Wednesday, 26 December 2012

Skilled Performance - ideas on the architecture of motor skill acquisition

Getting to Skilled Performance

Skilled performance can be defined as getting from point A to point B in the minimum amount of time with the least amount of energy expenditure.  This isn't my idea, nor is it a new or novel idea - but instead, as is much of my skill set as a coach, I've borrowed ideas I like and ideas that work from other coaches.  The above definition of skilled performance comes from some university course I took in motor learning a number of years ago.  It has stuck with me because it describes the goal of instruction - to help learners to ski more efficiently.

In the coach training work I do with novice and beginning coaches I work to create a picture of our role as coaches as being the architects of skilled performance.  Defining skilled performance by 'minimum amount of time' and 'minimum energy expenditure' creates an outcome that in some ways could be measured.  But in a sport like cross country skiing, is skilled performance something that is measured relative to other same age skiers?  Are the most skilled 12 or 13 year olds athletes, the ones who win races? 

When I was younger I was a track and field athlete through the spring and summer months.  My favourite event was the 1500m.  I liked it for lots of reasons - it was predictable - I felt in control of my results.  I knew what a 60 second 400m felt like.  I could feel the difference between a 62 second 400 and a 58 second 400.  I could predict my finish time based on signals that my body gave me.  I also liked it because a 400 m track was always 400m; it was always flat, most always rubberized.  Skilled performance was about getting from point A to point B in a minimum amount of time, with the least amount of energy expenditure.  If my fitness was great, I could engage with the athletes around me and really race.  I knew that I had improved because my 1500m time decreased as I increased the specificity of my training.  I could guage the level of my skilled performance compared to city, provincial, national, or world times.  In the big picture, I was never that great a 1500m runner - but a pretty good high school runner and certainly good enough to know what it feels like to be an athlete.  I came to understand that the most skilled performers were most often those people who were the fastest.

Ultimately, we set about to help young skiers become skilled performers.  The question is - how do we bring kids along to get them to skilled performance?  What steps do you take to layer levels of skill upon itself?  These are the sorts of questions that we talk about in the coaching courses that I lead.  Is it necessary to teach a 'walking step' diagonal stride before teaching a more advanced form of that skill?  Does it matter if the novice or beginner performer is 6 years old or 12 years old?   I recently read Daniel Coyle's book, The Talent Code.  In there he talks about 'whole-part-whole' learning and 'chunking' as a couple of strategies to advance motor learning. Whole-part-whole learning happens when a coach describes or shows a whole skill, then breaks it up into smaller pieces, then puts it back together again.  It might be, 'here is what a diagonal stride looks like', then breaking it up into 'diagonal striding includes gliding on one ski, then the other ski', plus 'push your foot down into the snow to connect your wax pocket with the snow'; then at the end, 'lets take a look at that skill again, this time look for those two skill components and try to notice something else going on'.  Chunking refers to being able to break a skill up into its component parts and being able to prioritize the components to lead to faster skill acquisition.  This work is pretty deliberate and intentional.  It doesn't just happen by taking kids out on the trail - or maybe it does.  Skill acqusition happens in lots of ways - if you're lucky to have some high level performers in your club, having them ski with younger skiers can really help.  Visual learners mimic what they see.  Have a guy like Gerard ski with your young athletes and pretty soon you have a bunch of kids who really know how to classic ski well.  The key piece here is having someone, like a Gerard, who is a phenomenal skier, who has really worked on the minutest of details of skilled performance.  If you don't have someone like Gerard, then I would suggest being deliberate and intentional about structuring learning.

I have never met a cross country ski coach who doesn't want kids to enjoy cross country skiing.  I mean really, why would you bother doing something if you didn't really like it.  The fact is that when you learn to do something well, you enjoy it more.  When you learn to be a skilled cross country skier you don't get fatigued as easily, you can ski on more challenging terrain, you can travel faster on your skis - in short, you can get from point A to point B in less time and feeling less tired than you did when you weren't as skilled a performer.  Sometimes folks feel a need to distinguish between recreational and competitive skiing and where they sit as a coach on that continuum.  Does skilled performance look any different if you are a recreational versus a competitive cross country skier - I would say no.  Skilled performers travel more quickly and more efficiently.  In a sport like cross country skiing efficiency is extremely important - we all have a finite amount of stored energy in our bodies - eliminating wasted movment from our ski technique is critical if we want to build positive dispositions to cross country skiing - really, why would we want young skiers to do a sport that is more work than pleasure?  In North America we already live in a culture where  'making life easy' is a dominant force in our consumption driven world.  Word on the street is that cross country skiers are some of the fittest atheltes out there - its not the easiet sport in the world.  When you've got to make your way to the top of a climb called 'the wall', it helps alot if you move your body as efficiently as possible to get yourself up the climb.  For many of us folks who love cross country skiing, it is exactly this sort of challenge that appeals to us.  Creating learning experiences that help kids to become efficient performers of skill will go a long way in helping to foster a lifelong love of moving and being active.  It is important to remember that all of this takes time - a different amount of time for each young skier.

