Last weekend I attended the USSA coach’s conference in Minneapolis. Included here are my personal observations and musings. Most of the details of the various talks will be online and you can read them when they are posted.
Overall I was very pleased at how well organized the conference was, how good the speakers were, how much I learned, and the huge level of enthusiasm generated by the coaches attending. Bravo to Matt Whitcomb and the rest of USSA for putting on this event.
One of the highlights of the weekend was the presentation of Dan Jansen, the great speed skater. (You younger readers should google him and learn his story. It’s quite amazing). Dan had to adjust his talk a bit for the audience. He presents to business people and one of his opening questions to the audience is “Do you remember where the 1984 Winter Olympics were held?”. When he had 100% of the audience shout out the right answer his eyes went wide and his tone changed to more of a between-old-friends chat about elite sport.
Dan’s discussions of his experiences made it clear that he was a master of the mental skills of an elite performer. Our opening talk had been on developing mental tools and skills from the USST’s John Hammermeister (I love that name!). He told us “Rule #1: Athletes become what you ARE not what you say.” He challenged us with the question “Are you a model of mental toughness?”. Darn good question. His talk was a great reminder that spending time on goal setting with athletes might be the most valuable thing you can do as a coach.
H.C. Holmberg, the USST’s favorite physiologist from Sweden, gave two talks, one on sprinting, and another on using the whole body in double-poling. He kept some serious technical details fun and entertaining. Perhaps the most important thing I learned from him is just how complicated skiing is in both its physiology and its biomechanics. No wonder the sport fascinates so many smart people.
Sverre Caldwell presented on the Stratton Mountain School and how he runs the ski program there. Like any great performer he makes it look so simple, but his team is the gold standard for junior Nordic programs. He doesn’t get carried away with technology or science, but just focuses on the fundamentals of excellent technique and training well every day. He models correct behavior for his athletes by setting clear long-term goals and letting them inform every decision and action that he takes. For me his best goal is “Make XC cool”. Right on.
Randy Gibbs from the USST waxing staff gave an excellent clinic on how to maintain and test a fleet of test skis. He suggested owning 4-8 pairs. (I’ll try to do the same thing with just 3 pairs this winter.) As a wax tech myself I was impressed by his command of the subject and the clarity of his presentation.
Dr. Finnoff of the Mayo Clinic and physical therapist Aaron Saari presented on various injuries that a Nordic skier can have and how to prevent them. I was a bit overwhelmed by the medical details, but it reinforced for me that you need top notch medical help for every program. The doctors and therapists that you send your athletes to must be educated in sports medicine and experienced in dealing with athletes. Fix those small problems before they become serious.
Justin Wadsworth demonstrated the DartFish video editing and display software. It’s a wonderful but expensive tool. Matt had to limit his time because a room full of ski coaches will spend the entire day watching video of Newell double-poling and analyzing every tiny nuance of his exceptional technique. I tried out what I learned from this talk last night doing one minute repeats and took a couple of seconds off my usual time. That alone made my trip worthwhile.
Erik Flora of APU described how their program works and what he has done coaching Kikkan for the past 4 years. He was very self-effacing, but it was clear that his smart coaching helped to bring a world class talent to the top of her sport.
Rich Kapala had entertained us Friday night with his dreams of how U.S. skiing could compete with Norway and Sweden. Sverre Caldwell and Erik Flora made me believe that he might be right.
On Saturday evening we had the chance to preview the 2011 JO courses. The organizers bussed us out from downtown Minneapolis to the Theodore Wirth Park golf course. We did a run of the 5K and 1K sprint course followed by a bonfire and barbeque. The Midwestern folks know how to be great hosts (although the golfers were not too pleased to have 40 ski coaches running across their fairways). This winter the facility will have 2.5K of snowmaking although they clearly want to have natural snow so they can use their full set of courses. The terrain is slightly hillier than my home course at the Weston Ski Track and there are more large oak trees. However, if you know how to race on a golf course then you will feel mighty comfortable at these races.
It will also be a very different and very urban ski experience. All athletes and coaches will stay in the center of downtown Minneapolis at the Marriot Hotel. We coaches stayed at this hotel and I can tell you it is the most luxurious hotel you will ever stay at for JO’s. The San Franciso 49ers were staying there Saturday night before their game with the Vikings on Sunday. (It was reasonable easy to tell them apart from the ski coaches). Another interesting feature of this JO’s is that the hotel will be an Athletes Village with all the divisional teams staying there, eating together, and being shuttled the 3 miles to the race venue. This will give competitors and coaches a chance to get to know athletes from around the country.
I had to skip out to catch my plane before Pete Vordenberg’s presentation that wrapped up the conference. On the Light Rail ride to the airport I got a call from an athlete that I coach. She had all sorts of ideas and questions. What a perfect way for me to end the conference with the chance to immediately apply all that I’d learned. The weekend provided me with a new burst of energy. We have some great coaches in this country and we can compete with the best. Let’s get to work.
Editor’s Note: USSA will be posting materials from the conference on the USSA website. We will post an announcement when the materials are available.
Rob Bradlee is the head coach of the Nordic program at the Cambridge Sports Union, in Massachusetts. For more information about the CSU program, visit the team’s website at www.csuski.com and their blog atcsuskinews.blogspot.com. Rob is also a member of the Tech Team for the Toko Racing Service.