OpinionProduct NewsChallenge: Assessing and Improving The Development of US Cross Country Skiers

FasterSkier FasterSkierApril 25, 2005

Challenge: Assessing and Improving The Development
of US Cross Country Skiers

By: Jim Galanes

Contributor: Jon Quinn-Hurst

Written during the winter of 2005

"Insanity: doing the same thing
over and over again and expecting different results."

Albert Einstein

At the present time there is an immediate and pressing challenge facing the
Nordic ski community in the U.S.  We must take immediate steps to improve
our development system if we hope to become a major power in the cross-country
ski sport with consistently good performances. The current system of athlete
development in the sport of cross country skiing will ultimately fail again
and again leaving all of us enthusiasts, athletes and coaches frustrated and
disappointed. This challenge is not new, and my recommendations have been
expressed by me and others in the past. The question is do we have the political
will to make meaningful changes in our system.

This article will present an overview of our disconnected system of athlete
development and the process of bringing our most talented athletes to the
national team. I am also going to offer some ideas, that are out of step with
our current system,   concepts that need to be considered in if
we want to see a system developed that will ultimately  lead the US towards
consistent top performances in the World Cup, Olympics and World Championships.

Brief History

The US Ski Team has experienced two brief periods of relatively successful
performances by its athletes in the last twenty to twenty-five years. From
1976 until 1984 the team had a core of men and women who consistently scored
world cup points, which at that time where only top twenty finishes. From
1985 until 2001 the US Ski Team performances were mired in mediocrity, with
a few flashes of great performances in the early 1990’s from the likes of
John Bauer, John Aalberg, Nancy Fiddler and Leslie Thompson. In the 2002 Olympics
there was a resurgence sparked largely by athletes who were not members of
the US Ski Team. At  2003 at the World Championships in Val Di Femme
the US was on the threshold of becoming a major player in men’s cross country
skiing, with Kris Freeman and Carl Swenson posting remarkable performances
with improved performances by the likes of Andrew Johnson and others. Since
the retirement of Nina Kemppel the women’s team has continued to struggle.
Immediately following the 2003 World Championships the results of our top
group of skiers has been on the decline. Looking at the FIS points of our
top skiers in the year immediately following the 2003 World Championship,
and then again through the winter of 2004-05 our athletes performances, excluding
the couple of solid performances by Kris Freeman, on both the men’s and women’s
side have slowly eroded.

To clearly address these development issues we need to assess and the “system”
that we have in place, then form a vision of where we want to go, and ultimately
how we are going to get there

Current Athlete Development: Failure of the Horizontal Model of Development

Vision without action is
a daydream, Action without vision is a nightmare.

— Japanese Proverb —

After many years of observation of the national ski scene I have come to
see what I feel are not failures of individual athletes, programs or coaches,
but an inherent failure in the system which guarantees long term failure of
all of our programs. Some will say failure is too harsh a word because there
are many good things happening with in the US Cross Country program. This
may be true depending on the measure one uses to evaluate the success of the
program. I only use the word failure in relation to our inability to consistently
be competitive at the highest levels of the sport. We must take a broader
look at our ski programs and our system of development if we truly desire
to be the “Best in the World.” I am going to present the need for a critical
development shift if we are going to realistically achieve the vision laid
out for us by the US Ski Team.

Under the umbrella of USSA/USST the “organization” of US skiing can best
be described as a horizontal structure. Athletes, because of our system and
circumstances are encouraged to move from youth programs, to junior clubs,
high school programs, college programs, perhaps back to clubs or factory teams
and if the continue to progress potentially on to the US Ski Team. This is a
horizontal structure because there is no progression, linkages, or continuity
in this system. Given these facts any success or periods of success can be
nothing more than random.

The athletes move from one program to the next with no continuity of coaching,
education, and training development. The end result are that skiers usually
wait too long, after college, to make the commitment to be a professional
athlete. . Due to the obvious and numerous gaps in the system most of our
skiers are unprepared to make the choice and the commitment to be the “Best
in the World”.  In the best case, under this system, the time line to
develop a high performing athlete is increased by at least several years.
In the worst case the athlete however talented can never recover the lost
years of inadequate preparation.

