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Archive for the ‘Health’ Category

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Outside of work, I spend many hours coaching my kids and other parents’ kids in school and community sports.  There is a  lively debate right now in the youth sports community about the value of focusing exclusively on a single sport from a young age. I wrote on the topic in a 2012 post on the Multi-Sport High School Athlete, and in 2013 on Being a Sports Parent Today.  Part of what really draws me to this challenge in youth sports are the parallels and similar debates in education.

I find the conversation around sports and whether we should be keeping score and ranking players and teams from youth, akin to the conversation around the purpose and appearance of elementary school report cards. Letter grades are very much like keeping score; those who argue for them remind us of the competitive nature of the world we live in and the need to let kids know where they stand, with those opposed contending the real competition is with oneself, learning and improving skills and the relative comparison to others is really secondary.

I also find the challenges for new providers in the youth sports game very similar to what has happened and is happening in education.  A generation ago it was the local community sports associations who were organizing youth sports. If you wanted to play hockey, soccer or basketball there was really only one option available.  Now, there are dozens — traditional community providers sharing the stage with other non-profit organizations, for-profit enterprises, as well as a series of new sport providers in as many sports capacities.  Similarly, in education we see public education challenged by independent schools for market share, and even less traditional options for learning like for-profit tutoring companies and completely virtual options like the Kahn Academy.

Youth sports, like learning options for young people, is in a time of transition — and it is part of what makes it an exciting time.

With that as a backdrop, here are my recent comments I shared for an article by Don Fennell, Sports Editor for the Richmond Review, Year-round sports mode: top athletes, coaches share their thoughts. I have also included the comments of my wife and oldest daughter on the topic from the article because the thoughts are really ‘all in the family’.

The shifts happening in youth sports are far more complex than just being good or bad, says educator Chris Kennedy, who is also a former president of the B.C. High School Boys’ Basketball Association.

“With the opportunity to go year-round, we have seen the traditional season disappear for almost all sports,” he says. “And there are some real concerns. There is a lot of research that early specialization leads to fatigue and burnout and overuse injuries. It also seems to serve the adults more than the kids. Kids are looking to have fun and often it is the adults’ competitiveness that is driving the decisions their kids make. There is also research that suggests adults who specialized in one sport growing up have higher rate of adult physical inactivity.”

Kennedy says the related debate with increased early specialization is whether sports should be more or less “score-focused” at younger ages. He thinks youth soccer and basketball have it right: de-emphasize scoring at younger ages and focus on development.

“This doesn’t mean we don’t want kids to be competitive, but do we need to keep score and have a focus on winning and losing all the time?,” he asks. “I like the race to nowhere metaphor and how it applies to youth sports. Parents are killing themselves to get their kids to so-called elite training that is getting in the way of being a kid and what is really the goal.”

Kennedy’s wife, Stephanie, is equally passionate about the topic. She has always believed that kids should be exposed to and participate in as many different sports as possible while they are young. And for a variety of reasons.

“I know through my own four children that all kids have their own structural make-up, both physically and mentally, and that different sports may cater to these differences,” she says. “I truly believe there is a sport for all kids, but it may take some effort and time to find out what that is. And in today’s age of childhood obesity, low activity levels, access to electronics and the resulting de-socialization of youth, sport can play a key role in reversing these trends.”

Stephanie, who runs Panther Cheer Athletics, is also adamant that kids participating in as many sports as possible when they’re young aids their physical development. This doesn’t mean, she says, they must do multiple sports at the same time, but within a calendar year should shift from one activity to another.

“This allows children’s young bodies, which are often growing and changing so rapidly, to adapt and hopefully grow stronger with minimal injuries,” she says. “I know from personal experience as a provincial level gymnast that I enjoyed the opportunity to play intramural sports (such as volleyball, basketball and soccer) in high school but began to resent the fact I wasn’t able to participate in these in any large way as gymnastics took most of my time. It also alienated me from my peers who played more conventional team sports and were members of high school teams. “

The eldest of the couple’s four children, Elizabeth, 12, thinks those who focus on one sport may quickly tire of it, burn out and then have no other alternatives.

“It is also more likely you will be injured because you are using the same body parts over and over,” she says. “(Alternately), if you play a lot of sports you have the chance to meet a far more diverse group of people and learn a diverse group of skills.”

Elizabeth says unfortunately sports out of the mainstream don’t get enough exposure and because kids don’t know about them “they may never try a sport they could be really good at or have a passion for.”

“Coaches in some sports are also organizing so many practices (young athletes) don’t have time to try other sports,” she adds. “I think there will be many more overuse injuries and once their career in that sport is over they won’t know what to do because they will feel it is too late to try a new sport.”

The entire article is worth a read here.  It is interesting that there is general consensus from all those interviewed of the value of young people playing a range of sports. So, I am left wondering, if we all believe this to be the right approach why then is this topic such an issue?  I think we may know it to be right on the theoretical level, but in the heat of  “keeping of with the Joneses” we have trouble letting our actions reflect this approach.

