Monday, 1 August 2016

Ability Groupings in Youth Sport Instruction - what does research tell us?

Research tells us that grouping learners into ability groupings does not lead to significantly improved achievement. Let me say that again - putting developing skiers into ability groupings does not significantly improve their rate of learning.  I know that this sounds radical - putting the better skiers with other similar ability skiers is supposed to be good for them isn't it, or putting more novice skiers with other novice ability skiers is supposed to help them isnt it?

John Hattie is an educational researcher from New Zealand, and his Visible Learning research included over 900 meta-analysis studies looking at the impact of various influences on learning.  Ability groupings is one such influence.  It is commonly understood that ability groupings are an effective strategy to improve achievement.  Research tells us something different though.  Hattie's research tells us that ability groupings have an r value of 0.12.  This tells us that there is some positive benefit to this intervention, however it is small relative to dozens of other interventions that we could use to raise the level of achievement of kids as they learn to ski.

Here is why ability groupings don't work:

- ability groupings disrupt the learning community - learners feel some identification with the learning community as a whole
- ability groupings socially ostracize some learneres - kids learn 'I'm in the slow group' and this effects their level of achievement
- ability groupings compromise social skills - all of the sudden kids don't get to socialize with others leading to mini-groups of 'I'm fast' or I'm slow' groups
- ability groupings effect on minority learners is even more pronounced - if you're the only non-norwegian child in the group, and you don't get to be with the others, it has a more pronounced effect because of the already present barriers that may exist.

As coaches of children and youth, we need to be guided by what best practice research tells is best to help kids learn.

Have a great August!

Roy Strum
Canmore, AB

Friday, 25 March 2016

Alberta Youth Cross Country Ski Championships - Revisited....

What makes a great event for kids? This is a question we have been tackling for the past number of years in Bragg Creek, AB.  Our ski club, XC Bragg Creek, founded in 2009, sits directly halfway between two of the largest and most successful ski clubs in Canada - Canmore Nordic and Foothills Nordic.  2016 was our fifth year of hosting the Alberta Youth Cross Country Ski Championships - and we have this feeling that it just keeps getting better and better.

There are a number of things that make this a great event for children. 

Firstly, there are no events for older teens, juniors, seniors, or masters athletes.  The whole focus is on 10-14 year olds. 

Secondly we've built in a few key features that kids really like.  We hand medals to 10th place in each single year category.  That adds up to 160 medals for individual race events that are handed out over the weekend.  The magic of this is that more kids are battling for medal positions.  So why not hand one out to everyone?  The fact that you have to finish in the top 10 of your group means something to kids.  Its earned recognition, and kids know that.  Add to that the Alberta Youth Champs are the only provincial event that does this and you've got something good going on.

Thirdly, we throw in more than one event per day.  We run a relay on the Saturday in addition to an individual race.  Kids dig this.  Teams are encouraged to wear costumes.  Kids love this as well.  Plus we have official, unofficial, and coach's categories for the relay.  Kids love seeing their coaches participating in a race.

Fourthly, we have a banquet on the Saturday night with the biggest award show in the world.  Medal presentations, Spirit awards, draw prizes, and a dance for kids only.  Coaches and chaperones are invited to attend a wine and cheese social event to encourage club coaches from across the province and beyond to get to know each other socially.  We also have a guest athlete speaker.  Over the years we have had the likes of Olympic Silver medalist cyclist and world jr ski championships medalist Tara Whitten to share their story of how they went from being a kid growing  up in Alberta to one of the best in their sport in the country and beyond.  This year we had @matt_strum share his story.  Matt is a former provincial team skier and current national jr team and national jr champion biathlete share his story of growing up in Bragg Creek, how he dealt with numerous years of finishing near the back of the pack as a late developing athlete to coming into his own. 

Fifthly,  we all stay at a summer camp facility where kids stay in bunkrooms with their team mates and coaches, chaperones, and eat meals in the same dining hall with all of the other kids from around the province.  This provides a unique chance to build friendships with kids from other places and enjoy a camp experience.  This idea came from the Noram Midget Champs in Joliette, QC. 

Six, we use a ski venue that isn't the regular race venue for kids.  West Bragg Trails are at 1400m and were designed as potential race trails for the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics.

