Sunday, 26 October 2014

Ingredients for Success...Engaging Adolescent Cross Country Skiers


In the coaching workshops I facilitate, I often get asked my thoughts about how to keep kids engaged in cross country skiing.  It seems everywhere there is a huge drop off in participation at about 11 or 12 years old and then another round of drop offs at the end of middle school.  What is it that keeps kids engaged? Is there a magic formula? What are the characteristics of places that retain adolescents in their programs through the years when kids are seeking more autonomy in deciding what they want to do with their time? What factors exist that improve the chances kids will stick with cross country skiing?  Obviously there is no simple answer but my experience would say that there are ingredients for success.

Having a critical mass - it goes without saying that when you have a big group of kids the likelihood of some of them sticking it out through adolescence increases.  Kids want to participate where there is a social environment.  It can't be just about the skiing.  Its got to also be about the relationships that kids share.  Ignore the social needs of kids and they'll find it somewhere else.  Their feet will do their talking.  So what about if you don't have a critical mass? if you're in a small town with only a few adolescents involved?  Invite more in.  Small towns are the home of some of the best cross country skiers that have competed internationally for Canada - athletes like Chandra Crawford, Sarah Renner, and Beckie Scott all grew in small town ski clubs.  For a time, Vermilion, AB was producing some of the top ski racers in Canada.  What happened in Vermilion to make this so.  Vermilion is a great exemplar of a town that created something special for kids.  So much of that was the leadership of a few people that created a vision for what might be possible for kids when they participated in a few races.  If you don't have a critical mass - build it, one kid at a time.

Give kids something to work towards - special trips, club exchanges, alternative ski experiences.  For a number of years now, one of the special trips I've accompanied our club kids in Canmore on is a club exchange with another ski club.  Over the past 5 years, our 12-14 year old skiers have had a chance to go to Chelsea, QC or Whitehorse, YT 5 times.  We've made this a priority and its kept kids involved at least till the end of middle school.  The exchanges include same age club kids coming from Chelsea or Whitehorse and staying with their families in Canmore, and then our Canmore kids staying with families in the exchange communities.  When we are there, the families organize tons of fun cultural and sporting activities.  As a result our club kids have had a chance to do the Buckwheat Classic or the Gatineau Loppet or the Quebec Midget Championships a number of times.  They have done these things without breaking the bank or overemphasizing racing.  Making kids aware of special recognition opportunities like Alberta Development Team, and encouraging them in the belief that it is possible for them to be qualify for these teams is hugely important.

Give kids exemplary technical skill instruction - its amazing how kids will stay involved when they feel that they can do something well.  When lots of top performing kids come from one club, you should try to figure out what they are doing that makes it so, especially when kids of all ages are performing well from a club and not just a two or three year cohort of kids.  These clubs exist in many places and most of these clubs are willing to share their success stories.  Usually these uber successful clubs have created a culture where everyone sees it as possible to succeed, where learning is valued, and social environments are important.  At the end of it all, having some great teachers of technical skill gives kids a huge advantage over other places. 

Keeping it fun - balancing the need for positive social time between adolescents and quality instructional time is immensely important. Too much emphasis on instruction creates an all work no play environment - which really is unappealing to most teens.  Too much emphasis on social interaction and not enough on technical instruction creates an environment not challenging enough for the average teen.  Evidence of a club that has found the right balance is found in:
- the number of kids returning to compete/participate year after year
- the average level of performance of kids from the club
- the atmosphere during a practice - are comfortable with chatting it up, and focusing when asked.
- the happiness factor - can you look around and see smiling faces and also faces showing best effort is taking place

Sometimes I get asked by participants in the coaching workshops I lead how it is that my own children (we have a third child as well that is too young for her own blog) have stayed engaged in competitive cross country skiing for so long.  How is it that they didn't get overdosed on my enthusiasm for cross country skiing.  How did my wife and I cultivate a space for our kids to own their own experience, to design their own dreams, to believe that they are capable of achieving their goals? We haven't done it alone, we've been fortunate to be a part of ski clubs that have a critical mass, that give kids something to work towards, that give kids exemplary technical instruction, and that focus on keeping it fun. 


Roy Strum
Canmore, AB

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Six Signposts towards Excellence in Coaching Adolescents...

I love learning.  I love learning about getting better at the things I love to focus my energy on.  I've recently picked up a book - Richard Hattie's Visible Learning for Teachers (2012, Routledge, NY).  Its amazing really, when you find some reading that speaks to you on many levels.  This book speaks to me about what is really important when teaching kids how to learn a motor skill.  Hattie did a meta-analysis of meta-analysis studies examining teaching and learning influences on student achievement in schools. His research aims to answer the question -what effect does a type of learning influence (such as giving feedback) have on the level of student achievement. His writing has been described as 'the holy grail' of education research books by some reviewers.  He points out early and often, that simply having a positive impact on learning isnt good enough because there is very little that a teacher or coach can do that will not result in some learning.

For me, Hattie's work speaks to the important pieces of structuring learning - which is of course completely relevant to effective coaching in a sport context.  The fact is that coaches can choose to focus on so many different things while helping kids to learn.  What Hattie's research does is measure teaching and learning influences using effect size (e.g. d=.40); in doing so, it makes it possible to compare some types of teaching and learning influences compared to others.  Not all things that that teachers or coaches do have an equal effect. Some are more potent than others in helping learners achieve more.

