Thursday, 21 February 2013

Hey, I'm an athlete - how did that happen?

Transitioning – ideas on becoming an adolescent athlete


Somewhere between 11 and 13, kids, their parents, or coaches get the idea that maybe trying a race would be good.  For some adolescents this comes easily – maybe they have had broad experience with competitive situations as a younger child and think nothing of it.  For others it takes a fair bit of encouraging, reassuring, and framing to get them to the start line.  Really, it shouldn’t be surprising that hesitation sometimes happens with some kids as it takes some confidence to try something new, to take a risk, to put yourself out there, especially when you`re unsure of your abilities.  In our world today, there are a lot of families that protect their child from every possible risk.  It seems especially so when it comes to sport if parents weren’t athletes themselves as younger people.  It leads me to thinking about a question that comes up lots when chatting with other coaches – how do you transition kids successfully from introductory instructional focused ski programs to engaging these same kids in trying competitive cross country skiing.  If you’ve got the answer to that question nailed, you’ve got something good cooking and I would love to hear from you – lots of good sized brains have thought about that one for I’m sure a number of years and are still struggling with it.

So much happens for early adolescents – rapid skeletal, muscular, hormonal development -  increased importance of peers and independence -  every sport they are involved with is seeking increased commitment and time – the need for ever higher quality of equipment, coaching, training and racing opportunities.  Kids this age have a lot going on – and so, it shouldn’t really come as a surprise that some of them just check out, and decide becoming a racer isn’t really for them.  Despite this reality, I have seen many, many young athletes stick it out and grow to become excellent high level athletes at a later age.  What gets them there?  What pivotal experience occurred to get them to say ‘this is for me’?

If we really want to bridge kids from instructional to competitive skiing, we really need to reach out to their parents.  It is parents who decide the parameters of a child’s existence – parents decide ‘we’ll spend this amount on equipment’, ‘we’ll travel this weekend to that event’, or ‘we’ll pay the club fees for this program or that one’.   And so, it’s parents who we need to reach out to if we want to increase the percentage of kids engaged as adolescents in competitive cross country skiing.  So many parents, even in a ski town like Canmore, have never had the experience of being a racer.  Thinking about their child as an ‘athlete’ is a pretty foreign concept to some parents.  These folks need to be brought along, to see the next steps.  They need some experiences that show them where it goes and why their child should be a part of it all.  These parents need to see that it isn’t about elitism – that it’s not just for children of parents who were high level racers. Parents need opportunities to learn from experienced mentors, to become engaged in events and conversations about what it looks like and the benefits of having their child involved in ski racing as an adolescent.   I recently attended a session by a social activist from Toronto, Dave Meslin – Dave shared his beliefs that he doesn’t really think apathy exists, but rather alienation exists.  Maybe this offers an explanation as to why so many parents don’t move their kids on to racing programs at 12 or 13 years old – its not because people don’t care that there would be some benefit to their child to become an athlete, but rather the disengagement occurs because people haven’t been invited in, in a way that is meaningful to them.  At our ski club in Canmore, we work at being intentional about the invitation, by engaging parents and kids to try out the next level a couple of times during the season.  It takes hard work to transition kids from introductory instructional ski experiences to ‘train to train’ programs.  Its hard work everywhere.  Its hard work at a small club where there is no tradition of racing, and it is hard work at a club that has large and successful racing programs.  I hear folks saying ‘oh, you guys have it easy in Canmore, you have a great facility and lots of high level athletes around’ – and the fact is we do have access to a great facility and there are many high level athletes in town.  But the work of transitioning kids from ' you need to be there'  to adolescents that see themselves as a ski racer is hard work and no easier in Canmore than anywhere else.  It is the deliberate work of creating a positive space, and providing experiences where that transition to ‘athlete’ occurs.

