Editor’s note: This is the third in a four-part series on development from veteran coach and program director Aldo Radamus. Read his first two articles, “Reflections on alpine ski racing development in the United States” and “Let’s face it, skiing is expensive.”

Two strangers running next to each other at a similar speed will often find themselves increasing their pace to overtake the other. Each one raises their effort pushing out of their comfort zone. The pace escalates until one approaches or reaches their limit and cracks. Both the runner overtaken and the one who passed the other will soon return to the effort they were comfortable with.

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Competition that is closely matched creates the greatest intensity. If passed by a runner much faster, there may be a momentary increase of effort but the futility of keeping up rapidly becomes evident. When easily faster than others, the ultimate effort is difficult to extract and sustain. The best is brought out when athletes are shoulder to shoulder and the hope is present that additional effort will bring success.

Coaches, athletes and parents often make the mistake of assuming that competing regularly at the highest level possible is the best for athlete development and improvement in rankings. The truth is that competing at the level where success is realistically attainable provides the motivation to increase skills, push limits and strive to improve. Point-scoring opportunities are the greatest in a race environment where the skier is closely matched in skill as compared to the race with the lowest penalty.

Athlete development is not as much about identifying talent for special coaching and teams as it is about having a system where all participants are able to participate in appropriate competition for their current skill level and have the opportunity to advance to increasingly challenging competition. As they outgrow their current environment, there are steps that will lead the best to the top of the world.

At the elite level, a nation needs to have 2-4 podium contenders in every World Cup to be the best team in the world. This equates to 8-12 men and 8-12 women, between the ages of 18 and 35+ ranked among the top 15 in the world in their podium events. Whether measured in medal counts at World Championships and Olympics or titles and Nation’s Cup, the best team in the world will be deep with podium skiers.

Development of international podium skiers doesn’t begin at the U.S. Ski Team or World Cup. As a nation, we need to participate and be competitive in benchmarking events such as International FIS Children’s Competitions, World Junior Championships and Continental Cups. The direct correlation between individual participation or even performance in these events at the earlier ages and World Cup and Olympic performance is weak. However, it is imperative that we establish that our standard in the United States is competitive internationally. By being engaged and competitive internationally at critical stages of development, the nation’s top athletes are challenged to be the best in the world. Returning home to compete locally, divisionally and regionally this level is seeded into the system setting the bar for everyone.

It is not necessary for the athlete to participate in these highly selective events to benefit competitively from them. In fact, competing at a level too much of a reach for current skill levels can be discouraging and detrimental to development. Selection or not is an unreliable indicator of future success.

The sport system we have evolved over time has many areas with advancement standards and a clear path There are, however, major overlapping spheres of focus creating expensive redundancies in the sport pipeline. 

The National Governing Body (NGB) has the broadest mandate both working to incubate the sport at the entry level and ultimately field competitive national teams at the Olympics, World Championships, World Junior Championships and other competitions for the nation’s most highly competitive athletes. Expecting U.S. Ski and Snowboard (USSS) to effectively support, manage or fund the entire sport pipeline is unrealistic. Resources, while great, are not enough to do everything we would like. It is up to all of us in the community to focus our efforts on the portion of the pipeline we can most effectively and efficiently operate in and support.

Local clubs are best positioned to be hands on at the entry level, collaborating with their host resorts to build interest, introduce kids to the sport, and offer programs for kids to nurture their passion and improve their skills. NGB support can take the form of providing guidance through philosophy, education, policy, rules and selections.

At the other end of the range, USSS is uniquely responsible for fielding internationally competitive national teams. From the first developmental events where national teams are fielded through the highest levels of the sport, it is solely for the NGB to select, train and fund the athletes who represent the United States on the international stage. Selections must be disciplined to identify the athletes with demonstrated performance or potential to be competitive at the event selected for. Training for the youngest should include pre-event or limited off-season camps while full-time teams train those athletes with demonstrated World Cup podium potential. With finite resources, the difficult choice is between full funding for a very select group of athletes or incomplete funding for some to involve larger groups of athletes. At the highest international levels the focus must be on performance, not participation.

The area between the local clubs and the NGB is a mixed bag of overlapping responsibilities creating tension and competition between entities and wasteful allocation of resources. The NGB, Regions and Divisions, universities, PG and private teams, large clubs or academies and grassroots clubs are all elbowing each other in the same space at the older junior ages (15-20). 

As a result, the level of commitment demanded professionalizes the sport for too many, rapidly escalates costs and leads to attrition. The issue is not that there are not enough opportunities for athletes to receive comprehensive and professional training and coaching; the issue is there are too many.

The overwhelming majority of athletes are appropriately challenged by their ability or age peer group in races that are accessed locally. It is not until the athlete reaches the top 2-3% of their respective competition when advancement to a more competitive peer group is critical to support continued development. The correct competitive level for the majority of the season is one in which competitor skills are relatively matched and goals to move up, ski into the flip and eventually on to the podium are realistic.

