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

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