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Discussion: Technical difficulty of courses for youth

in: Orienteering; General

Jun 20, 2016 5:51 PM # 
A comment in a course design thread made me think about the courses that North American junior categories are on. In Scandinavia in the late 1980s, I recall, youth courses went off trail and required use of topography to navigate, although there might be linear or area features nearby to relocate on. The commenters in the above thread describe an off trail course requiring mostly topographic navigation (but with catching and collecting features in most cases) as suitable for H/D 13-14. In North America, the 13-14 categories are on Yellow (USA) or course 2 (Canada), for which the OUSA standards indicate limited use of compass, mostly navigating along linear features, large features for controls, avoidance of dense areas. It may be far better for young North Americans to begin experiencing topographic navigation far earlier (Brown course, but with catching or collecting features). Spend one's youth making, relocating from, and learning from topographical navigation errors, and then be ready to navigate solidly as a young adult. The Jukola video commentators described a section of off-trail navigation to small features as an "easy" section of the last leg of the relay. It can take many years of navigating off trail to learn to do it not just reliably but quickly, in the toughest terrain that can be thrown at you.
Jun 20, 2016 8:22 PM # 
I am inclined to think that the course structure has tended to match the capabilities of the average participant. In North America, we do not have a history of well-developed junior programs and thus, the capability of the average youngster hasn't been very high. The technical difficulty of courses for kids (e.g., M/F 11-12, 13-14, 15-16) has been lower in North America than courses for comparable age categories in Europe.

Historically, the keen kids who orienteer a lot have dealt with this issue by running up into the next higher age group.

Where there are now active junior training programs, I would say we have the ability to raise the bar with more challenging courses for youth. But, it would be a mistake to simply raise the bar without providing a support structure (i.e., organized training programs) for our youth.
Jun 20, 2016 10:03 PM # 
I hear what you're saying Brian, but I wonder if we're selling our youth short, having been there. Categories only tend to apply at national events, which are competitions. Setting the bar higher might challenge youth. I recall teaching an orienteering class in university, attended by an athletic woman who later raced quite well in F21. But she didn't take orienteering seriously for a while after my class, because she gained the impression that it was about walking in the woods with a map (which is what most of the participants did), and didn't see the high difficulty, high speed racing side. A jump straight to European standards all at once might do ill, but would halfway be a positive development? M/F-12 on Yellow/2, M/F-14 on Orange/3, M/F-16 on Brown/4 (perhaps with catching features within 100-200m). Open courses are available at many events, often more cheaply.
Jun 20, 2016 10:09 PM # 
Here are the "rules" for courses in Sweden.
Similar color coding as in US and courses for youth along the lines mentioned by Jim in the comment above.

There are additional comments with map examples for each color coded course if you look here.

Sorry that it´s all in Swedish, but you should get some of the idea by looking at the maps.
Jun 20, 2016 10:35 PM # 
It's an interesting issue that I have thought about myself, but the solution is not obvious. In terms of getting experience, it's probably not so important, since experience is mostly gained in local meets where there are normally no age categories and kids are free to run whatever courses they like. Certainly, in Ottawa the best kids start to run advanced courses around the age of 13 or so. But it is true that technically harder championship courses would provide better motivation to improve their navigation. It may not be a very big deal, though - if the kids want to eventually race internationally, then just telling them that the courses in Europe for their age group are harder may provide the necessary motivation. On the other hand, the common wisdom is that if the courses are too hard so the kids are not able to finish them, that would discourage them. How much that is true, I don't know. Ironically, the example of an athletic woman given by JimBaker would favour simpler courses for youth/novices, since the athletes would be able to run faster and appreciate the athletic side more.
Jun 20, 2016 10:55 PM # 
I don't think that the issue was as much that she couldn't navigate at speed, but didn't see that there was such a thing as technical, fast, competitive orienteering. If we say that orienteering along or very near handrails is national standard for 14 year olds, that sets an expectation about what competitive orienteering is. I started when I was 10, and probably only did White a few times (maybe once?), progressing to Yellow quickly and Orange and above once I started mapping at 12.

Sprints serve well as simple navigation that's difficult only due to speed; an excellent way to hone one's precision. But for the forest, one needs topographic navigation, and that often starts late in North America. Certainly, I ran up when I was young, but that was odd, never knowing how much other competitors would run up (well, this was long before registration lists were available online), and expecting that sends an odd message. It felt odd to run up at a national championship (but I was seen by some as dogging it if I didn't).
Jun 20, 2016 11:14 PM # 
To be honest, part of the problem is that the course structure doesn't progress navigation, especially topographic navigation, in the incremental way that the Swedish system above does. Yellow/2 normally requires no topographic reading, just handrails to or near the controls. Two courses up, Brown, is designed as top technical difficulty, originally created as a course for older people (like me) winding their way down to shorter courses but still wanting (often maximal) technical challenge. Note how many more gradations in the Swedish system that Bubo posted above. (If anything, too easy too long, followed quickly by maximal technical difficulty, sounds likely to lose people.)
Jun 20, 2016 11:22 PM # 
One of the troubles we have in North America is that we "only" set 10 courses. If you make a matrix with "technical difficulty" down the side and "length" across the bottom and then place our 10 courses into this matrix you will see that it is very, very sparsely populated.

