The goal of the US Ski and Snowboard Association (USSA) is very clear — “to be the best in the World” (USSA President Bill Marolt). This statement is also repeated on most every statement and communication from the USSA Office, including the USSA Cross-Country office. How can this goal be reached in Cross-Country, a sport where progress goes painstakingly slow, and where it is commonly known that it takes 10 years of hard, systematic and correct training to reach the body’s potential? What does it mean to be best in the World, how is it measured — is it measured over time or in a single event medal count? What are the logical and practical steps that must be taken to reach this goal? My answer is – a systematic approach that starts with Coaches’ Communication and Education.
This winter US Cross-Country got their best international results in over two decades. Two skiers, Kris Freeman and Carl Swenson, were both top-5 at the World Championship. It has taken over 20 years for US to break into the World’s top-5 (Bill Koch won the silver medal at the 1976 Olympics, and stayed in the World elite until 1982). Is this year’s result a proof of a systematic process, or is it a proof of the “survival of the fittest” concept: “Once in a while great athletes will rise to the top independent of the system, but you never know when”. Wouldn’t we all prefer the systematic process, where we could expect new great athletes and results every few years, and not once every other decade or so.
To start answering the above questions, we first need to define what we are going after — best in the World. From USSA’s point of view, this probably means the most medals in the Olympic Games, and probably not in Cross-Country, but rather in all ski and snowboard disciplines. However, since the Cross-Country discipline is awarded more Olympic medals than any other ski and snowboard discipline, being the best can not be achieved without several Cross-Country medals. Arguably, being the best in the World should also be measured over time, it usually gives more credibility to be a repeating champion.
What does it take?
To start looking into what it takes to be the best in the World, we logically should first take a look at who is best in the World today, and how they got there. In Cross-Country, the best skiers are on average between 25 — 32 years old, have been skiing at the World Cup level for many years, and have gone through a system of systematic coaching from early age. Some were Junior Champions, but many more were not. The group of the best nations is usually the same, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Germany, Czech, Russia and Estonia, Italy. No single nation seems to dominate over very long time, but we know that each of the nations will produce great skiers at regular intervals. I think we also know why this is the case, – that each of these nations has a long-term, patient and systematic approach to developing skiers. Following are some of the observations I have made:
System in place for the whole active life of a skier
– Local clubs that create activities and teach all-around skills to children and youth
– Local and regional clubs that support and educate a skier from youth to adult
– State and regional programs that bring the best skiers together with best coaches for training and camps
– National support programs for elite, development and junior levels, funded by separate sponsor companies
Skiers do not have to make “life and location” choices
– Government support-systems exist in many countries (National guard, customs, military etc)
– Clubs, programs and venues exist throughout the whole country, often in cooperation with educational institutions (ski and study)
– The local and national support system often enables adult skiers to continue racing while in family situations (marriage, children) — skiing can be a lifestyle
National systems of educated and deliberate long-term planning
– Educational coaches’ system that stresses importance of long-term progression and end-goal
– End-goal is for skier to be great at 25, not at 18 years of age
– Active and coordinated systems of National Coaches’ Education, discussion and development, often a mix of practical and theoretical teachings
What should be done in the US?
Our governmental system in the US may not make it possible to copy many of the systems that exist in Europe. For one, we do not have a Sport Ministry or a department of the government that exist purely for the development and improvement of National Health through sport and recreation. Our culture is also thriving on “instant satisfaction and results”, where endurance sports such as Cross-Country suffer due to the slow progression and time it takes to build up a strong body. However, we should accept what we are, and create a system built upon the reality of the sport here at home, the strength of our own uniqueness and solve what seems to be the weak links in our system.
Coaches’ Communication and Education
Communication and Education is currently the two most important factors (or weak links) that is preventing US Cross-Country skiing from systematically bringing up new great skiers. A third important factor is Marketing of the sport, where publication and exploration of heroes may create more interest in the sport. However, without a systematic, bottoms-up development of young and educated skiers the sport will continue to rely on sporadic results from individual athletes who’s talents bring them to the top regardless (or in spite of) the system.
I firmly believe that we in this country have pockets of great Cross-Country programs, perhaps as great as any local programs in any European ski nation. However, we are not learning from each other! Individual great programs will remain so for a while, but the sport as a whole does not improve or progress without communication between these great programs and others.
I also firmly believe we have coaches that are as good as any European counterparts. However, it seems as if most coaches are not part of a bigger development plan that culminates with great adult skiers. Each coach is focused on creating short-term results for his or her (young) skier. If the National (USSA’s) goal is to be the best in the World, this is measured by the best adult skiers, and the whole system must work together to achieve this. This means a better understanding and agreement of long-term progression in terms of developing (young) skiers’ training loads and methods, their overall program and the timing of “adult specialization”.
As a conclusion I may suggest some solutions. These solutions would require a change of priority (and new resources) from USSA, which has in the last years strongly prioritized the National Team over a national system. However, a small resource allocation may create long-term and systematic results.
1) A system of coaches’ communication centralized through USSA focused on developing:
– coordination between local programs, regions, College teams, National teams
– a system of collection and distribution of information from programs in different regions
– open and accepting communication between different programs and coaches
– common directions and overall program philosophies
– education — knowing what is needed, who can learn from who
2) A system of coaches’ education centralized through USSA. The curriculum should cover in practical and theoretic terms the following (among other topics):
– Understanding children, youth’s and young adults’ development in relation to physical activities and training
– Understanding basic anatomy and physiology
– Understanding effects of Cross-Country training methods
– Understanding training and planning concepts
– Teaching of correct Cross-Country techniques
– Motivation of individual skiers
– Building of Team cohesiveness and trust