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

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 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

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

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Ingredients for Success...Engaging Adolescent Cross Country Skiers


In the coaching workshops I facilitate, I often get asked my thoughts about how to keep kids engaged in cross country skiing.  It seems everywhere there is a huge drop off in participation at about 11 or 12 years old and then another round of drop offs at the end of middle school.  What is it that keeps kids engaged? Is there a magic formula? What are the characteristics of places that retain adolescents in their programs through the years when kids are seeking more autonomy in deciding what they want to do with their time? What factors exist that improve the chances kids will stick with cross country skiing?  Obviously there is no simple answer but my experience would say that there are ingredients for success.

Having a critical mass - it goes without saying that when you have a big group of kids the likelihood of some of them sticking it out through adolescence increases.  Kids want to participate where there is a social environment.  It can't be just about the skiing.  Its got to also be about the relationships that kids share.  Ignore the social needs of kids and they'll find it somewhere else.  Their feet will do their talking.  So what about if you don't have a critical mass? if you're in a small town with only a few adolescents involved?  Invite more in.  Small towns are the home of some of the best cross country skiers that have competed internationally for Canada - athletes like Chandra Crawford, Sarah Renner, and Beckie Scott all grew in small town ski clubs.  For a time, Vermilion, AB was producing some of the top ski racers in Canada.  What happened in Vermilion to make this so.  Vermilion is a great exemplar of a town that created something special for kids.  So much of that was the leadership of a few people that created a vision for what might be possible for kids when they participated in a few races.  If you don't have a critical mass - build it, one kid at a time.

Give kids something to work towards - special trips, club exchanges, alternative ski experiences.  For a number of years now, one of the special trips I've accompanied our club kids in Canmore on is a club exchange with another ski club.  Over the past 5 years, our 12-14 year old skiers have had a chance to go to Chelsea, QC or Whitehorse, YT 5 times.  We've made this a priority and its kept kids involved at least till the end of middle school.  The exchanges include same age club kids coming from Chelsea or Whitehorse and staying with their families in Canmore, and then our Canmore kids staying with families in the exchange communities.  When we are there, the families organize tons of fun cultural and sporting activities.  As a result our club kids have had a chance to do the Buckwheat Classic or the Gatineau Loppet or the Quebec Midget Championships a number of times.  They have done these things without breaking the bank or overemphasizing racing.  Making kids aware of special recognition opportunities like Alberta Development Team, and encouraging them in the belief that it is possible for them to be qualify for these teams is hugely important.

Give kids exemplary technical skill instruction - its amazing how kids will stay involved when they feel that they can do something well.  When lots of top performing kids come from one club, you should try to figure out what they are doing that makes it so, especially when kids of all ages are performing well from a club and not just a two or three year cohort of kids.  These clubs exist in many places and most of these clubs are willing to share their success stories.  Usually these uber successful clubs have created a culture where everyone sees it as possible to succeed, where learning is valued, and social environments are important.  At the end of it all, having some great teachers of technical skill gives kids a huge advantage over other places. 

Keeping it fun - balancing the need for positive social time between adolescents and quality instructional time is immensely important. Too much emphasis on instruction creates an all work no play environment - which really is unappealing to most teens.  Too much emphasis on social interaction and not enough on technical instruction creates an environment not challenging enough for the average teen.  Evidence of a club that has found the right balance is found in:
- the number of kids returning to compete/participate year after year
- the average level of performance of kids from the club
- the atmosphere during a practice - are comfortable with chatting it up, and focusing when asked.
- the happiness factor - can you look around and see smiling faces and also faces showing best effort is taking place

Sometimes I get asked by participants in the coaching workshops I lead how it is that my own children (we have a third child as well that is too young for her own blog) have stayed engaged in competitive cross country skiing for so long.  How is it that they didn't get overdosed on my enthusiasm for cross country skiing.  How did my wife and I cultivate a space for our kids to own their own experience, to design their own dreams, to believe that they are capable of achieving their goals? We haven't done it alone, we've been fortunate to be a part of ski clubs that have a critical mass, that give kids something to work towards, that give kids exemplary technical instruction, and that focus on keeping it fun. 


Roy Strum
Canmore, AB

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Six Signposts towards Excellence in Coaching Adolescents...

