Monday, 11 March 2013

The Big Picture...Ideas on Supports for Success

Addressing the role of Provincial Sport Organizations in building a strong racing culture

In Canada, we are privileged with the support of provincial sport organizations (PSO) whose job it is to support the growth and development of clubs and leadership in a province.  These organizations are funded mostly through government funds aimed at advancing sport in a province.  Depending on the jurisdiction, a provincial organization can have varying degrees of influence and success in advancing competitive sport in the region.  Many folks kind of know these organizations exist, but in my experience, I have found that most parents and athletes are very disconnected with the work that happens by PSOs.

This topic is of such disinterest, that you might already be yawning and ready to click away from this blog - but I am here to say that PSOs make a difference and what they do is important work in advancing our sport in each province.  The work they do is important because of the support it creates for clubs and coaches.  Provincial sport organizations, such as Cross Country Alberta or Cross Country BC, are important because they set the tone for what happens in a province. 

Through my time on the board of directors at Cross Country Alberta, I collaborated with club contacts and other volunteers to create a number of initiatives aimed at advancing competitive cross country skiing.  Near the top of the list was to help the provincial sport organization define its work more clearly around advancing competitive cross country skiing  The fact is that competitive cross country skiing needs special nurturing and support - outside of a few small pockets, we don't live in a culture where cross country ski racing dominates the news headlines or where community sport involvement by children rivals the big machine of ice hockey.   If we really want to advance the calibre of cross country skiing in Alberta or elsewhere, we really need a focused and strategic framework aimed at advancing the broad based competency of coaches.  We need strategies focused on advancing the confidence of leadership in the many small clubs that are doing the important job of working with novice skiers. 

Provincial sport organizations make a difference and the priorities they promote reflect their vision.  Our job as members of the ski community are to voice our priorities to the elected boards of PSOs.  If  we have a concern about something that the PSO is doing, we should see it as our priority to let them know that we don't agree - because the fact is that sometimes these elected boards are well intentioned, but as could be expected with volunteers, not always very well connected with the grassroots of cross country skiing in a jurisdiction.  Sometimes, these elected boards, who are meant to make decisions about the priorities of advancing cross country skiing don't always get it right.  I try my best to provide some feedback both positive and constructive to PSOs in cross country skiing and other sports I am involved with.

I have been a board or committee member on a number club, provincial, and national sport organization boards or committees.  I know first hand that doing the work of advancing policy or committee work is hard work and often thankless.  It is often work that not many people feel a need to be involved with.  It is easy to criticize the work of these elected boards.  But the fact is that the folks who volunteer on these boards and committees are doing their best and are doing so often out of the goodness of their hearts.  It is often very under appreciated work.  That being said, the work that is done by PSOs is important and sets a tone for the priorities of that jurisdiction and its important that the focus of their work reflects the needs of its membership. 

In my role as NCCP coach training facilitator, I have had the great privilege of working with many, many novice, beginning coaches from small clubs and large clubs all over southern and central Alberta and south eastern BC.  For the last 9 years, I have probably trained more introductory coaches than any other NCCP facilitator in southern and central Alberta.  Some of these folks are entirely new to cross country skiing, others have done a bit of skiing and are parents of kids who will ski during the winter season, or sometimes, they are retired national team athletes whose skill proficiency is far higher than my own.  With all of these coaches, I endeavour to send the message 'you can do can develop the skills to become a great is possible for you to develop the skills necessary to help your club become a full service club'.  I say this to these novice coaches because I believe it to be true.  If anyone works hard enough, they can advance their skill, they can become competent coaches.  That is not to say that everyone will get there, or that everyone has the capability of coaching the national team.  That is not what I mean at all.  What I mean is that every coach is capable of participating in CCC designed NCCP coach training workshops and that with time, mentorship, and support, coaches can help to create environments where high school age athletes and beyond can get what they need to perform at a high level.  My firm belief is that every club has the potential to do this. 

It is important for provincial sport organizations to be responsible in foreseeing the impacts of their choices and actions.  For example, I think it is important that no athlete should be encouraged by a provincial sport organization to leave their home club and travel to a 'high end' club located somewhere else. This would just send the message to developing clubs and coaches that the provincial sport organization doesn't have confidence in their abilities to become a high performance coach themselves.  It would also send a message to parents from these small and developing clubs that the provincial sport organization doesn't have confidence in their club's coaches and they should take their kids and register them in a club that already has a high performance coach.   I strongly believe that it is possible for small clubs located all over Canada, to develop the capacity to coach young athletes through and after high school, and it is the role of the PSO to make it so - to provide the nurturing, supportive environment where all clubs have the capacity to get young athletes from the playground to the podium.  If a PSO says otherwise, in my mind, there is a problem and a narrow agenda exists that aims to serve only an elite group of young athletes.

In my work with developing clubs of all sizes, I have come to know passionate leadership who are driving the development engine in their communities.  I have come to see that this leadership needs nurturing and support.  They need encouragement, recognition and focused celebration of the small milestones made in their communities.  I have seen entire clubs move in new directions as a result of passionate, committed leadership.  This work happens easiest when that leadership has lots of experience. But it can also happen where there is enthusiasm and a strong belief that anything is possible with hard work. There are clubs who now are among the top performing clubs in the country who 10 years ago were struggling with direction and confidence.  A PSO should focus their efforts not on encouraging athletes to leave their home clubs and travel to some 'super' club where experienced leadership exists, but instead focus their efforts on building as many high performing clubs as possible. 

