Friday, 28 February 2014

Ideas about Feedback when Coaching Adolescent Cross Country Skiers

focusing on the important stuff...

Pick up any undergraduate textbook on motor learning, and you'll find a couple of chapters on feedback.  Its important stuff when you're learning and refining a motor skill.  Important because its how our brains work - when we first learn to walk, falling down and getting back up provides great feedback to refine balance - with enough practice and some hand holding from mom and dad, we learn to balance on our legs.  Feedback is important information provided by an agent (coach, peer) about aspects of one's performance or understanding. 

If you've been following my blog, you'll know I've been reading John Hattie's Visible Learning lately.  Hattie points out that there are four different types of feedback. 

1. feedback about the task or product of work - e.g. a description of how an athlete is performing a task
2. feedback about the process used to create the product/task - e.g. hey, you worked through that skill progression really well - you did this, then you did this, then you did this...
3. feedback focused on self regulation - e.g. hey, you did a good job listening to the description of what i wanted you to do
4. feedback that is personal in nature - e.g. hey, you're a great skier

Of these four types of feedback the least effective has been shown to be feedback that is simply personal in nature.  This is because when feedback draws attention to the self, learners can sometimes try to avoid risks involved with tackling challenging tasks - they tend to minimize their effort, and have a high fear of failure in order to minimize the risk to self.  This is important when working with novice skiers.  Giving them feedback that draws attention to themselves as a person can lead them to taking less risk in their learning.  Ideally, learning focuses on the task and then to the processes necessary to learn the task and then on to more challenging goals.  With learners at the acquisition stage it is better for coaches to provide elaborations than to provide feedback on poorly understood concepts.  Simply stated - when you're working with kids who arent at a refinement stage of learning a skill, you should focus more on giving elaborations of the skill than on telling them what detail of their skill is incorrect.  It comes back to the old adage of telling kids what you want them to do and not what you don't want them to do.

So much of what we do in working with children has a starting place with working with older athletes.  With older teens, or young adults we think nothing of error detection and correction.  With younger kids though Hattie's research would show us that focusing on the errors doesn't necessarily provide the most powerful learning, but instead Hattie points out a number of other important feedback priorities. 

Feedback needs to:

- prompt active information processing - e.g. how does what I am telling you as a coach fit into what you already know and help you close the gap on getting to where you want to go

- have low task complexity - e.g. - feedback should focus on one task alone rather than on for example six components of a skill

- relate to specific and clear goals - e.g. - cutting out wasteful movement

- provide little threat to the person at the self level - e.g. feedback should describe the task rather than the person

Hattie goes on to state "a feedback intervention provided for a familiar task that contains cues for learning, attracts attention to feedback standard discrepencies at the task level and is void of cues that direct attention to self is likely to yield impressive gains in achievement".  Big idea  - to optimize learning from feedback, give kids a clear picture of the task, describe or show them the gap between what they are doing and what they should strive for, and don't direct feedback at the person.

Out of over 150 different learning influences that Hattie identifies in his research, feedback is #10 in the most impactful interventions on improving achievement.  In our context, as coaches of adolescent cross country skiers, achievement is the increase in proficiency with which a child can perform a skill.  Feedback is important stuff and is often most impactful on learning when kids can tell their coaches what they know, what they understand, and where they are making errors.  Feedback has been shown to be least impactful when provided as praise, punishment, extrinsic rewards or programmed instruction. 

So what's the big deal - we all know feedback is important.  For me, the big deal is that some forms of feedback are shown to be more effective in helping kids learn.  Figuring that out is huge part of effective coaching.  Not all coaches are equally effective in the work they do.  The good ones  have thought about how they structure feedback; intertwining feedbak and instruction.  These are things I think about and try to incorporate in the work I do with adolescents.  I encourage you to do the same.

