Tuesday, 22 January 2013

The Power of Relationship - leveraging engagement when coaching adolescents

Ideas on the importance of building relationships...

So much of what we do as coaches of adolescent skiers hinges on strong relationships.  Through my years of working with children, I've come to realize that relationships matter - how we interact with kids has an impact.  A positive connection with a coach can mean the difference between walking away and trying again.  The power of our role to frame, to process, to focus on the right thing is a huge piece of the work we do as coaches.  Finding the balance between lighthearted interaction and meaningful interest in the smaller person standing in front of us is vital - finding the right amount and time for 'serious' conversation is also important.  Remembering that we are dealing with a young person and not just an athlete is something that makes a difference.

I recently saw the work of 'relationship building' in action - a group of former, current, and aspiring national level athletes volunteering as 'super cool ski dudes' at a World Snow Day event here in Canmore that we called Boyz Got Game.  Boyz Got Game is an initiative that aims to connect aspiring 10-13 year old male skiers with role models - with men who have worked hard to be at the top of their game.  What I witnessed at this event was astounding - a group of young men sharing their passion for ski racing, making efforts to connect with individual boys, ensuring no one was left behind, giving the message that having a hero was important to them when they were younger, encouraging boys to find their own hero.  I was astounded at both the ernest effort by these high level skiers in engaging each kid in their group, and the positive reaction by the boys they were working with.  This is the work that great coaches do - to make a very personal connection with each child.

The importance of doing this type of work with boys can't be understated.  Hats off to the incredible women who do the great work of connecting girls with female role models.  I think its our job as men to do something similar with boys - connecting them with some positive male role models.  All of this made me think about a book that I recently read called The Wonder of Boys by Michael Gurian.  Although not directly addressing male sport role models, Michael writes about the need for boys to have positive role models who are men, who through their interactions can provide examples to boys of what it means to be an adult male in our world- our role, our responsibilities, the need that alot of boys have to be grounded in being a strong, caring individual focused on their priorities - ready to take action, to share, and make the world a better place. By creating spaces where boys interested in ski racing can connect with some of the top male racers in Canada, we are doing great things for our next generation of men coming up through club development programs.

All of these ideas bring me to thinking about my priorities when it comes to relationship building as a coach.  There are a number of important things I have made a part of my daily interactions with the adolescents that I coach.  I'd like to share those with you here.

Take an interest in kids...

As coaches we want kids to learn to ski well, we want them to improve, we want them to work hard. I have found that this work is easier when adolescents know that they are important to you.  Nothing says 'you are important to me' more than taking an interest in who kids are, what they like, what they don't like, what the name of their dog is, what other sports they do, if they play a musical instrument, how they like to spend their down time, what board games they like, who they like to hang out with, what they want to do when they get older.  The conversations are limitless.  I have found with some kids you ask them one question about themselves and they can talk for 30 minutes, while for others they offer less, and as a coach, you have to work harder to get them to talk.  You have to be ready for the hard work of doing lots of asking.  If you were an athlete when you were younger you probably knew a coach like this - someone who saw you for more than just physical prowess - someone that made a difference in your life - someone who helped you shape yourself into who are today.  Its important to be that kind of coach when you are working with adolescents because if you're not, somebody else likely is, and kids migrate to environments where they feel valued and a part of something important. 

Relationship leverages hard work...

Cross country ski racing is not an easy sport - I would say its one of the most physically demanding sports out there.  Lots of people would agree with me.  To become a great ski racer, an athlete has to be prepared to do alot of hard work.  The reality is that not everyone who tries cross country ski racing is going to say to themselves - 'this is who I want to be'.  There will be some natural attrition when kids decide for example to take up swimming instead of skiing (we all have personal preferences).  For me though, there is a bit more to what is going on than just attributing kids moving on to attrition.  If it was as simple as 'cross country skiing is not for everyone' then why is it that in some places, often small places, unusually large numbers of exceptional athletes emerge.  The Yukon is a great example of a small place where an unusually large number of high level skiers emerge.  Clearly, its not just a numbers game - what we do in creating an environment makes a difference.  On the weekend I had the pleasure of chatting with a mom, whose two boys were participating in a regional race my T2T team attended.  She was from Norway.  Her husband was working at the Calgary Statoil office for two years.  They were enjoying themselves in Canada.  She told me that in the city she comes from in Norway there are 10 ski clubs - the population of the city was about 50,000 people.  Something is going on in Norway and why isnt it happening in Canada in the same way?  Its important to recognize that in Canada, we live in a sport culture dominated by ice hockey.  In India, it might be cricket, in Jamaica, sprinting.  Clearly, we have a bit of extra work to do.  Thinking about relationship building is a key piece of that work.

What is it about a sport that captures the imagination and passion of different places - clearly there is more going on than predisposition when it comes to engaging adolescents in a sport.  That is where I have found relationship plays a huge role.  The focus in cross country skiing needs to be on excellence, but it does need to start somewhere else.  For me, it starts with engaging each and every child with the message 'I am glad you're here...you've got potential...i notice your hard work...you've got a future as a ski racer'.  In my mind, these are things that we can't just leave to chance - there is a real need for a bit more intentionality about keeping the kids who start on the path to becoming a ski racer.  There are alot of things working against this objective - not living in a culture where cross country skiing is the first sport of choice - not having a big pool of experienced leadership who encourage kids to try racing...a culture of self interest, elitism, and individualism - all of these things underscore the importance of building relationships with adolescent skiers as a vehicle to engagement.  Try to take a few minutes to have a conversation with your athletes - everyday.

Don't be too serious...

Lets leave the 'serious' interactions for coaches of higher level athletes - athletes who might be more ready for serious messages.  At 12 or 13 years old, the average kid is just not ready for reality messages or serious discussions - boring...  that's not to say that there isnt some important things to say, and adolescents should be able to handle some more focused talk time - but if that's a coach's whole repetoire of interactions, then...yawn...'how much time till the end of practice'...  You know you've got things cooking in a practice when those reactions don't show up at all.

I have several friends who were high level athletes when they were younger.  A while ago, one of these friends told me a bit his experience as a junior age athlete - he had had a fantastic run as a ski racer, but at one point he got to a point where something he loved had turned into work - partly because of the interactions with the coaches he had worked with at that time  - how somehow his passion for becoming an excellent ski racer had somehow moved on - I guess it happens to all of us - at some point everyone decides 'this is it, this is where I switch gears onto a new path in my life'.  What is unfortunate in my eyes is when this happens to adolescent skiers - when they stop because somehow they are not getting what they need.  We can't afford to lose kids like this.  As coaches, we need to do everything we can to make sure that its not because of the personal relationships that kids move on to other things.  There are other factors as well that come into play when a young athlete decides that ski racing isn't for him or her - family priorities, competition structure, access to recognition initiatives, not having an experienced coach who can help create a pathway to excellence.  There is alot at play.

As coaches of adolescent cross country ski racers there is alot to think about.  Building personable relationships with kids is a key piece.  Its hard work.  Lets roll up our sleeves and get busy.


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