Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Alternatives to Mass Start races for Adolescent Cross Country Skiers

OK - I'll admit, I am an advocate for change.  Not just any change, but change that increases the profile of ski racing for youth, and change that increases engagement of youth.  I've talked in previous blogposts about some of my thoughts about why our racing community does what it does when it comes to youth racing, and some of the positives, challenges, and downsides of our current youth racing reality.  What I haven't done much of is share out some ideas that we could use to enhance development and engagement of the youth we organize events for.

I never cease to stop learning from others.  This weekend I was in Red Deer, AB working with beginning coaches from central Alberta.  Its amazing really, when you work with a crowd like this, because most often they are a pretty open slate when it comes to thinking about what is possible.  Often, they have young children who they want to engage in a lifelong love affair with cross country skiing, being positive and active people, and they are not tied up in the advancement of their own children on a pathway to excellence, or engrained with a way of doing things - they simply want to create engaging experiences for their children with cross country skiing.  What is always remarkable to me is their openess to the value of competition regardless of their own personal history... if competition is done well.

So as a community lets throw off the shackles of historic conceptions of scaled down versions of adult format cross country ski competitions and replace it with something better - we need to be smart about what we do when we have a small pool of kids to draw from.  This past weekend, we had a creative and engaging discussion about how to create stimulating and rewarding competitive experiences for children.  Here are some the ideas that surfaced:

- rethink competition groupings - why not do something different than age on december 31 and two year age groups?

- individual time trials - why not do more interval start races with novice kids? - there is alot to be said about racing the clock.

- wave start races - why not group kids with similar ability kids and have them start together? this way kids could actually be in the race instead of left far off behind after the first 100m of the race.

- club events - every club should host a club race that is primarily intended for their own club kids.

- relays - why is it that there isn't a relay event for kids at every weekend event?  lets think about creative ways to emphasize the team instead of the individual as youth begin to see themselves as racers.

- skier cross - could you imagine an event where five kids start together and race to the bottom of a mostly downhill course?  hmmm...lots of fun built into that idea.

- single technique races - why don't we do more 'double pole' drag races? or uphill diagonal stride races? or two skate races on appropriate terrain?  why not isolate a skill and give kids more ways to identify with what it means to be a skilled cross country ski racer?  why do we have to jump to the adult model of what a ski race is?

- tiered competitions - they do this in hockey, why not in skiing?  the Built for Speed event series in southern Alberta has had great success with this idea this year - http://builtforspeedeventseries.blogspot.ca/

- team competitions - gymnastics does a great job of structuring a team event made up of a bunch of individual athletes each doing an event that they are good at.  what could this look like in cross country skiing?

Its time to redefine competition for children and youth involved with cross country ski racing.  Its time for race organizers to broaden their conception of what to do with children at a ski race.  Its time for provincial sport organizations to lead the way with encouraging and supporting this type of development - bravo to @xcountryab for leading the way with this work.

We are into our last couple of weeks of the competitive ski season here in Canmore.  I am super stoked for our 3rd Alberta Youth Cross Country Ski Championships being co-hosted by Canmore Nordic Ski Club and XC Bragg Creek Ski Club on April 4-6.  These are a couple of clubs who get it, who understand the importance of doing something a little different.  The real challenge of transforming ski racing for kids is that the folks who organize the events often have children who are well past the development age group - so its not on the radar of these folks - can't blame them, they're just organizing the event the way they know how.  The real challenge is that it takes some negotiating with the people in positions of power in ski clubs to advocate for doing something different for children.  

I believe most clubs support great ideas to expand youth engagement.  I encourage you to be that agent of change in your ski club.  This is a conversation I love to have.  Follow me on twitter @RoyStrum and we'll exchange contact info to see how we can collaborate on increasing engagement of youth in cross country ski racing.

Roy Strum
Canmore, AB

Friday, 21 March 2014

Simple Things...like Friendship

The longer I travel my journey through life, the more I realize that the things that are really important to me are relationships.  Its friendships that add value and richness to life.  As children we find these friendships often very easily.  As I have transitioned through various stages of my life, I have found that authentic, deep and richly meaningful friendships are much harder to find.  I'm not really sure why this is - life does get busy with career, with events, with cleaning the house, and maintaining equipment - all important things to tend.  I think its why often your spouse becomes your best friend - because you share all of the important life events with them.

Often, parents go through their mid life caring for, supporting, and cheerleading for their children.  For me, it really is the most important job I have found - helping my children become independent, confident, and successful in their ambitions and relationships.  This week, its been a particularly hard week as a parent as two of my children are 3.5 time zones away both accomplishing amazing things and I'm not there to celebrate their success with them.  So I'll take a minute to brag about them.  My son, Matt, won four silver medals at biathlon nationals in New Brunswick last week and had a top 20 finish at cross country nationals in Newfoundland on Tuesday.  My daughter, Molly-Jane, won the sprint event at cross country nationals on Wednesday of this week and a top 10 finish on Tuesday.  Incredible really.  I'm proud of their success, but more than that, I am proud that they are becoming independent, confident, and ambitious young people who are learning to create their own support network separate from their parents.  