One of the important pieces I have always felt that would help that transition is to embed ‘competition’ in regular practice sessions.  Other sports do this all the time – can you imagine enrolling in hockey and never playing a game? Or enrolling in golf but always staying on the putting greens and driving range.  Other sports do a great job of normalizing competition, of making it a part of each practice or at least once per week.  Practice to competition ratio is something that has had quite a bit of discussion the last number of years.  Sports such as hockey have been criticized for having too many games in relation to the number of practices.  The problem with so many introductory cross country ski experiences is that there is so little competition relative to the number of practice sessions.  This is understandable because so few leaders of children’s cross country skiing have ever participated in a ski race – so why would they organize one, when it is a foreign concept to them.  We need to find ways to involve young skiers in regular competition.  Wouldn’t it be great if every club in a region hosted a club championship event aimed at their club, but open to every club in the region. Wouldn’t it be great if coaches found ways to embed some competition regularly in club practices?  Wouldn’t it be great if competition for young skiers didn’t mirror adult competition formats?

What we really need to help young skiers transition to racing in Canada is not a one size fits all approach to adolescent competitive ski experiences.  Maybe its time to look at a tiered regional race series – one for adolescents who have been at it awhile and another for kids just getting going.  If we are interested in serving the diverse needs of kids, we really need to rethink how we are organizing things.  I’d really love to see a southern Alberta development race series aimed at novice skiers, and then a different series for kids to graduate to which involved adolescents who have a bit more experience.   These are all projects I’d love to put some time into and will.  There are 10-12 ski clubs who work with children in southern Alberta of which two are regular participants at regional and provincial races.  I think we could be doing something differently to advance competitive cross country skiing in southern Alberta.

Transitioning kids to competitive cross country skiing is work that is important and requires nurturing.  If we really want to be a leading ski nation, we need to think about supporting the good work of coaches in all clubs.  This begins by having a conversation with each other about how we can work together for the advancement of competitive cross country skiing.  I believe a healthy ski community where there are 20+ strong, involved and active clubs across a region is a much better thing than a reality where there are one or two clubs dominating races.  The outcome of this work is increased numbers of adolescent skiers transitioning to becoming athletes.   What do we need in place to achieve this outcome?  This is an important conversation and one I’d love to advance. 


Sunday, 3 February 2013

Does Body Size Matter... addressing the developmental needs of adolescents

Revisiting how we set kids up...

If you've been around awhile and worked with adolescents, you'll know what I am talking about - adolescent skiers competing in the same category who are at vastly different places in their growth and development.  Sometimes 20-25 kilos difference in weight - a small 90 pound boy competing in the same group as a 150 lb boy-man.  This happens all the time and yet despite intuitively knowing something is going on here that really isnt going to benefit anyone, we let it happen, over and over again.  When it happens, the big boy wins, the little boy finishing somewhere after all of the big boys.  This is life at 12 or 13 for adolescent boys who race cross country skiing in Canada.

A good friend of mine has proposed we give out some special awards to early developers - the 'wonder bra' award and the 'gillette' (making reference to shaving facial hair) award.   I am not out to pick on anyone, but I do really believe that we are doing a disservice to young skiers when the best that we do is stick to chronological year of birth competition categories for kids going through peak height velocity.  We do a disservice to the early developers and we do a disservice to the late developers.  If you've been around awhile, you've seen it happen many times - early developer wins consistently at 12 or 13, late developers finally catch up at 16 or 17 (if they stick around that long) and start beating the early developer - early developers say to themselves - 'I'm not really that good at this after all' and drop out.  In the mean time, the early developer has had access to additional specialized training and coaching opportunities made available through provincial athlete development recognition strategies such as a provincial development team.  Tons of money is invested as a sport community in these early developers only to find that the ones who persist after high school as a racer are often not the athletes who had access as early developers to all of the specialized training and coaching opportunities, but instead its the late developers who persist.  It doesn't always happen this way, but I've seen this happen many times.  

