Thursday, 31 December 2015

What can Coaches do when Kids don't Show up at Practice?

I have been coaching for a number of years and I've noticed over time that many coaches do little to nothing in response to kids not showing up to practice.  I scratch my head about this one, because if coaches don't care enough to call up kids and say 'what's going on? how come you weren't at practice today?' then who is going to say that.  Despite that, my experience is that almost all coaches don't reach out to kids who are not attending practice.

You have to understand, my other life is as an Assistant Principal at an elementary school.  In that setting, when a child doesn't show up, they get a phone call.  If it happens again, they get another phone call.  And if it happens enough, a meeting is arranged to bring together parent, child, and teacher to talk about strategies to get the child to school.  This type of follow up from the teacher or the school does a few very important things.  It says school is important, and its important to be at school.  Its so important that we (teacher and school) will work with you (parent and child) to find out what is going on, and to support the development of some strategies to get to school that deal with the issues that are standing in the way of the child getting to school.  Schools are in the business of student achievement.  Aren't ski clubs in the business of athletic achievement?

If children and youth are not at practice, they are not doing what they need to to achieve.  If ski clubs are really in the business (volunteer or otherwise) of helping children to learn to be great performers of skiing ability, then they need to take the job seriously and call up kids when they dont show up.  This action by the coach sends the message to the youth or child, that he/she is important, and that its important to show up.

There is so much constant chatter about attrition in competitive skiing in Alberta and probably elsewhere.  People shrugging their shoulders and saying 'thats what happens, kids drop out'.  From my perspective this is an unacceptable response to the real problem of kids dropping out of skiing.

Studies (Hattie, Visible Learning) show that the relationship between and teacher and students is one of the most significant influences on achievement.  I think is equally as relevant in youth cross country skiing.  If a coach doesn't bother to contact kids who don't show up, the message that gets sent is 'you're not important to me'.

Kids need to be important to coaches.  Every kid needs to be important, not just the one whose parent makes big financial donations, or not just the child who wins all the races.  But every single child.  Every single child deserves a coach that says through his or her actions and words 'you are important to me, it is important that you are at practice'.

I encourage to reflect on your own responses as a coach to the children who don't show up regularly.

We are having a stellar winter in Canmore.  I hope you are too.

Roy Strum
Canmore, AB

Monday, 21 December 2015

Rethinking the Role of Coach in Youth Cross Country Skiing

If you've followed my blog, you'll see that this is a topic I've touched on in various ways over the past couple of years.  It resurfaces because of the recursion I deliberately embrace in my growth and learning as a youth cross country ski coach.  Recursion is an interesting word.  It refers to a type of reflection that is purposeful in looking at what you know in relation to what you thought you knew.  Its recursion that allows us to replace faulty knowledge or process with improved practice and thinking.

So what have I learned that has shed light on what I thought was true prior to my experiences?  Lots.  I've realized that coaches in youth sport have the most important job at any point along the athlete pipeline.  Despite this, clubs, provincial sport organizations, national sport organizations assign most of their resources to services for athletes 16 years of age and older.  Is it a problem? you decide.  In Canada, our Long Term Athlete Development model, in place for over a decade, would say that the most critical time for motor and physical development interventions happens in the 7-14 year old age group.  Why is this age group the most important in developing athletic potential? Because it is at this time when several important windows of opportunity are open for motor skill development, coordination, aerobic capacity development, flexibility.  How many times have you heard a high level stating how important the work is of youth coaching? And yet, how rare it is to see the sharing of expertise with coaches of younger athletes by those with the highest level of expertise.

I think as a sport, we need a fundamental mind shift in the way we look at the value we place on coaching of children in cross country skiing.  There are many reasons why coaching of children has lower value placed on it - these coaches are often volunteers, or parents, or sometimes, tragically just bodies to supervise and make sure no one gets hurt.  High quality sport instruction, as a private entrepreneurial enterprise, operates within the age groups where parents are willing to pay whatever it takes to help their child learn and grow.  Most parents of 10 year olds aren't willing to pay the true cost of hiring a person with expertise in helping children learn to ski according to age appropriate.  And really, I would challenge the idea that simply because one is a national team coach, that they also possess the same level of knowledge and experience to optomize the learning for a 7 or 12 year old.  Not that they can't learn how to be a great coach of children, but being a university professor of astrophysics, does not predispose that same person for being successful in a kindergarten classroom.  There are very different things going on in the minds and bodies of children than of high school age kids and senior age athletes

So, what is the answer? The answer is in rethinking the role of coaches, the social constructs of our sport communities that separate coaches and discourage the sharing of knowledge and experience with each other.  My experience is, that there is very little mentoring, sharing, capacity building work that happens between clubs in the same town, the same region, the same province, or country or sometimes even withing the same club.  Its a dog eat dog world in cross country skiing in some places in Canada.  For those people who are willing to pay the big fees, there is access to expertise - but if you can't pay those fees, your kids aren't accessing that expertise.  And there is very little to no sharing that happens between clubs.  This is particularly pronounced in Alberta, where there are three or four large clubs with professional coaches, where kids pay alot of money to participate, and there are 95% of the other clubs who have moms or dads instructing their kids, doing their best, but without the expertise and training that professional coaches have. I think this is one of the reasons why Alberta has gone had decreasing performances at National Championships over the past 6 years. Whose responsibility is it in our free market world to give equal access to everyone regardless of ability to pay? no one's really.  But can we be generous for the good of our sport? Can we share expertise with others without it threatening our livelihoods as professional coaches?  Can boards of directors of clubs paying these professional coaches see the value in generosity as well?  maybe, probably not.

In Alberta, we have a real problem where clubs outside the big 4 struggle to compete with athletes from the larger clubs.  It has nothing to do with geography of where these clubs are, but it does have something to do with the kind of sport culture that exists between clubs where knowledge and expertise is often tightly guarded by those who possess it from those who don't have it.

