Sunday, 3 February 2013

Does Body Size Matter... addressing the developmental needs of adolescents

Revisiting how we set kids up...

If you've been around awhile and worked with adolescents, you'll know what I am talking about - adolescent skiers competing in the same category who are at vastly different places in their growth and development.  Sometimes 20-25 kilos difference in weight - a small 90 pound boy competing in the same group as a 150 lb boy-man.  This happens all the time and yet despite intuitively knowing something is going on here that really isnt going to benefit anyone, we let it happen, over and over again.  When it happens, the big boy wins, the little boy finishing somewhere after all of the big boys.  This is life at 12 or 13 for adolescent boys who race cross country skiing in Canada.

A good friend of mine has proposed we give out some special awards to early developers - the 'wonder bra' award and the 'gillette' (making reference to shaving facial hair) award.   I am not out to pick on anyone, but I do really believe that we are doing a disservice to young skiers when the best that we do is stick to chronological year of birth competition categories for kids going through peak height velocity.  We do a disservice to the early developers and we do a disservice to the late developers.  If you've been around awhile, you've seen it happen many times - early developer wins consistently at 12 or 13, late developers finally catch up at 16 or 17 (if they stick around that long) and start beating the early developer - early developers say to themselves - 'I'm not really that good at this after all' and drop out.  In the mean time, the early developer has had access to additional specialized training and coaching opportunities made available through provincial athlete development recognition strategies such as a provincial development team.  Tons of money is invested as a sport community in these early developers only to find that the ones who persist after high school as a racer are often not the athletes who had access as early developers to all of the specialized training and coaching opportunities, but instead its the late developers who persist.  It doesn't always happen this way, but I've seen this happen many times.  

Developing at your own pace is totally normal - its been happening for as long as humans have been on  the earth - some kids due to genetics, and maybe environment, develop at an earlier rate, 11, 12 or 13 years old, some grow more at a statistically average rate 14-15, while others don't really get going on their adolescent growth spurt until later, sometimes as old as 16 or 17.  This is what is normal.  In our club in Canmore, we take the time to collect growth data - arm span, standing height, sitting height - every three months with all of our developing athletes 11-17.  It is alot of work, and the information it provides is largely intuitive - 'Yup, Billy is in early peak height velocity' or 'Jenny is nearing the end of her adolescent growth spurt'.  We do the work of measuring kids anyway.  We've been at this every three months since early 2010.  The information it provides validates the fact that early developers finish well ahead of late developers in almost all races.  I haven't done the correlational calculations comparing rate of growth with race results, but you know its happening.  I'd love to share our data with someone who has the time to do this kind of analysis at a university - maybe I'll do it at some point, I do have 'PhD' on my bucket list.

We have a pretty good idea of what is going on with our young athletes - and we can show kids growth curves and provide some information to kids about why so and so is winning and why they're not, or if they are an early developer, working with them to make sure that they understand, that they need to not over focus on results, develop resiliency, and realize that the results as a 13 year old will mean nothing when they are 18.  We can give the late developers the same message - its just as important for them.  Its important to us that all of our skiers stick it out, and strive to be their best.  This work is led by our club's program director/head coach - a really incredible guy with a strong vision of what he wants our club to be and what it means to help kids be their best.

Please don't misunderstand what I am saying here - early developers who win cross country ski races deserve to do well, they often are kids who are very dedicated to physical training and technical skill development. The problem I see with our current competition model for 12-13 year olds is that we do nothing to recognize that peak height velocity has a huge impact on who wins on race day.  There is a sort of 'maintain the status quo' attitude out there at all levels when it comes to adjusting competition categories to reflect developmental considerations.  I hear it all the time when I have this conversation - 'kids need to learn how to suck it up' - 'kids need to be patient' - 'kids need to not over focus on results'.  The fact is these are hard lessons for adolescents and maybe we could be doing something better to not set kids up for hard lessons.

