Wednesday, 21 November 2012

The Big Priorities in Coaching Adolescent Cross Country Ski Racers

The Big Priorities in Coaching Adolescent Cross Country Skiers

There are lots of possibilities when it comes to deciding what to include in your training sessions and practices.  Physical training, mental training experiences, technical coaching, race prep, goal setting, team building, fun and games...    The list is not a short one when it comes to how you decide to allocate time and energy in setting the stage for young skiers to become high performing athletes later on.  The importance of the work can't be understated.  I was just today talking with a good friend, Les Parsons, about a conversation he had had with a national level coach working with senior age athletes, who stated that the work we do with young skiers has incredible impact on what they end up with at the national level.  The big question, and what makes every coach or program a little different is in the mix that you create of the priorities that you see as important.  Successful coaches create programs where kids stick around, where they learn to ski well, and where they have great fitness.  What follows is a snapshot of my priorities as a coach of adolescent skiers.  In reflecting on my priorities, my hope is to get you thinking about what your priorities are. 

I think of the big priorities as being framed in 5 key areas:
 - creating experiences to optimize the growth of competence and success as an athlete
 - optimizing windows of trainability appropriate to the developmental age of an athlete
 - creating experiences to optimize personal growth
 - nurturing a positive environment
 - developing skills in racing

Young athletes need to work towards being competent skiers, able to think for themselves and respond to changes in terrain, conditions, and other skiers with the appropriate technique and decisions.  As a coach, there is a need to work with other coaches of older athletes in your club to create developmental benchmarks to be achieved at successive ages and stages of athlete development.  There is a need to differentiate instruction with athletes with varying skill sets.  Most important is giving each athlete some attention each practice - noticing them and noticing their effort.

The Long Term Athlete Development Plan identifies a number of key windows of trainability for early adolescents.  These include skill acquisition up to the onset of peak height velocity.  As Istvan Balyi explains, these windows of trainability are critical windows of accelerated adaptation to training.  Stamina/endurance is a key skill in cross country ski racing and is also a key window of trainability for early adolescents.  Speed is another area where early adolescents' bodies are primed and ready for accelerated adaptation.  Thinking about how you spend your training sessions is crucial.  Skill development is important, but physical training can provide huge gains in performance later on.  This creates some complex demands on organization when differentiation of instruction is put on the table.

Another priority for me as a coach is to create opportunities for experiences that optimize personal growth.  Building self reliance in athletes is a big priority - its important that kids develop a sense of confidence that comes from working hard and being prepared.  Creating a culture where learning is what its about is hugely important.

Nurturing a positive environment at club practices and training sessions helps to keep everyone happy.  A healthy dose of fun each day, where kids ideas are valued, and where the destination is desirable is vital.  Developing a culture of excellence is the goal - where young athletes see what is possible by the paths forged by those only slightly older and others much older.  Our team room at the Canmore Nordic Centre is a special place - on the walls are race bibs from world championships/world cup races donated and signed by world cup athletes based in town.  Banners from Nationals and Youth Championships say to kids 'hey look what is possible'.  Senior age athletes, fresh off of experiences at Canada Winter games or National level events volunteer their time as assistant coaches.  All of these things help to create a special place for children.  Every club is different and has different assets, but I will say the benefits of consciously creating a positive space for kids are powerful. For me, being a part of a program that is athlete centered at all ages and stages is vital.  It can't just be about the top performers at the older levels.

Learning to be a good racer is another one of my priorities as a coach.  Developing the skills of creating and using a race plan, of goal setting, or reflecting are all things that can start with early adolescent ski racers.  Ensuring adequate and appropriate race experiences is definitely something that coaches think about.  Learning to set goals that may be 5 or 6 years off, is a great way to get young athletes thinking about what possibilities lie ahead when pursuing a path that involves racing.  Encouraging 'the dream' is something done so well by Fast and Female (  ) Fast and Female has done this so well, that our girls numbers are huge in our club.

Last winter, Phil Wood and myself, in conjunction with the Alberta World Cup Academy ( ) organized a day to foster boys making a connection with national level racers.  We called the day "Boyz Got Game".  The day was held as part of World Snow Day in Canmore.  Kids came from all over to participate.  The big idea with the day was to create some fun and connect young racers with  some young men who have worked hard to participate in events such as World Junior Championships.  Everyone wore a mustache, skied lots and had pizza and root beer to finish off the afternoon.  It was an incredible success. (  ) Experiences that get young racers fired up about racing are key experiences.  The fact is that racing is something that needs some nurturing in some ways.

We will all have our own priorities based on our unique life experiences and the philosophies of our clubs - which can all be so surprisingly diverse.  Diversity is a good thing - there isnt just one right way to get anywhere.  I wish you well in finding your way to where you're going.


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