I'll be the first one to say I don't have all of the answers.  I don't know many people who do.  Most of us who are involved as coaches have had some positive experience in our past with sport.  We don't need to know it all to get started or even to take on coaching adolescents.  It is possible I think to be a great coach without having ever competed in the world championships.  You'll know you're doing a great job if the adolescents you're working with are skilled performers - you'll know because they will be able to get from point A to point B in a minimum amount of time with the least amount of energy expenditure - you'll know because they can ski fast.  For me that is big piece of what its all about.


Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Connecting Adolescents with Passion...ideas on creating a spark

Creating a Spark - a key role in helping kids see themselves as athletes

Early adolescense is a key time in a young person's life where they are figuring out who they are as a person, who they want to become, who they identify with... when they really start to think about what they want to be.  As coaches of athletes this age, we have a key role in helping these young people see themselves as capable, confident, and with potential to be who they want to be.  With the right type of engagement, adolescents can thrive on the hard work and challenge that comes along with deciding to be cross country ski racer.

Learning to be the type of coach that leverages, sustains, and creates situations where passion is nurtured is a skill that is not just reserved for the coaches of junior elite level athletes but instead, this important work is the domain of every aspiring club coach of adolescent athletes.  My experience is that developing passion for being a racer occurs during early adolescence - a time when some kids begin to develop a long term commitment to the idea of being an athlete.  It is likely that many athletes that go on to junior national teams have likely had some experience as an early adolescent athlete where they saw themselves as someone who could be the next Alex Harvey, Chandra Crawford, or Devon Kershaw.  This incredibly important work happens first at 11 or 12 or 13 for many kids.  To their credit, athletes like Chandra, or Alex, or Devon, or Beckie Scott or Sara Renner have provided the inspiration for the next generation of young athletes by taking the time to take simple actions that create this vision of 'I can be just like Chandra'.

I saw this magic happen first when one of my own children attended a Fast and Female event as an 8 year old - Chandra had just won a gold medal at the Torino Olympics and what did Chandra do?, she placed her gold medal around this young skiers neck and posed for a photo with her.  The incredible impact of this one small gesture has been astounding.  It is the sort of moment where a child says to themselves 'you are my hero and I want to be like you'.  It is a moment that is etched in a child's memory.  But the wonder of an athlete like Chandra doesn't stop there.  Fast forward 6 years, my daughter comes home from an afternoon of skiing on Frozen Thunder, and says, 'Dad, I had Chandra skiing behind me on the trail, and when she passed me she said hi to me by name'.  Again, not a huge action by an athlete like Chandra, but one that says to a young athlete - You are important enough for me to take the time to say hello.  These small things make a big impression on young athletes and lead to a young athlete sharing 'more than anything I want to be like Chandra'. 

The work of Fast and Female is inspiring a whole generation of young girls to be their best - to see themselves as athletes that can do amazing things - young skiers realize that accomplished athletes like Kikkan Randall, Liz Stephens, Jessie Diggins, and Chandra Crawford all were young athletes themselves who at one point said to themselves 'I can be an athlete, I can ski at nationals, I can ski at world championships, I can win a world cup medal, I can be a world or olympic champion'.  Fast and Female organized such an event recently, where a group of amazing women once again took a few moments to make a personal connection with a group of young girls -  to say to them  'you can do this, you can be who want to be' - to share the message that they have alot in common - that 'I have been where you are, and you can be where I am'.   This Fast and Female event took place on the eve of the 2012 Alberta World Cup races in Canmore.  It would be easy for world cup athletes to focus inward on their own preparation for these important races, but these women are not very ordinary individuals - they are taking a few minutes to share their story, to listen to the stories of these young athletes about what they dream about, to have some fun with them, but I think mostly to make a personal connection, because that is how you accomplish goals - by making a very personal choice to be your best, to strive to find your personal excellence - and for these women to share that message in a way that fits for girls - in a social, friendly, supportive way.  Bravo to these women - your work is making an incredible difference in the lives of the girls who you inspire.