Seven, the event has grown into the largest provincial event for this age group in Alberta.  Plus its the provincial championships event for 10-14 year olds.  We have been lucky to attract clubs from all over Alberta as well as Saskatchewan, NWT, BC, and Ontario to the event.  This has built some anticipation for young skiers who can't wait to be old enough to attend.

Eight, AYC is a big deal for @xcbraggcreek ski club.  This is our club's big event.  It has grown the club.  This is a town where hardly any parents had ever seen a ski race before and now host this big and important event.  Events build clubs, and XC Bragg Creek Ski Club is a testament to how this can happen.

If you're wondering how to build momentum in your small town ski club, I'd say, GO BIG! host a big event, do it every year.  It has been working for us.

Every year we get feedback from coaches, parents, and kids about Alberta Youth Cross Country Ski Championships.   Have yourself a great end to winter!

Roy Strum
Canmore, AB

"Hi Roy:  I wanted to follow up to the great weekend down in Bragg Creek –once again it was fantastic!  Our kids love the course, the accommodations at Kamp Kiwanis and staying with the other athletes, the awards etc. etc..  2 years we have attended and it is our favourite event of the year.  It was especially compelling for my daughter and she now says that her primary focus will be Nordic skiing. 
Thanks to the Bragg Creek team for all of your hard work.
Warmest regards,
Stephen Spencer, Coach, St Albert Nordic Ski Club"

Monday, 29 February 2016

Coaching - deliberate action to help adults get results from young athletes

The other day I had a chance to listen to the new CEO of Cross Country Canada, Pierre Lafontaine, speak about his vision for cross country skiing in Canada. It got me thinking about the profound need for capacity building of coaches in our country.  I reflected after his talk on the important perspective that someone new to a sport culture can bring to shifting the focus to something different. I thought about the importance of working within a shifted paradigm.

I'd like us to think about our role as coaches in helping other coaches get results from young athletes. If there is one truth about coaching in Canada it is that not many people own the expertise that comes from apprenticing under an experienced, knowledgeable coach.  What we have are workshops that are structured well, but become a point in time 'fill up the empty vessel' reference.  These workshops are competency based, meaning that coaches need to be able to demonstrate their understanding or skill in the various learning outcomes.  This is lived through evaluation by an experienced NCCP facilitator of the skill or understanding of the outcomes.

Evaluation of skill, practice, and understanding are important.  But really what is missing is the apprenticeship that comes in any profession.  As adults, we need to be given the sustained opportunity to work alongside a mentor - a seasoned coach - someone who we can watch and have regular conversations with about what we did, whether it had the intended outcome or not, and what we can do to make improvements in our practice as coaches.  I firmly believe that in coaching, we need these opportunities to grow and learn.  Without apprenticeship, we work in the silo of our own coaching practice and the only feedback or growth we experience comes from casual conversations between coaches.

Changing processes for how we train, mentor, and help coaches may be a radical idea.  I seem to be full of them at times, and the pressure to maintain the status quo is huge, particularly when 'expert' doesn't really mean very much.

So I put out there a radical idea, that the money we spend as a sport in Canada on coach training be thought about differently so that richer learning can take place for coaches - both volunteer and professional.  In my other world, that of K-12 schooling, we have professional learning communities (PLCs).  When PLCs are done really well, they provide opportunities for people to seek out others who they think they can learn something from, and they engage in rich conversation about what didn't work.  Expertise exists in the cross country ski coaching community in Canada.  It is just so siloed, even within clubs, that the general level of coaching remains far below what it could be.

Radical idea - maybe.  Rebel with a cause (to improve the level of coaching by challenging the status quo) - maybe. Nice guy - always.  Open to conversation - always.  Have all the answers - definitely not.

We are moving into the home stretch of our ski season.  In Alberta, for 10-14 year olds that means attending the Alberta Youth Cross Country Ski Championships in Bragg Creek.

Enjoy the rest of your winter.  Consider coming to our event in Bragg Creek.  I think you'd like it.