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health

There are observations often made about young people today. Young people today are “taking more risks” or “using more drugs”.  The observation becomes generalized that young people today are “just not as good” as young people of the past. The observations are insinuated quietly and, as isolated incidents emerge, they become referenced through the media in a way to punctuate the negative narrative. More observations are then made about why the incident has happened; maybe it is all the video games, or a shift in societal values, or that we are raising a generation of young people who are just not quite up to standard of those before them.

Well, this is where the latest survey results from the McCreary Centre Society  become interesting.  The McCreary Centre Society “is a non-government, non-profit organization committed to improving the health of B.C. youth through research and community-based projects.”  Since 1992, they have had students complete surveys on a range of topics related to comprehensive school health. The latest results published this year are the fifth such set of results based on the surveying of about 30,000 students in Grades 7 to 12.

Unfortunately, the media release which accompanied the results from the McCreary Adolescent Health Survey did not seem to generate a lot of discussion. Quoting from the release:

Results show that youth are generally making better choices about risk behaviours than they have in previous years. For example, a lower percentage of students reported having tried tobacco, alcohol, marijuana, or other substances than their peers five and ten years ago. They were also more likely to engage in injury prevention behaviours, such as wearing a seat belt and not driving after drinking.

These choices may also be reflected in better health outcomes: students were less likely to have had a sexually transmitted infection or to have been pregnant or caused a pregnancy, and a smaller percentage reported serious injuries than in previous years.

Other encouraging news from the survey included a decrease in the percentage of students who had been physically or sexually abused, as well as in the percentage who had been sexually harassed.

Now, that is a story that just doesn’t fit in with the observations. In fact, the kids today are actually doing pretty good.

The McCreary data is exceptionally useful for school districts in our planning processes. We have already spent quite a bit of time dissecting data and there is more time that will be spent still to come.  With thanks to Maureen Lee, our District Administrator (all data charts and graphs below are Maureen’s) we are looking at current areas of strength, concern and noticeable trends.

There has been tremendous work around school safety over the last decade. From the province’s ERASE Bullying Strategy, to numerous local school and community initiatives, there has been a sustained focus in this area.  Our data is trending in a direction that shows these efforts are paying off:

 

safety in schools

The “%” listed is for 2013 and the “%” bracketed is for 2008.  In all areas of the school, students are reporting they are feeling more safe and the numbers reporting they feel safe “Usually” or “Always” is over 90 per cent.

As we look at substance use the statistics are flat for marijuana, with three in 10 young people every having used it; tobacco use is slightly less with one in four having tried smoking. Of other drugs, it is prescription pills that still standout — although down from 17 per cent in 2008, the number is still at 10 per cent.  This has been a concerted area of work in our community with the school district working with West Vancouver MP, John Weston, the West Vancouver Police Department, as well as other partners to raise awareness on this issue.

The alcohol data shows the number of students who have tried alcohol has dropped by about 10 per cent and there has been a slight increase of students who have not “ever tried alcohol”.  It is also interesting to note, of those who have used alcohol, the age of first use has risen — so, young people are choosing to drink in lower numbers and are also choosing to drink later:

 

alcohol

In looking at the foods our young people are consuming, some of the messages around fruits and vegetables seem to be sticking.  Our young people are also drinking more water than when previously surveyed:

food

 

One final chart, which really struck me, was the one on Internet safety (below). Over the last five years, technology use in the hands of young people has exploded; it has become increasingly mobile and we are also encouraging students to bring their devices to school. In spite of this quick and huge growth in technology, students are reporting they feel safer with fewer feeling unsafe online and fewer reporting they have been cyber bullied.  Again, this is an area of huge investment between schools and communities and it does appear to be paying off:

 

cyber safety

As with learning outcomes, we have to be careful when we talk in percentages. If four per cent of students are feeling unsafe, these numbers represent real children and anything below 100 per cent (feeling safe) tells us we still have work to do.  We should be pleased with the story our young people are telling us and we can also take this as a clear message we need to keep doing what we are doing — our interventions are working.  There are also other areas we must continue to focus on including mental health, a lack of sleep and physical activity.

The Provincial BC Adolescent Health Survey is available on their website here.  The McCreary Centre Society will also be producing documents for each of the 16 health service delivery areas.

Of course, there are areas we still need to focus on and even in areas of strength, we must remain diligent. But, we do need to tell the story of our young people today and their health — it is a good story, an improving story and not just an observation.

 

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fitbit_2776467b

As I walked into our Soccer Academy class, the students were getting ready for their workout and part of that process is to adjust their heart-rate monitors.  The teacher, Jesse Symons, had an iPad to monitor the heart rates of all students in the class.  As he reviewed the live data, it was interesting to see what he was looking for.  As the intensity of the workout increased, he was looking for students who were raising their heart rate to a place where they were pushing themselves.  He could review the data of the entire class and see how much time each student spent in each “zone”.  Based on a colour scheme, red was the optimal zone for high intensity workouts. Also interesting to see was how quickly students’ heart rates would recover to a resting heart rate during breaks. This, as he pointed out, was usually a sign of strong athleticism, of an athlete who could quickly raise and lower their heart rate. Students who struggle to lower their heart rate (as activities slow down) are often not in as strong a condition.

