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

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