I love learning.  I love learning about getting better at the things I love to focus my energy on.  I've recently picked up a book - Richard Hattie's Visible Learning for Teachers (2012, Routledge, NY).  Its amazing really, when you find some reading that speaks to you on many levels.  This book speaks to me about what is really important when teaching kids how to learn a motor skill.  Hattie did a meta-analysis of meta-analysis studies examining teaching and learning influences on student achievement in schools. His research aims to answer the question -what effect does a type of learning influence (such as giving feedback) have on the level of student achievement. His writing has been described as 'the holy grail' of education research books by some reviewers.  He points out early and often, that simply having a positive impact on learning isnt good enough because there is very little that a teacher or coach can do that will not result in some learning.

For me, Hattie's work speaks to the important pieces of structuring learning - which is of course completely relevant to effective coaching in a sport context.  The fact is that coaches can choose to focus on so many different things while helping kids to learn.  What Hattie's research does is measure teaching and learning influences using effect size (e.g. d=.40); in doing so, it makes it possible to compare some types of teaching and learning influences compared to others.  Not all things that that teachers or coaches do have an equal effect. Some are more potent than others in helping learners achieve more.

In his writing, Hattie points to six signposts that identify excellence in teaching and learning.  Here they are:

1. Teachers (Coaches) are the most powerful influences in learning.

2. Teachers (Coaches) need to be directive, influential, caring, actively and passionately engaged in the process of teaching and learning.

3. Teachers (Coaches) need to be aware of what each student (athlete) is thinking and have sufficient knowledge of content so they can provide meaningful and appropriate feedback.

4. Teachers (Coaches) and students (athletes) need to know the learning intentions and criteria for success.  They need to know where they are at, and where they need to go next

5. Teachers (Coaches) need to move from a single idea to multiple ideas - to extend these ideas so learners can construct meaning.

6.  School Leaders (Head Coaches) need to create a culture where 'error' is welcomed as an important step in developing more complex understandings and abilities.

As teachers and coaches we need to recognize that everything we do and say is important.  How we present ourselves matters.  Being passionate about what we teach is one of the most powerful influences we might have.  Instilling a love for something is a big piece of the work we do. We need to have enough knowledge about the subject/sport so that we can give meaningful feedback.  As teachers and coaches we need to help kids see where they are at and where they need to go next. Learning intentions need to be clear to the learners - if not - no wonder they dont learn very quickly.  Developing conceptual understandings of how physical skill builds and why we learn to perform a skill a certain way is key in helping to develop mastery.  Finally, error needs to be embraced as healthy and an important step towards achievement.  Error is how we learn - not something we should feel badly about.  How many times I have provided that explanation when coaching volleyball I couldn't tell you.  Volleyball is a game of errors - a team gains a point only when the other team makes an error.

As coaches of adolescents, we need to remember that much of what we are doing is teaching - teaching motor skills, habits of mind, attitudes, and developing a love of skiing.  Not all teachers are created equal - some teachers have a little something extra - something that engages the kids they work with in a meaningful way.  I encourage you to find out more about what those coaches are doing - cause its worth replicating.

Roy Strum
Canmore, AB


Saturday, 4 October 2014

Eliminating the Proprietary Nature of Coaching...

There is something to say about splitting my life between coaching and teaching.  Noticing the stark contrast between the education world and the coaching world in the willingness of professionals to share out best practice with those less experienced and knowledgeable.  One only has to look to twitter to see the vast volume of the sharing of best practice ideas in teaching, and the almost complete lack of any sharing of best practice in coaching.  Why is this?  Why is that experienced, knowledgeable, seasoned coaches in cross country skiing do very little to no sharing of their work, their insight, or their resources with other coaches?  I'm not saying it doesn't happen, because it does.  Experienced, seasoned coaches, do share their wisdom or expertise.  It just doesn't happen very often, at least as far as I am aware of.

Maybe it is because of the proprietary nature of cross country ski coaching in Canada.  Seasoned, knowledgeable, experienced coaches are motivated to deliver their expertise to those employing them.  Often the boards of directors of the clubs that pay their professional coaches include stipulations in their contracts that their employed coaches may not do work for other clubs.  Rightly these clubs who are paying alot of money to employ a seasoned, experienced, knowledgeable coach want these coaches to serve their membership.  And so, the rich get richer, and the poor stay where they are or struggle along.

