Monday, 16 March 2015

The Secret Ingredient in Success for Youth...

Every year for the past four years I have come off of the Alberta Youth Cross Country Ski Championships weekend feeling profoundly optimistic about the future of competitive cross country skiing in Alberta.  I do so because the weekend seems to be filled with moments unique to the experience.  Missing is the over focus by youth on results.  In its place a deep and abiding striving for success, by not just the top performers but by every kid.  Somehow what seems to occur is something that feels quite different from the average race weekend for the same kids somewhere else.  Each year I lead this event, I come away with a feeling that we have created something magic, that we have created something with enduring value. Trying to capture and articulate what that value is, is the focus of my writing today.

There are a few things that contribute to the power of the Alberta Youth Champs, that seem to catch fire with adolescents.  Here is what they are:

- Championships event - coming to a provincial championships is a big deal.  For these kids, an opportunity to dream of becoming provincial champion means something.  That more clubs participate in this event than any other event; that more athletes participate in this event than any other provincial event is a big deal.  Having teams from Regina and Yellowknife and Fort Smith participate gives the event a 'big deal' kind of feeling.

- Coaches who buy in to the vision - Coaches create much of the great energy that exists at Alberta Youth Champs.  For the most part the coaches who attend are not the lead coaches in the clubs, but instead a younger generation of less experienced coaches than the ones you find going to Nationals.  There is something to be said to working with moldable material.  The coaches who attend AYC bring a positive, generative, community building attitude.

- Broadening the definition of success - you ask kids what they like about AYC - they'll probably mention an opportunity to earn recognition.  The 10th place finisher in each category feels incredibly proud to be called up to the stage to be presented with a medal.  All of a sudden, 10th place in a race means something.  Its important. And coming in 11th is the near miss.  This recognition is far removed from tokenism and that is why kids value it.  You ask them, they'll tell you - I did my best and I am proud of my 10th place finish.  Kids just dont get that anywhere else.  And at a provincial championships its important.

- Community - the simple fact that XC Bragg Creek hosts this event at a summer camp with great trails just down the road a few minutes says alot about what is really important in engaging youth.  Shared meals, shared living spaces, opportunities to build new friendships between coaches and athletes is huge and is something you just don't find at another event, where kids stay with their families in hotels, or kids live and eat as a group but separate from other teams.  Community is what kids seek.  Its what we all seek.  A rich meaningful experience where relationship is developed.

- Inspiration - getting a chance to hear the story of a successful athlete is meaningful.  This year Annika Hicks joined us at our banquet - Annika has been a world jr championships team member, a provincial ski team member, and a national champion in Canada.  Connecting with Annika's story is a powerful opportunity for kids to draw inspiration from another's success.  On the Sunday, Matt Strum joined us.  Matt is a jr national team biathlete who grew up in Bragg Creek.  For the Bragg Creek kids in particular, he was a shining example of the possibility that exists in youth sport.  If Matt was a kid from Bragg Creek, and if he could become National Champion or top 50 in the world, well, maybe they could as well.  The XC Bragg Creek ski clubs were lining up to get Matt to sign their club jackets after he went for a warm up ski with them.

- 4 year cycle - That kids only get to go for a four year window makes the event a big deal.  This year was the first year that kids have graduated from the AYC after having competed in the event for four consecutive years.  Next year, this group of 2001 athletes will all hopefully head off to National Championships.

- Modeling of fun - the coach's relay has become a fun part of this event - fun for coaches and fun for kids to see their coaches racing just as they do.

As I take a moment to reflect on the Alberta Youth Cross Country Ski Championships, I feel incredibly proud to be a part of creating this special event for children.  Its an event that is deliberate about creating a positive sport experience for children. Deliberate about its intention to hook kids on competitive cross country skiing.  Deliberate about its goal to build community and friendship.  This is an event that aims to inspire youth to embrace the life of being a racer.  It is an event that aims to be a big deal, a provincial championships, where a young athlete can proudly say, I am provincial champion or I was 10th at provincials.  AYC is an event that has momentum, that has deep value for participants.  It is in my mind a model of what a youth cross country ski event should look like.  It has become that because of the collective will of our community to build something meaningful and significant that will engage young skiers in the very worthwhile endeavour of becoming a ski racer!

Enjoy the remainder of winter in your part of the world!

Roy Strum
Coach, Canmore, AB