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Youth Development and Coaching in Orienteering

The Future is Fun

by Erin Schirm, Junior Team Coach

I recently attended the 2018 U.S. Olympic Committee American Development Model (ADM) and Youth Sports Symposium in Colorado Springs withBarb Bryant [current VP-Youth Initiatives]. The conference brought together a mix of people ranging from youth sports initiative leaders, to people heading up national sports governing organizations. There were two and a half days of presentations and conversations focused on improving sports and making them more kid-friendly. The ADM highlights stages of development similar to the Canadian Long Term Athlete Development Model (LTAD), which suggests how to approach children at various ages and/or starting out in the sport. It was interesting to note that orienteering is not the only struggling sport and that many of the other national governing bodies are having similar issues.

Throughout the entire conference, there were a number of themes that continued to resurface. The four big ones include: (1) children are the future; (2) great coaching is key; (3) picking focus areas to develop rather than trying to do everything, and; (4) marketing and presenting the content of your sport well. In the following paragraphs I will discuss these themes in more detail.

Children are the future of the sport

This seems like an obvious point of development because kids bring families, and more kids in the sport means the continuation of the sport. The big question is, how to attract kids and retain them? The resounding starting point made in the conference, from a variety of sports, is “FUN!” For example, U.S. Archery starts kids off shooting at a variety of fun targets such as balloons full of paint and powder. U.S. Lacrosse is introducing the sport through fun games, such as keep-away, which naturally develop ingenuity, spacing, and moving to the ball without the coach having to spend a lot of time talking about the concepts.

Another key point is age-appropriate activities. Here, it is important to think back to our childhoods and remember how we played: The variety of games that we made up, the creative play that engaged imagination, our freedom of movement, and the sense awareness that we developed. Yet, it is all too common to think of a child as a small version of an adult, and to introduce sport to them in the way that adults and professionals practice the sport. It is becoming clear that this approach does not work and does not meet the kids’ needs. It ends up bringing in the intellect too fast. A common phrase many of us have here is, “get out of your head,” describing the experience when all activity is jammed up in the head and connection is lost to the surrounding environment. An adult who has had healthy play development and healthy skills development will be able to stay connected while working with a thinking concept.  Introducing a child to concepts too early essentially puts them right into their head, bypassing the stages of play and skill. The question arises, what is the right approach and how might we bring it to orienteering?

The new American Development Model describes that between ages 0-12 activities should be playful and discovery-based.  An example of an orienteering game is Vampire-O. It is a tag game with a navigational theme. Now, Vampire O as we know it usually requires a map. However, it can be simplified by giving a boundary and saying find as many flags as you can without getting tagged in the allotted time.  My experience of orienteering in the U.S. has been that we have great skills development which is appropriate for ages 10-12 and up. From 0-12, kids are developing their basic movement capacities and senses. Thus when you take the map out of Vampire O, kids have to now become aware of their surroundings, remember how to get back without a map, develop their visual sense to locate flags, and above all they enjoy it. All of these are precursor skills to using a map and compass in hand. Another example game is Pirates and Explorers. It’s set up with a base in the middle and a circle of bases at each of the eight cardinal directions. The Pirate starts in open space. The Explorers are given a direction such as NE and have to run to the base without getting tagged by the Pirate. The game ends when either all Explorers are caught or at least one Explorer makes it to all the bases when called and back home without getting tagged. The game teaches spatial awareness, seeing a variety of route choices to get from point A to point B, orientation to the cardinal directions, and gets the kids running, dodging, and playing. To attract more kids to the sport we can start with activities such as these to teach basic skills and make it fun. Once they realize what a great sport we have, the concepts of map reading and compass use make much more sense because the child has an experience of the activity before using the tool.

Great coaches

This is very closely tied to previous theme of children being the future. A coach is often one of the most influential people in an athlete’s life. A poor coach can push a child away from sport altogether. A good coach can inspire an athlete for the entirety of their life. Having a solid coaching program, and people who are passionate — and knowledgeable — about working with and inspiring kids is key. A kid may come back after their first experience because of the impression a good coach left them with. The people signing them up (i.e., mom and dad) pay attention, and if a child comes back glum or down versus energetic and fulfilled you know the answer to what will be cut when the going gets tough.