Boys need the same inspiration, the same mentorship, the same personal connection - that is why I am excited to be part of an initiative we are calling 'Boyz Got Game' - our second go around of this initiative takes place Jan 20, 2013.  Our first Boyz Got Game event partnered with the Alberta World Cup Academy and engaged incredible young men like Pate Neumann, Gerard Garnier, Russell Kennedy, Patrick Stewart-Jones, Jesse Cockney and Kevin Sandau,  in an afternoon of fun and skill building.  We think this is the sort of event that boys are looking for.  I saw the impact of this type of work first hand last year during our Boyz Got Game event, I also saw the power of a role model when Alex Harvey shared a few minutes of his time with kids at the Quebec Noram Youth Champs in Joliette - kids eating up every word that Alex said, revelling in the dream of being the next Alex Harvey. Bravo to these young men, for taking a few minutes to connect with these boys who are looking for and needing someone to aspire to be like.  Really, I think its our job as men to do this for our boys - to help them to see that it is possible for Canadian boys to accomplish amazing feats.  Boyz Got Game takes place on World Snow Day in Canmore and is an initiative of Canmore Nordic Ski Club, Cross Country Canada, and the Alberta World Cup Academy.  We think the important work of intentionally creating an experience that helps kids to create a spark that leads to them aspiring to be an athlete is a crucial experience for early adolescent skiers.  Thank you to the athletes volunteering their time in this go around of Boyz Got Game.

Studies show that kids who see themselves as someone who is in it for the long term affects their commitment to learning.  In fact, as Daniel Coyle points out in his book The Talent Code, studies show that young learners who saw themselves as part of the 'long term commitment' group outperformed their short term commitment group by 400%.  Having a dream, and having adults around that support the creation of a long term commitment to that dream can have an an incredible impact on the performance of athletes. Our role as coaches of early adolescent athletes is remarkable, because it is at precisely this age when athletes are most receptive to the work of developing passion, creating identity as an individual and with a group, and with beginning to chart a course for their lives.  Yesterday, at a club event, Beckie Scott shared some time to welcome a group of Whitehorse skiers who are doing an exchange with our club's T2 team.  Beckie shared her story of starting where they are at, and of having spent 11 years on the world cup circuit.  You could almost see the sparks of budding passion being lit inside of kids heads.  Thank you Beckie, Chandra, Devon, Kikkan for creating a spark that for many of these young skiers will grow into a bright flame.

But it isnt just these accomplished athletes who do the work of creating sparks - this work doesn't just happen at national team training centres - this work happens through the intentional creation of building a spark - it happens as a result of the work of coaches across the province - not just in the big clubs where a fire is already going, but in the small clubs where one or two passionate coaches reside.  We don't have to pass along our kids to others because we see a spark happening somewhere else - it is us as coaches of 12 and 13 year olds who do this important work every practice.  Your club is where this spark can happen - not in some elite club somewhere else.  Gather your matches, create your kindling, chop your firewood, and start your fire - small at first, but treat it with care, and a good roaring blaze can start and when it does, you'll know because you'll have a group of young athletes who own the work - this work has happened in small places - Vermillion, Alberta is such a place, Mont Ste Anne is such a place, Canmore is such a place.  Your club and community can be such a place.


Monday, 3 December 2012

A Pathway for Developing Athletes...

Designing a Pathway to Excellence...

There is alot of collective wisdom out there about the best path to take in helping young athletes learn what they need to learn to be their best.  Whole books are written on this topic.  I've recently been reading The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle and its gotten me thinking about the environmental factors in building programs where young athletes flourish.

As coaches, there are certainly lots of questions to address when thinking about setting the stage for later success.  At what age do young skiers begin engaging in 'volume' training or 'interval-intensity' training?  At what age and stage should high level glide waxes be used on athlete's skis?   When should athletes race at nationals for the first time?  There are no rules about these things written by anyone.  We do have recommendations in Canada outlined in the CCC Athlete Development Matrix - but they are recommendations for best practice not something that clubs are obliged to follow.  As a result, as I am sure you know, how clubs deal with these questions are quite varied. These are not topics that I have found there is a very big desire to engage in conversation around as a ski community - it's just a little uncomfortable, because it reflects our values.  I guess what I am trying to address is the notion of 'fast-tracking' athletes - giving them more than what is recommended in the hopes that greater volume, early intensity, early access to high level competitions, high end glide waxing, all will help them achieve success earlier and to a greater level than same age peers.

