Saturday, 22 November 2014

Creating Fun - 3 things to focus on when coaching kids in cross country skiing

In the coach training work I do, we talk about fun, we create experiences that are all about fun, we think about what do we need to do to create fun - research would tell us that fun is the most important reasons why children participate in sport - not going to the olympics, or making the national team - but fun.  If this is such an important component of engaging kids in sport, as coaches, our challenge is to get it right.

Here are a few ideas that I've learned work from my years as a coach and camp director and teacher.

1. Enthusiasm - hands down the number one contributor of a coach to creating some fun energy.  Fun after all is energy that is created by a group of people.  How you deliver your message about what you're going to do at a practice can be a huge determinant of how the session goes.  'This is going to be so much fun'; 'This is the best game in the whole world'; or 'I hope you're ready to have an incredible time' all set the stage for something incredible to happen.  Even if its not incredible, creating some positive anticipation of how much fun its going to be has a huge influence on how much it becomes.  This is hard for many adults - maybe a little too child like or juvenile - many adults forget how much fun it is to be a kid.

2. Play - join in - model what you want - especially with littler kids, playing along, not with adult apprehension about what other adults will think of you if they see you, but truly playing - kids love this stuff.  This is something I have done a ton of with kids - no matter what your age, playing is fun for you and its fun for kids.  Whether its a territory game of capture the flag or target game, playing along is fun for you and fun for the kids you're leading.  Play should include lots of laughter and interaction.  Kids know how to do this - join in.

3. Encourage - a timely comment, wink, smile, or pat on the back lets kids know that you care that they are as awesome as they are.  Kids know when an adult likes them.  They can tell almost right away.  Be the kind of coach that encourages kids and lets them know how awesome they really are.  Take an interest in them, learn their name - quickly - and be positive.  They be right with you.

Fun is hugely important to kids.  As coaches of kids, we need to figure this one out.  Because if we don't, kids won't stick around.  Aim to be one of those adults in a kids life that a child says 'he is so much fun'.  It doesn't matter what your background in skiing is - whether you were world champion or a novice skier - figuring out what fun looks like, and replicating each and every ski session is what you should aim for.

Let yourself be a kid.  Not for the whole practice, but a part of the ski session each week.  Kids will come to anticipate great times when you say 'This is going to be the most fun in the whole world'.

Happy skiing!

Roy Strum
Canmore, AB

Thursday, 13 November 2014

Getting kids to 'I'm good at this'...

In the coaching workshops I lead, the conversation often eventually gets to talking about how to deal with kids so they develop the self confidence to stay engaged with sport after they get to an age where having their parents sign them up for skiing isn't a good enough reason to stay involved any more. How do you help kids to develop the belief that they can make their own learning happen; where they are motivated intrinsically to participate; where they strive to learn as much as possible; where they don't use self handicapping strategies; where they don't have dependence on an adult; where they don't dismiss praise or feedback; where their standards are not so high that when they don't reach them, they crumble; where they don't compare themselves to others.  These are some good questions, and likely you've run into kids who struggle with one or more of these things.

What is important to know as a coach, is that we can do something about all of these hurdles to self confidence.  We can do some teaching around them.  In John Hattie's book, Visible Learning for Teachers, he talks about these self processes and offers some ideas to working with kids around these topics. Recognizing an ineffective coping strategy when we see it, and offering an alternative to kids is work that master coaches of children and adolescents do. Here are few ideas to working with a few of these self concept challenges.

Self Efficacy - this is believing you can do it.  Children with high self efficacy see a challenging task and think 'it'll be hard, but I can do it'.  As a coach, we can encourage self efficacy, by giving the message 'you are capable, you can do this' and by teaching kids this strategy - 'hey, you want to know something that works, when you see a big hill to climb, think to yourself, I am going to kick that hill's butt'.

Self Handicapping - sometimes kids create obstacles for themselves to deflect the cause of failure away from their competence and towards some acquired impediment.  This can look like procrastination, having low challenge goals, exaggerating obstacles to success.  As a coach, we can help kids set realistic goals and identify self handicapping as a negative coping strategy.

Self Motivation - this is in relation to intrinsic or extrinsic attribution of effort.  Intrinsically motivated kids say 'how do I learn more', 'how do I get my skill to the next level'.  Extrinsically motivated kids 'do I get a cookie', 'will this help me win a medal'.  Research would point to larger learning gains associated with intrinsic motivation.  As coaches, we can create a norm in our group around 'here is what a great athlete does','here is how a great athlete thinks'.

Approach and Avoidance - Approach goals refers to an athlete who strives to learn as much as possible to master the learning goal - whether it is double poling, or herringbone.  A kid with an approach strategy tries to learn as much as possible.  Avoidance goals refers to striving not to do worse than others.  Achievement is higher with approach goals compared to avoidance goals.  As a coach, we can identify avoidance goals as something to avoid. Instead we can point kids towards approach goals.

Self Dependence - Kids who are highly dependent on adults struggle more with self regulation, self monitoring, and self evaluating.  Although these are things that all kids learn, the fact is that as coaches we can create a culture where self dependence is encouraged and reinforced.  As with many of these self processes, we can teach and reinforce these strategies in our interactions with kids.