The harsh reality of this system of un-integrated, disconnected programs
is that it has failed. The current system has demonstrated that we can only
expect to have one or two high performing athletes every 20-25 years or more.
That is a statistical fact, we had a group of high performers in the late
1970’s and early 1980’s, and we did not have another round of similar performances
until 2002-2003. Even considering that we have had some success in brief periods
as a national program we have failed to build and develop strong teams. Already
in two to three years, we have seen major reversals in the 2002-2003 performance
high. Over the last thirty years, we have had many talented junior athletes
who have not continued to improve sufficiently into their early seniors years
and many more who have gone on to college and struggled to ski as fast as
they had a juniors. The reason for this failure I believe is linked to the
lack of understanding and implementation of a long-term development program,
and a lack of continuity and consistency through the high school and college
years.

I do not intend to minimize or discrediting the success of a few of our skiers
like Kris Freeman and Carl Swenson, or of the many other athletes who have
made a valiant effort. The fault lies not with the athletes but with the failure
and lack of an integrated system. The options are clear, we can continue
to embrace the same system with no expectation of high level performance,
or we can have systematic plan to prepare many skiers who have the desire
and motivation for the success at the international level.

My experience has shown that virtually all of our skiers that come through
this disconnected system have many years of work post-college to recover from
a clear lack of development. This creates further problems, which means our
athletes will not begin to realize their performance potential until they
are 28-30 years of age, or older, as opposed to being well on their way by
the time they are 24-25 years of age. These are lost years that may not ever
be fully recovered. This lack of earlier progress also places additional financial,
social and cultural burdens on the athletes and the programs that support
them.

In the sport of cross-country skiing there is always on going discussion
regarding athlete development. The issues always seem to come back to what
programs and or what system or process is best suited to develop athletes
in the long term and who is responsible for providing those programs. In both
periods of success and failures we have failed to accurately assess the true
needs of the development of athletes and rather than confront the harsh reality
we continue doing things in the same way and somehow, magically, expecting
a different outcome! There are many issues to consider: funding, locations,
coaching methods and styles, and philosophy are all important, but these issues
are secondary to the main issue. Does the system we have in place support
and encourage development of high performance athletes?

Vision for Athlete Development: Vertical Integration

The optimal development programs must be vertically integrated. This can
be accomplished on a local, regional, or national level. For obvious reasons
it is best accomplished on a local or regional level because as the system
expands management, consistency and continuity are lost. Experts commonly
cite that it takes 8-10 years, or more, of consistent, progressive and well
planned training to develop a high performance athletes. Perhaps with the
exception of the US ski team there is no point in the athlete development
process where any athlete is in a program or has any continuity for more than
a couple of years. For the athletes to learn what works best for them and
to fully develop their performance potential continuity is critical. Most
athletes should make the choice if they are going to pursue competitive skiing
at the highest levels by the time they are 16-18 years old. Failure to make
the conscious choice at that time, limits their future potential, or at a
minimum increases the time it will take them to accumulate the necessary fitness
and skills to be a competitive athlete.

A vertically integrated program will make it more viable for top clubs, and
other teams, like factory teams, to continue to support and coach athletes.
More programs will be able to support post college athletes because those
athletes will have been part of those programs already for a significant part
of their skiing development. A common complaint we have heard from post-college
skiers is that there are not enough programs or dollars available to support
post-college, young seniors. There are not, and with good reason, because
our un-integrated system that provides no connection, loyalty, or history
with a home program, club program, because they have bounced from program
to program over the years. Is it not foolish all of a sudden to think that
programs and opportunities will spring up to support these athletes when there
has been no connection? Due to the nature of the structure, many of these
athletes will have to commit four to six years or more to building the necessary
fitness to be competitive. This commitment comes with significant investment
on the part of the athlete and the programs at an age when they are already
several years behind their international peers.

