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

Friday, 21 March 2014

Simple Things...like Friendship


The longer I travel my journey through life, the more I realize that the things that are really important to me are relationships.  Its friendships that add value and richness to life.  As children we find these friendships often very easily.  As I have transitioned through various stages of my life, I have found that authentic, deep and richly meaningful friendships are much harder to find.  I'm not really sure why this is - life does get busy with career, with events, with cleaning the house, and maintaining equipment - all important things to tend.  I think its why often your spouse becomes your best friend - because you share all of the important life events with them.

Often, parents go through their mid life caring for, supporting, and cheerleading for their children.  For me, it really is the most important job I have found - helping my children become independent, confident, and successful in their ambitions and relationships.  This week, its been a particularly hard week as a parent as two of my children are 3.5 time zones away both accomplishing amazing things and I'm not there to celebrate their success with them.  So I'll take a minute to brag about them.  My son, Matt, won four silver medals at biathlon nationals in New Brunswick last week and had a top 20 finish at cross country nationals in Newfoundland on Tuesday.  My daughter, Molly-Jane, won the sprint event at cross country nationals on Wednesday of this week and a top 10 finish on Tuesday.  Incredible really.  I'm proud of their success, but more than that, I am proud that they are becoming independent, confident, and ambitious young people who are learning to create their own support network separate from their parents.  

Friendship really is at the core of my work with adolescent cross country skiers.  Creating a space where kids can develop meaningful and deep friendships with others.  Oh sure, I want them to learn to ski really well, and have incredible fitness, and I think based on the race results of the kids I coach they are developing those attributes.  But its relationships that really drive my priorities both in my coaching work, in my day job, and in my personal life.  Its why when you come across someone who you really connect with you on many levels, you grab ahold and hold on tight.  

I know lots of people who I have very positive relationships with; but its just a few of them I would say where there is deeper reciprocation and validation of core being - someone who likes you just because.  For me, its the human relationships that add value to the work I do and to my life. Because, for me, when you get to the end, it doesn't matter how many medals you've won, how many championships you've attended, how much of anything you have.  What matters is caring, positive relationships, and knowing that your efforts have made a positive difference in the people around you.   

This year, I am hoping to move into an administration position at a school.  I know which school I really want to be at.  Its a school that works with kids who are high performing athletes.  I want to make a difference in the lives of kids.  I know where I want to do that work.  I love my coaching work.  I'll continue with that as well.

This weekend I am off to Red Deer, Alberta to facilitate a coaching workshop for the Parkland Ski Club.  This is incredibly important work - to break down this idea that to be a good coach, you have to have skied in the Olympics. What rubbish that idea is.  For me, what is truly important in coaching are a few things.  Here is my list of priorities:

- technical proficiency

- physical fitness

- positive relationships

Not a big list but if you asked me what I've learned from my years of coaching children and adolescents, that's what I'd tell you.

Happy Springtime!

Roy Strum
Canmore, AB

Friday, 14 March 2014

Building Confident Adolescent Ski Racers...

I love my work as a cross country ski coach of adolescents.  Its a critical age for kids.  A time in their life where they start making lots of choices for themselves.  Working with early teens is an art - how do create a space where kids flourish?  I don't pretend to have all of the answers, or to have an all seeing eye that captures best practice across the landscape.  What I do have is a keen interest in creating engaging learning for kids.  This interest gets me reading and talking with others about what works best.
 
Recently, I have been reading a book by Tom Schimmer of Penticton, BC.  One of Tom's big ideas is that confidence matters - that there is nothing more important to learners than confidence - that confidence is the foundation for all success.  Let's think about that for a moment.  Think about the confident kids in your group - are they the ones having success?  What about the others?  what level of confidence do the kids have who are not on the podium regularly?  Something is going on and as coaches of adolescents, who are early in their self conceptualization of being an athlete, we need to ask ourselves, what are we doing to create environments where confidence is fostered, nurtured, and developed, not just by the early developing kids who are on the podium alot, but in everyone? Will we get there by goal setting? realistic goal setting? pats on the back? personal reflections? Come on folks - what are we doing to nurture, grow, and sustain young people who are confident as learners and who can see that there is a direct line between effort, perseverance, and success.
 
