Thursday, 25 October 2012

Ideas on the Role of Competition

How much competition is the right amount for 12-13 year cross country skiers?

Early Adolescence is a critical age in developing a positive disposition and orientation to racing.  At 12-13, many kids venture beyond their local club races for the first time.  The midget age group in Canada is often the biggest competition grouping for kids at provincial level races. But what you notice two years later as juveniles, is that the competitive pool of kids still hanging around and competing is often alot smaller.  What is happening to all these kids?  Is the number of competitions a factor in creating positive experiences for athletes?  Is the type of competition important?

Cross Country Canada has some ideas about these questions.  The Athlete Development Matrix certainly provides some suggestions around competition.  What is the optimal amount of races?  How much travel should 12-13 year olds be doing? Something is going on with our young athletes that lots of them are dropping out at 14 or 15.  Often its not the kids on the podium who drop out, but instead the ones who are well back in the pack.  Everything in sport literature, particularly in cross country skiing say that as a late development sport, young cross country skiers need to have patience about results - not to overfocus on results.  But the reality is its difficult to not pay attention to results for young skiers and their parents.  I think the temptation exists for coaches and young athletes to undertake training regimens that go well beyond the recommended practice by the LTAD in order to get results that young athletes are pleased with.  The role of competition is important - every sport has its 'game' - in cross country skiing, the 'game' is a race. Being good at racing, gives kids an easy reason to stay involved.  What follows are some of my own ideas about what I think is important for creating a space where 12-13 year olds can take the critical first steps towards becoming successful as juniors or U23 athletes.

12-13 year old cross country skiers need to have experiences where they see themselves as racers, where they get 'enough' to dream about where they can go, where they have role models who show them that the path they are on leads them somewhere incredible, where they have a culture in a ski club where racing is normal, exciting, fun, and where they have a place for them to learn about themselves, to set goals, to be their best.  How much is enough? and what is the right mix of 'enough'?  If you asked a dozen coaches to answer these questions, you'd likely get twelve different answers. For me, its building a progression so that as kids get older they get something new each year, they get a little more than they had they year before.  This is good for parents as well - particularly for parents who weren't ski racers themselves.  In our ski club, Canmore Nordic, we are blessed with having parents who raced in the olympics as our volunteer parent assistant coaches. But the vast majority of parents in our club haven't had that expereince or any experience with racing.  So bringing them along at the same pace as their kids, provides time to adjust to the changing landscape of their child as a racer.

Having key 'important' races for 12-13 year olds - maybe 4 or 5 weekends, with a few road trips thrown in is critical.  Having some local regional events is crucial.  Having a family weekend, where kids race and parents hang out (and maybe try a race themselves) is important.  Having the right kind of  'this is awesome' leadership is vital - and providing the right kind of framing for racing at this age is essential.  The fact is that every kid is a bit nervous about racing at 12-13 years old - its kind of new and the reality is is that kids put themselves on the line when going in a race - at a time when how peers perceive them is central to how adolescents are developing a sense of self esteem and personal character.  So is the number of races important? Yes, I think so.  Kids at 12-13 years old need to learn how be a good racer.  They need the experience to improve.  You just arent going to get better at something if you don't do it.

I had the good fortune of attending 'WE' day in October in Calgary.  We day is focused on engaging youth in making the world a better place.  The day involved over 15,000 adolescents from all over Alberta. One of the speakers was broadcaster Larry King.  Larry was asked by his interviewer what characteristics were present in people who have been successful in their lives that he has interviewed.  Larry responded that successful people are those who have perseverance - who don't give up when they have set back; that successful people are those that have a deeply seeded vision about what they want to become; that successful people have taken steps along the way to get there.  These ideas, though not directly referencing athletes, are totally relevant to the type of culture that needs to be nurtured for young athletes - that having a dream, being a racer, and being relentless in the pursuit of your dream is critical to later success.  For some parents, they help support their child with these things - but the role of the coach is crucial in creating a culture where young athletes, just getting going on their path to being the best they can be, can flourish and not over focus on results.

My personal beliefs are that every child can learn to ski skillfully, that going fast on skis is fun, and every child can improve their fitness.  My hope is that most of the athletes in the program I am lucky to be the lead coach of will stick around long enough to see what their best is.  Participating in the right type and right amount of races is a key milestone in that pathway.

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Creating a Team - some ideas for working with 12-13 year olds

Taking the Time to frame 'Team' with T1/2 athletes

Kids are so ready to take an active part in sharing their ideas, in creating a team, in owning what its going to be about - when you give them the chance to contribute and put their ideas at the centre, they really run with it.   When building a team, there are lots of things to consider - helping kids to own their own experience, to buy in, to do something because its important to them - these are important roles of a coach of adolescent cross country skiers.

Framing what 'team' means is a balance of many things in an individual sport like cross country skiing.  Focusing on social norms is important in creating a culture where kids strive to learn and to be their best. Creating some expectations around what coaches expect of kids is important, and giving kids a voice to express what they expect from coaches helps to create boundaries and helps to paint a picture in kids' minds about what is important when they are at practice.

