Designing a Pathway to Excellence...
There is alot of collective wisdom out there about the best path to take in helping young athletes learn what they need to learn to be their best. Whole books are written on this topic. I've recently been reading The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle and its gotten me thinking about the environmental factors in building programs where young athletes flourish.
As coaches, there are certainly lots of questions to address when thinking about setting the stage for later success. At what age do young skiers begin engaging in 'volume' training or 'interval-intensity' training? At what age and stage should high level glide waxes be used on athlete's skis? When should athletes race at nationals for the first time? There are no rules about these things written by anyone. We do have recommendations in Canada outlined in the CCC Athlete Development Matrix - but they are recommendations for best practice not something that clubs are obliged to follow. As a result, as I am sure you know, how clubs deal with these questions are quite varied. These are not topics that I have found there is a very big desire to engage in conversation around as a ski community - it's just a little uncomfortable, because it reflects our values. I guess what I am trying to address is the notion of 'fast-tracking' athletes - giving them more than what is recommended in the hopes that greater volume, early intensity, early access to high level competitions, high end glide waxing, all will help them achieve success earlier and to a greater level than same age peers.
Let's face it, there is pressure on coaches to help athletes improve and perform. In some clubs, the expectations are high because parents are paying alot of money to have their children participate. Many coaches will guide their athletes to race up a category or attend nationals as midgets so that they can acquire higher CPL points (assuming they perform well), which will help them to meet the criteria earlier for recognition and skill development initiatives such as the Alberta Ski Team. I don't blame them, we all want the best for our athletes, and as parents we want our kids to be successful. What is unfortunate is when provincial sport development recognition systems encourage and reinforce these types of choices.
It's nice to see that pushing kids ahead doesn't need to happen to help kids become successful. This past weekend at the Alberta Cup race in Canmore I witnessed some incredible races by some young athletes. Some of whom I know have been late developers who also have the added disadvantage of being an end of the calendar year birthday (statistics show that early success often is correlated to month of birth) - youth who have persevered through 6 or 7 years of 15th to 30th place finishes - kids who have been there at every race for a number of years, but have never received much recognition. And yet here they were - standing on the podium. Wow! These kids have persevered as part of clubs and programs that did not necessarily encourage 'racing up' or 'early intensity' or 'early volume' or 'powdering skis for adolescents' - but who instead engaged in ongoing age appropriate LTAD recommended training and racing regimens. It was a happy day for these athletes this past weekend, and to their credit and to their coach's credit, they have worked hard to be a contender. Bravo! to these coaches and to all of the others who work with this philosophy.
The environment athletes are in has a huge impact on their development. Just this morning, I was talking with a good friend who has been a national level ski racer, and she told me that her best years on the national team were the years where she had to be on her best game to finish at the top of the national group in Canada. Interesting that she found that having the critical mass of high calibre athletes actually made it more enjoyable and helped her to reach her highest potential. I think this is important in clubs as well - having a critical mass. Having enough bodies around makes it fun, especially when its close enough that a finish order can be reversed from one day to the next. I sure find it refreshing to see that so many parents, who were high level athletes themselves, are not the parents who are at the steering wheel of their kid's athletic ambition - I find it refreshing and highly contagious that these parents are letting their own kids do the driving. Ultimately, at the end of it all, we want our kids to be happy, to grow into well functioning, caring adults, and we want it to be their choice - to do it themselves.
So is it just about the winning? Let's face it, cross country ski racing is a competition - its about being the fastest. What we need to consider as coaches and parents is...is winning at 12 years old the most important thing - does it matter that you were the top 12 year old in the province when you are 16 or 18 or at the world cup level? I would say no - If you are lucky enough to get there - to get to the world cup level, there had to have been alot things fall into place, and it won't matter one bit whether you were the fastest 12 year old in Alberta or Canada. What really matters to me as a coach of young adolescent skiers is that kids see themselves as having the potential whether they are performing at the level they want to right now or not. I want to create a space where kids work hard and have fun and where they improve. I am lucky to have the guidance and mentorship of some good friends who have been at it for awhile. I am also fortunate to have the opportunities that are given to me.
Cross country skiing would be considered an 'open skill' sport - meaning that the skills are performed in a constantly changing environment and in response to the actions of other athletes. Success in cross country skiing is attributable to many things - having good equipment, having the best wax on your skis either for glide or grip to match the snow conditions, wearing the right clothing can make a difference, your start position can sometimes be an advantage, knowing and being able to perform the appropriate technique in response to changes in terrain, having the fitness to be able to ski as fast as you want, and having opportunities to engage in skill instruction from knowledgeable, experienced coaches. The mix of things that go into 'success' are staggering. It really does take some time. We all have different philosophies about how to get there. I have come to know that for me, designing a pathway to excellence includes more than just the short term results that come from fast tracking a young athlete.
I think its important to recognize that there is a significant grey area when it comes to equipment preparation and athlete development protocols - and that what is right for one athlete, family, coach, or club may not be right for another group. I share my ideas mostly to stimulate some conversation and reflection. I encourage you to do the same.