 
As coaches, we get to decide on the sequence and focus of instruction; we get to decide the sequence, type, and volume of physical training.  But it is individual athletes who decide when learning occurs.  That is an important idea so I'll say it again - it is individual athletes who decide when learning occurs.  As coaches, we can put it out there, offer it, and hope that kids pick it up.  Ulitmately, we all know, its kids who decide whether they'll pick it up or not.   Schimmer points out in his writing that often learners base their decision to learn on their own past record of success and failure.  Big idea here - success reinforces confidence and the desire to learn - lack of success inhibits the growth of confidence and the desire to learn.
 
 
What I try to stay away from is creating learning situations that create either arrogance or despair.  Arrogance leads to unfounded optimism - a sense of entitlement where success is expected for all the wrong reasons.  Its a hard one to teach kids, not to be arrogant, but maybe sheds some light on the high drop out rates of early developers in cross country skiers.  Despair leads to a feeling of hopelessness - a sense that their no point in trying.  Maybe there is a connection here - maybe its that late entry kids, or late developing kids drop out of competitive ski programs as teens because they get the sense that they will never be able to catch up.  Confidence, on the other hand, leads to young athletes expecting to succeed - maybe not every time, but it does mean that they believe they can learn to be a great skier.
 
 
The key that Schimmer points out is that it is learners who decide whether they are capable enough to succeed and learn.  If learners believe they can learn and that success will be the eventual result of effort, then they will actively engage in learning.  Its about the confidence.  Confident kids learn more, learn more quickly, and stick with their learning - they keep trying when others might give up.
 
 
So if confidence is really important what should be doing to create environments where confidence is nurtured, grown, reinforced, and sustained?   Great coaches of adolescents do this.  They create conditions that allow kids to maximize their success.  Here are some of my ideas of how I reach for this:
 
 
- aim to see every child as equally able to learn and succeed.  I don't use a crystal ball to foresee who will be successful at 25 year olds.  Economic situation of parents aside, every kid is just as likely to be the next world champion
- don't use race results as the primary informer of learning - when kids get regular feedback about their improvement that is not connected to race results, race results don't become the measuring stick of learning
- let kids and their parents know you think they have lots of potential
- make sure you let kids know what they are doing well and not just what they need to work on
 
 
Every parents wants their child to be confident and successful at what they do.  As coaches, we need to make sure we're thinking about creating spaces where confidence thrives. 
 
 
Roy Strum
Canmore, AB
Ten Things That Matter From Assessment to Grading, Tom Schimmer, Pearson Publishers, Toronto 2014


Friday, 7 March 2014

The Ability-Effort Conundrum - why we lose so many talented young skiers...

the role of coaches in engaging adolescents
 

If you've been around awhile you'll have seen the pattern happen many times.  Adolescents who have early success and then disappear.  It's easy as coaches to shrug your shoulders and say 'obviously this sport isn't their passion, their interest...'   I say booo on that idea.  If there is one thing that grounds my coaching work it is that coaches are pivotal in the developing conceptualization of self of a young athlete. 

An important question to ask as a club is - what is the acceptable level of achievement each year that we set for ourselves.  Is the assumption that any level of achievement is the target?  Researchers who focus on teaching and learning (Hattie, 2009) point out that there is appreciable variability in coach (teacher) effectiveness.  Also, that there are few things that a coach (teacher) can do that will have a negative effect on achievement.  He points out that simply by having kids interact about content with their teacher and other students will result in some learning.  A big question in coaching adolescent cross country skiers is - how do we measure achievement? Is it ok to assume that any achievement is better than none?  I would suggest that in skiing hotbeds (clubs whose kids dominate at races), where kids are performing well, their expectations about level of achievement are not 'any improvement is better than none'.

As coaches, this is important to consider.  Are we great coaches when we have a child who wins races?  Is that the measure of achievement?  Hold on, because if that's the case, let me make sure I get all of the early developing kids in my group - because at 12-14 years old, ability/achievement has a positive correlation with physical maturity - I don't have a study that backs this up, but you and I know as experienced coaches that this is the case.  Sadly, the pattern goes on to show that many or almost all of these early developers are not on the scene once growth and development of peers catches up to them.  Surely, we need to start asking ourselves as coaches of these children, what can we do differently to ensure this doesn't happen at the current frequency.  Sadly it seems, most coaches shrug their shoulders and say 'I tried my best with these kids'. 

So I put it out there to you - what can you be doing differently to create engaging learning situations for adolescents?  how can you structure your coaching environments to focus on achievement that is something other than standing on the podium.  There are some incredible things we can be doing - I'd like to suggest a few here.

