Wednesday, 21 November 2012

The Big Priorities in Coaching Adolescent Cross Country Ski Racers

The Big Priorities in Coaching Adolescent Cross Country Skiers

There are lots of possibilities when it comes to deciding what to include in your training sessions and practices.  Physical training, mental training experiences, technical coaching, race prep, goal setting, team building, fun and games...    The list is not a short one when it comes to how you decide to allocate time and energy in setting the stage for young skiers to become high performing athletes later on.  The importance of the work can't be understated.  I was just today talking with a good friend, Les Parsons, about a conversation he had had with a national level coach working with senior age athletes, who stated that the work we do with young skiers has incredible impact on what they end up with at the national level.  The big question, and what makes every coach or program a little different is in the mix that you create of the priorities that you see as important.  Successful coaches create programs where kids stick around, where they learn to ski well, and where they have great fitness.  What follows is a snapshot of my priorities as a coach of adolescent skiers.  In reflecting on my priorities, my hope is to get you thinking about what your priorities are. 

I think of the big priorities as being framed in 5 key areas:
 - creating experiences to optimize the growth of competence and success as an athlete
 - optimizing windows of trainability appropriate to the developmental age of an athlete
 - creating experiences to optimize personal growth
 - nurturing a positive environment
 - developing skills in racing

Young athletes need to work towards being competent skiers, able to think for themselves and respond to changes in terrain, conditions, and other skiers with the appropriate technique and decisions.  As a coach, there is a need to work with other coaches of older athletes in your club to create developmental benchmarks to be achieved at successive ages and stages of athlete development.  There is a need to differentiate instruction with athletes with varying skill sets.  Most important is giving each athlete some attention each practice - noticing them and noticing their effort.

The Long Term Athlete Development Plan identifies a number of key windows of trainability for early adolescents.  These include skill acquisition up to the onset of peak height velocity.  As Istvan Balyi explains, these windows of trainability are critical windows of accelerated adaptation to training.  Stamina/endurance is a key skill in cross country ski racing and is also a key window of trainability for early adolescents.  Speed is another area where early adolescents' bodies are primed and ready for accelerated adaptation.  Thinking about how you spend your training sessions is crucial.  Skill development is important, but physical training can provide huge gains in performance later on.  This creates some complex demands on organization when differentiation of instruction is put on the table.

Another priority for me as a coach is to create opportunities for experiences that optimize personal growth.  Building self reliance in athletes is a big priority - its important that kids develop a sense of confidence that comes from working hard and being prepared.  Creating a culture where learning is what its about is hugely important.

Nurturing a positive environment at club practices and training sessions helps to keep everyone happy.  A healthy dose of fun each day, where kids ideas are valued, and where the destination is desirable is vital.  Developing a culture of excellence is the goal - where young athletes see what is possible by the paths forged by those only slightly older and others much older.  Our team room at the Canmore Nordic Centre is a special place - on the walls are race bibs from world championships/world cup races donated and signed by world cup athletes based in town.  Banners from Nationals and Youth Championships say to kids 'hey look what is possible'.  Senior age athletes, fresh off of experiences at Canada Winter games or National level events volunteer their time as assistant coaches.  All of these things help to create a special place for children.  Every club is different and has different assets, but I will say the benefits of consciously creating a positive space for kids are powerful. For me, being a part of a program that is athlete centered at all ages and stages is vital.  It can't just be about the top performers at the older levels.

Learning to be a good racer is another one of my priorities as a coach.  Developing the skills of creating and using a race plan, of goal setting, or reflecting are all things that can start with early adolescent ski racers.  Ensuring adequate and appropriate race experiences is definitely something that coaches think about.  Learning to set goals that may be 5 or 6 years off, is a great way to get young athletes thinking about what possibilities lie ahead when pursuing a path that involves racing.  Encouraging 'the dream' is something done so well by Fast and Female (  ) Fast and Female has done this so well, that our girls numbers are huge in our club.

Last winter, Phil Wood and myself, in conjunction with the Alberta World Cup Academy ( ) organized a day to foster boys making a connection with national level racers.  We called the day "Boyz Got Game".  The day was held as part of World Snow Day in Canmore.  Kids came from all over to participate.  The big idea with the day was to create some fun and connect young racers with  some young men who have worked hard to participate in events such as World Junior Championships.  Everyone wore a mustache, skied lots and had pizza and root beer to finish off the afternoon.  It was an incredible success. (  ) Experiences that get young racers fired up about racing are key experiences.  The fact is that racing is something that needs some nurturing in some ways.

We will all have our own priorities based on our unique life experiences and the philosophies of our clubs - which can all be so surprisingly diverse.  Diversity is a good thing - there isnt just one right way to get anywhere.  I wish you well in finding your way to where you're going.


Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Rethinking Events for Developing Cross Country Skiers

I've done alot over time with playing around with competition formats and groupings during practices and club events.  I've come to think that maybe there is another way to organize children's ski competitions that recognize growth and development characteristics, while providing adequate challenge, and provide reasonable opportunities for children of different abilities to compete with others who have similar ability - in essence ability groupings.  

Lots of people would say - who cares about competition formats - it doesn't really matter.  Lots of kids have made their way through and become successful. And, maybe they're right.  For me, I've come to a realization that almost any kid can get fired up about ski racing where someone takes the time to think through what we are doing and how we want to get there.  The fact is that there is a lot that could be done to make racing a more engaging experience for young skiers.  Often, kids events are organized as mass starts, not because its the best format for kids, but instead because its the easiest for race organizers.  Again, having organized lots of ski race events, I know first hand the amount of work that goes into even a mass start event.

The question I ask myself is 'are we selling kids short' on racing when what they get to experience results in the same 5 kids finishing 1st through 5th each race, all season.  A few years ago, when the new competition model was just being discussed, debated, and piloted in Canada, I took the initiative to organize what I thought was a creative response to meeting the needs of young ski racers.  I pulled together a season long event series that I called 'Built for Speed'.  The premise was that 'speed' was a window of trainability for L2T and young T2T athletes - as well, 'motor skill acquisition' was another window of trainability for this age - and so the event series would focus on speed and skill acquisition framed in competition.  The events would include things like a 100m double pole race, a 100 m uphill diagonal stride race, a 100m downhill race, a 100m step double pole race, and a combination race that might include any technique.  5 races in one day by kids. In fact, 5 events for 50-60 kids all done in 1.5 hours...and 5 of these 'built for speed' events organized over the season, and on top of that, each with its own category parameters that were unique to each event.  How? by engaging parents to help out.

 I have always felt that 12-13 year old skiers are capable physically of competing in more than one race in a day.  I mean, is 15 minutes all that an adolescent skier is capable of physically?  I would say no.  The average young ski racer is capable of greater amounts of physical exertion than 15 minutes.

One of the biggest problems with 'one race' on race day is that when its done, that's it, time to go home.  There just isn't very much to hook very many kids on the joy of competing.  Sure, it works for the few kids who do really well - but for everyone else, how much have we given them to take something away that tells them, 'hey, I think I can be good at this'.  There must be a better way.  I think there is.

A great example of a competition done really well, that optimizes different skill sets on the same day is done by my own club - Canmore Nordic Ski Club.  The Rocky Mtn Ski Challenge, held in March of each year is one of the only events I know that includes a morning skate race, followed by an afternoon downhill race. Awards are presented to participants in the morning race, the afternoon race, and also awards for the combined time.  Its amazing to see how this affects participation.  Lots of kids in our club race both cross country and alpine - and so when it comes to the downhill race (on cross country gear), its amazing to see a different set of kids shine.  Having the opportunity to shine is critical to helping kids see themselves as racers.  Often if they can't find it in cross country, then move on over to our good friends in biathlon or to nordic combined.  When this happens, its common to see folks shrug their shoulders and say 'I guess cross country wasn't for them', but really, maybe we've set them up.

There are lots of models out there that we can borrow from.  Think of Athletics - kids can compete in 6 or 8 competitions in a day and think nothing of it.  Speed Skating competitions often include 3 or 4 races of varying distances in a day.  Team sports for 11-14 year olds, like volleyball or basketball have tournaments that include 3 or 4 games in a day each lasting 45-75 minutes.  Are kids dropping over from not very often anyway.

So what's stopping us from doing something a little different?  Before going there, I do want to recognize that there are other examples of different things happening in cross country ski racing for young racers.  The King's Court sprint model is a great example of creative race organizing for kids - Bravo.  What we really need is a bit more of this type of thinking.  How can we change what a competition looks like to better meet the developmental needs of early adolescent skiers.  I haven't mentioned it in this article till now, but there are lots of developmental considerations that would give lots of reasons to rethinking how events are organized for adolescent skiers just entering or experiencing peak height velocity.

I certainly don't think I have all of the answers - there are alot of creative, passionate coaches in the ski club I am part of in Canmore, and the larger community I am part of in Alberta.  I encourage you to think about these things in your own ski club and think in a 'the sky is the limit' sort of way when putting the effort into creating competitive ski experiences that really meet the wholistic needs of most kids.


Saturday, 3 November 2012

The Fun Factor - Ideas on Creating a Space where Adolescent Cross Country Ski Racers Work Hard and have Fun

If there is one thing that can dial kids in to a program its the fun factor.  Fun is important - but the reality is though, that being a good ski racer requires lots of hard work. For early adolescents  finding the right mix of fun and work is important to creating a space where kids keep coming back for more.

