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

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