What we need is a more collegial sport culture where less experienced coaches can shadow coaches who have things cooking.  The benefit of this type of culture would be more kids could learn to ski well, more kids could find success in their efforts, more kids could aspire to being the best skier in the world, or at least enjoy the incredible benefits that come from working hard at something.

Merry Christmas

Roy Strum
Canmore, AB

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Becoming a Better Youth Cross Country Ski Racing Coach

So, you're interested in becoming a better youth cross country ski coach...How do you improve your coaching? How do you measure the improvement? How do you know when you its time to seek some guidance? How do you find a mentor? Why do you coach? Why is it worth it to do a great job?

Here are some ideas to ponder.  Most coaches can identify someone who they think does a great job of coaching youth.  The fact is, coaches will seek out the people who they think they can learn something from.  We might call these experienced coaches who you want to emulate, master coaches because they have achieved a level of mastery in the work that they do.  Often these master coaches have worked diligently at their craft, thinking carefully, planning deliberately in a cycle of planning, instruction, assessment of the impact of their coaching and adjustment to accommodate deficiencies.  These folks have something valuable to offer - they offer not only physical skill, or the fun learning environment, they also offer ideas around structuring instruction and building in feedback loops that help kids to see where they are at with a skill, where they are going with that skill, what it will look like when they get there, and how they will know that they have arrived at skill proficiency.

I have found over time that conversation around the structure of learning environments and the sequence  of instruction is not a common discussion in the coaching circles.  What is common, is a sharing of games and activities to make it fun, or a skill progression of a technical skill.  How to structure learning so that learning intentions and success criteria of your teaching are clear is the realm of a master coach.  How to provide feedback that is timely, relevant, personalized that provides evidence of their present position in relation to the goal, and guidance on the way to close the gap between the two is the realm of the master coach.

A common misconception is that younger athletes don't require expert coaching.  Anyone can coach kids.  The problem with this construct is that science would show that the biggest window of trainability for motor skill development happens during childhood and early adolescence, not when skiers are on the national team.  This is much the same as in school, where the literacy and numeracy work done in the early years has a profound effect on what learning can take place later. If kids are not reading by the time they are in grade 2, remedial action is required.  Schools do not put the least qualified and experienced teachers with the early years of formal education.  These early years are incredibly important in schooling - if kids don't know how to read, they will not succeed.

We need to adopt the same approach in cross country ski coaching. Higher value needs to be placed on developing younger athletes.  The big hurdle is of course, that we don't pay coaches the way that society in Canada compensates teachers.  Given this reality, how can we do it?  How can we elevate the level of coaching practice in the years when quality instruction makes the biggest difference?

I think there are answers to these questions.  I have alluded to some here.  But I'm not going to give you the answers.  Telling people what they need to do only allows to throw their hands up and say 'that approach doesn't work for me'.  Letting people struggle, encouraging the struggle, asking the right questions, these are things we can do to support others.

There is a huge need to talk about how we can elevate the coaching practice of youth cross country ski coaches.  This is a conversation I enjoy having.  Adding rigour, creating intellectual engagement, building in assessment/feedback, thoughtfully designing learning tasks, developing adaptive expertise, fostering a growth mindset, integrating educational knowledge into coaching practice, finding ways to challenge kids, and doing so in an environment that is safe and caring are all things I do intentionally when i work with young skiers.

So, if you want to make a difference in the lives of kids, if you're interested in really hooking kids on cross country skiing, then we need to do something more than play a few games on skis, or do skill drills.  So, seek out a mentor, someone who you think does a great job of coaching.  Ask them if they will work with you, watch you, give you some feedback, give you some ideas about some directions you might go with your work.  Seek them out.  That is how we learn.  By finding someone who can support us on our path to being a great coach!

It is winter in Canmore.  50cm in the past 24 hours.  65km of trails open.  I feel like the luckiest guy on earth.


Roy Strum
Canmore, AB

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Improving Instruction in Coaching Adolescent Cross Country Skiers

As coaches of adolescent cross country skiers, we've got busy lives.  Who really has time to identify and review best practice literature about instructional design and assessment in sport.  I recently came across some material from a UK based educational researcher, Dylan Wiliams, whose video ties together some nice ideas to reflect on about how we can be more effective in how we deliver feedback to the young athletes that we work with.

Dylan Wiliams on Formative Assessment

Wiliams has five big ideas about formative assessment that are relevant in every way the work we do advancing skill acquisition of our athletes.

Clarifying, Sharing, and Understanding Learning Intentions and Success Criteria

To improve learning for athletes we work with, we need to make sure that the learning intention is explicit. 'Today we are working on our flexing at our hips to 45 degrees when we one skate'.  Learning is enhanced as well when we make the success criteria clear.  'Start in a tall position, with our hands in front of our face...'

Pretty simple thing to do, but very important if we want to help learning take place more quickly.

Engineering effective discussions, activities, and learning 

Asking questions is a good way to gauge how much your athletes are understanding what it is you are teaching.  Coaches often listen for the correct answer, rather than listening to what it is that athletes do understand.  By listening, we can get an idea of what understandings are still missing and focusing our instruction on those things rather than moving on to new understandings.

Providing Feedback that moves Learning Forward

Wiliams writes that feedback needs to create thinking to be effective.  'Good job' or 'way to go' do not stimulate thinking that moves learning forward. As coaches, we can be reviewing the success criteria, showing the athlete the video clip of them performing the skill and asking them to identify which part of the skill they still need work on.

Activating Learners as Owners of their Learning

This idea is about creating a shared responsibility for learning.  Wiliams shares an example of giving students a red card and a green card where red means 'I don't understand' and green means ' I do understand'.  in a ski coaching environment this might look like putting some green tape around one pole and red tape around another pole, then when checking for understanding asking athletes to hold up the appropriately coloured ski pole as to their own level of understanding.

