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

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