Jesse Symonds reviews the live data

Jesse Symons reviews the live data

Of course, the next step is for students to understand the data.  Students are able to login to see their specific data and, as Jesse joked, the data doesn’t lie. It is early days yet, but there has already been some interesting findings.  For example, with Grade 8, high-level soccer players, there was a gender difference with many of the top female athletes not seeing their heart rates push to optimal levels for extended periods of time.  The fitness monitoring in the soccer academies is part of an Innovation Grant Program through the West Vancouver School District, with similar efforts also being made with Hockey Academy students.

Jesse talks about how heart rate monitors are being sourced with the Vancouver Whitecaps and the National Team. Combined with a GPS, the monitors give a full picture of their activity levels.  It is clearly a growing area in the science of sports and physical activity.

Personally, I’ve become convinced of the power of digital health tracking over the past few months since I started wearing my Fitbit. Actually, four of us have similar devices in our house — my wife and two older kids (ages 12 and 10) are also wearing these devices.  My Fitbit Force tracks my steps, distance, calories burned, minutes of vigorous activity and even my quality of sleep. There are dozens of these type of devices on the market with many more being promised this year. A report last week on wearable tech devices suggests these devices may see a 350 per cent growth in sales in 2014. I also think they have a huge potential to benefit students. For decades we have been encouraging students to keep logs and diaries of their physical activity.

Currently, in BC, through the Daily Physical Activity mandate, students track vigorous and sustained activity.  Anyone who has tried to keep an activity log is aware of its challenges. Logging the physical activity in a log book, or a computer is difficult to do (if not time-consuming) on a regular basis.  On the other hand, if all this data could be automatically collected, synced to our computers, iPhones, etc., we would be able to spend more time analyzing the data, rather than entering it.

In our house, we have become much more aware of our physical activity, how much of it is really vigorous and the role that sleep (or lack of it) is playing in our lives.  These are great conversations to have in our PE classes. Just as we want students to take greater ownership of their learning in Science and English and we see that technology as part of this overall plan, the same should be true for health education and physical activity.  We want students to own their own data, set goals, not in efforts to compete with others, but to better themselves.

There are concerns about wearable technology — that these type of devices, as well as others like Google Glasses and Samsung Smart Watches, are once again pushing technology into all aspects of our life.  I am always interested in technology when it can help do something we have always wanted to do but have not been able to without it.  I see the tracking of our health and physical activity in this category.  We want students to own their own learning and education and this includes owning their own physical activity and health. So, we need to find ways to integrate this emerging technology into our schools.

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Photo Credit:  Prasan Naik

Photo Credit: Prasan Naik

The first wave of national rankings from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA)  are receiving a lot of attention, but there is some very interesting data which tends to emerge from these results over time, often informative and often challenging our assumptions.  This graph from the Key Findings document did just that (you may have to click on the image to enlarge it):

motivate

According to the PISA Reports, “Stratification in school systems, which is the result of policies like grade repetition and selecting students at a young age for different “tracks” or types of schools, is negatively related to equity; and students in highly stratified systems tend to be less motivated than those in less-stratified systems.”

This is the latest contribution in the forever-long debate about the streaming of students. It is interesting to see the negative relationship regarding motivation. The equity issue could be understood — as students are streamed, those requiring more assistance tend to not get it, and lower level classes may receive less experienced teachers and fewer resources. But, it is the findings around motivation I find very interesting. I have often heard (and have likely repeated) that enriched/advanced classes allow high achievers to work with similar learners, allowing another group of students to be the high flyers in the ‘regular’ classes — opportunities they may not have had without the streaming.  The PISA results tend to counter this. It is interesting to see that Canada is low in streaming internationally, but high in equity and motivation.  The current push in British Columbia and Canada, around personalization and differentiation, embraces the idea that there are different levels of learners learning together in a classroom.

I also recently read an article from author, commentator and sports contributor, John O’Sullivan, Our Biggest Mistake:  Talent selection instead of talent identification which Alison McNeil shared on Twitter. This article takes on a similar topic, in the sports arena.  In it, O’Sullivan describes the differences between those who select talent and those who identify talent:

Talent selection is the culling of players with the current ability to participate and be successful in events taking place in the near future. Talent identification, on the other hand, is the prediction of future performance based upon an evaluation of current physical, technical, tactical and psychological qualities. Talent selection is pretty simple; talent identification is an art. One yields great results today; the other builds elite athletes and winning teams for the future. Our current “win at all costs” youth sports culture promotes talent selection. When a coach is pressured to win by parents or a club, or when he or she feels the need to win to serve their own ego, that coach becomes a talent selector. When you are focused on talent selection, you are picking athletes to help you win now, and cutting ones that will not. You are looking at current athleticism, technical ability and traits to help achieve short-term success.

