Monday, 25 November 2013

Teaching for Understanding...helping young skiers put skills into a context

rethinking how we are teaching skills

I just had a wonderful weekend in Edmonton.  Folks there had invited me to come up to work with a group of coaches on how to work with kids and to deliver a couple of NCCP coaching workshops.  Every time I do this sort of work I learn something new.  I try something different.  Although I plan out the details of the workshop I will lead, often, the input of participants leads me to a different place than where I had first thought I would go.  Thats what happenned this past weekend in Edmonton.  Here is the epiphany that followed.
So often when we teach skills to kids (or adults for that matter), we find a nice flat space to work with them, often this spaces has tracks and flat areas for skating. We work with them on diagonal striding without poles, or free skating.  I have done this alot - worked on basic technical points in isolation of terrain.  This weekend, as I was pulling together a little skills/error detection correction session, I thought about a body of literature that exists called Teaching Games for Understanding.   When I was undertaking a MSc Kinesiology at U of Calgary, I did some reading about this work as I was interested in advancing the effectiveness of coaching interactions on skill development in youth.  Games for Understanding focuses on the advancing instruction of sport by putting skill development in the context of the game.  Instead of just learning the forearm pass in volleyball in isolation in a drill, the forearm pass is taught in the context of tactics.  The big idea is that when a player understands where and when to use a forearm pass in a game, their readiness for learning is much greater.  The same idea applies well to cross country skiing.
Why is it that we teach free skating on a stretch of trail back and forth, watch it on video, look at joint angles, body position - all of the technical pieces.  Then during a race, particularly with adolescents, they don't perform the skill in the context of the terrain where is optimally performed. With the games for understanding approach, ski skills would be taught more explicitly within the context of the race or of the terrain in which it should be used.  This seems common sense, but its not what I have done most of over time.  When I have worked on weight shift and diagonal striding, I have typically done this on flat terrain or gently rolling terrain.  It worked for my purpose, I wanted to have athletes experience some success in getting a feeling for what gliding on one ski at a time felt like.  There is nothing wrong with doing this.  However, it does present an out of context learning situation for young learners when we teach them a skill like diagonal striding on flat ground which in the context of a race, we ask kids to mostly perform on a climb. I know what I emphasize is that diagonal striding is our climbing gear.  It makes me think, why is it that I didnt do most of my instruction on a climb when focusing on diagonal striding instead of flat ground.  Not many of the fastest skiers diagonal stride on flat ground.  They double pole on flat ground. 
Teaching kids a skill out of its context might make sense in some ways, however if we really want kids to learn that diagonal striding should be used primarily as a climbing technique, then that outcome should be visible and explicit.  We should practice diagonal striding technique on climbs because that is where we perform that skill.  Rocket science, no.  Common sense, yes.  But this is what the work of the games for understanding model tell us.  If you want to create skilled performers, put the skill in the context of the game.  In cross country skiing the game is a race.  Where and how and when do we want athletes to perform a skill.  I think that developing this understanding is a key piece of both enjoyment, skill development, and success as a young athlete.  Adolescents are ready for this type of work.  I encourage you to give it a try.
all-around nice guy
Canmore, AB

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