Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Pardigm Shifts - why its so hard to chart a new course

Change can be difficult .  It can also be very exciting.  I've seen this alot in my work with a local school division.  Our province's education department is experimenting with a new process to redesign curriculum.  The government department has contracted out the work to several school divisions.  The intent is that the school divisions will inform the goverment on what is needed to prepare our students for a world that we can't yet imagine.  They 'll do this work by engaging teachers, administrators, parents, and the community in conversations about what good learning looks like, what is worth knowing, and thinking about how design of learning outcomes affects the quality of learning.  Its pretty exciting work - rather than a bunch of PhDs in Edmonton answering these questions and sending them out to teachers for comments and piloting, the government department is going to start with the ideas from practicing teachers about what really works well to advance student achievement.  I've had the great fortune of facilitating numerous conversations about these topics over the past few months.  You see, what Alberta Education is trying to do is create a paradigm shift in the way curriculum is redesigned - in essence to create a new prototype that can be replicated in the future.  They are attempting to capture best practice ideas from teachers  who know better than anyone what great learning looks like, what type of learning outcomes bring about engaging learning, and what is worth knowing.  Exciting stuff.

When is a good time for change? my response - anytime is good - when it grounded in best practice, aligned with current best practice literature, and includes the voices of athletes, coaches, parents, and communities.  In Alberta, the opportunity exists right now for this important work to happen.  For a majority of years in the past decade, Alberta has been a development hub for high performing cross country skiers.  For the past two or three years though, that development hotbed has shifted east to Quebec and more recently also Ontario.  No longer have Alberta athletes dominated world junior trials, national championships, and noram races.  What's going on here? what is that we need to do to support athletes and clubs in creating spaces where young athletes get inspired and develop fitness, skill, and confidence to be the best in the country.  Don't get me wrong, its not that Alberta isn't producing national champions anymore - Fact is, a good number of Alberta athletes won national championships this past winter.

There are several valid indicators though that the time is right for some renewal of the Alberta Team program.  Fewer Alberta juniors are applying to or being accepted at National Training Centres than what was typical even 3 years ago.  Fewer Alberta athletes are qualifying for World Junior Championships teams. There just seems to be fewer high performing Alberta athletes at Nationals than was typical not very long ago.  Is this a problem? maybe not.  Should we panic? definitely not.  Are these indicators that Alberta can be doing something differently? Ya maybe. But maybe not.  Fact is there are still some very strong clubs in Alberta producing disproportionate numbers of athletes who are 'in the game' at Nationals.  Is it time to do a critical reflection on what we're doing and what we might do to optimize the role of the Alberta Ski Team in supporting clubs and athletes in becoming their best - I'd say yes.  If we weren't willing to make changes then what is the alternative?

They are doing some interesting things in Quebec that might be helping to create a space there where sucess is nurtured.  They have an engaging provincial youth championships that gets kids hooked on racing. They provide opportunities to apply for funding to help get athletes to big competitions.  They focus on a broad range of ages in their provincial program - right up to U23. Athlough not part of the formal Quebec Ski Team program, national level athletes are recognized as being part of Team Quebec, and are welcome to attend provincial level training camps if it meets their needs.  What a cool possibility for a 16 year old, "hey, I might get to ski with Alex Harvey this weekend".

Lets face it, one of the most important raison d'etre for provincial teams is recognition.  How can we expand the impact of a valuable commodity like recognition and still have merit based team selection?  The fact is that the core of the work that helps athletes achieve success is done by athletes doing the work everyday with their club coaches.  The club coach designs the technical and physical training programs that gets athletes to high levels.  So maybe a important part of a provincial team is about building the capacity of club coaches.  But maybe a more important reality is that one of a provincial program's biggest impacts is the earned recognition.  How can we maximize this benefit?

What can we envision for a provincial ski team in Alberta?  How can we build on the incredible legacy of success in our province?  What, if anything, needs redesign?  I certainly have some ideas about these questions.  I am interested in hearing yours...

Roy Strum
Alberta Ski Team Director 2014-16

Friday, 20 June 2014

Working with Boys - ideas on getting it right...

Are there things about boys that we should consider to help them flourish? Are these things any different than what you might do to help girls flourish?  Are there ways of working with boys that optimize the engagement, the learning, the relationships? Can these things help boys commit to something in a deeper way? be more willing to work hard to achieve something challenging? 