Developing at your own pace is totally normal - its been happening for as long as humans have been on  the earth - some kids due to genetics, and maybe environment, develop at an earlier rate, 11, 12 or 13 years old, some grow more at a statistically average rate 14-15, while others don't really get going on their adolescent growth spurt until later, sometimes as old as 16 or 17.  This is what is normal.  In our club in Canmore, we take the time to collect growth data - arm span, standing height, sitting height - every three months with all of our developing athletes 11-17.  It is alot of work, and the information it provides is largely intuitive - 'Yup, Billy is in early peak height velocity' or 'Jenny is nearing the end of her adolescent growth spurt'.  We do the work of measuring kids anyway.  We've been at this every three months since early 2010.  The information it provides validates the fact that early developers finish well ahead of late developers in almost all races.  I haven't done the correlational calculations comparing rate of growth with race results, but you know its happening.  I'd love to share our data with someone who has the time to do this kind of analysis at a university - maybe I'll do it at some point, I do have 'PhD' on my bucket list.

We have a pretty good idea of what is going on with our young athletes - and we can show kids growth curves and provide some information to kids about why so and so is winning and why they're not, or if they are an early developer, working with them to make sure that they understand, that they need to not over focus on results, develop resiliency, and realize that the results as a 13 year old will mean nothing when they are 18.  We can give the late developers the same message - its just as important for them.  Its important to us that all of our skiers stick it out, and strive to be their best.  This work is led by our club's program director/head coach - a really incredible guy with a strong vision of what he wants our club to be and what it means to help kids be their best.

Please don't misunderstand what I am saying here - early developers who win cross country ski races deserve to do well, they often are kids who are very dedicated to physical training and technical skill development. The problem I see with our current competition model for 12-13 year olds is that we do nothing to recognize that peak height velocity has a huge impact on who wins on race day.  There is a sort of 'maintain the status quo' attitude out there at all levels when it comes to adjusting competition categories to reflect developmental considerations.  I hear it all the time when I have this conversation - 'kids need to learn how to suck it up' - 'kids need to be patient' - 'kids need to not over focus on results'.  The fact is these are hard lessons for adolescents and maybe we could be doing something better to not set kids up for hard lessons.

I think we set boys up - both the early developers and late developers when we use chronological competition groupings for kids experiencing peak height velocity.  I believe its why we have a huge drop off in athlete numbers just after the midget category.  Its too bad really, as leaders in our sport, I think we can do something to allow kids at different developmental stages in early adolescence to compete with others of similar developmental level.  Its not healthy to win too much as an early adolescent - in cross country ski racing young athletes need to develop experience of being in pursuit of someone who is faster than them - when they get to Eastern or Western Canadian Championships as a 14 or 15 year old, they are not going win every race and the athlete who does come out on top is often some of those athletes who have had to learn to struggle and fight for their success.  I believe as well, that it's not healthy to lose too much as an early adolescent - every kid needs to be able to find some success - something that gives them some motivation to hang in there, to wait patiently, to give themselves a chance to grow.

Maybe I am wrong about all of this, and the important learning for all adolescents is resiliency, determination, perseverance, hard work and not results.  These are all very important life lessons that being a racer can teach an adolescent. The problem I see is that many adolescents give up because they just can't see 5 years down the road - its too far away.  Many adolescents aren't willing to take the risk of failing over and over again.  I think we are failing many, many of our young skiers in sticking to chronological age categories for early adolescent skiers.  We can do better than this, because at 12 or 13, size does matter - how big your body is makes a difference.  When we look at who the top performers are at the highest level in Canada, many of those athletes were not the ones who were shaving at 13.  What has happened to all of these early developers - why haven't they stuck it out?  What can we do to make sure that we build a sport system that gives every kid the best chance of sticking it out for the long term.

This is a great conversation, and one I enjoy having.  What can we be doing in Canada to help create the most robust sport system for cross country skiing?  Let's grab a coffee next time we see each other and see where it goes.

Roy Strum
All Around Nice Guy
Canmore, AB