Youth Development -- Ages 12 and Under (Part One)
Age Group Development
Primary Sources used for this section include the Bend (Oregon, USA) Kids Ski League Manual (special thanks to Bruce Ronning) and the Norwegian B Course Coaches Manual. Other sources are noted in the body of the text.
Universally-recognized as the most important age group to get interested in XC Skiing, youth development is still, nevertheless, an amazingly hit-and-miss process for many communities. This section is designed to highlight the major goals and priorities of successful youth programs; take stock of the major issues facing youth development; and examine how youth development can fit into your XC Ski Community.
Goals and Priorities For Youth Development
- Personal skill development: Everyone may not ski perfectly, but everyone gets better.
- Fun: Via...skill development, variety, realistic challenges, self-discovery, play, and excellent organization.
- Initial Development of XC Skiing as a Sport-for-life: lifetime commitment to fitness, health, giving back to the sport, protection of the wilderness, community partnership, etc..
- Emphasis on technique and instruction via games, play, and organized activities.
- Physiological Focus: Strength, endurance, flexibility, balance, coordination, and agility through games and activities without heavy loads or overly-difficult situations.
- All-around activities: Plenty of variety throughout the winter and year-round.
- Emphasis on classic technique outside of specific games and/or easy terrain situations.
- Extensive use of skiing without poles both on trails and in game situations.
- Variety of skiing sites and conditions: Use of commercial-area width trails (12 feet/3 meter width and greater) kept under 30-50% of all ski days each season. Emphasis on easy terrain at all times with plenty of terrain variety.
- All timed and competitive situations measured exclusively against a child's own accomplishments--NOT other children. EVERYONE WINS is the theme.
- All adults associated with the program--administration, volunteers, parents--understand and consistently implement program philosophy of everyone wins, everyone improves, let's all play and learn together.
Major Issues Facing Youth Development
1.) De-emphasis of Winning
A rapidly-accumulating amount of research on youth participation in sport continually points out the misguided notions many adults have about why children engage in sports and questions the traditional youth sport model.
A 1992 study out of the Michigan State Youth Sports Institute (Ewing, Seefeldt 1992) found that winning is not seen as a major benefit by young people who participate in sports. Interestingly, this finding was consistent from the youth ages (using 12 and under to define Youth) into the middle and secondary school years (13-18 year-olds). The study also found a sharp decline in sports participation from ages 10 (45 percent) to 18 (26 percent). Fun...that elusive and oh-so-subjective element...was the top reason for staying in sports. Conversely, lack of fun was the number one reason for dropping out. In 1994, the US Olympic Committee declared the dramatic drop in sport participation from youth programs to secondary school programs a major priority area.
These findings are not limited just to the U.S.. Several Norwegian studies have found the exactly same results over the past 20 years with 81 percent of children rating fun as the number one reason for participating in sports. Competition and winning did not make the list of statistically significant responses. Furthermore, the researchers found that up to 50% of the children that did stop participating in sports did so directly because of adults--parents or coaches--failing to emphasize the needs and desires of the children. (Hatling/Stilen 1982) The Norwegian Coaches B-Course (circa 1984) emphasizes this research by stating that Basing results on skill or achievement should not be the only type of competition offered for youngsters. The most important goals must be to stimulate children and youth so that they have a love of skiing and take part in ski training and instruction.
If one accepts these findings, it then follows that we need to re-evaluate the way in which we design and implement our youth programs away from an emphasis on simply winning and more towards an emphasis on the kinds of things that actually motivate and inspire continued participation. Such re-evaluation has already begun in many team sports as youth program leaders have started to question some aspects of Little League baseball, youth soccer, and other sports. Although we do not typically see 11 and 12 year-olds thrust upon a global television stage in endurance sports (as in the annual Little League World Series), you can find numerous examples of over-emphasis on winning at youth levels within many running and XC Skiing programs.
Podium awards, inappropriate youth racing situations, over-zealous parents screaming a wee bit too hard before, during and after youth races, and even just situations in which programs substitute higher participation fees in lieu of required parental time investment can all be considered methods by which winning takes precedent over fun, skill development, and self-knowledge.
Kids love to race as part of play and by no means should anyone call for an end to youth racing. There are some ground rules to follow however!
Nomination For The Best Example Of A Good Youth Racing Scenario
The Pear Blossom Run is an annual 10-mile road race held in Medford, Oregon (USA) every April. In conjunction with the longer event, organizers hold a children's race around a 1-mile loop of the downtown start/finish area. Several hundreds of children enter the event not only encouraged by the participatory nature of the race but also because the organizers have created a great system of providing cash awards to the schools that can get the most amount of entrants be they children, staff/faculty, and/or parents (BTW, this is a super idea for ski events as it not only gets new kids on skis but it also really encourages new family and/or community involvement!). Every registered child is given a bib with the number one on it (a subtle but important message!) and they line them up and let them go. As they cross the line every child gets the same simple medal. If children are actually interested in their time (some are), they can see their time on the display clocks as they finish. That's it. Not surprisingly the copyrighted motto of the Pear Blossom Run is Everybody Wins!
