Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Energy...A Key Ingredient for Success

The story of energy production...

(photo credit - Doug Stephen)

I've been doing some reading lately about energy - wanting to find a way to explain to kids how energy systems work.  Its complex stuff, and the average coach might be hard pressed to explain in a few words how energy is created and through what processes, and the role of our muscles, our breathing, our circulatory system all play in creating the energy we need to move our bodies.  In a sport like cross country skiing energy systems are hugely important, as we create much of our own propulsion.  We spend many hours engaged in physical training aimed at improving efficiency in cellular processes of using stored energy and oxygen to create 'energy molecules' (adenosine triphosphate) that explode, reform and resplit countless times in every muscle cell used in our activity.  Some of my reading has come from a couple of textbooks from my undergraduate and graduate study days (Human Physiology by Stuart Ira Fox, and online textbooks such as ).  My reading has made me think about how to share out this information in manageable bytes to adolescent athletes.  Here is my attempt.

Energy is an essential part of success at anything.  Success as an athlete, success as a coach, success as a parent  - it takes energy to achieve.  Energy at a physiological level, and energy at a mental level.  Energy literally is the capacity to do work.  Energy takes many shapes - it can be chemical, solar, mechanical, electrical, nuclear or heat energy.  For humans, chemical energy is a prime source of the materials we need for muscular activity, cellular regeneration, or creating electrical impulses through our nervous system.  Energy is measured by a unit called a calorie or in the metric system, a joule.

When we eat something, we transfer the energy stored in that plant or animal tissue and use it in our body.  One of the jobs of our cells is to transform the chemical energy stored in this plant or animal tissue into another form that our body can use more easily.  Adenosine Triphosphate (ATP) is that easily usable molecule that the cells produce from the chemical energy stored in the food we eat.  During cellular metabolism, ATP molecules are split by enzymes.  The splitting of ATP molecules, creates a highly usable form of energy for things like muscle contractions.

ATP is considered a high energy compound that is stored in muscles in small amounts.  Because there are only small amounts of ATP stored in cells, there need to be other ways of replenishing this important compound.  Phospho-Creatine is another phosphorus based compound that is found in our cells in small amounts in our muscle tissue.  It is used to rapidly replenish supplies of ATP in muscle cells.

When we eat carbohydrates, fats, and proteins, our body stores some of that energy to be used when needed.  Energy is stored in body fat, our blood (in the form of blood glucose), our muscles (in the form of glycogen), and in our liver.  In an average adult huge stores of energy are found in various tissues.  There is enough energy in the form of muscle glycogen stored in the average adult's muscle tissue for him/her to run for 25 km. There is enough energy stored in adipose tissue (body fat) for an average adult to run for several hundred kilometers if it was possible.  And there is enough energy stored in muscle protein for an average adult to run for more several hundred kilometers.  That is a lot of stored energy.  The challenge is for our bodies to become efficient at converting that stored energy to ATP - this efficiency happens with lots of practice.  Which is one of the reasons why your fitness improves with physical training.  Training on an energy level, is about your muscle cells becoming efficient transformers of carbohydrates to glucose to ATP, proteins to amino acids to ATP, or fats to fatty acids to ATP.

So what is really important to share with kids about energy production - maybe it comes down to this:

- we have alot of stored energy in our bodies
- we do physical training to create efficiencies in the transforming of this stored energy into more usable forms of energy
- energy is created by the breaking of an important molecule called ATP
- ATP is created from stored energy
- what we eat is important to help our bodies optimally convert stored energy to ATP

There it is, Roy's energy lesson.  Go ahead and use it if you want.  At a certain point this is really interesting and useful information for young athletes.  The trick is knowing when it to pull it out and how to make it relevant.  In the end one of our important jobs as coaches of adolescent cross country skiers is to help kids learn about how their bodies work.  Good luck with that.

