Monday, 16 March 2015
Every year for the past four years I have come off of the Alberta Youth Cross Country Ski Championships weekend feeling profoundly optimistic about the future of competitive cross country skiing in Alberta. I do so because the weekend seems to be filled with moments unique to the experience. Missing is the over focus by youth on results. In its place a deep and abiding striving for success, by not just the top performers but by every kid. Somehow what seems to occur is something that feels quite different from the average race weekend for the same kids somewhere else. Each year I lead this event, I come away with a feeling that we have created something magic, that we have created something with enduring value. Trying to capture and articulate what that value is, is the focus of my writing today.
There are a few things that contribute to the power of the Alberta Youth Champs, that seem to catch fire with adolescents. Here is what they are:
- Championships event - coming to a provincial championships is a big deal. For these kids, an opportunity to dream of becoming provincial champion means something. That more clubs participate in this event than any other event; that more athletes participate in this event than any other provincial event is a big deal. Having teams from Regina and Yellowknife and Fort Smith participate gives the event a 'big deal' kind of feeling.
- Coaches who buy in to the vision - Coaches create much of the great energy that exists at Alberta Youth Champs. For the most part the coaches who attend are not the lead coaches in the clubs, but instead a younger generation of less experienced coaches than the ones you find going to Nationals. There is something to be said to working with moldable material. The coaches who attend AYC bring a positive, generative, community building attitude.
- Broadening the definition of success - you ask kids what they like about AYC - they'll probably mention an opportunity to earn recognition. The 10th place finisher in each category feels incredibly proud to be called up to the stage to be presented with a medal. All of a sudden, 10th place in a race means something. Its important. And coming in 11th is the near miss. This recognition is far removed from tokenism and that is why kids value it. You ask them, they'll tell you - I did my best and I am proud of my 10th place finish. Kids just dont get that anywhere else. And at a provincial championships its important.
- Community - the simple fact that XC Bragg Creek hosts this event at a summer camp with great trails just down the road a few minutes says alot about what is really important in engaging youth. Shared meals, shared living spaces, opportunities to build new friendships between coaches and athletes is huge and is something you just don't find at another event, where kids stay with their families in hotels, or kids live and eat as a group but separate from other teams. Community is what kids seek. Its what we all seek. A rich meaningful experience where relationship is developed.
- Inspiration - getting a chance to hear the story of a successful athlete is meaningful. This year Annika Hicks joined us at our banquet - Annika has been a world jr championships team member, a provincial ski team member, and a national champion in Canada. Connecting with Annika's story is a powerful opportunity for kids to draw inspiration from another's success. On the Sunday, Matt Strum joined us. Matt is a jr national team biathlete who grew up in Bragg Creek. For the Bragg Creek kids in particular, he was a shining example of the possibility that exists in youth sport. If Matt was a kid from Bragg Creek, and if he could become National Champion or top 50 in the world, well, maybe they could as well. The XC Bragg Creek ski clubs were lining up to get Matt to sign their club jackets after he went for a warm up ski with them.
- 4 year cycle - That kids only get to go for a four year window makes the event a big deal. This year was the first year that kids have graduated from the AYC after having competed in the event for four consecutive years. Next year, this group of 2001 athletes will all hopefully head off to National Championships.
- Modeling of fun - the coach's relay has become a fun part of this event - fun for coaches and fun for kids to see their coaches racing just as they do.
As I take a moment to reflect on the Alberta Youth Cross Country Ski Championships, I feel incredibly proud to be a part of creating this special event for children. Its an event that is deliberate about creating a positive sport experience for children. Deliberate about its intention to hook kids on competitive cross country skiing. Deliberate about its goal to build community and friendship. This is an event that aims to inspire youth to embrace the life of being a racer. It is an event that aims to be a big deal, a provincial championships, where a young athlete can proudly say, I am provincial champion or I was 10th at provincials. AYC is an event that has momentum, that has deep value for participants. It is in my mind a model of what a youth cross country ski event should look like. It has become that because of the collective will of our community to build something meaningful and significant that will engage young skiers in the very worthwhile endeavour of becoming a ski racer!
Enjoy the remainder of winter in your part of the world!
Coach, Canmore, AB
Tuesday, 24 February 2015
I've been doing some reading lately about the important role that peers fill in creating engaging learning spaces. John Hattie is a New Zealand education researcher who has written several books, including Visible Learning for Teachers. Although the text is really geared at the education sector, the content is rich learning for coaches because much of the work we do with adolescents is aim to create engaging learning around sport.
Hattie's research would put the significance effect of d=0.52 for Peer Influences on achievement, meaning that peers have a significant effect on learning. Peers influence learning in a number of ways. They help to create a positive space for learning. We've seen this lots; it just takes one or two key kids to model active engagement and the whole group is there. Positive contagion works. Its important to know who the key kids are. In addition, kids can create a sense of belonging with one another. This is invaluable - as coaches we can set the groundwork for it to happen, but it really takes kids to create the belonging.
Kids can be great at giving feedback to each other but Hattie would point out that for peer feedback to be effective, kids need a pretty clear idea of the intended learning outcome - when they know exactly what the piece of the double pole technique should look like, then providing feedback helps the other child as well as reinforcing the understanding of the skill. Kids do so much more though to support learning. They provide social comparisons and emotional support for peers. They help their peers gain a reputation of success. Kids build others' reputations by talking to their peers and about their peers with other kids.
Adolescent athletes also provide caring and support for their peers. They can help coaches by easing conflict that leads to resolution. Kids can help their peers by providing some cognitive restructuring of understandings. These understandings can be technical, tactical, or social. Kids model deliberate practice and rehearsal. All of these things lead to increased learning opportunities and ultimately enhance achievement of themselves and their peers.
Hattie's research also points out that the single greatest predictor of success in learning is whether a child/youth has made a friend in the first month of joining a program. This points to the importance of attending to athlete friendships by coaches. Making sure that newcomers are welcome and that everyone has someone who they connect with.
Sometimes as coaches its easy to put our jobs in a box and think its all about the technical part of sport or about the competition performance of the athletes we work with. But it is super important to remember when we are working with adolescents, we are working with complex social organisms who are plugged into their peers. Great coaches are not only aware of this, but also work with this reality to engage their athletes in learning.
