Dazed and Confused

Matthew VoisinOctober 19, 200913

One of the movies in my video library is the 1993 ‘classic’ Dazed and Confused , a film about the night that follows the last day of school at a 1976 Texas high school. During the movie the main character, Randall ‘Pink’ Floyd, played by Jason London is continually pressured by his high school football coach to show a commitment to his team throughout the summer.

Whenever I watch this movie I am reminded of the rules that many Nordic ski coaches around the country have to deal with at public high school programs. These rules were created with the intention of protecting young student/athletes against the pressure to over commit themselves. Don’t get me wrong, if a skier would rather spend the summer playing soccer or skateboarding that is great. But what about those who would like to focus on skiing?

In Massachusetts our public high school programs fall under the governing body of the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association (MIAA). They have tons of rules that prohibit any sort of coaching out of season. To make matters worse, the “season” runs from the first Monday after Thanksgiving until the State Championship race in the middle of February. So if a skier qualifies for the New England J2 Championship, the Eastern High School Championship or even Junior Nationals they cannot receive any help from their high school coach.

Among the many rules that the MIAA enforces are two that are the trickiest to deal with. The first, “The Bona Fide Team Player Rule,” handles the time within the season and states that a student/athlete may only miss ONE practice per season to pursue other athletic interests. This would include going to a club practice or extra race instead of a scheduled high school practice or race. This rule makes it impossible for coaches to hold centrally located practices for higher level, serious skiers to attend in place of their high school practice and also makes going to JOQs difficult if the high school league has a race scheduled.

The second, the 50/50 rule, effects time outside of the season and states that a coach may only work with a group if less then 50% of the group is on their team during the season. So technically a coach could not even go for a hike with their son or daughter if that child were on their ski team!

State governing bodies for high school athletics can be like a ball and chain.

So why does this all matter? Some athletes can attend a private ski school if their goal is to excel at a sport. But this isn’t for everyone – both financially and developmentally. But this is often the only option for those who are focused on achieving a high level.

Another option would be to continue going to school at their local high school, train on their own without a team, but follow a program set up by their coach. Again, this has worked for some highly disciplined skiers and is a reasonable option, but is not ideal. So what can we do? After all, the goal is to give these skiers the tools they need to excel at skiing and in life in general.

There have been some successful examples of clubs and high schools coexisting. CSU in the Boston area struggles with MIAA restrictions, but still manages to train excellent skiers. But some of this success has to do with the proximity and most is because of the amazing work of a few very dedicated individuals.

In some other states, rules are more relaxed, allowing for happy coexistence. In Jackson, Wyoming, for example, the club program now works in conjunction with the high school and everyone benefits.

So what to do? Taking on state bureaucracy is usually a losing battle. These rules are not only about skiing – it is the usually blunt hammer approach – all rules apply to all sports. I would love to hear how others have dealt with this issue.

Until then the MIAA will keep me “Dazed and Confused. ”

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  • lsiebert

    October 19, 2009 at 10:31 am

    One factor that helps CSU organize at the level it does is the fact that the local high school races are on weekdays. In W. Mass you race on Saturdays, and while this lets you run a greater variety of race formats, and run more races (completely separate Varsity/JV races, men/women, etc) it interferes with skiing at the next level (Eastern Cups). Every one of my high school races my junior and senior year was treated as a training opportunity, and the real races were on Saturday and Sunday. It helped that the top 5 or so in the race were all CSU members, and all significantly ahead of the rest of the field…we would win whether we raced hard the whole time or treated the race as a workout.

    In order to make our races work in the afternoon, we had to make some concessions. Varsity women usually had a mass start just minutes after the men, leading the fast women to catch a lot of men, and the fast men to lap a lot of women, even on a 2 lap course. JV races often finished in partial or near complete darkness.

    This contributes to the success CSU has had…the high school racing isn’t at a high level, so it is easier for the top skiers to focus on the bigger picture.

  • Don Haering

    October 19, 2009 at 12:19 pm

    I just completed four years of public high school in Anchorage Alaska. In Anchorage virtually all skiers attend public high school, train with a club in the summer, and train and race with their high school team in the winter. JOQ races are scheduled for weekends without high school conflicts.

    The problem is that there is a huge difference between your average high school skier and the skiers who have a true desire to develop as athletes. It’s absolutely awesome that so many high schoolers have the desire to ski even just as a fun after-school social event, but the needs of the competitive athletes are often overlooked in favor of “fun” (I think training is fun, but what would I know about it?)