Roy Strum
Canmore, AB

Friday, 17 January 2014

Quality Coaching - what does it look like?

reflections on effective coaching...

So much of the reading I am doing recently has focused on indicators of effective teaching.  As I read, my mind drifts naturally to thinking about how does this relate to coaching adolescent cross country skiers.  The parallels in ideas are striking.  Quality teaching and coaching definitely has some indicators.  The key to quality coaching is not whether a coach is seen to be 'excellent' by colleagues, but  rather, whether they are 'excellent' as seen by athletes.

According to Hattie in Visible Learning, quality teaching it seems can be enhanced by a teacher's verbal ability and interpersonal skills.  Coaches who can express their ideas articulately in language understood by athletes, and who can build relationships seem to be seen as better coaches by kids. But being a great coach of adolescents is a bit bigger than that.  Some of Hattie's other research findings would indicate that there are a number of other characteristics of coaches (teachers) that also are highly correlated with effective coaching.  These include:

- having high expectations - encouraging your athletes to place a high value on being a skilled and fit cross country ski racer

- teaching the language, the love, and the details of a sport - helping young athletes construct understandings of the technical, mental, and physical aspects of our sport

- monitoring and evaluating - getting kids to think about the nature and quality of their skiing - giving regular and effective feedback

- coaches who challenge athletes - encouraging kids to think through and problem solve

- coaches having a deep understanding of their coaching and its effect on athlete learning - thinking about how are go about interacting, teaching, assessing, and communicating

- having a high level of passion - loving what you do as a coach

- being adept at improvisation - being able to react to the immediate learning need of each athlete

- having respect for athletes - being respectful in voice tone, language, and appropriate personal boundaries

- having a positive practice culture/climate that fosters learning - adolescents can tell when the focus is on learning and improving

These aren't my ideas.  They come from John Hattie's book Visible Learning.  They are however my reflections on how his research based ideas relate to coaching adolescent cross country skiers.  When I read this stuff, I kind of go, ya, there are no big revelations in there.  But improving your practice as a coach, and striving for quality coaching asks us as coaches to reflect on what we're doing and extend the work we do in new ways.  That my friend, is the real value of these ideas about quality coaching.  Its work I try to do every day when I work with kids.  Try something new.  Push my envelope of skill a little more by taking an idea and changing how I interact with the kids I coach.  It is the only way to improve.  To try new things, to find areas of the work you do to improve. 

I know alot of teachers and coaches.  My experience is that those teachers and coaches who are most masterful at their work are folks who have made very deliberate attempts at improving aspects of their coaching or teaching.  They do this by reading, by talking with colleagues, by trying new strategies and methods. 

The fact is that Hattie's research would show that 'content' knowledge is not the biggest predictor of quality teaching.  The items listed above have a much stronger research based correlation to quality teaching. 

So you don't have to have competed in the Olympics to be an excellent coach.   Its not that olympic athletes can't be excellent coaches because in fact many olympic athletes go on to be highly successful coaches.  But research would show us that there are many other more important indicators of quality coaching than personal experience.  Most of those don't require initial expert content knowledge.

So...go for it.  My best pal in the world sent me a message the other day that read:

If you do not go after what you want, you will never have it.

If you do not ask, the answer will always be no.

If you do not step forward, you will always be in the same place.

That is one of the great benefits of best friends - they help nudge you along to become something better.  Thanks to my pal, Vince for doing that for me.

Monday, 13 January 2014

How to get the most out of your kids...some ideas borrowed from Teaching

Lets borrow what we know works well...
One of the most referred pieces of research literature right now in the school division I work for comes from a researcher in New Zealand named John Hattie.  Hattie's book, Visible Learning, is essentially a meta-analysis of meta-analysis studies.  That might sound kind of boring, but in fact, research like this would have been so valuable to me as a beginning teacher and coach many years ago.  What Hattie's work does is quantify things that teachers do and their affect on acheivement.  We all know anecdotally that there are great coaches (and teachers) and others that aren't quite there yet.  What Visible Learning does is quantify the effects of teaching and learning influences on achievement.