Tomorrow (Feb 25) is Pink Shirt Day in Canada. A day to promote respectful, caring, and supportive learning environments. Lets do our part as coaches and engage peers to optimize engagement through positive, caring, and supportive interactions. Peers make a huge difference in creating the type of coaching environment we have with our programs. Lets think about how we can optimize kids to help other kids in sport.
Saturday, 14 February 2015
Whatever sport you're involved with, you've probably seen it happen lots. The ever increasing need at younger and younger ages to specialize, to pay for high priced coaching, to travel farther and farther afield for competition weekends, to purchase the most expensive equipment, and in the case of cross country ski racing to apply the glide waxes that are used at the world cup and olympic levels. Where does the insanity stop? It stops for many families when it just becomes out of reach for them financially. I know of many families who have decided to have their children do some thing else because cross country skiing or whatever sport, has just become too expensive. Of course there are many families who have deep pockets and the question isnt 'can they afford it', but simply 'why not'? The bigger issue of course is not financial, but ethical - asking the question, what is most developmentally appropriate?
There is another type of elitism that exists, one I saw modeled this past couple of days at Calgary City Teachers Convention. It is an elitism that is evidenced by coaches who give more attention to those athletes that who demonstrate quicker technical skill acquisition. This one really irks me because it represents a coach's belief that some kids are more deserving of attention than another simply because they can learn a motor skill faster. What I witnessed was a disturbing example of coaches not taking the time to teach athletes how to perform a skill; instead what I witnessed was increased opportunity to be involved and receive instruction/feedback based on the athlete's predisposed natural athletic ability. This is disturbing because it underpins the coach's beliefs that they are able to use their crystal ball to predict which athletes are going to be worth their time and effort as a coach to invest in. This conduct represents all that was wrong with school based physical education and community sport twenty years ago and has no place in youth sport in 2015.
It surprises me that at every Alberta Cup cross country ski race, coaches have the need to decide and debate whether youth 14 years of age and younger should be applying pure fluoro, or high flouro, or other glide waxes meant for older athletes, to these young athlete's skis. Really, there is a debate over this topic at every provincial level race. Why? The answer is elitism. Coaches of some clubs feel its important to give their athletes the advantage of faster glide waxes. But really, is that what should be making the difference at 12 or 13 years of age in a ski race? No! what should be making the difference is physical fitness and technical ski ability. The fastest skiers should be the ones who have worked the hardest not the ones whose parents are willing to pay $30 a race day for fast skis. Is it ok, to buy your way to the top of the results list? is that really what is important for youth sport?
Another example of elitism in youth cross country ski racing in Alberta and elsewhere is the practice of purchasing a race licence for your 10 or 12 year old. In Canada, athletes who race at national championships need a race licence from the national sport organization. This licence facilitates assigning Canada Points List points for each race an athlete goes in. Then the CPL points are used to seed athletes in mass start races or individual start races. For athletes competing at nationals this is appropriate and needed. There are many families and clubs who purchase a CCC race licence for their athletes who are younger than 15. These clubs and families purchase their race licence for the 10 or 12 year old not because they plan to go to nationals but simply so that they get preferred seading at races. Essentially, this is blatantly buying your way to the front of the starting group. Is this really what we want to teach kids? you can buy your way to the front of the line. I say no! This is a wrong message to give kids, and it is a message that reinforces an elitist orientation for youth participation in sport. There is no place for a provincial sport organization to be supporting this type of elitism. As a community, we need to insist that elitist structures like buying your child's position at the start of the mass start group, is not acceptable practice. Luckily at two of three of our Alberta Cup race weekends the host clubs have insisted that CCC race licences for midgets and younger will not buy them a position at the front of mass start groupings or at the back of the the individual start groupings.
Elitism has no place in youth sports. It is the product of coaches creating modified versions of the adult form of sport. Adult sport in cross country is elitist and at that level is totally appropriate. If you want to be the best in the world, you've got to do all the things that you need to to become the best in the world. For youth, elitism is confusing, is unfair to children and is a negative influence on continued participation and engagement of our young skiers in our great sport.
I'm currently exploring possibilities of increasing opportunities for new Canadians to be engaged with our sport in our community. Some exciting things are cooking - and I am happy to be one of the chefs.
I'm heading out to the trails now to enjoy an hour or so of pure delight - skiing gives me great joy.
Saturday, 24 January 2015
Carol Dweck is a psychologist and author of the book - Mindsets - a look into working with children around creating conditions for successful learning. She was featured on a recent ted talks that is well worth watching
Several themes arise in Dweck's talk that relate in every way to the work we do as coaches.
- Abilities can be developed. Probably the single most important message we can deliver to youth in cross country skiing. Abilities are not predetermined. Abilities change over time. My own personal experience shows this. My own son who at 10 or 12 or 14 would regularly finish 20 or 22nd out of 25 kids in a race, now is on the junior national biathlon team and will compete at World Junior Championships in Belarus next month http://matthewstrum.blogspot.ca/ . When somehow, and probably due to the good work of his coaches, he persisted with the belief that his abilities could be developed, he could achieve his goals to become a successful athlete. He wasn't obsessed with his finish position in races. He learned to not always have a need for constant validation. I am proud of him, as any Dad would be.
How do we deliver the message of 'abilities can be developed' to the kids we work with? We do this by being deliberate about telling them that abilities can be developed, anyone has the potential to be a successful athlete. Dweck would say that it is about a 'mindset' where kids see a challenge and react with ' I love the challenge'. A space where kids understand that their ability can be developed.
This type of mindset is fundamental to athletic success. It is the type of mindset that as coaches of adolescents we need to be developing in every athlete we work with. Some of them will still decide to leave the sport at 13 or 14 because its not for them. But we won't have them leaving because they are obsessed with getting on the podium every race or stressed out to perform according to finish position.
At 12 or 14, my son Matthew was the type of kid who not very many coaches would have predicted would develop into the athlete he is becoming. There is no crystal ball that allows any coach to predict what an athlete will eventually become. But there are things that we can do each and every practice. We can tell kids that they can develop their abilities. We can encourage them to dream big. We can create a space where we champion more than the early developing kids or the kids whose parents have unlimited resources to buy them world cup level equipment at 10 or 12 years old. We are kidding ourselves if we think we can level a playing field when working with youth. But we can deliver the message each and every practice that 'you can develop your abilities' - and deliver that authentically to each and every child we work with.
