The Post-Grad Trip to Scandinavia

Pete PhillipsJanuary 20, 20121

Part One – Before You Go

Recently a potential six-week stay in Scandinavia for our team has been occupying a lot of my planning time. We have a time block, we have the school’s blessing, we have some connections, and we have enthusiasm for the idea. Still, there is a lot to pull together; the usual essentials like money, lodging and transport.

The most important planning I have been doing, though, is laying out goals for the trip, locations that contribute the most, contacts to cement and develop, and preparation of the team for the time there. This is a fun and educational process, but often the part of planning that gets short shrift.

Over the past years I’ve had the good fortune to lead at least 14 different ski-focused trips to Sweden and Norway, and it occurred to me the other night that maybe I should try to share some “Before You Go” thoughts, stuff that might be useful to individuals thinking about a PG year, or a summer training course, or attending school and skiing in Scandinavia.

These are reflections only and I suppose they are directed mostly towards juniors and U23 skiers. Parents might find something here. It could be they might help add things to the check list or suggest a fresh idea. My primary reason for sharing them is to perhaps help make the trip a success by eliminating a common myth and identifying some questions that need answers before setting sail.

In deciding to take a year off from the usual North American routine one encounters a process not unlike goal setting for a race season or mastering another skill set.

Initially the goal is pretty vague: “I am going to spend a year in Norway and just ski!” I know some kids who have gone there with only that for preparation and it worked, but usually that doesn’t lead to the best trip.

Before you even get to that point you need to do a little work on “Why, When, Where and How” you want to go. Next, if you are committed to making the trip a success along the lines you have set out, you need to prepare. Of course very little will go exactly as you plan it, but having the plan and preparing for it will also leave you in much better position to deal with change.

Myth Busting – the “Why?”

Why do you want to go? For skiers this one usually is answered by, “I want to get faster.” It is a good reason to go, but it has to be in perspective.

This is the first place to start with a dose of realism. The Norwegian and Swedish juniors get faster the same way we do; they work their tails off. There is no magic in the air, no wand that comes down softly while you sleep and “Poof!” takes 30 seconds off a 10 k time.

Understanding and being ready to jump into the work, and to chase kids who are a lot faster because they have chased kids who are a lot faster is essential to reaching that part of “Why.” Don’t think you will go to Scandinavia and come home to immediately crush your competition. Likely you won’t, but if you work as hard as the natives do you might see a pretty distinct incremental improvement over time.

There are subsets of answers to the “Why” question and they too are important not to consider. They may very well help determine answers to “Where” and “How”. Among these are a desire to study: the language, sport physiology, coaching, or less specifically, to put oneself in school in order to establish some daily structure, a desire to experience a different culture, a hope to see and live in a specific new place.

At each point along the way here we want to stop and perform a reality check and to see how well we may have thought about the things that might not work out. Do we really want to go to school? If not what are we ready to do? It is OK to go to a training camp and take naps in the middle of the day, but that only is good for about seven to 10 days. Then we need a life.

What will you do if you are not in school? Really. “Hang out” doesn’t cut it. If you don’t have an extremely fat wallet, “hang out” won’t be in the picture anyway. So what will you do? Travel? That cuts into training pretty hard, and it costs money.

Being a free loader works for a while, but it isn’t a way to create a situation to which you can return over the years because you have been a good guest. Work? Paying work is hard to find in Scandinavia now. Eastern Europe has set a lot of people loose and willing to take the low paying jobs. You might find something on a farm or in a shop, but again it won’t fit too well with training.

Where and how do you want to live? Apartment? Alone? With a family? With other skiers? If the training is the motivation make plans to facilitate the training situation. In my experience the best ways to do that is membership in a local club, time at a local school or participation in a well-connected program from home.

The Questions – When? Where? How?

The question “When” is pivotal as well. We can attach the question of “how long?” to the question of “When?” When and how long? During high school? The year after high school? Between freshman and sophomore college years? Summer, fall, winter or spring? Training or racing season? A month, 90 days, a full academic year?

Over the years my own enthusiasm for life and skiing in Scandinavia has probably helped to lead some kids down a primrose path that didn’t work out as well as we hoped. I feel badly about that and for that reason I have tempered things a bit and I run through the reality checks more often before I hand out any thoughts.