Let's face it, there is pressure on coaches to help athletes improve and perform.  In some clubs, the expectations are high because parents are paying alot of money to have their children participate.  Many coaches will guide their athletes to race up a category or attend nationals as midgets so that they can acquire higher CPL points (assuming they perform well), which will help them to meet the criteria earlier for recognition and skill development initiatives such as the Alberta Ski Team.  I don't blame them, we all want the best for our athletes, and as parents we want our kids to be successful.  What is unfortunate is when provincial sport development recognition systems encourage and reinforce these types of choices. 

It's nice to see that pushing kids ahead doesn't need to happen to help kids become successful.  This past weekend at the Alberta Cup race in Canmore I witnessed some incredible races by some young athletes.  Some of whom I know have been late developers who also have the added disadvantage of being an end of the calendar year birthday (statistics show that early success often is correlated to month of birth) - youth who have persevered through 6 or 7 years of 15th to 30th place finishes  - kids who have been there at every race for a number of years, but have never received much recognition.  And yet here they were - standing on the podium.  Wow! These kids have persevered as part of clubs and programs that did not necessarily encourage 'racing up' or 'early intensity' or 'early volume' or 'powdering skis for adolescents' - but who instead engaged in ongoing age appropriate LTAD recommended training and racing regimens.  It was a happy day for these athletes this past weekend, and to their credit and to their coach's credit, they have worked hard to be a contender.  Bravo! to these coaches and to all of the others who work with this philosophy.

The environment athletes are in has a huge impact on their development.  Just this morning, I was talking with a good friend who has been a national level ski racer, and she told me that her best years on the national team were the years where she had to be on her best game to finish at the top of the national group in Canada.  Interesting that she found that having the critical mass of high calibre athletes actually made it more enjoyable and helped her to reach her highest potential.  I think this is important in clubs as well - having a critical mass.  Having enough bodies around makes it fun, especially when its close enough that a finish order can be reversed from one day to the next.   I sure find it refreshing to see that so many parents, who were high level athletes themselves, are not the parents who are at the steering wheel of their kid's athletic ambition - I find it refreshing and highly contagious that these parents are letting their own kids do the driving.  Ultimately, at the end of it all, we want our kids to be happy, to grow into well functioning, caring adults, and we want it to be their choice - to do it themselves.

So is it just about the winning? Let's face it, cross country ski racing is a competition - its about being the fastest.  What we need to consider as coaches and parents winning at 12 years old the most important thing - does it matter that you were the top 12 year old in the province when you are 16 or 18 or at the world cup level?  I would say no - If you are lucky enough to get there - to get to the world cup level, there had to have been alot things fall into place, and it won't matter one bit whether you were the fastest 12 year old in Alberta or Canada.  What really matters to me as a coach of young adolescent skiers is that kids see themselves as having the potential whether they are performing at the level they want to right now or not.  I want to create a space where kids work hard and have fun and where they improve.  I am lucky to have the guidance and mentorship of some good friends who have been at it for awhile.  I am also fortunate to have the opportunities that are given to me.

 Cross country skiing would be considered an 'open skill' sport - meaning that the skills are performed in a constantly changing environment and in response to the actions of other athletes.  Success in cross country skiing is attributable to many things - having good equipment, having the best wax on your skis either for glide or grip to match the snow conditions, wearing the right clothing can make a difference, your start position can sometimes be an advantage, knowing and being able to perform the appropriate technique in response to changes in terrain, having the fitness to be able to ski as fast as you want, and having opportunities to engage in skill instruction from knowledgeable, experienced coaches.  The mix of things that go into 'success' are staggering.  It really does take some time.  We all have different philosophies about how to get there.  I have come to know that for me, designing a pathway to excellence includes more than just the short term results that come from fast tracking a young athlete.

I think its important to recognize that there is a significant grey area when it comes to equipment preparation and athlete development protocols - and that what is right for one athlete, family, coach, or club may not be right for another group.  I share my ideas mostly to stimulate some conversation and reflection.  I encourage you to do the same.