Carol Dweck uses the phrase 'not yet' when referring to the type of feedback that is important to give kids to help them develop a growth mindset. 'You did well, but you're not there yet, keep working, you will get there'. As a dad, its the type of message I have tried to deliver to my kids over time, and maybe its a small part of why they are all still engaged in cross country ski racing. And maybe the most important deliverer of the 'not yet' message are parents. But as a coach, it is super important as well because it is about the culture we create in our groups, in our clubs. I encourage you to go for it.
Thursday, 15 January 2015
I'm all for innovation. Not just any change though. Change that brings about increased engagement of youth, and increased skill development.
A few years ago, I attended a session with Istvan Balyi. Balyi is one of the authors of the Long Term Athlete Development plan in Canada. It was the sort of session where lots of dots were connected for me all of which gave me lots to reflect on regarding children and introduction to competition. How we introduce kids to competition matters in a sport that does not have mass participation.
I've been a teacher and coach for many years, mostly of children and early adolescents. Over that time, I've seen a few trends. Expertise in cross country ski coaching resides with those coaches who are working with the oldest athletes in the club. There is huge attrition in participation right around 12 or 13 years old, and another big drop in participation around the end of high school. I think there are things we can do to turn these trends around.
Innovation is certainly a buzzword in teaching and learning lately. In my own school division we have several departments with Innovation in the title. Its important to seek continuous improvement. Not very many people will argue with that idea. Innovation though takes a passionate commitment on behalf of leadership. Its not easy. Despite the effort, I think its worth it if it increases engagement with our sport by youth.
I've had a busy winter so far leading coach development sessions in a variety of community around Alberta. In every place I go people are doing great work. Just last weekend I was in Edmonton, the week before in Camrose. Here are a few exemplars of innovative competition formats for youth that come from the coaches of those clubs.
- aim to give kids an authentic opportunity to measure self improvement - in Edmonton, the coaches set up a couple of races on the same course. Every youth got a time from both events. Events were held on similar snow conditions. Nothing special was done to prepare skis. Kids got two times on the same course and could measure their improvement by seeing how much faster they skied. This was meaningful to the youth involved. It isnt easy to measure self improvement in a sport like cross country skiing where there are so many variables that influence an athlete's time in a race. Bravo Edmonton Nordic for this great work!
- create events that focus on a specific skill - in Camrose, the coaches set up three different timed events. The first was a hill climb, the second was a course that timed a skier over the crest of a hill, and the third was on a downhill. This format gave youth a chance to validate for themselves which section of course they performed well at. Percent behind the fastest gives an idea of relative strength of a youth compared to peers.
- do more relays - biathlon really has this one nailed - they do so many more relays than cross country skiing - at least in Alberta. What about incorporating a relay event into every weekend of racing - at least for youth. What a nice way to focus on team instead of on individual at a time when youth are particularly vulnerable around developing perceptions of self around competency and the resultant decisions to continue to not with a sport.
I'd encourage you try some different things with your competition formats for youth. Think outside of the 'scaled down version of adult formats' thinking. Look to other sports that create multiple opportunities for success in a competition. Youth need success. As coaches, creating success, whatever that might be, should be one of our top priorities.
Tuesday, 30 December 2014
I often engage in conversations with coaches about recognition for athletes. Recognition that is meaningful and motivating. This is almost a hot button topic - ask the question and you'll get lots of answers from coaches in the room. Recognize everyone...recognize nobody...recognize the top 3 in each category...recognize the top 6 in each category...recognize the top 10 in each category. Does it really matter anyway? I'd say yes - it matters a lot.
Ideas that often surface in our conversations about recognition are ones about 'personal best' or 'goal setting'. On the surface these are great ideas - lets all aim for our personal best, or lets set a goal and work at achieving it. There is nothing wrong with these strategies for getting kids to focus on their own effort - its just that they are entirely subjective. Lets face it, kids focus on the results - despite all of our efforts as coaches to de-emphasize finish position, its important to many kids - I'd say in all of my years of coaching children and adolescents in cross country skiing, I've rarely ever met a kid who said 'I don't care about the results' and really meant it. Results matter to almost every kid. They know how they've performed relative to peers - so why the big rush to shelter kids from the results?
So what can we do as coaches to create recognition that is meaningful for adolescents? For little kids, giving everyone a ribbon does it. But for adolescents giving everyone a ribbon is pretty meaningless. Earned recognition is where it is at. That's why winning a medal as an adolescent is so important. For older adolescents the medals often become less meaningful, but for the 11-14 year old, earning some recognition is pretty darned important.
There are two different types of sports - open skill and closed skill sports. Closed skill sports are ones where the conditions of competition remain pretty constant. Swimming and gymnastics are examples of closed skills sports - a balance beam is always the same width, always the same distance off the ground, the same number of manoeuvres are performed as part of competition of a balance beam, the air temperature is always about the same, its always indoors, and an athlete performs the skill on their own. Team sports and individual sports like cross country skiing are considered open skill sports. The skill that is performed is in response to an external stimuli - in team sports, the skill an athlete chooses to perform is in response to the actions of the opposing team - in cross country skiing, the skill that is performed is in response to changes in terrain. Its easy in a team sport like volleyball to measure improvement - a coach can count the number of successful blocks and hits - an increased number of these items indicates individual skill improvement. In closed skill sports like speed skating, a 400m time is recorded and when a skater skates fasters than his previous best, a new personal best is established and this becomes an easy way for a speed skater to monitor his improvement.
In cross country skiing this isn't quite so easy. Each race course is different. Snow conditions can be quite different from one race site and time of year to another. A different field of competitors can be present in each race. Grip wax might work better in one race than another. Glide characteristics of skis can be quite different depending on the quality of the ski and the quality of the wax and the base preparation. All of these things make it difficult for a young inexperienced racer to validly determine anything except performance relative to same age peers. If they ski faster than a few kids who normally beat them, they know they have skied well. So if it is so difficult to have kids judge their won performance, what then are some things we can do to help kids recognize improvements in performance?
