Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Creating Meaningful Recognition for Adolescent Cross Country Skiers..

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

Roy Strum
Cross Country Ski Coach
Canmore/Bragg Creek

Thursday, 11 December 2014

Clear Learning Intentions - optimizing the effect of our work as coaches

So much of the work of effective coaching is centered on being able to help your skiers improve technically.  More effective coaches do this over a smaller time period than less effective coaches. The fact is that most of us who coach adolescents are not immersed in the world of coaching full time; most of us are volunteers who have day jobs, often quite unrelated to working with adolescents in a sport context, and we work with club skiers in the evenings and on weekends. We do our best, work with our best hunch about what we think will be most effective and go for it.  Nonetheless, you can see it at races, some clubs have kids who ski with greater technical proficiency than other clubs.  Something is going on when you notice this, and its good to think about ways to improve your effectiveness as a coach.

One of things that helps kids to learn technical ski skills quicker are things that effective teachers do when teaching mathematics or science or phys ed.  Great teachers share their learning intentions with their students.  For us as coaches, this means being explicit in sharing with kids what the learning intentions are at each practice.  It might look like 'today we are going to work at gliding on a flat ski'.  As coaches, its then important to provide some learning experiences that provide some surface learning, some building of deeper understandings of the skill, and some conceptual understandings of how the task relates to the skill.  As coaches, we need to have a clear idea of where we are going with our instruction and ensure that our athletes know where they are going.

As coaches, we also need to encourage kids to commit to achieving the learning goals and provide feedback on how successful their efforts are in attaining the learning goal.  This might look like 'your inside edge is closer to the snow than your outside edge - what do you need to do to have your outside edge of your ski have equal contact with the snow when you are gliding'. Its important that kids get descriptive feedback if they are going to improve their technical skills.

Kids need to know what success looks like.   This can be done in lots of ways.  First the coach can demonstrate the skill - which is why at a certain level its important that a coach can perform a skill to the level they want their athletes to perform it.  Secondly, you can use world cup video clips of an athlete performing the skill you're working on and play it in slow motion or use a tool like Ubersense to mark joint angles or show how an expert performer, for example, glides on a flat ski.  Or if your lucky, you've got some junior racers who can show kids what it looks like.  Having a clear idea of what success looks like will help athletes get there alot faster.

When you are explicit in sharing your learning intention; when you give kids descriptive feedback that helps them move in the direction of attaining the learning intention; and when kids know what success looks like, both physically and conceptually, their attention is increased, and their motivation to succeed increases - these things lead to greater success.

I'll be honest, I am crazy about coaching kids in cross country skiing and I'm passionate about sharing out best practice ideas to help coaches who are looking for ideas and growth in their practice to help kids learn to be better skiers, enjoy our fantastic sport more, and keep them involved.  I have found that where kids don't get the best instruction, they drop out of our sport with higher frequency than where they have a passionate, skilled coach who not only is a good skier, but more importantly who is a good teacher.

Its early winter in Canmore.  There is nothing I like more than getting my skis on, feeling the incredible sensation of propelling my body up and down hills with grace, efficiency, and the pure unadulterated joy of movement.

Roy Strum
Canmore, AB

Saturday, 22 November 2014

Creating Fun - 3 things to focus on when coaching kids in cross country skiing

In the coach training work I do, we talk about fun, we create experiences that are all about fun, we think about what do we need to do to create fun - research would tell us that fun is the most important reasons why children participate in sport - not going to the olympics, or making the national team - but fun.  If this is such an important component of engaging kids in sport, as coaches, our challenge is to get it right.

Here are a few ideas that I've learned work from my years as a coach and camp director and teacher.

1. Enthusiasm - hands down the number one contributor of a coach to creating some fun energy.  Fun after all is energy that is created by a group of people.  How you deliver your message about what you're going to do at a practice can be a huge determinant of how the session goes.  'This is going to be so much fun'; 'This is the best game in the whole world'; or 'I hope you're ready to have an incredible time' all set the stage for something incredible to happen.  Even if its not incredible, creating some positive anticipation of how much fun its going to be has a huge influence on how much it becomes.  This is hard for many adults - maybe a little too child like or juvenile - many adults forget how much fun it is to be a kid.

2. Play - join in - model what you want - especially with littler kids, playing along, not with adult apprehension about what other adults will think of you if they see you, but truly playing - kids love this stuff.  This is something I have done a ton of with kids - no matter what your age, playing is fun for you and its fun for kids.  Whether its a territory game of capture the flag or target game, playing along is fun for you and fun for the kids you're leading.  Play should include lots of laughter and interaction.  Kids know how to do this - join in.

3. Encourage - a timely comment, wink, smile, or pat on the back lets kids know that you care that they are as awesome as they are.  Kids know when an adult likes them.  They can tell almost right away.  Be the kind of coach that encourages kids and lets them know how awesome they really are.  Take an interest in them, learn their name - quickly - and be positive.  They be right with you.

Fun is hugely important to kids.  As coaches of kids, we need to figure this one out.  Because if we don't, kids won't stick around.  Aim to be one of those adults in a kids life that a child says 'he is so much fun'.  It doesn't matter what your background in skiing is - whether you were world champion or a novice skier - figuring out what fun looks like, and replicating each and every ski session is what you should aim for.

Let yourself be a kid.  Not for the whole practice, but a part of the ski session each week.  Kids will come to anticipate great times when you say 'This is going to be the most fun in the whole world'.

Happy skiing!

Roy Strum
Canmore, AB

Thursday, 13 November 2014

Getting kids to 'I'm good at this'...

In the coaching workshops I lead, the conversation often eventually gets to talking about how to deal with kids so they develop the self confidence to stay engaged with sport after they get to an age where having their parents sign them up for skiing isn't a good enough reason to stay involved any more. How do you help kids to develop the belief that they can make their own learning happen; where they are motivated intrinsically to participate; where they strive to learn as much as possible; where they don't use self handicapping strategies; where they don't have dependence on an adult; where they don't dismiss praise or feedback; where their standards are not so high that when they don't reach them, they crumble; where they don't compare themselves to others.  These are some good questions, and likely you've run into kids who struggle with one or more of these things.

What is important to know as a coach, is that we can do something about all of these hurdles to self confidence.  We can do some teaching around them.  In John Hattie's book, Visible Learning for Teachers, he talks about these self processes and offers some ideas to working with kids around these topics. Recognizing an ineffective coping strategy when we see it, and offering an alternative to kids is work that master coaches of children and adolescents do. Here are few ideas to working with a few of these self concept challenges.

Self Efficacy - this is believing you can do it.  Children with high self efficacy see a challenging task and think 'it'll be hard, but I can do it'.  As a coach, we can encourage self efficacy, by giving the message 'you are capable, you can do this' and by teaching kids this strategy - 'hey, you want to know something that works, when you see a big hill to climb, think to yourself, I am going to kick that hill's butt'.

Self Handicapping - sometimes kids create obstacles for themselves to deflect the cause of failure away from their competence and towards some acquired impediment.  This can look like procrastination, having low challenge goals, exaggerating obstacles to success.  As a coach, we can help kids set realistic goals and identify self handicapping as a negative coping strategy.