Then we try to put age groups into this sparse matrix. And that, I think, is where the problem lies.

Take a typical 15-year-old kid ... wait, there is no such thing ;-) Each 15-year-old kid will have a different level of experience - for some (hopefully lots) it will be their first race ever, while others come from orienteering backgrounds and are quite comfortable in the forest and navigating. So where do you assign the 15-year-old age category in the sparse matrix?

Scandis have several advantages over NAs ... one of which is that their matrix is way more fully populated so that 15-year-old kids have a chance to run on courses that are appropriate for their expertise.

What I try to do to address this is to offer long easy courses. I feel this meets the needs of lots of inexperienced people and allows the normal age category to have a more technically challenging course.
Jun 20, 2016 11:41 PM # 
+1 on llong easy courses being available for the fit but inexperienced.

What Sweden's system does for inexperienced 15 year olds is "motion" courses or such.

Yes, it gets a bit thin (though getting less so some places). But instead of keeping juniors in national competitions on beginner and advanced beginner courses through age 14, perhaps better to slowly introduce more difficulty from age 10 up. One could get more progression in the existing course structure by including catching features on Brown/4, and/or include around routes that are slightly less technical but still require nearly-advanced navigation. The super experienced older orienteers will go directly anyway, but the young can take longer routes to attack points to the side, and contain their errors. (Better that they lose a minute and learn a lesson, than lose five or ten and be discouraged.)
Jun 20, 2016 11:45 PM # 
The Swedish system actually does not have as many technical difficulty levels as it seems at first glance. Orange and red are the same difficulty, as are blue and black, and violet is nearly the same as blue/black. Also, note that there are no championship-level green (easiest) courses, even HD10 start on white (~US yellow). There is another Swedish system, though, that has 17(!) levels of navigational difficulty and 4 levels of route choice difficulty, but that one is used more for teaching than course classification.
Jun 21, 2016 12:46 AM # 
AZ said something quite important, that length and difficulty are two different dimensions. And some countries use colours for a difficulty scale, and others for a combined difficulty/length combination.

To have a useful discussion, concentrate on the difficulty scale, and consider that in relation to junior athlete development. To avoid confusion, it might be good to use the UK scale for technical difficulty which I think has 5 steps denoted by roman numerals I to V. Someone could give us a link to the definitions.

Around here, the junior championship classes were bumped up in difficulty a decade or so ago; and now there's a debate about the levels for schools competition. It is much better having a clear scale of difficulty.
Jun 21, 2016 1:04 AM # 
Indeed, it's not that many more levels, but Sweden's four steps, or even three, instead of two from American Yellow to American Brown/Green/Red/Blue could help a lot. This might be doable by adding catching features and such to Brown, while leaving the direct route very technical.

American Swedish challenges (per Swedish system)
White Green easy handrails, one decision per leg
Yellow White controls aside handrail, multiple handrails, across open areas to catching feature
Orange Yellow cross country with collecting features, fine cross country orienteering with safe catching features, route choice based on length and runnability
(none) Orange/Red rough compass with clear reference points along route, fine orienteering to topo features with catching features, cross country orienteering using gross topographic features, route choice based on length, runnability and safety of attack
(none) Violet cross country orienteering without obvious catching features (but relo options in a reasonable distance), route choice based on speed versus safety
Br/G/R/Bl Black/Blue fine orienteering in detailed terrain, complex route choices, tough contour navigation
Jun 21, 2016 1:09 AM # 
Given that a lot of juniors already "run up", I think shifting all the junior age categories (except -10 & -20) up by one course (15-16 to Brown) would have a mostly positive effect on US junior development.

[Just my opinion; not necessarily shared by other JTESC members, nor representative of the Committee as a whole]
Jun 21, 2016 1:21 AM # 
There is another aspect at the 10-14 age level, and that is peers and friends and hanging out and all that, where the competition itself is secondary. They will drive each other to excel or not or just hang out. The kids that perform well will go on to improve, run up, etc. But they may quit altogether if they are the only ones the parents keep dragging to meets with few to no other kids.
I think the issue in this country is way more complicated, as the kids do not learn about orienteering already in school, rarely have peers that live nearby, like other school sports offer. For Scandinavian countries and all those who have it as a school sport, it does give orienteering the same validity of a school sport. In the US there are few areas that have mastered the numbers such that one can raise the bar without losing the base. I guess for now I agree with Brian, the kids who want to be competitive will run up, unless of course they will be the only ones in their age category and there is no one there to compare with = no fun.
Jun 21, 2016 1:31 AM # 
It's interesting to hear how other countries design course progressions for kids. I'm curious about how length changes as the courses become more challenging.