1.a) Awards for everyone : Everything surrounding youth racing should emphasize personal achievement and joy in the activity--NOT winning. This means that events award every child equally no matter what order they finished. If weekly races are simply part of your regular youth schedule then you can skip awards entirely. Otherwise, simple little ribbons and medals are great. Obviously, awards for everyone eliminates youth podium situations so keeping times is purely optional and recording places is eliminated.
1.b) Personal Bests : A great way to encourage children to measure themselves principally against themselves is to create a Gold Star system by which a child gets a Gold Star on a chart everytime they can get a personal best on a specified course that stays constant over several years. Awards are given (again to every child and NOT ranked!) at the end of the year for how much improvement was made. You can also use this system for skill achievement milestones as well.
1.c) Develop A Youth Club Pledge or Motto : Anything along the lines of doing your best, learning as much as you can, supporting each other, working together, etc.. This kind of organizational mantra gives younger children a simple set of philosophical guidelines that can reassure and direct them in a positive manner.
1.d) Make Teams Fair : Relays and team races can be really fun for kids and adults but you've got to make sure that you've created a fair situation. Even with all your efforts to the contrary, kids are socialized to be competitive and even though they don't care who wins--they do want the playing field to be even. I've found that great ways to balance teams are to pick the teams myself and to include a couple highly-skilled adults on the teams with the kids to make sure "the game stays close".
1.e) Educate and Communicate With Your Parents and Other Youth Leaders : No matter how good the structure of a youth program, the adults will always determine the outcome. Every year you will want to have educational meetings with parents and youth leaders to outline the program philosophy and goals. Since good programs mandate parental involvement, you'll particularly want to go over specific examples of where parents can positively or negatively impact a child's involvement in youth sports. With racing, the parent must accept that the point is not to win; it's not to catch so-and-so; and it's NOT to be skiing perfectly at age 12. Shouting encouragement and general enthusiasm is great as long as they can muster the same kinds of support for all the kids--not just their own. Afterward, the ideal questions would be...Did you have fun? or How did you feel about yourself? or What did you learn about yourself today?...instead of Did you win? or What place did you get? The differences are subtle but the results might last a lifetime.
1.f) Follow A Realistic Competition Pattern : For children 9 years and younger, the U.S. (source 1996 USSA X-C Competition manual) and Norwegian Ski Federation guidelines are race lengths no longer than 1-2 km and 4-8 competitions per season (usually the number matching the age). For children 10-11, the distances should be 2-3 km in length with 6-8 competitions per year. 12 year olds would be in the 2-4 km range and at 8-12 competitions per year.
Although no formal criteria has been published regarding travel and the youth competitor, I strongly feel that youth skiers are best served by competing close to home or, if they do travel and compete at long distance away, only as part of a family outing--not an organizational trip!--and only in settings that emphasize the same healthy, long-term priorities as your home program.
Over the years, I have witnessed several programs and parents emphasizing early and often travel schedules based on the rationale that their children will benefit from exposure to added competition or because these kids dominated local events. First of all, there is absolutely no evidence to support the notion that any child 12 and under needs constantly tough competition--particularly if one reads and understands any of the arguments presented above! Secondly, I have never seen a child placed in this "Cradle On Tour" atmosphere develop into an internationally-competitive XC Skier. However, I have seen dozens of children who were "road-warriors" before 15 quit the sport entirely before they finished high school.
2.) Organize Youth Programs Around Skill Development
Remember that youth programs should be part of a constantly evolving process. Skills are gradually introduced and absorbed via the a general exposure to XC Skiing, creative teaching methods, good demonstrations to model after, and most importantly...general play and games on snow. The most common mistake I have seen in youth programs is simply the lack of organization (or planning time & effort) when it comes down to how to effectively complete skill development given all the variables and demands surrounding kids and kids on snow.
First of all, programs must recognize the importance of having an adequate number of trained adults as volunteers in any youth program. (Note: When I mention adults, I also include teen-age skiers that might donate time outside of their own junior program.) The primary source of these volunteers is always going to be parents, but regardless, you must have enough trained adults around that kids will be properly supervised and to organize the days activities.
