to remove all hardship from their kids' lives. They let the important adults in their child's life give them feedback to help them get on track.  Adolescents need this.

When kids are little and they have a tumble at the playground and scratch their knee, parents instinctively say 'its just a little scratch, you'll be ok' - its the sort of message that says 'you can handle this, its not a big deal, you're going to be ok'  But during adolescents, alot of parent forget that that is the same message kids need - instead of bubble wrapping kids or plowing a path through obstacles or sanitizing every interaction - we need to take a chill pill, and sit on the park and watch our children succeed or fail, and cheer or say 'oh that's gotta be tough'.  But it doesn't stop there either.

If you're a coach of adolescent cross country skiers or any sport, Alex Russell, speaks to the importance of your role in giving kids the carrot and the stick (metaphorical of course).  Coaches need to be willing to say to kids 'if you want to get better, you need to show up', 'i expect you to be here', or 'i'd like to see you work harder'.  If we want to transition adolescents from the 'appease and please' world of childhood to the owning the work of being an athlete, we need to be able to not only give kids some positive strokes, but deliver the hard messages that kids need to hear from important adults in their lives.  This is not just the responsibility of parents - coaches - if we kids to own being an athlete, we have to see ourselves as important enough adults in their lives that we can deliver both the positive and negative message that will help them to becoming an adult who stays engaged in sport because its what they want, not because its what somebody else wants them to do.

Alex Russell also says that as parents we need to deliver the message to important adults of our adolescent children, 'I trust you that you will make the best decisions for my child; I give you authority to give my child the kind of feedback they need to get on them on track and to help them become an adult who owns their own passion'

Alex Russell has a number of youtube videos that are a great place to start.  This is an exceptional book, and as a parent and coach of adolescents it has gotten me thinking about my own practice as a coach and my important role as a dad.  Here is link to one of Alex's videos

Hey its Canada Day today - we are lucky to live in one of the best countries in the world.

Enjoy your day

Canmore, AB

Monday, 25 May 2015

Feedback Done Well - an answer as to why some clubs outperform others...

I enjoy learning about ways I can be a better coach, teacher, parent, and friend.  This year, I've picked up John Hattie's Visible Learning for Teachers @visiblelearning .  Hattie is a researcher from New Zealand who pulled together a meta analysis of meta analysis studies of teaching and learning influences and their effect on achievement.  Its ground breaking work, and creates an evidence based picture of the best bang for you buck in terms of things we do as coaches/educators.  His research resulted in an effect size for over 150 influences on achievement, things like, class size, student-teacher relationship, peer feedback, self assessment and teacher feedback.  What his research tells us is that some things are more important than others when it comes to things we do as coaches/teachers and their effect on how effectively students learn.

Feedback from a coach/teacher is in the top ten of the ranking of the most significant influences on student/athlete learning.  Here is a short video of some things to consider when giving feedback to learners:

For feedback to be effective coaches/teachers must have a good understanding of where the learners are and where they are meant to be.  You will find lots of technically brilliant coaches in communities all over, but perhaps the ability to give effective feedback is one of the key determinants of what we recognize as 'development hotbeds'.  Maybe hotbeds exist partly because the coaches there know how to give effective feedback.  Its one of the most important things we can do as coaches/teachers.

It starts with learners having a clear picture of the intended learning outcome and what the success criteria are.  For example, 'today we are working on double poling - success looks like this...' , 'give it a try...'.  Setting up learning for success is only one of the variables that help kids learn.  When they have a clear picture of what they are supposed to learn, they are much more likely to achieve it.  Creating clear learning intentions is key.  Without that, any feedback you give learners is done so in a vacuum - there is no context for feedback if it is all reactive.

Hattie identifies four types of feedback:
- task feedback -  this is feedback on a technical skill - 'here is our arm position at the initiation of a pole plant in a double pole; your arms are there, I want them here"
- process feedback - this is feedback on a strategy to help learn - 'when you learn to one skate, try to count to three while you balance on one foot'
- self regulation feedback - this is feedback to get a learner to reflect on how they've learned - 'how do you know if you are there...'
- self feedback - this is feedback about ability or effort - 'you are working really hard, keep it up, you'll get it...'

As coaches/teachers we need to understand clearly where we want our learners to go, and we need to be able to scaffold the learning so that they see the steps to get there.  This is done through - setting clear learning intentions and success criteria - then providing feedback to learners to help them master the skill.  For feedback to be effective, the learning task also needs to be challenging.  In the context of sport skill acquisition, this is pretty easy to facilitate - being a skilled skier is a challenging task.  Where is the learning going?...

As coaches/teachers we should aim for giving some progress feedback relative to the starting a finishing points - this feedback is the most crucial to learning and is offered in relation to a standard of performance, to prior performance or to success or failure in performing the task. It might look like, 'hey, your hand height looks at the right place at the initation of your pole plant, now i want to see them closer together...'.  According to Hattie, feedback needs to be rapid and constant and should address things like:
- clarifying and sharing the learning intentions and success criteria - e.g. 'hey kids, i'm looking for lots of ankle bend at the initation of your pole plant'
- engineering effective discussions, questions and learning tasks
- being the type of feedback that moves learning forward
- encouring learners to see themselves as the owners of their learning - e.g. ' you can figure this out, think about it, try it and let me know what you think...'
- activating learners as instructional resources for one another - e.g. 'hey, Karly does this really well, have her explain it to you...'

As coaches/teachers we need to   create a picture of what the next step looks like - and for each learner this will be somewhat different depending on their rate of skill acquisition.  We can also foster deeper understanding of skills by providing opportunities to look at a skill in a different way, or explaining it using different language e.g. talk 'propulsive force' and 'drag force' when talking about technique.

