Saturday was the second day of the nordic coaching symposium put on by the USST/USSA.
The speakers were Dr. Carol S. Dweck, Dr. Oyvind Sandbakk, Tara Fontenot, and Jon Arne Schjetne.
Carol S. Dweck, Ph.D., is the Lewis and Virginia Eaton Professor of Psychology at Stanford University. Her scholarly book Self-Theories: Their Role in Motivation, Personality, and Development was named Book of the Year by the World Education Federation. Dr. Dweck spoke at the symposium about the material covered in her latest book, Mindset.
The question Dr. Dweck proposed to the coaches was this: “How do we make sure our athletes continue to be learners?”
Dr. Dweck suggests that, despite the best intentions of society, parents, and coaches, the language we use with our children and athletes often makes them into non-learners, which leads to failure. Dr. Dweck separates learners into two categories: those with Growth Mindsets (GM) and those with Fixed Mindsets (FM).
A person with GM believes that talent can be developed and attained through attention and hard work. They strive to learn constantly and care more about the process of learning; they want to learn the material and not just bluff through tests. GM learners think hard work and effort is important in the attainment of learning and achieving results.
Conversely, a person with FM believes that talent is a fixed trait, that natural ability dominates, and that the way their results look is more important than the process behind the result. A person with FM thinks that ability comes naturally and without having to work hard, and therefore if they have to expend a high effort they must have low ability. This belief – that struggle equals incompetence – is the worst factor in the FM, as it is the ultimate reason for a person’s failure.
An athlete with FM may think that elite athletes who have had high success got to that position by ease of natural ability. Dr. Dweck points to society’s often misguided hypothesis that genius’ (think Albert Einstein) do not have to work hard for the discovery’s that they make. Instead, these geniuses – like elite athletes – are separated from others who have the same potential by their passionate, dedicated, and deliberate practice. Dr. Dweck pointed out that many senior athletes that find success were never number one as juniors, rather they usually were the juniors just outside the podium. Those number one juniors with “natural talent” were praised for their early success and most often did not work to get any better while the 4th and 5th place athletes who also had talent but did not receive any glory, worked very hard to close the gap, leading to later and higher achievement.
Dr. Dweck says that a coach needs to be careful in how they portray their message and values to the team. She pointed to a study which showed that athletes who thought the team or coach valued hard work were most successful, whereas the athletes who thought the ultimate value was in winning were the least successful players.
In the 1990’s, some experts and psychologists were adamant about our need to praise young children as often as possible. Parents began to equate praising their child liberally to being a good parent. Teachers and coaches also gave praise, thinking they were boosting moral and confidence. Dr. Dweck warns that this is exactly what we should not be doing. Praise puts value on results, not process; it puts emphasis on ability, which is very harmful and sets children into an FM. She talked about the dramatic results of a study she performed that proved if a child was praised on ability they were very likely to turn into a non-learner.
Dr. Dweck thinks that our society puts too much focus on the success of everyday life, whereas we see “struggle” as something negative, to be ashamed of. Instead, Dr. Dweck hopes that society can begin praising struggle as a worthy endeavor and to see challenge and difficulty as not only necessary and useful, but also a fun process. She would like to see “ease” connected with “a waste of time”.
How can a coach ensure that their athletes are GM athletes? Proper language/communication and goal setting. Dr. Dweck suggests focusing much more on process goals than outcome goals, letting the outcome be a byproduct of engaging in the process in an effective way. However, Dr. Dweck warns that just because an athlete is trying, this perceived effort will not succeed if it is without strategy. So in an athlete who works hard but does not see improvement, the problem is usually in the efficacy of their practice or strategy. Language: a coach should not praise just an athlete’s performance result, but the struggle or accomplishments seen during the race, and how these things resulted in a positive outcome. If an athlete accomplished a task very easily or quickly, the coach should recommend that the athlete should find another challenge to master.
Dr. Dweck wishes society would use the word “YET” more often. If this word was used an athlete, student, or child would not have to be limited to certain skill sets that they may not show talent in right away. A child or young athlete should be steered to think that if they are not YET good at a skill, with hard work and dedication the capacity may be attainable.
Dr. Dweck says that mindsets can be changed and that many people do not fall completely into one learning category or another. She also notes that people who label themselves as GM can more deliberately use and focus their process of achievement.