Roy Strum
Canmore, AB

Saturday, 22 February 2014

Ideas about Structuring Skilful Learning for Adolescent Cross Country Ski Racers

There are lots of choices we make as coaches about what we do with the kids we coach, the volume of what we do, and the frequency of what we do.  The great variation in performance by athletes from various clubs reflects these choices.  Somehow, and maybe its not so magical, kids from some clubs perform at a higher level than kids from other clubs.  Sometimes I wonder what the cause of this variance is.  To me, almost any child is capable of learning  to ski technically well; any child can develop fitness comparable to same age peers; any child can develop the disposition to be resilient.  If that is really the case, then what's going on in those development hotbeds. 
Motor skill learning is enhanced by what sport scientists would call 'blocked' practice.  Blocked practice refers to skill learning that includes varied opportunities, with breaks in between learning sessions, and sequential tasks that include increasing complexity.  The opposite of blocked practice is termed 'massed' practice. Massed practice refers to learning sessions focused for extended duration on one skill.  Research shows us that it is the frequency of different opportunities rather than the total time on a skill that makes the biggest difference in skill acquisition.
For effective skill learning to take place the emphasis should be on:
- helping athletes to understand what they can do
- then on athletes knowing what they are aiming to do
- then on athletes having multiple strategies for learning to do what they aim to do
- then on athletes knowing when they have done it
Not rocket science, but often as coaches we want to jump right to focusing on giving kids feedback on what they are doing without first having them understand where that fits into what they already know how to do.  Sometimes as coaches, we give athletes a one size fits all strategy for skill acquisition when what would help them is to have three or four different strategies for learning a motor skill.  And often, as coaches, we probably don't take the time to have kids reflect on identifying what they can do and what they need to work on.
Often we think about goal setting in terms of helping athletes set realistic performance goals.  This is a worthy task and for some athletes very worthwhile.  When we think about goal setting from a skill development perspective, what we really need to also focus on is setting challenging goals around learning.  These goals should include things like:
- knowing where you are
- knowing where you are going
- knowing how you will get there
- knowing what to do next
- knowing how to reduce the gap
There is tendency to make assumptions based on our experience and training - experience that is both personal and academic.  One of the assumptions I have found myself making over time is that individualized instruction is more effective than group instruction.  Research focused on learning strategies would show us however that individualized instruction does provide some positive gains, but relative to other interventions we can make as coaches, it is not the cash cow we might think it is.  A much more effective strategy in terms of skill learning is peer tutoring.  Peer tutoring is where one athlete helps another to learn a skill.  For peer tutoring to be effective though, athletes have to have a clear understanding of the learning outcome.  What is the key learning point about one skate or offset that you are working on during that practice.  When kids understand that clearly, their tutoring activities consolidate their own conceptions of the skill and help them to provide feedback to another youth about their observations.
One of things we need to be careful with is setting challenging goals for kids who lack the knowledge or skill to attain that goal.  Goal setting needs to be a collaborative task between coach and athlete.  Setting a goal that is too challenging for a novice skier, can sometimes lead to lower performance.  In addition, goals can have an adverse effect on risk taking if failure to achieve the goal is punished in some way.  This speaks again to focusing on learning goals rather than performance goals for kids. 
So much of what is included in my reflection here comes from John Hattie's Visible Learning.  Hattie compiled a meta-analysis of over 50,000 educational research papers on teaching and learning.  There is much to learn.  For me, continual learning and learning in small bits that I can apply to my coaching each week is a part of my practice.  Learning is a great thing.  Some day I want to go back to school and complete a PhD focused on physiology/biomechanics related to cross country skiing.  I encourage you find your own learning pathway.
Roy Strum
Canmore, AB

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Small Things that Make a Difference

Leadership for Empowering Engagement

As we prepare for a big trip to Chelsea, Quebec this week, our coaches and kids in our club are engaged with the exciting prospect of visiting a new place, reacquainting ourselves with friends, and fired up with anticipation of a fulfilling, fun, and engaging socio-cultural and athletic experience.  Every year or two for the past number of years, our ski club has embarked on an exchange with another club somewhere else in Canada.  Last year our 1999 birth year skiers travelled to the skiing development hotbed of Whitehorse, Yukon to spend a week embedded in Yukon ski culture and hospitality.  This year our 2000 and 2001 birth year kids are heading east, back to Chelsea, Quebec for 9 days of immersion in the unique culture of the Outouais region, and visiting national landmarks in Ottawa, our national capital.

These initiatives are driven by volunteers and coaches in our ski club who know the value of gifting kids with the unique opportunity to travel and ski with other kids in other places.  This year, 1988 Olympian, coaching colleague, and good friend, Carol Gibson-Coyne has done the remarkable  feat of organizing our families both when the Chelsea kids were in Canmore for 9 days in December, and also helping with the organization of our 9 days in Chelsea.  The herculean effort to pull off an exchange like this is noteworthy of immense praise; but the benefactors of the effort are the children in our club who receive the incredible experience.

Carol's effort is typical of coaches and parents who want to engage kids with something worthwhile; a gift to children to give them an experience that might hook kids on skiing for the long term.  Kids will decide themselves what their future will be and no amount of coercion or influence can make a child do something they dont want.  But positive experience, framed appropriately, supported with care and enthusiasm, reinforced by the joy inherent in physical activity, fostered by relationships aimed at advancing engagement, with an emphasis on improvement, fitness, and skill development are the types of factors that help make it easy for kids to say - 'hey this is for me'.