Self Motivation - this is in relation to intrinsic or extrinsic attribution of effort.  Intrinsically motivated kids say 'how do I learn more', 'how do I get my skill to the next level'.  Extrinsically motivated kids 'do I get a cookie', 'will this help me win a medal'.  Research would point to larger learning gains associated with intrinsic motivation.  As coaches, we can create a norm in our group around 'here is what a great athlete does','here is how a great athlete thinks'.

Approach and Avoidance - Approach goals refers to an athlete who strives to learn as much as possible to master the learning goal - whether it is double poling, or herringbone.  A kid with an approach strategy tries to learn as much as possible.  Avoidance goals refers to striving not to do worse than others.  Achievement is higher with approach goals compared to avoidance goals.  As a coach, we can identify avoidance goals as something to avoid. Instead we can point kids towards approach goals.

Self Dependence - Kids who are highly dependent on adults struggle more with self regulation, self monitoring, and self evaluating.  Although these are things that all kids learn, the fact is that as coaches we can create a culture where self dependence is encouraged and reinforced.  As with many of these self processes, we can teach and reinforce these strategies in our interactions with kids.

Self Discounting and Distortion - kids who self discount will dismiss or distort information such as praise,or feedback.  If you tell them they are pretty good at a skill, they will dismiss you and tell you you're wrong.  Obviously this is a pretty negative coping strategy. As coaches, we can identify this and give praise or feedback and then move on.  Thinking about a 4:1 ratio of positive to negative feedback seems to work when working with kids who discount or distort.

Self Perfectionism - this is having too high a standard for yourself.  Its great to want perfection, but it takes time and that is something that we can help kids to learn - how to set reasonable and challenging benchmarks on their pathway to excellence.

Hopelessness - this refers to kids who expect that an achievement gain will not occur for them.  For whatever reason, maybe because they haven't experienced enough success, these kids have given up.  As coaches, we can help kids to use some self regulation strategies like saying OK when something challenging is put before them.

Hattie points out that self concept improves when kids:
- invoke learning strategies instead of comparing themselves to others
- accept rather than discount feedback
- set benchmarks for difficult goals
- compare themselves to performance criteria instead of other athletes
- develop a high efficacy for learning
- effect self regulation rather than hopelessness

All of these self concept ideas can be taught and I believe great coaches do these things. Great coaches of adolescents believe that every young skier is capable of learning and improving.  Great coaches of kids help them to improve their skiing, but they also help kids to develop the mindset to become a great skier.

I often reflect on the paradox of our sport.  Most often, the coaches who have the greatest capacity to effect change on athletes in our sport are also the same coaches who are farthest away from the athletes they could effect the most change on.  And, the coaches who can have the most influence on budding and developing athletes at exactly the age when its crucial often have less training and experience to do their important work.

Don't get me wrong, I know there are many, many skilled and qualified coaches working with adolescent cross country skiers.  But I also am well aware that there is very little out there for these coaches to learn from and reflect on.  Thus, my efforts with this blog.  I don't have all the answers, but I do have some thoughts - and blogs are the perfect platform for this type of sharing.

So coaches of adolescent cross country skiers - lets do something - lets create a community of practice where we can share out some ideas with each other about what works well and what works less well.

Roy Strum
Canmore, AB

Friday, 7 November 2014

Is Coaching a Profession in Cross Country Skiing...

I love reading and learning and I sure love skiing and coaching.  Lately I have been reading John Hattie's Visible Learning for Teachers - Maximizing Impact on Learning (2012).  Its a fascinating read - tackling what do we do as teachers (or coaches for that matter) that optimizes learning.  The holy grail of what it means to be a great coach.  Definitely worth a read.  Today I read a section of text focused on the goal of 'professions'.  It led me to reflecting on whether cross country ski coaching could be considered a profession using the same descriptors.

I'm not really sure what happens in America or elsewhere, but I do have a pretty good sense of what happens in alot of places in Canada.  And I'd say, we miss the mark a bit in terms of meeting the criteria of 'profession' as outlined by Hattie in his book.  Here is how Hattie describes a 'profession'.

A profession identifies the goal posts of excellence.  What does excellent coaching look like?  The answer to this isnt just understanding technical skills, or being able to give informed tactical advice.  Excellence occurs (according to Hattie, and I agree with him) when teachers (and I'll use the word coaches from here on in, because I believe that the two are interchangeable) create tasks with a greater degree of challenge than experienced coaches might.  Expert coaches have a deeper understanding of content and are more sensitive to context; instructions are more integrated, more coherent, and at a higher level of abstraction than experienced coaches. Expert coaches influence surface and deeper understandings, they believe that all athletes can achieve the success criteria; they mentor learning and provide feedback, and they possess more integrated knowledge of the content.  in a profession, these are the goal posts of excellence, and professions define them and people strive towards them.  In Canada, we have well developed/developing coach training materials.  We have descriptors of skill development in our athelte development matrix - what we miss I think is clearly defined 'goalposts of excellence' that guide developing coaches towards excellence in coaching.  There just isnt very much sharing of best practice ideas flowing out of the experts as is found in the teaching profession. We really need to try to embrace the notion of what it is to be successful in coaching.

A profession, Hattie explains aims to encourage collaboration with all in the profession to drive the profession upwards.  I am well aware that some expert coaches do share out their best practice ideas with the broader community, but most live within the confines of their own clubs and really there is no motivation for sharing of best practice when ensuring you have enough kids in your club to support your salary is your priority.  In Canada, teaching is publicly funded except for private schools.  Teachers are encouraged to share with each other.  I sure would like to see more of this happening in coaching cross country skiing.  As experienced or expert coaches, we really need to be helping all other coaches in a collaborative manner to attain excellence in their coaching. 

Professions also aim to esteem those who show defined competence.  Recognition is important.  In order to recognize excellence in coaching, you really need to have defined what it means to be an excellent coach.  I'm just not sure that any criteria exist anywhere that coaches can work towards.  Any recognition I am aware of in my part of the world seems pretty subjective in nature.  Something to work on - ya, for sure.

I'm a big advocate for sharing expertise.  I encourage you to start with sharing in your club, and invite coaches from other clubs to work alongside you to learn from you. 

Winter is just around the corner.  Enjoy!

Roy Strum
Canmore, AB

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Ingredients for Success...Engaging Adolescent Cross Country Skiers


In the coaching workshops I facilitate, I often get asked my thoughts about how to keep kids engaged in cross country skiing.  It seems everywhere there is a huge drop off in participation at about 11 or 12 years old and then another round of drop offs at the end of middle school.  What is it that keeps kids engaged? Is there a magic formula? What are the characteristics of places that retain adolescents in their programs through the years when kids are seeking more autonomy in deciding what they want to do with their time? What factors exist that improve the chances kids will stick with cross country skiing?  Obviously there is no simple answer but my experience would say that there are ingredients for success.

