Monday, 28 October 2013

Optimizing the Positive Potential of Coach-Athlete Interactions

I love being a coach...

Coaching continues to be one of the great joys in my life.  Each one of us acts on our values, our ambition, our passion.  If you work hard, opportunity comes along and your hard work puts you in the place where you can jump off and do the things that actualize your passion.  Every person has their own starting place, their own story, their own unique pathway that has gotten them to where they are.  My own story isnt one that includes lots of opportunity as a child.  I knew from a young age that being an athlete was what I wanted to be.  My family was not a sports family and any and all opportunity I was presented with came from the public schools I attended.  I think its why I dreamed of becoming a phys ed teacher.  The idea of being an athlete was my own.  I owned it.  It came from my dreams.  It was a couple of high school phys ed teachers who vailidated my ambition that helped me actualize my vision.  It was the influence of some caring adults who helped me to change the way I thought about my potential and give me the courage to go for it.  Coaches play a huge role in the way young people see themselves and the possibilities that exist when you work for what you get.  No matter what you do or dont accomplish as an athlete, the way that you see the world can change in a positive way when you have a coach that helps you set your sights on some appropriate targets.

The more I read and the longer I am on this planet, the more that I realize that the important stuff is about working hard, about continuous learning, about seeing a picture of where you want to go and what you want to be.  Along the way its important to have friends - friendships that are recipricol in nature - ones where you give and receive equally.  I've recently rediscovered the joy of having a best friend and how having a deeper friendship with someone can change the way you see your world.    Carol Dweck, in her book Mindset, points out that friends can give each other wisdom and courage to make growth enhancing choices. For me part of the learning is reading - reading material that gets me thinking - that stretches my perception of what I can do and fuels me with ideas of how to get there.  One of these books has been Mindset by Carol Dweck.  In it Dweck speaks to the role of coaches, teachers, parents in helping create the type of thinking framework that helps people become their best. Isnt this really what coaching is all about?  helping kids become their best.  For me, its certainly why I coach. But why blog about it?  Who cares really about what one dude thinks.  I blog as a way of processing my learning - there are alot of great ideas in a book like Mindset - for me blogging is about synthesizing ideas into manageable bites.   Here is some more of the takeaway from this book.

What we say to the kids we coach matters

Delivering the message that 'success is about hard work' is something that is important to me.  When we give that message to kids it says - if I work hard, if I am persistent, if I focus on learning I will improve.  Its important for kids to own their effort and to see the link between success and hard work.  No successful champion of anything worthwhile has acheived something just on natural talent.  What is particularly astounding is someone like a Marit Bjoergen, World and Olympic cross country ski champion who continues to be at the top of her game for 8-10 years.  How is this possible - not natural ability alone - but a willingness to work as hard as she can to do everything in her power to be the best that she can be.  A sport like cross country ski racing I think has hard work built into it and its perhaps why as a sport it appeals to those with a growth mindset - someone who says to themselves 'I am going to work hard to be my best'.

How we praise kids matters

Focusing on the effort and choices is something Dweck says is critical to helping kids grow because it focuses on the piece that kids can control.  No one can control natural abilities - so focusing on it sends the message that 'you were born this way, destined for greatness'.  Praising talent or the outcome can set kids up when they hit a snag and don't win and their confidence goes out the window and their motivation hits rock bottom.  How many times have we seen this with young skiers in cross country skiing where early success kids drop out as soon the late developers catch up.  For me, its important to give these early developers the right mindset that focuses not on talent or outcome but instead on effort.  We lose too many early developers from our sport and its almost accepted as normal and expected - early development in cross country skiing can almost be seen as a curse because the pattern seeems to be 'win early on talent and size, then drop out later when the going gets tough'.  Its important that we don't give a message that leads kids to think to themselves 'I won because I have talent. Therefore I will keep winning'. We can't afford to do this in our sport. It just isnt big enough in Canada to be so reckless with young people.   Instead, we need to focus our work on developing a culture of hard work, effort, and perseverance.

How we help kids deal with disappoinment matters

Lets face it, as an individual race type sport, most kids who try out racing never get on the podium.  What we say to these kids can help them develop the tools for success later on.  As coaches, do we champion the champions or do we focus on developing a culture of 'hard work leads to success'. 

Dweck offers a few great ideas of things to say to kids experiencing disappointment

- I like the effort you put in, but lets work together and figure out what you didnt understand

- We all have different learning curves - it may take some more time for you to catch on to this, but if you keep at it, you will improve

- Skills and achievement come through effort and commitment

We live in a world now where so many parents bubble wrap their children - avoiding sports and situations where their children might experience set back or disappointment.  Here is a great response Dweck shares in Mindset of a parent helping his daughter deal with a competition result she was disappointed with.

"I know how you feel.  It is so disappointing to have your hopes up and to perform your best but not to win.  But you know, you havent really earned it yet.  There are many girls here who have been at it longer and who have worked harder than you.  If its something you want, then it is something you will have to really work for".