I think we set boys up - both the early developers and late developers when we use chronological competition groupings for kids experiencing peak height velocity.  I believe its why we have a huge drop off in athlete numbers just after the midget category.  Its too bad really, as leaders in our sport, I think we can do something to allow kids at different developmental stages in early adolescence to compete with others of similar developmental level.  Its not healthy to win too much as an early adolescent - in cross country ski racing young athletes need to develop experience of being in pursuit of someone who is faster than them - when they get to Eastern or Western Canadian Championships as a 14 or 15 year old, they are not going win every race and the athlete who does come out on top is often some of those athletes who have had to learn to struggle and fight for their success.  I believe as well, that it's not healthy to lose too much as an early adolescent - every kid needs to be able to find some success - something that gives them some motivation to hang in there, to wait patiently, to give themselves a chance to grow.

Maybe I am wrong about all of this, and the important learning for all adolescents is resiliency, determination, perseverance, hard work and not results.  These are all very important life lessons that being a racer can teach an adolescent. The problem I see is that many adolescents give up because they just can't see 5 years down the road - its too far away.  Many adolescents aren't willing to take the risk of failing over and over again.  I think we are failing many, many of our young skiers in sticking to chronological age categories for early adolescent skiers.  We can do better than this, because at 12 or 13, size does matter - how big your body is makes a difference.  When we look at who the top performers are at the highest level in Canada, many of those athletes were not the ones who were shaving at 13.  What has happened to all of these early developers - why haven't they stuck it out?  What can we do to make sure that we build a sport system that gives every kid the best chance of sticking it out for the long term.

This is a great conversation, and one I enjoy having.  What can we be doing in Canada to help create the most robust sport system for cross country skiing?  Let's grab a coffee next time we see each other and see where it goes.

Roy Strum
All Around Nice Guy
Canmore, AB


  1. Malcolm Gladwell addressed a mini-version of the same issue in the context of Canadian Hockey jr leagues (your language is similar - I'm guessing you've read?). I'm wondering if hockey in Canada has done anything since that book came out, that skiing can copy. We could stop doing age groups and start doing "height" group. That obviously ignores any factor of development other than height, although, most of the conversation around development is indeed based on height - PHV, etc....

    1. thanks for your comments - I haven't read Gladwell's book but am interested to seek it out - Incidentally, I have tried various competition groupings in club based competitions - weight, height, changing to age on Jun 30 instead of Dec 31 just to see how it would affect outcomes - some positive outcomes I can share another time. I really started thinking about this work in 2008 when listening to Istvan Balyi at the Sport Leadership Conference in Calgary put on by Coaches Assocation of Canada - and I've seen many examples of kids who are late developers, who were never fast enough to be a part of any provincial recognition/development initiatives go on to ski faster than kids who had received tons of specialized attention because of the advantage of being early developers. My sense is, good work is happening - my goal is to keep the conversation going and push the envelope to ensure that the ski sport community knows that doing something different that what is currently out there is a priority - at least to me and likely to many many other coaches, parents, and clubs.


  2. Roy

    Great article, As a coach of 11-13 yr olds I totally know what you are speaking of and a father of a son with and early birthdate and a daughter with a very later birthdate I have experienced both ends of the spectrum. I suspect the change of birth year from Dec 31 to Jun 30 and competitions based on physical size would be a logistical challenge its a very important concept for coaches of this age group to understand. I find that I spend a lot of time discussing the concept with parents of the athletes I coach. I often need to explain to them what's happening and how they can work with me to keep the kids motivated and we actively look for events and activities where all the kids can have their "day of glory" so that they want to come back.

    Interestingly at the BC Championships this past weekend we raced on a very new and challenging classic course which oddly favored the small, nimble, quick athletes who often get over shadowed by the behemoth athletes in the same age group. It was a situation that many coaches hadn't seen before but in almost all age groups the big power house athletes were well down the results sheet. It was a good day to be technically proficient and not necessarily just big for one's age.