    Because high school begins at 7:30 in the morning, student athletes typically have only one opportunity to train on week days. That one opportunity is often lost at high school practices that are too often a huge waste of time as far as athletic development is concerned. “Team Bonding,” scavenger hunts, and sharks and minnows are all fun now and then, but they suck away at a student athlete’s already precious training time. High school coaches often also insist that skiers train “as a team” or more often break the team into training groups based upon relative speed. This is a nice idea, it gives the sense that skiing is a team sport, but it overlooks the fact that of the six athletes on a state championship team that might be expected to train together; each one might have an entirely different training background, might need specific development in completely different areas, and often train at a wide range of speeds.

    Attending club practice, taking individual initiative at high school practice, and even wearing club apparel at high school practice (how many pairs of training clothes do they think I have?) were all deemed worthy reasons for coaches to threaten my removal from the team, accuse me of being a loose cannon, and prompt phone and snide remarks to my parents at booster club meetings. God forbid I should try to improve.

    Perhaps my favorite refrain was “Don, you’re not being a team player,” especially when it came from someone who didn’t train outside of high school skiing whatsoever. To this I would respond: Where were you last summer when I was busting my ass so I would ski fast for the team at state this winter?

    Coaches and non competitive high school skiers need to drop their egos and understand that some athletes are making a commitment to the sport and if they would just take a step back, they’ll have a fit and well prepared athlete in the starting chute when state rolls around.

  • Patrick Stinson

    October 19, 2009 at 12:45 pm

    ASAA hasn’t caused as much technical flak for high school coaches in Anchorage, but the clash between clubs and high school programs has always been a major topic of contention in Anchorage. Since you’re poking at clubs and schools in the bigger picture, I think the Anchorage story is valid here too.

    Back when I was 16 for my very first day of running (August 9 1996), Harry Johnson already coached running, skiing, track, and a ran summer schedule and camp with his athletes. All together this was intended to be a year-round program. He was fortunate enough to put all his marbles into developing a year-round program including former olympians and dedicated collegiate standouts for assistants. He didn’t have to worry about those stated MIAA rules in the article, and we ended up with a high school team that was arguably the best “club” in town. (Although, if your name is Kikkan and you go to World Champs at 18 then you get a little external help by the end of high school :))

    Back then the club options where Jan Buron’s Sports Academy (which I thought was just for the cool and fast kids), and APU was just appearing. After Harry left ten years ago, the best way for fast kids to get faster is to join a club like Alaska Winter Stars (Jan’s new gig) or APU (which Erik Flora now runs). And these days, those programs easily trump any ski-specific education Harry could give us. The problem is that the fast kids ditch out on their high school teams and it’s sucking the high school programs dry.

    Jan now also coaches Service High School which easily has the biggest team and has dominated high school skiing in Alaska for several years. While coaching at East High I remember our standouts heading to the clubs 2-3 days a week while somehow remaining on the high school team. The club/school schedules were all mismatched, and the high school coach was never paid enough or skilled enough to care anyway.

    Now, while those faster kids need our *excellent* clubs to keep getting faster, the high school programs are taking a major hit from this. Underpaid and frustrated HS coaches are always quitting, A-B-C team high school skiers feel like they are second-rate when Johnny Speed doesn’t does LSD instead of Tuesday intervals, and team unity takes a dive. Where else do we pull in talent from the population? How do new kids get introduced to a sport without exciting opportunities in the public schools? Where’s the recruiting?

    I’m sure Jan, Ben, Holly, Charlie, or any of the others have better insight on this than I do. Has it changed in the last couple of years? What would be ideal?

  • Patrick Stinson

    October 19, 2009 at 1:17 pm

    Don, looks like we hit “Submit” at the same time. Jinx!

    Yeah, I’ll bet you and Erin Phillips have a good perspective on the whole deal. You both were are 100% dedicated to your training and have trained more hours than would seem possible while attending high school classes.

    The high schools are always having a hard time finding coaches that will dedicate 6 days a week for four months with a school district compensation that is so low that it’s almost offensive. The people that they do get are usually not as prepared as they could be, and don’t live in your world of dedication. So, the scope that they see is the mission of the high school team, and not the mission of your club.

    It sounds like the lack of communication between the clubs and the schools causes a tension that landed on you. That totally sucks, especially when you’re in high school.

