Editor's Note: This is the third article in our discussion of the current state of US skiing. See also:
The Current State of US Cross Country Skiing – Are Changes Needed?
Luke Bodensteiner Outlines The USSA Development Plan
We appreciate Trond taking the time to share his insight. Coaches and athletes – we encourage you to share your thoughts. You are at the heart of this subject and your opinions should be heard. Here is your captive audience! Add comments below or <email us.
I would like to start off by thanking Fasterskier for the opportunity in participating in a discussion regarding the state of cross country skiing in the US. I hope that our discussion bears fruits and allows us to pull together as one ski nation to give our cross country skiers a chance to become the best in the world.
Best in the World is the slogan used by the US Ski Team as we approach the Olympic Games in Torino 2006. As an organization it looks like the USA could be the best nation in the world in terms of medal count. It is however doubtful that we any time soon will be the best nation in the world in cross country skiing. When that is said, we currently have some amazing talent on the US Cross Country Ski team, and for the first time in a long time we might actually be able to contribute to the overall medal count for the USSA. One thing that is hard to understand is why it is so hard for the US to excel in a sport like cross country skiing. Several issues related to tradition, visibility, culture and fame have been pointed out, but we also must look at how we prepare the athletes we have.
I do not think we have a problem in the US to recruit skiers into our sport. We have the largest national championship in the world and have a large amount of younger skiers competing in high school races and USSA races. I do however think that although we do a great job with recruiting people into our sport, we might not always get access to the best athletes. It would be an easy job to be a national team coach if we had 10 times the current talent to select a team from. If we had 10 Newell's, 10 Zimmerman's, Koos', Freeman's, Johnsons, 10 Rebecca Dussault's and so on that we could start working with at age 20, there is no doubt that we could also have the depth of talent that a Norway or Russia have. The issue to resolve is therefore not to recruit more people into our sport, but to recruit the ones into our sport that have a tremendous talent. In my mind we need to create professional club and high school programs that are competitive with the best track and swimming programs. Programs that are professional and offer a year round opportunity for young athletes to train hard with a group of talented athletes their own age. I think it is imperative for our success that we start catering to the very best athletes at a young age. When that is said one cannot only take care of the athletes that are good at a young age, because people mature differently, and success at a very young age is no guarantee for success at an older age. The standard set would be to look for young athletes that are interested in training and can handle training. If both factors are present one can come a long way. At some point in the young skier's career one will see that there is some talent present. If there is no talent present and no will to train, then there is no chance the athlete will succeed. Since it is impossible to take care of 100 kids on one team, one must try to recruit some local masters or parents that could take care of different groups on the team. There must be an elite group on the team that is given more attention than the “recreational” participants. If each club and high school program had an elite group, one would see that talents would surface. One, because the team would be more attractive for talented athletes seeking a competitive sport, and two because one would be able to serve the best athletes better. There is no doubt that fun is a key element in recruiting and retaining talent into our sport. We must however think about what is fun for the young developing athletes. Some coaches say that in order to keep the program fun they must make the race season short and take away most of the hard training. Some coaches think that a hard and challenging training program makes it less fun. For some kids this is the case, but those are not the athletes we are looking for. So please make the programs fun for each and every group on your team. For the ones that do not wish to train much, make it fun by making the program less challenging. For the ones that have ambition, make the program fun by making a challenging race and training schedule. It is fun to be successful through hard work! Conclusion: Build professional programs that serve the masses and the elite.
A talented athlete needs a challenging race and training program to excel. The US has a lot of very hard working and talented coaches, but unfortunately we might not have the best educated coaches in the world. We unfortunately do not have a lot of educational opportunities within the USSA (although some is available), but there are lots of coach's clinics and newsletters available (like those from Fasterskier). Conclusion: Coaches, parents and athletes should try to learn more about training and racing.
In order to become the best in anything there is no substitute for hard work. It should therefore not come as a big surprise that one must train a lot to become the best skier in the world. A competitive skier must be able to train between 650-850 hours per year (Marit Bjorgen trained about 815 hours last year). We currently have maybe 3 women and 5 men that are training enough in this country. Training must however be built on training. That means that in order to handle the hours of training needed to be the best, one must have a platform of training that has been built over several years. By the time a skier is done with high school he/she should have a few years with 500-550 hours of training behind them. A fist year senior skier should be training 550-700 hours and then build slowly to around 750-850 hours. This is a lot of training and most people cannot handle this kind of volume, but if you can not handle this kind of training you are probably not going to be internationally competitive. Conclusion: in order to become good you have to train a lot over several years.
Hours is of course not as important as the quality of work done. Logging hours is no guarantee for success, one must evaluate what kind of training each athlete should do and do this kind of training at the right time of the year. Cross country skiing is not a part time occupation. The athletes must train year round to become good. This does not mean that athletes cannot participate in any other sports, but some element of cross country skiing must be present all year round. A typical week for a cross country skier will involve 3 strength workouts of 1 hour each, 1 overdistance workout of 2-3 hours, two interval sessions and 3-6 additional distance workouts. In the summer most of this is done running or rollerskiing and in the winter mostly skiing and running. Variety is key, so do not forget other activities like biking, rowing, swimming etc. Conclusion: Train hard, but be smart.
Intensity is always a focal point of discussion. Some people have an idea that interval training is dangerous and will get you in shape early. I presented this view to Vegard Ulvang once and he just laughed and said that he never took a break from intensity. He did 2-3 sessions of intensity all year round. The main thing to think about is that one gets good at what one trains. If the training is always half hard, then one become good at just that pace. If the training is always slow, then one become good at going slow. The idea is that one need a balance of really fast training, some medium hard training and some easy training. The balance is up to each athlete to find out, but a minimum number of intensity workouts per week is 2-3 sessions. (Marit Bjorgen had an average of 3-4 intensity sessions per week last year). As a rule of thumb one start of the training year (May) with a little longer and slower non specific intensity work, then as the year progresses one adds intensity and specificity. Conclusion: A balance between volume and quality is key to success. Quality training must always be present in the training year.
Conclusion: Our sport would look a lot different today if we had a system present that could recruit the right talents into the sport and then prepare them well through years of training. We need to work harder and better with our young talented skiers such that we in 4-8 years have a huge group of well prepared skiers that can fight for medals in international races. I hope that we can all work together to make the future of skiing in the U.S. a bright one.
Trond Nystad is the Head Cross Country Coach of the US Ski Team