I love being a coach.  It provides an opportunity everyday to shape the future of young people.  It provides me with chances to show concern, be compassionate and have consideration for others.  You never know what kind of influence you might have on a young person through helping them be their best.  I like to keep it fun but focus on the bigger ideas - the learning that comes from deliberate and thoughtful interactions that promote growth.

Its already winter in our part of the world.  Time to strap on my skis and enjoy the incredible feeling that is cross country skiing.

Roy Strum
Canmore, AB

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

What the Growth Mindset can teach us...

reflecting on talent and hardwork
Carol Dweck is the author of Mindset, the New Psychology of Success - How we can learn to fulfill our potential.  Dweck makes the case in her book that there are two mindsets - a growth mindset and a fixed mindset.  A fixed mindset is one where an athlete sees their limits as fixed - you are either destined for greatness or not.  You either have the talent or you don't.  A growth mindset is one where an athlete says to themselves 'I can learn this, I can get better with practice and hard work'.  Dweck points out that most highly successful athletes have a growth mindset - one that allows them to respond to setbacks with the perspective of 'how can I improve'.  In our work with young skiers, how can we create a space where a growth mindset is encouraged and supported.
Talent is a word that comes up often in sport, especially when a group of coaches get together.  'Oh, that kid has lots of natural talent' is a phrase you might hear.  Talent is sometimes associated with physical endowment - large muscular kids, or kids who ski effortlessly and technically better as an 8 year than most adults.  The problem with 'talent' is that it doesn't naturally encourage hard work.  We see this all the time - 150lb 13 yearold boys who win races by 5 minutes only to drop out of skiing when the later developers catch up in their development.  Dweck points this out nicely- "the naturals, carried away with their greatness, don't learn how to work hard or how to cope with setbacks".  Focusing on talent, creates a fixed mindset - one that says - you were born with 'greatness'.  It is almost a curse to be identified early as 'talented' as most highly successfull athletes weren't necessarily blessed with lots of early natural ability - they became great because they worked hard. Michael Jordan, Bruce Jenner, Jackie Joyner Kersee, Billy Jean King, Babe Ruth - all athletes who didnt start out as the ones identified with lots of talent.  Champions it seems find success in doing their best, in learning and improving.
'You must have worked really hard' - this is a good response when to a young athlete experiencing success.  It focuses on the piece of the work that the athlete can be responsible for.  'Success is 99% effort, 1% talent" - another great message for young athletes.  "If you work hard at something, you get out what you put in" - another message that focuses on the effort piece and not whether you were born with natural gifts.
There is something to be said for natural ability.  But more important I think is focusing on hard work.  How can we create a space for adolescent athletes where the focus is on the hard work.  How can we create competitions that don't just reinforce early development over late development.  Creating hard work is pretty easy.  Creating a space where kids can learn that hard work is what is going to take them to success is the challenge. 
Roy Strum
Canmore, AB

Friday, 11 October 2013

Built for Speed - a new event series aimed at 10-14 year olds in Southern Alberta

Good stuff is cooking in Southern Alberta

Greetings members of the cross country ski community.  This is the coaching blog of Roy Strum.  A cross country ski coach interested in supporting developing coaches in advancing the level of cross country skiing in Alberta and beyond.  This is not the website for the Built for Speed (Southern Alberta) Event Series.  If you are looking for the Built for Speed website - please visit -   There you will find information about dates and locations of various B4S events in the greater Calgary area.

What follows is a blog post that I wrote in October 2013 that includes some of my reflections about the process that was undertaken to create a new event series that aims to change how children experience a ski competition. 

hey folks

what began as a conversation about broadening the reach of our local race series for children, has resulted in the creation of a new event series.  

Built for Speed is aptly named to reflect the developmental window of trainability for children age 10-13.  The 'event' series aims to be a first step for club athletes to participate in a multi-club event.  The idea for Built for Speed comes from the intent to broaden participation in regional development events to more clubs; to support smaller clubs in developing the capacity and interest in racing; to focus on a bigger geographic area than the bow corridor.

There are lots of clubs that focus on children's ski programs in southern Alberta that we hope to attract with this series:  Medicine Hat/Cypress Hills CCSC, Brooks CCSC, Crystal Ridge NSC (Okotoks), Crowsnest Pass CCSC, XC Bragg Creek, Foothills Nordic, Calgary Nordic Training Group, Calgary Ski Club, Rocky Mtn Jackrabbits, Red Deer Nordic, Bow Waters Jackrabbits, Canmore Nordic Ski Club.

Built for Speed events are unique in a number of ways:

- each BFS event will include more than one 'race' - to encourage families and kids to travel more than an hour in some cases, more than one event will be held consecutively on a day.  e.g. the day might start with a indiv start race, followed by a downhill race or relay.  Each club will decide what two races they would like to organize.  This idea has been tested at CCC Racing Rocks events where up to 3 or 4 races are organized over a single day.