Having spent 20+ years working at residential summer camps for kids as a counsellor and camp director, on some days I think I might have a bit of a gut feeling about what fun looks like for a group of kids.  Summer camp is a fun factory - it's product is joy.  Nailing down exactly what fun looks like and feels like is a fine art.  At summer camp, this art is mastered by 19 year olds who lead the program as camp counsellors. Camp Counsellors work really hard to create fun - the reality is though that their role isn't always the highest valued role by society (these kids earn peanuts for wages), but paradoxically their work is highly valued by the kids who work with them.  For many reasons, many summer camps have got it together in creating fun. Knowing just the right amount of leadership to provide - allowing for plenty of choices - and understanding the need for challenge, camaraderie  laughter, and self direction - if you've been to a good summer camp, you'll know exactly what I am talking about.  Anyone can do this though - a big part of the equation is just being able to join in on it all - modelling what you're looking for and reinforcing the right kind of energy.

In the NCCP coaching materials there is a piece of research shared that asks kids what is important to them when participating in a sport - the top response is 'sport needs to be fun' - and for kids who have stopped participating in sport who were asked what would it take to get you back involved  - again the top response was 'I'd join in again if it was fun'.  I'm sure you will agree that this stuff is worth giving some attention to and as I'm certain many of you already do - adding a bit of 'creating some fun' into your skill set when working with youth.  In some ways, working with early adolescents is the world of the middle school teacher - knowing how to relate to adolescents - adolescents who for all accounts become a different species for a few years.  Great middle school teachers know how to use humour, build relationships that leverage engagement, and keep things pretty light hearted.  Great coaches know how to do this as well.  I know a number of them personally.  When you see this work in action - you know something special is going on - kids stick around, get excited about ski racing - the reality is that cross country ski racing is not the easiest sport in the world - so when you've got something good cooking, it is often because you've thought of the recipe beforehand.  I am so lucky to have been in spaces where this has happened - and where it is happening.

So if fun is so important what does it look like?  Fun is a great energy, focused on something positive, often without a very important outcome attached, and in the arena of adolescent sport, generated and sustained by kids.  Adults are great a creating fun as well - but sometimes we have a harder time with it because we've got so many other things to take care of - (fun for us often includes a few of the right kind of beverage). Nurturing the care free state of childhood for kids is a gift - a gift that lasts for a few years.  Games are fun - but fun is bigger than a backpocket full of games - fun is an energy that is created.

I recently got a text from my program director, saying that his daughter who is in the T2T group I am coaching, got in the car after practice saying 'that was the hardest and most fun workout I have ever been to'.  Of course its nice to get these sort of texts - especially when they come from the guy who supervises your work - but thinking back on the practice session - it really wasn't particularly hard to pull together or require lots of planning and coordination.  What we did - and I do think it came off pretty well - was do an 'amazing race' style of running workout - kids got a map - ran from one station to another (over several kilometers) - got to choose between 'running around the lake' or doing '200 push ups' - then run on to the next station where they had equally as fun activities to choose from.  It was a race of course (it was a day when I had wanted to do some speed work) with everyone getting some gummy prizes at the end - the higher the finish, the more gummy treats.  Because I knew that the kids would be fired up about seeing their names on zone 4, I even posted some results there - our T2T group loved the workout.

Our role as coaches is bigger than creating some fun though.  I might argue that kids can get that somewhere else - they can go to summer camp, they can get it at middle school, they can get it in their cul-de-sacs or in the forest behind their house on a unicycle.  For me, coaching cross country skiing is about hooking kids on a great sport - helping them develop the technical skills and physical fitness to perform in a way they're happy with.  For me, that is the primary outcome I strive for in my coaching - to build the engine - the engine is made up of pieces like the carburator and the pistons and the crankshaft that form the structure and mechanical engineering of the vehicle - they're what makes the engine run.  I like to think that there is another important piece, I think of fun as the oil - the lubricant that makes the pieces of engine work well together.  When the engine is running well, adolescents are ready to learn how to drive. I know its a little out there but I'll tell you, kids can feel it - I know this because they are smiling, laughing, talking, being silly and responding when they need to switch gears.

What is important to coaches is evident to the kids that they coach.  Adolescents know if their coach sees them as someone who has great potential, or if their coaches think someone else in their training group has great potential.  All of this might be pretty irrelevant to a coach who is strictly performance driven.  Don't get me wrong - I think performance is incredibly important - it is important to each and every young skier.  Every kid in a Train to Train program wants to improve, has a dream of finishing on the podium, of getting there, of doing it themselves.  Great coaches leverage this, for the top performers, and also for every young skier they work with.

So if you're like me, and you're interested in helping as many kids as possible to reach their potential as athletes, if you're interested in trying to keep kids engaged - then thinking about the fun-work balance is an important piece in the puzzle.