Friday, 17 May 2013

Building Resiliency - a key skill for early adolescents

Toughness - Tenacity - however you frame it - its important

Really - its pretty obvious - mental toughness is darn important.  But being able to shrug off results you're not happy with is something that doesn't come naturally to very many kids.  Most kids need a bit of help in learning how to process what's going on and how to deal with it.

Being a good ski racer takes more than mental and physical toughness - a key skill is resiliency.  Resiliency refers to an ability to overcome challenges and bounce back stronger, wiser, and feeling good about yourself.  Hardiness has become a real focus in education settings the last number of years - helping kids to deal with challenging situations by developing the skill set required to handle the situation positively and with their self esteem intact.  For young skiers, having the skills to deal with disappointment and setback are a huge part of continuing on.  How can we help young skiers become more resilient?

I've written some and thought alot about the importance of competition groupings and formats and the impact these have on young athletes sticking it out as a ski racer.  My thoughts are underpinned by a belief that if kids are competing with others who are similar size and age they'll have a more positive experience.  For early adolescent skiers this is important, because as we have all seen, there can be huge developmental differences in 11-14 year olds athletes.  Technique being about equal, size and development can make a huge difference in the outcome of a race - the big kids generally finish well ahead of the late developing kids during this period of growth and development referred to as Peak Height Velocity.  I've tried out lots of ways of mixing up competition groupings as part of club based events - e.g. grouping kids by height, or by body weight, or age on June 30 instead of Dec 31.  I've done these things aiming to create a more fair field of competition - getting kids together who have more in common developmentally than chronologically.  Its important to recognize that we as adults choose rather arbitrarily how competition groupings are formed - why is age on Dec 31 used for kids?  not for any developmental or scientific reasons - we use Dec 31 because that what FIS does.   There may be sound rationale for using age on Dec 31 for juniors and seniors, but for kids?


I met with some friends a month or so ago to discuss competition groupings - this was a group of knowledgeable, experienced leaders in the ski community in Canada.  They wanted to hear me out on some of my ideas of why our sport system might be failing some of our young skiers through our current competition structures.  I appreciated the opportunity.  I learned some important things from our conversation.  Here is what I learned:

1.  Resiliency is a key skill - regardless of how competitions are structured and how competition groupings are assembled there will still only be one winner - everyone else will not win.  The most important part of a race for a young athlete comes from the conversation he/she has with a coach or a parent.  The conversation needs to be focused on developing resiliency.  

2. Its important not to over focus on the race - if a kid sticks with becoming a ski racer, they will go in hundreds of races over their career - don't focus on one race too much - have a quick conversation, then move on.

3. Its important to put things in perspective - young skiers don't have the experience to judge what was good or not so good about a performance - they need some help with perspective

4. Validating where kids are coming from - lets face it cross country ski racing can be a tough sport - you put yourself on the line every time you step up to the start line.  Validating disappointment is important - reframing is an important skill for a coach.

For me, resiliency is a key skill for kids to develop as young racers.  However, I do think there is a place for changing how competition looks for early adolescent skiers.  There are a great many models out there to choose from.  Some sports have really got it nailed down.  Cycling in Alberta is doing some great things - having ability/age based groupings is a good start.  Biathlon in Alberta is also doing some great work with early adolescents - having discretionary performance based categories for early adolescents does a great deal to place kids with others at a similar developmental level.

The  fact is there is nothing stopping folks from organizing competitions the way they want - Cross Country Canada's competition model is what is considered recommended best practice - it is not mandated - provincial sport organization technical packages are created by volunteer leadership who sit on a technical committee - these folks are often very experienced and looking for input from the ski community.  These kind of competition format guidelines help to shape what a competitive experience looks and feels like for kids.  In the end though, being resilient is still the key skill for young skiers to be working on.

Have a great start to your season!