Having athletes do a self assessment is another method of creating ownership.  If success criteria are clear, students can self assess or peer assess their level of skill acquisition and understanding.

Activate learners as Instructional Resources for One Another

When learning intentions and success criteria are clear, and athletes have a clear picture of the intended learning, they are very capable of giving each other feedback as to their performance relative to the success criteria.  This is particularly possible when an exemplar of performance is provided for students via a video clip.

Improving our abilities as coaches is important.  We can learn much from the educational world, where researchers do extensive investigation in improving instructional design and assessment.

I am thrilled to announce I will be coaching this year with @xcbraggcreek ski club.  I have taken a year off of coaching to reflect on where I have come from and where I want  to go next.  I am glad to land in Bragg Creek where I will work with former national team and Univ of New Mexico athlete, Flora Giesbrecht.

Happy September!


Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Integrating Technology in Coaching Adolescent Cross Country Skiers

Integrating technology is a great idea to reach kids.  Today's kids are tech saavy.  Learning somehow seems more engaging when you're looking at a screen.  Traditionalists would say, no, what I have been doing has been working, so why change.  The fact is that there are some useful tools that you can, that you probably are already using, but are worth mentioning here.  Here are a few I have accessed with my coaching work.

Image result for ubersense image
Ubsersense -

available free on itunes - this app is great for video work of skiers especially when downloaded onto a tablet. The app allows you to record, play back in various speeds, split the screen to compare two files.  All of this with great tutorial support, online blogs, and youtube instructional videos.

Highly recommended.

Image result for coach's eye
Coach's Eye -

the free version of coach's eye doesnt include as many bells and whistles and as much storage space as Ubersense, but has many of the same features.  The last version I used doesnt include a drawing tool that ubersense has, which is quite useful for focusing on a specific piece of technique.


Image result for dartfish
\Dartfish -

I havent used this one alot, and is one of the original video analysis software programs.  Last i checked there was no free version.  I first saw this one 10 years ago when a national team coach shared his work with athletes with a group of coaches.  Many clubs purchased the software.  Not sure really how esay this one is to use, as the last version i saw, you downloaded your video to the software and then used the analysis tools.

Here is a video comparing Coach's eye and Ubersense

Summer is drawing to a close in part of the world.  In fact we had snow above 1800m a couple of days ago and -2C

Enjoy the rest of your summer

Roy Strum
Canmore, AB

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

A Note for Parents of Adolescents - The Importance of Sitting on the Park Bench

I've been busy reading a book this last few weeks by Toronto School Psychologist, Alex Russell, called Drop the Worry Ball.  Its been a great read and one that has got me thinking about the crucial role of parents in the development of lifelong passion for being an athlete.  Adolescence is a key period of growth for children.  Kids seeking increased autonomy over their life often leads to a showdown between parents and kids that youth always wins.  How can we best support adolescents in their need for ownership and autonomy and continued involvement in sport?  How can we best help our own adolescents and those that we work with as coaches grow in independent self motivated adults?

Alex Russell says that the most important job of a parent is to help your child become an adult, emotionally separate from parents, and who have their own relationship with the world.  What stands in opposition to this happening is a change in parenting culture in North America - the bubble wrapping and sterilizing of children that never lets kids fail.  Its becoming more common in our culture to just hand out participation awards for kids instead of letting kids develop the resiliency that comes from not winning.  Competition has become a bad word, everything needs to be cooperative to protect the fragile self concepts of young people.

According to Russell, and I agree, for much of childhood, kids live in an appease and please world.  Motivated primarily by doing what they need to to gain the positive favour of the adults in their lives.  At adolescence, just as during the 'terrible twos', children seek more autonomy and independence.  And its crucial that if we want kids to own what they do, we need to, particularly as parents, increasingly give adolescents the responsibility for everything outside of home, including sport.

As parents, we need to be willing to give up the roles of organizer, manager, director, and teacher; and we need to be willing to give these to our adolescent children.  Russell, talks about 'letting go' to describe the role of parents.  That's not to say that as parents we don't have an important role to fill.  Russell talks about this role as 'sitting on the bench'.  As parents we need to be able to sit on the bench and lets kids play, celebrate their successes, and empathize with their setbacks.  We need to avoid getting up off the bench and interfering with a child's world outside the home.  This was much more common a generation ago.

A couple of days ago I caught up with an enduring lifelong friend of mine. Lana, lives in London, England and she was visiting her parents in Calgary.  We got talking about this topic and she shared a story that exemplifies Alex Russell's 'sitting on the park bench' parenting.  When Lana was in Junior High School, her mom had to get to work by 8am, Lana, like most 14 year olds had trouble getting up in the morning and was consistently late for school.  Her mom would wake her up several times in the morning, and needed to get to work, so would leave Lana to her own decision making.  Lana was late alot.  Eventually, her school called home to say 'Lana is late all the time for school, what are you going to do about it?'  Lana's mom said 'nothing, what are you going to do about it?'  Nowadays, this would be considered extremely questionable parenting, but it is exactly the type of type of parenting that Alex Russell says in needed to help adolescents be responsible for their choices.

To build an adult, or create conditions where adolescents choose to be an athlete is about 'sitting on the park bench' as parents.  We need to ensure there is not catastrophic failure, but we need to let kids fail.  When adolescents fail, and parents respond with interested and empathetic responses  like 'that's too bad, can i make you some soup?' instead of 'I am going to talk to your teacher or coach about accommodating your special needs', adolescents develop some independence and start being receiving feedback from adults in their life, who are not their parents, about their conduct and choices.  Russell says this is crucial to helping kids engage in their world.  In Lana's example, it worked, eventually after enough detentions, she started getting herself up and to school on time, but not before it got worse.  A generation ago, parents didnt helicopter or hover, or snowplow a path to remove all hardship from their kids' lives. They let the important adults in their child's life give them feedback to help them get on track.  Adolescents need this.