Having a critical mass - it goes without saying that when you have a big group of kids the likelihood of some of them sticking it out through adolescence increases.  Kids want to participate where there is a social environment.  It can't be just about the skiing.  Its got to also be about the relationships that kids share.  Ignore the social needs of kids and they'll find it somewhere else.  Their feet will do their talking.  So what about if you don't have a critical mass? if you're in a small town with only a few adolescents involved?  Invite more in.  Small towns are the home of some of the best cross country skiers that have competed internationally for Canada - athletes like Chandra Crawford, Sarah Renner, and Beckie Scott all grew in small town ski clubs.  For a time, Vermilion, AB was producing some of the top ski racers in Canada.  What happened in Vermilion to make this so.  Vermilion is a great exemplar of a town that created something special for kids.  So much of that was the leadership of a few people that created a vision for what might be possible for kids when they participated in a few races.  If you don't have a critical mass - build it, one kid at a time.

Give kids something to work towards - special trips, club exchanges, alternative ski experiences.  For a number of years now, one of the special trips I've accompanied our club kids in Canmore on is a club exchange with another ski club.  Over the past 5 years, our 12-14 year old skiers have had a chance to go to Chelsea, QC or Whitehorse, YT 5 times.  We've made this a priority and its kept kids involved at least till the end of middle school.  The exchanges include same age club kids coming from Chelsea or Whitehorse and staying with their families in Canmore, and then our Canmore kids staying with families in the exchange communities.  When we are there, the families organize tons of fun cultural and sporting activities.  As a result our club kids have had a chance to do the Buckwheat Classic or the Gatineau Loppet or the Quebec Midget Championships a number of times.  They have done these things without breaking the bank or overemphasizing racing.  Making kids aware of special recognition opportunities like Alberta Development Team, and encouraging them in the belief that it is possible for them to be qualify for these teams is hugely important.

Give kids exemplary technical skill instruction - its amazing how kids will stay involved when they feel that they can do something well.  When lots of top performing kids come from one club, you should try to figure out what they are doing that makes it so, especially when kids of all ages are performing well from a club and not just a two or three year cohort of kids.  These clubs exist in many places and most of these clubs are willing to share their success stories.  Usually these uber successful clubs have created a culture where everyone sees it as possible to succeed, where learning is valued, and social environments are important.  At the end of it all, having some great teachers of technical skill gives kids a huge advantage over other places. 

Keeping it fun - balancing the need for positive social time between adolescents and quality instructional time is immensely important. Too much emphasis on instruction creates an all work no play environment - which really is unappealing to most teens.  Too much emphasis on social interaction and not enough on technical instruction creates an environment not challenging enough for the average teen.  Evidence of a club that has found the right balance is found in:
- the number of kids returning to compete/participate year after year
- the average level of performance of kids from the club
- the atmosphere during a practice - are comfortable with chatting it up, and focusing when asked.
- the happiness factor - can you look around and see smiling faces and also faces showing best effort is taking place

Sometimes I get asked by participants in the coaching workshops I lead how it is that my own children http://matthewstrum.blogspot.ca/ http://mollyjanestrum.blogspot.ca/ (we have a third child as well that is too young for her own blog) have stayed engaged in competitive cross country skiing for so long.  How is it that they didn't get overdosed on my enthusiasm for cross country skiing.  How did my wife and I cultivate a space for our kids to own their own experience, to design their own dreams, to believe that they are capable of achieving their goals? We haven't done it alone, we've been fortunate to be a part of ski clubs that have a critical mass, that give kids something to work towards, that give kids exemplary technical instruction, and that focus on keeping it fun. 


Roy Strum
Canmore, AB

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Six Signposts towards Excellence in Coaching Adolescents...

I love learning.  I love learning about getting better at the things I love to focus my energy on.  I've recently picked up a book - Richard Hattie's Visible Learning for Teachers (2012, Routledge, NY).  Its amazing really, when you find some reading that speaks to you on many levels.  This book speaks to me about what is really important when teaching kids how to learn a motor skill.  Hattie did a meta-analysis of meta-analysis studies examining teaching and learning influences on student achievement in schools. His research aims to answer the question -what effect does a type of learning influence (such as giving feedback) have on the level of student achievement. His writing has been described as 'the holy grail' of education research books by some reviewers.  He points out early and often, that simply having a positive impact on learning isnt good enough because there is very little that a teacher or coach can do that will not result in some learning.

For me, Hattie's work speaks to the important pieces of structuring learning - which is of course completely relevant to effective coaching in a sport context.  The fact is that coaches can choose to focus on so many different things while helping kids to learn.  What Hattie's research does is measure teaching and learning influences using effect size (e.g. d=.40); in doing so, it makes it possible to compare some types of teaching and learning influences compared to others.  Not all things that that teachers or coaches do have an equal effect. Some are more potent than others in helping learners achieve more.

In his writing, Hattie points to six signposts that identify excellence in teaching and learning.  Here they are:

1. Teachers (Coaches) are the most powerful influences in learning.

2. Teachers (Coaches) need to be directive, influential, caring, actively and passionately engaged in the process of teaching and learning.

3. Teachers (Coaches) need to be aware of what each student (athlete) is thinking and have sufficient knowledge of content so they can provide meaningful and appropriate feedback.

4. Teachers (Coaches) and students (athletes) need to know the learning intentions and criteria for success.  They need to know where they are at, and where they need to go next

5. Teachers (Coaches) need to move from a single idea to multiple ideas - to extend these ideas so learners can construct meaning.

6.  School Leaders (Head Coaches) need to create a culture where 'error' is welcomed as an important step in developing more complex understandings and abilities.

As teachers and coaches we need to recognize that everything we do and say is important.  How we present ourselves matters.  Being passionate about what we teach is one of the most powerful influences we might have.  Instilling a love for something is a big piece of the work we do. We need to have enough knowledge about the subject/sport so that we can give meaningful feedback.  As teachers and coaches we need to help kids see where they are at and where they need to go next. Learning intentions need to be clear to the learners - if not - no wonder they dont learn very quickly.  Developing conceptual understandings of how physical skill builds and why we learn to perform a skill a certain way is key in helping to develop mastery.  Finally, error needs to be embraced as healthy and an important step towards achievement.  Error is how we learn - not something we should feel badly about.  How many times I have provided that explanation when coaching volleyball I couldn't tell you.  Volleyball is a game of errors - a team gains a point only when the other team makes an error.

As coaches of adolescents, we need to remember that much of what we are doing is teaching - teaching motor skills, habits of mind, attitudes, and developing a love of skiing.  Not all teachers are created equal - some teachers have a little something extra - something that engages the kids they work with in a meaningful way.  I encourage you to find out more about what those coaches are doing - cause its worth replicating.

Roy Strum
Canmore, AB


Saturday, 4 October 2014

Eliminating the Proprietary Nature of Coaching...

There is something to say about splitting my life between coaching and teaching.  Noticing the stark contrast between the education world and the coaching world in the willingness of professionals to share out best practice with those less experienced and knowledgeable.  One only has to look to twitter to see the vast volume of the sharing of best practice ideas in teaching, and the almost complete lack of any sharing of best practice in coaching.  Why is this?  Why is that experienced, knowledgeable, seasoned coaches in cross country skiing do very little to no sharing of their work, their insight, or their resources with other coaches?  I'm not saying it doesn't happen, because it does.  Experienced, seasoned coaches, do share their wisdom or expertise.  It just doesn't happen very often, at least as far as I am aware of.