I'd love to see some more technical courses for younger kids without a great increase in course length before they're ready. We have an 11-year-old daughter who wants a technical challenge, but has low tolerance for length beyond 3km. Our course choice for her varies from week to week, ranging from White to Brown depending on length and difficulty. Not exactly ideal for progressively working on skills, but as long as she's happy I'll call that success. I figure she will continue to run up when the distance is not too much for her to handle.

We're about 9 months out from lots of international orienteering, though. I'm taking notes on options for courses, thanks for sharing!
Jun 21, 2016 4:20 AM # 
@JimBaker "perhaps better to slowly introduce more difficulty from age 10 up

With our SOGO junior program in Calgary (small aside - registration for Fall program opened a couple of days ago and 164 registrations in the first day ;-) one of the big problems we find is kids joining the program at all ages. So it is important not to assume that kids start at age 10 and stay with it. Some kids do that, but others join at age 14 or 15 and have no experience whatsoever. A challenge for us is how to have a program that works for a 12-year-old kid in his third year with us and also a 16-year-old kid who is just starting. The 16 year old sure doesn't want to find himself running with 10 year olds that are in their first year too.

At the bottom left of the matrix (short & easy nav) we need to have a high density of offerings
Jun 21, 2016 4:31 AM # 
There are some interesting ideas and lots of good discussion in here so far.

From a course design progression perspective what I see tends to be missing are the course that follow more difficult handrails through the terrain.

Course 1 / White is all on trails with controls at every decision point.
Course 2 / Yellow is routes on trails (or down a stream or along a fence) but with controls off trail near attackpoints such as a trail junction or a bend in a path.
Coruse 3 / Orange tends to be controls further from the trail, on strong features and/or near really strong attackpoints and catching features often with the option to take a longer easier route around.
Then... straight to fully difficult courses...

Where are the courses that take athletes along the edge of the clearing to the tree then down the obvious reentrant to the next control in the bottom of the reentrant before following a stream to the next control and then along an obvious or ridge or the top of a sharp change in steepness of slope?

Finding these less obvious handrails is one of the key components to how elite orienteers navigate and slowly introducing these kinds of advanced handrails around course 3/4 or ages 14-16 woiuld go a long way to getting them to orienteer with confidence off trail.
Jun 21, 2016 5:13 AM # 
I proposed this to the board almost six months ago and it did not go any ware maybe with a few more people on board we can make it happen. One of the big issues right now is course length. Young juniors can't handel longer technical courses at speed. Keeping them brown length gives the kids a chance to learn to run fast before long.

Also we don't set out courses to a skill progression. I just taught a clinic in baoc were I laid out the courses with the skills juniors should know. For example yellow you are supposed to be learning how to cut off hand rails the majority of hand rail routs should not be optimal. Orange should be a brown course with good catching features based on the approach.

I think this next ONA is going to have a basic skill progression I worked on with Clare Durand it's connected with courses. If you flip it you should know exactly how to set each course because the legs should require the athletes to use the skills they are supposed to know.
Jun 21, 2016 4:37 PM # 
Yeah so this is an important issue so I'm pleased it is being discussed on AP.

I'd argue that is what is best for our international juniors is not necessarily best for growing junior participation at races in North America.

I believe that we need: i) more large junior participation programs like SOGO and ARK to build the base and ii) a very strong domestic junior racing scene.

i) The junior programs (like bmay states above) allow for the skills to be developed properly. I think we have demonstrated this nicely in the 6+ years of ARK. We in North American have traditionally only used races and perhaps 1 or 2 regional or national training camps a year as a means for juniors to develop their skills. I feel that needs to change.

ii) Our experience with the development of ARK is that mass start score orienteering is the best format for races. It not only engage the juniors (since they are used to mass start in other sports) but more importantly to provide a range of checkpoint difficulties to challenge those that are developing the nav skills quickly while at the same time allowing those that are developing slowly or are starting later to still race against their age group cohort. So some tweaking to the race distances, difficult, format and overall experience/atmosphere is needed in North America to get juniors racing more.

We sent several juniors to the US Schools/College champs this year. We love attending the Flying Pig. But the atmosphere for the juniors was blah. Remote start, remote finish, long intervals between starters, long courses (only a few juniors were sub 10min/km on orange) all made for a less than exciting experience. The same was the case at the Ontario Champs this spring. Great courses but poor race atmosphere.

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