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The Sk8ologist
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Pre-teens Coaching

Let the children come to skate
Whenever there’s a tournament, almost everybody pays full attention to the senior ranks, right? Browsing around the net, more or less any material you can find about our sport is related to technique, equipment or elite racing. Nothing wrong with that, but… how about the infantile ranks? Wondering up and down our speedskating world it seems to me that not much people care about kids. Worse yet, I’m under the impression that among those who care, not much people seem to posses the knowledge to properly deal with growing athletes! Federations verbalize a lot (and sometimes even act) towards their senior national teams, but almost none of the local governing bodies hold a developmental program aimed at prospect athletes, not to mention specialized courses of instruction for coaches. As a direct result, many countries that in quad times were proficient at Worlds level now strive to survive, with the sport on the verge of extinction in certain cases... Namely Argentina, Australia, Spain, Japan, etc. I’m afraid that some newcomers to the skating scene are about to make the same mistake: can anybody tell me if Canada, England, Holland or China (just to name a few) had implemented developmental programs for children? In my not so humble opinion, such state of affairs indicates our sport is a truly amateur discipline that still has a long way to attain Olympic status. This is something I’ve been arguing for quite some time with CIC / FIRS officials: what’s the point in having 50 or 100 countries at Worlds, if about half of those nations do not really have a critical mass of skaters to organize at least local tournaments? One of the things we need to fix before even attempting to attain Olympic status is to grow numbers of skaters around the globe: to do that there’s no other way than to attract kids to our discipline. We already have the role models, no doubt. But we desperately need bright and competent coaches, able to spread the inherent passion this sport carries, people capable of properly mould the young bodies and minds towards sporting excellence. We also need honest and talented politicians, but I reckon that is asking too much. So let’s talk about coaches…

Kids’ coaches: fundamental duty
Glory and fame is reserved for elite athletes’ coaches, but whoever remembers children skating instructors? Alas, only those same elite athletes have fond memories of their first teachers, nobody else. As opposed as in serious disciplines, children sporting development looks to be inconsequential on in-line speedskating, considering the vast majority of coaches’ and officials’ attitude. So it should not come as a surprise if a great deal of teenagers are switching to other disciplines these days. Such setback cannot be 100% the inept federations’ fault: in many cases improvisation, lack of proper instruction and even irresponsible behaviour of coaches can wipe out an entire generation of future speedskaters, even in spite of their good faith (if any). Ahead of stepping into a kids coach’s shoes, anybody caring to take on that extremely important task must seriously consider a few relevant things: racing experience or the love for the sport is not nearly enough!

Who is really a good coach, then?
There are quite a few well known names in the international skating scene, people that has been producing world champions for years. In fact one of them (probably the best), illustrious Mr Bill Begg, states that world titles are a requisite that defines a really good coach. Now, I’d like to ask him and everyone else reading this text: how many coaches shaped an athlete from their first steps on wheels to Worlds podium? You can count them on a hand’s fingers, and you’ll still have spare fingers. Another question: who trained those great coaches in the first place? So many coaches are autodidacts; many others have been racers in their time: both are admirable, no doubt. But I noticed that in our environment there are still too many experts that keep technical knowledge for themselves, in fear that passing away any info to their adversaries might ultimately be a disadvantage. While at the elite level it can be even understandable (but not acceptable), in the kids ranks that attitude is just plain ludicrous. What we all must realize is that concerning scientific studies, our sport is ages behind the Olympic disciplines, so hiding information is detrimental for everybody. It would be much more useful for us and our own athletes to recognize that simple fact; to admit that we do not know everything there is to know and we all do have room for improvement in nearly every aspect of our sport. Only then we could be considered professionals! Having said that, getting back to Begg’s definition of a good coach, I’d rather extend or modify his definition as follows:

● A good coach is he who passes his knowledge to their colleagues through written works, videos, courses, etc… whatever contribution to our sport’s growth.
● A good coach must be able to convey his passion for this sport to whoever he’s coaching… possibly for life!

Personally I have got the pleasure of teaching the first steps of skating to thousands of persons in several countries for the last 20+ years. Most of them still skate enthusiastically, several were able to compete at the highest levels (no world champions yet, I’m sorry), but a few of those former pupils today are better coaches than me. And that, believe me, is the greatest satisfaction I’ve ever obtained from this sport.

Kids’ Coaches Decalogue
Anybody working with youngsters should strictly follow these commandments:
• rather than a “coach” be a “teacher”
• understand the importance of your job
• understand the needs and problems of the kids
• be a reference point for the club
• give assurance, never loose it
• have an irreproachable morality
• never fall short in personal relationships
• learn all the necessary technical aspects
• develop the infantile sector: never profit from it!
• do not evaluate your job based on race results!
I guess most of the above “laws” are self-explaining; the absence of the last three unfortunately caused much damage in many countries. It will take years of work and a new generation of open-minded young coaches to repair such damage.

Coaching ethics
I bet that numerous coaches don’t even know the word “ethics”, or at the very least they don’t understand where the relation lays between that word and coaching. Most probably, none of those coaches will ever read this article, or any other article: let’s hope they retire soon from practice, for they are the worst breed of coaches… Now, let me ask you this: would you accept a drunken convict as a teacher to your 7 year old son at school? Under the same principle, no person lacking a faultless morality should be put in charge of a youngsters group. We are all human and make mistakes, but if somebody cannot demonstrate their own decency in every facet of their life at any time, they rather let kid’s coaching to somebody else. Those who cannot comprehend the sheer responsibility associated to the simultaneous management of physical growth and social development of a group of young aged humans, are better off to be officials. Those who cannot be or give a role model to a crowd of eager to learn boys and girls, they better shut up and sit down on the benches.