The next speaker was Tara Fontenot, the USST’s head physical therapist. Her presentation was on common injuries, deficiencies and proactive treatment, and prevention strategies of nordic skiing, the title being “If Your Knee Hurts, Don’t Run For 8 Hours”.
Fontenot talked about lower back pain and neck/upper back tightness as being two of the most problematic afflictions of nordic skiing. She also listed knee problems and shin tightness as other problematic injuries. Fontenot showed how all of these injuries were related to deficiencies in small muscle group strength, bad flexibility and/or alignment, and poor daily posture.
Much of the tightness athletes experience in their neck, shoulders, and back, is due to bad posture and unnecessary loading of the thoracic spine. Because ski training puts athletes into a bad posture (rounded shoulders, rounded back) for several hours a day, Fontenot stressed the importance of spending the rest of the day – sitting, standing, walking, etc, in a posture which holds the spine in straight alignment, the shoulders rolled back, and the head up. Fontenot points out that athletes need to be especially aware of their postures while traveling to races – in every mode of transportation it is very easy to slouch, sit, or lay in a way that puts unnecessary strain on the back, neck and shoulders. Also, all training – especially strength training – should be done with correct technique. If an athlete cannot achieve an exercise with good technique, the weight needs to be lowered (this sentiment was echoed later by strength coach, Alex Moore).
Another position that an athlete should stay clear of is the comination of hip collapse and knee buckle when balancing on a single leg (as in the glide phase in all ski techniques). When the knee and hip fall out of alignment, unnecessary stress is generated throughout the body, and especially in the stabilizer muscles of the shins. Not only can this relate to overuse or injury, but it reduces the immediate effect of getting optimal power out of each push off the ski.
Fontenot is adamant in her belief that juniors should spend their formative strength year, about ages 12-14, working on the smaller muscle groups first. If children perform one type of activity or focus on strength gains in the larger muscle groups, they will experience strength and alignment deficiencies later on, leading to high-instance injury.
Two of the most important small muscle groups are the Transverse Abdominus (TA) and the Gluteus Medius (GM). The TA is a small muscle in the abdomen which should fire with every stabilization movement the body makes. However, if a person has lower back pain it will interrupt this firing mechanism and the TA will become less effective.
Fontenot recommends performing exercises daily (or at lest 2-3 times/wk) which teach neural patterns to fire effectively, stretch muscles, and loosen tight vertebra. She believes these are best performed as a 10-15 minute warm-up for training, so that the training session is enhanced by the loosened muscles and the athlete can better utilize the firing of the small muscle groups throughout the session.
Fontenot likes using TheraBalls and foam rollers to stretch and massage. Foam rollers provide a friction that promotes parallel arrangement and lengthening of the fascia and tendons. Fontenot also uses several simple wall exercises and TheraBands to strengthen and fire the small muscle groups. Some of these drills are shown in the USST publication titled Self Myofascial Release and Foam Rolling.
One particularly interesting note was made by Fontenot on Vitamin D Deficiency. Many winter athletes are deficient in Vitamin D because, even though they are outside a lot, not much of their skin is showing. Small deficiencies may not be discernable and can be remedied with a supplement, but large deficiencies have been seen to cause a type of lower leg pain which nearly replicates Compartment Syndrome in pain and severity.
The third speaker of the day was Dr. Oyvind Sandbakk. Dr.Sandbaak has a PhD in Human Movement Science with a BSc and a MSc in Sport Science and a BSc in Psychology and is currently responsible for research and development of the Olympic Committee in mid-Norway. He presented the second part of his first presentation,“Solving the Puzzle of Optimal Training for XC Skiing”, and also talked about the “Analysis of Medal Winners and their Coaches Over the Past 50 Years in Norway”.
Dr. Sandbaak discussed the problem of today’s media-intensive culture and the fact that young athletes are spending more time with media than with other athletes and varied activity. Young children are playing less and so are not gaining varied skills such as speed, balance and coordination gained by outdoor play. Junior athletes are also not learning from more experienced athletes or each other because they are no longer putting themselves in social circumstances where they talk to each other about training, racing, errors, successes, etc.
Dr. Sandbakk says that when trying to evaluate the success of an elite athlete, someone who just reads about the athlete in the media is getting a very skewed picture. The media only reports on the “spice” of training – the parts of training which seem extreme and intense. He also points out that when he or a coach evaluates what has made an athlete or training program successful, he has to not only look at the “because of” factor, but also the “despite of” factor.