When kids are little and they have a tumble at the playground and scratch their knee, parents instinctively say 'its just a little scratch, you'll be ok' - its the sort of message that says 'you can handle this, its not a big deal, you're going to be ok'  But during adolescents, alot of parent forget that that is the same message kids need - instead of bubble wrapping kids or plowing a path through obstacles or sanitizing every interaction - we need to take a chill pill, and sit on the park and watch our children succeed or fail, and cheer or say 'oh that's gotta be tough'.  But it doesn't stop there either.

If you're a coach of adolescent cross country skiers or any sport, Alex Russell, speaks to the importance of your role in giving kids the carrot and the stick (metaphorical of course).  Coaches need to be willing to say to kids 'if you want to get better, you need to show up', 'i expect you to be here', or 'i'd like to see you work harder'.  If we want to transition adolescents from the 'appease and please' world of childhood to the owning the work of being an athlete, we need to be able to not only give kids some positive strokes, but deliver the hard messages that kids need to hear from important adults in their lives.  This is not just the responsibility of parents - coaches - if we kids to own being an athlete, we have to see ourselves as important enough adults in their lives that we can deliver both the positive and negative message that will help them to becoming an adult who stays engaged in sport because its what they want, not because its what somebody else wants them to do.

Alex Russell also says that as parents we need to deliver the message to important adults of our adolescent children, 'I trust you that you will make the best decisions for my child; I give you authority to give my child the kind of feedback they need to get on them on track and to help them become an adult who owns their own passion'

Alex Russell has a number of youtube videos that are a great place to start.  This is an exceptional book, and as a parent and coach of adolescents it has gotten me thinking about my own practice as a coach and my important role as a dad.  Here is link to one of Alex's videos

Hey its Canada Day today - we are lucky to live in one of the best countries in the world.

Enjoy your day

Canmore, AB

Monday, 25 May 2015

Feedback Done Well - an answer as to why some clubs outperform others...

I enjoy learning about ways I can be a better coach, teacher, parent, and friend.  This year, I've picked up John Hattie's Visible Learning for Teachers @visiblelearning .  Hattie is a researcher from New Zealand who pulled together a meta analysis of meta analysis studies of teaching and learning influences and their effect on achievement.  Its ground breaking work, and creates an evidence based picture of the best bang for you buck in terms of things we do as coaches/educators.  His research resulted in an effect size for over 150 influences on achievement, things like, class size, student-teacher relationship, peer feedback, self assessment and teacher feedback.  What his research tells us is that some things are more important than others when it comes to things we do as coaches/teachers and their effect on how effectively students learn.

Feedback from a coach/teacher is in the top ten of the ranking of the most significant influences on student/athlete learning.  Here is a short video of some things to consider when giving feedback to learners:

For feedback to be effective coaches/teachers must have a good understanding of where the learners are and where they are meant to be.  You will find lots of technically brilliant coaches in communities all over, but perhaps the ability to give effective feedback is one of the key determinants of what we recognize as 'development hotbeds'.  Maybe hotbeds exist partly because the coaches there know how to give effective feedback.  Its one of the most important things we can do as coaches/teachers.

It starts with learners having a clear picture of the intended learning outcome and what the success criteria are.  For example, 'today we are working on double poling - success looks like this...' , 'give it a try...'.  Setting up learning for success is only one of the variables that help kids learn.  When they have a clear picture of what they are supposed to learn, they are much more likely to achieve it.  Creating clear learning intentions is key.  Without that, any feedback you give learners is done so in a vacuum - there is no context for feedback if it is all reactive.

Hattie identifies four types of feedback:
- task feedback -  this is feedback on a technical skill - 'here is our arm position at the initiation of a pole plant in a double pole; your arms are there, I want them here"
- process feedback - this is feedback on a strategy to help learn - 'when you learn to one skate, try to count to three while you balance on one foot'
- self regulation feedback - this is feedback to get a learner to reflect on how they've learned - 'how do you know if you are there...'
- self feedback - this is feedback about ability or effort - 'you are working really hard, keep it up, you'll get it...'

As coaches/teachers we need to understand clearly where we want our learners to go, and we need to be able to scaffold the learning so that they see the steps to get there.  This is done through - setting clear learning intentions and success criteria - then providing feedback to learners to help them master the skill.  For feedback to be effective, the learning task also needs to be challenging.  In the context of sport skill acquisition, this is pretty easy to facilitate - being a skilled skier is a challenging task.  Where is the learning going?...

As coaches/teachers we should aim for giving some progress feedback relative to the starting a finishing points - this feedback is the most crucial to learning and is offered in relation to a standard of performance, to prior performance or to success or failure in performing the task. It might look like, 'hey, your hand height looks at the right place at the initation of your pole plant, now i want to see them closer together...'.  According to Hattie, feedback needs to be rapid and constant and should address things like:
- clarifying and sharing the learning intentions and success criteria - e.g. 'hey kids, i'm looking for lots of ankle bend at the initation of your pole plant'
- engineering effective discussions, questions and learning tasks
- being the type of feedback that moves learning forward
- encouring learners to see themselves as the owners of their learning - e.g. ' you can figure this out, think about it, try it and let me know what you think...'
- activating learners as instructional resources for one another - e.g. 'hey, Karly does this really well, have her explain it to you...'

As coaches/teachers we need to   create a picture of what the next step looks like - and for each learner this will be somewhat different depending on their rate of skill acquisition.  We can also foster deeper understanding of skills by providing opportunities to look at a skill in a different way, or explaining it using different language e.g. talk 'propulsive force' and 'drag force' when talking about technique.

Feedback is an important part of motor learning.  Education research can help us to be better at thinking about what we say, how we say it, and how we reinforce it.  Some coaches/teachers are extremely skilled in doing this work.  This is something we can all learn to get better at.