Maybe it is because of the proprietary nature of cross country ski coaching in Canada.  Seasoned, knowledgeable, experienced coaches are motivated to deliver their expertise to those employing them.  Often the boards of directors of the clubs that pay their professional coaches include stipulations in their contracts that their employed coaches may not do work for other clubs.  Rightly these clubs who are paying alot of money to employ a seasoned, experienced, knowledgeable coach want these coaches to serve their membership.  And so, the rich get richer, and the poor stay where they are or struggle along.

Contrast this with the world of education in Alberta.  In education, teachers are publicly funded, and a set of professional competencies is expected from these teachers, including constant professional learning and the explicit directive to create a collaborative culture where mentoring occurs, where sharing of best practice is an obligation.  Sharing of everything you know as a teacher is expected to serve the common good of children in Alberta.  What a refreshing and positive environment for professionals - a place where ready access to expertise is available, a place where those who know share with those who don't.  You just have to pop onto Twitter to see that that platform is widely and immensely used by educators across North America.  The notion of a Professional Learning Network is a broadly embraced idea in teaching.  My own professional learning network includes over 1000 other educators where everyday I both share out my work and learn from the work of others.

This morning I had a conversation with a coaching colleague about the state of our sport in Alberta.  There is lots going on that is working really well.  But the reality that surfaced in our conversation is that the ecology of our sport is maybe not functioning as smoothly or as synchronous as it might.  A theme from our conversation was that so much of what occurs happens in isolation of other links in the (to use the American phrase) athlete development pipeline.  And maybe the reason this happens is because of the proprietary free market nature of coaching in Alberta.  There is no motivation for clubs or coaches to share out their best practice.  There are no structural professional obligations to build capacity in colleagues.  Perhaps there should be.  Don't get me wrong, I am a free market driven dude.  But I think there is a role in advancing our sport through incentives for knowledge sharing and capacity building.

Its time to change the culture of our sport. Change it to a place where there is non proprietary sharing of best practice.  I started this blog with the express intention of moving our coaching culture in that direction.  The purpose of this blog is to share out best practice ideas, provide a place to stimulate some conversation about what best practice looks like, and share out my own ideas about things I have done and the reasons I have done them.  Its been two years since the inception of this blog - and I'll be honest, I have been very surprised that almost 1500 people every month have read this blog.  But it speaks I think to the interest and need for greater sharing of ideas and best practice exemplars.  I for one, would love to follow coaches from clubs across all of North America, where I can begin to expand on my professional learning network in the world of cross country ski coaching.

Imagine how much better off our young athletes would be if clubs and coaches were much more willing to share out their ideas about what is working and why.  I encourage you to start a blog and share.  I'll be one of your first followers.


Roy Strum
Canmore, AB

Sunday, 28 September 2014

Thoughts on Working with Early Teens...

We've all likely been there.  Our delightful, fun-loving, well adjusted children seemingly overnight transforming into beings from outerspace.  Whether you're a teacher, a coach, a youth leader or parent, you've likely seen this metamorphisis.  At 12 or 13, many kids become social networking gurus - responding to an innate need to grow their own branches that connect to the world around them.  Many early adolescents are driven to make choices for themselves but yet caught between the two worlds of childhood and adulthood.  How do we help adolscents navigate these unfamiliar waters.  What kind of a paddle would we recommend? What type of boat? How do we help them to read a map or use a gps device? How do we support them in charting a course? when do we step in to offer advice? when do we let them make their own mistakes? how do we facilitate a group adolescent beings?  These are types of things I think about when coaching early adolescents.

So what does it look like to engage early adolescents?  In my work with adoloscents at a residential treatment centre for 12-16 year olds with severe social/emotional/behavioural challenges, we aim to interact in a number of ways that gives responsibility to adolescents.  These include:

- providing opportunities for youth to make positive choices - hey, you know what you need to do...
- offering intentional teaching interactions that provide explanations and rationales
- offering cause and effect messages - when you do this, that often happens...
- sometimes giving directive messages is appropriate - hey, this needs to happen now...

Can we use these ideas when working with adolescents in a cross country ski coaching context?  for sure we can.  No matter what demographics kids come from, when you get a group of adolescents together, they love to talk - what do you do as a coach to get there attention on a teaching and learning task?  giving kids an instruction, and creating some understanding about what you're looking for and what you want them to do, then backing of letting them get to it is an important skill. 

Great coaches are very deliberate about their instruction and feedback.  These include providing rationales.  For adolescents, my experience tells me that these youth want to understand, they want more than just to be told 'do this, cause I'm the expert'.  Giving adolescents the message that 'hey if it takes a long time to get your attention, we have less time to ski and less time for me to coach' is a cause and effect message.  My experience is that adolescents respond well to this kind of interaction from a coach, rather than a coach who gets angry or yells.

In the end though, after being given opportunities to make positive choices, and some teaching around what and why, and then some cause effect messages, it sometimes becomes necessary to be directive.

Whats important, I think, is to use all the tools in your toolkit.  These tools are easier to use when you know that you have them.

Coaching adolescent cross country ski racers has been and continues to be one of the great joys of my life.  Good luck with your coaching this year. 

Roy Strum
Canmore, AB

Monday, 8 September 2014

Tiered Events in Cross Country Skiing - Are they Necessary for Younger Skiers...

In sports with large numbers of particpants, tiering is often used as a way to group kids with similar ability together.  The idea is that everyone benefits from playing with other kids who play at about the same level.  In Calgary, for example, over 50,000 kids play organized ice hockey.  In Calgary, kids participate in tryouts and are subsequently placed on similar ability teams.  Teams then play with other teams who are in the same tier as them.  We can probably agree that having kids play on teams with other kids of similar ability, creates more opportunity for every player to be in the game.  On the other hand, tiered training and competition groupings have been shown to make the rich, richer, so to say, and the poor, poorer.  Kids in the highest tier usually also have access to the best coaching and so their skill improves exponentially faster than kids training and competing in lower tiers.  And so while there are positives and negatives to tiered competition groupings, I am putting forward the idea that tiered competitions do have a place in athlete development.
Cross country ski racing in Alberta is pretty small time compared to sports like ice hockey when it comes to numbers of youth participants.  What would tiered competition look like? Is there a need for it? In our part of the world, we have great disparity in ski clubs when it comes to the expertise that is available for kids to access in their skill development.  We live in a region which has a couple of very large clubs where kids pay alot of money to access professional coaching.  We also have a number of clubs that are small, run by volunteers, many of whom are learning to ski alongside the kids they are coaching.  At races, guess which clubs dominate? In fact, guess which clubs actually show up to races?
How do you build a strong ski community? How do we support clubs and athletes in our region so that more clubs participate in races?  One of the answers to these questions is I believe in tiered racing.  Every club no matter what level of coaching is available has kids who are just getting started with racing.  If we want these kids to stick it out, we need to be doing something more than just throwing them in with the fastest skiers from the larger clubs in every race.  Lets face it, success is important.  Kids and parents need something to encourage them to participate.  Is it fun to come in 25th in every race? or in the final 5 kids in a race in every race?  I'd say no.  Coming in last is not fun, no matter how much we try to de-emphasize results, kids notice where they finish and it sticks with them.  That's why having a couple of races in the calendar aimed at novice racers is important.  Races need to serve the developmental needs of more than just the fastest skiers who have former olympians as their coaches.  What I am talking about is 'how do we create a ski community where more kids choose cross country skiing as their sport of choice?'
I hear lots about how 'southern alberta' is privileged in the access to coaching expertise.  The fact is that almost all clubs in the south are in a pretty precarious place when it comes to creating the next generation of national team superstars.  That is because there is a big imbalance between have and have not ski clubs.  What can do about this?  We can create a space for clubs, coaches and young athletes just getting going to experience some level of success with similar ability peers.  We can support a few tiered events in our competition calendar.  Is it the only thing we can do? no...there is alot more...but its a start.
We are experiencing our first snowfall of the year here in southern Alberta today.  It won't be long to we are back on our skis.
Roy Strum
Canmore, AB

Friday, 29 August 2014

Thinking about Instructional Design in Coaching...