Dr. Sandbakk talked about the differences in training between now and thirty years ago. These differences are mainly seen in the higher amounts of Level 2 (L2) training and lower amounts of Level 1(L1) and speed work done by athletes in the past. This was due to the fact that races were long and performed at slower speeds (due to equipment, tracks, and race length), and without as much need for sprint finishes (not as many mass start races). The training year also looked different in composition, as racers used to perform manual labor in the early summer, did not have rollerskis for training, and had a much shorter and more intense racing season (30 races in the months of March and April).
Dr. Sandbakk believes people focus on and talk too much about the L4 and L5 training, when a majority of the training year is performed in L1. He thinks many athletes do not train consciously enough when it comes to L1 training, and therefore miss out on huge gains in strength, speed, and technique. The athlete, insists Dr. Sandbakk, must always feel that they are on the ski and on the snow; especially when rollerskiing, but also when performing ski walking, bounding, and other movements which can mimic skiing on snow.
Dr. Sandbakk also points to an athlete’s environment as being an important decider in what type of training they do. Altitude, terrain, community, and training surface are all elements of environment which may dictate how much and in what methods an athlete trains. Dr. Sandbakk uses Ole Einar Bjørndalen as an example: Bjørndalen does very little running, which is the major method of cross training other than rollerskiing for Norwegian skiers. Instead he does a lot of cycling, which is rarely used in Norwegian training. This difference in cross training is due to the fact that Bjørndalen lives in the middle of a city where there is too much pavement to run for long distances. So instead he road bikes up the steep passes around his town – standing up in the saddle to more similarly mimic the effect of uphill running.
Dr. Dr. Sandbakk again reiterated his previous day’s sentiment that Junior athletes should not mimic the training of senior athletes, and that they need much more speed training, and varied play to incorporate skills, and that the emphasis on training hours should be quality over quantity.
He then ended with his predictions for what future distance and sprint training would look like, the notable difference being increased and systematic speedwork.
The last speaker to present for the day was Jon Arne Schjetne. Arne was a coach for the Norwegian National Team from 2003 to 2011, working as a Junior Development coach (2003-06), Assistant Women’s Coach (2006-09) and Women’s Sprint Coach (2009-11). He has a master’s degree in Sport Science from the University of Trondheim.
Arne gave a presentation titled “From Kid to Olympic Champion”, in which he discussed the structure and pipeline, administration, funding, and goals of the Norwegian Ski Federation (NSF) along with his own struggles and successes while working with the women’s elite team from 2006-2011.
The ultimate goal of the NSF is simple: to be the best nordic skiing country in the world. Arne believes this is a good goal even though it is hard to measure because it is inclusive to every skier in Norway and it creates a community of support for a pipeline of elite athletes.
Arne talked a little about integrating and educating the larger ski community by various means, one of which is highly decorated wax trailer that drives around the country, giving demonstrations to local clubs and coaches. He said that though nordic skiing was the second highest sport in participation numbers in Norway (soccer being first), the large struggle for Norway was in keeping junior level skiers in the sport. Arne pointed to expense and dedication of time being two main roadblocks in the retention of junior skiers.
Arne addressed a question about the success of some junior athletes at a senior level. He thinks this may be because juniors are specializing earlier and training more than before. He thinks this success may come at some cost, as he is skeptical about the long-term effects and success of this process.
Some numbers: the NSF has 130,000 members in 1,000 clubs; 7,000 active skiers over the age of 13, plus many more recreational skiers. In the last couple years they have seen participation numbers at their national championships of just over 600 juniors and 150 senior athletes (the senior race is limited by FIS points).
Finally, the number that caught the attention of all the coaches in the room was this: the NSF will receive approximately 9 million dollars from sponsors for their 2012 budget, and will generate an additional small amount from activities of their own. This is double what the team received in 2006, indicating the current level of excitement for nordic racing because of recent team and athlete success. (Just for interest in comparison, the USST budget for 2012 will be approximately $800,000. *See note in conclusion of this article.)
Recently the NSF started paying the athletes on the elite team approximately four thousand dollars per month. It was a controversial move, but was enacted to prevent athletes from leaving the national team in order to get paid by private teams. Without top athletes, the NSF would have a hard time earning sponsorships. The elite team has 39 athletes and 6 coaches. The Regional (development) team has 17 athletes.