Happy May!

Roy Strum

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Really, are we still talking about Early Specialization in Youth Sport?

Its a constant issue, how much, how early, what type, why?  Not sure what its like in your part of the world, but here in Alberta, its a topic of conversation.  Here is a sample of some of the current interest in this topic:



Newspaper articles:

What is abundantly clear is this is an issue that has not gone away.  At the recent Alberta Sport Leadership conference I attended at session led by Joe Baker from York University.  He is a researcher who has done lots of work in this area.   Web: Twitter @bakerjyorku  At Joe's session, he provided some research based evidence that although the power law of practice states that there is a positive relationship between practice and performance, the best athletes competing as seniors are almost always the ones who had a diversified sport experience until after the adolescent growth spurt.

The four parameters you can look to to see if you're creating an early specialization environment as a coach are the following:

1. early start age in sport
2. early involvement in one sport exclusively
3. early involvement in high intensity training
4. early involvement in competitive sport

When you read the article from the Edmonton Journal about a 9 year old dropping out of spring league in ice hockey, you begin to see that in some sports this really does happen, and to the negative effect of young athletes.  Its easy to pick on a big sport like ice hockey in Canada.  More kids play organized ice hockey in Calgary than live in three of the five biggest cities in Alberta.  Hockey Canada is trying to get the message out that early specialization is not a good thing, but it is a struggle to chart a new course in a sport where early specialization has become mainstream.

Is it an issue in cross country skiing? Sure, in some places, and some communities, I am certain that parents are told, more is better.  And really it works.  13 year olds who ski 500+ hours a year are going to be pretty fit.  The question is: is it the right thing to do to have a 13 year old doing more hours in a year than some 16 year olds.  No matter how keen a young athlete is, or what their early capacity is for training, you've got to ask yourself as a coach - is it the right thing to do? is it in the best interest of the long term development of young athletes.

Winning is fun.  Losing isnt.  Doing too much too early can produce winning results.  But statistics are not on the side of early specialization athletes.

It is refreshing attending a professional conference.  In Alberta our sport leadership conference brings together coaches from all sports once a year to learn from and interact with leading researchers and experts.

Have a great May!

Roy Strum
Canmore, AB

Thursday, 16 April 2015

Blocked vs Random Practice - Application to Cross Country Skiing

As coaches we are all extremely intent on helping athletes improve their technique.  Its easy to burrow down into the minutia of technical instruction - bend your elbow more, have more ankle flex, start in a tall position...  This is important stuff, but its not the only thing that will help athletes improve. 

I recently watched a video from Its worth watching. 

As with any of these sorts of resources, the big question is how does it apply to cross country skiing?  The examples in the video are mostly game based territory sports - volleyball, football, basketball.  Trainugly explains block practice as a practice where repeated skill drills are performed from one position, or using the same variables over and over.  e.g. driving golf balls at a driving range - the skill is repeated over and over in the same starting place and on the same terrain.  Random practice is described as practice that incorporates a variety of skill applications. e.g. shooting drills in basketball that incorporate lots of movement around the key with other players involved.

The big idea is that a static blocked practice type skill drill doesnt incorporate two other important dimensions of skilful play - those are reading a situation, planning to deal with it, and then executing the skill. The big idea is that random practice of a skill better incorporates thet skills needed in a game or competition.  Driving a golf ball is different on every hole and is different if there is wind or rain.  So the big question, what is the value of driving balls on a driving range.

Research supports the notion that random practice leads to higher skill retention than blocked practice.  This is because it better resembles actual game play.

So what are we doing in cross country skiing?  are using mostly blocked practice or random practice? and does it really apply to our sport?  The answer is a clear yes - random practice of a skill does apply to cross country ski skill development. 

In cross country skiing are your diagonal stride drills done mostly without poles on a flat teaching grid? or do you practice striding on flats, slight inclines, moderate climbs and steeper climbs? As a coach, do you set up your skill learning focusing only on the technical pieces? or do you incorporate some element that is related to how the skill will be performed in a race?  it doesnt mean you need to do it all at race pace, but surely there are lots of ways to simulate race conditions outside of intensity workouts.

Do you work on transitions of technique and terrain? this would be random practice.  Performing a one skate on flat terrain or simply on the same hill over and over is the same thing as shooting 50 free throws from the foul line in basketball practice.  Research shows that skill retention is alot less than in a random practice scenario.  Perhaps the reason that it takes so long for kids to learn a skill and perform it well in a race is that the skill is always only block practiced.

Additionally, as trainugly points out in the video, technique is only 1/3 of the skill necessary in any game or sport.  The other thirds are reading the situation and planning to respond to the situation.  Perhaps this is another reason why some ski clubs tend to have higher level performers - because the coaches do more than teach technique. They also help athletes to develop the skills of reading the situation in a race by creating practice situations that develop this skill.  trainugly would say that these coaches also provide opportunities for athletes to develop the skills of planning a response to either terrain change, other athletes, or conditions.

Cross country skiing is what is considered an open skill sport, much the same as volleyball or basketball and very different from swimming or gymnastics.  Great performers know to vary the skill they use in response to terrain and other athletes.  How are we as coaches helping our athletes to develop these skills?  Research shows that random practice far outperforms blocked practice in skill retention.  So we have to ask ourselves, if we are blocked practice coaches, why are still doing it?

have a great spring day!

Roy Strum
Canmore, AB

twitter - @roystrum

Thursday, 2 April 2015

Watch this...Do that...Thoughts on Next Steps

I recently watched a great spoken word video written and performed by a high school student about the purpose of learning that got me thinking about engagement of youth in sport.  What is it that young people are looking for that would keep them engaged? How do we as coaches create meaningful engagement to reduce drop out in sport participation? In cross country skiing in Canada, this is vitally important.  Why is that so many of our young promising athletes get to the end of their participation in sport at the end of high school? What can we do to change this?