Don't get me wrong, My work here isn't about diminishing the important needs of girls (I have two of my own daughters) and I'm not suggesting for a minute we need to segregate sexes in training sessions - at least as the norm.  But would there be value for girls and for boys to spend more time in same sex training groups as adolescents?  These are some questions I have been thinking and talking about for some time.  I think its our role as men to do the important work for boys that incredible female role models in our sport such as Chandra Crawford or Kikkan Randall have been doing for girls.  

It started for me because I am a father. When my son was about 12 I read a book that changed the way I looked at my role as a dad in his journey to manhood.  The book was The Wonder of Boys, by Michael Gurian from Washington state. Oh, I had always been a super engaged dad even up to then.  But the epiphany for me at that time was around realizing the important role that men (most importantly Dads, but also coaches, teachers. etc) play in helping boys grow into men who have purpose, passion, direction, and most important have a sense of the important role that men play in our world - as parents, as spouses, as coaches, as teachers, as community leaders.  This is important work.  

Yesterday evening something serendipitous happened.  I had a bit of free time and so wanted to tackle tidying a corner of the basement that was in disarray.  In doing so, I opened bins full of things that came from a different time in my family's life and consequently spent a couple of hours doing work that might have only taken 30 minutes.  I came across notes i had written to myself while reading Gurian's book.  I came across artifacts of relationship between my son and myself - from a time in his life when he was a toddler, a preschooler, a school boy, an early adolescent.  I'll admit, I was captivated by the reflection.

The timeliness of this reflection was profound for me - this year my son graduates from high school.  An honour student from the National Sport School, a national junior team biathlete, a descent human being with ambition, direction, passion, and a caring and fun being.  Finishing high school, I realized is one of only a few societal rights of passage for boys to transition to being an adult male in our world.  An important acknowledgement of accomplishment and effort.  Gurian points out well in his writing that sadly in our north american culture these cultural opportunities to transition boys from childhood to adulthood are few and far between.  And so, as men, as dads, as coaches, we need to provide this important input to boys lives in a deliberate and thoughtful way, if we wish to ground boys in becoming men who give to our world, who respect women, minorities, children, and community.

What things can we do as male coaches to support boys in growing into men who are strong, independent, caring, nurturing, responsible, and who have vision and passion for their dreams?  Some of the things I have tried to do over time are as follows:

- show my own son that men can have deep and meaningful friendships with other men - I have found that men need other men to talk to about things that they might not be able to talk to with anyone else.  Boys need to see that men respect and love women in their lives as well - cause this models for them how to be a partner in life.

- surround boys with positive male role models - It was extremely gratifying to pull together a couple of world snow day boys' events we called 'boyz got game' aimed at creating an experience where young male skiers could spend a day with national and provincial team role models.  Drew Goldsack, Sean Crooks, Phil Widmer were only a few of the Olympic athletes who helped with the intiative.

- provide boys with physical challenges - give them something they can feel proud of having accomplished.  Immerse them in healthy competition.  Model the separation of competition in the arena of play and friendship at all other times.

Supporting the needs of boys is important work.  Its work for everyone.  But I think its particularly the important work of men to think about helping our boys find purpose and passion in their lives.  For some boys this comes easily.  For many. many boys they need the helping relationship of a caring, compassionate, positive man to guide them as athletes and more importantly as adolescents growing into our next generation of men.  I know of many, many men who do this important work.

C'mon men - we can do this!

Roy Strum
Canmore, AB

Sunday, 15 June 2014

Reflections on Selection Criteria...

I'm at an interesting intersection and pretty grateful to be there - I was elected last week by the membership of cross country ski clubs from across Alberta to direct the Alberta Ski Team program - elected to think about not only what is important in a provincial ski team program but also reflecting on the criteria that determines who gets to participate.  It leads me to pondering about the bigger purpose of a provincial ski team program - because if you have a clear idea of why a ski team exists, that'll lead you pretty quickly to figuring out who should be there and what they should be doing.  There are no textbooks or reference guides for answering these kinds of questions - there are only ideas that come from experience. 

I've had great joy this past month reading a book written by Richard Taylor of Bethel, Maine.  Great joy because his ideas reflect his rich experience as an athlete, a parent, a coach, an administrator, and cheerleader for cross country skiing.  No where have I come across a coaching book that offers insight and opinion grounded in experience and best practice literature focused on cross country skiing quite like this one.  I bring up Dick's book here because in reflecting on my upcoming work of directing the Alberta Ski Team program for 2014-16, I am reminded that a common reaction to something not working is to do it again, only this time with renewed and augmented effort - if it doesn't work, do the same thing harder.

