I have enjoyed the recent discussion on the state of the US Cross-Country Ski Team and the future possibilities for improving international results. Thinking about the responses, from all over and fired up, I hope the Ski Team administration can draw some wise and very logical conclusions.
The first would be that attempts to centralize the governance, education and training of cross-country skiing in this country have not, and cannot, work. There are two reasons in particular for this. The first is that the country is too large and the centers of skiing/ training too distant from each other.
The second reason is the more significant. The coaches who are active in these centers simply possess the greater knowledge and capacity to develop skiers, at all the levels. They have more years of experience, years filled with unrelenting and well-educated curiosity. It is just because of that that they maintain a wary eye when analyzing and applying research. If they are reluctant to accept Ski Team dictums about development, training, or technique at times, it has not been because they are stubborn (as some Ski Team folks have suggested), it has been because the quality of those dictums simply does not pass muster as researched knowledge but rather has been only the latest enthusiastic observations of Ski Team coaches.
In other words, the standards of knowledge and the quality of the thinking has been better in the regions. What are those standards? If training and technique prescriptions are made and published, they must have at least two sources of corroboration, just like any subject of scientific inquiry. And those sources are not just somebody else who has a similar idea but extended scientific measurement and documentation. Who expressed the idea is unimportant; the extent to which the idea has been tested and validated in experiment and application over time is. In that effort, our common one, reliable information more predictably has originated from those coaches in their own regions than it has from the USST central office.
Park City could serve a more fostering role in athlete development if it facilitated interactions within the regions and got out of the education business itself. From the purely practical point of view, there is no way for a USST Development coach to match the levels of experience and inquiry which operate already in the regions. True collaboration is helpful, presentations or publication of USST ideas, by themselves, are not, unless they meet the standards of reference to testing and research sources.
It goes back to the multiple sources of test and validation that any higher level inquiry requires. As a prominent case in point I would offer the past couple of years of technique discussions in various publications: in no instance can I remember a single reference to biomechanical research, with electromyographic detail, or viable comparison with principles known in other sport forms, which might truly identify how the body performs the subtle and complex movements which carry skiers more quickly over the snow. Too often the â€œexperts,â€ their generosity of spirit and enthusiasm notwithstanding, are impelled by personal moments of reflection, and not a little self-promotion, well short of reliable knowledge. In one case, for example, biomechanical analysis was even summarily discounted. It can be athletes or coaches speaking, in which case I would offer the distinction both need to keep in mind: athletes are flowers, coaches are gardners. Gardners need to know more, like coaches, where to plant and when, what fertilzer to mix in and how much. They need to study their field. If they don’t, the plants won’t grow. Folklore, personal anecdotes and gut feelings are not adequate.
Athletes, for their part, are bright, talented and marvelous to behold. We hold them in great respect and admiration. Coaches want to help them succeed, but do not presume to blossom themselves. Perhaps another adage applies: Being fast in the pasture is not the same as being an expert in the field. Athletes’ experiences are wonderful to hear, but they should not be writing articles on training and technique or offering prescriptions for others. . .unless they can validate their ideas thorough relevant multi-source research, in the standard form of footnoted attribution. Particularly juniors, who tend not to distinguish between research level information and hero worship, are easily lead astray by the hero’s words about what worked for him. I even encountered a case where a high school athlete undertook to clinic his fellows, having received â€œthe latestâ€. That cannot happen if we are to move ahead.
If we are to progress as a ski nation, therefore, we must substantially elevate the level of discussion we engage in. That elevated level is already in the good hands and minds of the most informed coaches in the regions. It is Park City which needs to catch up, listen, help fashion more fluid means of communication, add thought, collaboration and support, and stay a little humble. Select National Team skiers fairly and manage them well. Don’t try, or presume, to do more.
If we demand the standards we should for our routine exchange of knowledge, we should do the same for performance itself. A single proposal to think about: Have an internationally valid scale of qualifying times for various ages and distances. Then every athlete, his parents and coaches have an accurate notion of the level of competence. We know that athlete development is not so simple as being linear with age. But at any given point athletes could ascertain, for example, whether it was truly worth their money and travel time to go to National Championships, junior or senior. And certainly have qualifying times for international teams. If athletes do not achieve it, they don’t travel to Europe. They save their money and time, and their training can remain consistent and focused at home. If on a given day out of 3 or 4 races over the distance an athlete cannot reach qualifying times in his or her own region, his or her times are not going to magically improve elsewhere. Certainly nothing is gained for them if they are discredited abroad. It seems to me the Japanese, for one example, operate this way. You do not see many starting, but when they do, they finish respectably, both in World Juniors and World Cup.
Nor can a points list, reached through mathematical contortions based on a chance field of competitors, reliably reveal what we all need to know. In addition, qualifying times obviate the need for promising skiers to be â€œidentifiedâ€ by a National Development Coordinator. They have identified themselves simply and clearly by how fast they are skiing. And the last thing they should do at that point is change coaches and put themselves in the care of current National Team staff. The Russians, for example, seem to recognize this and maintain their top skiers with several regional coaches.
Something like this needs to accompany making teams from tryouts. Even the question of parity between men’s and women’s teams, with all of its sports-legal complexity, can be largely addressed up front with requisite times/distance, even if that meant a US national champion did not qualify for Europe. The incentives need to focus on the requisite speeds, not just making the team. Our World Junior skiers, were 18 seconds per kilometer behind in Rovaniemi. That is 1.8 seconds/kilometer every hundred meters. Part of that deficit, I can imagine, was the result of too haphazard a competition schedule leading up to Finland and the particular characteristics of the courses in Rovaniemi. But a chunk of it has clearly to do with a deficit in basic speed, and that has to be dealt with at the 100 m level before it can be applied to race distances. It seems to me our energy systems are well trained. It is the neuromotor learning (raw speed efficiencies and technique) which is not prominent enough, even though it is not that difficult, however painstaking the planning is for coaches. But it will certainly take the detailed, progressive planning characteristic of world-class runners and skiers, sprinters and distance athletes alike. And it will take all year, and years, to accomplish, That means it will have to happen primarily at home, all year long with home coaches, with local and region-based programs.
Consider the world junior women skating 5 km in 13 – 14 minutes, the men skating 10 km in 23 – 24 minutes. For women that means 2:42+/- and for the men 2:21+/- per kilometer. Everybody is speeding up! That in turn means 16 +/- and 14+/- per 100 meters (32 and 28 for 200m, a distance perhaps more suitable for roller skis). Check your athletes’ raw speed over 100 and 200 meters, and then consider whether they could link together 50 100’s or 25 200’s at those speeds. I know ski races have terrain factors which make such calculations need qualification, but I believe we have to start thinking better, planning better and installing fundamental new gears if we intend to catch up with the best. And that will only happen in training; simply adding more competitions will not make our skiers faster.
One thing remains certain: we can only do it with open, creative and painstaking cross-referencing and with a higher level of thinking, study and collaboration than we have experienced in recent years. That may inject an â€œedgynessâ€ into our unquestioning love and thrill and interest in our sport, but our young athletes deserve it.
Dick Taylor is an educator and coach at Gould Academy in Bethel, Maine. He is the author of â€œNo Pain, No Gain? Athletes, Parents and Coaches Can Reshape American Sports Culture.â€