Survey research  tells us that 'fun' is the most important reason why youth are engaged in sport. #2 on this list is 'skill development'. Thinking about how we best balance fun and skill is of prime importance as a coach of youth sport.  Too much fun and kids are engaged but not improving; too much focus on skill development, and sport can become drudgery.

I'm not sure I have many answers today.  But I did want to share out a few links to get you thinking as a coach about how to improve engagement with youth. Its vitally important.  If 80% of your athletes stop racing at the end of high school, you've got to ask yourself 'why'? The challenge is to create engaging enough learning that when your athletes are done with you as a coach, they are chomping at the bit for the next step after you.  This is important with 12-14 year olds, and its important with all youth in sport.

Happy Springtime!

Roy Strum
Canmore, AB

Monday, 16 March 2015

The Secret Ingredient in Success for Youth...

Every year for the past four years I have come off of the Alberta Youth Cross Country Ski Championships weekend feeling profoundly optimistic about the future of competitive cross country skiing in Alberta.  I do so because the weekend seems to be filled with moments unique to the experience.  Missing is the over focus by youth on results.  In its place a deep and abiding striving for success, by not just the top performers but by every kid.  Somehow what seems to occur is something that feels quite different from the average race weekend for the same kids somewhere else.  Each year I lead this event, I come away with a feeling that we have created something magic, that we have created something with enduring value. Trying to capture and articulate what that value is, is the focus of my writing today.

There are a few things that contribute to the power of the Alberta Youth Champs, that seem to catch fire with adolescents.  Here is what they are:

- Championships event - coming to a provincial championships is a big deal.  For these kids, an opportunity to dream of becoming provincial champion means something.  That more clubs participate in this event than any other event; that more athletes participate in this event than any other provincial event is a big deal.  Having teams from Regina and Yellowknife and Fort Smith participate gives the event a 'big deal' kind of feeling.

- Coaches who buy in to the vision - Coaches create much of the great energy that exists at Alberta Youth Champs.  For the most part the coaches who attend are not the lead coaches in the clubs, but instead a younger generation of less experienced coaches than the ones you find going to Nationals.  There is something to be said to working with moldable material.  The coaches who attend AYC bring a positive, generative, community building attitude.

- Broadening the definition of success - you ask kids what they like about AYC - they'll probably mention an opportunity to earn recognition.  The 10th place finisher in each category feels incredibly proud to be called up to the stage to be presented with a medal.  All of a sudden, 10th place in a race means something.  Its important. And coming in 11th is the near miss.  This recognition is far removed from tokenism and that is why kids value it.  You ask them, they'll tell you - I did my best and I am proud of my 10th place finish.  Kids just dont get that anywhere else.  And at a provincial championships its important.

- Community - the simple fact that XC Bragg Creek hosts this event at a summer camp with great trails just down the road a few minutes says alot about what is really important in engaging youth.  Shared meals, shared living spaces, opportunities to build new friendships between coaches and athletes is huge and is something you just don't find at another event, where kids stay with their families in hotels, or kids live and eat as a group but separate from other teams.  Community is what kids seek.  Its what we all seek.  A rich meaningful experience where relationship is developed.

- Inspiration - getting a chance to hear the story of a successful athlete is meaningful.  This year Annika Hicks joined us at our banquet - Annika has been a world jr championships team member, a provincial ski team member, and a national champion in Canada.  Connecting with Annika's story is a powerful opportunity for kids to draw inspiration from another's success.  On the Sunday, Matt Strum joined us.  Matt is a jr national team biathlete who grew up in Bragg Creek.  For the Bragg Creek kids in particular, he was a shining example of the possibility that exists in youth sport.  If Matt was a kid from Bragg Creek, and if he could become National Champion or top 50 in the world, well, maybe they could as well.  The XC Bragg Creek ski clubs were lining up to get Matt to sign their club jackets after he went for a warm up ski with them.

- 4 year cycle - That kids only get to go for a four year window makes the event a big deal.  This year was the first year that kids have graduated from the AYC after having competed in the event for four consecutive years.  Next year, this group of 2001 athletes will all hopefully head off to National Championships.

- Modeling of fun - the coach's relay has become a fun part of this event - fun for coaches and fun for kids to see their coaches racing just as they do.

As I take a moment to reflect on the Alberta Youth Cross Country Ski Championships, I feel incredibly proud to be a part of creating this special event for children.  Its an event that is deliberate about creating a positive sport experience for children. Deliberate about its intention to hook kids on competitive cross country skiing.  Deliberate about its goal to build community and friendship.  This is an event that aims to inspire youth to embrace the life of being a racer.  It is an event that aims to be a big deal, a provincial championships, where a young athlete can proudly say, I am provincial champion or I was 10th at provincials.  AYC is an event that has momentum, that has deep value for participants.  It is in my mind a model of what a youth cross country ski event should look like.  It has become that because of the collective will of our community to build something meaningful and significant that will engage young skiers in the very worthwhile endeavour of becoming a ski racer!

Enjoy the remainder of winter in your part of the world!

Roy Strum
Coach, Canmore, AB

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

The Important Role of Peers in Engaging Adolescents...

I've been doing some reading lately about the important role that peers fill in creating engaging learning spaces.  John Hattie is a New Zealand education researcher who has written several books, including Visible Learning for Teachers.  Although the text is really geared at the education sector, the content is rich learning for coaches because much of the work we do with adolescents is aim to create engaging learning around sport.

Hattie's research would put the significance effect of d=0.52 for Peer Influences on achievement, meaning that peers have a significant effect on learning.  Peers influence learning in a number of ways.  They help to create a positive space for learning.  We've seen this lots; it just takes one or two key kids to model active engagement and the whole group is there.  Positive contagion works.  Its important to know who the key kids are.  In addition, kids can create a sense of belonging with one another.  This is invaluable - as coaches we can set the groundwork for it to happen, but it really takes kids to create the belonging.