    I think that someone that reaches your level while still in high school should probably just train with a club year ’round, and ditch the high school team. Is that possible these days? Is Holly able to schedule around high school classes and stuff to make that happen? I remember discussing this forever with Lisa Keller and Tom Bronga. They were just tired of the confusion, like you should pick a team and stick with it. But how would you know?

    Personally I think that once you play sharks and minnows you should probably move on.

    You gotta do what’s right for you, but as I wrote it sucks for the high school team. Considering that’s an awesome place to get fresh blood on the chopping block, I wish there was something to do about it.

  • Cloxxki

    October 19, 2009 at 2:11 pm

    Nice piece, albeit very US-specific, it seems.

    I am not so sure school and sports mix, necessarily.

    I know of top level high school pupils (readying for European medical university by 17yo) who on in their spare time, training with family and team, made it to winning global sports world championships (like, oh, road cycling), senior level, while barely into univerity. Not one lesson in their sport taught in school, or the university of choice. And, not the kind of highschool where athletic results can compensate for adademic deficiencies.

    School should perhaps not address sports “professionally”, as quick athletic development is actually potentially bad for a growing body. And, it’s a “profession”. Education first, school second. Let someone become an adult first, so we can trust it’s of own decision to spend so much time on a particular sport.

    Where is the dividing line between 12yo (and under) girls training all day for gymnastics, barely getting educated otherwise, and a healthy, balanced and diverse high school training program? It sounds like those rules you are referencing may be attenting to draw just that line.
    Now, who’s interest would these rules have in mind? Those of the national Olympic committee, the trainers, the parents, the athletes, the students, or the children?
    You’ll notice there are some overlaps there, and that’s what makes this such complicated matter, I suppose.

    In my country, he rules are simple : pick the high school that suits your academical talents, show up for ALL classes, better make sure you pass them all, or come back next year. If you want to do sports, fine, don’t bother your school with it, and certainly don’t use sports for preferential treatment. No sports scholarship, in ANY college or university. You want to study? Bring money, or an academic scholarship (super rare). See for yourself if you show up to college, it’s your life, your money.

    Not saying my nationa’s model is better. We do kick ass in sports, for a small country. All self-motivated by athletes and their families, no school (and associated social-)pressure. I got little sports in school myself, and it would have been nice to have been recognized as big lung athlete back then, I found out late. Let alone about skiing, I had to find that on TV.

  • davord

    October 19, 2009 at 2:58 pm

    Cloxxki: Darn it! You stole my thoughts/ideas, lol! Great perspective. I think in a lot of ways the European model of sort of separating school and sports is good, because it quickly seperates ones who want to pursue academics and ones who want to pursue athletics. Obviously there are a some European athletes who try to balance school and athletics, just that there is little to no high school ‘monitored’ or ‘sponsored’ sports, at least not directly or fully. I don’t wan’t to get too detailed with this subject because it can often be a delicate one. Some people are used to this and can cope with it better than others, which is awesome. Another thing is that parents often play a major role high school sports (enter soccer mom, hockey mom, etc…) and often parent’s concerns diverge with the high school coaches and pretty soon everything becomes a cluster !@%&#, if you kow what I mean. “Why was my son/daugther benched today?” “Why isn’t he/she practicing more?” etc, etc… You can imagine the coach’s/teacher’s head going walkabout. What you will eventually end up with is roughly 60 parents with 120 different concerns and objections to what is going on and why their son/daughter didn’t do this and didn’t do what, regardless of what anybody else thinks, and to be honest it should not be that way. I don’t mean to say that European parents don’t like their kids and don’t want them to succeed in whatever they are doing/pursuing, but you see less aggressive high school parent behavior in Europe than you do in the US (perhaps because there are very few high school sports, if any in Europe). Having said all of this, I also think there are big benefits to high school sports in the US. This is a huge country, there are lots of opportunities, extra curricular clubs that are usually very well organized and should be applauded. I think academics play a huge role in the US and that is the way it should be. Kids/students are immersed with all sorts of activities. They can often meet lots of new people make friends, and later make a decision on which way to go, if not burned out by the sheer number of activities (if the activities process is misjudged/abused/overused). I am going to continue cloxxki’s idea. I originally came from Serbia/Macedonia (former Yugoslavia) and since the mid 1990’s there are now 6 different countries that came out of the one, and for how small in population and how low on resources those countries are, they do extremely well in sports, without the use of the high school sports system. What I am trying to get at is there are always gonna be two ways (or more) in going about such things as athletics/academics, no matter what the system and circumstances are, you just have to go with what you have and try to make the best of it, most of all enjoy it!