Here are a couple of ideas:
- Interval Start races - when I was coaching in Bragg Creek, we'd take the kids to the top of the stairway to heaven climb and race down interval start. We'd record the times and not make a big deal about their results. If it was important to some kids, I'd post the results on our club forum. Most kids didn't care - when they raced down the hill on their own against the clock, they really didn't have a sense of their performance relative to peers.
- Repeat races - Later in the season in Bragg Creek, when the snow conditions were somewhat similar, we'd take the kids back to the top of the big downhill and race them down again with interval starts. This time we'd announce the results. Kids would already know (they always do) who the fastest was. We didn't make a big deal about who was fastest. Instead we'd hand out some prizes recognizing the improvement kids made - which inevitably they did - all of them. The ones who made the biggest improvement often were the most novice kids -and in this event, they could reasonably win 1st prize - and it was a 1st place they were proud of, that they had earned, that was meaningful to every kid in the group. They'd made the biggest improvement and we recognized it.
They still do this kind of thing in Bragg Creek - check out their website at www.xcbraggcreek.ca or follow them on twitter @xcbraggcreek - they are an up and coming club and I'm pleased to still be involved coaching in a small way with XCBC.
Whatever you decide to do with your club kids - just really make an effort to not do mass start races all the time. There are about 100 other formats you can use than mass start. I don't mind the mass starts for adolescents - they are just way over used - at least in my part of the world. And mass starts do not do very much except reinforce what kids already know - they know who the fastest kids are before the race starts - so come on coaches - lets be a bit more creative about what we're doing with kids when it comes to recognition. They deserve it!
Happy New Year to everyone
Cross Country Ski Coach
Thursday, 11 December 2014
So much of the work of effective coaching is centered on being able to help your skiers improve technically. More effective coaches do this over a smaller time period than less effective coaches. The fact is that most of us who coach adolescents are not immersed in the world of coaching full time; most of us are volunteers who have day jobs, often quite unrelated to working with adolescents in a sport context, and we work with club skiers in the evenings and on weekends. We do our best, work with our best hunch about what we think will be most effective and go for it. Nonetheless, you can see it at races, some clubs have kids who ski with greater technical proficiency than other clubs. Something is going on when you notice this, and its good to think about ways to improve your effectiveness as a coach.
One of things that helps kids to learn technical ski skills quicker are things that effective teachers do when teaching mathematics or science or phys ed. Great teachers share their learning intentions with their students. For us as coaches, this means being explicit in sharing with kids what the learning intentions are at each practice. It might look like 'today we are going to work at gliding on a flat ski'. As coaches, its then important to provide some learning experiences that provide some surface learning, some building of deeper understandings of the skill, and some conceptual understandings of how the task relates to the skill. As coaches, we need to have a clear idea of where we are going with our instruction and ensure that our athletes know where they are going.
As coaches, we also need to encourage kids to commit to achieving the learning goals and provide feedback on how successful their efforts are in attaining the learning goal. This might look like 'your inside edge is closer to the snow than your outside edge - what do you need to do to have your outside edge of your ski have equal contact with the snow when you are gliding'. Its important that kids get descriptive feedback if they are going to improve their technical skills.
Kids need to know what success looks like. This can be done in lots of ways. First the coach can demonstrate the skill - which is why at a certain level its important that a coach can perform a skill to the level they want their athletes to perform it. Secondly, you can use world cup video clips of an athlete performing the skill you're working on and play it in slow motion or use a tool like Ubersense to mark joint angles or show how an expert performer, for example, glides on a flat ski. Or if your lucky, you've got some junior racers who can show kids what it looks like. Having a clear idea of what success looks like will help athletes get there alot faster.
When you are explicit in sharing your learning intention; when you give kids descriptive feedback that helps them move in the direction of attaining the learning intention; and when kids know what success looks like, both physically and conceptually, their attention is increased, and their motivation to succeed increases - these things lead to greater success.
I'll be honest, I am crazy about coaching kids in cross country skiing and I'm passionate about sharing out best practice ideas to help coaches who are looking for ideas and growth in their practice to help kids learn to be better skiers, enjoy our fantastic sport more, and keep them involved. I have found that where kids don't get the best instruction, they drop out of our sport with higher frequency than where they have a passionate, skilled coach who not only is a good skier, but more importantly who is a good teacher.
Its early winter in Canmore. There is nothing I like more than getting my skis on, feeling the incredible sensation of propelling my body up and down hills with grace, efficiency, and the pure unadulterated joy of movement.
Saturday, 22 November 2014
In the coach training work I do, we talk about fun, we create experiences that are all about fun, we think about what do we need to do to create fun - research would tell us that fun is the most important reasons why children participate in sport - not going to the olympics, or making the national team - but fun. If this is such an important component of engaging kids in sport, as coaches, our challenge is to get it right.
Here are a few ideas that I've learned work from my years as a coach and camp director and teacher.
1. Enthusiasm - hands down the number one contributor of a coach to creating some fun energy. Fun after all is energy that is created by a group of people. How you deliver your message about what you're going to do at a practice can be a huge determinant of how the session goes. 'This is going to be so much fun'; 'This is the best game in the whole world'; or 'I hope you're ready to have an incredible time' all set the stage for something incredible to happen. Even if its not incredible, creating some positive anticipation of how much fun its going to be has a huge influence on how much it becomes. This is hard for many adults - maybe a little too child like or juvenile - many adults forget how much fun it is to be a kid.
2. Play - join in - model what you want - especially with littler kids, playing along, not with adult apprehension about what other adults will think of you if they see you, but truly playing - kids love this stuff. This is something I have done a ton of with kids - no matter what your age, playing is fun for you and its fun for kids. Whether its a territory game of capture the flag or target game, playing along is fun for you and fun for the kids you're leading. Play should include lots of laughter and interaction. Kids know how to do this - join in.
3. Encourage - a timely comment, wink, smile, or pat on the back lets kids know that you care that they are as awesome as they are. Kids know when an adult likes them. They can tell almost right away. Be the kind of coach that encourages kids and lets them know how awesome they really are. Take an interest in them, learn their name - quickly - and be positive. They be right with you.
Fun is hugely important to kids. As coaches of kids, we need to figure this one out. Because if we don't, kids won't stick around. Aim to be one of those adults in a kids life that a child says 'he is so much fun'. It doesn't matter what your background in skiing is - whether you were world champion or a novice skier - figuring out what fun looks like, and replicating each and every ski session is what you should aim for.