We all want the kids we work with to achieve, to learn, to be successful.  Why else would you put the effort into coaching if it wasnt because you had some specific outcomes in mind.  In the coach training work I lead in southern Alberta, fun is often articulated as a major outcome in children's ski instructional experiences.  The fact is that kids have more fun when they have success, when they achieve goals they set for themselves, when they learn a new set of skills.  As coaches we can learn something from strategies that successful teachers employ.  You can identify these coaches and teachers because the kids they work with are engaged, acquire skills, and enjoy themselves.  What is it that these coaches of children are doing?  Hattie's research can help articulate some of those strategies.  Here are a few gems from some reading I did this morning from Visible Learning.

Attributes of Coaches (Hattie refers to Teachers, but I think subsituting 'Coaches' is appropriate as both coaches and teachers are focused on learning and acheivement) that have the greatest influence on well managed classrooms/practices (the higher the d= value the more significant the effect):

- with-it-ness - d=1.42 - this is a coach's ability to identify and quickly act on potential problems - looks like 'hey I see you doing that, and that needs to stop"
- appropriate mental set - d=1.29 - this is the coach's ability to remain calm and in control  - looks like never getting flustered or raising your voice
- verbal and physical behaviour of coaches - d=1.00 - this the behaviour of a coach to indicate disapproval of off task behaviour - looks like 'the look' or a one word intervention such as 'enough'
- disciplinary interventions - d=.91 - this is the coach's ability to use an appropriate intervention to get kids back on track - looks like 'hey, take a break here and cool your jets - i'll talk to you in a moment'
- group contingency strategies - d=.98 - these are strategies that require a specific set of kids to reach a certain criteria level of approp behaviour - looks like 'hey kids, show me 5 minutes of focused effort, then we can play a game'

- tangible recognition - d=.82 - students being provided some symbol or token for appropriate behaviour - looks like - 'kids who show the most focus on task, get to pick the teams for our relay'
- direct or concrete consequence - d=.57 - looks like 'if you interupt me, you're on the bench for 5 minutes'
- coach/athlete (teacher/student) relations - d=.87 - positive relationship are powerful moderators on managing behaviours or off task activity - coaches who build positive relationships with kids have fewer behaviour problems/off task focus
- rules and procedures - d=.76 - stated expectations regarding behaviours and well articulated rules that were negotated with athletes have thei highest impact. - looks like 'hey kids lets talk about what is going to be normal for our team this year'

There is lots to learn and to try when you are leading a group of kids.  According to the research one of the most powerful things we can do is pay attention and intervene early (having some with-it-ness). We need to stay calm when redirecting kids and we need to have a few tools in our belt. 
The biggest and most important to me over the years I have been coaching and teaching has been building positive relationships.

Appropriate coach/athlete or teacher/student relationships go a far way - when kids care about what your reaction is to something they might do, it has a huge influence on whether they do it or not.  When you've got a positive culture and great relationships few behaviour problems or off task behaviour occurs.  We've all know coaches and teachers who have this skill.  This skill comes from deliberate and thoughtful leadership.  I encourage you be that kind of leader.

Roy Strum

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Early Specialization...reflections on where we're at

How early is too early?

