OpinionProduct NewsWhat's Next? The XCNDS

FasterSkier FasterSkierApril 26, 2005

Thank you for all the positive feedback, the constructive criticism and the
good ideas. I thank you also for the opportunity to be heard and to
share our own ideas and vision with you. For my part it is especially
exciting to share our idea of the XCNDS.

Just because this discussion is closed here at Fasterskier does not mean
the doors are closed to communication. Keep the ideas flowing.

For me it is not be discouraging to hear that a National Development System
has been tried before and that it has failed before. Years of failure
didn't keep the Wright brothers on the ground and there is no reason why it
should dissuade us from trying to build it or that it should be a premonition
to future failure. Instead our past mistakes should be taken as lessons.
I hope this is something we can do — especially when it comes to repairing
the rifts between the U.S. Ski Team and the Ski community.

The XCNDS as outlined here at Fasterskier is a copy of the U.S. Ski Team's
Alpine model (thanks goes to its original architects for helping me with it).
It is a model that works well for them and it is a good starting point to
creating our own system. As many people have pointed out and as the
NDS states, its true creation and implementation must be a cooperative effort
between the U.S. Ski Team and the Divisions. This cooperation begins
with the creation of the system, and it is the job of both the U.S. Ski Team
and the U.S. Ski Community to see that it does not fail.

No matter what system is created on paper, it will be the implementation
of it that decides its fate. The best system on paper if not sustainable,
if not a cooperative effort will fail. Whereas a good system that is
sustainable, maintained, supported and believed in by the community cannot
fail.

This seems to me to be our next task, working together to decide on the direction
we want to take. Toward that end I will take the ideas presented here,
the ideas given me by members of the ski community and present an updated
version of the XCNDS to the U.S. Cross-Country Committee this May.

So what is the first step? Let's look at where we really are right
now.

The past season U.S. Skiers earned 36 world cup points. Except for
the two top 15 results on World Cup and at World Championships, the six separate
skiers we had place among the top 30, and a few other good individual performances,
this was a disappointment.

This disappointment follows two years of very exciting results. In
the 2004 season alone we scored 265 world cup points. That's more points
than we earned in seven seasons, from and including the 1994 to and including
the 2000 season. In 2004 we also had one top five, one top ten, four
top fifteens and four top twenties to go with six top 30's on the world cup.

In the 2003 season we earned a 4th and a 5th and two
top 15s at worlds and won a race at the U23 World championships.

After the 2004 season, we decided it was necessary to spend more time racing
in Europe during the early season with our top athletes. We, the athletes
and the staff, believed that the experience gained racing World Cup was invaluable
to taking the next step — to erasing the few seconds that stood between
us and the podium when we were at our best.

In order to do this, since our financial picture was flat for the year, we
had to cut our budget in other areas. Additionally, it was mandated
that we require some of the World Championship team members to fund their
own expenses. This was not cutting fat from muscle. Our budget
was just enough to run what we thought was a small but reasonable team.
To have cut our budget for development projects then was to cut muscle from
bone. We downsized the development team, replaced our development coach
position with a sprint coach (Vidar Loefshus), and decreased our support of
programs we thought vital, such as the Junior World Championships. We
really had no choice. To bring a team to Europe just to compete is an
expensive affair — especially with the dollar bombing big time against
the Euro. But, at very least, we have to bring our best skiers to Europe.

Now we are facing the possibility of actually having to cut our budget BACK,
and to cut now would be to cut away at tendon and bone.

This ain't no April Fools joke. The US Cross-country team didn't get
a 60 million dollar donation as www.fasterskier.com
jested on the first of this month. Instead we're looking at the possibility
of a 50 thousand dollar budget cut.

It is April, the dawn of the 2006 season and Trond Nystad, Vidar Loefshus,
Luke Bodensteiner and I are sequestered in a meeting room at a hotel down
the street from the U.S. Ski Team offices in Park City, UT.

Luke, Trond, Vidar and I are trying to figure out how to not just stay in
the fight but win it with a total budget — including our entire budget
from salaries, to team travel, to wax, to the very last paperclip —
that is $100,000 smaller than the Norwegian team's waxing budget alone.

It is dangerous to compare ourselves to other nations, other sports or even
other programs within the U.S. Ski Team. We face different challenges
and to begin comparing staffing, ski culture, and finances could begin take
the shape of an excuse. And that is something we cannot do.

It is helpful, however, to make comparisons in order to decide how we will
overcome our specific challenges — where we will direct the funds we
do have and toward what ends we will try to secure more funds.