Let yourself be a kid. Not for the whole practice, but a part of the ski session each week. Kids will come to anticipate great times when you say 'This is going to be the most fun in the whole world'.
Thursday, 13 November 2014
In the coaching workshops I lead, the conversation often eventually gets to talking about how to deal with kids so they develop the self confidence to stay engaged with sport after they get to an age where having their parents sign them up for skiing isn't a good enough reason to stay involved any more. How do you help kids to develop the belief that they can make their own learning happen; where they are motivated intrinsically to participate; where they strive to learn as much as possible; where they don't use self handicapping strategies; where they don't have dependence on an adult; where they don't dismiss praise or feedback; where their standards are not so high that when they don't reach them, they crumble; where they don't compare themselves to others. These are some good questions, and likely you've run into kids who struggle with one or more of these things.
What is important to know as a coach, is that we can do something about all of these hurdles to self confidence. We can do some teaching around them. In John Hattie's book, Visible Learning for Teachers, he talks about these self processes and offers some ideas to working with kids around these topics. Recognizing an ineffective coping strategy when we see it, and offering an alternative to kids is work that master coaches of children and adolescents do. Here are few ideas to working with a few of these self concept challenges.
Self Efficacy - this is believing you can do it. Children with high self efficacy see a challenging task and think 'it'll be hard, but I can do it'. As a coach, we can encourage self efficacy, by giving the message 'you are capable, you can do this' and by teaching kids this strategy - 'hey, you want to know something that works, when you see a big hill to climb, think to yourself, I am going to kick that hill's butt'.
Self Handicapping - sometimes kids create obstacles for themselves to deflect the cause of failure away from their competence and towards some acquired impediment. This can look like procrastination, having low challenge goals, exaggerating obstacles to success. As a coach, we can help kids set realistic goals and identify self handicapping as a negative coping strategy.
Self Motivation - this is in relation to intrinsic or extrinsic attribution of effort. Intrinsically motivated kids say 'how do I learn more', 'how do I get my skill to the next level'. Extrinsically motivated kids 'do I get a cookie', 'will this help me win a medal'. Research would point to larger learning gains associated with intrinsic motivation. As coaches, we can create a norm in our group around 'here is what a great athlete does','here is how a great athlete thinks'.
Approach and Avoidance - Approach goals refers to an athlete who strives to learn as much as possible to master the learning goal - whether it is double poling, or herringbone. A kid with an approach strategy tries to learn as much as possible. Avoidance goals refers to striving not to do worse than others. Achievement is higher with approach goals compared to avoidance goals. As a coach, we can identify avoidance goals as something to avoid. Instead we can point kids towards approach goals.
Self Dependence - Kids who are highly dependent on adults struggle more with self regulation, self monitoring, and self evaluating. Although these are things that all kids learn, the fact is that as coaches we can create a culture where self dependence is encouraged and reinforced. As with many of these self processes, we can teach and reinforce these strategies in our interactions with kids.
Self Discounting and Distortion - kids who self discount will dismiss or distort information such as praise,or feedback. If you tell them they are pretty good at a skill, they will dismiss you and tell you you're wrong. Obviously this is a pretty negative coping strategy. As coaches, we can identify this and give praise or feedback and then move on. Thinking about a 4:1 ratio of positive to negative feedback seems to work when working with kids who discount or distort.
Self Perfectionism - this is having too high a standard for yourself. Its great to want perfection, but it takes time and that is something that we can help kids to learn - how to set reasonable and challenging benchmarks on their pathway to excellence.
Hopelessness - this refers to kids who expect that an achievement gain will not occur for them. For whatever reason, maybe because they haven't experienced enough success, these kids have given up. As coaches, we can help kids to use some self regulation strategies like saying OK when something challenging is put before them.
Hattie points out that self concept improves when kids:
- invoke learning strategies instead of comparing themselves to others
- accept rather than discount feedback
- set benchmarks for difficult goals
- compare themselves to performance criteria instead of other athletes
- develop a high efficacy for learning
- effect self regulation rather than hopelessness
All of these self concept ideas can be taught and I believe great coaches do these things. Great coaches of adolescents believe that every young skier is capable of learning and improving. Great coaches of kids help them to improve their skiing, but they also help kids to develop the mindset to become a great skier.
I often reflect on the paradox of our sport. Most often, the coaches who have the greatest capacity to effect change on athletes in our sport are also the same coaches who are farthest away from the athletes they could effect the most change on. And, the coaches who can have the most influence on budding and developing athletes at exactly the age when its crucial often have less training and experience to do their important work.
Don't get me wrong, I know there are many, many skilled and qualified coaches working with adolescent cross country skiers. But I also am well aware that there is very little out there for these coaches to learn from and reflect on. Thus, my efforts with this blog. I don't have all the answers, but I do have some thoughts - and blogs are the perfect platform for this type of sharing.
So coaches of adolescent cross country skiers - lets do something - lets create a community of practice where we can share out some ideas with each other about what works well and what works less well.
Friday, 7 November 2014
I love reading and learning and I sure love skiing and coaching. Lately I have been reading John Hattie's Visible Learning for Teachers - Maximizing Impact on Learning (2012). Its a fascinating read - tackling what do we do as teachers (or coaches for that matter) that optimizes learning. The holy grail of what it means to be a great coach. Definitely worth a read. Today I read a section of text focused on the goal of 'professions'. It led me to reflecting on whether cross country ski coaching could be considered a profession using the same descriptors.
I'm not really sure what happens in America or elsewhere, but I do have a pretty good sense of what happens in alot of places in Canada. And I'd say, we miss the mark a bit in terms of meeting the criteria of 'profession' as outlined by Hattie in his book. Here is how Hattie describes a 'profession'.