Friendship really is at the core of my work with adolescent cross country skiers.  Creating a space where kids can develop meaningful and deep friendships with others.  Oh sure, I want them to learn to ski really well, and have incredible fitness, and I think based on the race results of the kids I coach they are developing those attributes.  But its relationships that really drive my priorities both in my coaching work, in my day job, and in my personal life.  Its why when you come across someone who you really connect with you on many levels, you grab ahold and hold on tight.  

I know lots of people who I have very positive relationships with; but its just a few of them I would say where there is deeper reciprocation and validation of core being - someone who likes you just because.  For me, its the human relationships that add value to the work I do and to my life. Because, for me, when you get to the end, it doesn't matter how many medals you've won, how many championships you've attended, how much of anything you have.  What matters is caring, positive relationships, and knowing that your efforts have made a positive difference in the people around you.   

This year, I am hoping to move into an administration position at a school.  I know which school I really want to be at.  Its a school that works with kids who are high performing athletes.  I want to make a difference in the lives of kids.  I know where I want to do that work.  I love my coaching work.  I'll continue with that as well.

This weekend I am off to Red Deer, Alberta to facilitate a coaching workshop for the Parkland Ski Club.  This is incredibly important work - to break down this idea that to be a good coach, you have to have skied in the Olympics. What rubbish that idea is.  For me, what is truly important in coaching are a few things.  Here is my list of priorities:

- technical proficiency

- physical fitness

- positive relationships

Not a big list but if you asked me what I've learned from my years of coaching children and adolescents, that's what I'd tell you.

Happy Springtime!

Roy Strum
Canmore, AB

Friday, 14 March 2014

Building Confident Adolescent Ski Racers...

I love my work as a cross country ski coach of adolescents.  Its a critical age for kids.  A time in their life where they start making lots of choices for themselves.  Working with early teens is an art - how do create a space where kids flourish?  I don't pretend to have all of the answers, or to have an all seeing eye that captures best practice across the landscape.  What I do have is a keen interest in creating engaging learning for kids.  This interest gets me reading and talking with others about what works best.
Recently, I have been reading a book by Tom Schimmer of Penticton, BC.  One of Tom's big ideas is that confidence matters - that there is nothing more important to learners than confidence - that confidence is the foundation for all success.  Let's think about that for a moment.  Think about the confident kids in your group - are they the ones having success?  What about the others?  what level of confidence do the kids have who are not on the podium regularly?  Something is going on and as coaches of adolescents, who are early in their self conceptualization of being an athlete, we need to ask ourselves, what are we doing to create environments where confidence is fostered, nurtured, and developed, not just by the early developing kids who are on the podium alot, but in everyone? Will we get there by goal setting? realistic goal setting? pats on the back? personal reflections? Come on folks - what are we doing to nurture, grow, and sustain young people who are confident as learners and who can see that there is a direct line between effort, perseverance, and success.
As coaches, we get to decide on the sequence and focus of instruction; we get to decide the sequence, type, and volume of physical training.  But it is individual athletes who decide when learning occurs.  That is an important idea so I'll say it again - it is individual athletes who decide when learning occurs.  As coaches, we can put it out there, offer it, and hope that kids pick it up.  Ulitmately, we all know, its kids who decide whether they'll pick it up or not.   Schimmer points out in his writing that often learners base their decision to learn on their own past record of success and failure.  Big idea here - success reinforces confidence and the desire to learn - lack of success inhibits the growth of confidence and the desire to learn.
What I try to stay away from is creating learning situations that create either arrogance or despair.  Arrogance leads to unfounded optimism - a sense of entitlement where success is expected for all the wrong reasons.  Its a hard one to teach kids, not to be arrogant, but maybe sheds some light on the high drop out rates of early developers in cross country skiers.  Despair leads to a feeling of hopelessness - a sense that their no point in trying.  Maybe there is a connection here - maybe its that late entry kids, or late developing kids drop out of competitive ski programs as teens because they get the sense that they will never be able to catch up.  Confidence, on the other hand, leads to young athletes expecting to succeed - maybe not every time, but it does mean that they believe they can learn to be a great skier.
The key that Schimmer points out is that it is learners who decide whether they are capable enough to succeed and learn.  If learners believe they can learn and that success will be the eventual result of effort, then they will actively engage in learning.  Its about the confidence.  Confident kids learn more, learn more quickly, and stick with their learning - they keep trying when others might give up.
So if confidence is really important what should be doing to create environments where confidence is nurtured, grown, reinforced, and sustained?   Great coaches of adolescents do this.  They create conditions that allow kids to maximize their success.  Here are some of my ideas of how I reach for this:
- aim to see every child as equally able to learn and succeed.  I don't use a crystal ball to foresee who will be successful at 25 year olds.  Economic situation of parents aside, every kid is just as likely to be the next world champion
- don't use race results as the primary informer of learning - when kids get regular feedback about their improvement that is not connected to race results, race results don't become the measuring stick of learning
- let kids and their parents know you think they have lots of potential
- make sure you let kids know what they are doing well and not just what they need to work on
Every parents wants their child to be confident and successful at what they do.  As coaches, we need to make sure we're thinking about creating spaces where confidence thrives. 
Roy Strum
Canmore, AB
Ten Things That Matter From Assessment to Grading, Tom Schimmer, Pearson Publishers, Toronto 2014