Our mission
The kid coach’s job is ungrateful: sooner or later our skaters will leave us to pursue higher goals, or they’ll simply grow up and get tired of so much effort for nothing. Perhaps they might prefer to follow one of those elite trainers (or supposedly one). Nonetheless, our job reaches further than coaching: we are expected to be educators. And if that wasn’t enough, we are supposed to infect children with the skating virus, a sport that most probably will generate only expenses to their parents… but at the same time will show to kids what sacrifice means, forge their temperament, teach the significance of team working, provide discipline and values that so many other sports have forgotten, cast a well proportioned body, and above all, create lifelong friendships. Friendships that can persist even after the competitive period has expired, for people who can share the joy of an outdoors low impact activity that can be relished at any age.
So our primary mission is to create first and foremost skaters, not immature racers. To achieve that, the most efficient method known today is the recreational one. Ours is a really hard sport that cannot be practiced from a young age without a prominent fun factor. Otherwise children easily quit for a more rewarding sport… a cheaper, easier, funnier sport. Besides, since skating is an extremely complex motion task, it is imperative to work out from young age the technique component, which usually is deadly boring for almost anyone. So in order to shape full grown athletes able to master correct fine technique, we need to instruct the basics to children using games whilst at the same time developing their basic motion skills. These skills are the foundation to proper technique in adult skaters: that’s a hard fact that cannot be ignored.

Our nastiest enemy
Have a look at this thread in Kathie Fry’s forum >> - I whish selective sterilization was prescribed when I read things like “recently in outdoor race he didn't fare well and the coach said other kids have 100 mm wheel and his is only 84 mm, though I was not convinced for a 8 yr. old I think 100 mm is a large wheel. Now I am trying to teach him double push but haven't got much success”.
This obviously is not a unique USA phenomenon: loony fanatics like this abound all around the globe, and they pose one of the major difficulties we coaches must face in our job.
Limiting ourselves to teach basic skills to children and play games during training sessions usually brings out this problem: the disappointment of parents, club officials and other coaches that tend to exasperate the competitiveness every child is naturally prone to have since birth. For these frustrated adults (usually standing on the loser’s side while young themselves), racing results are of the utmost importance: wining is everything, even for a little girl. Nothing causes more harm to the sporting career of a pre-teenager skater than this attitude! Nobody in his right mind should force kids to improve competitive performance, but a lot of grownups still do, because they don’t know the physiological and psychological reasons to avoid such a gross mistake. They are not acquainted with the term “
precocious specialization”, a scientifically demonstrated phenomenon (especially in the athletics field) that leads to a drastic reduction in maximum performance age. All those morons are not able to discern that the dissimilarities between an adult and a child are not only quantitative! Or should we assume they are very proud of their 15 year old world champion that quits before reaching the senior ranks? I can give you a long list of entire clubs that disappeared just because of that manic “champeonism” that lurks in the little minds of so many simpletons, who reflect their frustrations and ignorance onto their offspring.
If beginner coaches find themselves in a position in which parents and/or officials firmly believe they have the next Chad in a 12 year old, I suggest putting them to their right place with good or even bad manners. After all, we are paid by them to do the job, aren’t we? Officials tend to be more flexible, but obsessive parents are an entirely different matter. How to break in those fanatics? Good question… that not even the most experienced coaches are able to conclusively answer. The subject needs a full book for itself. Anyhow, the best option is to prevent: from the first session, it is crucial to make perfectly clear who’s in charge inside the track. Do not allow any external intervention during a session! In case anybody becomes a nuisance, talk to them privately first; if that doesn’t work then recourse to the club’s officials to eventually dispense sanctions to the offender. At the very last resort, it is better to loose one child with ignorant parents, than to ruin the whole group. Remember: during the session, you’re the boss. Show confidence, or else children will notice immediately and control will be lost forever. To express that compulsory confidence, experience is useful but there’s nothing better than groundwork: immerse yourself in studies, and keep your info up to date. The more knowledge and training you have on your field, the easier will be to silence those ever present know-alls.
Ultimately, what you should aim to get is a group of happy young skaters that enjoy coming to your lessons/training sessions again and again. In other words, a set of physically and mentally healthy persons who eventually will become adult skaters that will engross the competitive ranks, or even better, part of the amateur masses that nowadays make up popular skate-nights and marathons flourish around the world…. The backbone of the skating industry, after all.

Next step
Just as there is a small community of skating coaches sharing information about the most advanced technical aspects of our sport, I encourage anyone working with pre-teenager skaters to exchange ideas and distribute as much data as possible. I’ve been doing it in Spanish for quite some time, but I guess it’s time to start an English speaking community about this fascinating subject. Let’s give good use to the various forums around the net, create a new website, implement a newsletter or similar. Today’s technology allows for multiple forms of communication between us, so for the good of the future skaters, let’s get the wheel rolling at once.

M. Bresin

Originally published on Barry Publow’s book “The Science of Speed”, still available for sale here >>

Utopia: if I was FIRS president