A profession identifies the goal posts of excellence. What does excellent coaching look like? The answer to this isnt just understanding technical skills, or being able to give informed tactical advice. Excellence occurs (according to Hattie, and I agree with him) when teachers (and I'll use the word coaches from here on in, because I believe that the two are interchangeable) create tasks with a greater degree of challenge than experienced coaches might. Expert coaches have a deeper understanding of content and are more sensitive to context; instructions are more integrated, more coherent, and at a higher level of abstraction than experienced coaches. Expert coaches influence surface and deeper understandings, they believe that all athletes can achieve the success criteria; they mentor learning and provide feedback, and they possess more integrated knowledge of the content. in a profession, these are the goal posts of excellence, and professions define them and people strive towards them. In Canada, we have well developed/developing coach training materials. We have descriptors of skill development in our athelte development matrix - what we miss I think is clearly defined 'goalposts of excellence' that guide developing coaches towards excellence in coaching. There just isnt very much sharing of best practice ideas flowing out of the experts as is found in the teaching profession. We really need to try to embrace the notion of what it is to be successful in coaching.
A profession, Hattie explains aims to encourage collaboration with all in the profession to drive the profession upwards. I am well aware that some expert coaches do share out their best practice ideas with the broader community, but most live within the confines of their own clubs and really there is no motivation for sharing of best practice when ensuring you have enough kids in your club to support your salary is your priority. In Canada, teaching is publicly funded except for private schools. Teachers are encouraged to share with each other. I sure would like to see more of this happening in coaching cross country skiing. As experienced or expert coaches, we really need to be helping all other coaches in a collaborative manner to attain excellence in their coaching.
Professions also aim to esteem those who show defined competence. Recognition is important. In order to recognize excellence in coaching, you really need to have defined what it means to be an excellent coach. I'm just not sure that any criteria exist anywhere that coaches can work towards. Any recognition I am aware of in my part of the world seems pretty subjective in nature. Something to work on - ya, for sure.
I'm a big advocate for sharing expertise. I encourage you to start with sharing in your club, and invite coaches from other clubs to work alongside you to learn from you.
Winter is just around the corner. Enjoy!
Sunday, 26 October 2014
Tuesday, 7 October 2014
I love learning. I love learning about getting better at the things I love to focus my energy on. I've recently picked up a book - Richard Hattie's Visible Learning for Teachers (2012, Routledge, NY). Its amazing really, when you find some reading that speaks to you on many levels. This book speaks to me about what is really important when teaching kids how to learn a motor skill. Hattie did a meta-analysis of meta-analysis studies examining teaching and learning influences on student achievement in schools. His research aims to answer the question -what effect does a type of learning influence (such as giving feedback) have on the level of student achievement. His writing has been described as 'the holy grail' of education research books by some reviewers. He points out early and often, that simply having a positive impact on learning isnt good enough because there is very little that a teacher or coach can do that will not result in some learning.
For me, Hattie's work speaks to the important pieces of structuring learning - which is of course completely relevant to effective coaching in a sport context. The fact is that coaches can choose to focus on so many different things while helping kids to learn. What Hattie's research does is measure teaching and learning influences using effect size (e.g. d=.40); in doing so, it makes it possible to compare some types of teaching and learning influences compared to others. Not all things that that teachers or coaches do have an equal effect. Some are more potent than others in helping learners achieve more.
In his writing, Hattie points to six signposts that identify excellence in teaching and learning. Here they are:
1. Teachers (Coaches) are the most powerful influences in learning.
2. Teachers (Coaches) need to be directive, influential, caring, actively and passionately engaged in the process of teaching and learning.
3. Teachers (Coaches) need to be aware of what each student (athlete) is thinking and have sufficient knowledge of content so they can provide meaningful and appropriate feedback.
4. Teachers (Coaches) and students (athletes) need to know the learning intentions and criteria for success. They need to know where they are at, and where they need to go next
5. Teachers (Coaches) need to move from a single idea to multiple ideas - to extend these ideas so learners can construct meaning.
6. School Leaders (Head Coaches) need to create a culture where 'error' is welcomed as an important step in developing more complex understandings and abilities.
As teachers and coaches we need to recognize that everything we do and say is important. How we present ourselves matters. Being passionate about what we teach is one of the most powerful influences we might have. Instilling a love for something is a big piece of the work we do. We need to have enough knowledge about the subject/sport so that we can give meaningful feedback. As teachers and coaches we need to help kids see where they are at and where they need to go next. Learning intentions need to be clear to the learners - if not - no wonder they dont learn very quickly. Developing conceptual understandings of how physical skill builds and why we learn to perform a skill a certain way is key in helping to develop mastery. Finally, error needs to be embraced as healthy and an important step towards achievement. Error is how we learn - not something we should feel badly about. How many times I have provided that explanation when coaching volleyball I couldn't tell you. Volleyball is a game of errors - a team gains a point only when the other team makes an error.
As coaches of adolescents, we need to remember that much of what we are doing is teaching - teaching motor skills, habits of mind, attitudes, and developing a love of skiing. Not all teachers are created equal - some teachers have a little something extra - something that engages the kids they work with in a meaningful way. I encourage you to find out more about what those coaches are doing - cause its worth replicating.
Saturday, 4 October 2014
There is something to say about splitting my life between coaching and teaching. Noticing the stark contrast between the education world and the coaching world in the willingness of professionals to share out best practice with those less experienced and knowledgeable. One only has to look to twitter to see the vast volume of the sharing of best practice ideas in teaching, and the almost complete lack of any sharing of best practice in coaching. Why is this? Why is that experienced, knowledgeable, seasoned coaches in cross country skiing do very little to no sharing of their work, their insight, or their resources with other coaches? I'm not saying it doesn't happen, because it does. Experienced, seasoned coaches, do share their wisdom or expertise. It just doesn't happen very often, at least as far as I am aware of.
Maybe it is because of the proprietary nature of cross country ski coaching in Canada. Seasoned, knowledgeable, experienced coaches are motivated to deliver their expertise to those employing them. Often the boards of directors of the clubs that pay their professional coaches include stipulations in their contracts that their employed coaches may not do work for other clubs. Rightly these clubs who are paying alot of money to employ a seasoned, experienced, knowledgeable coach want these coaches to serve their membership. And so, the rich get richer, and the poor stay where they are or struggle along.
