In Junior Development Part 1 – Lessons from Soccer, a look inside the Philadelphia Union and its Union Academy, I described what’s happening at the cutting edge of youth development in arguably the most competitive sport in the world – soccer. I’ve been immersed in it for the last decade, watching how the need to innovate has only accelerated, and how it has fundamentally changed the pace of youth development for the better. But I’ve also kept an eye on my first love, alpine skiing. I believe we are at a tipping point. The current development paradigm has reached an unsustainable level, demanding an ever-greater family financial commitment just to participate, let along excel.
After ten years at the highest levels of soccer youth development, I can see better than ever how, with major changes, we could accelerate the rate of youth development in alpine skiing. We have the athletes, they are motivated and there are now more tools available at our disposal to radically boost the athlete developmental process. We have the youth potential, but are often sidetracked debating which college racer is being passed over, or who is letting us down, the U.S. Ski Team or the clubs/academies. We are missing the opportunity to develop not one, but a team of Shiffrins, Ligetys, Vonns, Millers, and on and on. Here are some ideas combining the best practices from youth soccer and skiing development.
International Youth Development: Looking back on the incredible history of the U.S. Ski Team (USST) and the role of the Center of Excellence (COE), plus our many clubs and academies, we all should be very proud of our American athletes and teams. There are very few American sports where our athletes compete in events that are 95% “away games” – in the competition’s backyard (100% this COVID season)! When the USST was #2 in the FIS ‘05 and ‘06 nation’s cup, USSA was leading the skiing world in applied sport science research, under the dynamic leadership of Dr. Andy Walshe and his international and American staff. The results of their work endure to this day but have the European teams caught up and maybe passed us?
I can only reiterate what I previously wrote in part 1: “I cannot state more emphatically that international youth development research, resulting in improved training methodologies, is only accelerating.” Even though professional soccer has the financial resources that far, far exceed anything approaching USSS, the ski community must continue to be fully committed to maintaining a robust research and applied high-performance program. It begins with the COE leadership and all staff believing in the program, including all USST coaches far and near.
Academy Leadership: Skiing and soccer, by their very nature as international sports, often employ a large number of foreign coaches, many occupying key leadership positions. This also extends well down into the top clubs and academies, as there is much to learn and share from the exchange of ideas and best practices from around the world.
However, whether key leadership positions are held by foreign or domestic personnel, this does not automatically ensure the creation of the optimum development culture. Not all leaders are equal. As one former member of the Dr. Walshe sport science team said to me recently, “I think it’s essential to have people who are EXTREEMLY passionate about the program in key positions here, probably needs to be domestic leadership who bleed and give EVERYTHING to the program and to the athlete’s success.” I don’t have all the answers but I know there are better ways to coach, better ways to carry out the holistic development of an elite athlete.
Having listened to well over two hundred or more youth development presentations (from talent ID, to physiology, psychology, nutrition, recovery, etc., etc.) from the top soccer clubs in the world, I can definitely state that there are few secrets left. Everyone has access to the latest in sport science – no matter the field, including the latest in technological tools and data analytics, or they are pursuing it aggressively. Or, are there no secrets left? I’ve been assured that there is still room for innovative research, to get a jump on the competition, especially when it comes to applying the findings.
What is often missing is the personal curiosity. That driving leadership to raise the bar, to create a culture that fulfills the vision and mission of the club, that creates new and better junior development methods by combining ideas from otherwise unrelated or unforeseen domains. Too often we are blinded by our own bubble, content to stay on our training hill and in our region. One must find the resources to support the continuing education of an eager questioning staff.
College Skiing: The issue was thoroughly debated in last month’s Ski Racing. For now, I can state that in comparing these two “college” sports they are similar. How? Like skiing the college soccer player is becoming less and less a viable MLS recruit (see part 1 for all the reasons).
Here is one more example of how the enhanced development of junior soccer players is by passing the NCAA. In a recent United Soccer League (USL) match (2nd tier of professional American soccer), the Philadelphia Union II versus New York Red Bulls II (8/5/20), the Union won 3-2. What was the key take away – the three Union goals were scored by 16yr old’s! The average age of the Union II starting eleven was 17.4. Why would an MLS club spend their limited development resources on a 22yr old college player when juniors are capable of playing, and winning, against 18 to 30yr old USL professionals? Who, by the age of said college graduate, could be starting for an MLS first team and possibly be recruited to play in Europe.
A Union junior training program goes for 10months, training twice a day, with the appropriate rest and recovery, and less “starts” than skiing (35 matches). This also includes individualized physical conditioning, sport specific balance and agility, plus a variety of other physical activities (dance & gymnastics for example) for an overall, well-rounded holistic curriculum. This does not differ from many our alpine clubs/academies, except in maybe the double daily sessions. Variations of this program are happening throughout the world. While the door is never closed for the college player, it has become harder to reach one’s professional dream through the college route.
I believe the lessons from junior soccer development are the same for junior skiing development, as demonstrated by a variety of European alpine nations, Norway for example: where elite alpine juniors can compete successfully against older competitors. I believe the limited resources of the USST must be directed towards accelerating the development methodologies of America’s elite juniors, and this includes the USST’s C, D, and development teams.