O’Sullivan concludes “the emphasis on winning prior to high school is destroying youth sports.” And while he is making his argument to a United States audience the same debate occurs in Canada. While the Long Term Athletic Development Stages are being adopted by many sports organizations, it is also being scoffed at by others who see the de-emphasis on competition at young ages as a terrible sign of the times. It is interesting to take O’Sullivan’s writings, and substitute “learner” for “athlete” and “student selection” for “talent selection”. Enriched classes are very much like our private, tiered sports programs.  I have heard similar arguments for streaming young people in sports as young as five, as I have with enriched classes — they allow the high flyers to play with others like them, and allow others to excel at a lower level without the high flyers present.

O’Sullivan makes the argument that U.S. (and I would say Canadian) sports programs are in deep trouble unless there is a radical shift away from talent selection and toward talent identification. I see this as a similar argument that the PISA results are making with learning around the world — those who select and stream talented students instead of identifying and personalizing learning are bound to have less equity and lower levels of motivation.

This is another example of how efforts in our schools like removing letter grades at younger ages, and focusing on learning, are similar to efforts in our community sports to remove the keeping score and tallying of winners at young ages. While some argue these efforts are reducing standards and rigor, research is showing we need to look at youth development differently.

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throw ball

There has been an important recognition in schools, particularly at the junior grades, that we need to be doing more to keep kids active.  In British Columbia Action Schools BC have been leaders in this effort.  They are, in part:

a best practices whole-school model designed to assist elementary and middle schools in creating and implementing individualized action plans to promote healthy living while achieving academic outcomes and supporting comprehensive school health.

Daily physical activity is a regular part of schools and “action breaks”, among other strategies, are regularly employed. All of these physical activity initiatives are popular with educators, and they are also supported by research in: Spark – The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain by John Ratey.  The good news is — it may be just working. Last week the Globe & Mail reported on a recent US study that teen obesity rates could be leveling off and young people may be doing more exercise. This is all excellent news.

But, back to my question — can they throw a ball?

With all of our efforts focussed toward increasing physical activity, some are lamenting the”sports” part of the physical activity is taking a backseat.  From baseball to soccer, basketball to tennis, schools are now seen less as places for young people to acquire sports-specific skills and that we are turning, instead, to the community for the development of sport-specific skills.  Of course, community sports are nothing new, but “school” sports like volleyball and basketball were, only a generation ago, exclusive to schools and are now taught at younger ages primarily in the community.  As well, groups like KidSport help bridge the financial barrier for some families when kids can’t participate in community sports.  Still, some will argue that sports aren’t a necessary part of our school system, but I think most would agree that the fundamental skills of running, jumping and throwing a ball are core skills we want for all young people. Canadian Sport for Life describes this in its Long Term Athlete Development Plan.

So, looking at our elementary schools, one key challenge is the lack of teacher training for sports skills. PE specialist teachers are exceptionally rare in the province and teachers either have to teach their own PE classes or swap with another staff member (e.g. Teacher A takes Teacher B’s art class while Teacher B takes Teacher A’s PE class).  Without the training, many elementary PE classes are high on activity but not so high on skills-acquisition.

Our district is part of a program trying to change this and is investing and partnering in programs that support physical literacy.  Diane Nelson, who is the Principal-lead on our Sports Academy Programs at secondary, is working with others in Metro Vancouver on a program partnering our Grades K-3 teachers with coaches who have strong skills in teaching sports-specific skills.  The three-lesson progression helps both teacher and students.   Chartwell Elementary Principal, Aron Campbell, recently blogged about the program, Physical Literacy:  The Other 3 R’s . . . Running, Jumping and Throwing.  And, over the course of the year, our K-3 teachers will have the opportunity to work side-by-side with Jesse Symons who is a head coach / teacher in the district’s Premier Soccer Academy. To quote from Aron’s blog:

Although some of the basic skills such as walking, running, jumping, hopping, throwing and catching may seem natural or innate in children, for many kids, this is not the case. Developing basic “Physical Literacy” ​is critical for kids to acquire in order to build an ongoing sense of athletic confidence, as they are exposed to more and more opportunities to be active and involved in sport throughout their years at school and beyond.  Whether it is organized soccer, t-ball, or games in a PE class or at recess, a firm grasp in ‘physical literacy provides the motivation that can be invaluable for kids in the future development of self-esteem and the pursuit of a physically active lifestyle.

And once students have these core skills at the primary level, it is a goal for our intermediate classrooms to continue the partnership with local sports organizations. It is not a new idea, but part of a systemic plan for elementary schools to partner with the local soccer clubs or tennis organizations in offering programs to students.  It is a win-win opportunity since most community sports organizations are struggling to attract young people and are facing declining numbers; by partnering with our schools, they can offer their expertise to all students and can ignite the passion of a student who will pick the sport up in the community. To me, it is an approach that has some real opportunities and we should try to tap into it.