Contrast this with the world of education in Alberta. In education, teachers are publicly funded, and a set of professional competencies is expected from these teachers, including constant professional learning and the explicit directive to create a collaborative culture where mentoring occurs, where sharing of best practice is an obligation. Sharing of everything you know as a teacher is expected to serve the common good of children in Alberta. What a refreshing and positive environment for professionals - a place where ready access to expertise is available, a place where those who know share with those who don't. You just have to pop onto Twitter to see that that platform is widely and immensely used by educators across North America. The notion of a Professional Learning Network is a broadly embraced idea in teaching. My own professional learning network includes over 1000 other educators where everyday I both share out my work and learn from the work of others.
This morning I had a conversation with a coaching colleague about the state of our sport in Alberta. There is lots going on that is working really well. But the reality that surfaced in our conversation is that the ecology of our sport is maybe not functioning as smoothly or as synchronous as it might. A theme from our conversation was that so much of what occurs happens in isolation of other links in the (to use the American phrase) athlete development pipeline. And maybe the reason this happens is because of the proprietary free market nature of coaching in Alberta. There is no motivation for clubs or coaches to share out their best practice. There are no structural professional obligations to build capacity in colleagues. Perhaps there should be. Don't get me wrong, I am a free market driven dude. But I think there is a role in advancing our sport through incentives for knowledge sharing and capacity building.
Its time to change the culture of our sport. Change it to a place where there is non proprietary sharing of best practice. I started this blog with the express intention of moving our coaching culture in that direction. The purpose of this blog is to share out best practice ideas, provide a place to stimulate some conversation about what best practice looks like, and share out my own ideas about things I have done and the reasons I have done them. Its been two years since the inception of this blog - and I'll be honest, I have been very surprised that almost 1500 people every month have read this blog. But it speaks I think to the interest and need for greater sharing of ideas and best practice exemplars. I for one, would love to follow coaches from clubs across all of North America, where I can begin to expand on my professional learning network in the world of cross country ski coaching.
Imagine how much better off our young athletes would be if clubs and coaches were much more willing to share out their ideas about what is working and why. I encourage you to start a blog and share. I'll be one of your first followers.
Sunday, 28 September 2014
We've all likely been there. Our delightful, fun-loving, well adjusted children seemingly overnight transforming into beings from outerspace. Whether you're a teacher, a coach, a youth leader or parent, you've likely seen this metamorphisis. At 12 or 13, many kids become social networking gurus - responding to an innate need to grow their own branches that connect to the world around them. Many early adolescents are driven to make choices for themselves but yet caught between the two worlds of childhood and adulthood. How do we help adolscents navigate these unfamiliar waters. What kind of a paddle would we recommend? What type of boat? How do we help them to read a map or use a gps device? How do we support them in charting a course? when do we step in to offer advice? when do we let them make their own mistakes? how do we facilitate a group adolescent beings? These are types of things I think about when coaching early adolescents.
So what does it look like to engage early adolescents? In my work with adoloscents at a residential treatment centre for 12-16 year olds with severe social/emotional/behavioural challenges, we aim to interact in a number of ways that gives responsibility to adolescents. These include:
- providing opportunities for youth to make positive choices - hey, you know what you need to do...
- offering intentional teaching interactions that provide explanations and rationales
- offering cause and effect messages - when you do this, that often happens...
- sometimes giving directive messages is appropriate - hey, this needs to happen now...
Can we use these ideas when working with adolescents in a cross country ski coaching context? for sure we can. No matter what demographics kids come from, when you get a group of adolescents together, they love to talk - what do you do as a coach to get there attention on a teaching and learning task? giving kids an instruction, and creating some understanding about what you're looking for and what you want them to do, then backing of letting them get to it is an important skill.
Great coaches are very deliberate about their instruction and feedback. These include providing rationales. For adolescents, my experience tells me that these youth want to understand, they want more than just to be told 'do this, cause I'm the expert'. Giving adolescents the message that 'hey if it takes a long time to get your attention, we have less time to ski and less time for me to coach' is a cause and effect message. My experience is that adolescents respond well to this kind of interaction from a coach, rather than a coach who gets angry or yells.
In the end though, after being given opportunities to make positive choices, and some teaching around what and why, and then some cause effect messages, it sometimes becomes necessary to be directive.
Whats important, I think, is to use all the tools in your toolkit. These tools are easier to use when you know that you have them.
Coaching adolescent cross country ski racers has been and continues to be one of the great joys of my life. Good luck with your coaching this year.
Monday, 8 September 2014
In sports with large numbers of particpants, tiering is often used as a way to group kids with similar ability together. The idea is that everyone benefits from playing with other kids who play at about the same level. In Calgary, for example, over 50,000 kids play organized ice hockey. In Calgary, kids participate in tryouts and are subsequently placed on similar ability teams. Teams then play with other teams who are in the same tier as them. We can probably agree that having kids play on teams with other kids of similar ability, creates more opportunity for every player to be in the game. On the other hand, tiered training and competition groupings have been shown to make the rich, richer, so to say, and the poor, poorer. Kids in the highest tier usually also have access to the best coaching and so their skill improves exponentially faster than kids training and competing in lower tiers. And so while there are positives and negatives to tiered competition groupings, I am putting forward the idea that tiered competitions do have a place in athlete development.
Cross country ski racing in Alberta is pretty small time compared to sports like ice hockey when it comes to numbers of youth participants. What would tiered competition look like? Is there a need for it? In our part of the world, we have great disparity in ski clubs when it comes to the expertise that is available for kids to access in their skill development. We live in a region which has a couple of very large clubs where kids pay alot of money to access professional coaching. We also have a number of clubs that are small, run by volunteers, many of whom are learning to ski alongside the kids they are coaching. At races, guess which clubs dominate? In fact, guess which clubs actually show up to races?
How do you build a strong ski community? How do we support clubs and athletes in our region so that more clubs participate in races? One of the answers to these questions is I believe in tiered racing. Every club no matter what level of coaching is available has kids who are just getting started with racing. If we want these kids to stick it out, we need to be doing something more than just throwing them in with the fastest skiers from the larger clubs in every race. Lets face it, success is important. Kids and parents need something to encourage them to participate. Is it fun to come in 25th in every race? or in the final 5 kids in a race in every race? I'd say no. Coming in last is not fun, no matter how much we try to de-emphasize results, kids notice where they finish and it sticks with them. That's why having a couple of races in the calendar aimed at novice racers is important. Races need to serve the developmental needs of more than just the fastest skiers who have former olympians as their coaches. What I am talking about is 'how do we create a ski community where more kids choose cross country skiing as their sport of choice?'
