Like most ski teams, Alta Badia Ladinia Ski Team was experiencing a dramatic dropout rate starting at U16. While this is a shared problem in most sports, in the peculiar mountain environment, it can have disruptive socio-economic consequences. For instance, in the Alps, there is already a scarcity of ski teachers.
In need of finding solutions, we applied for a European Union grant called Erasmus+ Sport. DC4SKI, the name of the project that was financed by the EU, helped us understand why athletes quit ski racing and made it possible for us to find solutions. In three years of hard work, we were able to achieve a 100% athletes’ retention. This is the story of what we learned, and what we did.
Our first goal was to analyze why athletes give up, and to understand theirs, their families, and their educators’ needs. We run polls, organized focus groups, and seminars, also using the support of a psychologist. The Sports Department of the University of Genoa performed an analysis on its own students to understand why they quit playing competitive sports. This allowed us to compare results, getting the trends common to all sports, while also identifying the problems peculiar to Alpine ski racing and mountain areas.
In 2016, Kris Ochs and Dan Leever uncovered that the No. 1 factor behind ski racers’ success is the support of their families. Conversely, we found that the No. 1 problem for Alpine skiers is their families’ fear that ski racing is not compatible with a successful educational career, regardless that both literature and our own empirical experience shows the contrary. Good athletes are in fact also likely to excel in school, and later in life.
A problem peculiar to athletes living in mountain areas did however appear, which we defined as “ski fatigue”. While in the past, skiing was the way to experience the world, today athletes give up on multiple opportunities be competitive. This is also because the amount of training required has constantly increased, to include most of the off-season, often reaching counterproductive levels. Consequently, athletes miss on educational and extracurricular opportunities like schools’ exchanges, internships, or periods abroad to learn languages, which are the norm today in Europe. Without European collegiate skiing, in an increasingly competitive world, families see ski racing as an activity reducing their kids’ chances, rather than increasing them. And yet, families appear not to understand, and consider in their choice, the direct and indirect benefits of being a competitive athlete.
There are benefits common to the practice of any sport for a longer period of time, like developing socialization skills and a team attitude; being exposed to less screen-time; acquiring an active lifestyle that will generally continue in the adult phase, thus contributing a better overall health. Benefits specific to Alpine skiing include a knowledge of the mountain, and a better chance at passing the ski teacher exam – which in Europe is particularly challenging because of theEurotest (PFC-T) and Eurosicuritè (PFC-S) tests – thus acquiring a profession, or side activity, early in life.
Competitive sports also provide athletes with transferable skills, that is skills useful in other areas on one’s life: athletes gain discipline, drive, resilience, independence, and high ambition, all traits and competencies that are scarce commodities, yet valuable assets in the professional arena.
We also studied the impact of ski racing on mountain areas. The analysis displayed a strong correlation between ski racing and mountain areas’ economic development. Although the mountain business models differ in the US and in Europe, supporting ski teams is beneficial to the whole community. This in turn helped us to strengthen the cooperation and create new synergies with all the relevant local stakeholders. Support can be economical, but most importantly in practical terms: making slopes available for teams to train, allowing teams to load before tourists, consenting to ski teachers serving as coaches are some of the examples.
DC4SKI allowed us to elaborate policies and best practices to successfully allow athletes thrive in both skiing and studying, the two key words here being innovation and cooperation.
We now have policies for innovating and diversifying in training, both on and off snow. A successful athlete, an athlete that stays engaged for an extended period of time, is an athlete who has fun in the sport. Not only at a younger age, but also during adolescence when – with the body developing at an exponential rate, but still brain-wise immature – kids have difficulty at keeping focus for longer periods of time.
Bringing together all the sports associations of the valley, we created the Multiski (in the winter) and Multisport (in the summer) projects, which allow younger children to experience many different sports in both seasons. This not only makes it more fun for them, but it is fundamental from a developmental point of view, both psychologically and physically.
For adolescent athletes, we introduced new training techniques, and new training venues. Today, clubs are too focused on gates. As a result, kids get bored and do not get to know, love, and fear, the mountain. Whatever the age, directed and undirected free skiing is essential. It is fundamental to organize days where they enjoy Big Mountain, jumps, free ride, or simply skiing together. Introducing complicate figures, alternating small and tall gates, organizing parallels – a kids’ favorite that helps them push to their limits – are all ways to innovate and diversify on gates. Thanks to the renewed collaboration with local stakeholders, we were able to build a Ski Cross slope and to host the first regional championships – SX is part of Alpine skiing in Italy – bringing to 16 the total number of our training slopes.
We also diversified training in the off-season. Dry training now takes place every morning, with a mix of hard-core exercising and fun games. We built a new weights gym. We even added a fun week at the beach doing acrobatics.
We organized off and pre-season ski trainings in venues far from home, like France or Germany, in places where once they are off their skis, kids can enjoy different and fun activities together. In the fall, thanks to Aldo Radamus, we organized an exchange with Team Summit in Colorado, which allowed us to bring our U16 to the United States for 10 days. We are looking forward to host Team Summit back in Alta Badia, as soon as COVID allows for it.
These innovations were also designed to respond to the families’ fear that ski racing precludes educational opportunities. For instance, in Colorado our athletes not only had the chance to train alongside their American peers, but also visited and attended for a day the local high school.
We worked with our local public school, Scores Altes La Ila, to understand how we could improve cooperation. Thanks to what we learned from Team Summit, Stratton Mountain School, and the University of Colorado, we created the Alta Badia Ski Academy. The advantages of the Academy are multiple. By allowing a small group of selected international ski racers into our school and team, we created diversity at home, stimulated our kids’ curiosity and competitiveness, on and off the snow, and given them a concrete reason to practice English and French.
We now have differentiated programs for our U16 and FIS, a distinction that did not exist before. The full-time Academy kids, both local and international, enjoy special privileges and dedicated policies, like a tutor, the possibility to train early in the morning and then go to school, in addition to the regular afternoons, or no tests on Mondays or after races. The part-time athletes follow less intensive programs, either training and racing, or opting for the new Ski-Teach program. Thanks to Ski-Teach, they still get the social part and the dry training, while getting specifically prepared to pass, once they become of age, the challenging ski-teacher exam.
As DC4SKI was ending, we applied for a new, much bigger grant. Our new Erasmus+ Sport Network is called ESKI and it will run until December 2022. Formally including both Team Summit and Stratton Mountain School as partners – the first US teams to ever join an ERASMUS+ Sport grant – in addition to European ski team and federations, with the support of the University of Bolzano and of University of Colorado’s Richard Rokos, it will bring more innovation and coaches’ education. It also will hopefully plant the seeds for network of ski academies and a network of European mountain universities.