It is absolutely important to recognize the great work being done to help our kids to become healthier, whether it is eating better or being more active. While some (albeit mostly south of the border) were recently bemoaning the narrowing of the curriculum that saw a reduction in physical activity, there is a realization young people being active is a key part of improving student success.

That said, the time is right to invest in sports skills for all young people in schools — not only because we are taking on the training of the next Olympians, but because these skills are also life skills and they are best learned at a young age as they expose students to sports and games they might not otherwise try. And, we can’t solely rely on the community for them.

Thanks to Diane Nelson, District Principal Sports Academies and the driving force in our district behind this work, and to viasport for their financial support.

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selfreg

Two of my most popular posts have been about Dr. Stuart Shanker and his work; each post has received well over 10,000 views.  To recap, the first post in November 2010 is here and the second one here  was written in April 2012.

West Vancouver is part of the first wave of school districts in British Columbia, along with Bulkley Valley, Coquitlam, Greater Victoria, Nanaimo and Surrey, who are working together on a project to implement and monitor the impact of self-regulated instructional models.  One of the greatest contributions to date has been a one-stop shop for resources on Self-Regulation (here).

Dr. Shanker’s work is clearly providing inspiration around the province, and we are seeing that in each of our schools in West Vancouver.  While the work models may look slightly different in each school, the impetus of having students in their zone for learning is district-wide.  A number of recent blog posts by some of our district educational leaders support this influence:

Westcot Principal, Liz Hill describes her school’s work with The Zones of Regulation:

We often make the assumption that children know how to identify their emotions, but akin to teaching reading, writing and math, emotional  literacy is a skill that needs to be taught to our children.  The Zones of Regulation framework teaches the language of emotions.  This helps children understand how one’s state of regulation impacts one’s ability to be calm, alert and ready to learn.  Using this framework, students develop  their own personal toolkit of strategies and learn when, how and why to use  strategies to help them  be “good to go” or “ready to do their best learning.”  These self-regulation tools may include breathing techniques, stretching, exercising, reading or simply getting a drink of water.

West Bay Principal, Judy Duncan, describes her school’s efforts to look through a lens of self-regulation:

Self-regulation spans all five domains (biological, cognitive, emotional, social, pro-social) and is really about the burning and recovering of energy.  As Shanker states, “optimal self-regulation requires a child to match his or her energy levels to meet the demands of a situation in a maximally efficient manner.”  More and more research is linking how well students do in school to their ability to self-regulate.  We are seeing this firsthand at West Bay, thus the excitement to improve our practice.

Our school’s Self-Regulation Team meets regularly to discuss how teachers and students can be supported in the quest to maintain self-regulation in the classroom. The team shares its work at staff meetings and in informal conversations; our teachers are keen on deepening their understanding of self-regulation and are open to trying new strategies to support their students. If you were to wander into our Grade Two classroom, you might see some students wearing noiseless headphones, some using cardboard study carrels (they call these “force fields”), others sitting on wiggle cushions, while others may be perched on stools at the side of the classroom.  These seven-year olds are beginning to figure out what they need to help them learn.  This metacognition piece is key.  As one little girl blurted out the other day, “I need to self-regulate!” Being aware of your own emotions and what you need to achieve a state of calm is very powerful!

Lions Bay Vice-Principal, Jody Billingsley, describes a number of ways they are fostering self-regulation including a series of classroom management techniques:

Classroom management techniques that have the children thinking about their levels of arousal when in a lesson.  We have “check ins” where the student self-assesses as to whether she is calmly focused and alert.  We call this level 4 – directly stemming from Shanker’s stages of arousal.  If they are at the level 3 stage (hypoalert) of arousal, they may be daydreaming, whereas at level 5 students may be over-stimulated and not able to focus (hyperalert).  If we see a child that is not at level 4, we give a friendly reminder to “check in” with themselves, or “give themselves a hug” as a way to think about where they are with being calmly focused and alert.  The idea is to have them see when this is occurring, reinforce behaviour with a verbal or non-verbal cue, and eventually watch how the students do this independently.

Irwin Park Principal, Cathie Ratz, has her school focussed on MindUP™ to help students be calm, alert and ready to learn:

It is a family of social, emotional, and attentional self-regulatory strategies and skills developed to cultivate well-being and emotional balance. Based on the notion that intellect does not exist in isolation from emotions,  connections to others or the rest of their bodies, the MindUP™  program is designed to address these components of learning for all students.

By teaching our students about the brain we make them more aware of their own thoughts and emotions. It can also help them to develop the ability to think about thinking, or metacognition. That awareness would then give them better control over their own mind—directing their attention more appropriate, or calming themselves down—in ways that could improve learning.