I hear lots about how 'southern alberta' is privileged in the access to coaching expertise. The fact is that almost all clubs in the south are in a pretty precarious place when it comes to creating the next generation of national team superstars. That is because there is a big imbalance between have and have not ski clubs. What can do about this? We can create a space for clubs, coaches and young athletes just getting going to experience some level of success with similar ability peers. We can support a few tiered events in our competition calendar. Is it the only thing we can do? no...there is alot more...but its a start.
We are experiencing our first snowfall of the year here in southern Alberta today. It won't be long to we are back on our skis.
Friday, 29 August 2014
How we design learning experiences in a club coaching environment is worth some consideration. Research focused on what works best for skill acquisition definitely points in the direction of what we call Direct Instruction. Direct instruction refers to an instructional model typically described as follows:
1. stating/describing the skill
2. demonstrating the skill
3. opportunities for guided practice
4. providing feedback about how the athlete performs the skill
If this sounds familiar, its because this model has been around forever. In fact educational research, such as found in John Hattie's Visible Learning meta-analysis research http://visible-learning.org/ supports the idea that direct instruction is a significant teaching and learning influence on achievement. Hattie would point out that when learners have a clear picture of the intended learning outcome in mind they are much more successful in their acquisition of skill and knowledge. We shouldn't be making kids guess about skilled performance looks like. I have seen 5 year olds skate ski better than most adults because that child's coach, was successfully able to create a clear idea in the child's mind about what the skill should look like. Granted, sometimes these 5 year olds are also the type of kid that picks up motor skills very quickly.
Is direct instruction the only learning platform we can use as coaches? Definitely not. This past year, I worked at deliberately trying different instructional design ideas with the coaching work i did with adolescent cross country skiers. Cross country skiing is classified as an open skill sport meaning that the athletes technique/choices changes in response to changing stimuli or terrain.
Putting a skill in the context of terrain is important to success as a ski racer. Teaching Games for Understanding is an approach that I learned about when I was a grad student at University of Calgary. This approach to skill development, starts first with a tactical situation and asks students to think through what does the situation require in terms of skill performance. The skill is performed in response to a situation, not in isolation.
Experiential learning is a great learning platform to build relevance and understandings for young skiers. Several times a season, I would plan a practice, where we took a skill and performed it in various ways to experiment with what worked best. For example, I might have planned three downhill time trials during the same practice - the first time I'd have kids do the downhill run in a high tuck, the second time in a medium tuck, and the third time in a squat. I'd time each run and before showing kids their time, I'd ask them to reflect on which one they thought felt fastest. Then we'd look at their times and sometimes go back to the top of the downhill section of trail and try it again to try to beat their best time by refining the performance of their skill through some feedback I'd have given them based on my observation of their best run.
Integrating learning in a cross disciplinary manner is also something I've done numerous times per season. Introducing kids to physics concepts such as 'drag forces' or 'propulsive forces' and asking them to think about how they can reduce drag or increase propulsion gets kids thinking about what they are doing in a more meaningful way than simply asking them to perform a skill and receive feedback and try it again (like we might do with a direct instruction model).
There are lots of important things we can be doing as coaches to design instruction to optimize learning. Using direct instruction, tactical instruction, experiential learning, and integrated learning are just a start to expanding your repetoire as a coach of developing athletes.
Summer is wrapping up and fall training season is just around the corner. This winter, I plan to volunteer as an assistant coach with my youngest daughter's biathlon group (she's had enough of me as a cross country coach - poor girl, having to put up with her dad as a coach for so many years). I am going to try something new - put myself in a learning place. I hope you do the same
Saturday, 2 August 2014
I've been thinking lots lately about how to best support ski clubs in engaging in racing. If we look at a broad cross section of clubs in Alberta, and probably Canada, we will find that a vast majority are small clubs that do the work of 'instruction'. For these clubs there isn't a direct or apparent connection between the work that they do to 'introduce kids to a lifelong, healthy, active, family activity' and an 'athlete development pathway'. The fact is that maybe every club doesn't need to focused on technical skill development or introduction to racing experiences. Often though, I have found, these small clubs don't participate in introduction to competition experiences because they are not aware of what is possible, or the leadership doesn't feel confident to lead children in this type of experience.
Is getting more clubs engaged with competitive skiing even important? Sure it is. Hugely important. Important because competitive sport can be a real confidence builder for kids where the life lessons of resilience, effort, and improvement can be learned. Its important because without exposure to age appropriate competitive ski experiences, large groups of kids might go without the opportunity to discover something that fuels their passion.
What kind of support is needed to smaller clubs who are just getting going with their club development? I have found doing this work myself, that a huge part of engaging families with trying out competition is having conversations with parents. Creating understandings of a pathway that kids can take as they grow older, creates important understandings about key developmental experiences and the benefits that derive from them. In big well established clubs as well as small developing clubs, the conversation is essentially the same. Its about creating a picture in the minds and hearts of parents and kids about what is possible. Its about creating some priorities for your club about the races that you will attend each season. Its about taking part and hosting events where your club kids get a chance to see they are part of something bigger, something worthwhile, something that adds a new dimension to cross country skiing. This perspective takes nurturing. In big clubs whose athletes win medals at nationals, and in small clubs who have never participated in a ski race, it requires leadership to nurture and support this aspect of cross country skiing. This year, a goal of mine is to facilitate these types of conversations about the athlete development pathway is in our province with athletes and parents. It is pretty unlikely that involvement will grow without this type of support.
Supporting club coaches in their own development is a vital piece of engaging clubs in ski racing. Very few clubs have access to professional, full time coaching and expertise. It is the job of the provincial sport organization to support coaches in developing the skills and confidence needed to move their club in the direction of racing. Facilitating mentoring, guiding, and sharing experiences between newer coaches and seasoned coaches.
We need more clubs who see themselves as places where any young skier can become the next national or international champion. Helping clubs get there is important work. It is the work of the provincial sport organization and it is the work of seasoned coaches across the province. I encourage you to jump aboard and contribute.
Tuesday, 1 July 2014
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. :)
Tuesday, 24 June 2014
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...
Alberta Ski Team Director 2014-16