In fact in the face of cuts we have proposed a sizable increase. Thanks
go to Luke and Trond for walking point on this. They are in the fight
everyday for this team.

If we can't pry additional funds into our team over the course of the next
few weeks, we are going to have no development team and no development efforts.
We are going to cut top racers from the national team. Those with the
fewest points go first, until we cut the team down to a number we can afford
to bring to the world cups leading up to the Olympics. After the Olympics,
if we haven't pulled any more money into our program, we'll only be able to
attend one more weekend of World Cup racing — the pre-World Championships
in Japan.

Worst of all, we're facing the prospect of having no women on the national
team. Last year I took a step toward becoming the women's team coach.
I hoped to create a real women's team and start a women's ski racing
movement. But now the reality is there may be no team.

My initial instinct at this news was toward violence. Of course the
decision to search for a solution within the U.S. Ski Team and pursue that
solution as far as we could was a better choice to going postal down at the
office.

Without additional funds we will be in a position to support only the top
few athletes. The strategy is to focus on the top level only and find
success in the short term. There is some validity to this strategy.
No matter how much money we have we need to focus those funds on projects
we believe in. We have X dollars, and X is enough to support a small
team from July to the Olympics. We also have skiers who have proven
they can be at least among the top 5 at these Olympics — so it is essential
to support these athletes.

However, there are several flaws with this strategy.

The first flaw is that cross-country skiing is too fickle for us to depend
on only a few athletes. Over the period of several seasons those skiers
among the top in the world rotate around significantly. Per Elofsson
went from the top to the South Pacific, Rene Sommerfeldt won the overall last
year and struggled to be among the top 25 this year. Same with Valentina
Shevchenko, and Gabriella Paruzzi didn't go as well this year either.
Burgermeister was mid-field in OPA cup races. Martin Koukal, most of
the Swedes, Kris and Carl just to name a few were off the radar this year.
Just because an athlete shows great promise one season does not mean that
progress will follow a linear path right into the next. It seldom does.
And just because an athlete struggles one year does not mean they won't again
ski up to their potential the next. They often do.

The second and even more dangerous problem is that we will continually be
struggling to bring well-prepared athletes to the top level without an integrated,
nationwide development program. We must develop skiers from a young
age through their career.

The third problem is that there is no way to maintain continuity within the
USST cross-country staff running a shoestring, survival-mode team.

Other countries are staffed by a large group of waxers, physical therapists,
doctors, managers, trainers and coaches. Norway has more waxers per
weekend (and they often replace some staff members every other weekend) than
we have total staff.

Last season we coaches spent over 250 days on the road each at camps and
races.

This is no excuse. It is a statement of fact.

At the same time we could compare ourselves to other successful programs
who face inequities compared to their own competition. The Slovakians
won a world cup this year and they have a very small staff and very small
budget. U.S. Cycling comes from the same McDonald's fed culture U.S.
Skiing does. U.S. Canoe and Kayak and Speed skating don't have a huge
pool of athletes to draw from. None of these sports is seen with regularity
on TV or have a nationwide culture to back them. Yet all of them are
quite successful.

The question in light of these facts is: how do we reorganize our funding
to attack specific failures and how do we go after more funding to knock off
other weaknesses in our pursuit of medals?

For me the brainstorm begins with the athletes. What does an athlete
need to win an Olympic medal?

The most important aspect of international success in cross-country skiing
is preparation. Skiers must be fit, strong, have effective, efficient
technique, and they must be mentally tough. These qualities result from
at least 10 years of high-level preparation.

Preparation primarily includes physical training in combination with the
development of technical and psychological racing skills.

In order to prepare properly for an adequate number of years athletes have
a dynamic list of needs that must be met throughout their career. It
is the job of the US ski community including the U.S. Ski Team to supply top
athletes with these needs so that they may prepare at a level adequate to
win OL, WC medals.

The following is a list of development levels and a basic look at an athlete's
needs at each level. These levels are my own — they are what I
used to help me think about what direction we have to take. I list them
here for the purposes of discussion — a discussion I consider on going
and which includes in put from athletes and coaches nationwide.

For a more specific description of athlete development stages please visit
www.ussa.org
go to cross country, coaches, and finally athlete competencies. I believe
these descriptions are good, and that they can be improved. They offer
a good outline of athlete progression, but it is my opinion that if anything
these competencies are too conservative and that while some Olympic medallists
train less, and many train at this level, most train more.

At any rate it is supplying athletes with these needs that I believe must
decide the direction we take from here.

Athletes needs:

Introductory Athletes.