So how do we attract coaches and then retain them? It starts with finding candidates: keeping an eye out for someone who is good with kids, passionate about youth development, and interested in helping. Once you find them, talk to them, and encourage them to give it a go. And finally, educate them: provide them with information about how to work with kids, and tools to make practice planning easy. This recipe will help retain both coaches and kids, because everyone is thriving and having fun. In short, when you have a good coach, take care of them because they are the lifeblood of your programs, and kids often come back because of the coach. My goal out of this is to mainstream coaching education for the U.S. community and create a simple introductory program, along with the levels and models to highlight a healthy approach, so that the information is readily available when you find someone who is ready to be a coach.

Focused areas of development

You could say the first two themes that I talked about provide the answer for this theme: Where to focus our efforts. Many sports have many applications and arenas. For example, in orienteering we can offer training and events to scouts and JROTC, schools and after-school programs, boys and girls clubs, running groups, and many more. We can provide it in an urban setting, a forest setting, a school setting, a business setting, or an indoor setting. There are many directions to choose from.

It was clear at the symposium that decision makers need to choose a couple of directions and not try to reach everyone all at once. It’s important to note that you can always return to other areas of development once one is sufficiently underway. More importantly, if you can choose areas of development that can be adapted for the future areas of growth, you’re setting yourself up for long term success. For example, kids’ introductory programs will get more families involved, which means more volunteers, which means new potential coaches and potentially new course setters and mappers in the long term. Good education material can easily be adapted for schools, scouts, JROTC, etc. This way you can start expanding with a good core to many areas. Here are some basic steps to decide how to choose a focus area.   

  1. Figure out what you’re interested in and set some goals based on the interests (e.g., more schools doing orienteering in your area)
  2. Figure out what you already have that could serve as a starting point (e.g., a teacher or parent at the school or schools)
  3. Research what makes a program for your target audience effective (e.g., fun, age-appropriate, aligned with teaching standards)
  4. Create a program that is aligned with the best practices from your research (e.g., a game-based navigation activity with a lot of movement and very little talking). Something that can be effective for this step is partnering up with programs and people who can support what you are trying to accomplish with materials or advice.
  5. Track the implementation and make improvements based on observations of what’s working or not working (e.g., the scavenger hunt for the younger kids needed to be more picture-based because not all of them could read)

Once you get started you can use what you created to expand. Using the example above of a school program, once you’ve done it a few times you can adapt it to offer an after-school program for kids, or take elements of it and help incorporate them into kids’ running programs that already exist. At the conference we were introduced to programs such as TrueSport, an education-based program for ethics in sports. Another program was How to Coach Kids, an app with thirty minutes of video to give new coaches the basics for teaching kids. I’m excited to incorporate tools like this to already existing programs to enhance them and highlight even more some of the values in the junior program and Orienteering USA.

Marketing and presentation of the sport

This seems to be one of the main places that eludes us as orienteers. How do we present the sport? One point from the conference is to create good material that lays out core values, philosophies of sport, and educational approaches. For example, U.S. hockey has the slogan “no hockey is bad hockey.” So this means one of their values is to use any kind of hockey for development. This allows them to work together with roller hockey, floor hockey, and other fun versions of the sport. For marketing purposes, this suggests to people that you can start in any version of the sport and still be welcomed in ice hockey.

The slogan that we use for the junior national team is, “it starts at home”. This means that if we can’t do it in the U.S., and if the athletes don’t focus on their training in their local area, we will never reach our highest goals. This suggests a direction for the program as well as a nice marketing concept to use as a rallying cry.

The ADM provides a framework to describe, for example, how to progress the presentation of activities for various audiences participating in the sport. By aligning with the ADM, you are saying that you value play first, age-appropriate activities and elite development, as well as a life-long connection to the sport. At the conference, a multi-sport approach was referenced. It’s becoming common knowledge that a variety of sports at an earlier age is better than focused specialization. So rather than think we have to compete with soccer or baseball or basketball, we should think how can we work with them. This is quite a change from the current environment where the trend is specialization. If you can find ways to work with the youth sports programs in your local areas and fit schedules together, this is a huge selling point. Parents ultimately want what’s best for their kids and by offering programs that work towards healthy growth and child development, you are aligning with what parents are actually looking for. The hardest step is reeducation and I think for us in the orienteering community we have to start with education.

At the foundation of everything here is fun and joy. So my challenge to myself and my challenge to the orienteering community is, how can we make our sport fun in 2019?  Go USA: it starts at home!