I often engage in conversations with coaches about recognition for athletes. Recognition that is meaningful and motivating. This is almost a hot button topic - ask the question and you'll get lots of answers from coaches in the room. Recognize everyone...recognize nobody...recognize the top 3 in each category...recognize the top 6 in each category...recognize the top 10 in each category. Does it really matter anyway? I'd say yes - it matters a lot.
Ideas that often surface in our conversations about recognition are ones about 'personal best' or 'goal setting'. On the surface these are great ideas - lets all aim for our personal best, or lets set a goal and work at achieving it. There is nothing wrong with these strategies for getting kids to focus on their own effort - its just that they are entirely subjective. Lets face it, kids focus on the results - despite all of our efforts as coaches to de-emphasize finish position, its important to many kids - I'd say in all of my years of coaching children and adolescents in cross country skiing, I've rarely ever met a kid who said 'I don't care about the results' and really meant it. Results matter to almost every kid. They know how they've performed relative to peers - so why the big rush to shelter kids from the results?
So what can we do as coaches to create recognition that is meaningful for adolescents? For little kids, giving everyone a ribbon does it. But for adolescents giving everyone a ribbon is pretty meaningless. Earned recognition is where it is at. That's why winning a medal as an adolescent is so important. For older adolescents the medals often become less meaningful, but for the 11-14 year old, earning some recognition is pretty darned important.
There are two different types of sports - open skill and closed skill sports. Closed skill sports are ones where the conditions of competition remain pretty constant. Swimming and gymnastics are examples of closed skills sports - a balance beam is always the same width, always the same distance off the ground, the same number of manoeuvres are performed as part of competition of a balance beam, the air temperature is always about the same, its always indoors, and an athlete performs the skill on their own. Team sports and individual sports like cross country skiing are considered open skill sports. The skill that is performed is in response to an external stimuli - in team sports, the skill an athlete chooses to perform is in response to the actions of the opposing team - in cross country skiing, the skill that is performed is in response to changes in terrain. Its easy in a team sport like volleyball to measure improvement - a coach can count the number of successful blocks and hits - an increased number of these items indicates individual skill improvement. In closed skill sports like speed skating, a 400m time is recorded and when a skater skates fasters than his previous best, a new personal best is established and this becomes an easy way for a speed skater to monitor his improvement.
In cross country skiing this isn't quite so easy. Each race course is different. Snow conditions can be quite different from one race site and time of year to another. A different field of competitors can be present in each race. Grip wax might work better in one race than another. Glide characteristics of skis can be quite different depending on the quality of the ski and the quality of the wax and the base preparation. All of these things make it difficult for a young inexperienced racer to validly determine anything except performance relative to same age peers. If they ski faster than a few kids who normally beat them, they know they have skied well. So if it is so difficult to have kids judge their won performance, what then are some things we can do to help kids recognize improvements in performance?
Here are a couple of ideas:
- Interval Start races - when I was coaching in Bragg Creek, we'd take the kids to the top of the stairway to heaven climb and race down interval start. We'd record the times and not make a big deal about their results. If it was important to some kids, I'd post the results on our club forum. Most kids didn't care - when they raced down the hill on their own against the clock, they really didn't have a sense of their performance relative to peers.
- Repeat races - Later in the season in Bragg Creek, when the snow conditions were somewhat similar, we'd take the kids back to the top of the big downhill and race them down again with interval starts. This time we'd announce the results. Kids would already know (they always do) who the fastest was. We didn't make a big deal about who was fastest. Instead we'd hand out some prizes recognizing the improvement kids made - which inevitably they did - all of them. The ones who made the biggest improvement often were the most novice kids -and in this event, they could reasonably win 1st prize - and it was a 1st place they were proud of, that they had earned, that was meaningful to every kid in the group. They'd made the biggest improvement and we recognized it.
They still do this kind of thing in Bragg Creek - check out their website at www.xcbraggcreek.ca or follow them on twitter @xcbraggcreek - they are an up and coming club and I'm pleased to still be involved coaching in a small way with XCBC.
Whatever you decide to do with your club kids - just really make an effort to not do mass start races all the time. There are about 100 other formats you can use than mass start. I don't mind the mass starts for adolescents - they are just way over used - at least in my part of the world. And mass starts do not do very much except reinforce what kids already know - they know who the fastest kids are before the race starts - so come on coaches - lets be a bit more creative about what we're doing with kids when it comes to recognition. They deserve it!
Happy New Year to everyone
Cross Country Ski Coach