My vision of a sound development system is to have clubs/teams/training centers
or regions establish and manage the primary programs. These programs are guiding
and educating the athletes through the long-term development plan. Providing
the long term, home base, and essential continuty will provide a foundation
for the athlete’s successful developmental process. Then athletes can move
through an integrated system that is focused on one clear mission, developing
those athletes potential to the fullest. The very successful German program
has used a similar, training center system, where the coach follows the athletes
from the top junior team all the way to the national team. Other models like
the Scandinavian club models can be described as vertically integrated as
it is possible that a skier can being as a youth in one club and complete
his athletes career in the same club and perhaps even with the same coaches.
With this structure in place, athletes can take part in other skiing programs,
like school programs and college programs, but still maintain the systematic
continuity of their training and development.

We need to rethink the role that school sports, high school, and college
can play in a system. These programs provide substantial funding, coaching,
and many competitive opportunities. However, they also have failed as a viable
development system for reasons already mentioned, not because the programs
or coaching is bad but because of the restricitve nature of NCAA rules. These
programs ought to be secondary to the primary programs that support the development
of the athletes. 

A vertical system will provide incentive for more programs to grow and prosper.
It will also provide the means for clubs to continue to support skiing. Coaching,
training and competitions for developing athletes takes time and abundant
resources. The club programs that lay the initial foundation for athletic
performance have no economic leverage to benefit and share in the success
of the athlete. A connection between the athlete and the club/home base through
all the years, provide recognition, inspiration, and perhaps even enhance
the ability of the club to garner more resources to invest in future athletes.

 Changing Roles: Toward Building a Culture of Success in Skiing

The US Ski Team has the vision of being the “Best in the World.” This vision
has driven their decisions making process to focus exclusively on a few select
athletes. In any estimation, this narrow focus has failed to provide and the
programs and the support for continued improvement. The vision of the USSA/USST
is absolutely viable, but the leadership to bring the rest of the systems
and the programs in this country behind this vision has also failed. Most
of the regional programs, club programs and school programs do not see or
understand how they fit in this vision.

As some individuals will undoubtedly point out there, are many business models
that support the concept of focusing on your core business that will economically
and efficiently provide better end products. While this is may be true from
a business that has expanded outside their specific areas of expertise it
does not apply to the development of athletes at least not without total commitment
and collaboration between all levels and aspects of our programs. Given the
factors of the years required and financial resources needed to develop a
world-class athlete it seems clear that a narrowly focused program will not
accomplish our development goals. The USST will never have enough resources
to focus on enough athletes to conduct a successful development program.

The primary role of the USST should be that of a service organization to
provide additional training opportunities, the management, and the staff to
support teams at high level competition. This is an important and daunting
job in and of itself. The USST should not be viewed so much as a team but
a support vehicle for international competition.

My vision would have the USST staff not providing development programs. It
is perfectly acceptable for an athlete to choose to be coached by the USST
staff and even to choose to live in Park City. But neither of these requirements
should be necessary for an athlete to be a member of the US Ski Team. It should
be equally acceptable for a USST member to stay in their home program, where
they have families, a culture of skiing, and a skiing community.

The secondary, yet still very important role of the USSA/USST should be to
encourage and broaden the base of viable ski club and training centers in
the country,as well as to encourage and support collaboration between the
programs that are producing the national team athletes and the regional and
national programs.

The USST needs to ensure that the access to the team and the selection of
the team is fair and open. An athlete should not have to be a member of the
USST to ski in world cups. Certainly, athletes on the USST should come together
for training camps and competitions. At national championships and other domestic
races, the USST should encourage athletes to ski for and represent their club
programs. The national team should not exist at the level of domestic competitions.
Having a select national team or development team that competes domestically,
only creates an elitist environment that is not focused on long-term development
and encouraging for more skiers to pursue the sport at the highest levels.
The national team coaches should be at domestic races as observers and supporters
not working only for the select few to compete against the rest of the domestic
athletes. It is perhaps the one time in the year where they have to opportunity
to observe and communicate with other coaches and athletes.

