The Scientist behind the US Ski Team: An Interview with former head U.S. Ski Team Physiologist Sue Robson

FasterSkierFebruary 12, 2008

Editor's Note: This is the second installment of a three-part interview.
Read Part 1
Read Part 3

Sue, you talked earlier about building the environment and the requisite coaching knowledge, what are other countries doing in regards to this? What is the Australian talent identification program like?

The talent identification is not that big of a deal. You hear about it externally and it sounds like they’re scouring the countryside, funneling people into specialized training centers. Yes, they look to measure what it takes to succeed internationally in a sport. And yes, they support people with these special skill sets. However, having said that, the majority of Australia’s top athletes come from normal sport processes. They participate in sports, those that have success then move onto a regional level squad, then national level, that sort of thing. This is the normal progression one sees in most countries.

What the Aussies have that blew me away though is that a youngster goes to the track on Thursday night and the coach is an accredited, qualified trainer. Then you go play netball the next day and the coach there is an accredited, qualified trainer. It doesn’t matter if you’re a ten year old on the court; the coach has at least some prerequisite level of knowledge. So from a very young age onwards as an athlete progresses they are getting very sound insight into sports. They are taught from the beginning to understand how the body works. This is not taking the joy out of sports. The coaches aren’t their applying sport science and rules and such, they are just using sound principles in how they approach sport and can talk about it with their athletes. In this kind of sport culture you just grow up surrounded by the right kind of information.

When these guys and girls get into their early twenties they’ve got sound information — in everything from nutrition to physiology to sport specifics — the basics are all there, and this makes it easier to transition into that international elite level of sport much more smoothly than in countries that rely more on trial by fire, don’t educate the athlete, way of doing things.

If you are to look at the number of Olympic medals a country that stresses coach & athlete education, like Australia, takes in within its populace – its medals per capita – is ridiculously high. This wouldn’t happen if places like America and Britain had those same systems. If that were to be done, and done well, there’s no way Australia could be competitive.

This nationally funded sport movement is about more than elite sports. To be outside on a weekday night or a weekend afternoon is to see a whole country outside playing sports. It’s amazing. Statistically speaking, Australia is at the top in terms of most healthy societies. In attaching such a priority to sport and health, Australia receives a huge public bonus. This, really, is not motivated by making a symbol to show Australia’s supremacy like it was for East Germany or the Soviet Union before or China today. The Australian motivation is to raise the health of the whole country, rather than just exporting the idea of sport as a stick to measure a country’s supremacy.

Do athletes who grow up with this strong sport education background make an easier transition from national to international class?

From what I’ve seen, yes, for sure. In Australia, they have a very strong support network for the national to international transition. They have it pretty dialed when it comes to having in place for coaches and athletes the people and resources needed to make the international leap. All the sport systems needed, whether its sport science, physiotherapy, nutrition to the high-tech guys who do wind tunnel analysis or whatever, this already exists. When a new sport like skeleton comes along the Australians often initially do incredibly well at it. Until the last couple years Australia never had a single skeleton athlete try out in the sport. But when the sport was introduced as an Olympic event — the Australians saw it as a medal opportunity. The Institute put a million or two into it, sent a group of people out to study it, found good athletes who couldn’t quite make it to the Olympics in other more established sports such as gymnastics or sprinting, then once identified in their talent program trained the best and supported them to achieve at the Olympic level.

In America the knowledge base of the coaches seems to come primarily from being an athlete in that sport previously. This is not a negative. But in Australia, they always have that other side to it too. This allows for the athlete to make better planned and individualized progressions. In terms of progression to the international arena, I believe that the better the education base of both the athlete and coach the better the transition. There is definitely a big difference in training and competing within any national level program to competing on the international stage. This progression takes a lot of support and understanding from many different components. At this point it is not just down to coach an athlete but also a supporting network including sport science, medical provision, physiotherapy etc etc. Being able to bind such support teams into an already established coach, athlete relationship and then to work in synchrony to produce a continued progression is not an easy task — but at this level doing everything alone is extremely difficult as each new demand is placed upon the athlete and coach to make the next performance step. Then add to this increasing media and sponsor demands — it’s quite a challenge. Often initially a lot of the basics — like training and eating and drinking properly are lost or at least compromised. Then there is managing the progression to international competition — sometimes the national level of the sport might be a long way off from the international level so an intermediary competition level say in a country which is more advanced is more appropriate. How this transition is handled is really important, so that an athlete is set-up to succeed — not fail. It’s tough to go from coming first to coming near the back. But if you can find a stepping stone is that you can come mid-field or near the top then progress to winning that — then move up into the international arena — this is a much better scenario.

Why is there such a cliff between being national class versus international class?

Mainly, I think it depends on the level of that sport within the country in question. If the sport is the top national sport — then likely the difference between national and international is relatively small and so the transition is relatively easy. However in many sports this is not the case and thus there is a huge gulf between these to levels of competition. Also, if the sport is a well established sport with a long international history of Olympic level competition then the level of understanding and professional use of use of auxiliary support networks is very advanced. This is the case in sports like Nordic skiing. By auxiliary support networks I mean things like; sport science, nutritional, physical therapy, equipment advances. At the international level, with the talent level so high, everything else has to be dialed as well.

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