Kids can be great at giving feedback to each other but Hattie would point out that for peer feedback to be effective, kids need a pretty clear idea of the intended learning outcome - when they know exactly what the piece of the double pole technique should look like, then providing feedback helps the other child as well as reinforcing the understanding of the skill.  Kids do so much more though to support learning.  They provide social comparisons and emotional support for peers.  They help their peers gain a reputation of success.  Kids build others' reputations by talking to their peers and about their peers with other kids.

Adolescent athletes also provide caring and support for their peers.  They can help coaches by easing conflict that leads to resolution.  Kids can help their peers by providing some cognitive restructuring of understandings.  These understandings can be technical, tactical, or social.  Kids model deliberate practice and rehearsal.  All of these things lead to increased learning opportunities and ultimately enhance achievement of themselves and their peers.

Hattie's research also points out that the single greatest predictor of success in learning is whether a child/youth has made a friend in the first month of joining a program.  This points to the importance of attending to athlete friendships by coaches.  Making sure that newcomers are welcome and that everyone has someone who they connect with.

Sometimes as coaches its easy to put our jobs in a box and think its all about the technical part of sport or about the competition performance of the athletes we work with.  But it is super important to remember when we are working with adolescents, we are working with complex social organisms who are plugged into their peers.  Great coaches are not only aware of this, but also work with this reality to engage their athletes in learning.

Tomorrow (Feb 25) is Pink Shirt Day in Canada.  A day to promote respectful, caring, and supportive learning environments.  Lets do our part as coaches and engage peers to optimize engagement through positive, caring, and supportive interactions.  Peers make a huge difference in creating the type of coaching environment we have with our programs.  Lets think about how we can optimize kids to help other kids in sport.


Roy Strum
Canmore, AB

Saturday, 14 February 2015

Elitism in Youth Sport...ideas on leaving it for the senior age group

Whatever sport you're involved with, you've probably seen it happen lots.  The ever increasing need at younger and younger ages to specialize, to pay for high priced coaching, to travel farther and farther afield for competition weekends, to purchase the most expensive equipment, and in the case of cross country ski racing to apply the glide waxes that are used at the world cup and olympic levels.  Where does the insanity stop?  It stops for many families when it just becomes out of reach for them financially.  I know of many families who have decided to have their children do some thing else because cross country skiing or whatever sport, has just become too expensive.  Of course there are many families who have deep pockets and the question isnt 'can they afford it', but simply 'why not'?  The bigger issue of course is not financial, but ethical - asking the question, what is most developmentally appropriate?

There is another type of elitism that exists, one I saw modeled this past couple of days at Calgary City Teachers Convention.  It is an elitism that is evidenced by coaches who give more attention to those athletes that who demonstrate quicker technical skill acquisition.  This one really irks me because it represents a coach's belief that some kids are more deserving of attention than another simply because they can learn a motor skill faster.  What I witnessed was a disturbing example of coaches not taking the time to teach athletes how to perform a skill; instead what I witnessed was increased opportunity to be involved and receive instruction/feedback based on the athlete's predisposed natural athletic ability. This is disturbing because it underpins the coach's beliefs that they are able to use their crystal ball to predict which athletes are going to be worth their time and effort as a coach to invest in.  This conduct represents all that was wrong with school based physical education and community sport twenty years ago and has no place in youth sport in 2015.

It surprises me that at every Alberta Cup cross country ski race, coaches have the need to decide and debate whether youth 14 years of age and younger should be applying pure fluoro, or high flouro, or other glide waxes meant for older athletes, to these young athlete's skis.  Really, there is a debate over this topic at every provincial level race.  Why?  The answer is elitism.  Coaches of some clubs feel its important to give their athletes the advantage of faster glide waxes.  But really, is that what should be making the difference at 12 or 13 years of age in a ski race? No!  what should be making the difference is physical fitness and technical ski ability.  The fastest skiers should be the ones who have worked the hardest not the ones whose parents are willing to pay $30 a race day for fast skis.  Is it ok, to buy your way to the top of the results list?  is that really what is important for youth sport?

Another example of elitism in youth cross country ski racing in Alberta and elsewhere is the practice of purchasing a race licence for your 10 or 12 year old.  In Canada, athletes who race at national championships need a race licence from the national sport organization.  This licence facilitates assigning Canada Points List points for each race an athlete goes in.  Then the CPL points are used to seed athletes in mass start races or individual start races.  For athletes competing at nationals this is appropriate and needed.  There are many families and clubs who purchase a CCC race licence for their athletes who are younger than 15.  These clubs and families purchase their race licence for the 10 or 12 year old not because they plan to go to nationals but simply so that they get preferred seading at races.  Essentially, this is blatantly buying your way to the front of the starting group.  Is this really what we want to teach kids?  you can buy your way to the front of the line.  I say no!  This is a wrong message to give kids, and it is a message that reinforces an elitist orientation for youth participation in sport.  There is no place for a provincial sport organization to be supporting this type of elitism.  As a community, we need to insist that elitist structures like buying your child's position at the start of the mass start group, is not acceptable practice.  Luckily at two of three of our Alberta Cup race weekends the host clubs have insisted that CCC race licences for midgets and younger will not buy them a position at the front of mass start groupings or at the back of the the individual start groupings.

Elitism has no place in youth sports.  It is the product of coaches creating modified versions of the adult form of sport.  Adult sport in cross country is elitist and at that level is totally appropriate.  If you want to be the best in the world, you've got to do all the things that you need to to become the best in the world.  For youth, elitism is confusing, is unfair to children and is a negative influence on continued participation and engagement of our young skiers in our great sport.