How we design learning experiences in a club coaching environment is worth some consideration.  Research focused on what works best for skill acquisition definitely points in the direction of what we call Direct Instruction.  Direct instruction refers to an instructional model typically described as follows:
1. stating/describing the skill
2. demonstrating the skill
3. opportunities for guided practice
4. providing feedback about how the athlete performs the skill
If this sounds familiar, its because this model has been around forever.  In fact educational research, such as found in John Hattie's Visible Learning meta-analysis research http://visible-learning.org/ supports the idea that direct instruction is a significant teaching and learning influence on achievement.  Hattie would point out that when learners have a clear picture of the intended learning outcome in mind they are much more successful in their acquisition of skill and knowledge.  We shouldn't be making kids guess about skilled performance looks like.  I have seen 5 year olds skate ski better than most adults because that child's coach, was successfully able to create a clear idea in the child's mind about what the skill should look like.  Granted, sometimes these 5 year olds are also the type of kid that picks up motor skills very quickly.
Is direct instruction the only learning platform we can use as coaches?  Definitely not.  This past year, I worked at deliberately trying different instructional design ideas with the coaching work i did with adolescent cross country skiers.  Cross country skiing is classified as an open skill sport meaning that the athletes technique/choices changes in response to changing stimuli or terrain.
Putting a skill in the context of terrain is important to success as a ski racer.  Teaching Games for Understanding is an approach that I learned about when I was a grad student at University of Calgary.  This approach to skill development, starts first with a tactical situation and asks students to think through what does the situation require in terms of skill performance.  The skill is performed in response to a situation, not in isolation. 
Experiential learning is a great learning platform to build relevance and understandings for young skiers.  Several times a season, I would plan a practice, where we took a skill and performed it in various ways to experiment with what worked best.  For example, I might have planned three downhill time trials during the same practice - the first time I'd have kids do the downhill run in a high tuck, the second time in a medium tuck, and the third time in a squat.  I'd time each run and before showing kids their time, I'd ask them to reflect on which one they thought felt fastest.  Then we'd look at their times and sometimes go back to the top of the downhill section of trail and try it again to try to beat their best time by refining the performance of their skill through some feedback I'd have given them based on my observation of their best run.
Integrating learning in a cross disciplinary manner is also something I've done numerous times per season.  Introducing kids to physics concepts such as 'drag forces' or 'propulsive forces' and asking them to think about how they can reduce drag or increase propulsion gets kids thinking about what they are doing in a more meaningful way than simply asking them to perform a skill and receive feedback and try it again (like we might do with a direct instruction model). 
There are lots of important things we can be doing as coaches to design instruction to optimize learning.  Using direct instruction, tactical instruction, experiential learning, and integrated learning are just a start to expanding your repetoire as a coach of developing athletes. 
Summer is wrapping up and fall training season is just around the corner.  This winter, I plan to volunteer as an assistant coach with my youngest daughter's biathlon group (she's had enough of me as a cross country coach - poor girl, having to put up with her dad as a coach for so many years).  I am going to try something new - put myself in a learning place.  I hope you do the same
Roy Strum
Canmore, AB

Saturday, 2 August 2014

Club Development - Supporting Ski Clubs in Broadening their Focus beyond Instruction

I've been thinking lots lately about how to best support ski clubs in engaging in racing.  If we look at a broad cross section of clubs in Alberta, and probably Canada, we will find that a vast majority are small clubs that do the work of 'instruction'.  For these clubs there isn't a direct or apparent connection between the work that they do to 'introduce kids to a lifelong, healthy, active, family activity' and an 'athlete development pathway'.  The fact is that maybe every club doesn't need to focused on technical skill development or introduction to racing experiences.  Often though, I have found, these small clubs don't participate in introduction to competition experiences because they are not aware of what is possible, or the leadership doesn't feel confident to lead children in this type of experience.

Is getting more clubs engaged with competitive skiing even important?  Sure it is.  Hugely important.  Important because competitive sport can be a real confidence builder for kids where the life lessons of resilience, effort, and improvement can be learned.  Its important because without exposure to age appropriate competitive ski experiences, large groups of kids might go without the opportunity to discover something that fuels their passion.

What kind of support is needed to smaller clubs who are just getting going with their club development?  I have found doing this work myself, that a huge part of engaging families with trying out competition is having conversations with parents.  Creating understandings of a pathway that kids can take as they grow older, creates important understandings about key developmental experiences and the benefits that derive from them.  In big well established clubs as well as small developing clubs, the conversation is essentially the same.  Its about creating a picture in the minds and hearts of parents and kids about what is possible.  Its about creating some priorities for your club about the races that you will attend each season.  Its about taking part and hosting events where your club kids get a chance to see they are part of something bigger, something worthwhile, something that adds a new dimension to cross country skiing.  This perspective takes nurturing.  In big clubs whose athletes win medals at nationals, and in small clubs who have never participated in a ski race, it requires leadership to nurture and support this aspect of cross country skiing.  This year, a goal of mine is to facilitate these types of conversations about the athlete development pathway is in our province with athletes and parents.  It is pretty unlikely that involvement will grow without this type of support.

Supporting club coaches in their own development is a vital piece of engaging clubs in ski racing.  Very few clubs have access to professional, full time coaching and expertise.  It is the job of the provincial sport organization to support coaches in developing the skills and confidence needed to move their club in the direction of racing.  Facilitating mentoring, guiding, and sharing experiences between newer coaches and seasoned coaches.

We need more clubs who see themselves as places where any young skier can become the next national or international champion.  Helping clubs get there is important work.  It is the work of the provincial sport organization and it is the work of seasoned coaches across the province.  I encourage you to jump aboard and contribute.

Canmore, AB

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Recognizing the Role of Relative Age Effect in Adolescent Cross Country Skiers...

How do we accommodate for growth and development during the adolescent years in cross country ski racing in Canada?  Is age on Dec 31 still the primary criteria for age grouping adolescent skiers? Are there other factors considered to equalize the almost 12 months of growth and development that separates a child born on Jan 1 and another born on Dec 31? Lets face it, during the years of rapid physical growth maturation, in Canada we refer to this as 'Peak Height Velocity', our competition structure doesn't explicitly accommodate for relative age effect.