Feedback is an important part of motor learning.  Education research can help us to be better at thinking about what we say, how we say it, and how we reinforce it.  Some coaches/teachers are extremely skilled in doing this work.  This is something we can all learn to get better at.

Happy May!

Roy Strum

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Really, are we still talking about Early Specialization in Youth Sport?

Its a constant issue, how much, how early, what type, why?  Not sure what its like in your part of the world, but here in Alberta, its a topic of conversation.  Here is a sample of some of the current interest in this topic:



Newspaper articles:

What is abundantly clear is this is an issue that has not gone away.  At the recent Alberta Sport Leadership conference I attended at session led by Joe Baker from York University.  He is a researcher who has done lots of work in this area.   Web: Twitter @bakerjyorku  At Joe's session, he provided some research based evidence that although the power law of practice states that there is a positive relationship between practice and performance, the best athletes competing as seniors are almost always the ones who had a diversified sport experience until after the adolescent growth spurt.

The four parameters you can look to to see if you're creating an early specialization environment as a coach are the following:

1. early start age in sport
2. early involvement in one sport exclusively
3. early involvement in high intensity training
4. early involvement in competitive sport

When you read the article from the Edmonton Journal about a 9 year old dropping out of spring league in ice hockey, you begin to see that in some sports this really does happen, and to the negative effect of young athletes.  Its easy to pick on a big sport like ice hockey in Canada.  More kids play organized ice hockey in Calgary than live in three of the five biggest cities in Alberta.  Hockey Canada is trying to get the message out that early specialization is not a good thing, but it is a struggle to chart a new course in a sport where early specialization has become mainstream.

Is it an issue in cross country skiing? Sure, in some places, and some communities, I am certain that parents are told, more is better.  And really it works.  13 year olds who ski 500+ hours a year are going to be pretty fit.  The question is: is it the right thing to do to have a 13 year old doing more hours in a year than some 16 year olds.  No matter how keen a young athlete is, or what their early capacity is for training, you've got to ask yourself as a coach - is it the right thing to do? is it in the best interest of the long term development of young athletes.

Winning is fun.  Losing isnt.  Doing too much too early can produce winning results.  But statistics are not on the side of early specialization athletes.

It is refreshing attending a professional conference.  In Alberta our sport leadership conference brings together coaches from all sports once a year to learn from and interact with leading researchers and experts.

Have a great May!

Roy Strum
Canmore, AB

Thursday, 16 April 2015

Blocked vs Random Practice - Application to Cross Country Skiing

As coaches we are all extremely intent on helping athletes improve their technique.  Its easy to burrow down into the minutia of technical instruction - bend your elbow more, have more ankle flex, start in a tall position...  This is important stuff, but its not the only thing that will help athletes improve. 

I recently watched a video from Its worth watching. 

As with any of these sorts of resources, the big question is how does it apply to cross country skiing?  The examples in the video are mostly game based territory sports - volleyball, football, basketball.  Trainugly explains block practice as a practice where repeated skill drills are performed from one position, or using the same variables over and over.  e.g. driving golf balls at a driving range - the skill is repeated over and over in the same starting place and on the same terrain.  Random practice is described as practice that incorporates a variety of skill applications. e.g. shooting drills in basketball that incorporate lots of movement around the key with other players involved.

The big idea is that a static blocked practice type skill drill doesnt incorporate two other important dimensions of skilful play - those are reading a situation, planning to deal with it, and then executing the skill. The big idea is that random practice of a skill better incorporates thet skills needed in a game or competition.  Driving a golf ball is different on every hole and is different if there is wind or rain.  So the big question, what is the value of driving balls on a driving range.

Research supports the notion that random practice leads to higher skill retention than blocked practice.  This is because it better resembles actual game play.

So what are we doing in cross country skiing?  are using mostly blocked practice or random practice? and does it really apply to our sport?  The answer is a clear yes - random practice of a skill does apply to cross country ski skill development. 

In cross country skiing are your diagonal stride drills done mostly without poles on a flat teaching grid? or do you practice striding on flats, slight inclines, moderate climbs and steeper climbs? As a coach, do you set up your skill learning focusing only on the technical pieces? or do you incorporate some element that is related to how the skill will be performed in a race?  it doesnt mean you need to do it all at race pace, but surely there are lots of ways to simulate race conditions outside of intensity workouts.

Do you work on transitions of technique and terrain? this would be random practice.  Performing a one skate on flat terrain or simply on the same hill over and over is the same thing as shooting 50 free throws from the foul line in basketball practice.  Research shows that skill retention is alot less than in a random practice scenario.  Perhaps the reason that it takes so long for kids to learn a skill and perform it well in a race is that the skill is always only block practiced.

Additionally, as trainugly points out in the video, technique is only 1/3 of the skill necessary in any game or sport.  The other thirds are reading the situation and planning to respond to the situation.  Perhaps this is another reason why some ski clubs tend to have higher level performers - because the coaches do more than teach technique. They also help athletes to develop the skills of reading the situation in a race by creating practice situations that develop this skill.  trainugly would say that these coaches also provide opportunities for athletes to develop the skills of planning a response to either terrain change, other athletes, or conditions.

Cross country skiing is what is considered an open skill sport, much the same as volleyball or basketball and very different from swimming or gymnastics.  Great performers know to vary the skill they use in response to terrain and other athletes.  How are we as coaches helping our athletes to develop these skills?  Research shows that random practice far outperforms blocked practice in skill retention.  So we have to ask ourselves, if we are blocked practice coaches, why are still doing it?

have a great spring day!

Roy Strum
Canmore, AB

twitter - @roystrum