I would propose the following changes to our National Team program.

Performance Expectations

Implement the published standards of performance for selection to the US
Ski Team based on FIS points and over-all rankings. Discretionary selection
to the national team should be the exception rather than the rule. The current
team is 100% discretionarily selected.

Establish FIS point standards to be eligible for all levels of national and
international competitions. This will ensure athletes are skiing at the appropriate
level, and will strengthen our regional and national development races series
by ensuring that access to higher level races will only be a result of meeting
performance standards at the previous level.

Program structure

Disband the US Development Team. The concept of selecting a few athletes
and funding only them is not a good investment of resources. The best approach
to developing athletes at the level bellow the national team is to encourage
as many athletes as possible to training and prepare for high-level competition.
Experience has demonstrated that focus resources on only a few of these athletes
is unpredictable at best and has a chilling effect on other athletes who are
at similar levels yet not named to the development team.

For World Cup Competitions

Only athletes that were in the Red Group, the previous year, get an automatic
selection to the first world cups of the new year.

In the current year, as long as an athlete maintains Red group status they
can stay on the world cup. Those who do not should have to requalify based
on head to head competition at US Nationals or other domestic competitions.

I am proposing more opportunity for non-USST athletes to have a chance to
unseat national team skiers in head to head competition. Points often do not
work in this case because those skiers, even if the ski badly often get better
points on the world cup.

I realize that this does occur to some extent with the winners of the Super
tour to get a special invitation by the FIS to attend the spring world cup
races. But in my mind this alone does not give head to head opportunity to
challenge those World Cup skiers not in the red group.

For Olympic and World Championships Selection

The existing system seems to select the best athletes to the team. But we
should revert to the FIS points list as that is a more accurate reflection
of the athletes performance. The USSA system is not closely enough linked
to the FIS system to be highly accurate.

USSA Confederation of Skiing

In Luke Bodensteiner’s article “ The US Ski Confederation” he mentions that
under Bill Marolt’s leadership the vision was formed to be the “Best in the
World”. Driven by this vision programs that did not directly relate to that
vision were cut, like the Great American Ski Chase, the cross country development
pipeline, and masters programs. Most regions formed independent governance
of the sport, and began conducting their own programs.

Luke describes this system as a “loose confederation”. The dictionary defines
confederation as, “A group of confederates, especially of states or nations,
united for a common purpose; a league.” The International Herald Tribune in
a recent editorial described the European Union as a loose confederation.
The point of the editorial was that the EU would not prosper unless the confederation
was stronger and more united behind a common purpose. From my point of view
the US Ski system is not a confederation at all because we are not united
in a common purpose. It should be the role of the national governing body
to unite the ski sport in this country behind a common purpose. Each region
and many of the programs have their unique and differing purposes, and are
not necessarily focused on the goals of the US Ski Team. For most regions
the Junior Olympics and success at the level, or participation, is their ultimate
goal. Certainly, some may have mission statements and goals that say otherwise
but the action illustrate the true objectives of each region.

If USST is solely, focused on being the “Best in the World” and only running
and managing the USST program, for select few athletes, where does the USSA
as the NGB of the sport provide the programs for the long term success to
be the best in the world? Alternatively, is Mr. Bodensteiner implying that
this loose confederation is fulfilling the role of USSA as the national development
system, with out the cooperation and the commitment to a national system of
the members of this confederation?

Conclusion

There is much to work on if we as athletes, coaches, parents and programs
truly want to provide our your athletes to be the “Best in the World”. It
is my hope that this discussion can be driven from the bottom to the top of
the sport in this country with the singular objective of providing the best
ski programs and opportunities in the world for our athletes to be successful.

Jim Galanes is a former World Cup and Olympic racer and is the head coach of the Alaska Pacific University Nordic Ski Center ( http://nordic.alaskapacific.edu/ ).

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