Secondly, every day on snow must have a mission established in the minds of both the adult leaders and the children. Anyone that has ever had or worked with children is aware of the ant-like nature of even small group of children. Some folks have asked me what is wrong with letting kids do whatever they feel like after you get them to snow. The argument being that kids will just naturally play on skis and thus develop skills over time. Indeed, in certain cases and at certain times, random play is not be a bad idea at all. Children's natural interests and curiosities can give you plenty of ideas for ways in which to structure your program and things you can do.
However, if you simply depend on the kids to always spill out of the cars and ski by themselves to new and exciting discoveries year after year you are in for a big surprise. Somebody will mention having a snowball fight or building a snowman or skiing up and down the BIG HILL fifty-seven times and you'll quickly find your program taking on disturbingly uniform characteristics. In addition, many kids either dislike these populist diversions from the start and/or quickly get bored with them. Ironically, many programs designed around "just letting kids do whatever they want" often end up losing more kids because the program lacks structure. Youth programs need to have direction and focus that can adapt itself to not only the children in the group but also the weather, the snow conditions, and the skiing sites. You will still be doing plenty of activities that kids will love...the difference lies in the organization.
I was in the tiny village of Cogne, Italy many years ago and witnessed a fabulous demonstration of a well-oiled youth and junior program. Late in the afternoon, a bunch of cars rolled up to the ski trails. Out hopped a couple dozen kids and a half dozen or so adults. Older teens immediately helped younger juniors while the adults got the youths all ready. Within no more than 10 minutes the entire bunch was out skiing in their groups--made even more impressive since they were all classic skiing in difficult klister conditions! Everyone knew what group they belonged in and every group had a clear "plan" for the afternoon. Little shooters started playing a game organized by a group of adults, young juniors and a couple other coaches started doing some drills without poles, older kids started to ski out on the trails with their coaches. Since this is only one of many such well-designed community development programs in Italy, it is hardly a surprise when Italy does so well at the international level (and you just thought it was their wax! :-).
The third critical element within youth skill development is organizing your program around a constantly evolving series of skills and development levels. A program attracting children 12 and under is going to see a wide range of skill levels as well as physical abilities. This means it is critical that you are prepared to organize children in ability groups that takes into account not only their skill levels but also their ages.
3.) Additional Recommendations
3.a) Keep the talk to a minimum, provide good examples. Children are not going to be willing to stand still for an elaborate 30 minute discussion on the mechanics of a good double pole. I know plenty of Masters that can't do it so kids certainly won't! Further, whenever you introduce technical items, you are going to have to be creative in the presentation. Describing a technique as part of a contest or a game is a good example. Demonstration is also a fundamental part of learning to ski and what you show kids is what they will learn. My advice for any program leader that isn't sure about their own skill levels is to engage in constant skill development for yourself. No matter how long you've been on snow there are always new things to learn!
3.b) Keep the gimmicks to a minimum. Popular tools with youth programs at commercial areas are artificial items designed to make skiing "more fun". Most of these methods have evolved as spin-offs of alpine skiing children's programs. I like to use a ball or a few other toys in ski games, but I have seen some programs extend the use of artificial apparatus into circus-like dimensions. Cartoon plywood cut-outs, clowns on skis, the list goes on.
Remember that you are ultimately aiming to get these kids to absorb XC skiing as part of their lifetime commitment to fitness and the outdoors. One of the major characteristics that separates XC skiing from lift-assisted sports is the relative lack of manmade machines, buildings, toys, etc.. Thus, use toys and such only as much as you need to and not as a crutch to avoid more creative--yet logistically difficult--natural games, materials, lessons, and adventures.
3.c) Whenever possible, keep the groups together. Whether you are going for an adventure tour or playing capture the flag or doing skill contests--you want to try and keep your groups in nice clusters. This is as much for organizational purposes as it is for safety and liability reasons. A good mantra is "no one is left behind and no one has to wait".
Designing your sessions such that the motors in the group automatically and constantly loop back to "pick up" the slower movers is a great way to always keep everyone moving without creating a speed "pecking order".
3.d) Develop traditions and consistency. Children and parents alike will love it if your program has a consistent organizational framework. Things like always meeting at the same place to drive to the different ski sites or sticking with the same group names year after year (Ex. Flying Fun-filled Fastkids, Carpet Commandos, Curtain Climbers) for each age group will help give everyone a sense of continuity. You will alter the game plan slightly every year to keep things fresh, but the basic structure should stay consistent. Traditions can be as simple as assigning different groups to bring the hot cider and low-fat snacks each week or developing a few fun skiing songs the kids can learn.
3.e) Be realistic with your schedule. For youth programs, an on-snow schedule lasting 7-10 weeks is plenty. You can allocate an additional 2-4 weeks to organize parent/volunteer meetings and hold a fund-raiser or a special party at the end of the season. Staying too long on snow can strain the ability of your program to interest children and provide the necessary support.
On to Youth Part Two