Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Connecting Adolescents with Passion...ideas on creating a spark

Creating a Spark - a key role in helping kids see themselves as athletes

Early adolescense is a key time in a young person's life where they are figuring out who they are as a person, who they want to become, who they identify with... when they really start to think about what they want to be.  As coaches of athletes this age, we have a key role in helping these young people see themselves as capable, confident, and with potential to be who they want to be.  With the right type of engagement, adolescents can thrive on the hard work and challenge that comes along with deciding to be cross country ski racer.

Learning to be the type of coach that leverages, sustains, and creates situations where passion is nurtured is a skill that is not just reserved for the coaches of junior elite level athletes but instead, this important work is the domain of every aspiring club coach of adolescent athletes.  My experience is that developing passion for being a racer occurs during early adolescence - a time when some kids begin to develop a long term commitment to the idea of being an athlete.  It is likely that many athletes that go on to junior national teams have likely had some experience as an early adolescent athlete where they saw themselves as someone who could be the next Alex Harvey, Chandra Crawford, or Devon Kershaw.  This incredibly important work happens first at 11 or 12 or 13 for many kids.  To their credit, athletes like Chandra, or Alex, or Devon, or Beckie Scott or Sara Renner have provided the inspiration for the next generation of young athletes by taking the time to take simple actions that create this vision of 'I can be just like Chandra'.

I saw this magic happen first when one of my own children attended a Fast and Female event as an 8 year old - Chandra had just won a gold medal at the Torino Olympics and what did Chandra do?, she placed her gold medal around this young skiers neck and posed for a photo with her.  The incredible impact of this one small gesture has been astounding.  It is the sort of moment where a child says to themselves 'you are my hero and I want to be like you'.  It is a moment that is etched in a child's memory.  But the wonder of an athlete like Chandra doesn't stop there.  Fast forward 6 years, my daughter comes home from an afternoon of skiing on Frozen Thunder, and says, 'Dad, I had Chandra skiing behind me on the trail, and when she passed me she said hi to me by name'.  Again, not a huge action by an athlete like Chandra, but one that says to a young athlete - You are important enough for me to take the time to say hello.  These small things make a big impression on young athletes and lead to a young athlete sharing 'more than anything I want to be like Chandra'. 

The work of Fast and Female is inspiring a whole generation of young girls to be their best - to see themselves as athletes that can do amazing things - young skiers realize that accomplished athletes like Kikkan Randall, Liz Stephens, Jessie Diggins, and Chandra Crawford all were young athletes themselves who at one point said to themselves 'I can be an athlete, I can ski at nationals, I can ski at world championships, I can win a world cup medal, I can be a world or olympic champion'.  Fast and Female organized such an event recently, where a group of amazing women once again took a few moments to make a personal connection with a group of young girls -  to say to them  'you can do this, you can be who want to be' - to share the message that they have alot in common - that 'I have been where you are, and you can be where I am'.   This Fast and Female event took place on the eve of the 2012 Alberta World Cup races in Canmore.  It would be easy for world cup athletes to focus inward on their own preparation for these important races, but these women are not very ordinary individuals - they are taking a few minutes to share their story, to listen to the stories of these young athletes about what they dream about, to have some fun with them, but I think mostly to make a personal connection, because that is how you accomplish goals - by making a very personal choice to be your best, to strive to find your personal excellence - and for these women to share that message in a way that fits for girls - in a social, friendly, supportive way.  Bravo to these women - your work is making an incredible difference in the lives of the girls who you inspire.

Boys need the same inspiration, the same mentorship, the same personal connection - that is why I am excited to be part of an initiative we are calling 'Boyz Got Game' - our second go around of this initiative takes place Jan 20, 2013.  Our first Boyz Got Game event partnered with the Alberta World Cup Academy and engaged incredible young men like Pate Neumann, Gerard Garnier, Russell Kennedy, Patrick Stewart-Jones, Jesse Cockney and Kevin Sandau,  in an afternoon of fun and skill building.  We think this is the sort of event that boys are looking for.  I saw the impact of this type of work first hand last year during our Boyz Got Game event, I also saw the power of a role model when Alex Harvey shared a few minutes of his time with kids at the Quebec Noram Youth Champs in Joliette - kids eating up every word that Alex said, revelling in the dream of being the next Alex Harvey. Bravo to these young men, for taking a few minutes to connect with these boys who are looking for and needing someone to aspire to be like.  Really, I think its our job as men to do this for our boys - to help them to see that it is possible for Canadian boys to accomplish amazing feats.  Boyz Got Game takes place on World Snow Day in Canmore and is an initiative of Canmore Nordic Ski Club, Cross Country Canada, and the Alberta World Cup Academy.  We think the important work of intentionally creating an experience that helps kids to create a spark that leads to them aspiring to be an athlete is a crucial experience for early adolescent skiers.  Thank you to the athletes volunteering their time in this go around of Boyz Got Game.

Studies show that kids who see themselves as someone who is in it for the long term affects their commitment to learning.  In fact, as Daniel Coyle points out in his book The Talent Code, studies show that young learners who saw themselves as part of the 'long term commitment' group outperformed their short term commitment group by 400%.  Having a dream, and having adults around that support the creation of a long term commitment to that dream can have an an incredible impact on the performance of athletes. Our role as coaches of early adolescent athletes is remarkable, because it is at precisely this age when athletes are most receptive to the work of developing passion, creating identity as an individual and with a group, and with beginning to chart a course for their lives.  Yesterday, at a club event, Beckie Scott shared some time to welcome a group of Whitehorse skiers who are doing an exchange with our club's T2 team.  Beckie shared her story of starting where they are at, and of having spent 11 years on the world cup circuit.  You could almost see the sparks of budding passion being lit inside of kids heads.  Thank you Beckie, Chandra, Devon, Kikkan for creating a spark that for many of these young skiers will grow into a bright flame.

But it isnt just these accomplished athletes who do the work of creating sparks - this work doesn't just happen at national team training centres - this work happens through the intentional creation of building a spark - it happens as a result of the work of coaches across the province - not just in the big clubs where a fire is already going, but in the small clubs where one or two passionate coaches reside.  We don't have to pass along our kids to others because we see a spark happening somewhere else - it is us as coaches of 12 and 13 year olds who do this important work every practice.  Your club is where this spark can happen - not in some elite club somewhere else.  Gather your matches, create your kindling, chop your firewood, and start your fire - small at first, but treat it with care, and a good roaring blaze can start and when it does, you'll know because you'll have a group of young athletes who own the work - this work has happened in small places - Vermillion, Alberta is such a place, Mont Ste Anne is such a place, Canmore is such a place.  Your club and community can be such a place.


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