In our second summer series, Ski Racing Media will create a community discussion around the subject of development. We will access experts and thought-leaders throughout the industry. Importantly we hope you, our readers, will also help us answer the question of why we are not more successful on the sport’s ultimate stage, the World Cup.
The U.S. is ranked sixth and Canada is ranked 11th in the Nations Cup. The leading nations, Switzerland and Austria, have miniscule populations in comparison. In fact, their populations are similar to just the states of Colorado and Utah. Canada has a population five times larger and has more FIS licenses than either Switzerland or Austria. The U.S. has three times more.
Something isn’t adding up. Is it simply because ski racing is a European sport, and as such, it is just too difficult for North Americans to compete? Clearly, it is more difficult for us.
Americans and Canadians have had success at the junior levels. The U.S. has won consecutive U16 races in Europe. Especially recently, the U.S. has won multiple podiums at the Junior World Championships. Still, we struggle to make the jump to the next level.
In the forthcoming discussion about development, some of the issues we plan to address include:
- The culture of ski racing
- Technical skills necessary for World Cup success and the best approach to acquiring them
- Physiological development considerations
- International best practices
- Speed versus tech
- Concentration versus specialization
- Point chasing versus head-to-head competition
- What can we learn from other sports?
Among the experts and thought-leaders we have lined up to contribute, we will hear from coaching veteran Peter Lange about his extensive conversation with Thomas Stauffer, the head men’s coach for the number-one-ranked Suisse Team.
I recently had the genuine pleasure of spending time with Phil McNichol, high performance director of Alpine Canada. It was a long and inspirational discussion, marked by passion for the sport and an amazing amount of openness. Our colleague, Gordie Bowles, who was recently tapped to lead our Canadian coverage, followed up with an extensive interview with Phil, and we look forward to Gordie sharing those insights.
Finn Gundersen, the director of Sport Education for the Philadelphia Union Major League Soccer Club, will provide an incredibly insightful comparison to major league soccer and ski racing.
Legendary coach Aldo Radamus will share his insights on development in a multi-part series. Importantly, he will touch on the importance of participation, inclusion, and cost. Ski Racing Media’s next series will tackle the cost issue. Whereas we will touch briefly on it in the development series, we think it is important enough to have a focused deep dive. That will come this fall.
Kirk Dwyer, executive director for Ski & Snowboard Club Vail and a major thought-leader of our sport, will share his insights on physiology, youth differences, racing vs training and other topics.
Edie Thys Morgan will chronicle the historical perspective on development.
We have also invited leaders from U.S. Ski & Snowboard to participate.
We are hopeful many others who are passionate and knowledgeable will reach out to us with contributions. We are hoping to achieve broad participation from community members as guest contributors and letters to the editor.
Here are a few teasers describing the aforementioned topics:
For sure, there is the issue of culture in North America. In many European countries, skiing is the sport. Every young boy or girl in the alpine nations dreams of stardom on the World Cup.
When I conducted interviews with thought-leaders in Europe as part of the Leever Study, one of the frequent comments attributed to young racers was, “If I didn’t ski race, I wouldn’t have any friends. Everyone does it.”
A high percentage of our young people choose more mainstream sports: football, basketball, and baseball over ski racing. Conversely, the total immersion in all things ski racing, more common in Europe, develops an intrinsic love for the sport that is hard to duplicate. Our only chance to have anything close to the same experience for North America is to develop micro cultures at the family and community levels. It is not at all realistic to think we will ever have a ski-centric culture in North America, like they do in some European countries — but it is possible in Stowe, Calgary, Collingwood, Squaw Valley, Vail and Steamboat. And it is even more possible at the family level.
What does your family focus on? What do you do for fun? When our son, Alex, was eight years old, we went to Europe skiing in the summer, on a family vacation. Our family had a ski-centric culture. There are many examples of how that can be fostered.
There is a deep understanding in Europe that ski racers are made, not born. In North America, we seem to think there are shortcuts that can still lead to success. What the Europeans understand intuitively is that ski racing is more of a skill sport. And as such, it takes time and a more deliberate effort to achieve excellence, never mind what it takes to be best in the world.
Different sports require different levels of skill. A motor-muscle-dominant sport depends more on the movement of major muscle groups. In these cases there is more reliance on nature than nurture. If you are lucky enough to be born with the right genes that lead to good foot speed, the right kind of muscle makeup, or coordination for a given sport — you’ve got a great head start. Talent can take you pretty far in motor-muscle-dominant sports.
On the other hand, skill-dominant sports like gymnastics or figure skating are extremely high on the skill-development side. The movements required are so sport-specific, it requires countless hours of practice to reach the world-class level, and it is basically impossible to take short cuts.
Ski racing is a skill-dominant sport. This can best be illustrated by the absence of late starters. There is no example of a World Cup athlete who started skiing in their teens. Furthermore, there is no single body type that is predominant in ski racing. There are many examples of WC athletes who are very average natural athletes, at best.