In order to develop coordination, fitness, strength, endurance, a love for
an active lifestyle, and a healthy outlook on competition these athletes must
be very active in a wide variety of activities and sports in their pre-teen
years. This can include active, outdoor play and work, many different
sports, and physical, outdoor recreation. This should include skiing
and even an appropriate level and intensity of ski racing.

The ski community must insure that there are programs available for youth
in and out of school that satisfy these needs.

This age is very important as it lays a foundation for what will come next.
It is also out of this group of athletes the ski community will recruit a
large pool of young athletes. At each step the ski community must work
to retain the best athletes by giving them the opportunities they need to
become elite ski racers.

Youth athletes.

In order to continue development of fitness, strength, endurance and coordination
as well as begin development of skills specific to ski racing, these athletes
must begin preparation for ski racing as early teenagers.

These years must also begin to mesh ski racing with a lifestyle including
school, work, social, and family life to enable longevity in sport.

The ski community must supply these athletes with clubs/teams that have coaches
knowledgeable in recruiting and retaining youth athletes and expert in preparing
athletes of this age toward the next level of ski racing.

Mid-teens.

Athletes must begin preparing systematically for cross-country ski racing
in their mid-teens (15-16).

Progressive physical, technical, and psychological development (preparation)
must be the goal of teams/clubs working with this age group.

Clubs at this level must supply a level of preparation and competition that
is suitable for their athletes' ability levels — including most importantly
their most dedicated and talented athletes.

Coaches must be expert in developing skiers of this level toward the next
level, and so should be well versed in all aspects of skier development and
preparation. Coaches at this level should be in close contact with coaches
at the late-teen level as well so as to build continuity of development.

This and each level must offer the enticement of an enjoyable activity, engaging
social situations, the chance to progress and achieve self-improvement by
attempting to surmount challenges, potential for creating a financially sound
and satisfying future as well as the simple continuation of the aspects of
the sport which brought the athlete to it in the first place.

It is a misnomer that the serious pursuit of athletics means it is not fun.
For competitive athletes it is the serious pursuit of athletic endeavor and
all the hard work, commitment, and dedication of the athlete, the coaches,
and teammates that make it both fun and deeply satisfying.

The misnomer that serious athletics isn't fun can lead ski programs to dedicate
their efforts in ski practice to less structured, less challenging activities
rather than the pursuit of a grand endeavor, which will yield fun.

Programs at this age and beyond must be dedicated to developing top ski racers.
Even in this environment there is room for less serious athletes to thrive
and enjoy the sport at their own level. But in programs that are not
dedicated to this end it is only the less serious who can thrive.

Late-teens.

Athletes must prepare seriously for cross-country ski racing starting in
the late teens (16-18).

Clubs/teams must provide an appropriate progression of preparation and level
of competition for these athletes. This may mean international competition
and should include interaction at training camps and competitions with the
best athletes and coaches in the nation.

In order to develop continuity in training, clubs/teams should provide a
long-range training system that can be continued through early senior years.
To accomplish this coaches must be expert in developing skiers of this level
toward the next level, and so should be well versed in all aspects of skier
development and preparation. Coaches at this level should be in close
contact with coaches at the U23 development level so as to maintain continuity
of development.

Clubs/teams should insure integration of lifestyle with ski racing (education,
social, world, family, etc) to insure longevity in sport. This includes
planning educational and financial needs into the skier's short and long-range
plan.

World Junior.

Preparation at the older junior (18-20) level must be at a world-class level.
In order to compete among the best as a senior, older junior athletes should
be able to compete among the best in their age group at Junior Worlds.

Those unable to train or compete at this level have a difficult deficit to
overcome. Athletes facing this deficit must continue the patient progression
of their training and racing. It is possible for them to reach the elite
level, but it will likely take many more years of training.

In either case the same preparation needs must be met as above (late-teen).

In addition to this the US ski community must provide opportunities to compete
at a high level at international competitions such as World Junior's.

U23.

U23 development programs should supply continuity in preparation by being
integrated with the athlete's youth program. Training must continue
progressing along at an absolutely elite level.

U23 development programs must supply an appropriately high level of competition
including top domestic competitions, and international U23 and Europa/Scando
cup competitions.

U23 programs and the local ski community must help these athletes attain
financial stability and progress toward an education or career in order to
assure longevity in the sport.

U23 development programs should supply or help athletes attain good social
opportunities including a healthy team environment.