Friday, 7 March 2014

The Ability-Effort Conundrum - why we lose so many talented young skiers...

the role of coaches in engaging adolescents

If you've been around awhile you'll have seen the pattern happen many times.  Adolescents who have early success and then disappear.  It's easy as coaches to shrug your shoulders and say 'obviously this sport isn't their passion, their interest...'   I say booo on that idea.  If there is one thing that grounds my coaching work it is that coaches are pivotal in the developing conceptualization of self of a young athlete. 

An important question to ask as a club is - what is the acceptable level of achievement each year that we set for ourselves.  Is the assumption that any level of achievement is the target?  Researchers who focus on teaching and learning (Hattie, 2009) point out that there is appreciable variability in coach (teacher) effectiveness.  Also, that there are few things that a coach (teacher) can do that will have a negative effect on achievement.  He points out that simply by having kids interact about content with their teacher and other students will result in some learning.  A big question in coaching adolescent cross country skiers is - how do we measure achievement? Is it ok to assume that any achievement is better than none?  I would suggest that in skiing hotbeds (clubs whose kids dominate at races), where kids are performing well, their expectations about level of achievement are not 'any improvement is better than none'.

As coaches, this is important to consider.  Are we great coaches when we have a child who wins races?  Is that the measure of achievement?  Hold on, because if that's the case, let me make sure I get all of the early developing kids in my group - because at 12-14 years old, ability/achievement has a positive correlation with physical maturity - I don't have a study that backs this up, but you and I know as experienced coaches that this is the case.  Sadly, the pattern goes on to show that many or almost all of these early developers are not on the scene once growth and development of peers catches up to them.  Surely, we need to start asking ourselves as coaches of these children, what can we do differently to ensure this doesn't happen at the current frequency.  Sadly it seems, most coaches shrug their shoulders and say 'I tried my best with these kids'. 

So I put it out there to you - what can you be doing differently to create engaging learning situations for adolescents?  how can you structure your coaching environments to focus on achievement that is something other than standing on the podium.  There are some incredible things we can be doing - I'd like to suggest a few here.

An important question to ask yourself is - are their kids in your group who don't progress because you have low expectations of them.  It is very easy to give attention to high achievers.  What are you doing to give the message to kids that you believe they are capable of learning and achieving?

Another important question to ask yourself is - is your focus on 'ability' or on 'effort'.  When we create challenging learning environments, where kids are challenged to master complex skills, is effortful engagement with task the expectation?  How is it that some coaches can create effortful engagement, while others create less engagement?  A child I know who was an early developer and a technically proficient skier at a young age, reported after a provincial development team training camp that her coaches didn't offer her one bit of constructive feedback or ideas on how to improve. Granted, with kids who already perform at a high technical and physical level, its a bit harder to provide them with ideas on improvement.  To do so as a coach, requires a high level of content knowledge as well on process knowledge to offer strategies that engage those early developers.  Maybe as coaches we need to take a bit more responsibility for engaging early developers to ensure they remain engaged after their early development effects are less pronounced.  I personally know coaches who do this.

A big challenge in the coaching world of adolescent cross country skiers is that there just aren't that many people around who do the work professionally, who have the time to engage in reading, collaborating, thinking about, designing, and delivering learning experiences that optimize engagement for every kid they coach.  If you've been following my blog recently, you'll know I've been captivated by an author, John Hattie, an educational researcher from New Zealand.  I'm lucky to have a day job in an instructional leadership position with a local school division where I have time to read and share best practice.

One of the most important and statistically significant findings from Hattie's research is that one of the most powerful indicators of successful educators is passion.  Passionate coaches are those who engage kids in learning and achievement in a pronounced and profound way.  When kids sense that their coach loves what they do, kids get excited. 

So get excited about what you're doing.  Show and share some passion for our sport.  It may be the most important thing that you do when you spend time with adolescents.  Be passionate!  Love what you do! Show kids through your joy of being on skis that it is one of the most worthwhile endeavours and choices that they can make in their lives.  Your passion will increase engagement and achievement.  You don't need to be a former world champion to be passionate.  You don't need to have skied on the national team to be passionate.  Great coaches are passionate.  Kids can pick out the coaches they really want work with.  Aim to be one of those coaches.

Enjoy the homestretch of ski season.

Roy Strum
Coach of fun and incredible adolescent cross country skiers
Canmore, AB