Monday, 25 November 2013

Teaching for Understanding...helping young skiers put skills into a context

rethinking how we are teaching skills

I just had a wonderful weekend in Edmonton.  Folks there had invited me to come up to work with a group of coaches on how to work with kids and to deliver a couple of NCCP coaching workshops.  Every time I do this sort of work I learn something new.  I try something different.  Although I plan out the details of the workshop I will lead, often, the input of participants leads me to a different place than where I had first thought I would go.  Thats what happenned this past weekend in Edmonton.  Here is the epiphany that followed.
So often when we teach skills to kids (or adults for that matter), we find a nice flat space to work with them, often this spaces has tracks and flat areas for skating. We work with them on diagonal striding without poles, or free skating.  I have done this alot - worked on basic technical points in isolation of terrain.  This weekend, as I was pulling together a little skills/error detection correction session, I thought about a body of literature that exists called Teaching Games for Understanding.   When I was undertaking a MSc Kinesiology at U of Calgary, I did some reading about this work as I was interested in advancing the effectiveness of coaching interactions on skill development in youth.  Games for Understanding focuses on the advancing instruction of sport by putting skill development in the context of the game.  Instead of just learning the forearm pass in volleyball in isolation in a drill, the forearm pass is taught in the context of tactics.  The big idea is that when a player understands where and when to use a forearm pass in a game, their readiness for learning is much greater.  The same idea applies well to cross country skiing.
Why is it that we teach free skating on a stretch of trail back and forth, watch it on video, look at joint angles, body position - all of the technical pieces.  Then during a race, particularly with adolescents, they don't perform the skill in the context of the terrain where is optimally performed. With the games for understanding approach, ski skills would be taught more explicitly within the context of the race or of the terrain in which it should be used.  This seems common sense, but its not what I have done most of over time.  When I have worked on weight shift and diagonal striding, I have typically done this on flat terrain or gently rolling terrain.  It worked for my purpose, I wanted to have athletes experience some success in getting a feeling for what gliding on one ski at a time felt like.  There is nothing wrong with doing this.  However, it does present an out of context learning situation for young learners when we teach them a skill like diagonal striding on flat ground which in the context of a race, we ask kids to mostly perform on a climb. I know what I emphasize is that diagonal striding is our climbing gear.  It makes me think, why is it that I didnt do most of my instruction on a climb when focusing on diagonal striding instead of flat ground.  Not many of the fastest skiers diagonal stride on flat ground.  They double pole on flat ground. 
Teaching kids a skill out of its context might make sense in some ways, however if we really want kids to learn that diagonal striding should be used primarily as a climbing technique, then that outcome should be visible and explicit.  We should practice diagonal striding technique on climbs because that is where we perform that skill.  Rocket science, no.  Common sense, yes.  But this is what the work of the games for understanding model tell us.  If you want to create skilled performers, put the skill in the context of the game.  In cross country skiing the game is a race.  Where and how and when do we want athletes to perform a skill.  I think that developing this understanding is a key piece of both enjoyment, skill development, and success as a young athlete.  Adolescents are ready for this type of work.  I encourage you to give it a try.
all-around nice guy
Canmore, AB

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Coaching effectiveness - what do we know...

