I'm at an interesting intersection and pretty grateful to be there - I was elected last week by the membership of cross country ski clubs from across Alberta to direct the Alberta Ski Team program - elected to think about not only what is important in a provincial ski team program but also reflecting on the criteria that determines who gets to participate. It leads me to pondering about the bigger purpose of a provincial ski team program - because if you have a clear idea of why a ski team exists, that'll lead you pretty quickly to figuring out who should be there and what they should be doing. There are no textbooks or reference guides for answering these kinds of questions - there are only ideas that come from experience.
I've had great joy this past month reading a book written by Richard Taylor of Bethel, Maine. Great joy because his ideas reflect his rich experience as an athlete, a parent, a coach, an administrator, and cheerleader for cross country skiing. No where have I come across a coaching book that offers insight and opinion grounded in experience and best practice literature focused on cross country skiing quite like this one. I bring up Dick's book here because in reflecting on my upcoming work of directing the Alberta Ski Team program for 2014-16, I am reminded that a common reaction to something not working is to do it again, only this time with renewed and augmented effort - if it doesn't work, do the same thing harder.
I'd like to avoid that pitfall in the work I am leading around rethinking the Alberta Ski Team. The first question that comes to me is - is what we have been doing working? to answer that one, you have to start with what the purpose was for the program. By all accounts, the actual program delivered by the Alberta World Cup Academy has been outstanding the last number of years. My own children who have experienced the program as athletes, have raved about numerous aspects of the experience.
Something I have witnessed over the past 10 years or so is the very high rate of athlete drop off at the end of high school. By my observation, 80-90% all athletes who participated as high school age athletes on the Alberta Ski Team drop off the radar completely at the end of high school. Considerable investment is made in these athletes by the provincial sport organization, and many other athletes never get access to the specialized coaching opportunities that come along with being named to a provincial ski team. The big question is - are we reaching the right athletes in our current program?
The answer to the question of 'who' should be named to provincial teams is an important one. Certainly, demonstrated ability and race results are crucial. But is there some different way that we can imagine that creates stepping stones for developing athletes and provides the important recognition while honouring that ultimately cross country ski racing is about being the fastest. Is there a way to think differently about what the Alberta Ski Team is and its role in supporting clubs and athletes in becoming successful in a more long term way. If many of the young athletes who receive the benefit of recognition and specialized coaching for 4 or 5 years on the Alberta Ski Team do not carry on to race in college or as U23 athletes, is it a worthwhile investment? With limited funds, is there a way to broaden the reach of the program while maintaining its integrity so that the likelihood of athletes continuing on after high school is enhanced? I'm not suggesting a throw the baby out with the bathwater approach, or scrapping the great work that has preceded my involvement. I am saying it is time to think about why we have an Alberta Ski Team program, what learning and support is critical to advance athletic achievement, and who it is that these experiences should target. These are some good questions and ones that I will think more about. If you're in my neck of the woods and want to have a coffee sometime, I am definitely interested.