Again the idea here is to help make these trips work. I have come to appreciate the shorter trip initially; a time period that is long enough to settle in to a bit of a routine, to become acquainted with people and place, to get a feel for the working of the language but not so long that it requires a special visa, or puts the demands on time that loom up as “What do I do now?”

Too long a trip and one without the variety and society that a school situation provides can rob energy and enthusiasm. In the worst cases the empty time can send kids into a real homesick tailspin. A little of that is natural, and a constructive learning experience but an over dose ain’t good. Here is a dark little picture to keep in mind:

You are in Central Norway, latitude 63.5 degrees north. It is October and you have been there for two months. You have some friends but you are not the “new kid in town” anymore and they have started talking more Norwegian among themselves, and do not come find you quite as often. The language has eluded you and now when you hear it, you shut it off.

You have started to play solitaire and watch movies on the computer. You have not yet spoken to another person today. It is raining and this afternoon at 3 p.m. it is damn near full dark. You need a head lamp to train. Boiled potatoes have taken on a dimension of terror. You miss your dog. Facebook makes it worse.

You are always the last to get home, which is in the basement of a house. Both your roommates are Norwegians and they have known each other for years. They are top juniors in the district and you struggle to keep up in Level 1 workouts.

It is raining harder and it is cold. You really miss your dog. It doesn’t rain in Aspen in October. You start to identify with the Norwegian painting “The Scream”, and idly price tickets to Denver on Kayak. You skip the workout. In fact you have skipped the last three workouts. No one seems to notice.

If you are prepared for this and you weather it, it does indeed build character. However, this is not where you want to be. If you are not prepared, chances are the ship could go down with all hands.

This sort of grim scenario doesn’t play out often on a shorter trip, and the tastes of it serve only to prepare you better for a longer trip next time. For the first trip, take the one- to three-month idea into consideration. There are great arguments for almost any time of year.

Summer is light all night and the whole world up there is open to runs and hikes and camping is open to all comers almost anywhere. The training possibilities are limitless. Fall is the transition time and the high-training volume time. It could be one of the best times to find your self with a club or a school to experience getting down to business.

There is most often early snow. Winter clearly is great because there are endless kilometers of skiing and good races at every turn. Spring … ahhh, spring! Those endless kilometers are still groomed, there is a lot of sun, the days are long and all the “waffle houses” open up along the trails. Long slow distance; hundreds of kilometers of it, makes spring the perfect wind-down to the year and a great lead in to summer training. You can’t lose.

Where to go?

This takes a little time, too. Both geography and social situation play a role. You need to decide on a rural, or an urban setting, a small or large town.

Small villages in Scandinavia can be pretty quiet, with not much more than a grocery store and a gas station. Occasionally you’ll find a café, but small is small. Proximity to town is a factor if it is important to you.

If you are not used to too much solitude try to locate in a hub of sorts. Save the isolation for the next trip after you have learned how it works. How far north? There is no direct sun above the Arctic Circle for the heart of the winter. That takes a little getting used to.

If it is a school how do the students live? In apartments on their own or on campus? How do the classes fit your abilities and is there anything in Englis? (More on the language topic later.) Does the school have a “ski line,” a curriculum of study oriented to winter sport, or is skiing through the local club? Is the club receptive to foreigners?

Norway and Sweden are the places with which I am most familiar. A lot of kids I know have had good experiences in Finland as well. All the ski nations offer wonderful opportunities to interested folk so it is not out of prejudice that I keep my comments related to Scandinavia, but out of familiarity.

The 30-90 day option can free up time to experience both Norway and Sweden and there are no visas required. In planning for a longer stay if there is not an automatic reason such as family, friends, past stays or specific geography for picking Sweden or Norway as first choice, then a look at the opportunities with the schools and clubs is warranted.

Sweden has a few more schools that have ski lines in the curriculum and offers a little more latitude in terms of ability. Visas there may be a bit easier to obtain. The most exclusive Swedish and Norwegian ski gymnasiums are geared to kids who have come up through the systems there and who have reached an elite level of performance as Juniors.

These schools, six in Sweden and three in Norway, are far more rigorous in selection than is any of the ski academies here in the U.S. Contrary to popular U.S. opinion, that does not mean the athletes have specialized on skiing from the time they can walk. What is does mean is that after 16, the kids are not trying to letter in four school sports and are not competing all year long.

