The following is a letter that Scott Johnston, the coach of the Methow Olympic Development squad that at some points included Sadie and Erik Bjornsen and Torin Koos, and who also coached Team Gregg, shared with FasterSkier. He addressed it to U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association CEO Tiger Shaw after receiving Shaw’s Fall Quarterly Update, but says he has not received a reply. Some of Johnston’s concerns served as the basis of questions we asked Shaw when we interviewed him earlier this week. You can read the resulting story here.
In his letter, Johnston references a report commissioned by USSA from the consulting firm McKinsey & Company. The report can be found here.
For his part, Shaw told FasterSkier that he had no record of Johnston’s e-mail on the USSA server (we provided him with a copy of the letter so he could search the email address). The disconnect appears to have been an electronic snafu, and FasterSkier has put the two men in touch.
Dear Mr. Shaw:
It is with interest that I read your recent letter to USSA members but I must confess to some dismay as well. I’d like to point out the areas that cause my dismay. Please be aware that these are areas that have been a source of disappointment with USSA for years and I was really hoping to see substantive changes after the McKinsey report and the recent welcome change in leadership.
I well understand, firsthand, the need for a focus on results at the World Class level. Four of the members of this year’s Olympic Cross Country team were skiers that I have coached extensively, two of them from the age of 12. So, my desire to place athletes on the world stage should be in no doubt. In that way I share your goal of International excellence. However, I am concerned by what I perceive at USSA as a general lack of understanding of where these elite athletes come from in the first place. I have encountered this disconnect at all levels of dealing with the USST/USSA and now I sense that same disconnect in reading your letter.
These kids do not pop fully formed on to the international scene ready for the USST to take them to World Junior Championships or the World Cup. These young champions come from the clubs and the private coaches working for small financial gain or volunteering huge amounts of time and resources to see that these young skiers develop in the best possible way.
To that end, your base of membership and its development should be the number one goal of USSA. If this is done well the USST will have ample talent to choose from for the secondary goal of wining medals. Without this club oriented base and the effective development process it ensures we will continue to rely on luck in finding our next world beaters.
One year ago I attended a coaching symposium for cross country coaches at the Center for Excellence. One of the most engaging and informative speakers was Jack Roach, USA Swimming’s National Junior Team Director. Jack spoke for a few hours on the development process utilized in swimming. Without doubt US swimming can be viewed as an athletic success story. One that, with regularity, produces world class performers. They fully prioritize the importance of the clubs and their membership base in contributing talent to the national team and place many resources and a large focus at the individual and club level.
Sadly the USSA does not do share this vision. From the Mckinsey report and as verified by my casual polling of coaches, parents and skiers the perception is very strongly held that USSA/USST exists to extract fees from it members to support a largely top heavy organization that has little regard for its basic membership. This may seem like a harsh criticism and I would love to have my perception changed, but it is a message that does not seem to have made it to the meeting rooms and offices of the Center of Excellence, so, forgive my bluntness.
Last year USSA members received notice that their competition license prices were going up substantially. Among the skiers, coaches and parents I know there was considerable discussion about this and it was largely seen as further evidence of the points I have made above.
In an already small membership in an already very expensive sport, this seems like the exact opposite of a good business decision. Would any other company seeking to increase market share raise its prices? Your base of members, kids coming into competitive skiing, is also lured by other sports. For comparison with other individual sports, here is a list of membership fees/competition licenses:
USA Swimming: $50/yr
US Track and Field U-18 $20/yr, Adult $30/yr
USA Gymnastics $54/yr
All of these sports can lay claim to larger membership bases than USSA as well as consistent top results at the international level. All of them are directly competing with skiing for the time, energy and funds of these young people. Could there be a connection between lowering the barrier to entry in the sport and more consistent elite results. I am in no doubt of it.
A few USST stickers and a Comp guide are really not very much of a benefit of membership. Sadly that is the perception of many kids and parents who are making decisions about the direction that these young athletes will be taking during the critical adolescent years. As a minor sport in a culture filled with distractions and diversions we cannot afford to have our talent turned away from skiing during these peak development years. We just don’t have talent to waste.
I hope that these heartfelt comments from someone who has spent many years volunteering his time and money to the sport will be taken not as the ranting of some disgruntled malcontent but instead as constructive critique from a guy working daily in the trenches.