Nordic Club or High School Athletic Program

Train WreckNovember 24, 2009

A few days ago I wrote an article about the roles of high school teams in the context of the national development pipeline. One of my interview requests went to Bryan Fish, and came back as the following excellent personal commentary piece. You can find the original article here, and the rest of the interviews here.


By Bryan Fish – CXC Team Vertical Limit Head Coach

I was asked to comment on high school and club Nordic skiing. I’ll take this opportunity to discuss my personal thoughts and experiences on how high school and clubs can work together to be extremely effective.

The most fundamental goals of a high school or club program are the same: provide the tools, skills and facilities to allow athletic improvement. Improvement might happen at different rates and the overall level of development might vary for particular athletes. None the less, every athlete in any program would like to see advancement from their present level.

Another important point is that athletes want to be challenged. The type and level of challenge may be diverse for different athletes, but pursuit and progress keeps athletes motivated and interested. There is a certain balance that needs to be attained. Challenging an athlete excessively can stifle motivation and progress. An effective program needs to be aware of individual needs and differences.

I think the most complex aspect of a program is to create individual practices as well as an entire system that engages, motivates and progresses all the athletes in a program. Every program has a broad range of goals, levels and personal strengths. CXC Team Vertical Limit integrates our juniors and Masters into our elite sessions at times when appropriate.Defining “what is appropriate” is an art. I do strongly feel that a “one size fits all” plan actually fits very few, if any. A successful program provides the appropriate support to each athlete or specific level of athletes. Providing support is similar to spinning plates. Each plate needs a little push from time to time, but the plates find their own balance, rhythm and momentum when they have a little time to themselves.

Photo by Michael Henderson from Brisbane (Bardon), Australia
Photo by Michael Henderson from Brisbane (Bardon), Australia

Skiers need items to work on, ample time and independence to explore the path to best learn the new skill. The goal of a program should be to work with each athlete or group and then move to the next group of athletes to maintain this balance of support followed by personal time for the athletes to work on their own.

Our general goal as programs is to motivate, challenge and keep athletes inspired in the sport of skiing. Cross Country skiing has many characteristics to keep skiers interested – climatic, equipment, ability to glide and balance on one ski (which is often a long learning curve).Each aspect of the sport needs to be recognized and addressed with creativity and a progressive plan.

There are so many different aspects of skiing which makes this sport unique. Face value points out skate and classic, sprint, mid-distance and long distance, but possibly the most interesting items lie in all the physical and technical attributes a cross country skier must have to be “well-rounded.” Skiing requires excellent endurance fitness as well as great dynamic balance and coordination. Skiers need to be efficient on the uphill sections and fearless and agile on downhill sections. Cross country skiing requires strength in the lower body to maintain glide on one leg as well as strength in the upper body because the double pole is the most fundamental ski stroke. Not to mention adaptation to different snow types, waxing and ski selection.

Options are excellent to provide opportunity in a number of paths. The younger the athlete, the more options one should explore. There does become a time and level of proficiency in any activity that requires a more concerted effort if excellence in that activity is to be gained. For example, a college student eventually has to commit to a discipline of study or a college graduate must commit to one full time occupation. It is rare to witness personal excellence in pursing a multitude of paths. Eventually one path needs to be chosen and full commitment put forth. The question is, “At what time must this be made in Cross Country Skiing?” That question revolves mainly around the personal goals of the specific skier.

Skiers that are in a club setting typically are training in some form of cross country skiing throughout the whole year versus 2-5 months commonly witnessed in high school athletics.The spinning plate analogy certainly comes into play here. Those athletes that “keep the plates spinning” all year long should consistently progress while those athletes that haven’t touched ski training in several months likely have to retrace some original steps. Personal goals dictate the best path for the particular athlete.

The more detailed goals of a high school program and club program can be different. High school may revolve around dual meets, sectionals and state championships while club programs may follow a path more consistent with USSA Regional Junior Qualification events, US Junior Nationals and Junior Worlds. The events might be different, but the fundamental goals are the same and that is to develop, encourage and support positive progression.

My biggest concern with either club or high school racing is the time put forth to train versus race. I view racing as a test and practice as preparation for the test. I feel a common trend in the US is to race too often and train too little. I suspect results in the classroom could suffer if a student was tested in the same subject three of the five days in school, yet it is not uncommon to see athletes in the same age bracket race three times per week. The athletes need time to “study” to progress their skills on the ski trails.

Top high school athletes often want to do both high school and USSA racing. Such a goal can be achieved, but it requires proactive planning as well as cooperation and communication from the athlete, high school coaches, club coaches and parents, alike.

I think it is critical that personal coaching perspective be placed as a secondary priority and the athletes’ best interest be placed as the primary focus. A blended plan might take more time but these are often the athletes that put forth the greatest commitment and hence should be taken under consideration. This planning is particularly important as it relates to the number of races a particular athlete competes in.

Honesty is critical in the sense that going in numerous directions can easily generate a compromise in many senses of the word. Hopefully, the club coach and high school coach are willing to compromise because doing both programs in their entirety is often not what is in the best interest in progression of their skiers.

It can and is being done. A successful blend of high school and club programming all revolves around cooperation, compromise, communication and proactive planning. Most importantly, it requires putting the specific goals and aspirations of the athlete first.

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