Sunday, 28 September 2014

Thoughts on Working with Early Teens...

We've all likely been there.  Our delightful, fun-loving, well adjusted children seemingly overnight transforming into beings from outerspace.  Whether you're a teacher, a coach, a youth leader or parent, you've likely seen this metamorphisis.  At 12 or 13, many kids become social networking gurus - responding to an innate need to grow their own branches that connect to the world around them.  Many early adolescents are driven to make choices for themselves but yet caught between the two worlds of childhood and adulthood.  How do we help adolscents navigate these unfamiliar waters.  What kind of a paddle would we recommend? What type of boat? How do we help them to read a map or use a gps device? How do we support them in charting a course? when do we step in to offer advice? when do we let them make their own mistakes? how do we facilitate a group adolescent beings?  These are types of things I think about when coaching early adolescents.

So what does it look like to engage early adolescents?  In my work with adoloscents at a residential treatment centre for 12-16 year olds with severe social/emotional/behavioural challenges, we aim to interact in a number of ways that gives responsibility to adolescents.  These include:

- providing opportunities for youth to make positive choices - hey, you know what you need to do...
- offering intentional teaching interactions that provide explanations and rationales
- offering cause and effect messages - when you do this, that often happens...
- sometimes giving directive messages is appropriate - hey, this needs to happen now...

Can we use these ideas when working with adolescents in a cross country ski coaching context?  for sure we can.  No matter what demographics kids come from, when you get a group of adolescents together, they love to talk - what do you do as a coach to get there attention on a teaching and learning task?  giving kids an instruction, and creating some understanding about what you're looking for and what you want them to do, then backing of letting them get to it is an important skill. 

Great coaches are very deliberate about their instruction and feedback.  These include providing rationales.  For adolescents, my experience tells me that these youth want to understand, they want more than just to be told 'do this, cause I'm the expert'.  Giving adolescents the message that 'hey if it takes a long time to get your attention, we have less time to ski and less time for me to coach' is a cause and effect message.  My experience is that adolescents respond well to this kind of interaction from a coach, rather than a coach who gets angry or yells.

In the end though, after being given opportunities to make positive choices, and some teaching around what and why, and then some cause effect messages, it sometimes becomes necessary to be directive.

Whats important, I think, is to use all the tools in your toolkit.  These tools are easier to use when you know that you have them.

Coaching adolescent cross country ski racers has been and continues to be one of the great joys of my life.  Good luck with your coaching this year. 

Roy Strum
Canmore, AB

Monday, 8 September 2014

Tiered Events in Cross Country Skiing - Are they Necessary for Younger Skiers...

In sports with large numbers of particpants, tiering is often used as a way to group kids with similar ability together.  The idea is that everyone benefits from playing with other kids who play at about the same level.  In Calgary, for example, over 50,000 kids play organized ice hockey.  In Calgary, kids participate in tryouts and are subsequently placed on similar ability teams.  Teams then play with other teams who are in the same tier as them.  We can probably agree that having kids play on teams with other kids of similar ability, creates more opportunity for every player to be in the game.  On the other hand, tiered training and competition groupings have been shown to make the rich, richer, so to say, and the poor, poorer.  Kids in the highest tier usually also have access to the best coaching and so their skill improves exponentially faster than kids training and competing in lower tiers.  And so while there are positives and negatives to tiered competition groupings, I am putting forward the idea that tiered competitions do have a place in athlete development.
Cross country ski racing in Alberta is pretty small time compared to sports like ice hockey when it comes to numbers of youth participants.  What would tiered competition look like? Is there a need for it? In our part of the world, we have great disparity in ski clubs when it comes to the expertise that is available for kids to access in their skill development.  We live in a region which has a couple of very large clubs where kids pay alot of money to access professional coaching.  We also have a number of clubs that are small, run by volunteers, many of whom are learning to ski alongside the kids they are coaching.  At races, guess which clubs dominate? In fact, guess which clubs actually show up to races?
How do you build a strong ski community? How do we support clubs and athletes in our region so that more clubs participate in races?  One of the answers to these questions is I believe in tiered racing.  Every club no matter what level of coaching is available has kids who are just getting started with racing.  If we want these kids to stick it out, we need to be doing something more than just throwing them in with the fastest skiers from the larger clubs in every race.  Lets face it, success is important.  Kids and parents need something to encourage them to participate.  Is it fun to come in 25th in every race? or in the final 5 kids in a race in every race?  I'd say no.  Coming in last is not fun, no matter how much we try to de-emphasize results, kids notice where they finish and it sticks with them.  That's why having a couple of races in the calendar aimed at novice racers is important.  Races need to serve the developmental needs of more than just the fastest skiers who have former olympians as their coaches.  What I am talking about is 'how do we create a ski community where more kids choose cross country skiing as their sport of choice?'
I hear lots about how 'southern alberta' is privileged in the access to coaching expertise.  The fact is that almost all clubs in the south are in a pretty precarious place when it comes to creating the next generation of national team superstars.  That is because there is a big imbalance between have and have not ski clubs.  What can do about this?  We can create a space for clubs, coaches and young athletes just getting going to experience some level of success with similar ability peers.  We can support a few tiered events in our competition calendar.  Is it the only thing we can do? no...there is alot more...but its a start.
We are experiencing our first snowfall of the year here in southern Alberta today.  It won't be long to we are back on our skis.
Roy Strum
Canmore, AB