The Clash of Clubs And Teams

Train WreckNovember 19, 20091

Two weeks ago, Matthew Voisen put together an article describing blanket regulations enforced by associations that govern high school athletics, and how they appear excessive when applied to high school skiing programs. Some readers posted very informative comments about similar situations around the country, and it quickly reminded me of the extremely contentious relationships between high school programs and their elite club counterparts.

Most of us in or near our thirties have fond memories of our high school teams because it was the only place to discover our love for endurance sports. These programs gave us an opportunity to explore cross country skiing, running, or track, maybe even without knowing the first thing about bindings and kick wax.

But while this is a sweet story, it is a good idea to ask if high school teams have retained their place in the national development pipeline. Are these programs still providing the same function 10-20 years later for a country that is desperately trying to take that last step to the international podium?

If not, then have they become obsolete, or have their roles simply changed a bit?

This is a particularly touchy topic in Anchorage, where clubs like APU and Alaska Winter Stars offer excellent options for stand out juniors. Unfortunately, conflicts arise when these athletes also chose to participate in one of Anchorage’s seven high school programs, which causes training plans to clash and causes confusion for team identity.

School teams and elite clubs don’t coordinate workouts, slapping skiers with double interval days. Johnny Fasterskier might head out for his 120 minute LSD while the team suffers on 6×3 minute L4’s. When it comes time to decide who’s on the varsity team, what should a team coach do when their fastest athletes have only trained with the team 2 to 3 times that week?

The problem is complicated when high school administrators struggle to find high school coaches that will effectively dedicate four winter months with offensively low compensation. As a result, these coaches can be inexperienced and don’t always understand the commitment that stand-out athletes are making with their elite clubs.

APU elite team coach Eric Strabel presses the difficulties for a high school program. Once a successful racer on the national scene, Strabel got his start being coached by his Father at his local high school. “So much of what high school skiing is, is defined by the condition of the incoming class…And coaches, usually professional in something other than skiing, are overwhelmed by the numbers of a no-cut sport, and can hardly afford to coach a few months a year.”

This topic creates difficult discussion that usually ends in confusion, bureaucratic headache, and in Anchorage’s case, a divided ski community.

From the sound of it, the situation is no different on the East Coast. “The general attitude here is that the fight is unwinnable and therefore should not be fought,” says Topher Sabot,  Western MA coach, NENSA board member, and Editor.

Sabot adds, “But the status quo is not OK. It’s a very tough situation”.

Coaches of elite clubs like CXC, APU, SVSEF, and XC Oregon, are determined to make their athletes the best they can be, but also don’t have a reach into the public recruitment base that high school teams can provide. Barring the rarest cases, the high schools do not provide high-level support to a committed athlete.

Strabel suggests a clear separation between the two. “Given the presence of elite clubs, I think high school skiing is most useful for boosting moderate participation.”

“The conflict lies between this moderate participation driven system, and competitively driven skiers who have been told, truthfully, how much more participation is necessary to be competitive when the former actively inhibits the latter,” says Strabel.

It’s drawing a line around the overlap that can be a problem.

We’ve all heard how much more participation is necessary to get our elite skiers to the top. The hard part is defining how to provide our juniors with the proper opportunities to participate at this level. This is probably the most important topic in American skiing today.

Clear Roles

What, then, is the role of a high school team in the face of elite clubs, with respect to a thriving international development pipeline?

Erik Flora, APU’s program director, is known for his concrete view on what it takes to become a successful international ski racer.

“I see both the club and the high school with an important role, the high schools get a lot of kids on skis and the clubs have the capacity to help the kids to reach their goals of National/International racing. If an athlete does plan on going further than High School competition, it is important to find a club/coach that they can work with over a long term, i.e. 6-10 years.”

Flora adds, “The ‘right’ program depends on the athletes goals. If the program’s goals are inline with the athletes goals then there is success!”

“The development pipeline is a very important discussion right now in US skiing,” says Flora. “Our goal at APU is to promote skiing in the community and develop athletes capable of being competitive on the World Cup. The goal of the High School system, as I understand, is to promote participation in school sports.”

Working Together

While elite clubs offer the best choice for training at a higher level, plenty of committed athletes tend to stay with both their clubs and their high school teams.

This indicates that the high schools provide something that the clubs cannot. Maybe the clubs can’t compete socially with the high school environment. Maybe it’s just peer pressure, or some kind of lingering romance with the institution of the American High School.

