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

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