I recognize I have some strong thoughts about these things and I certainly recognize that there are many perspectives around the role of PSOs in advancing competitive cross country skiing.  My perspective comes from a strong connection with where skiing is at in small towns like Okotoks, Bragg Creek, Medicine Hat, and Crowsnest Pass.  I know in these places there are passionate leaders who want very much to provide the coaching to help young skiers be their best.  These developing coaches and clubs need all the help they can get.  Its our job as experienced coaches to reach out with a helping hand.  I applaud the outreach of organizations such as the Alberta World Cup Academy who see it as their mandate to reach out to help developing clubs and athletes.  This is important work. 

I encourage you to do what you can to support small and developing clubs - many high level athletes have come out of small towns where someone (some coach) had the courage to say 'I can do it...we can create a place where the next national champion or olympic champion is developed'. 

Bravo to this spirit of confidence and vision.  I encourage provincial sport organizations to embrace this enthusiastic vision as well.


Sunday, 3 March 2013

Breaking through the cult of the individual...ideas on building a ski community

More is better...especially when it comes to working together to advance competitive skiing

I'm really stoked - I've just come off of a really incredible weekend.  Almost 150 kids born 1999-2002 - all of them excited about ski racing.  Its amazing what happens when you remove some of the walls between ski clubs - when what you do is consciously think about building something bigger than your own ski club.  Its easy really to do otherwise - to put your head down and just focus on advancing your own athletes' agendas - to get wrapped up in just your own priorities.  Now and then something comes along that erases the boxes that we wrap our priorities in - something good - something that lets you celebrate the success of kids no matter where they're from or what club they affiliate with.

This past weekend was incredible - the 2013 Alberta Youth Cross Country Ski Championships - an event with growing momentum - for many good reasons.  One of these reasons, I think, is that what we have really focused on, is building a provincial ski community for adolescent athletes and their coaches - we have been intentional about building something bigger than just a couple of ski races.  We envision an event where coaches and athletes build relationships that go beyond the regular 'hi, how's it going?'  It is work that many coaches and athletes are ready for.  Something that grows over time - a feeling that you're part of something bigger and that the contribution you offer extends beyond narrow self interest - a place where you're not just interested or concerned with the performance of your own athletes.

2013 Alberta Youth Champs was full of many incredible moments - for me, having been around a while, its great to see kids who have made steady improvement year after year.  At this year's event, particularly astounding to me was the performance of a group of 5 or 6 boys from St. Albert.  Astounding because I remember 3 or 4 years ago when they first showed up at some provincial level events - they did as almost every novice racer does - did their best, but finished in the middle to the back of the pack.  Each year, as they've grown, these boys have improved - this past weekend 5 or 6 of them were in the top 10 in their age group - amazing.

I had a great conversation with a friend the other morning at the camp we stayed at during youth champs - she was a high level racer in her day skiing at the Univ of New Mexico, and is doing the amazing and important work of coaching novice adolescents in a start up club in a small community that is just beginning to build a tradition and program of athlete development.  Her athletes were kids who have made huge improvements from last year to this year's youth champs - she brought the 3rd largest team to the event - we talked about the challenges of working with kids who really want to do well, but are just getting started, and dealing with the disappointment of not making the top 10 in their age group (Alberta Youth Championships present medals to the top 10 in each single year age group).  We shared ideas around the important conversations with kids to help them process their experience.  Her club's athletes won 1 medal out of the 160 that were awarded for performance.  This was a breakthrough for her club - in fact it was only the second medal ever won by an athlete from her club at a provincial level race.  Amazing, and something to be celebrated.

These are the sorts of coaches and clubs who leaders from successful clubs need to reach out to - to support their work - not with the intention of creating a relationship where the fastest/most successful athletes from these small clubs move on over to the bigger, already successful clubs - but rather to support a hard working coach who is trying her best to create something amazing for kids.  The cult of the individual is often what can get in the way of offering this kind of support.  Some folks are just too busy or focused on their own athletes' progress to notice - in fact, there are likely clubs out there that could care less about the health of any other club except their own, who could care less about athlete development except for what is best for their own athletes.  The self interest of focusing on 'what's best for me' can take over - the emphasis on elitism serves the narrow interest of a family trying to advance their own child's career or serves the narrow interest of a coach needing to secure enough elite athletes to work with, but does nothing to build a broader, successful ski community.

I think we have an obligation to help others who aren't in as fortunate a situation as we might be - when we have built something successful, we should be sharing the secret to that success with others, not hoarding it secretly to ourselves.  The fact is that the ski community knows in a broad sense, who is always there to help them, who's always there ready to share knowledge and experience - they know who the builders are.  I know a bunch of them myself.

In the end, you do need to be able to focus on your own athletes - its our job as a coach - we can't be taking care of everyone else's athletes in addition to ours.  But, that's not really what I`m getting at here - what I am saying is that supporting developing clubs and coaches is the responsibility of the ski community and serves the broader interest of high level skiing.  Provincial sport organizations are set up to do this work - yet, as with everything, relationship is a key component of collaboration.  This weekend I was so proud of the good work of our large and somewhat successful club in Canmore working side by side with a small, yet ambitious start up club in Bragg Creek - helping each other out - working together to the host the Alberta Youth Champs - with no agenda other than to create an experience for children that has enduring impact - an experience aimed at building a strong ski community.  This is important work - the building of friendships and relationships - between coaches and kids from clubs all over Alberta, Saskatchewan, and NWT.  It was an incredible weekend!  One where kids start to dream of what it might be like to be a ski racer - for coaches to realize there are friends out there - it was a weekend where we collaborated on advancing competitive cross country skiing in Canada.  Bravo!