In our discussions with thought-leaders, one coach told a story of a crystal globe-winner who was not allowed to play soccer with her team for fear of injury — because she was so uncoordinated.
Like other skill sports, it takes countless hours to become a world-class ski racer. The adaptation, both physiologically and mentally, to develop neurons to control our body motions to become capable of movements takes a long time. Untrained (or less trained) athletes simply can’t replicate this absent this years-long endeavor.
Where it gets complicated is talent can sometimes take you pretty far in ski racing. There is enough of a motor-muscle-dominant sport component, particularly in some situations — think easier hills and surfaces — where the lack of world-class, sport-specific skills are not nearly as critical.
Generally, skill acquisition does not occur optimally absent specific conditions. The scientific term for this is “deliberate practice.” This is defined as effortful, just outside your comfort zone, with frequent feedback from an expert. Doing the same activity over and over does not lead to improvement. That is why we are not all Formula 1 drivers, even though we have thousands of hours behind the wheel of our family car. In this series we will hear more about the importance of expert coaching and coaches education. This is a critical need.
North Americans typically do not even scratch the surface in terms of volume with proper coaching. There will be much more to follow on this vital subject.
If you are more interested in the process of achieving world-class status, click this link for a free e-copy of my book, “The Formula: 7 Principles to Transform Doubt and Despair into Confidence and Success.” It’s an easy read. I hope you enjoy it.
We all know there is a huge difference between the physical maturation of early versus late bloomers. It can be as much as four years. So, why do we follow a strictly chronological development pathway? Science tells us there are further significant differences between male and females. Kirk Dwyer will help us better understand this. Hint: One size fits all is not the answer.
International best practices
We can learn a lot from looking at the countries that are the historical leaders in the Nations Cup. We will bring information from Europe to try to shine the light on this subject, without Europeanizing North American ski racing. There are very big differences that don’t always fit with our culture, but that doesn’t mean we cannot take key elements that do fit with our culture.
Speed vs tech
We will again shine a light on the critical need for technical skill in speed events. Increasingly, the World Cup is becoming more technical. In the statistical deep dive performed in the Leever Study, we looked at the technical rankings of speed skiers. There was a very high correlation between demonstrated skill in tech events as a junior, evidenced by high technical ranks, and ultimate speed success on the World Cup. The correlation wasn’t 100% — there are a few speed skiers who were not highly ranked as juniors in tech — but it was very statistically significant.
Concentration vs specialization
In our research, we found virtually no one who advocated for specialization in ski racing, that is, year-round ski racing absent other sports. However there was a consensus about the time necessary to develop the skills to attain world class status in ski racing. It requires making choices. One needs to ski a ton and certainly take advantage of training when there is snow on the ground. Having other sports that you participate in recreationally is great, even preferable, because it develops complementary muscles, balance and athleticism. But it’s unlikely you will achieve world-class skills in ski racing without a very serious effort, beyond seasonal.
Point chasing vs head-to-head racing
Steve Porino, in his January submission titled “There’s a financial crisis in ski racing,” suggested that point chasing was analogous to measuring an athlete’s two longest home runs in determining slugging champs. It creates a perverse incentive to risk it all in hopes you get two results per event out of season of attempts. Then when you reach the World Cup you are judged on season-long achievement measured by total WC points scored over the entire season. There is a strong argument against utilizing ranking by points in selections. Furthermore, racing is expensive and takes away from deliberate practice, arguably for no gain long-term.
One of the most successful and outspoken coaches in alpine skiing is Ante Kostelic of Croatia, the coach and father of Janica and Ivica, who won multiple overall WC globes, as well as World Championship and Olympic gold medals. Retiring at 25, Janica is considered one of the best ski racers of all time. Ante is famous for saying, “Give me any child of average ability and I will make them World Cup skiers.” He believes he has a system that effectively can’t fail. Some of the elements include a goal of 100% finish rates in training, on extremely long courses, sometimes 100 gates. He also espouses extremely high annual training volume. And he advocates first having very high finish rates and then layering on more and more pace.
What can we learn from other sports?
Finn Gundersen will give us perspective from soccer. It is extremely enlightening.
We also have examples of professional athletes who made the most out of seemingly very average natural abilities. Athletes like Steph Curry in basketball, who received no scholarship offers from major colleges and was the third guard drafted to the NBA because he was too small, not explosive and not athletic enough – only to win multiple MVP awards. The story of his transformation is very interesting.
How about Tom Brady? It seems weird to think of Tom as anything other than the best quarterback of all time. But when he attended the University of Michigan, he redshirted as a freshman and was third string his second year. When it came to the NFL Draft, he went in the sixth round. Not exactly the resume of an all-time great. Even after arriving at the New England Patriots, Brady was a backup quarterback until his second season when the starter was injured. We will tell you Brady’s amazing story. You will be awed and inspired.
As mentioned above, we sincerely invite community input. There are many potential approaches to attack our development strategy and tactics. We also would like to hear from you about other major issues that might justify our time and attention.
Have some thoughts on the state of North American development? Send a letter to the editor. If it’s good, we’ll publish it.