I am the lead coach with the T1/2 group at Canmore Nordic Ski Club. We recently engaged in such a session - 20 minutes well spent where kids answered four questions to help them create some group norms about expectations of each other, of coaches, and of themselves.  These young athletes were asked to write individual responses on sticky notes and then stick them to the questions which were posted on the wall.  Here are the questions and the responses from the athletes:

What is important to our T1/2 team?

- strength and fitness and racing
- have fun, be positive, no bragging about races, dont distract team mates when coach is talking
- having fun, being nice to each other
- being a good team mate
- dont complain (too much)
- work together
- no bragging, be encouraging, dont put other people down, be nice, have fun, be awesome
- have fun, get along, be helpful with each other
- always have fun, be a good team mate
- support each other
- be kind to your friends, be a good sport, be supportive to others
- make new friends, make new memories
- have fun
- work hard

What part of your 'game' do you want to work on the most this season?

- do more races
- offset technique
- skate skiing
- 1 skate and offset
- i want to work on my technique and race strategy, also learn some warm ups for races
- my technique
- work on endurance
- I want to work on my technique
- to help me get better at skate skiing and long distance
- getting back into the skiing habit
- my 1 skate technique
- 1 skate
- skate technique, double poling
- technique in classic skiing
- 1 skate and 2 skate

What do you expect of coaches?

- be super ultra fun and nice, coach really well, tell us what our mistakes are (if we have any)
- to encourage us and give us good strategies
- tell me how to improve my technique, be nice, be encouraging, always smile
- to give us tips
- lots of feedback, good comments
- making skiing fun
- tell us how to improve our technique
- to teach us well
- give us good tips for technique
- to be helpful, encouraging, but not pressuring to do things they are uncomfortable with
- to listen to us, help us, and be encouraging, be AWESOME!
- dont have too much core, more games with core involved
- to help us to have good tactics
- making skiing fun!

What should coaches expect from you (athletes)?

- be cooperative
- focus, fun, fastness, try our best, be a good sport
- to work hard and focus and to pay attention and to have fun
- listening and participating
- good sportsmanship, work hard, courage
- try our best
- to have a smile
- listening and participating
- not talk while coaches are talking, pay attention, focus on drills, SMILE
- be a good sport
- to listen
- 100% effort
- to always listen

What is interesting about taking the time for this sort of exercise, is the level of engagement.  Doing this sort of thing, gives a chance for athletes to voice their hopes and in doing so helps to create a culture where their hopes can be realized.

The challenge with doing this sort of activity is being ok with not being out on the trail doing physical training or technical training.  As a coach, I really want the kids I work with to be fit and to ski technically well.  But more importantly, I want the adolescent athletes in the group of kids I work with to develop a love of the lifestyle of being an athlete, to enjoy the time they spend at ski practice, and to really own their experience.

The next steps - well at some point in the next while, it will be important to reinforce the ideas that these young people have shared with each other.  The important work of engaging adolescent athletes in seeing themselves as part of a team, of seeing themselves as athletes who strive to be their best, of these young skiers saying to themselves 'I really love this stuff' is I think the goal of all coaches of 12-13 year olds. And the role of coaches creating expectations is vitally important to the building of a positive culture of excellence appropriate to a group of 12-13 year olds.

All of these ideas aren't new or novel or even leading edge - but they are a good thing to do - building a solid foundation for kids, a positive space, and ownership of their own experience.  Ultimately, when they are out on the trail ski racing they are on their own - they need to be motivated to doing the work themselves.