At around 16, if they want to be skiers, they start to train for skiing as the main sport. They still play soccer, they still run, they still hike and climb and bike, but those become adjuncts and diversions for the rest of the training program. They rarely start to count hours before 16 and if they do the hours are reasonable e.g. 325.

Where our kids have a problem adapting to the rigors of ski-gymnasium training in Scandinavia is that we have a more thinly spread approach into pretty key years for solid training.  In most high school situations we compete in four seasons and never truly train. High-school tradition can lead to a lot of subtle coercion in the spreading thin of talent and energy. Performance is often flight on the wings of talent alone and the foundation for real endurance training is left shaky and incomplete.

Where we seem to drop behind the Scandinavians as skiers is between 16 and 19.  At the same age, we are less familiar with the rhythm of training zones and loads. Finding yourself at a ski gymnasium in Scandinavia and playing catch up there can be a lot to handle at first. But if you plan for it and you know a little about what you are getting into, you can handle it and profit from it.

The key is to understand that the profit builds over time. You will not go to a Scandinavian ski gymnasium for a year and come home and win everything. That is a short-sighted and short-lived dream. It is the wrong reason for going.

“How” you arrange your time there is the last question. It comes along after you have determined “Why” and “When” and “Where”. This has to do with your actual experience in the country and can determine a lot as to how that plays out.

Some of the considerations leading into “How” you spend your time are whether or not you go with a program from North America or if you blend into one over there. You might have the opportunity to go with your school here and to get a good introduction to the training climate and culture, or if you have more time, you might simply go it alone and apply and enter one of the ski gymnasiums there if you are accepted.

Some organizations smooth out the visa issues, and if you are lucky, can put you in a good living situation, but many organizations load the participation with restrictions, have their own agendas and are not always happy to cater to your hopes for a good training situation.

Each possibility needs to be looked at and you need to decide what fits best. As you get a little older more and less structured plans can open up, but you still need to have an idea of how to fund things, what you hope to get out of the time and initially where and whom you will be and with.

The plans do not have to be rigid. When it comes to what you do when you are there, the plans are lines on a chart. You may find things that make you want to change course and a good plan can give you the confidence to do that. There are a lot of opportunities. Turn over every rock and every log on the beach and be ready to have a great time and to write an exciting chapter in your book.

There is one final piece I want to put on the table and if your trip is any longer than a couple of weeks I think it is a most important one. It is some competency with the foreign language.

If I divide the kids I have worked with setting up a period of time in Scandinavia into groups that had really good times and groups that didn’t have the best experiences, a common thread is that virtually all the winners developed a high level of proficiency with the language, and among those the ones who started to get the basics before they left North America had a still better time and tend to have repeat visits.

The language opens doors that would otherwise remain closed. It makes friends, breaks the ice, lets you laugh at yourself in the struggle and makes you approachable. Little things like humor and customs take on a different dimension. The dark time isn’t as dark because you begin to think and live in the same tongue everyone around you uses. You are included, you include yourself.

Yes, almost all Norwegians and Swedes speak excellent English. Still, if you are going over with an idea of learning some things about skiing and culture from them, why hobble your effort by forcing them to speak YOUR language, when theirs may have the subtleties and expressions they need and yours may not?

If you are living with a family, and any time you are the members have to drop their language to speak yours, how real a picture of that life are you getting? It sets up and leaves up a certain wall.

Before you go, get to a language course. There are good ones available on the web and on CD’s. Get advice from the Scandinavian departments at major universities. I know Harvard, the University of Minnesota, and the University of Washington all have Norwegian and Swedish faculties.

Break the mystery of the basics and be able to start using it as soon as you arrive. The experience will develop much further in every direction and you will not only come home with the chance of skiing faster for a while, but also with a skill you have earned and can use for the rest of your life.

Personally in looking back at the great times I have had traveling in Scandinavia and in actually feeling at home over there I value the ability to communicate in the native language most of all. It has enriched my whole life experience.

Next go round we’ll look at some of the things to do and to avoid once you are there and the horse that you rode in on has turned and headed home without you.

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Pete Phillips

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One comment

  • xcq

    January 20, 2012 at 7:48 pm

    Excellent article – I think the “professional” ski teams in this country could stand to do some similar pondering – which my shed light on why some programs work and others struggle.

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