An important question to ask yourself is - are their kids in your group who don't progress because you have low expectations of them.  It is very easy to give attention to high achievers.  What are you doing to give the message to kids that you believe they are capable of learning and achieving?

Another important question to ask yourself is - is your focus on 'ability' or on 'effort'.  When we create challenging learning environments, where kids are challenged to master complex skills, is effortful engagement with task the expectation?  How is it that some coaches can create effortful engagement, while others create less engagement?  A child I know who was an early developer and a technically proficient skier at a young age, reported after a provincial development team training camp that her coaches didn't offer her one bit of constructive feedback or ideas on how to improve. Granted, with kids who already perform at a high technical and physical level, its a bit harder to provide them with ideas on improvement.  To do so as a coach, requires a high level of content knowledge as well on process knowledge to offer strategies that engage those early developers.  Maybe as coaches we need to take a bit more responsibility for engaging early developers to ensure they remain engaged after their early development effects are less pronounced.  I personally know coaches who do this.

A big challenge in the coaching world of adolescent cross country skiers is that there just aren't that many people around who do the work professionally, who have the time to engage in reading, collaborating, thinking about, designing, and delivering learning experiences that optimize engagement for every kid they coach.  If you've been following my blog recently, you'll know I've been captivated by an author, John Hattie, an educational researcher from New Zealand.  I'm lucky to have a day job in an instructional leadership position with a local school division where I have time to read and share best practice.

One of the most important and statistically significant findings from Hattie's research is that one of the most powerful indicators of successful educators is passion.  Passionate coaches are those who engage kids in learning and achievement in a pronounced and profound way.  When kids sense that their coach loves what they do, kids get excited. 

So get excited about what you're doing.  Show and share some passion for our sport.  It may be the most important thing that you do when you spend time with adolescents.  Be passionate!  Love what you do! Show kids through your joy of being on skis that it is one of the most worthwhile endeavours and choices that they can make in their lives.  Your passion will increase engagement and achievement.  You don't need to be a former world champion to be passionate.  You don't need to have skied on the national team to be passionate.  Great coaches are passionate.  Kids can pick out the coaches they really want work with.  Aim to be one of those coaches.

Enjoy the homestretch of ski season.

Roy Strum
Coach of fun and incredible adolescent cross country skiers
Canmore, AB



Friday, 28 February 2014

Ideas about Feedback when Coaching Adolescent Cross Country Skiers

focusing on the important stuff...
 

Pick up any undergraduate textbook on motor learning, and you'll find a couple of chapters on feedback.  Its important stuff when you're learning and refining a motor skill.  Important because its how our brains work - when we first learn to walk, falling down and getting back up provides great feedback to refine balance - with enough practice and some hand holding from mom and dad, we learn to balance on our legs.  Feedback is important information provided by an agent (coach, peer) about aspects of one's performance or understanding. 

If you've been following my blog, you'll know I've been reading John Hattie's Visible Learning lately.  Hattie points out that there are four different types of feedback. 

1. feedback about the task or product of work - e.g. a description of how an athlete is performing a task
2. feedback about the process used to create the product/task - e.g. hey, you worked through that skill progression really well - you did this, then you did this, then you did this...
3. feedback focused on self regulation - e.g. hey, you did a good job listening to the description of what i wanted you to do
4. feedback that is personal in nature - e.g. hey, you're a great skier

Of these four types of feedback the least effective has been shown to be feedback that is simply personal in nature.  This is because when feedback draws attention to the self, learners can sometimes try to avoid risks involved with tackling challenging tasks - they tend to minimize their effort, and have a high fear of failure in order to minimize the risk to self.  This is important when working with novice skiers.  Giving them feedback that draws attention to themselves as a person can lead them to taking less risk in their learning.  Ideally, learning focuses on the task and then to the processes necessary to learn the task and then on to more challenging goals.  With learners at the acquisition stage it is better for coaches to provide elaborations than to provide feedback on poorly understood concepts.  Simply stated - when you're working with kids who arent at a refinement stage of learning a skill, you should focus more on giving elaborations of the skill than on telling them what detail of their skill is incorrect.  It comes back to the old adage of telling kids what you want them to do and not what you don't want them to do.