These are only four stories, but there are stories like these in every school in West Vancouver.  It is often a lament that schools and those who work in them, are slow to change.  Where, three years ago, there was hardly a person in our district who could describe the power and importance of self-regulation, this research now influences how we teach, organize our classes, and how we think about our buildings in every corner of the district.

Finally, I encourage you to spend some time with the wonderful resources being collected as part of the newly revamped website in support of the  Canadian Self-Regulation Initiative.

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High school students sampling different sports each season, appears to be a diminishing reality.  Many may know the stories of athletes like Steve Nash and Wayne Gretzky, who played a number of sports as a youth, and specialized in a sport later in life. But, when we look to our high school athletes today, it seems more are focusing on specific sports at a younger age, and this trend is one that is dramatically changing our high school sports. Recently, Cam Cole wrote an excellent piece around this in the Vancouver Sun about physical literacy and the decline in kids sports.

Of course, at its core, this is not really a school issue; it is far broader than that. There is an intersection of school and community in almost every sport today. While less than a decade ago there were often lines between ‘school sports’ (e.g. volleyball, basketball, rugby) and ‘community sports’ (soccer, hockey, baseball) the lines have blurred.  Today, almost every sport is a 12-month sport. For some sports like hockey, this is almost 100 per cent in community; for others like basketball, it is more evenly split between school and the community.  Many sports have complete organizations in schools and the community.

Personally, I think something is being lost in early sports specialization.   A recent report from Matthew Bridge and Martin Toms out of the United Kingdom: “The specializing or sampling debate:  a retrospective analysis of adolescent sports participation in the UK” tends to agree. The report indicates  “individuals who competed in three sports aged 11, 13, and 15 were significantly more likely to compete at a national compared with club standard between the ages of 16 and 18 than those who practised only one sport.”   This runs counter to what many athletes, coaches and parents seem to believe, and who go all-in on a sport from a very young age.

Another phenomena influencing multi-sport, high school athletics is the increased emergence of paid coaches in community programs.  While still largely supported by volunteer staff, parents and community members, most major community sporting clubs have some paid staff, who are obviously invested in retaining athletes for their livelihood.  When it was solely a system of volunteers, the parent who coached soccer in the fall often helped coach the school basketball team in the winter, as well as the softball team in the spring.  Paid community coaches are often less likely to see their athletes sample school sports.

There is also a major overlap and growing competition between school and non-school sporting opportunities (in many ways, it follows the non-profit versus profit paradigm).  Club programs run all year and coaches will often discourage “their” athletes (the issue of  coaches and so-called “athlete ownership” is also very infuriating)  from participating on school teams outside of their sport. So, the community soccer coach doesn’t want a player to play volleyball for the school, because they want to promote sport specialization.

As a parent, along with my kids, I do want to have more say in this conversation. I want my kids to have the opportunity to play a range of sports if they want to.  I am less concerned with “development”, which is all the buzz in sports now, and more concerned with the “fun” which should be all the buzz.

I like the advice Stephanie Hauser, a high school athletic director from Wisconsin,  recently shared on the topic of multi-sport athletes at Proactive Coaching:

For Parents:

  • Be the final decision makers on behalf of your kids’ well-being.  This means having to put your foot down and be willing to make the difficult decision to say “no” on behalf of your multi-sport athletic child.  Injury, fatigue and burnout WILL happen if you are not willing to say “no” to some things.  Know when it is the right time to make the decision for your child – don’t automatically give the kids the choice; most will opt to attend everything, not wanting to let any of their coaches down.
  • Be willing to “shut them down” for a time period when you see fatigue or burnout happening.  Last summer, we were seeing the signs of some nagging fatigue injuries with our daughter, and we were struggling as parents with how to best handle the situation.  Then, the best thing for all of us happened – she twisted her ankle at Panther Fitness.  This was the excuse that we needed to shut down for the remaining three weeks of the summer…what a blessing in disguise!! The results were amazing.  Her shin splints went away, her knee and hip pain went away, she had time to hang out with friends, clean her room, read a book, and when volleyball season began three weeks later, she proceeded to have an all-conference season.  The trade-off for her was a refreshed body and mind, rather than a few more weeks of training, and she came back stronger than where she left off.

For Coaches:

  • Let your actions speak louder than your words.  Many coaches say that they support the multi-sport athlete, but it is evident that this is just “lip service” because in reality they are putting undue pressure on these multi-sport athletes to attend everything.  Have regular conversations with these kids, so you will be able to sense when it is time to give them a little more breathing room.  In reality, many of these multi-sport athletes are the most reliable, competitive and naturally athletic kids on your team.  They are the “studs” – let them thrive in their other sports, and then come your sport and thrive there.  I have witnessed this with our own daughter.  There is no doubt that she begins each season looking a bit rusty.  My husband and I call that the “three-sport athlete look.”  Yet, within the first few weeks of the season she not only meets, but exceeds the performance of others who have spent countless hours in the off-season in the gym refining their one-sport skills.  Coaches, spend the off-season time with the athletes that need you the most, those single-sport athletes who may have limited athletic ability.  They really need you to help them fine-tune their skills because they may not have the strong athletic ability to rely on.  This is the opportunity for you to really help them strive to be the best that they can be.
  • Work with other head coaches to coordinate your off-season schedules and regularly talk with them about shared athletes.  NEVER make an athlete feel like they have to choose between one coach and the other, and NEVER discuss or put down that athlete’s other coaches.