In Canada, ski clubs are asked to adopt the Long Term Athlete Development Plan (LTAD) 
This document was created by sport scientists and experts in the field of kinesiology, physical education, coaching, physiology, biomechanics among others.  LTAD was introduced over 10 years ago in Canada to the cross country ski community. Clubs have responded by using the language and recommendations to design yearly training and racing programs.  This has had far reaching effects.
The conversation is at different places with different sports.  I came across an article on Sport IQ, a blog I follow.  The conversation focused on early specialization in ice hockey.  Hockey Canada is the national sport organization and has a section of their website devoted to long term athlete development - 
In Canada, hockey dominates the sport culture.  In a city the size of Calgary there might be over 100,000 children playing organized hockey.  There are schools and specialized programs aimed at hockey players such National Sport Development or The Edge private school.  There are year round training opportunities, leagues, and camp programs for developing hockey players.  Children attend tryouts at 6 or 7 years old and are tiered into ability groupings.  Its big business and taken quite seriously.  Lots of good work happens in hockey.  Kids develop a passion for the game.  Kids develop technical and social skills.  Kids have fun.  I certainly am no expert on hockey player development but I do get sense from talking with parents of hockey kids that there is no shortage of opportunities for children of all ages to play hockey every month of the year in the greater Calgary area. 
The Sport IQ blog post I came across provides a good perspective on the pitfalls of early specialization.  In Canada, where passion for hockey resides like almost no other place, it is I think quite easy for alot of parents to get caught up in the 'my kid is the next Sidney Crosby' kind of thinking.  That type of thinking can encourage parents to do too much too soon.  I encourage you to read the article titled 'Early Specialization and Year round training are destroying youth hockey'   The ideas there are just as relevant to the cross country ski perspective. 
Its nice to come across something that aligns with your own set of priorities.  Its nice to see the conversation happening in other sports.  Bravo to Hockey Canada and to the hockey community for tackling this important athlete development issue.

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Measuring Growth of Adolescents - what does it tell us?

For the past several years, we've been recording growth data for our adolescent cross country skiers in our club.  This is recommended practice for clubs in Canada.  The data gathered is interesting and diverse.  It really happens - each child has their very own unique growth curve.  Some adolescents are early, some are later, and a lot of somewhere in the middle of the normative data.  Its good information.  The challenge is not in the gathering of the data but in what to do with it.

How can growth data influence athlete development plans.  There is certainly lots of information out there about measurement protocols and interpreting the findings to indicate readiness for windows of trainability.  There is a lot less information easily available for coaches about how to individualize training plans for kids experiencing peak height velocity (PHV) or pre PHV.  I've been thinking about this for awhile because I recognize there are lots of variables at play.  Group size, social groupings, coaching expertise, family variables, club culture, yearly planning, structural realities, among others.

What can we do with growth data - here are some of my reflections

- share it with kids - probably one of the most useful and easy action items - kids are interested in how they are growing relative to peers; they are interested in understanding how their bodies grow and how that affects what they are ready for.  I do a weekly strength session with the 12-13 year olds I coach, and the boys in particular have natural interest in moving beyond body weight exercises to doing what the high school age athletes are doing.  I have found that when kids can see some data about limb length relative to standing height they understand in a different way how their bodies aren't ready to do that kind of work.

- post it in the team room - it creates some awareness for parents and kids that as a club we are paying attention to some details about their children and their readiness for various types of physical training.

- differentiate physical training - according to the literature, this is the ultimate reason for recording growth information.  It is also really difficult to do when chronological age directs so many other variables in our sport.  I have tried a few strategies to differentiate instruction and I'll admit, not with the regularity or accuracy that data seems to imply.  The question that I ask myself when deciding on what best to focus on in training sessions is 'where can I get the biggest return on investment?'  I have found that for example, although flexibility or technical instruction is identified as a window of trainability for pre peak height velocity athletes, athletes experiencing PHV can benefit as well from flexibility or technical instruction.  Differentiating focus based on developmental characteristics is important, but of more importance in my mind are a number of other variables including some of the following:  team culture - kids improve because they want to and they improve more in positive, fun environments where they are challenged and recognized; quality instruction - kids improve because they have good models, coaches use the right tools and sequence skill development based on individual variables.

So, is it worth it to gather growth data every quarter on your 11-17 year olds skiers?  Ya, I'd say so - but it is important to note that having appropriate expectations of what you will do with the information is important in sustaining the effort of data collection over time.

Roy Strum
Canmore, AB