Roy Strum

Friday, 15 January 2016

Financial Elitism in Youth Sport

At what point does expense become a barrier to participation in youth sports? I have been tackling this one for a number of years.  The idea that more money has a cause effect relationship on athletic performance is an idea worth talking about.  In Alberta, our provincial ski team fees have been way above most other provinces over the past number of years, with a program organized and delivered by our national training centre in Canmore.  Despite this, Alberta as a jurisdiction has had a downward trend in provincial rankings over the past 6 years; #1 in 2010, #4 in 2015.  Alberta was once the powerhouse in Canada in terms of producing high performing athletes, dominating world junior championships teams for a good number of years.  Times change.

This notion that paying higher fees leads to improved performance is in many ways false.  Unless you are independently wealthy or are in the top 10% of income earners, paying higher fees is not a great thing in a number of important ways:
- it forces families to opt out earlier than they might, because parents need to get 2nd and 3rd  jobs in order to afford the travel, coaching fees, wax fees, club fees, team fees, equipment expenses, etc.
- it causes stress many average income families - should you have to choose between healthy meals and sending your child to Ottawa for Easterns?
- it creates a culture of excess where teams of waxers expenses are covered along with coaches, etc. Why is it that parents can't be doing this important jobs who might be travelling there anyway.
- it creates a barrier for anyone not working with a greater than average income.

It is a reality that at a certain point participating in competitive skiing becomes out of reach for average income families.  But why do clubs and provincial sport organizations need to operate in a way that makes it extremely difficult for the average family to stay involved.

I've just started a new job as an Assistant Principal at an elementary school.  Its work I love.  Before I got the position I had planned to start a new ski club in Canmore that targeted lower income families because for these families, even though they live in a town where world cup and national level events are held regularly, cross country skiing is completely out of reach.  My plan was to work with the local catholic school and reach out to all of their new Canadian students many of whose parents work in the service sector in our tourist town for minimum wage. I hope once I am settled into my role I can pick that work up again, because there are tons of kids who will never get the chance to ski because the costs is completely out of reach.  There are some grants available - kidsport, jumpstart - but after 10 years old, these grants don't begin to cover a small portion of the actual expense of participating in cross country skiing.

Its all about elitism.  What role does financial elitism play in the current reality of performance levels of Alberta athletes at nationals?  You see it all the time, people shaking their heads wondering why kids are dropping out at 13 or 14.  Or you hear the justification of high expenses in statements like 'attrition is normal'.

Attrition isn't normal.  Attrition is a signal that things aren't going well.  As coaches we need to be asking ourselves, what responsibility do we have to create a program that is accessible for 90% of the club, instead of just for the 10% of top income earning families.  Financial elitism is having a negative effect on participation in cross country skiing.  Not for the financial elite, but for average income earning families.

What can we do?  Well, in my role as Alberta Ski Team Director, I have been advocating for $0 fees for participation in the program for the 2016-17 competition year.  The idea is to create a program that uses just the funding that we get from the provincial government, which although is being reduced by 25% for the 2016-17 year due to a recession in our provincial economy, is still a substantial amount of money targeted at athlete development by our provincial government.  Participating in the Alberta Ski Team should be a benefit not a burden to the average family.  It may be that we have to charge families something, but the goal is to reduce fees by over 80%.

My perspective is shaped by the fact that my own children have won national, western, and eastern Canadian and provincial championships.  I will be travelling to Romania next week to cheer on my son, @matt_strum who is competing in his third world junior biathlon championships.  I have a real sense of what it takes to make these things happen for your children, and I do this on an educator's salary, which is not substantial, and has required me to have 3 or 4 employers over a year just to make it all happen.  I have done this as many parents do - help your children live their passion and dreams.  But it is not easy, and I would say most average income families, would not be willing to do all the work it takes to pay for it all - i believe this contributes to high attrition starting at 13 or 14 and especially in high school.  Finding ways to make participating more accessible is important.

Is cross country skiing just for the financial elite? I'd say NO. Are there different ways of organizing sport to promote high level skill development and performance that don't require huge pay out of expenses for families?  I say YES.

I'm excited about my trip to Romania.  I will staying in a guest house adjacent to Dracula's Castle in Bran, Romania. Look for pictures of the Canadian team on my twitter feed @RoyStrum

Enjoy January