Arne then talked about his work with the women’s elite teams. When he first started coaching in 2006 the team moral was very low, and there was a lot of emotional stress involved in the athlete’s lives. There was much friction on the team, Marit Bjorgen experienced a very low year in terms of results, and the media was feeding off and worsening team interactions. Training camps were experiencing low participation due to conflicts and health.
Arne said the largest turnaround in team success had to do with bringing the team closer together and getting the women not only to work together with common purpose, but also to have fun together. The coaches set forth several rules to create their ultimate goal of having a team with one language and confident philosophy.
1. Training camps were mandatory, and the athletes had to arrange their individual training prior to camps in order to be prepared to do all the training at camp.
2. The athletes had to give up their personal or club coaches. This was very controversial and brought much media attention, but Arne stated that it was too difficult – and also stressful on the athlete – for an athlete to have two coaches with differing strategies.
Team building became the number one focus. A number of young, talented athletes were introduced on the team, to mix up the team dynamic and provide new energy. The team hired a woman coach who was a successful women’s handball coach on the national level and who had experience with team building and women athletes. They also brought professionals and doctors on board to address eating disorder issues and provide an open means of communication about the issues.
Through a series of team building activities and camps, the women’s elite team experienced a huge turnaround in morale, which led to a huge decrease in stress and an upswing in results. Before, the athletes on the team didn’t socialize together, even at camps. Now the athletes enjoyed training and living together at camps, often spending camps in the close quarters of a cabin where everyone had to share space and duties.
As training camps became more important and team numbers grew, a new sprint team was formed. This allowed both distance and sprinters to receive higher quality and more specific training.
Arne talked about the fact that each athlete was responsible for their own training plan. This, he said, gave the athlete’s great confidence and allowed control in the individualization of their training plans when they were between camps.
Arne also addressed the difference in numbers between women competing at the national level and men. He thinks women often have different values in their lives and in success. Whereas boys at a junior level are okay with a slow development process and may be fine with finishing in 50th place, a girl may think it is a waste of her time if she cannot find success right away.
Arne also sees differences in even elite athletes as to the way they structure their lives in order to focus on skiing. Some athletes, like Astrid Jacobsen who is in medical school, need to feel successful outside of their ski results.
One of the last topics Arne talked about was the need for real and honest communication between coach and athlete. He believes it is the athlete’s responsibility to ensure their coach is effective. He believes the coach should have a process wherein they can rate themselves on different factors and then have the athletes rate the coach on the same factors to see where the differences in perception and communication between athlete and coach are found. It is very important, maintains Arne, that an athlete think for themself, be confident in what they are doing, and not be afraid to ask questions of or give feedback to a coach.
Conclusion: The Drive for 25:
The final conclusion to the day’s symposium was given by the coaches of the USST, who spoke about the upcoming fundraising goal for the National Nordic Foundation (NNF). USST coach Chris Grover wanted to make clear that the USST had no formal ties to the NNF and was not making a push to raise funds for the USST athletes. The coaching staff at the USST has an interest in the NNF because they believe the organization to be a huge key in the development pipeline. The NNF is trying to find ways to fill budget holes created by cuts in the USST budget over the past year, which translated in cuts at the junior level for funding competitions such as U23 and World Juniors. The NNF is trying to raise funds in order to make these trips affordable to young athletes and their families by bridging the gap in costs such as transportation. The NNF is setting November 15 for a day when they would like to find 4,000 nordic enthusiasts who will donate just 25 dollars. Read about the drive here.
*When speaking to Grover about the differences in the budget of USST and other countries, he wanted to note that Norway was an extreme case of high funding, but that it does highlight the case that the USST coaches and athletes have to think differently when it came to issues of how they were going to get things done. Grover said it was a matter of deciding how to deal with the facts. Many athletes, even on the elite team, hold fundraisers and work through their hometown clubs in order to pay for housing and travel.
“We can say, ‘Okay, so we have a budget that is one tenth the size of Norway’. As a nation, do we throw our hands up and give up, and wait until we have 9 million dollars, or do we decide right now how we are going to get it done with different resources?”
And one of those resources which has stepped up to the plate, says Grover, is the NNF.