Contrast this with the world of education in Alberta.  In education, teachers are publicly funded, and a set of professional competencies is expected from these teachers, including constant professional learning and the explicit directive to create a collaborative culture where mentoring occurs, where sharing of best practice is an obligation.  Sharing of everything you know as a teacher is expected to serve the common good of children in Alberta.  What a refreshing and positive environment for professionals - a place where ready access to expertise is available, a place where those who know share with those who don't.  You just have to pop onto Twitter to see that that platform is widely and immensely used by educators across North America.  The notion of a Professional Learning Network is a broadly embraced idea in teaching.  My own professional learning network includes over 1000 other educators where everyday I both share out my work and learn from the work of others.

This morning I had a conversation with a coaching colleague about the state of our sport in Alberta.  There is lots going on that is working really well.  But the reality that surfaced in our conversation is that the ecology of our sport is maybe not functioning as smoothly or as synchronous as it might.  A theme from our conversation was that so much of what occurs happens in isolation of other links in the (to use the American phrase) athlete development pipeline.  And maybe the reason this happens is because of the proprietary free market nature of coaching in Alberta.  There is no motivation for clubs or coaches to share out their best practice.  There are no structural professional obligations to build capacity in colleagues.  Perhaps there should be.  Don't get me wrong, I am a free market driven dude.  But I think there is a role in advancing our sport through incentives for knowledge sharing and capacity building.

Its time to change the culture of our sport. Change it to a place where there is non proprietary sharing of best practice.  I started this blog with the express intention of moving our coaching culture in that direction.  The purpose of this blog is to share out best practice ideas, provide a place to stimulate some conversation about what best practice looks like, and share out my own ideas about things I have done and the reasons I have done them.  Its been two years since the inception of this blog - and I'll be honest, I have been very surprised that almost 1500 people every month have read this blog.  But it speaks I think to the interest and need for greater sharing of ideas and best practice exemplars.  I for one, would love to follow coaches from clubs across all of North America, where I can begin to expand on my professional learning network in the world of cross country ski coaching.

Imagine how much better off our young athletes would be if clubs and coaches were much more willing to share out their ideas about what is working and why.  I encourage you to start a blog and share.  I'll be one of your first followers.


Roy Strum
Canmore, AB

Sunday, 28 September 2014

Thoughts on Working with Early Teens...

We've all likely been there.  Our delightful, fun-loving, well adjusted children seemingly overnight transforming into beings from outerspace.  Whether you're a teacher, a coach, a youth leader or parent, you've likely seen this metamorphisis.  At 12 or 13, many kids become social networking gurus - responding to an innate need to grow their own branches that connect to the world around them.  Many early adolescents are driven to make choices for themselves but yet caught between the two worlds of childhood and adulthood.  How do we help adolscents navigate these unfamiliar waters.  What kind of a paddle would we recommend? What type of boat? How do we help them to read a map or use a gps device? How do we support them in charting a course? when do we step in to offer advice? when do we let them make their own mistakes? how do we facilitate a group adolescent beings?  These are types of things I think about when coaching early adolescents.

So what does it look like to engage early adolescents?  In my work with adoloscents at a residential treatment centre for 12-16 year olds with severe social/emotional/behavioural challenges, we aim to interact in a number of ways that gives responsibility to adolescents.  These include:

- providing opportunities for youth to make positive choices - hey, you know what you need to do...
- offering intentional teaching interactions that provide explanations and rationales
- offering cause and effect messages - when you do this, that often happens...
- sometimes giving directive messages is appropriate - hey, this needs to happen now...

Can we use these ideas when working with adolescents in a cross country ski coaching context?  for sure we can.  No matter what demographics kids come from, when you get a group of adolescents together, they love to talk - what do you do as a coach to get there attention on a teaching and learning task?  giving kids an instruction, and creating some understanding about what you're looking for and what you want them to do, then backing of letting them get to it is an important skill. 

Great coaches are very deliberate about their instruction and feedback.  These include providing rationales.  For adolescents, my experience tells me that these youth want to understand, they want more than just to be told 'do this, cause I'm the expert'.  Giving adolescents the message that 'hey if it takes a long time to get your attention, we have less time to ski and less time for me to coach' is a cause and effect message.  My experience is that adolescents respond well to this kind of interaction from a coach, rather than a coach who gets angry or yells.

In the end though, after being given opportunities to make positive choices, and some teaching around what and why, and then some cause effect messages, it sometimes becomes necessary to be directive.

Whats important, I think, is to use all the tools in your toolkit.  These tools are easier to use when you know that you have them.

Coaching adolescent cross country ski racers has been and continues to be one of the great joys of my life.  Good luck with your coaching this year. 

Roy Strum
Canmore, AB