how can teaching and learning literature contribute to enhanced coaching effectiveness
I'm not sure if I am out of the loop, but over my years as a coach of adolescent cross country skiers, I have not come across a great deal of literature about what aspects of coaching contribute most to athlete learning and achievement.  If you can point me in that direction, I would appreciate it.  You see I have worked for a number of years in the education world.  In the Teaching world, professional learning networks are the norm - particularly on Twitter, which is probably the single most used and highly effective teacher professional development tool in existence.  I know that there are a ton of athletes who use twitter to update followers on their travels, but I have yet to find a network of connected cross country ski coaches who use twitter to share out their ideas, reflections, and best practices through their blogs or tweets.  If it exists, I sure would appreciate you connecting me to it.  Please message me @RoyStrum on Twitter if you want to connect as a ski coach in this manner.  I am game as I have professionally benefitted so much from my professional learning network in my world as a phys ed teacher.
The real aim of this blog post is to share out some reading I have been doing from an education researcher from New Zealand, John Hattie.  In my work in the Calgary Board of Education, Hattie is the latest rage - everyone is reading his work and applying his findings to their professional practice.  Why - because his work is based on a meta-analysis of thosands of education research studies on student achievement.  As I have been reading Hattie's book - Visible Learning - I have constantly been thinking about my work as a coach of adolescent cross country skiers and ways that I can apply Hatties ideas about advancing achievement to my work as a coach.
Hattie identifies teachers as a major influence on student achievement.  Not that all teachers are effective or are experts or have a powerful effect on students - but that some teachers undertaking certain acts with appropriately challenging curricula and who show students what the learning outcome is very clearly have a powerful effect.  Some of the major contributions that effective teachers have on student learning are:
  •  quality of teaching as perceived by the students - students can pick out the teachers who focus on cognitive engagement with the content and who help students develop a way of thinking and reasoning that fits for the context.  This is completely relevant to coaching - coaches who can enage athletes in thinking about skill acquisition and developing understandings that can be applied in the contexts of being a ski racer are more effective in helping young athletes become better skiers.
  • teacher expectations - having high expectations of athletes' success is a self fulfilling prophecy in much the same way as having low expectations of athletes' success.
  • teachers' conceptions of teaching, learning, assessment and students - this relates to coaches' views on whether all young athletes can progress and whether achievement is changeable or fixed and whether progress is understood and articulated by coaches.
  • teachers' openess - this relates to whether coaches are prepared to be surprised.
  • classroom climate- this refers to having a warm socio-emotional climate at practices where errors are not only tolerated but welcomed.
  • a focus on teacher clarity in articulating success criteria and achievements - this relates to the degree to which coaches identify success criteria in skill development and athlete development.
  • the fostering of effort - probably one of the single most important coaching influences - how much do you foster and champion effort instead of outcomes.  Who gets the recognition in your club, the kid who stands on the podium or every kid who demonstrates effort?
  • the engagement of all students - great coaches focus on all young athletes equally, regardless of initial ability.  Every adolescent cross country skier can improve with the right type of coaching interventions.
I get excited when I read stimulating books or listen to the stories of folks who have worked hard to achieve something worthwhile.  My practice as a coach is altered by this type of learning.  I would like to find more coaches interested in sharing their practice and their ideas.  You can follow me on Twitter at @RoyStrum - I look forward to connecting with you.
Roy Strum
Canmore, AB

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Thoughts on risk and success


Ted Talks is an amazing phenomenon in our digital culture.  A place where people share their thoughts; often delivered by folks who've been at something a while and whose message has some resonating quality that in many cases shifts perspective.  I enjoy Ted Talks - tune in every now and then to listen, learn, reflect, and give myself the opportunity to see the world through another person's lens.  I recently tuned in to a couple of Ted Talks videos that I wanted to share out because they have particular relevance for working with youth and thinking about the risks and benefits in the choices we make.
Chandra Crawford's story is remarkable in its accessibility.  With Chandra, you get the feeling that anything is possible.  Her story includes the remarkable gift of using her success as a platform for inspiring girls and young women to have confidence in themselves and strive to be their personal best.  She embodies this work by embracing her role as a mentor, role model, and agent of positive change all the while striving for her own personal excellence.  We need more Chandra Crawford's in the world.  What Chandra models about success is that the most important piece is about the platform for influencing others in a positive way.  Her Tedx Canmore talk brings this message home.  Definitely worth the 12 minutes to watch on the link below.
Grant Statham is a mountaineer and guide.  He speaks to risk and the acceptance that some risk is worth taking because the outcomes outweigh the potential for negative consequence.  Some risks aren't worth the potential for harm or injury and so need to be avoided or minimized.  When we work with skiers we work with risk.  There are the inherent hazards associated with cross country skiing.  There are the other risks associated with introducing kids to competition. How do you balance risk with potential positive outcome?  Statham has some good ideas in his Tedx Canmore talk on the link below.
In my work with young skiers, I have come to see that there are many things that go into transitioning young skiers from 'i'm doing this cause my parents want me to do it' to 'i love this stuff'.  Some of that has to do with how risk is framed.  Is your club a space where finish position is championed? Is it ok for kids to be in a learning space and feel valued and recognized for their effort?  How is success framed in your club?  these are good questions.  I've my own ideas about these things. 
Creating success means framing the work i do with kids to reflect effort, skill improvement, and achieving both process and outcome goals.  Creating success means recognizing the power of relationship between the coach and the athlete.  The tone I set in my interactions with kids is something i think a great deal about.  Keeping things lighthearted, respecting boundaries, and ensuring I have an appropriate balance of personal interactions as well as focused reinforcement or teaching interactions are important to me.  I have been reading a book called 'Visible Learning' by John Hattie lately.  Hattie's work is in the meta-analysis of thousands of studies focused on teaching and learning influences on achievement.  One of the gems from yesterday's reading from Hattie's work is that the Teacher (or Coach) is the variable with largest d value or effect on achievement - in his work Teachers (the person) have a d=0.49, compared to Curricula where d=0.45 or the Teaching (what the teachers does to teach) which has a d=0.42. 
What we do as coaches to balance risk andn define success is important work.  I use my role as coach to be an influence of positive change, of growth, of skill development, or positive relationship, and of creating a positive culture.  I encourage you figure out what is important to you.  As Hattie points out, there are lots of things that work when it comes to learning, what we need to do as coaches of adolescent skiers is figure what what works better.
Canmore, AB