Friday, 12 October 2012

2013 Alberta Youth Cross Country Ski Championships

2013 Alberta Youth Championships - Bragg Creek, AB
I'll be honest, I am crazy about cross country skiing - not in an insane sort of way - but in a 'I really love this stuff' kind of way.  A few years ago, I had the opportunity to organize the Alberta Youth Champs in Calgary (2009) - no club had picked this event up in previous 3 years.  I didnt really know what I wanted it to be, i just wanted to make sure that it happened.  It worked out OK - I learned that hosting an event in Alberta in January can result in cold weather cancellations. 
Where I really got a sense of the potential of an event like Alberta Youth Champs was when I attended the 2010 Quebec Noram Midget Champs.  Organizer Tom Silletta and his crew from Joliette really have it nailed down.  An incredible mix of kids stayiing in an 'athletes village', representing their ski clubs, skiing in a few races, in what was for me the biggest and best organized provincial level kids cross country ski event I had ever been to.  What Tom and company have created is not just 2 or 3 races, but an event that has created its own set of traditions, its own exciting anticipation built collectively by skis clubs primarily from Quebec, but also from Ontario, New Brunswick, and New England.  It almost feels like a mini-nationals, where kids and clubs gear up for this event, circling it on their event calendar the year before, where people are willing to sleep on school classroom floors and shower in high school showers to be a part of what is truly the most important event on the calendar for clubs from this region. 
I've been lucky to be a part of this event twice.  I'll tell you, Tom Silletta, was beaming when our club from Canmore won the club aggregate banner in 2010 - because I think for him it was a dream to have kids from the west joining in on this event and winning.  For our kids from Canmore, they were fired up about racing, about being in the east - I think for some it was a turning point where they said to themselves, I want to get faster and for all of those kids, they have.
When we returned to Joliette in 2012, our club kids from Canmore once again skied excellently, winning aggregate banners for the midget boys and girls - almost every skier finishing in the top 10 of single year age categories of 60-80 kids.  I was incredibly proud of them, but in the back of my mind, i realized these kids were fired up about this event and the magic that Tom and his crew from Club Defi St Therese Martin ski club and the whole of the Quebec ski community had created.  This event is bigger than a ski race - its a place where kids dream.
One of the magical moments at the event in 2012 was when Alex Harvey spoke in a short video clip and talked about how the Quebec Noram midget champs were a pivotal experience for him in his career as a ski racer - that it was a jumping off point.  You could have heard a pin drop in the room when Alex was speaking - this guy is a rock star in Quebec (and in Canmore I think).  Having been a part of the Joliette event a couple of times, I can see why so many young Quebec skiers are dominating our national level events curently - Raphael Couterier, Alexis Turgeon, Anne Marie Comeau, Emilie Stewart Jones all participated in the Noram Midget champs.  Athough it would be difficult to establish a cause effect relationship between participation in Quebec Noram Midget Champs and the rising level of Quebec junior racers at Canadian Nationals, I would say there is a strong correlation.  Kids and clubs in Quebec are fired up about racing and i think because of events like Quebec Noram Youth Champs dream of how far they can go.  At Quebec Norams its not just one club that dominates, but clubs from across the province.  They are doing some things really well in Quebec - starting with the Quebec Noram Midget Champs.
And so, setting out last year to create the 2012 Alberta Youth Champs, I set out to not replicate the event that happens in Quebec, but to try to create an event that fits for Alberta, that creates a culture that includes the same excitement, anticipation, and fun for our kids here in Alberta, because this is where we are.  We set out to create something that reflects the priorities of our ski community, that fits for here.  We have great clubs in this province, and every where i know of, people are working hard to build something extraordinary, something where kids get hooked on a great sport - cross country skiing.  My goal is to help make that a bit easier by creating an event that brings clubs together once a year, where every kid (born in the four year age group targeted by this event) in Alberta who wants to attend, can attend - no qualifications, just interested in participating - then after having participated having kids say 'that was awesome - i want to come back'.

I have had some questions about whether children younger than the four year age group can attend (1999-2002) - I have responded with a 'no' - I think it OK for kids to wait, to develop that sense of anticipation of 'I cant wait till I am old enough to participate in the Alberta Youth Champs.

In 2012, I was amazed by XC Bragg Creek ski club - here is a club that was formed in 2009 - has never had a child who attended a regional or provincial level race before.  Yet here they were, stepping up to host a provincial event.  I now live in Canmore, but I had lived in Bragg Creek for 15 years and skied on the trails at West Bragg a million times with my own family, and I had always said to myself - this would be a great venue for a childrens event - trails that are challenging, hold snow well, have great grooming (recently) and a bunch of summer camps that could be used for hosting children at an event.  they did an incredible job and hopefully provided a good example of how a small club can go about doing something big.
I wanted to let you know that we are two months months out from the early registration deadline (Dec 15, 2012) for the 2013 Alberta Youth Champs in Bragg Creek. Registration at We invite you to join us at what will be a fun and eventful weekend. Our goal with this event is to create something that is perceived as a 'big event' for midget and minimidget age kids (1999-2002) - the sort of event that when kids get to the end of it they say "I cant wait for next year", that kids who are not old enough to attend say to their families "I cant wait until i am old enough to attend the Alberta Youth Champs". We think this kind of magic is exactly the type of event that will hook kids on skiing and racing.
For those of us that were lucky to be there last year, my sense is that we got a good start on this mission - to hook kids on skiing and racing. I have attached the race notice for the event here and for those of you who attended last year, you'll recognize some familiar parts - based on some feedback from club coaches, we have altered the distances for the minimidgets in one of the races (ind skate race) - only the midgets will do the stairway to heaven climb in the skate race, the minimidgets will get a chance to challenge themselves on that climb during the wave start classic race on sunday. As event organizers we've heard the feedback and are making a change.
New this year we will be using Venturer Lodge at Kamp Kiwanis, a newer multipurpose building that sleeps about 60 in addition to all of the spaces we had last year - this will bring our capacity to about 200 people (including coaches and chaperones) for the 2013 event (this is why our costing is a bit higher this year).
A question that has come up often is how many coaches and chaperones need to attend. the answer is about 1 adult for every 8-10 kids.
The Alberta Youth Champs was a huge event for this age of skier in 2012 - and we would love to see some skiers from your club attending. the host clubs for this event - XC Bragg Creek and Canmore Nordic - are excited about collaborating on thsi year's AYC. Thank you for selling this event in your club and community - you folks did such an incredible job of promoting this event last year that we had a much larger than expected turnout of kids.
It will be winter in no time - i look forward to seeing you at events over the winter!