Sunday, 27 April 2014

Re-Envisioning Excellent...

Its  that time of year - a beginning of an other season.  As you look ahead its helpful to first take a look back, but not focus there too long, just long enough to recognize things that went well, and things that didn't go as well as planned,  Reflection is a key piece of meaningful learning.  It helps with metacognition - being able to know what you know. 

As you think about what you want you want to do this coming season, I encourage you to not set the bar too low.  The fact is that being an excellent coach has a lot more to do with the energy and enthusiasm you bring to your work, than your highest level of accomplishment as an athlete.  Don't set the bar too low for yourself.  Think about those areas that you felt less confident with last year and aim to tackle those first. 

This week I have been engaged with conversations with teachers about provincial curriculum redesign with the provincial education department.  Interesting, in that the discussions have not focused so much on content, but rather the conversations have focused on process.  Certainly 'what is worth knowing' is a part of that conversation.  But more importantly, being intentional and deliberate about how learning is framed, assessed, and made personal and meaningful has been at the core of teacher's discussions.

As coaches, its important to have similar conversations with other coaches.  Asking 'what is worth knowing' is the easy part of the conversation.  Talking about how to make that learning engaging, relevant, exciting, empowering, and meaningful is the tough part of the conversation.  Really, this is a bit easier with older athletes who have self selected to be a ski racer.  Being able to create engaging learning with 12-13 year olds takes a different skill set. Here are a few ideas that make my short list of important things to do:

- build relationship with kids - they should have a sense that you like them as individuals

- have a sense of humour - tease kids in a kind and caring way

- be excited about what you do - its way more fun when a coach isn't too serious

- surprise them - be prepared enough that what you offer isn't the same every practice

- help kids to reach beyond what they currently see as possible - help them dream a bit

- be positive - adolescents need way more 'you're doing this well' than 'work on this' - kids will be way more receptive to your input if they think you see them as competent and capable

- and above all, don't take yourself too seriously - the work that we do as coaches of adolescent cross country skiers is about helping kids to see what they are capable of while developing a love of being active and going fast on skis

So as you begin to look ahead to the coming ski season, I encourage you to find your edge.  The place where you want to improve.  If you're like me, its familiar work, and work that continues to bring great joy.


Friday, 18 April 2014

Expertise and Influence - the upside down reality of amateur sport

In cross country skiing in Canada, what is completely normal is to have the highest educated and most experienced coaches working with the athletes farthest away from the place where they might have the most impact.  Not trying to be a jerk here, but I've noticed over time that this is the reality.  On the other hand, when we look at sport research around windows of trainability, what jumps out is the fact that the period of time when coaches have the most impact on motor skill development and flexibility is in the pre peak height velocity time frame - usually in the range of ages 9-14.  

We know why this happens.  Parents are willing to pay for expert coaching when their children are in high school or beyond, but the same willingness to pay does not exist when it comes to paying for coaches who work with younger ages.  It doesn't happen this way in every club.  Some clubs in Alberta are able to earn upwards of $90K every 18 months from volunteering at a casino for two days.  This doesn't happen outside of the major cities in Alberta, but it does happen and it does create some real inequity in opportunity for younger kids to benefit from expert coaching at younger ages.  The clubs in Calgary and Edmonton are not blame for their good fortune, it is the way the provincial government has casino revenue organized.  But I do believe it makes a difference and puts clubs on uneven footing, especially smaller clubs from small towns dotted across the southern region of Alberta.

The bigger issue I think around coach expertise in working with pre peak height velocity athletes is that little opportunity is provided for many of these coaches to mentor with a seasoned experienced high level coach.  The learning happens for coaches of adolescents usually through some good hearted soul who is willing to share expertise.  The fact is that career coaches are few and far between in the ranks of those coaching adolescent cross country skiers. 

What can be done about this?  First, provincial sport organizations (PSO) should be working towards recognition initiatives for coaches of younger athletes - why is it that the only coaching work worthy of provincial recognition is that which happens with junior or U23 athletes?  Secondly, it might help if PSO's provided some more mentorship experiences for developing coaches - this has happened in the past, and it would be nice to see again - what an incredible experience it would be for a developing coach to tag along on a Team Alberta trip to Canada Winter Games.  Thirdly, experienced, lead coaches in clubs could be providing more opportunities to developing coaches to learn the work of advanced waxing, high level coaching - sadly it is the reality that in some clubs, these opportunities just aren't provided to those who coach younger athletes.  