- There will be two formats for the event series:
    -  Open events - these competitions are intended for all skiers from all clubs
    -  Development events - these competitions are intended for novice skiers from     all clubs - entry in development events will be at the discretion of club coaches.  These events are intended to provide a positive experience for kids new to racing in an environment where most of the kids are at about the same level of ability.  This idea is similar to the tiering of competition groupings in organized hockey in big centres.

- BFS event series will include 4 events - in the first year, one in each of Calgary, Canmore, Bragg Creek, and Okotoks.  Foothills Nordic will host an 'open' event, Canmore Nordic will host an 'open' event, XC Bragg Creek will host a 'development' event, and Crystal Ridge Nordic will host a 'development' event.

- BFS events will focus on the four year age group - minimidget (2002, 2003) and midget (2000-01).  Competitions may be organized as single year competition groupings.  Host clubs can choose to add to the age groupings to suit their needs.

- Registration for events will be organized individually by clubs.  Profits (if any) will reside with the host club to help them build their program.

- BFS awards will include club banners for 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th place clubs based on points accumulated through the series,

Look for more information/details soon about this exciting new event series including event dates and locations and registration information.

Welcome to all of the clubs in southern Alberta to this new event series.  We hope that it is the start of extended growth and development of clubs in the southern half of the province.  We know there are many small, developing clubs in southern Alberta.  This event series is aimed at all of our clubs in the south.  We hope to see you at these events.

CNSC Coach
Built for Speed EVent Series Advocate

Monday, 7 October 2013

Do your best...what are we really teaching kids...

Is 'do your best' the best we can do as coaches?
Somewhere along the way we have to ask ourselves as coaches - are we doing everything we can to advance athlete development?  Do we reflect on the impact of what we say and what we do on the achievement of learning outcomes attached to our work?  Are we doing the things that are important to help kids become more than what they are predisposed to do?
These are good questions.  They come from my introduction to some research done by John Hattie, an education professor from New Zealand, who has conducted some meta-analysis research on several thousand research papers focused on teaching and learning.
In my role as a learning consultant with a local school division, I explore and share this type of learning with other teachers to advance the work that teachers do with students.  This work is equally as important and maybe moreso with coaches,  where outside of a small elite group of professional coaches, ready access to ideas about best practice when it comes to creating learning environments where kids can surpass their predisposed potential as athletes and instead become more than their best may not be that readily available.
Hattie's work abounds with great ideas to improve practice as it relates to the role of teacher or in the case of most folks reading this blog, to the role of coaches.  Great learning often is attached to reflection - being able to synthesize some key ideas into practice.   It is the change in practice that is the evidence that learning has taken place.  One of the reasons I blog, is for my own synthesis of ideas that come from literature, video, mentors, or my own practice as a coach.  Hattie suggests, and with research to back him up, that it is the teachers or in our case, the coaches whose reflection on their own practice is what is of key importance to student learning.  What are we doing and how does it affect achievement?
Hattie's research examines 138 different influences on achievement.  He notes the relative importance of various influences on the rate and success of student achievement.  We all have this idea that smaller instructional groups has a positive affect on achievement.  But how does small instructional groupings compare relatively to the impact of influences such as providing a challenging task.
The essence of good teaching according to Hattie comes down to a number of important things that successful teachers do.  Successful coaches do these same things.
1.  learning intentions are clear - kids should have a clear picture of what the outcome looks like - e.g. today we are going learn to be kick-ass double polers... 
2. success criteria is absolutely obvious - kids should know what success looks like - e.g.  double poling should look like.... it should include this important piece...
3. peer work is dramatic and critical - good learning includes kids talking to each other about the learning task, helping each other figure out what to do, what it looks like, how it should feel, and how they know they are doing it.  e.g. after making the learning intention clear, kids should have opportunities to engage in peer teaching, feedback, and skill correction
4. discussion about the task - good learning includes some discussion about the learning task
5. when you achieve the task, you want to do it again - when learning has taken place, kids are excited about their improvement and seek to make further improvement
The worst thing that you can according to Hattie is to tell kids to 'do their best'.  Doing your best is too easy.  There is not adequate challenge in 'doing your best'.  Doing your best means whatever you put forth is good enough for you because that is your best.  Really good learning includes creating challenging tasks for kids.  What does that look like in coaching cross country skiing?  Some people have that figured out - you just have to look to the places where kids are successful, where they stick it out, where they are engaged as young athletes and where they are skiing skilfully and with fitness. 
These are the sort of conversations we need to be having with coaches in our own clubs and with coaches in neigbouring clubs.  If we are interested in advancing the skill and engagement of kids as young athletes, we need to be thinking about what we are doing as coaches and teachers to create challenging learning tasks that help kids exceed their potential.  We need to aim higher as coaches - to helping kids become more than their best.  We need to have those conversations with each other about what that might look like and what our role is as coaches.
These are type of conversations I love to have.  Grab me next time you see me and lets chat.
Roy Strum
Canmore, AB