Again, the college circuit is still a viable option via the Nor-Am circuit. And yes, the case was reasonably made for fine tuning competition access and support for the college racer, but I would still place a greater emphasis on raising the development expectations for our elite juniors from our gold star clubs/academies. If I were leading a junior team today, my goal would be to win Nor-Am races for women at 16-18yrs old and for men at 17-19yrs old. Is this unrealistic, no. The decision to forgo college is never an easy one and I wish we didn’t have to make it, but the reality is for an elite athlete the window of opportunity for a professional World Cup career is brief, college is forever (albeit minus a scholarship in some cases).
Norwegian Ski Culture: With the recent successes of the Norwegian racers, it’s easy to highlight their culture, many already have. I like them also because they are not part of the central European Alpine powers (France, Switzerland, Germany, Austria, & Italy), they are “outsiders” like the U.S. Recently I spoke with an American ski coach who just returned from three years of coaching in Norway and asked, “Why are they so successful?” As the saying goes, for a small country they punch way above their weight! He gave three primary reasons:
- “It’s part of their culture. From the youngest ages they are on snow, starting with x-country for 50% of them. It cuts across all economic backgrounds. You are raised to be active, to be outside, to love nature. Families are involved from the beginning – volunteering, coaching, and passionately following the sport.”
- Passion for the team: “They have their heroes, they watch every world cup, even in the van ride on their phones. They can even bet money. They know their history of skiing.” Heroes in soccer are just as important. For example, many of the European clubs I visited structure their facilities so as you age, your locker room is closer and closer to the first team, you see them, talk to them, you breath-eat-soccer – culture, culture, culture.
- “Large opportunity for volume. They out ski us, out train us, they have continual opportunities for volume, no matter the weather and it can be really bad in Norway. The work ethic is incredible especially for the elite juniors, no one trains harder. Whether 8yrs old or 18, they maximize repetition with good quality coaching.”
American Ski Culture: After 50 years of ski coaching (yipes) I could write a book on this but for now, I’ll compare with our Union soccer culture, here are some thoughts:
- Is it fair to say our American ski skills are too coached, not adaptable to the more varied terrain and conditions of Europe, especially outside of the World Cup?
- Are we too mechanical, too programed, lacking in innovative skills, too robotic – i.e., this is the stance without understanding the how and why? And
- Finally, do we lack the raw passion and love of the sport that is so critical to surviving the many setbacks on the long road to the top? Passion and love of the sport are never an issue for our American World Cup competitors, but in the junior ranks I’m not so sure.
USST vs Clubs/Academies: If there has been one constant theme in my 50yrs of working in skiing is the finger pointing. A quick general summary goes like this:
- USST – “You don’t send us adequately developed skiers – poor fundamentals, too dependent on the home coach, physically behind, not adaptable, hard to coach, mentally weak, reluctant to let them go…”
- Club/Academy – “We send you well prepared talented committed racers. You have poor coaching at the lower levels – young inexperienced, high turnover, don’t know their way around Europe, no support, too much pressure, play favorites, poor communication…”
I believe today much of this has been resolved or is in the process of changing. Why, because everyone has come to the same conclusion, WE ALL can take responsibility for the current position we are in internationally! We are building trust slowly, communication has improved substantially, and collaboration with the clubs has reached new heights, all of this will help. Now, let’s be specific, what is the next step?
- In my view, the current American development paradigm, based on “pay to play,” has reached a “tipping point,” it must change. The following below is one idea, I’m sure there are more out there (company teams is another one for example).
FREE – Regional Development Centers: I believe I’ve been promoting this new development paradigm for many years now, or at least a few friends have heard it probably too many times – “We need three regional high-performance development centers that are either 100% FREE, or at substantially reduced fees.” I could make an argument we need only one but for now the three regions competing against each other would be very beneficial for all. As one club head coach said to me “We’ve got it backwards, the better one does the more it costs. How can we possibly keep up with, let alone surpass our competition, when we price, ourselves out of reach for many of our elite potentials?” And now, with CVOVID-19, the inequity in access is even more pronounced – the family must go to Mt Hood!
How to build a FREE Regional Development Center:
- Culture is first. It is more than a community based on trust, hard work, shared purpose, and striving for excellence, all are vital ingredients. There is more, we must create a high-performance environment. As Dan Coyle said in The Culture Code; “here is where we are and here is where we want to go.” To change the American development paradigm, to again lead the ski racing world, will require creating an environment based on total engagement, a complete commitment to and belief in American juniors capable of competing with the best in the world. Through innovating training combined with enhanced coaches education and a will to maximize every available American resource, we will develop faster athletes. The best practices are out there and we will improve on those.
- Critical Mass: It has been proven that bringing the elite together, either full-time (my preference) or at least two times, or more, per month for extended periods will accelerate their development. Add to that high intensity training by inviting 3-5 college and/or European guests for greater PACE and ideal VISUAL examples, this is critical. The athlete, for themselves, must see what is possible, what they will have to do to find that 2 to 3 to 5 missing seconds.