Important work happens during the pre-adolescent and adolescent years as cross country ski racers.  The important work of transitioning kids from 'my parents signed me up for this' to 'i love this stuff'.  The important work of technical skill development during a window of time when kids' bodies are ready to learn and refine cross country ski motor skills.  

Outside of the big centers in Alberta, where almost all clubs do not have former world jr championships athletes coaching their adolescent athletes,  coaches of younger athletes need support, mentorship, training, recognition, feedback, and encouragement.  Whose job is this?  It is the job of the highly trained head coaches to do this.  I know this occurs in many places, but my feeling is it needs to happen more if we want to help young athletes become the next generation of national team stars.

Its snowing in Canmore today.  I'm grabbing my skis and heading out to the trail.

Roy Strum
Canmore, AB

Saturday, 12 April 2014

Professional Learning Networks for Coaches - do they exist?

I've been at this coaching thing a little while - mostly focused on developing adolescent age athletes.  Over the years I been coaching, I have sought out mentors and opportunities to learn.  I've learned lots from these folks and appreciate the many times when someone with more knowledge or experience has shared some insight, learning, or wisdom about what it means to be an excellent coach. My experience as a coach in general though is that coaching in cross country skiing is closed business.

What I mean is that most coaches keep their coaching wisdom pretty close to their chest.  Sharing of wisdom and knowledge, although fairly common within a ski club, is a pretty rare occurrence between clubs and sometimes within clubs.  If you come from a small club without someone with advanced knowledge or experience, good luck trying to learn from folks with advanced knowledge from other clubs.

My observations are that there is something very proprietary about coaching knowledge.  Although NCCP offers coach training in the form of workshops and certification levels, most of the important learning happens when you work with a master coach directly.   Just being able to work alongside a master coach allows some osmosis to occur, but significant learning can occur when that master coach is willing to share out ideas of best practice.   I know there are many master coaches who share out their knowledge freely and liberally.  My experience is though, that this sharing happens far less in coaching than it does in the world of teaching.

The reality of learning to be a better coach is in stark contrast to my experience of learning to be a better teacher.  In the formal education world of teaching, professional learning networks exist whose sole purpose is to share out best practice.  These are groups of educators who share out what they do and why they do it to advance learning.  Twitter has become the primary conduit for professional learning networks in teaching.  Pinterest is also used extensively.  Thousands of teachers have blogs where they share out their experiences, their learning, and the effects of their attempts at innovation with their students.  No where in cross country ski coaching does a parallel to this exist.  Why is this?  How much better could our young athletes develop if ideas were shared more freely between clubs and by experienced coaches?  Why doesn't this happen in our world of cross country ski coaching?  I don't want to come off as a cynic, but really, I think that there is this mentality in cross country skiing that parents pay for a specific coach's experience and that if other kids want to access that coach's expertise, then they should pay just the same as every other kid who wants that specific expertise.

Its time that we move beyond this approach.  Narrow self interest such as what seems to exist in cross country ski coaching in many communities doesn't exist in the same way in teaching.  Its sad really, because how much better could beginning and intermediate coaches become if they had access to professional learning networks where coaches openly shared their ideas.  How much better could our kids become as skiers and athletes if professional learning networks existed?  Its time for a shift in culture in the coaching community.  A culture that supports coaches in their professional development.  In teaching, every classroom is still unique, teachers still struggle with learning to become better at what they do, but in education world, teachers live in a culture where everyone's best ideas and leading practice is shared openly.

Its time for change.  Its time to change the culture of how cross country ski coaches share out knowledge and experience to advance a broader community of coaches.  Right now, there is very little evidence that professional learning networks exist in cross country skiing.  I'd like to know of some coaches who write blogs sharing out their best practice.  I'd like to follow coaches who share out their best practice with other coaches.  I'd like be part of chats on twitter with other coaches interested in sharing best practice.  Sure, some coaches have blogs - but most often the content of these blogs is more about the trips that these coaches take their athletes on than about the nuts and bolts of coaching.  Please , someone, point me to a group of coaches who do this work. I'd like to meet them and grow with them.

Roy Strum
Canmore, AB