So much of what we do in working with children has a starting place with working with older athletes.  With older teens, or young adults we think nothing of error detection and correction.  With younger kids though Hattie's research would show us that focusing on the errors doesn't necessarily provide the most powerful learning, but instead Hattie points out a number of other important feedback priorities. 

Feedback needs to:

- prompt active information processing - e.g. how does what I am telling you as a coach fit into what you already know and help you close the gap on getting to where you want to go

- have low task complexity - e.g. - feedback should focus on one task alone rather than on for example six components of a skill

- relate to specific and clear goals - e.g. - cutting out wasteful movement

- provide little threat to the person at the self level - e.g. feedback should describe the task rather than the person

Hattie goes on to state "a feedback intervention provided for a familiar task that contains cues for learning, attracts attention to feedback standard discrepencies at the task level and is void of cues that direct attention to self is likely to yield impressive gains in achievement".  Big idea  - to optimize learning from feedback, give kids a clear picture of the task, describe or show them the gap between what they are doing and what they should strive for, and don't direct feedback at the person.

Out of over 150 different learning influences that Hattie identifies in his research, feedback is #10 in the most impactful interventions on improving achievement.  In our context, as coaches of adolescent cross country skiers, achievement is the increase in proficiency with which a child can perform a skill.  Feedback is important stuff and is often most impactful on learning when kids can tell their coaches what they know, what they understand, and where they are making errors.  Feedback has been shown to be least impactful when provided as praise, punishment, extrinsic rewards or programmed instruction. 

So what's the big deal - we all know feedback is important.  For me, the big deal is that some forms of feedback are shown to be more effective in helping kids learn.  Figuring that out is huge part of effective coaching.  Not all coaches are equally effective in the work they do.  The good ones  have thought about how they structure feedback; intertwining feedbak and instruction.  These are things I think about and try to incorporate in the work I do with adolescents.  I encourage you to do the same.

Roy Strum
Canmore, AB


Saturday, 22 February 2014

Ideas about Structuring Skilful Learning for Adolescent Cross Country Ski Racers

 
 
There are lots of choices we make as coaches about what we do with the kids we coach, the volume of what we do, and the frequency of what we do.  The great variation in performance by athletes from various clubs reflects these choices.  Somehow, and maybe its not so magical, kids from some clubs perform at a higher level than kids from other clubs.  Sometimes I wonder what the cause of this variance is.  To me, almost any child is capable of learning  to ski technically well; any child can develop fitness comparable to same age peers; any child can develop the disposition to be resilient.  If that is really the case, then what's going on in those development hotbeds. 
 
Motor skill learning is enhanced by what sport scientists would call 'blocked' practice.  Blocked practice refers to skill learning that includes varied opportunities, with breaks in between learning sessions, and sequential tasks that include increasing complexity.  The opposite of blocked practice is termed 'massed' practice. Massed practice refers to learning sessions focused for extended duration on one skill.  Research shows us that it is the frequency of different opportunities rather than the total time on a skill that makes the biggest difference in skill acquisition.
 
For effective skill learning to take place the emphasis should be on:
 
- helping athletes to understand what they can do
- then on athletes knowing what they are aiming to do
- then on athletes having multiple strategies for learning to do what they aim to do
- then on athletes knowing when they have done it
 
Not rocket science, but often as coaches we want to jump right to focusing on giving kids feedback on what they are doing without first having them understand where that fits into what they already know how to do.  Sometimes as coaches, we give athletes a one size fits all strategy for skill acquisition when what would help them is to have three or four different strategies for learning a motor skill.  And often, as coaches, we probably don't take the time to have kids reflect on identifying what they can do and what they need to work on.
 
Often we think about goal setting in terms of helping athletes set realistic performance goals.  This is a worthy task and for some athletes very worthwhile.  When we think about goal setting from a skill development perspective, what we really need to also focus on is setting challenging goals around learning.  These goals should include things like:
 
- knowing where you are
- knowing where you are going
- knowing how you will get there
- knowing what to do next
- knowing how to reduce the gap
 
There is tendency to make assumptions based on our experience and training - experience that is both personal and academic.  One of the assumptions I have found myself making over time is that individualized instruction is more effective than group instruction.  Research focused on learning strategies would show us however that individualized instruction does provide some positive gains, but relative to other interventions we can make as coaches, it is not the cash cow we might think it is.  A much more effective strategy in terms of skill learning is peer tutoring.  Peer tutoring is where one athlete helps another to learn a skill.  For peer tutoring to be effective though, athletes have to have a clear understanding of the learning outcome.  What is the key learning point about one skate or offset that you are working on during that practice.  When kids understand that clearly, their tutoring activities consolidate their own conceptions of the skill and help them to provide feedback to another youth about their observations.
 