In my recent U16 study for technical/tactical understanding (or lack of it), the U16s, from three established clubs, could not adequately describe, in their own words, concepts such as “early pressure, or leaning in, or sitting back.” The 10 questions asked were developed by using the same technical and tactical wording employed by the club coaches on a daily basis. The study revealed that as many as 50% or more of the U16s demonstrated little understanding of the concept nor the ability to apply it.
The latest research on how the brain learns new skills will change how one coaches, it must be studied, but let’s at least begin by exposing our elite athletes to faster racers. My ten years with the Philadelphia Union Academy has only reinforced my confidence that an elite athlete will respond to the challenge, will raise their technical and tactical skills quickly, and can compete successfully far above their age group.
- Hire only ex-world cup coaches with the highest levels of certification, impeccable credentials and proven international success. Coaches will be required to attend, at a minimum, 3-weeks of education outside their field, preferably international in scope, every other year. Staff will be held accountable by annual performance evaluations, including anonymous athlete surveys. Critical and timely (weekly is ideal) personal feedback will be automatic and is vital for any coach to improve.
- High School Education: there are multiple options – online, blended, local private/public high school partnerships. Or start a specialized school for total control. It’s much easier to create a more productive, efficient, and flexible education plan, leading to a well-crafted development program, by having your own school.
- Selection criteria: TBD, but must be based on all the latest relevant psycho/physical factors, as well as current FIS age ranks, results, etc. While it will be a combination of both objective and subjective input, it must be transparent, easily understood and thoroughly researched criteria.
- Every year must be earned, there are no guarantees! Now, I can hear objections already: Too much pressure (they will have a target on their back – good). Give them 2yrs at least (possibly). What about late developers? – relative age effect will be taken into account through selection criteria, the door is never closed until a certain age. What is key is to find out who has that overwhelming passion for skiing, accompanied by an extremely high level of self-motivation and discipline, so necessary to survive the long road to the top.
- Numbers per Region: 18-men – 3 per 14,15,16,17,18,19 (or some variation), with 6 additional slots available during the year for invitees. 18-women – per same years (or some variation), with also 6 additional invitees during the season. Max training numbers would be 24-men and 24-women, but a certain number would almost always be away racing. The East may have more than one site because of its 52% USSS membership numbers, however, only if the demanding selection criteria is met.
The total of 54 men and women would broaden the base substantially, put increased pressure, from underneath, on the USST C, D, and development teams, while raising the level of regional skiing significantly.
- Location: Must meet the following standards: early and late snowmaking, with additional water readily available, a surface lift or a quick turn-around chair, variable “wild” terrain, FIS homologated SL/GS, and hopefully some speed terrain – for at least basic element training. On hill housing/meals or close by. And, a High-Performance center near-by – including all the necessary facilities and staff certified in the appropriate fields.
- Budget: To start with one must have the mindset – IT CAN BE DONE – DREAM BIG! The goal: a $150-$200 million endowment is needed and is reasonable. I estimate an annual $2-$3 million per region. Obviously these are formidable and even frightening numbers, but there are countless examples out there of ideas – vision/mission – that started from nothing (I was at Burke Mountain Academy when it opened in the fall of 1970 – we had no $$$, just an idea based on creating a community of trust, striving for excellence through innovative training methods, all designed to serve 12 highly motivated student/athletes). There are dozens of ways to cut costs – save money through donated facilities, free passes, commercial sponsorships, and on and on. Yes, it’s easy just to through-out a number, but there seems to be universal agreement that the sport cannot continue on its present course of costing more and more every year, resulting in the elimination of more potential talent.
- European Partnerships: Whether it’s the current Italian site, or Soelden, or Norway, or some other place, each age group needs to spend a substantial amount of time training, traveling and racing in Europe! The current European junior projects need to be expanded to a month or more. In a recent conversation with a veteran USST coach who had been away from the European scene for a few years, upon his return said, “I could hardly believe GS, the speed, athleticism, the equipment changes, how incredibly demanding it was, and I thought I had the eye for it. Frankly, I had lost some of the feel for the sport.”
Our Union soccer juniors often travel to Europe, South America and Mexico to experience the match intensity, higher speeds, better skills, and overall increased physicality of the international game. While our Generation Adidas Cup features international junior teams, one must travel and live there to really grasp how high the bar is.
- USST Impact: I believe the ski team will welcome younger better prepared and faster racers with more international experience to their ranks. In effect, there will be two parallel paths, or at least another tier challenging the lower national teams, maybe even bypassing them. Obviously there is a lot to be worked out in the coming years, but for the sport to survive, dramatic innovation is sorely needed.
Finally: The very nature of international sports dictates the hard facts of an athlete’s life: it’s not always fair. It requires incredible sacrifices and it demands stepping outside of one’s home environment as one faces the international challenges to survive to be the best. It requires a unique set of personal characteristics and an unusual commitment to become your own best coach. In the end one stands in the start gate alone, the exhilaration and the terror of the sport all combined at once. It is not for everyone.