I'm currently exploring possibilities of increasing opportunities for new Canadians to be engaged with our sport in our community.  Some exciting things are cooking - and I am happy to be one of the chefs.

I'm heading out to the trails now to enjoy an hour or so of pure delight - skiing gives me great joy.

Roy Strum
Canmore, AB

Saturday, 24 January 2015

How do we build a bridge to 'not yet'...

Carol Dweck is a psychologist and author of the book - Mindsets - a look into working with children around creating conditions for successful learning.  She was featured on a recent ted talks that is well worth watching

Several themes arise in Dweck's talk that relate in every way to the work we do as coaches.

- Abilities can be developed.  Probably the single most important message we can deliver to youth in cross country skiing.  Abilities are not predetermined.  Abilities change over time.  My own personal experience shows this.  My own son who at 10 or 12 or 14 would regularly finish 20 or 22nd out of 25 kids in a race, now is on the junior national biathlon team and will compete at World Junior Championships in Belarus next month .   When somehow, and probably due to the good work of his coaches, he persisted with the belief that his abilities could be developed, he could achieve his goals to become a successful athlete.  He wasn't obsessed with his finish position in races.  He learned to not always have a need for constant validation.  I am proud of him, as any Dad would be.

How do we deliver the message of 'abilities can be developed' to the kids we work with?  We do this by being deliberate about telling them that abilities can be developed, anyone has the potential to be a successful athlete.  Dweck would say that it is about a 'mindset' where kids see a challenge and react with ' I love the challenge'.  A space where kids understand that their ability can be developed.

This type of mindset is fundamental to athletic success. It is the type of mindset that as coaches of adolescents we need to be developing in every athlete we work with.  Some of them will still decide to leave the sport at 13 or 14 because its not for them.  But we won't have them leaving because they are obsessed with getting on the podium every race or stressed out to perform according to finish position.

At 12 or 14, my son Matthew was the type of kid who not very many coaches would have predicted would develop into the athlete he is becoming.  There is no crystal ball that allows any coach to predict what an athlete will eventually become. But there are things that we can do each and every practice.  We can tell kids that they can develop their abilities. We can encourage them to dream big.  We can create a space where we champion more than the early developing kids or the kids whose parents have unlimited resources to buy them world cup level equipment at 10 or 12 years old.  We are kidding ourselves if we think we can level a playing field when working with youth.  But we can deliver the message each and every practice that 'you can develop your abilities' - and deliver that authentically to each and every child we work with.

Carol Dweck uses the phrase 'not yet' when referring to the type of feedback that is important to give kids to help them develop a growth mindset.  'You did well, but you're not there yet, keep working, you will get there'.  As a dad, its the type of message I have tried to deliver to my kids over time, and maybe its a small part of why they are all still engaged in cross country ski racing.  And maybe the most important deliverer of the 'not yet' message are parents.  But as a coach, it is super important as well because it is about the culture we create in our groups, in our clubs.  I encourage you to go for it.

Happy January!

Roy Strum
Canmore AB

Thursday, 15 January 2015

Ideas around Creating Kid Friendly Ski Competitions

I'm all for innovation.  Not just any change though.  Change that brings about increased engagement of youth, and increased skill development. 

A few years ago, I attended a session with Istvan Balyi.  Balyi is one of the authors of the Long Term Athlete Development plan in Canada.  It was the sort of session where lots of dots were connected for me all of which gave me lots to reflect on regarding children and introduction to competition.  How we introduce kids to competition matters in a sport that does not have mass participation.

I've been a teacher and coach for many years, mostly of children and early adolescents. Over that time, I've seen a few trends. Expertise in cross country ski coaching resides with those coaches who are working with the oldest athletes in the club.  There is huge attrition in participation right around 12 or 13 years old, and another big drop in participation around the end of high school.  I think there are things we can do to turn these trends around.

Innovation is certainly a buzzword in teaching and learning lately.  In my own school division we have several departments with Innovation in the title.  Its important to seek continuous improvement.  Not very many people will argue with that idea.  Innovation though takes a passionate commitment on behalf of leadership. Its not easy.  Despite the effort, I think its worth it if it increases engagement with our sport by youth.

I've had a busy winter so far leading coach development sessions in a variety of community around Alberta.  In every place I go people are doing great work.  Just last weekend I was in Edmonton, the week before in Camrose.  Here are a few exemplars of innovative competition formats for youth that come from the coaches of those clubs.

- aim to give kids an authentic opportunity to measure self improvement - in Edmonton, the coaches set up a couple of races on the same course.  Every youth got a time from both events.  Events were held on similar snow conditions.  Nothing special was done to prepare skis.  Kids got two times on the same course and could measure their improvement by seeing how much faster they skied.  This was meaningful to the youth involved.  It isnt easy to measure self improvement in a sport like cross country skiing where there are so many variables that influence an athlete's time in a race. Bravo Edmonton Nordic for this great work!

- create events that focus on a specific skill - in Camrose, the coaches set up three different timed events.  The first was a hill climb, the second was a course that timed a skier over the crest of a hill, and the third was on a downhill.  This format gave youth a chance to validate for themselves which section of course they performed well at.  Percent behind the fastest gives an idea of relative strength of a youth compared to peers.

- do more relays - biathlon really has this one nailed - they do so many more relays than cross country skiing - at least in Alberta.  What about incorporating a relay event into every weekend of racing - at least for youth.  What a nice way to focus on team instead of on individual at a time when youth are particularly vulnerable around developing perceptions of self around competency and the resultant decisions to continue to not with a sport.

I'd encourage you try some different things with your competition formats for youth.  Think outside of the 'scaled down version of adult formats' thinking.  Look to other sports that create multiple opportunities for success in a competition.  Youth need success.  As coaches, creating success, whatever that might be, should be one of our top priorities.

Happy skiing!

Roy Strum
Canmore, AB