  3. thanks for contributing to the conversation - you know, it is nice to see that 'size' doesnt always mean 'faster' when it comes to adolescents. I have certainly seen this as well. I think part of the challenge is that most of the expertise in cross country skiing in our country is focused on the highest levels of performance and although some of those folks I am certain have outstanding and leading edge ideas about these things, in alot of cases they just don't have the time to do it all - they have a very important job of helping our top skiers perform at the highest level. That's been part of the motivation for me with this blog - to create a conversation about what's going on with kids involved with early adolescent ski racing in Canada (well, at least Alberta) and share out some ideas to advance the level of coaching - my other life is as a physical education teacher/consultant with a local school board, and I know that one of the expectations with that role is to share out knowledge and experience to advance the capacity of the professional community - I know in cross country skiing most coaches of 12-13 year olds in Canada are volunteers - regardless, I feel strongly that experience shared is more powerful than knowledge retained. I sure appreciate knowing that my blog hsa maybe created a bit of a buzz at least with a couple of people.

    All the best in your coaching man!

  4. Interesting comments. My two children were cross country skiers as well swimmers in summer club. Something that summer club does is give out "I beat your time ribbons to swimmers if they improved their time in an event. I realize that this is easier to do with set distances and controlled conditions in a pool.

  5. Wonder if there is a way to make the slowest person on the team be and feel the most important; ie- if the slowest person skis harder it will push the person in front of them to work harder and all the way up the line; am thinking harder can be taken literally or it can also mean having more fun skiing going as fast as you can as well.

    So add up all the time of all the skiers on one team and take their average time? If the team with the fastest skier finished one second slower it is due as much to the fastest skier as well as the slowest. Still might not work for "stacked teams" though.

    Perhaps some kind of system where rather than just rewarding skiers who finish 1-2-3 or 1-2-...10 , we now take a photo of all the kids who raced in that age category as well.

    Am no expert; appreciate reading the blog and comments. Thanks

  6. Thanks Mark and Susan for your comments - I agree, it is important to make sure that kids get recognized in some way for their efforts - this is particularly important for kids who don't ski fast enough to get the recognition provided by the event. The trick I think is figuring out what is the best recognition or feedback that kids need - its not always a ribbon or a medal - but something that says 'I am pretty good at this, or I am getting better at this' - that is the feedback that the kids on the podium get regularly - I agree, I thinks its important that adolescents receive that kind of recognition - I have certainly tried lots of things including providing my own 'effort' or 'improvement' ribbons to kids in my group at the end of a race; I've helped them to calculate percent behind as that is real indicator of improvement relative to peers; I also included medals to 10th place at events that I lead such as the Alberta Youth Champs. In the end, I am not sure how much of a difference it all made. The important piece I have found working with beginning racers is validation of effort, and recognition of some piece of the performance - all the ribbons and medals at some point become fru fru. That being said, awards at races are important and my feeling is they should be allocated according to developmental milestones instead of chronological ones for early adolescent skiers. I think it would be better for the early developers and the late developers to have them skiing with kids of similar developmental characteristics. Biathlon Alberta does a really great job with this with their 'development' category - check it out at

  7. I like that idea of grouping kids based on size as opposed to age. My son is one of the late developers, not even on the growth charts for someone his age. He does get discouraged when he is at the back during races but fortunately he loves skiing and wants to always arrive early at practice and leave late so he can get as much skiing in as possible. I think he would enjoy the races more though if he could compete with other skiers of the same physical ability.

    The club (Foothills Nordic) also has excellent coaches who keep him excited about skiing so I hope they encourage and pay attention to all enthusiastic skiers, no matter how well they do in races as the years go by and not just focus their attention on the fastest ones.

  8. thanks for your thoughts - this is a topic that resonates with parents - especially parents of late developing children, particularly boys where there can be a huge difference in size.