  • Lisa Keller

    October 19, 2009 at 4:31 pm

    As a former high school track and cross country running coach in Anchorage, I can only begin to express my frustration over Alaska’s lack of rules governing dual participation in club and high school teams. Cross country running, which should be viewed as a complimentary off-season training program for all skiers, is scoffed at by many “high” level skiers (and scoffed at by some club coaches and the skiers’ parents). And an even more frustrating trend is that the parents and athletes feel entitled to a varsity spot although they will only commit to two or three team practices a week with the high school team. If you tried to do that in football, or basketball, or soccer you would be laughed at. You either commit to the team or you don’t but don’t try to have it both ways. Ironically, this is consequence of our early and extreme sports specialization in this country. We have highly specialized athletes that can cross over and do well in another endurance sport, they have been pampered by their parents, told by their club coaches that they are capable of national (or international) level competition in their choosen sport, and they think they can walk into another sport and compete on the varsity team without the team commitment. Very few of them end up as a Kikkan, who ironically was quite the multisport athlete when she was in school and never in my experience felt entitled to a varsity spot if she didn’t show up for practice.

  • lsiebert

    October 19, 2009 at 8:30 pm

    I would like to see a Minnesotan weigh in on this discussion, as they have probably the largest high school skiing population in the country. How are conflicts between high school racing and JNs and other higher level racing mediated? Between high school and club coaches/programs/training? So far we have heard about W. Mass (original poster), E. Mass (me) Anchorage, and a few Europeans who have a very different perspective.

    Personally, I didn’t have the option to train separately from my high school ski program. I didn’t have any other way to get to good training venues. So I ran XC in the fall, and skied in the winter. I trained with my high school team, supplementing this training with bi-weekly club practices that took place in the evening. Weekends were devoted to travelling to race or train in Northern New England, where they have more snow and hills.

  • Don Haering

    October 20, 2009 at 12:56 pm

    Cross country running is another matter entirely. You may view it as a complimentary training program, but when I was in high school I viewed it as an non-ski specific object of peer pressure. The question always came up every year, “Why aren’t you doing running? You could probably make varsity.”
    Well yes, especially as an upperclassman I probably did have the fitness necessary to make varsity. I don’t know how things were run on the East side, but my observations of West Cross country running never included anything that I would consider hard training. Runners would spend up to three hours at practice, but I would never see them running. Runners I have talked to confirm this. Sometimes they would devote 2+hours to stretching and listening to the coach talk and run for 30 minutes or less. I can easily see why any motivated athletes on the team (skiers or not) would want to go train on their own or with a club.
    Other high school athletes (and I think sometimes coaches) pressure athletes dedicated to long term development into running for the high school by convincing them they have an obligation to the institution.. “Oh if you would just run for us we could TOTALLY get fourth at state this year”. I personally was focused (or self centered) enough to never let this bother me, but I think it is something to consider.

  • nate

    October 20, 2009 at 2:28 pm

    I can offer a little MN perspective, but I have only been an athlete and an assistant coach. Others may offer more details.

    MN does have a great number of athletes, and many schools do have hs teams, but in reality the system is not set up for the top juniors to succeed at the highest levels. Considering how many hs skiers MN has, we consistantly do far worse than most other regions at JOs. There are a number of club programs, but they are mostly for the summer (with a few running into the fall), and then most skiers run CC and then participate on the hs team. There certainly are some skiers that can excel within the hs system (Lindsey Dehlin making the olympic team as a hs’er), but it is often a case of exceling dispite hs skiing and not because of it. It is a system that works great at producing a larger volume of skiers, many who go on the be life-long skiers (and the ski community certainly needs this), but it is not a system that will produce olympic champs.

  • Erik_hendrickson

    October 21, 2009 at 11:52 pm

    I think Nate’s criticism of Minnesota is a little harsh. Especially after reading about some of the regulations in Mass., Minnesota has worked out a pretty reasonable combination of the two systems. Yes, there are some restrictions that I don’t like and probably restrict the potential of some top skiers-
    1) There is only an 8 week period in the summer where HS coaches can hold practices with their skiers (this holds true even if they are technically coaching for a club in the summer and not a high school). Add that to a 13 week season and that is a lot of time where HS coaches are not allowed to coach.
    2)HS coaches can’t coach their athletes at JNQs although some blur the boundaries by coaching for their “club” on the weekends (which includes their high school skiers).
    3)Another rule I don’t like is no Sunday practices (I mean, really, why not?) And new for this year; no team travel outside of Minnesota (What are we having an embargo on that inferior Wisconsin snow?)

