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

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