I'd like to avoid that pitfall in the work I am leading around rethinking the Alberta Ski Team.  The first question that comes to me is - is what we have been doing working? to answer that one, you have to start with what the purpose was for the program.  By all accounts, the actual program delivered by the Alberta World Cup Academy has been outstanding the last number of years.  My own children who have experienced the program as athletes, have raved about numerous aspects of the experience. 

Something I have witnessed over the past 10 years or so is the very high rate of athlete drop off at the end of high school.  By my observation, 80-90% all athletes who participated as high school age athletes on the Alberta Ski Team drop off the radar completely at the end of high school.  Considerable investment is made in these athletes by the provincial sport organization, and many other athletes never get access to the specialized coaching opportunities that come along with being named to a provincial ski team.  The big question is - are we reaching the right athletes in our current program?

The answer to the question of 'who' should be named to provincial teams is an important one.  Certainly, demonstrated ability and race results are crucial.  But is there some different way that we can imagine that creates stepping stones for developing athletes and provides the important recognition while honouring that ultimately cross country ski racing is about being the fastest.  Is there a way to think differently about what the Alberta Ski Team is and its role in supporting clubs and athletes in becoming successful in a more long term way.  If many of  the young athletes who receive the benefit of recognition and specialized coaching for 4 or 5 years on the Alberta Ski Team do not carry on to race in college or as U23 athletes, is it a worthwhile investment?  With limited funds, is there a way to broaden the reach of the program while maintaining its integrity so that the likelihood of athletes continuing on after high school is enhanced?  I'm not suggesting a throw the baby out with the bathwater approach, or scrapping the great work that has preceded my involvement.  I am saying it is time to think about why we have an Alberta Ski Team program, what learning and support is critical to advance athletic achievement, and who it is that these experiences should target. These are some good questions and ones that I will think more about.  If you're in my neck of the woods and want to have a coffee sometime, I am definitely interested. 

Roy Strum
Canmore, AB

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

The Grit:Success Ratio...teaching dogged determination

I'm a huge twitter user - as a space for professional learning, sharing, focused searches for desired content, or connecting with a network of folks who you get to choose - twitter has added a new dimension to learning for me.  If you are looking for new ideas about just about anything, twitter is the place to be.  Where a website is a place to share out ideas, and facebook is about seeing where your friends went on their holidays, twitter is the space where you can find articles, resources, videos, from a huge number of people all gently brought to your attention in one place.  If you are not connected to twitter yet, I would suggest you stop reading right now and sign up - you can follow me there at @RoyStrum
One of the videos I watched today from a twitter feed was 'The Key to Success: Grit' by Angela Lee Duckworth.  Success in life, she shares, is much more than just being able to learn quickly and easily.
Duckworth shares that success comes to those who have grit.  She describes grit as:
- passion and perseverance for very long term goals
- having stamina
- thinking about the future
- working really hard to make the future a reality
Grit, she shares, is living life like its a marathon not a sprint.  Grittier kids, she notes from her research, are significantly more likely to graduate from high school.  This is especially true for kids who are at risk of dropping out of school.
Asafa Powell is a Jamaican world champion sprinter. His story is a good one to look at when thinking about grit.
So if grit is so darned important, there must be volumes of research and shelves full of books about how to teach this skill to children.  The fact is, Duckworth shares, that it is shocking how very little we know about building grit.  Especially, in light of her research that shows that grit is often unrelated or inversely related to talent.  I will say that again, because it is a big idea  - grit is often unrelated or inversely related to talent.  The implications of this idea are huge and we've seen this in action alot.  It isnt always the young athlete who learns something easiest and quickest who ends up persevering in our sport.  Sadly, the reality is, that if you are an early developer or show lots of early talent, its almost your destiny to fade away by your mid teens.  I hear it all the time - 'oh just wait, those early developers will drop out by the time physical maturation or skill development levels out.
How do we do this - teach grit.  Duckworth says we need to be gritty about making kids gritty. What does that look like when coaching adolescent cross country skiers.  This is a good question and one you might have a number of own ideas about.  For me, its about providing a 'growth mindset' environment - one where Carol Dueck's ideas that when failure happens, people with a growth mindset see that the ability to learn is not fixed - when failure happens learning is possible. For me, its about framing and reinforcing effort.  Its about helping young people to set challenging goals for themselves, and too create a space where kids can see themselves achieving something important to them.  Grit is about not giving up.  Grit is about seeing setback or achievement as a stepping stone to the next set of goals.  Grit is a skill that is learnable.  Grit is something that can be modeled by coaches.  Grit is a key to success.  The challenge for us coaches is to be gritty in our role as teachers of grit.
Roy Strum
Canmore, AB