Don Haering is a recent high school graduate and now trains with APU’s elite devo team. “My main reason for staying with my high school team was that we had a pretty strong group of guys and we really wanted to win the relay at State Championships. That relay was the most fun racing experience of my life (we were second) and I’m glad I didn’t miss it. However, I think some athletes do feel peer pressure to remain on their high school team. They feel like they’re letting people down if they don’t ski, even if they don’t really want to.”

But Don also feels the importance of the high school team as a recruiting tool. “Skiing is one of the most important things in my life now and I probably wouldn’t have it if I hadn’t been on the high school ski team my freshman year.

Pete Leonard, program director for FXC in Fairbanks, is convinced that high school programs could be better utilized to provide a foundation for athletes with international aspirations.

“The high school programs often provide easy/cheap access to skiing (cheap/free trail passes, bussing to ski trails or grooming at schools). Both parties should be interested in communicating, because sharing of ideas in a respectful situation will only make both of them better, not to mention improve the quality of the overall ski community.”

An Example of Cohesion

The ski community in Jackson Hole has made themselves a good example of how a club and a team can work together for the benefit of the athletes. Under the direction of Ali Deines, the Jackson Hole Ski Club has produced such recent JO standouts as Willie Neal and Johnny Springer, while maintaining a working relationship with the local high school. They use this relationship to coordinate workouts and resources to make sure that the kids are getting the best help possible.

“The club coaches could be the ones taking ownership in the high school programs,” suggests Deines. “We [the club and the school] are an asset to each other’s programs.”

“Our job as coaches is to provide the best situation for the athletes, and check our egos at the door. I think a lot of people have forgotten that. You want them to be the best athlete that they can be,” says Deines.

If High School programs are intended to promote participation while clubs are intended to produce perfection, then it would make sense that they can form a symbiotic relationship. No one can argue that it is a bad idea to use the tax-payer supported busses, waxes, coaches compensation, not to mention the backbone of American athletic tradition to help propel our effort towards international success.

A Tradition of American Excellence

It’s easy to think about the big bad Euros and how uber-cool their endurance sports culture appear. But we need to remember that we are wonderfully unique country with a very different sports history, geography, and way of life. We eat burgers, we shred the gnar, we drive trucks, we shoot guns, drive snow machines on grass, but we also like to ski.

Just like our Euro-Asian rivals, we also have an extremely rich athletic culture that includes 38 gold medals in Beijing in 2008, second only to China’s 51. In Athens in 2004, we had the most golds at 36, and China had 32. Nothing new there.

What we don’t have is a cross country skiing culture that reflects our unique American qualities. If you take a look at what sets us apart, a lot of it has to do with strength coming from our high schools:

“We gotta win State.”

“Hey, Johnny, are you gonna play football again? We could sure use a killer QB this year!”

“Jane’s going to play volleyball again, and last tuesday she made varsity! You should watch her play she’s really something!”

Deines points out that high schools have a special appeal to Americans, which has always been rooted deeper in our culture than the club concept.

“In Jackson, nobody understands what a JNQ or what national events are. Everybody understands high school athletics, like what do you say to that cousin down in ‘who-knows-where?’ ‘Oooh, you’re High School state champion’. They instantly understand what that means.”

Pete Leonard adds, “Within a high school program it should not be difficult to train 12+ hours a week. That’s averaging near two hours a day six days a week, do a little additional running or strength training or doubles on the weekend and that’s 600 hours a year. That’s certainly enough to be world class as a high school age skier. If they are trying to be above average, shouldn’t they be expected to do a little supplemental training anyway?”

Don Haering points out the complications of committing in a high school program. “I know its possible to train over 600 hours as a high school skier (I did), but the system makes it harder than it needs to be.”

“I stayed on my high school team last year even though I didn’t actually attend classes at my high school. I was a member of the APU Early Honors program, a program at APU which allows seniors to take college classes for dual credit in high school and college but still participate in high school activities such as athletics and prom (although I missed prom for Distance Nationals).”

Leonard: “In the past 10 years I can think of at least a couple of top level junior skiers (JO top 3) who started XC skiing when they got to high school – it is certainly not too late to identify talent and develop it. Timing is certainly critical at that point. Wait a couple years and it may be too late.”

In the spirit of banking an athlete base, Leonard continues. “However, having older, more established skiers on the team exposes a broad base of younger skiers to what is possible within the sport and can make the transition into a year-round club program that much simpler – in many ways the path is already defined for them, it is simply a matter of taking it.”

Leonard’s bottom line is clear.

“As coaches we can not let our egos get in the way. A sports program should be athlete-centered, coach-driven, and administratively supported.”


I have posted the email interviews and comments that I couldn’t fit into this feature on my blog. In true nordy fashion, they are well written and articulated, and round out the rest of the story.

You can find them here:

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