Friday, 18 April 2014

Expertise and Influence - the upside down reality of amateur sport

In cross country skiing in Canada, what is completely normal is to have the highest educated and most experienced coaches working with the athletes farthest away from the place where they might have the most impact.  Not trying to be a jerk here, but I've noticed over time that this is the reality.  On the other hand, when we look at sport research around windows of trainability, what jumps out is the fact that the period of time when coaches have the most impact on motor skill development and flexibility is in the pre peak height velocity time frame - usually in the range of ages 9-14.  

We know why this happens.  Parents are willing to pay for expert coaching when their children are in high school or beyond, but the same willingness to pay does not exist when it comes to paying for coaches who work with younger ages.  It doesn't happen this way in every club.  Some clubs in Alberta are able to earn upwards of $90K every 18 months from volunteering at a casino for two days.  This doesn't happen outside of the major cities in Alberta, but it does happen and it does create some real inequity in opportunity for younger kids to benefit from expert coaching at younger ages.  The clubs in Calgary and Edmonton are not blame for their good fortune, it is the way the provincial government has casino revenue organized.  But I do believe it makes a difference and puts clubs on uneven footing, especially smaller clubs from small towns dotted across the southern region of Alberta.

The bigger issue I think around coach expertise in working with pre peak height velocity athletes is that little opportunity is provided for many of these coaches to mentor with a seasoned experienced high level coach.  The learning happens for coaches of adolescents usually through some good hearted soul who is willing to share expertise.  The fact is that career coaches are few and far between in the ranks of those coaching adolescent cross country skiers. 

What can be done about this?  First, provincial sport organizations (PSO) should be working towards recognition initiatives for coaches of younger athletes - why is it that the only coaching work worthy of provincial recognition is that which happens with junior or U23 athletes?  Secondly, it might help if PSO's provided some more mentorship experiences for developing coaches - this has happened in the past, and it would be nice to see again - what an incredible experience it would be for a developing coach to tag along on a Team Alberta trip to Canada Winter Games.  Thirdly, experienced, lead coaches in clubs could be providing more opportunities to developing coaches to learn the work of advanced waxing, high level coaching - sadly it is the reality that in some clubs, these opportunities just aren't provided to those who coach younger athletes.  

Important work happens during the pre-adolescent and adolescent years as cross country ski racers.  The important work of transitioning kids from 'my parents signed me up for this' to 'i love this stuff'.  The important work of technical skill development during a window of time when kids' bodies are ready to learn and refine cross country ski motor skills.  

Outside of the big centers in Alberta, where almost all clubs do not have former world jr championships athletes coaching their adolescent athletes,  coaches of younger athletes need support, mentorship, training, recognition, feedback, and encouragement.  Whose job is this?  It is the job of the highly trained head coaches to do this.  I know this occurs in many places, but my feeling is it needs to happen more if we want to help young athletes become the next generation of national team stars.

Its snowing in Canmore today.  I'm grabbing my skis and heading out to the trail.

Roy Strum
Canmore, AB


  1. I 100% agree. As a coach in a small club it has always been a challenge to gain funding for our coaches. Our PSO funding goes to pay four provincial coaches while small clubs that are often still focussed on building capacity go unnoticed. There should indeed be a fee structure that disperses money throughout the province to developing clubs more effectively and not just pumping up the big city and "winning" clubs. It is a vicious catch 22. While some coaches have the means to take time off from work, others, like myself are quite literally taking money away from my family to build a community youth program, which of course my children participate. I will never give up coaching, and have also been provided with some fantastic opportunities through our PSO. Financial assistance however is not one of them, after having written small funding proposals for five straight years.

    On the other hand, volunteer driven organizations are forced to make the best of what they have to work with, push to create new opportunities by utilizing existing resources and admiringly dream about that secure paid head coach position in the future. Focus is still placed on developing our next generation of young coaches, creating confident and successful Rabbits and Track Attack coaches and above all create FUN and engaging programs that kids love, but it is done so following a very finite budget. I am pretty certain the former athletes turned coaches would not work 20-30hrs a week for a non profit coaching, writing grants, creating programs for the junior coaches, organizing equipment rentals, contacting parents to coordinate rides and waxing ALL of the club skis....for nothing. This is what the majority of small clubs do and it seems that sport in general should be more supported by Municipalities, Regional and Provincial authorities to create mentorship and leadership opportunities through additional certifications, experiences and camps. Golden is on the verge of something great, on many levels of sport, and it is up to us, the volunteer coaches, and parents of young children to create these opportunities. I am all in....I love skiing, I love skiing with my kids, and I love seeing young people making great life decisions as a result of the efforts they put in to active lifestyles. Thanks Roy for being a great soundboard for the sport and above all, for not falling into the pomp and circumstance of glory and fame. Keep the great thoughts coming.

  2. Roy,
    I've enjoyed your articles and would like to send you a couple of mine, including my book: No Pain, No Gain? How Athletes, Parents and Coaches Can Re-Shape American Sports Culture. It shares many of your idea. I'm also a life-long friend of Marty Hall's and was a staff coach with the US Ski Team for many years.
    Retired but writing a great deal, my email remains My website is:

    Dick Taylor

  3. Roy,
    I've enjoyed your articles and have written many n a similar spirit. You might enjoy my website: I'd like to send you my book as well; No Pan, No Gain? How Athletes, Parents and Coaches Can Reshape American Sports Culture. It speaks to the lack of collaboration among coaches, among other things.
    Dick Taylor

  4. Jack Sasseville20 April 2014 at 07:56

    Roy - here in Ontario, and I think everywhere else most coaches think that it is better and more fun to work with more advanced athletes mainly, I think, because there is more recognition for what they do on the results sheet. This even extends to the Ontario Team coach. This position was originally designed so that the Ontario coach would work with coaches at the club level to help them to work better with young developing skiers. As well, the job was to be the team leader for the Ontario team at events and camps to provide a consistent voice for the Team Ontario skiers.

    Now, however, the person in this position just wants to work with the Ontario Team athletes as their coach. Athletes have been told that if they want to be on the Ontario team they will have to attend a camp one per month and be willing to be coached by the Ontario team coach.

    Anyone who has made the Ontario team has done so because of the work of a coach in a club setting. The skiers are coming from the same clubs - those clubs with good coaches at the developing level. These skiers are still developing and are far from elite and should continue to work with their club coach - the one that they are with the most.

    The Ontario Team coach and all other division coaches should be coaching other coaches, not skiers. If they coach 12 coaches and each of those coaches has 12 athletes then the Ontario coach will have an impact on way more skiers that just those that make the Ontario team.

    Ontario used to have way more strong clubs producing skiers than it does now. The difference - coaches at the club level with the knowledge and passion to work with younger skiers. The strength of our teams, from the NST down rests in the strength of our club skiers at the midget and juvenile level - maybe even earlier. If we plant more seeds that more are likely to grow. But we need more good gardeners - CCC, all divisions and all clubs need to recognize the importance of good coaching at the early club level. While xc skiing is an athlete centered sport it is coach driven - without these coaches we will not grow.

    There has to be a much stronger push for top coaches at every level. Our lack of top coaches who could lead the NST is a reflection of a lack of top coaches at every level.