It is possible that a coach and group of athletes would accompany each other
through many or even most levels of development. This would supply the
ultimate in continuity. It is likely that coaches and athletes could
work together from an early youth stage through a later youth stage, or from
an older youth or U23 stage through the senior level, but for a few reasons
it is unlikely a single coach could follow a group of athletes through all
the stages.

For one, a high level of athlete retention at an elite level within a single
club is unlikely. For two, circumstances are seldom such that an athlete
can or would want to stay in one place their whole lives. At the same
time it may be counterproductive to limit the amount of input and experience
an athlete is exposed to as they mature from level to level.

In any case at some point an athlete is likely to be involved with another
group — be it college, a training camp, a new program all together,
or a long race trip (such as on the World Cup with a national team).
Since this is the case communication and integration of programs is necessary
to assure as good a progression and continuity of preparation.

College.

Colleges could be excellent late-teen/World Junior/U23 development programs.
For this to be the case the college ski program must be integrated into the
youth system to facilitate continued development of athletes at an elite level
and it must be integrated into the U23/senior system to bring college athletes
out of college at an appropriate level.

College coaches must be involved in and dedicated to skier development to
be considered a legitimate development program. This means college coaches
are in close contact with their athlete's youth coaches so they can provide
continued progression of preparation from year-to-year. If it is the
case that the college coach cannot work with their athletes year-round then
the college coach must be in close contact with the athlete's club or development
coach (where the athlete will train summer through fall) to assure continuity
of training year-round. College programs must provide athletes with
all the necessary tools of preparation and high-level competition as well
as the opportunity to live a lifestyle conducive to preparing and competing
at an elite level.

Factory Teams.

Athletes need financial and logistical support. Factory Teams enable
athletes to race and pay for their racing and training with a minimal interruption
to their preparatory needs.

Clubs/teams and coaches must integrate their training plans with the athletes
racing / publicity requirements. At the same time the factory teams
need to acknowledge the needs of both the athlete to prepare properly and
the clubs to get recognition through the athlete.

Senior.

Athletes must continue progressive preparation at an elite level. They
must also be given the opportunity to race competitively at an elite level.

This includes continuity in training, high level of preparation and competition,
continued balanced lifestyle (including financial security) and team environment
all conducive to winning internationally.

The ski community must supply a consistent opportunity to compete internationally.
This means a team equipped to compete successfully at the Olympics, World
Champs, and World Cup.

This team will need the absolute best in ski and wax service, physical therapy
and medical service, and organizational/planning/travel service and coaching
to insure top-level performance is possible.

It is also necessary for senior athletes to develop at varying speeds and
be able to survive inevitable setbacks and periods of less or no progress.
For this reason a team oriented toward a high but sub-World Cup level is necessary.
This would be considered a European Cup (OPA Cup) team.

These two teams should be in very close contact as they would be made up
of the top athletes in the country and would both spend a great deal of time
in Europe. This should be the primary responsibility of the U.S. Ski
Team.

Other Clubs/Teams should also host senior athletes. Senior athletes
are a great boon to younger athletes and those just below the national team
must have a place to develop.

Non-U.S. Ski Team senior clubs/teams must provide the very best in preparation
opportunities including PT/medical service, physiological testing, top-level
coaching, a dynamic, supportive and cohesive team environment, and the opportunity
for financial security and a future beyond ski racing.

To me these needs point to such things as coach's education, continuity of
preparation, communication through all levels, ability to recruit and retain
top athletes, a nation wide system of athlete development.

It seems by talking to others and reading the posts here at Fasterskier that
many in the community also see this as a good direction to take.

The infrastructure to create a nationwide system of development is basically
in place, and in fact many regions and in some cases clubs/teams have an integrated
system of development already built. What we do not have is an integrated
nationwide system, hence the XCNDS.

The XCNDS as presented here is a near complete copy of the Alpine NDS.
Its original architects are to thank for helping me with it and letting us
use it as a map to creating our own NDS. These ideas are not new and
implementing such a system has been tried before. Past failure cannot
be seen as a foreshadowing to future failure. With the right support
this can work. At this stage it is only a sketch and to build a true
XCNDS will take the continued work and input of the ski community. This
Team does not belong to the U.S. Ski Team, it belongs to the US Ski community.
All the success we have had belongs to all the people who have supported the
athletes all along the way. The success we will have depends on all
the people who will support the athletes the rest of the way.

There is a lot to be excited about. The sport is alive and well in
the USA and we can see the possibility of grabbing some excellent results
in both the near future and, if we can work together, the distant future as
well.

Please check in with us at www.teamtoday.org and www.usskiteam.com to follow our progress.

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