There is lots of research published that would point us to the need to treat this age range with great care and attention. http://canadiansportforlife.ca/resources/monitoring-peak-height-velocity-phv   http://www.perception.psy.ulaval.ca/sites/perception.psy.ulaval.ca/files/musch_grondin_2001.pdf

The first few minutes of the following video does a nice job of pointing out the relative age effect and its effect on the number of NHL Hockey players born in each of the four quarters of the calendar year (Jan-Mar; Apr-Jun; July-Sept; Oct-Dec).

Is this at all relevant to developmental experiences in cross country skiing?  I believe it is relevant.  I also believe it is not adequately addressed in our current sport system.  Let me explain.  In Alberta, our current selection criteria for Alberta Development Team for 14 year olds doesn't include any explicit criteria related to development age or accommodate for relative age effect.  Why does this matter?  It matters because research would show that relative age effect within a calendar year of birth is a valid phenomenon.  Kids born earlier in the calendar year are often bigger and stronger than kids born later in the calendar year.  But still, why does it matter?  It matters because we select kids to a team in Alberta that doesn't presently accommodate for relevant age effect other than through subjective criteria.  I believe that this puts kids born later in the calendar year at a disadvantage for selection to these teams. 

We are at a point in our yearly planning cycle with our provincial sport organization where we take a look at what we are doing and what changes we need to make to advance competitive cross country skiing in our province.  I think its time we more explicitly address the unique developmental characteristics of adolescents in our sport.  Who gets selected to these teams matters.  Should we be supporting relevant age effect in our sport when everything current literature and sport research tells us is that it makes a difference what month of the year you are born in.  In cross country skiing in Alberta we still don't have tiered competition for children as they do in ice hockey in Canada.  So the relative age effect is I think less pronounced.  But it is still present.  Bigger adolescents usually win ski races.  On average, kids born in the beginning of the calendar year are bigger than kids born in the last quarter of the calendar year where age on Dec 31 is used to create competition groupings.  Not always, but usually.   Are the development training and coaching experiences made available through Alberta Development Team significant and meaningful in an adolescent's athlete development - I would hope so.  It is why I put forward the idea the idea that accommodating for relative age effect for team selection for adolescents in Alberta makes sense.

I have been enjoying the opportunity to convene conversations with coaches and colleagues from across Alberta about what changes, if any, need to happen to advance competitive cross country skiing in Alberta most effectively.  If you have some ideas that you'd like to share here or to continue the conversation in another way, please do. 

Its Canada Day today and what am I doing, thinking about skiing again.  :)
Canmore, AB

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Pardigm Shifts - why its so hard to chart a new course

Change can be difficult .  It can also be very exciting.  I've seen this alot in my work with a local school division.  Our province's education department is experimenting with a new process to redesign curriculum.  The government department has contracted out the work to several school divisions.  The intent is that the school divisions will inform the goverment on what is needed to prepare our students for a world that we can't yet imagine.  They 'll do this work by engaging teachers, administrators, parents, and the community in conversations about what good learning looks like, what is worth knowing, and thinking about how design of learning outcomes affects the quality of learning.  Its pretty exciting work - rather than a bunch of PhDs in Edmonton answering these questions and sending them out to teachers for comments and piloting, the government department is going to start with the ideas from practicing teachers about what really works well to advance student achievement.  I've had the great fortune of facilitating numerous conversations about these topics over the past few months.  You see, what Alberta Education is trying to do is create a paradigm shift in the way curriculum is redesigned - in essence to create a new prototype that can be replicated in the future.  They are attempting to capture best practice ideas from teachers  who know better than anyone what great learning looks like, what type of learning outcomes bring about engaging learning, and what is worth knowing.  Exciting stuff.

When is a good time for change? my response - anytime is good - when it grounded in best practice, aligned with current best practice literature, and includes the voices of athletes, coaches, parents, and communities.  In Alberta, the opportunity exists right now for this important work to happen.  For a majority of years in the past decade, Alberta has been a development hub for high performing cross country skiers.  For the past two or three years though, that development hotbed has shifted east to Quebec and more recently also Ontario.  No longer have Alberta athletes dominated world junior trials, national championships, and noram races.  What's going on here? what is that we need to do to support athletes and clubs in creating spaces where young athletes get inspired and develop fitness, skill, and confidence to be the best in the country.  Don't get me wrong, its not that Alberta isn't producing national champions anymore - Fact is, a good number of Alberta athletes won national championships this past winter.

There are several valid indicators though that the time is right for some renewal of the Alberta Team program.  Fewer Alberta juniors are applying to or being accepted at National Training Centres than what was typical even 3 years ago.  Fewer Alberta athletes are qualifying for World Junior Championships teams. There just seems to be fewer high performing Alberta athletes at Nationals than was typical not very long ago.  Is this a problem? maybe not.  Should we panic? definitely not.  Are these indicators that Alberta can be doing something differently? Ya maybe. But maybe not.  Fact is there are still some very strong clubs in Alberta producing disproportionate numbers of athletes who are 'in the game' at Nationals.  Is it time to do a critical reflection on what we're doing and what we might do to optimize the role of the Alberta Ski Team in supporting clubs and athletes in becoming their best - I'd say yes.  If we weren't willing to make changes then what is the alternative?

They are doing some interesting things in Quebec that might be helping to create a space there where sucess is nurtured.  They have an engaging provincial youth championships that gets kids hooked on racing. They provide opportunities to apply for funding to help get athletes to big competitions.  They focus on a broad range of ages in their provincial program - right up to U23. Athlough not part of the formal Quebec Ski Team program, national level athletes are recognized as being part of Team Quebec, and are welcome to attend provincial level training camps if it meets their needs.  What a cool possibility for a 16 year old, "hey, I might get to ski with Alex Harvey this weekend".

Lets face it, one of the most important raison d'etre for provincial teams is recognition.  How can we expand the impact of a valuable commodity like recognition and still have merit based team selection?  The fact is that the core of the work that helps athletes achieve success is done by athletes doing the work everyday with their club coaches.  The club coach designs the technical and physical training programs that gets athletes to high levels.  So maybe a important part of a provincial team is about building the capacity of club coaches.  But maybe a more important reality is that one of a provincial program's biggest impacts is the earned recognition.  How can we maximize this benefit?

What can we envision for a provincial ski team in Alberta?  How can we build on the incredible legacy of success in our province?  What, if anything, needs redesign?  I certainly have some ideas about these questions.  I am interested in hearing yours...

Roy Strum
Alberta Ski Team Director 2014-16

Friday, 20 June 2014

Working with Boys - ideas on getting it right...

Are there things about boys that we should consider to help them flourish? Are these things any different than what you might do to help girls flourish?  Are there ways of working with boys that optimize the engagement, the learning, the relationships? Can these things help boys commit to something in a deeper way? be more willing to work hard to achieve something challenging? 