    In general though most High School skiers understand the amount of commitment it takes to become a top skier and have the reasonable opportunity to make it happen. There are very good club coaches who can train you year round (or at least a lot during the summer), and most skiers realize the way to higher level skiing (including college scholarships) is found by racing the JNs on the weekends. Concerning JNs, yes the Midwest region hasn’t dominated JNs like the large number of skiers in the state might suggest. But the reality is that JNs happen 3 weeks after the State Meet, where a lot of the skiers peak. But are JNs really the be-all end all of our Junior development in this country? (On a separate note, why is it called the “olympics” if they are just racing against the best in the US?) Also, a lot of Minnesota skiers do continue onto college skiing and beyond. Try and find a collegiate skiing program that doesn’t have at least one Minnesotan in its ranks? It’s tough. Finally, Why couldn’t Minnesota produce a Olympic champion? Dehlin, Williams, Kuzzy and Liebsch are all knocking on the door. What about Dubay, Diggins, Fagerstrom, or the next Freeman who we don’t even know about yet? All I’m saying is its possible. Anyone else excited about this season yet??

  • bigski

    October 28, 2009 at 10:04 am

    In Minnesota we have over 90 high school competing and there are about 10-20 programs that consistantly produce top high school skiers. Many of these programs have coaches who have been coaching for many years and the teams have over 50 competitors. There are a few clubs that work with some skiers year round and they do have some decent results at Junior Olympics. I believe there is a missing link between an athletes knowledge of what they think it takes and what it takes though.

    Many of the top skiers do participate in fall sports that last until early to late November. So even with a great summer of training, specific ski training often does not happen in the fall.

    Results for Minnesota skiers peaked in the late 90’s after several years of long winters and have dropped with the lack of snow. While the numbers of skiers on the teams are pretty good, no one gets fast with the “just keep em happy” drills that often happen during snowless years. Adding a rule of “no travel” makes it a bit tougher to get in the proper training but we do have more and more artificial snow opportunities.

    One thing we had in the 90’s was early snow in November that helped our new junior high skiers learn to ski. From 2001-2007 we had bad snow every year. The past two years we have had good early snow and we should see some better Junior National results this year.

    As for Williams and Dehlin, they were in an Olympic Development program, training year round from age 16. Dehlin, trained very well and improved greatly as a hs senior going from a 34th ranking to 8th and making the Olympic team. She did not participate in any fall sports grades 10-12. Like Northug, she also was able to get in close to 12 hours of sleep and usually went to bet at 8:00PM.

    Dispite the lack of results at the Junior level, Minnesota skiers do pretty well at NCAA’s, with several top 15 the past 10 years. Will the Minnesota skier help Midwest challenge for the Alaska Cup this year. Probably not, we have numbers but still lack the number of athletes training well enough.

  • kboyer5

    November 16, 2009 at 8:44 am

    Pat, As much as I agree with most of what you are saying here, i would have to disagree with something. I realize that at some points in High School training, there are games, there are sharks and minnows, but it IS possible to fit a well rounded ski training program into high school skiing. In Fairbanks similarly to the rest of the country there is High School training strife. The athletes that are part of year round training programs want to keep their program, but also want to represent their high school and have fun skiing with their friends. A great example of this is how West Valley High School managed to work out a training program with FXC (Fairbanks Cross Country). The coaches met, talked about what kind of weeks would be coming up in their training program, and talked about how that would fit into high school training. And believe it or not, it worked. Although respective members on both sides had to make a few compromises, it worked! Skiers got their training in, and high school got their fun in all at the same time. And as much as i can relate to Don and having a bit of frustration with high school skiing and the hoops we have to jump through, I will NEVER forget the feeling of bringing in the final leg for my high school at state and finishing 3rd (the highest finish for west valley in years.) Skiing for your high school comes with a certain amount of pride, and its a great feeling being able to represent more than just a name. And the years that I trained with my high school, I also managed to keep pace with all the athletes who couldn’t work things out and just skied for their club. SO, the point is, it IS possible to work things out, people just have to communicate.

    Kelsey Boyer

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