Self Discounting and Distortion - kids who self discount will dismiss or distort information such as praise,or feedback.  If you tell them they are pretty good at a skill, they will dismiss you and tell you you're wrong.  Obviously this is a pretty negative coping strategy. As coaches, we can identify this and give praise or feedback and then move on.  Thinking about a 4:1 ratio of positive to negative feedback seems to work when working with kids who discount or distort.

Self Perfectionism - this is having too high a standard for yourself.  Its great to want perfection, but it takes time and that is something that we can help kids to learn - how to set reasonable and challenging benchmarks on their pathway to excellence.

Hopelessness - this refers to kids who expect that an achievement gain will not occur for them.  For whatever reason, maybe because they haven't experienced enough success, these kids have given up.  As coaches, we can help kids to use some self regulation strategies like saying OK when something challenging is put before them.

Hattie points out that self concept improves when kids:
- invoke learning strategies instead of comparing themselves to others
- accept rather than discount feedback
- set benchmarks for difficult goals
- compare themselves to performance criteria instead of other athletes
- develop a high efficacy for learning
- effect self regulation rather than hopelessness

All of these self concept ideas can be taught and I believe great coaches do these things. Great coaches of adolescents believe that every young skier is capable of learning and improving.  Great coaches of kids help them to improve their skiing, but they also help kids to develop the mindset to become a great skier.

I often reflect on the paradox of our sport.  Most often, the coaches who have the greatest capacity to effect change on athletes in our sport are also the same coaches who are farthest away from the athletes they could effect the most change on.  And, the coaches who can have the most influence on budding and developing athletes at exactly the age when its crucial often have less training and experience to do their important work.

Don't get me wrong, I know there are many, many skilled and qualified coaches working with adolescent cross country skiers.  But I also am well aware that there is very little out there for these coaches to learn from and reflect on.  Thus, my efforts with this blog.  I don't have all the answers, but I do have some thoughts - and blogs are the perfect platform for this type of sharing.

So coaches of adolescent cross country skiers - lets do something - lets create a community of practice where we can share out some ideas with each other about what works well and what works less well.

Roy Strum
Canmore, AB

Friday, 7 November 2014

Is Coaching a Profession in Cross Country Skiing...

I love reading and learning and I sure love skiing and coaching.  Lately I have been reading John Hattie's Visible Learning for Teachers - Maximizing Impact on Learning (2012).  Its a fascinating read - tackling what do we do as teachers (or coaches for that matter) that optimizes learning.  The holy grail of what it means to be a great coach.  Definitely worth a read.  Today I read a section of text focused on the goal of 'professions'.  It led me to reflecting on whether cross country ski coaching could be considered a profession using the same descriptors.

I'm not really sure what happens in America or elsewhere, but I do have a pretty good sense of what happens in alot of places in Canada.  And I'd say, we miss the mark a bit in terms of meeting the criteria of 'profession' as outlined by Hattie in his book.  Here is how Hattie describes a 'profession'.

A profession identifies the goal posts of excellence.  What does excellent coaching look like?  The answer to this isnt just understanding technical skills, or being able to give informed tactical advice.  Excellence occurs (according to Hattie, and I agree with him) when teachers (and I'll use the word coaches from here on in, because I believe that the two are interchangeable) create tasks with a greater degree of challenge than experienced coaches might.  Expert coaches have a deeper understanding of content and are more sensitive to context; instructions are more integrated, more coherent, and at a higher level of abstraction than experienced coaches. Expert coaches influence surface and deeper understandings, they believe that all athletes can achieve the success criteria; they mentor learning and provide feedback, and they possess more integrated knowledge of the content.  in a profession, these are the goal posts of excellence, and professions define them and people strive towards them.  In Canada, we have well developed/developing coach training materials.  We have descriptors of skill development in our athelte development matrix - what we miss I think is clearly defined 'goalposts of excellence' that guide developing coaches towards excellence in coaching.  There just isnt very much sharing of best practice ideas flowing out of the experts as is found in the teaching profession. We really need to try to embrace the notion of what it is to be successful in coaching.

A profession, Hattie explains aims to encourage collaboration with all in the profession to drive the profession upwards.  I am well aware that some expert coaches do share out their best practice ideas with the broader community, but most live within the confines of their own clubs and really there is no motivation for sharing of best practice when ensuring you have enough kids in your club to support your salary is your priority.  In Canada, teaching is publicly funded except for private schools.  Teachers are encouraged to share with each other.  I sure would like to see more of this happening in coaching cross country skiing.  As experienced or expert coaches, we really need to be helping all other coaches in a collaborative manner to attain excellence in their coaching. 

Professions also aim to esteem those who show defined competence.  Recognition is important.  In order to recognize excellence in coaching, you really need to have defined what it means to be an excellent coach.  I'm just not sure that any criteria exist anywhere that coaches can work towards.  Any recognition I am aware of in my part of the world seems pretty subjective in nature.  Something to work on - ya, for sure.

I'm a big advocate for sharing expertise.  I encourage you to start with sharing in your club, and invite coaches from other clubs to work alongside you to learn from you. 

Winter is just around the corner.  Enjoy!

Roy Strum
Canmore, AB