Don't get me wrong, My work here isn't about diminishing the important needs of girls (I have two of my own daughters) and I'm not suggesting for a minute we need to segregate sexes in training sessions - at least as the norm.  But would there be value for girls and for boys to spend more time in same sex training groups as adolescents?  These are some questions I have been thinking and talking about for some time.  I think its our role as men to do the important work for boys that incredible female role models in our sport such as Chandra Crawford or Kikkan Randall have been doing for girls.  

It started for me because I am a father. When my son was about 12 I read a book that changed the way I looked at my role as a dad in his journey to manhood.  The book was The Wonder of Boys, by Michael Gurian from Washington state. Oh, I had always been a super engaged dad even up to then.  But the epiphany for me at that time was around realizing the important role that men (most importantly Dads, but also coaches, teachers. etc) play in helping boys grow into men who have purpose, passion, direction, and most important have a sense of the important role that men play in our world - as parents, as spouses, as coaches, as teachers, as community leaders.  This is important work.  

Yesterday evening something serendipitous happened.  I had a bit of free time and so wanted to tackle tidying a corner of the basement that was in disarray.  In doing so, I opened bins full of things that came from a different time in my family's life and consequently spent a couple of hours doing work that might have only taken 30 minutes.  I came across notes i had written to myself while reading Gurian's book.  I came across artifacts of relationship between my son and myself - from a time in his life when he was a toddler, a preschooler, a school boy, an early adolescent.  I'll admit, I was captivated by the reflection.

The timeliness of this reflection was profound for me - this year my son graduates from high school.  An honour student from the National Sport School, a national junior team biathlete, a descent human being with ambition, direction, passion, and a caring and fun being.  Finishing high school, I realized is one of only a few societal rights of passage for boys to transition to being an adult male in our world.  An important acknowledgement of accomplishment and effort.  Gurian points out well in his writing that sadly in our north american culture these cultural opportunities to transition boys from childhood to adulthood are few and far between.  And so, as men, as dads, as coaches, we need to provide this important input to boys lives in a deliberate and thoughtful way, if we wish to ground boys in becoming men who give to our world, who respect women, minorities, children, and community.

What things can we do as male coaches to support boys in growing into men who are strong, independent, caring, nurturing, responsible, and who have vision and passion for their dreams?  Some of the things I have tried to do over time are as follows:

- show my own son that men can have deep and meaningful friendships with other men - I have found that men need other men to talk to about things that they might not be able to talk to with anyone else.  Boys need to see that men respect and love women in their lives as well - cause this models for them how to be a partner in life.

- surround boys with positive male role models - It was extremely gratifying to pull together a couple of world snow day boys' events we called 'boyz got game' aimed at creating an experience where young male skiers could spend a day with national and provincial team role models.  Drew Goldsack, Sean Crooks, Phil Widmer were only a few of the Olympic athletes who helped with the intiative.

- provide boys with physical challenges - give them something they can feel proud of having accomplished.  Immerse them in healthy competition.  Model the separation of competition in the arena of play and friendship at all other times.

Supporting the needs of boys is important work.  Its work for everyone.  But I think its particularly the important work of men to think about helping our boys find purpose and passion in their lives.  For some boys this comes easily.  For many. many boys they need the helping relationship of a caring, compassionate, positive man to guide them as athletes and more importantly as adolescents growing into our next generation of men.  I know of many, many men who do this important work.

C'mon men - we can do this!

Roy Strum
Canmore, AB

Sunday, 15 June 2014

Reflections on Selection Criteria...

I'm at an interesting intersection and pretty grateful to be there - I was elected last week by the membership of cross country ski clubs from across Alberta to direct the Alberta Ski Team program - elected to think about not only what is important in a provincial ski team program but also reflecting on the criteria that determines who gets to participate.  It leads me to pondering about the bigger purpose of a provincial ski team program - because if you have a clear idea of why a ski team exists, that'll lead you pretty quickly to figuring out who should be there and what they should be doing.  There are no textbooks or reference guides for answering these kinds of questions - there are only ideas that come from experience. 

I've had great joy this past month reading a book written by Richard Taylor of Bethel, Maine.  Great joy because his ideas reflect his rich experience as an athlete, a parent, a coach, an administrator, and cheerleader for cross country skiing.  No where have I come across a coaching book that offers insight and opinion grounded in experience and best practice literature focused on cross country skiing quite like this one.  I bring up Dick's book here because in reflecting on my upcoming work of directing the Alberta Ski Team program for 2014-16, I am reminded that a common reaction to something not working is to do it again, only this time with renewed and augmented effort - if it doesn't work, do the same thing harder.

I'd like to avoid that pitfall in the work I am leading around rethinking the Alberta Ski Team.  The first question that comes to me is - is what we have been doing working? to answer that one, you have to start with what the purpose was for the program.  By all accounts, the actual program delivered by the Alberta World Cup Academy has been outstanding the last number of years.  My own children who have experienced the program as athletes, have raved about numerous aspects of the experience. 

Something I have witnessed over the past 10 years or so is the very high rate of athlete drop off at the end of high school.  By my observation, 80-90% all athletes who participated as high school age athletes on the Alberta Ski Team drop off the radar completely at the end of high school.  Considerable investment is made in these athletes by the provincial sport organization, and many other athletes never get access to the specialized coaching opportunities that come along with being named to a provincial ski team.  The big question is - are we reaching the right athletes in our current program?

The answer to the question of 'who' should be named to provincial teams is an important one.  Certainly, demonstrated ability and race results are crucial.  But is there some different way that we can imagine that creates stepping stones for developing athletes and provides the important recognition while honouring that ultimately cross country ski racing is about being the fastest.  Is there a way to think differently about what the Alberta Ski Team is and its role in supporting clubs and athletes in becoming successful in a more long term way.  If many of  the young athletes who receive the benefit of recognition and specialized coaching for 4 or 5 years on the Alberta Ski Team do not carry on to race in college or as U23 athletes, is it a worthwhile investment?  With limited funds, is there a way to broaden the reach of the program while maintaining its integrity so that the likelihood of athletes continuing on after high school is enhanced?  I'm not suggesting a throw the baby out with the bathwater approach, or scrapping the great work that has preceded my involvement.  I am saying it is time to think about why we have an Alberta Ski Team program, what learning and support is critical to advance athletic achievement, and who it is that these experiences should target. These are some good questions and ones that I will think more about.  If you're in my neck of the woods and want to have a coffee sometime, I am definitely interested. 

