TIMBERLINE LODGE, Ore. — The men’s U.S. Ski Team and rising talents weren’t the only athletes bashing plastic on the Palmer Glacier under the watchful eyes of national team staff at Mt. Hood this June, as the FIS and U16 women of the National Training Group (NTG) also challenged their technical skills and tactics during an on-snow block on the famed summer ski lanes. After the men’s camp departed, the ladies rolled in to enjoy sunnier skies and significantly longer slalom courses. On the final day of skiing, they tackled a slalom set on the upper lanes that, according to the athletes, ran 1:20 to completion.
“We had seven days planned, but we only did six. Something that we’ve been starting to do is not ski in four days on, one day off blocks. We’re pushing a little more volume, and that has worked the last two years with the U16s, but I’m not sure if it works for everyone yet,” said USSA TEAM Academy and NTG U16 Head Coach Thomas Erhard. “Originally I was going to run this project parallel to the men’s slalom camp to let [the women] feed off that really solid project and learn from the boys.”
But Erhard was pulled in multiple directions when he was needed as a coach at the men’s slalom camp, and he suspected he’d be stretched too thin trying to accomplish both tasks simultaneously.
“I decided to join Frank [Kelble] and combine resources there,” noted Erhard, who will also take his U16 group to meet up with the FIS women’s and men’s NTGs later this summer in New Zealand at popular training sites for national team skiers from around the world. Despite his veteran experience as a World Cup coach with the U.S. Ski Team and then provincial team coach in Canada, Erhard still finds satisfaction in working with the younger group he has overseen for the past two years. “I do like coaching younger kids. … If you really like the technical side and tactical side of skiing, you can have a much greater impact at that age group. I’m not sure if it’s just a trend, but I think it’s great that there are a lot of experienced coaches going back to that age group. … It’s a lot of fun, and you can really coach and have an impact in all different ways.”
The purpose of the NTG is to bring the best developing skiers in the country together on a regular basis to push each other in both training and competition. However, it has faced scrutiny from parents, coaches, and clubs nationwide who question the costs associated with participation, the program base in Park City, and its motive as a talent identification system.
“Kids should move to [the USSA TEAM Academy] if it’s the right thing for them, and it has to be from many different perspectives: the social atmosphere (you’re in a homestay situation), living away from home. It’s definitely not for everyone. But for the right person, Steph Lebby flourished there because she was pulled up and she knew what she wanted,” remarked Erhard. “I do feel we need to keep it open to projects for the U16s. It makes it kind of an organizational nightmare sometimes, but we do need to keep it open.”
The next group of U16 nominees to the NTG may face an evolving selection process to better identify athlete performance across a series of races including regional qualifiers, regional championships, and U16 National Championships. The precise model is still under development, but the discussion about considering more races for future selection came out of conversations held by coaches in the spring. Some other challenges the group still faces include conditioning and the timing of on-snow training.
“We have a lot of work still to do on the conditioning side to take full advantage of the COE [Center of Excellence], and that’s an important role so I’m going to try to get back more into conditioning myself. Skiing-wise, we really need to figure out a time that we can ski that fits in better academically for the kids. Now with Jory [Macomber] coming in, that could really change things. And we have an excellent staff dynamic and we work together really well, but we’re at capacity. We’re not going to be able to continue doing a good job unless we can support it and can grow the staff.”
As the NTG grows, Erhard hopes it can maintain a ratio of two coaches for every eight athletes, because that’s a group size that has proven to be manageable in the past. Despite some growing pains in the first two years of the program, he has seen the NTG meet many goals and succeed with individual athletes, but there is always room for improvement.
“For me, we have accomplished a lot of things. But I want to see us perform better in Europe in general. I’d like to see after a few years that we can consistently have kids ranked in the top 10 in their age group in technical events, not just in speed. That’s probably going to be the best marker [of success]: getting more kids to be able to perform in Europe at a younger age, and that takes experience,” concluded Erhard.