For Athletic Directors:

  • Schedule time for head coaches to sit down together to coordinate the summer calendars, open gyms, contact days, and camps in a sincere effort to minimize the number of conflicts and difficult choices that the multi-sport athlete is forced to make.  This will open the communication lines and minimize the frustration between coaches who feel that they are competing for the multi-sport athletes’ time.
  • Communicate the multi-sport athlete philosophy of the athletic department with parents and share with them the things that the athletic department and coaches are doing to support that multi-sport athletes.  Provide multi-sport athlete research, education and data for parents.
  • Manage the outside entities, such as legion baseball, AAU basketball and select soccer.  Work with your coaches to find ways to we get these outside entities to work with the school to help us maintain three-sport athletes.  To do this, you need buy-in from the coaches and the willingness to commit to this effort and be the liaison between school and outside entity.
  • Applaud and honor the multi-sport athlete.  Build recognition opportunities into your athletic award system.  Many of these kids are truly masters of time management, selflessness and self-discipline; and they have a passion for competition.  Additionally, there are those multi-sport athletes with marginal athletic ability that truly just want to participate so that they can be a part of something good.  Reward these kids for their dedication and contribution to your school.

There are a number of challenges currently happening in high school athletics, and I actually think we may have one or more new models developing (more on this in another post), but one value we should return to in school sports, and really — in all sports — is the value of the multi-sport, high school athlete.

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After school activities have always been a major concern for parents. Over the last two decades, this has been a growing concern with both parents often working, and young people having reduced supervision after school.   The latest Active Healthy Kids Canada Report Card on Physical Activity for Children and Youth paints a disturbing picture about physical activity for children and youth between 3-6 p.m., and suggests the problem is not the same problem as lamented in the past, but a growing and more concerning challenge.

Quoting from the report:

“Right now, kids are spending over 40 hours a week in front of screens,” says Dr. Mark Tremblay, Chief
Scientific Officer, Active Healthy Kids Canada, and Director of HALO. “These alarming numbers equate to a
very sedentary child, so we must transform the after‐school hours into healthy, active living time.

In part, some of this “healthy, active living time” has been diminished because of parental concerns about supervision and safety around after-school activities like running, biking, and playing outside with friends. This time is now often filled with watching television, or playing video and computer games. Increasingly,  students are attending after-school programs with little or no physical activity.  We see this with the rise of businesses catering to or offering more “school” after school for students — whether that be additional language training or, very often, math support.

And what do the report authors see as some of the solutions?

Getting kids outside:  those who are outside take about 2,000 more steps than those who stay indoors after school

School-Community Partnerships:  finding ways to offer recreational programs in school facilities, or nearby facilities after school

Youth Leadership:  have students assist in the development of programs for their peers

Policy and Investment Support:  target resources for the promotion of physical activity in the after-school hours

This time period is particularly challenging as there is no one group with a solution to the challenge.  There are, however, roles for policy-makers, parents, early childhood educators,  recreational and health professionals, and schools to play.  There is overwhelming research indicating youth who are physically active improve their mental health, academic performance, contribute/maintain a healthy body weight, and develop physical literacy.

This being true, communities will need to work together to reverse the growing after-school trends.  The efforts to increase physical activity during the school day are laudable. Now, we need to figure out on how these efforts can be supported between 3-6 p.m.

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The Value of School Sports

Photo Credit:  Mike MacNeil, WVSS

There is a rhythm to school sports and secondary school sports are approaching their second of three crescendos in the year.  One has its pinnacle in early December with the conclusion of sports like volleyball and football. Basketball among others play for championships in March and rugby and track-and-field are among those that climax in late May. In February, many schools turn to the basketball playoffs as we approach B.C.’s March Madness.

I don’t spend as much time in gyms as I did even a few years ago when I was often consumed by them — first as a coach and then as a school administrator — but the value I see  in school sports hasn’t changed.  There is a great deal that can be written about what is changing with school sports, and what needs to change, so they remain vibrant parts of our schools (clearly, more posts to come), but this post has a tighter focus.   The photo above, taken at last Friday’s game between West Van Secondary and Sentinel, shows amazing school pride in action.

What do I love about school sports?  They provide a lens through which to see the world.  It is positive values that make sports meaningful.  These values are still alive and well in two ways — the value of school sports, and the values that we hold in school sports.  It is a wonderful ritual that links our school experiences to those of our parents and our kids.

