Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Creating Meaningful Recognition for Adolescent Cross Country Skiers..

I often engage in conversations with coaches about recognition for athletes.  Recognition that is meaningful and motivating.  This is almost a hot button topic - ask the question and you'll get lots of answers from coaches in the room.  Recognize everyone...recognize nobody...recognize the top 3 in each category...recognize the top 6 in each category...recognize the top 10 in each category. Does it really matter anyway?  I'd say yes - it matters a lot.

Ideas that often surface in our conversations about recognition are ones about 'personal best' or 'goal setting'.  On the surface these are great ideas - lets all aim for our personal best, or lets set a goal and work at achieving it.  There is nothing wrong with these strategies for getting kids to focus on their own effort - its just that they are entirely subjective.  Lets face it, kids focus on the results - despite all of our efforts as coaches to de-emphasize finish position, its important to many kids - I'd say in all of my years of coaching children and adolescents in cross country skiing, I've rarely ever met a kid who said 'I don't care about the results' and really meant it.  Results matter to almost every kid.  They know how they've performed relative to peers - so why the big rush to shelter kids from the results?

So what can we do as coaches to create recognition that is meaningful for adolescents?  For little kids, giving everyone a ribbon does it.  But for adolescents giving everyone a ribbon is pretty meaningless.  Earned recognition is where it is at.  That's why winning a medal as an adolescent is so important.  For older adolescents the medals often become less meaningful, but for the 11-14 year old, earning some recognition is pretty darned important. 

There are two different types of sports - open skill and closed skill sports.  Closed skill sports are ones where the conditions of competition remain pretty constant.  Swimming and gymnastics are examples of closed skills sports - a balance beam is always the same width, always the same distance off the ground, the same number of manoeuvres are performed as part of competition of a balance beam, the air temperature is always about the same, its always indoors, and an athlete performs the skill on their own.  Team sports and individual sports like cross country skiing are considered open skill sports.  The skill that is performed is in response to an external stimuli - in team sports, the skill an athlete chooses to perform is in response to the actions of the opposing team - in cross country skiing, the skill that is performed is in response to changes in terrain.   Its easy in a team sport like volleyball to measure improvement - a coach can count the number of successful blocks and hits - an increased number of these items indicates individual skill improvement.  In closed skill sports like speed skating, a 400m time is recorded and when a skater skates fasters than his previous best, a new personal best is established and this becomes an easy way for a speed skater to monitor his improvement.

In cross country skiing this isn't quite so easy.  Each race course is different.  Snow conditions can be quite different from one race site and time of year to another.  A different field of competitors can be present in each race.  Grip wax might work better in one race than another.  Glide characteristics of skis can be quite different depending on the quality of the ski and the quality of the wax and the base preparation.  All of these things make it difficult for a young inexperienced racer to validly determine anything except performance relative to same age peers. If they ski faster than a few kids who normally beat them, they know they have skied well.  So if it is so difficult to have kids judge their won performance, what then are some things we can do to help kids recognize improvements in performance?

Here are a couple of ideas:

 - Interval Start races - when I was coaching in Bragg Creek, we'd take the kids to the top of the stairway to heaven climb and race down interval start.  We'd record the times and not make a big deal about their results.  If it was important to some kids, I'd post the results on our club forum.  Most kids didn't care - when they raced down the hill on their own against the clock, they really didn't have a sense of their performance relative to peers.
- Repeat races - Later in the season in Bragg Creek, when the snow conditions were somewhat similar, we'd take the kids back to the top of the big downhill and race them down again with interval starts.  This time we'd announce the results.  Kids would already know (they always do) who the fastest was.  We didn't make a big deal about who was fastest.  Instead we'd hand out some prizes recognizing the improvement kids made - which inevitably they did - all of them. The ones who made the biggest improvement often were the most novice kids -and in this event, they could reasonably win 1st prize - and it was a 1st place they were proud of, that they had earned, that was meaningful to every kid in the group.  They'd made the biggest improvement and we recognized it.

They still do this kind of thing in Bragg Creek - check out their website at www.xcbraggcreek.ca or follow them on twitter @xcbraggcreek  - they are an up and coming club and I'm pleased to still be involved coaching in a small way with XCBC.

Whatever you decide to do with your club kids - just really make an effort to not do mass start races all the time.  There are about 100 other formats you can use than mass start.  I don't mind the mass starts for adolescents - they are just way over used - at least in my part of the world.  And mass starts do not do very much except reinforce what kids already know - they know who the fastest kids are before the race starts - so come on coaches - lets be a bit more creative about what we're doing with kids when it comes to recognition.  They deserve it!

Happy New Year to everyone

Roy Strum
Cross Country Ski Coach
Canmore/Bragg Creek

Thursday, 11 December 2014

Clear Learning Intentions - optimizing the effect of our work as coaches

So much of the work of effective coaching is centered on being able to help your skiers improve technically.  More effective coaches do this over a smaller time period than less effective coaches. The fact is that most of us who coach adolescents are not immersed in the world of coaching full time; most of us are volunteers who have day jobs, often quite unrelated to working with adolescents in a sport context, and we work with club skiers in the evenings and on weekends. We do our best, work with our best hunch about what we think will be most effective and go for it.  Nonetheless, you can see it at races, some clubs have kids who ski with greater technical proficiency than other clubs.  Something is going on when you notice this, and its good to think about ways to improve your effectiveness as a coach.

One of things that helps kids to learn technical ski skills quicker are things that effective teachers do when teaching mathematics or science or phys ed.  Great teachers share their learning intentions with their students.  For us as coaches, this means being explicit in sharing with kids what the learning intentions are at each practice.  It might look like 'today we are going to work at gliding on a flat ski'.  As coaches, its then important to provide some learning experiences that provide some surface learning, some building of deeper understandings of the skill, and some conceptual understandings of how the task relates to the skill.  As coaches, we need to have a clear idea of where we are going with our instruction and ensure that our athletes know where they are going.

As coaches, we also need to encourage kids to commit to achieving the learning goals and provide feedback on how successful their efforts are in attaining the learning goal.  This might look like 'your inside edge is closer to the snow than your outside edge - what do you need to do to have your outside edge of your ski have equal contact with the snow when you are gliding'. Its important that kids get descriptive feedback if they are going to improve their technical skills.

Kids need to know what success looks like.   This can be done in lots of ways.  First the coach can demonstrate the skill - which is why at a certain level its important that a coach can perform a skill to the level they want their athletes to perform it.  Secondly, you can use world cup video clips of an athlete performing the skill you're working on and play it in slow motion or use a tool like Ubersense to mark joint angles or show how an expert performer, for example, glides on a flat ski.  Or if your lucky, you've got some junior racers who can show kids what it looks like.  Having a clear idea of what success looks like will help athletes get there alot faster.

When you are explicit in sharing your learning intention; when you give kids descriptive feedback that helps them move in the direction of attaining the learning intention; and when kids know what success looks like, both physically and conceptually, their attention is increased, and their motivation to succeed increases - these things lead to greater success.

I'll be honest, I am crazy about coaching kids in cross country skiing and I'm passionate about sharing out best practice ideas to help coaches who are looking for ideas and growth in their practice to help kids learn to be better skiers, enjoy our fantastic sport more, and keep them involved.  I have found that where kids don't get the best instruction, they drop out of our sport with higher frequency than where they have a passionate, skilled coach who not only is a good skier, but more importantly who is a good teacher.

Its early winter in Canmore.  There is nothing I like more than getting my skis on, feeling the incredible sensation of propelling my body up and down hills with grace, efficiency, and the pure unadulterated joy of movement.

Roy Strum
Canmore, AB