When Cross Country Canada announced its new leadership structure last week, there was a bit of confusion: two World Cup team coaches (Louis Bouchard and Tor Arne Hetland) were named, with Justin Wadsworth moving into a “new head coaching leadership role” with responsibilities to both the World Cup Team and the development centers, particularly the Alberta World Cup Academy (AWCA).
With so many coaches on board, seemingly overlapping responsibilities, and a totally new job description for Wadsworth, what would the Canadian system look like in day-to-day reality?
“That’s a pretty good question,” Wadsworth said with a laugh during a phone interview on Friday, before describing both his new role and why the updated structure would work well for Canada.
World Cup Team
At the most basic level, Bouchard will stay in Québec, where he coaches World Cup Team member Alex Harvey as well as the regional development center, the Pierre-Harvey National Training Centre (CNEPH). He’ll also retain his large role on the World Cup.
There, he will be joined by Hetland, a former Norwegian star who has most recently coached with the Swiss team. One big upshot of Hetland’s hiring is that he will travel with the World Cup Team for almost the entire season.
“The athletes asked for more consistency on World Cups,” Wadsworth said. “We had a rotation to keep the coaching staff fresh, rotating every 2-3 weeks, but the athletes wanted more continuity there. I agree with that and I also want to travel less.”
Hetland will still be based primarily in Switzerland, where his wife Guri has retained her role as head coach of the Swiss National Team. (Hetland himself, formerly the sprint coach, has been replaced by Ivan Hudec, the former trainer of Slovenia’s Petra Majdic, as a “group coach”.) But Hetland will travel to all of the Canadian World Cup Team’s training camps throughout the season, as well as on the race circuit during the winter. Having a home base in Europe will allow Hetland to avoid some of the travel fatigue that plagues North American staff on the World Cup.
Wadsworth’s role as head coach, then, is partly in order to provide supervision for athletes in Canmore when Hetland isn’t around.
“It’s just the programming here that I’ll be making sure to fill in the gaps and run the training,” Wadsworth said.
At the moment, he plans to work closely with Hetland on training plans for the World Cup athletes.
“Initially, we’ll write the training plans together for the time in Canmore,” Wadsworth said. “I’ll be the one executing them, so I’ll be maybe the lead person on writing the training plans but we’ll be communicating on them. For camps, he and I and Louis will come up with a training plan together. Then in the winter we’ll see how it works out, that he’ll be taking more the lead on the training because he’ll be with the athletes to help with their day-to-day.”
Wadsworth thinks that having a new perspective on training plans will help spice things up for the athletes, who he said knew his style pretty well after four years as the team leader.
“I think it’s also good to bring new blood into the system,” Wadsworth said. “Change is a good thing.”
Wadsworth acknowledged Canada hasn’t had great luck with European coaches in the past, famously going through a few coaches in as many years leading up to the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. For instance, Norwegian Inge Bråten stayed just one year as head coach. But Wadsworth thinks this time is different. For one, Hetland hasn’t been coaching in Norway most recently – he’s been in Switzerland, which gives him a different and perhaps better preparation for the Canadian perspective.
“I think a lot of people in Canada might be a little bit nervous about a Norwegian, but it’s all about how the initial structure is set up,” Wadsworth said. “We’ve learned from the past that you don’t want someone to come in and be a bull in the china shop. We have a good system, we have proven results, and he sees that… he has worked a program in Switzerland which is a lot like Canada in a lot of ways, it’s a smaller country as far as cross-country skiing goes. He’ll be exactly the kind of person with the expertise that is going to fit well into our program.”
(Wadsworth isn’t alone in this assumption: former AWCA coach Christian Flury is now the development coach for the Swiss team, and said in an interview last summer that he saw many parallels between the challenges the two countries face.)
“I think a lot of people in Canada might be a little bit nervous about a Norwegian, but it’s all about how the initial structure is set up. We’ve learned from the past that you don’t want someone to come in and be a bull in the china shop. We have a good system, we have proven results, and [Hetland] sees that … He’ll be exactly the kind of person with the expertise that is going to fit well into our program.” — Justin Wadsworth, on Tor Arne Hetland, who was recently hired as a Canadian World Cup coach
And Hetland isn’t an unknown quantity, either. Wadsworth is looking forward to working with him.
“I’ve known Tor Arne for a long time,” he said. “We were both in the 2002 Olympics. And one thing I know about him is that he’s a really straight shooter. He’s going to tell me what he thinks and that’s the most important thing. The other thing is that we have respect for each other. We’ve already come to see that our training philosophy, we had to be in agreement … I’ve already had fun talking training with him and coming up with ideas. It’s going to be great.”
The other major change is a renewed focus on Canada’s development system, which Wadsworth said hasn’t been working smoothly in the last few years.
“The development team athletes are having a hard time bridging the gap up to the World Cup, and that’s some convergence that they were looking for,” Wadsworth explained. “That was definitely something that we saw and that we knew needed some tweaking … it’s not effective to have training centers if they’re just out doing their own thing as a satellite system.”
To remedy this mismatch between the development centers and the World Cup team, and in an effort to allow development athletes better success when they do hit the big stage, Wadsworth will be devoting much of his time to communicating with the training centers. The fact that Bouchard heads the Québec center means that it is more or less already in alignment with national-team practices, but Wadsworth will embed with AWCA on a day-to-day basis and also have increased communication with Timo Puiras, the head coach of the Thunder Bay training center in Ontario.
In Canmore, this arrangement means that AWCA athletes will see a lot more of the World Cup Team.
“The next piece of that is really getting the Academy athletes and the World Cup atheltes who are all based here in Canmore together, working together and training together,” Wadsworth said. “We’re going to have more like a set training schedule, like on Monday we do intervals, Sunday we do a long workout, yadda yadda yadda, that everyone can start to really actually be together and utilize all the resources.”
At other times, there might be an even bigger group – Wadsworth hopes so.
“The first dryland camp in Oregon, Louis Bouchard will bring his team there, and Timo Puiras is bringing his team from Thunder Bay,” Wadsworth said. “We’ll be there, and we’re going to be working together as a group of coaches. It just gives us more exposure to each other. I guess it’s my job to just keep that organized and make sure we’re planning well together and that we can have as many good opportunities with each others athletes throughout the year.”
In Wadsworth’s mind, Canada is not realizing its potential in terms of athlete development, and that’s a challenge he’s excited to take on.
“The main thing is to get our country to work together,” Wadsworth explained. “That’s something that has really been lacking. I think that there’s a lot of coaches who work off on their own. I think we have to realize that we’re a strong country and we have had good results, and there’s a lot of great coaches and great programs in our country. We need to come together and really really not try to do things alone.”
Final details have not yet emerged about how everything will run, but Wadsworth said that he has already been talking with AWCA and that all of Cross Country Canada’s development centers are “committed to it – it’s great.”
Both the World Cup and development piece are still coming together, though, in terms of how they will be fully implemented.
“It’s post-Olympics, and we just gave our presentation to Own The Podium yesterday, so we don’t even know our funding numbers for the coming year,” Wadsworth said. “So it’s exciting and overwhelming, and everything is a little bit up in the air… It is a bit overwhelming right now. And I know from the athletes perspective, they’re all itching and they want to know the plan exactly, and get everything laid out.”
No worries, though, he says.
“We have a really good plan, and it looks like a system which will be sustainable.”