From time to time, I am concerned about athletics and values.  Mostly, I am worried school athletics in the larger community are not valued as they should be.  We often hear about how we need to improve reading, writing and math skills — and the implication is, it’s okay if the arts or athletics fall off.  I sometimes feel like I missed a memo somewhere — are school sports not important anymore?

For many adults, some of our greatest moments in high school came from outside the classroom, at a school drama performance, as part of a school trip and, for many, from school sports.  We also know, absolutely, school sports make an important contribution to the culture, character and definition of our schools.

I have seen, and still see, school sports much like Bill Bradley described in his book Values of the Game.  So many of the qualities of a full and meaningful life are honed on a soccer field, in a gymnasium, or in the pool.  The passion that drives you to compete and better yourself.  The discipline that forces you to maintain a schedule and balance your life.  The selflessness that epitomizes being a great team player.  The respect you develop for each other, teammates, opponents and the games you play.  The perspective and resilience you find by realizing life goes on, even after a big loss, and winning and losing is not only about the score in the game.  The courage you show to triumph over adversity, and the leadership which defines special athletes whose greatest accomplishments are not only about making themselves better, but raising the level of all those around them.

We are lucky to have the model we have for school athletics.  A model built on volunteerism — teachers and other staff coming together with parents and others in the community, to foster not only the growth of school sports, but also the building of life values.  There are few better feelings than when a former athlete sees you some 10 or 20 years after you worked with them, calls you coach and tells you that he or she is now also coaching.  While we can lament there is not more money in athletics, or that we don’t have a paid coaching model like some private schools, or many places in the United States — we do have a model where communities come together and make school sports happen, and often “pay it forward” athletes later in life become coaches to offer others what they once had.

Thanks to everyone in our district — and in all districts — who support our students through athletics, helping our students to sharpen their values.  School sports continue to be a wonderful ritual worth celebrating.

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I feel very lucky to Chair the West Vancouver School District Comprehensive School Health Committee.  I have written (here) about this group before and a presentation we heard this fall from the McCreary Centre Society.   Our committee includes students, parents, teachers, administrators, support staff, the District of West Vancouver and a number of key personnel from Vancouver Coastal Health.  We had another excellent session today and one topic emerged that clearly merits more discussion.

There have been amazing changes in our schools over the last five years when it comes to healthy choices and healthy eating.  The Guidelines for Food and Beverage Sales in BC Schools have eliminated the sale of unhealthy foods and beverages in schools.  While, from time-to-time, groups need reminders about alternatives to cupcake sales, students in our secondary schools now, will never know a time when vending machines were stocked with Kit Kats and Coca Cola.  We have proudly been leaders with this work, and have exceptionally supportive schools and parents, supported by Kathy Romses, a Community Dietitian with Vancouver Coastal Health, and a provincial leader in the area.

The discussion today focussed on: while we have made great progress with food sales, candy is still widely being used as a reward.  The word “rampant” was used to describe the use of candy as a reward for good work, on-task behaviour, among a host of other reinforcements in classrooms.  The consensus of the group was we need to address this.  Parents are frustrated that while they are promoting healthy choices, some schools are giving mixed messages. The guidelines do speak to selling food items only, so it does seem to send a mixed message.

I think there are a couple of approaches to this.  First, there is the issue of the use of extrinsic motivators with everything we read from respected professionals like Alfie Kohn who argues:

More than 70 studies have found that the more you reward people for doing something, the more they lose interest in whatever they had to do to get the reward. It’s not just that rewards are ineffective over the long haul; it’s that they are actively counterproductive.

There is also the recent thinking of Daniel Pink in Drive, where he writes about what motivates us (this RSA Video below is well worth 11 minutes of your time if you have not seen it):

Even if we don’t look at the issue of motivation, there is the health issue of using candy as a reward.  As Kathy Romses points out, food rewards connect food to mood and encourage rewarding or comforting oneself with food and eating when you’re not hungry; long-term eating patterns are often carried into adulthood; sticky or foods high in sugar cause tooth decay; using unhealthy foods as a reward sends a mixed message about healthy eating.

Okay, great, but what are teachers (and for that matter, parents) suppose to do?  Kathy, as shared in her VCH document, Healthier Rewards, also has a series of suggestions if you are looking for extrinsic non-food rewards.

  • Class or group field trip
  • School supplies (e.g. pencils, pens, marker, post-it notes, white out, bookmark)
  • Certificate of recognition
  • Activity items (e.g. jump rope, Frisbee, ball, hacky sack)
  • Water bottle, tea bags
  • Hair accessories, shoe laces, chap stick, deck of cards, key chain, toothbrush
  • A plant, or a pot and plant seeds
  • Movie passes or recreation centre passes
  • Gift card to bookstore or music store

The healthy schools movement is clearly a journey and we have made some great progress.  Today’s discussion is a good reminder we still have some more important conversations to have in schools, and communities as we promote healthy lifestyles.

* Thanks to Kathy Romses and others on the District Comprehensive School Health Committee for their thoughts that contributed to this post.

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