Roy Strum
Canmore, AB

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

The Grit:Success Ratio...teaching dogged determination

I'm a huge twitter user - as a space for professional learning, sharing, focused searches for desired content, or connecting with a network of folks who you get to choose - twitter has added a new dimension to learning for me.  If you are looking for new ideas about just about anything, twitter is the place to be.  Where a website is a place to share out ideas, and facebook is about seeing where your friends went on their holidays, twitter is the space where you can find articles, resources, videos, from a huge number of people all gently brought to your attention in one place.  If you are not connected to twitter yet, I would suggest you stop reading right now and sign up - you can follow me there at @RoyStrum
One of the videos I watched today from a twitter feed was 'The Key to Success: Grit' by Angela Lee Duckworth.  Success in life, she shares, is much more than just being able to learn quickly and easily.
Duckworth shares that success comes to those who have grit.  She describes grit as:
- passion and perseverance for very long term goals
- having stamina
- thinking about the future
- working really hard to make the future a reality
Grit, she shares, is living life like its a marathon not a sprint.  Grittier kids, she notes from her research, are significantly more likely to graduate from high school.  This is especially true for kids who are at risk of dropping out of school.
Asafa Powell is a Jamaican world champion sprinter. His story is a good one to look at when thinking about grit.
So if grit is so darned important, there must be volumes of research and shelves full of books about how to teach this skill to children.  The fact is, Duckworth shares, that it is shocking how very little we know about building grit.  Especially, in light of her research that shows that grit is often unrelated or inversely related to talent.  I will say that again, because it is a big idea  - grit is often unrelated or inversely related to talent.  The implications of this idea are huge and we've seen this in action alot.  It isnt always the young athlete who learns something easiest and quickest who ends up persevering in our sport.  Sadly, the reality is, that if you are an early developer or show lots of early talent, its almost your destiny to fade away by your mid teens.  I hear it all the time - 'oh just wait, those early developers will drop out by the time physical maturation or skill development levels out.
How do we do this - teach grit.  Duckworth says we need to be gritty about making kids gritty. What does that look like when coaching adolescent cross country skiers.  This is a good question and one you might have a number of own ideas about.  For me, its about providing a 'growth mindset' environment - one where Carol Dueck's ideas that when failure happens, people with a growth mindset see that the ability to learn is not fixed - when failure happens learning is possible. For me, its about framing and reinforcing effort.  Its about helping young people to set challenging goals for themselves, and too create a space where kids can see themselves achieving something important to them.  Grit is about not giving up.  Grit is about seeing setback or achievement as a stepping stone to the next set of goals.  Grit is a skill that is learnable.  Grit is something that can be modeled by coaches.  Grit is a key to success.  The challenge for us coaches is to be gritty in our role as teachers of grit.
Roy Strum
Canmore, AB

Monday, 26 May 2014

Building Capacity in Beginning Coaches

A few weeks ago some good fortune dropped on my lap.  Dick Taylor contacted me via this blog.  Dick was a national team coach in the US for a number of years, as well as a national team skier.  He sent me his book - No Pain, No Gain. 2002. Mechanic Street Press. Bethel. Maine.  I need to tell you, Dick's writing is brilliant, insightful, intelligent and reflects intellectual and practical wisdom that I have so rarely found coaches taking the time to share. This book needs to be a must read for any beginning coach because it provides a frame of reference that is a great jumping off point for those of us who love coaching adolescent cross country skiers.  What is truly remarkable to me is the relevancy of the content to our present context.  No where have I come across such an incredible resource as this one.  In addition, Dick has created a website http://www.nordictrainingsources.com/index.html  that aims to share out best practice and current knowledge.

I've set out as the purpose of this blog to create a space where beginning coaches can be stimulated with some ideas about the important pieces of coaching young skiers - who want to do the work of transitioning kids to a love of going fast on skis.  The piece I have found most beginning cross country ski coaches want to start with is the technical pieces - what are the priorities in technical skill development.  Helping kids learn to ski technically well is super important, but equally and maybe even more important is having a solid understanding of the physiological priorities of working with adolescent skiers.  Predating Sport Canada's Long Term Athlete Development Plan, which is still the focus of current best practice discussion, Taylor speaks to the important physiological windows of trainability that exist for adolescent cross country skiers and many of the challenges that exist for our young skiers when faced with the lure of school sports which are predominantly high activity-relief sports.  This insight is one that I haven't come across in the Canadian LTAD and yet represents key understandings that are just as relevant today as they were ten years ago.

You'll find me reflecting again on Taylor's writing,as it is rich in substance and process; linked to cultural lenses that affect how athlete development in cross country skiing has been actualized in North America.  I'll be honest, this is the sort of book that will change my practice - well written, not as a textbook or a summarized/bulletted coach training manual, but instead as a refreshing, insightful and richly deep and broad perspective of our uniquely North American context of athlete development in cross country skiing.  Thank you Dick for creating a resource that is engaging, useful, and discerning and which every coach should have in their professional library.

Roy Strum
Canmore, AB

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

The importance of knowing why you do the work you do

I'll admit, balancing career and family and community is a juggling act. Which ball I've chosen to keep in the air has fluctuated over time. Finding the courage to advance your experience and ambition in one area of life, has effects on the others.

I stand at an exciting time in my life. I realize my whole life has been an exciting adventure of choice and passion and actualization.  My choices today are the same as they've always been and are centred on answering the question of 'what next?

Mid life has an interesting way of encouraging you to look backwards and forwards at the same time helping you to recognize how passion has directed your choices along the way - every step along the way has been full of big choices - most often very easy to make. Learning, Love, Family, Friends, Success, Ambition, all have provided guideposts for my pathway. And so as I reflect on how I have gotten to where I am I know clearly what those guideposts have been.

Finding a woman I love and having children has been the singlemost important piece of work in my life. Like most parents, I want the very best for my kids, to give them the very best start in life, to provide them with as many diverse opportunities to grow as confident, intelligent, athletic, creative, caring, empathetic people who strive to be their best in their ambition and relationships. My children have been my biggest passion. Being a father has been and is my most important life work. I place it above all else. It is not the only important thing in my life, but it is the most important - without a doubt. I have been a very fortunate person to have had career choices that have let me fulfill my ambition to be a great dad. I'll be honest, climbing the corporate ladder has not been my biggest priority. Finding fulfilling work that is creative and enjoyable has been important to me and continues to be.

My passion has directed my life and will continue to. My next step is to become an instructional leader at a school. I am ready for a new challenge. Not going to stop doing much of what I am already doing, but ready to put on a new hat not because my present reality is in any way unfulfilling. I am ready to be an Assistant Principal because when I look at my toolkit, its shouts out to me, this is where you need to be. Supporting achievement has been my lifework. Mentoring and leading learning communities has been my passion. Whether as a teacher, a consultant, a coach, a camp director, my life work has been about improving the state of being for those I work with. It is why as I enter mid-life I reflect confidently on my choices - I have with no doubt in my mind made a huge difference in the lives of hundreds, maybe thousands of children - supporting their path towards personal growth and excellence. It is why I have no regrets. Like so many other teachers, principals, camp directors, coaches, I look back and say, wow, I have done some great work - work that is humble and yet glorious. A servant of others.

As I move ahead, I embrace the challenges that I know will come from putting myself again in a place of vulnerability, risk, and leadership. I know that my passion for doing the work of helping others be their best gives me much more than I offer. It is through giving that I have found the most satisification in my life.

Giving to my children - my love, my passion for physical activity, my time.

Giving to young people in schools, at camp, in sport - my guidance, my love of learning, my passion for excellence; my joy of life; my desire for positive, engaging experience.

Giving to my peers, those I am tasked to mentor, lead, and help grow - my incredible need for creating positive space; my willingness to support, to help, to recognize strengths in others, to build, to learn, to share.

Giving to my friends and loved ones - my unconditional positive regard; my yearning to build meaningful, substantial, and intimate relationships built on respect, compassion, and good humour.

So am i ready for the next steps in my journey - I sure am. I've always been ready.

Roy Strum