Occasionally these types of things all come together and what happens, I think, is something magical.  I had this type of conversation with a coach this past weekend at Alberta Winter Games.  The coach I was chatting with is an ambitious coach wanting to create something spectacular for kids from her community.  She was seeking advice as to what we've done in my club to create an environment where kids have fun and where they ski really well and are super engaged with racing.  I do have to say, as a coach with our Alberta Winter Games team from south central Alberta region, that it was impressive what our kids did.  Gold medals in all five relay categories as an example.  What I was particularly impressed with, with our kids from Canmore, Cochrane and Bragg Creek, was what they did when they weren't racing.  They were playing card games, board games, taking care of each, laughing lots, supporting each other, getting to bed early, mentoring younger athletes, and just having alot of fun. Sure they worked on a race plan and they focused on their best effort in races, but they were also super nice kids who thanked officials (alot of whom were their parents or grandparents as the event was held in Canmore), were friendly with kids from other clubs and super respectful of adults.  Wow - what a lucky dude I am to be here in this community.

The fact is that great energy and small things you do can make a difference in your own community.  The fact is that Canmore wasnt always a hotbed for cross country skiing, someone built this energy here, and although I might do small things to contribute to it, the real credit goes to our current leadership (board and head coach) for creating a space where kids flourish.  I see this work happening in lots of places.  Be patient, it takes time and effort.

Happy skiing!

Roy Strum
Canmore AB

Sunday, 2 February 2014

Changing the Landscape of Youth Cross Country Skiing...

shaking it up...

Its pretty cool to see an idea turn into reality.  That happened yesterday.  It started with some conversations with friends and colleagues about how to engage more kids and more clubs in ski racing - to make ski racing more accessible for more kids.  There is alot of inertia moving against this.  It takes a shift in thinking to think beyond your own club and the kids you coach.  But its been that kind of leadership that created an event yesterday where almost every kid there was pretty new to ski racing. 
Refreshing.  Inspiring.  Fun. 
Casual conversations turned into more formal discussion about what was important to all of the stakeholders.  This allowed some shared values to be discussed.  The conversation focused on creating a shared vision about the future of skiing in our region.  Everyone agreed that more clubs and more kids engaged with racing would be a good thing.
Next came some conversation about what it would take for clubs currently not engaged with racing to join in.  From this, we learned about the diverse needs of clubs of different sizes and stages of maturity.  What was remarkable in our process was the willingness of big established clubs to accommodate the needs of younger, start up clubs in our region.  We decided on two types of events for our new regional development series - 'open' events that would accommodate any child and 'development' events that targeted kids in their first year or two of racing.  Our provincial sport organization, Cross Country Alberta, was quick to pick up the event series and support it with the idea that this type of regional series would be good for any region in our province to roll with.
Yesterday was a pretty amazing day.  A young, start up club, Crystal Ridge Nordic Ski Club from a small town in the greater Calgary area, Okotoks, hosted the Built for Speed (B4S) Event Series first 'development' event.  I'll tell you it was awesome.  Almost 80 kids from 5 different greater Calgary ski clubs, almost all of whom would be too intimidated to line up in a provincial level race, were there lining up at this development race. 
Its where it starts.  Racing needs nurturing.  Outside of small pockets of highly motivated parents and a small percentage of ski clubs, the reality is, racing is new.  Taking the high rollers out of the equation meant that kids who might usually finish 20th in an Alberta Cup race, were there winning their event.  Every kid needs a chance to step on the podium.  In our highly competitive region where a few clubs are large with professional coaching staff, but where most of the clubs are run by volunteers and keen parents who want to do something good for their children, we created a valid interclub regional race where the needs of kids starting up can compete with others who are about the same place as they are.
My own personal children didn't race (I have three of my own offspring, who are all pretty keen on racing).  Most of the kids I coach didn't race.  Some of the kids I coach competed, because in every club there are kids who are just getting started.  For a group of ski clubs to agree to create something to foster and engender positive racing experiences for those kids on the edge, for kids who don't have parents who competed at some high level, the event yesterday was incredible.  Bravo to the leadership of southern Alberta ski clubs for creating a space for this type of event in our regional event series for children.  Not one kid finished 10 minutes behind the winner - every kid had a chance to see themselves as a contender. 
Hats off to the Crystal Ridge Nordic Ski Club for hosting B4S2.  It was an unqualified success.