Transitioning – ideas on becoming an adolescent athlete
Somewhere between 11 and 13, kids, their parents, or coaches get the idea that maybe trying a race would be good. For some adolescents this comes easily – maybe they have had broad experience with competitive situations as a younger child and think nothing of it. For others it takes a fair bit of encouraging, reassuring, and framing to get them to the start line. Really, it shouldn’t be surprising that hesitation sometimes happens with some kids as it takes some confidence to try something new, to take a risk, to put yourself out there, especially when you`re unsure of your abilities. In our world today, there are a lot of families that protect their child from every possible risk. It seems especially so when it comes to sport if parents weren’t athletes themselves as younger people. It leads me to thinking about a question that comes up lots when chatting with other coaches – how do you transition kids successfully from introductory instructional focused ski programs to engaging these same kids in trying competitive cross country skiing. If you’ve got the answer to that question nailed, you’ve got something good cooking and I would love to hear from you – lots of good sized brains have thought about that one for I’m sure a number of years and are still struggling with it.
So much happens for early adolescents – rapid skeletal, muscular, hormonal development - increased importance of peers and independence - every sport they are involved with is seeking increased commitment and time – the need for ever higher quality of equipment, coaching, training and racing opportunities. Kids this age have a lot going on – and so, it shouldn’t really come as a surprise that some of them just check out, and decide becoming a racer isn’t really for them. Despite this reality, I have seen many, many young athletes stick it out and grow to become excellent high level athletes at a later age. What gets them there? What pivotal experience occurred to get them to say ‘this is for me’?
If we really want to bridge kids from instructional to competitive skiing, we really need to reach out to their parents. It is parents who decide the parameters of a child’s existence – parents decide ‘we’ll spend this amount on equipment’, ‘we’ll travel this weekend to that event’, or ‘we’ll pay the club fees for this program or that one’. And so, it’s parents who we need to reach out to if we want to increase the percentage of kids engaged as adolescents in competitive cross country skiing. So many parents, even in a ski town like Canmore, have never had the experience of being a racer. Thinking about their child as an ‘athlete’ is a pretty foreign concept to some parents. These folks need to be brought along, to see the next steps. They need some experiences that show them where it goes and why their child should be a part of it all. These parents need to see that it isn’t about elitism – that it’s not just for children of parents who were high level racers. Parents need opportunities to learn from experienced mentors, to become engaged in events and conversations about what it looks like and the benefits of having their child involved in ski racing as an adolescent. I recently attended a session by a social activist from Toronto, Dave Meslin – Dave shared his beliefs that he doesn’t really think apathy exists, but rather alienation exists. Maybe this offers an explanation as to why so many parents don’t move their kids on to racing programs at 12 or 13 years old – its not because people don’t care that there would be some benefit to their child to become an athlete, but rather the disengagement occurs because people haven’t been invited in, in a way that is meaningful to them. At our ski club in Canmore, we work at being intentional about the invitation, by engaging parents and kids to try out the next level a couple of times during the season. It takes hard work to transition kids from introductory instructional ski experiences to ‘train to train’ programs. Its hard work everywhere. Its hard work at a small club where there is no tradition of racing, and it is hard work at a club that has large and successful racing programs. I hear folks saying ‘oh, you guys have it easy in Canmore, you have a great facility and lots of high level athletes around’ – and the fact is we do have access to a great facility and there are many high level athletes in town. But the work of transitioning kids from ' you need to be there' to adolescents that see themselves as a ski racer is hard work and no easier in Canmore than anywhere else. It is the deliberate work of creating a positive space, and providing experiences where that transition to ‘athlete’ occurs.
One of the important pieces I have always felt that would help that transition is to embed ‘competition’ in regular practice sessions. Other sports do this all the time – can you imagine enrolling in hockey and never playing a game? Or enrolling in golf but always staying on the putting greens and driving range. Other sports do a great job of normalizing competition, of making it a part of each practice or at least once per week. Practice to competition ratio is something that has had quite a bit of discussion the last number of years. Sports such as hockey have been criticized for having too many games in relation to the number of practices. The problem with so many introductory cross country ski experiences is that there is so little competition relative to the number of practice sessions. This is understandable because so few leaders of children’s cross country skiing have ever participated in a ski race – so why would they organize one, when it is a foreign concept to them. We need to find ways to involve young skiers in regular competition. Wouldn’t it be great if every club in a region hosted a club championship event aimed at their club, but open to every club in the region. Wouldn’t it be great if coaches found ways to embed some competition regularly in club practices? Wouldn’t it be great if competition for young skiers didn’t mirror adult competition formats?
What we really need to help young skiers transition to racing in Canada is not a one size fits all approach to adolescent competitive ski experiences. Maybe its time to look at a tiered regional race series – one for adolescents who have been at it awhile and another for kids just getting going. If we are interested in serving the diverse needs of kids, we really need to rethink how we are organizing things. I’d really love to see a southern Alberta development race series aimed at novice skiers, and then a different series for kids to graduate to which involved adolescents who have a bit more experience. These are all projects I’d love to put some time into and will. There are 10-12 ski clubs who work with children in southern Alberta of which two are regular participants at regional and provincial races. I think we could be doing something differently to advance competitive cross country skiing in southern Alberta.
Transitioning kids to competitive cross country skiing is work that is important and requires nurturing. If we really want to be a leading ski nation, we need to think about supporting the good work of coaches in all clubs. This begins by having a conversation with each other about how we can work together for the advancement of competitive cross country skiing. I believe a healthy ski community where there are 20+ strong, involved and active clubs across a region is a much better thing than a reality where there are one or two clubs dominating races. The outcome of this work is increased numbers of adolescent skiers transitioning to becoming athletes. What do we need in place to achieve this outcome? This is an important conversation and one I’d love to advance.