One of things we need to be careful with is setting challenging goals for kids who lack the knowledge or skill to attain that goal.  Goal setting needs to be a collaborative task between coach and athlete.  Setting a goal that is too challenging for a novice skier, can sometimes lead to lower performance.  In addition, goals can have an adverse effect on risk taking if failure to achieve the goal is punished in some way.  This speaks again to focusing on learning goals rather than performance goals for kids. 
 
So much of what is included in my reflection here comes from John Hattie's Visible Learning.  Hattie compiled a meta-analysis of over 50,000 educational research papers on teaching and learning.  There is much to learn.  For me, continual learning and learning in small bits that I can apply to my coaching each week is a part of my practice.  Learning is a great thing.  Some day I want to go back to school and complete a PhD focused on physiology/biomechanics related to cross country skiing.  I encourage you find your own learning pathway.
 
Roy Strum
Canmore, AB
 

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Small Things that Make a Difference

 
Leadership for Empowering Engagement
 

As we prepare for a big trip to Chelsea, Quebec this week, our coaches and kids in our club are engaged with the exciting prospect of visiting a new place, reacquainting ourselves with friends, and fired up with anticipation of a fulfilling, fun, and engaging socio-cultural and athletic experience.  Every year or two for the past number of years, our ski club has embarked on an exchange with another club somewhere else in Canada.  Last year our 1999 birth year skiers travelled to the skiing development hotbed of Whitehorse, Yukon to spend a week embedded in Yukon ski culture and hospitality.  This year our 2000 and 2001 birth year kids are heading east, back to Chelsea, Quebec for 9 days of immersion in the unique culture of the Outouais region, and visiting national landmarks in Ottawa, our national capital.

These initiatives are driven by volunteers and coaches in our ski club who know the value of gifting kids with the unique opportunity to travel and ski with other kids in other places.  This year, 1988 Olympian, coaching colleague, and good friend, Carol Gibson-Coyne has done the remarkable  feat of organizing our families both when the Chelsea kids were in Canmore for 9 days in December, and also helping with the organization of our 9 days in Chelsea.  The herculean effort to pull off an exchange like this is noteworthy of immense praise; but the benefactors of the effort are the children in our club who receive the incredible experience.

Carol's effort is typical of coaches and parents who want to engage kids with something worthwhile; a gift to children to give them an experience that might hook kids on skiing for the long term.  Kids will decide themselves what their future will be and no amount of coercion or influence can make a child do something they dont want.  But positive experience, framed appropriately, supported with care and enthusiasm, reinforced by the joy inherent in physical activity, fostered by relationships aimed at advancing engagement, with an emphasis on improvement, fitness, and skill development are the types of factors that help make it easy for kids to say - 'hey this is for me'.

Occasionally these types of things all come together and what happens, I think, is something magical.  I had this type of conversation with a coach this past weekend at Alberta Winter Games.  The coach I was chatting with is an ambitious coach wanting to create something spectacular for kids from her community.  She was seeking advice as to what we've done in my club to create an environment where kids have fun and where they ski really well and are super engaged with racing.  I do have to say, as a coach with our Alberta Winter Games team from south central Alberta region, that it was impressive what our kids did.  Gold medals in all five relay categories as an example.  What I was particularly impressed with, with our kids from Canmore, Cochrane and Bragg Creek, was what they did when they weren't racing.  They were playing card games, board games, taking care of each, laughing lots, supporting each other, getting to bed early, mentoring younger athletes, and just having alot of fun. Sure they worked on a race plan and they focused on their best effort in races, but they were also super nice kids who thanked officials (alot of whom were their parents or grandparents as the event was held in Canmore), were friendly with kids from other clubs and super respectful of adults.  Wow - what a lucky dude I am to be here in this community.

The fact is that great energy and small things you do can make a difference in your own community.  The fact is that Canmore wasnt always a hotbed for cross country skiing, someone built this energy here, and although I might do small things to contribute to it, the real credit goes to our current leadership (board and head coach) for creating a space where kids flourish.  I see this work happening in lots of places.  Be patient, it takes time and effort.

Happy skiing!

Roy Strum
Canmore AB