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