In his writing, Hattie points to six signposts that identify excellence in teaching and learning.  Here they are:

1. Teachers (Coaches) are the most powerful influences in learning.

2. Teachers (Coaches) need to be directive, influential, caring, actively and passionately engaged in the process of teaching and learning.

3. Teachers (Coaches) need to be aware of what each student (athlete) is thinking and have sufficient knowledge of content so they can provide meaningful and appropriate feedback.

4. Teachers (Coaches) and students (athletes) need to know the learning intentions and criteria for success.  They need to know where they are at, and where they need to go next

5. Teachers (Coaches) need to move from a single idea to multiple ideas - to extend these ideas so learners can construct meaning.

6.  School Leaders (Head Coaches) need to create a culture where 'error' is welcomed as an important step in developing more complex understandings and abilities.

As teachers and coaches we need to recognize that everything we do and say is important.  How we present ourselves matters.  Being passionate about what we teach is one of the most powerful influences we might have.  Instilling a love for something is a big piece of the work we do. We need to have enough knowledge about the subject/sport so that we can give meaningful feedback.  As teachers and coaches we need to help kids see where they are at and where they need to go next. Learning intentions need to be clear to the learners - if not - no wonder they dont learn very quickly.  Developing conceptual understandings of how physical skill builds and why we learn to perform a skill a certain way is key in helping to develop mastery.  Finally, error needs to be embraced as healthy and an important step towards achievement.  Error is how we learn - not something we should feel badly about.  How many times I have provided that explanation when coaching volleyball I couldn't tell you.  Volleyball is a game of errors - a team gains a point only when the other team makes an error.

As coaches of adolescents, we need to remember that much of what we are doing is teaching - teaching motor skills, habits of mind, attitudes, and developing a love of skiing.  Not all teachers are created equal - some teachers have a little something extra - something that engages the kids they work with in a meaningful way.  I encourage you to find out more about what those coaches are doing - cause its worth replicating.

Roy Strum
Canmore, AB


Saturday, 4 October 2014

Eliminating the Proprietary Nature of Coaching...

There is something to say about splitting my life between coaching and teaching.  Noticing the stark contrast between the education world and the coaching world in the willingness of professionals to share out best practice with those less experienced and knowledgeable.  One only has to look to twitter to see the vast volume of the sharing of best practice ideas in teaching, and the almost complete lack of any sharing of best practice in coaching.  Why is this?  Why is that experienced, knowledgeable, seasoned coaches in cross country skiing do very little to no sharing of their work, their insight, or their resources with other coaches?  I'm not saying it doesn't happen, because it does.  Experienced, seasoned coaches, do share their wisdom or expertise.  It just doesn't happen very often, at least as far as I am aware of.

Maybe it is because of the proprietary nature of cross country ski coaching in Canada.  Seasoned, knowledgeable, experienced coaches are motivated to deliver their expertise to those employing them.  Often the boards of directors of the clubs that pay their professional coaches include stipulations in their contracts that their employed coaches may not do work for other clubs.  Rightly these clubs who are paying alot of money to employ a seasoned, experienced, knowledgeable coach want these coaches to serve their membership.  And so, the rich get richer, and the poor stay where they are or struggle along.

Contrast this with the world of education in Alberta.  In education, teachers are publicly funded, and a set of professional competencies is expected from these teachers, including constant professional learning and the explicit directive to create a collaborative culture where mentoring occurs, where sharing of best practice is an obligation.  Sharing of everything you know as a teacher is expected to serve the common good of children in Alberta.  What a refreshing and positive environment for professionals - a place where ready access to expertise is available, a place where those who know share with those who don't.  You just have to pop onto Twitter to see that that platform is widely and immensely used by educators across North America.  The notion of a Professional Learning Network is a broadly embraced idea in teaching.  My own professional learning network includes over 1000 other educators where everyday I both share out my work and learn from the work of others.

This morning I had a conversation with a coaching colleague about the state of our sport in Alberta.  There is lots going on that is working really well.  But the reality that surfaced in our conversation is that the ecology of our sport is maybe not functioning as smoothly or as synchronous as it might.  A theme from our conversation was that so much of what occurs happens in isolation of other links in the (to use the American phrase) athlete development pipeline.  And maybe the reason this happens is because of the proprietary free market nature of coaching in Alberta.  There is no motivation for clubs or coaches to share out their best practice.  There are no structural professional obligations to build capacity in colleagues.  Perhaps there should be.  Don't get me wrong, I am a free market driven dude.  But I think there is a role in advancing our sport through incentives for knowledge sharing and capacity building.

Its time to change the culture of our sport. Change it to a place where there is non proprietary sharing of best practice.  I started this blog with the express intention of moving our coaching culture in that direction.  The purpose of this blog is to share out best practice ideas, provide a place to stimulate some conversation about what best practice looks like, and share out my own ideas about things I have done and the reasons I have done them.  Its been two years since the inception of this blog - and I'll be honest, I have been very surprised that almost 1500 people every month have read this blog.  But it speaks I think to the interest and need for greater sharing of ideas and best practice exemplars.  I for one, would love to follow coaches from clubs across all of North America, where I can begin to expand on my professional learning network in the world of cross country ski coaching.

Imagine how much better off our young athletes would be if clubs and coaches were much more willing to share out their ideas about what is working and why.  I encourage you to start a blog and share.  I'll be one of your first followers.


Roy Strum
Canmore, AB