Occasional stretch competitions to experience the competition at the next level are an important part of the developmental process. However, most athlete management mistakes are made when athletes spend too much time competing at stretch competitions and experience repeated failures.

Not enough value is given to competing in events where winning is the goal. The mantra of “winning at every level” implies that athletes learn to win or experience significant success when advancing from level to level. The ideal is to have a system where athletes can access multiple levels of competition to experience being stretched, competing as part of a matched peer group, and in an environment where top 10s and podiums are expected.


Several years ago, in a conversation with former national team skier and broadcast analyst Steve Porino, he coined the phrase “financial doping” when discussing the outsized impact that resource allocation can have in determining athletic outcomes. As dangerous as doping with performance enhancing drugs, the uneven application of resources can elevate an athlete beyond a higher potential competitor.

The ideal athlete development system will be a meritocracy where advancement is determined by performance resulting from commitment, effort and talent and not limited by means. This sport system will provide accessibility at all levels, exciting competition leading to retention and produce national teams that are the best in the world.

Up next: A uniquely American development system.

Editor’s note: This story is part of our ongoing series on alpine development in North America. Have some thoughts on this? Send a letter to the editor. If it’s good, we’ll publish it.

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Aldo Radamus was a competitor at the CanAm (now NorAm) level and professionally for the Rossignol Pro Team on the Peugeot Pro Tour in the late ’70s. He has been a ski racing coach, administrator and official for 42 years and was recognized as USSA Domestic Coach of the Year in 1990. Having been both the Women’s Head Technical coach in the ’80s and Men’s Head Technical coach in the ’90s, Aldo was USSA’s Development Director from 1996-2002 culminating with the United States winning its first Marc Hodler Trophy in 2002. From 2002 to 2016 he was the Executive Director of Ski & Snowboard Club Vail. Aldo was inducted into the Colorado Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame in 2016 and is currently the Alpine Director at Team Summit Colorado.

6 COMMENTS

  1. Well said Aldo and the reality within US Skiing right now remains tied to the brilliant and obvious realities of this assertion in the article:

    “the uneven application of resources can elevate an athlete beyond a higher potential competitor”

    We’ve witnessed too many talented athletes leave skiing due to financial hurdles not faced by alpine nation athletes. so the only question remaining is when will each division and US Skiing truly admit to this obvious hurdle and solve the problem? Someday I hope to see a deep talent pool on the US Ski team…

  2. As expected, Aldo, a wonderfully insightful addition to your four-part series. And I love Pino’s “financial doping.! What is interesting is that, based on my observations, the financial doping effect diminishes as racers develop toward physical maturity and opportunity parity. It is at this point that innate talent, deep love for our sport, complete ownership of their efforts, and the right psychological make-up comes to the fore and leads athletes to the very top. I’m less worried about financial doping as a threat to ski racing in the U.S. and more worried about the basic financial barriers that prevent otherwise passionate athletes from continuing on a normal developmental arc.

  3. Thank you for writing this Aldo. I would only add that I think that while competition is healthy and fun for the athletes, selection is not. When your racing has implications beyond success that day at that place, the competition is less and less healthy. There is no question that at some point that element of stress becomes a reality, but the longer we can hold that off, the more we will develop kids who love to race.

    I also think that we should not have the view that racing and timing is not “fun.” We should be developing kids who think that racing and competing is fun. The way to do that is to time them, let them see how they stack up and see how they respond. A constant refrain that we can “race or have fun free skiing” is silly (as, frankly, is skills quest).

    We should also remember that we can have competition be a priority without making it the only priority. We can award participation ribbons AND podium medals. We do not have to sacrifice participation for keeping track of the score.

    Put up the brauer or grab a stop watch and get kids used to the fact that its okay to keep score. And lets find the ones who thrive on the score keeping. But lets do it in a way that doesn’t have consequences for a while.

  4. Thanks Aldo for a summary again of the current system we have. But, as in my two part series I disagree in several key areas: we need a new development paradigm!
    I think you and I have read the same books on the appropriate levels of competition and in some cases it’s accurate but NOT when it comes to the elite, your 2-3%, they can and will respond. Without belaboring the point, we have dozens of examples of 16, 17, 18, 19 yr old juniors playing against players from all over the world – men 22-35. Note – G Reyna’s goal for Dortmund – a junior!
    I think we all underestimate the maturity of Top athletes. Contrary to my friend Roger Brown, elites are not fragile. They love competition, thrive on playing UP, when appropriate, and, as in soccer, they know they can be drooped at the end of the season.

    Think of the motivation when, at the beginning of the season, Kirk at Vail (if it was free) said, “look around the room, the bottom 10% of you will not be here next season.” Now, they are not done, they go back to their home clubs. Again, we have countless examples of players who left the UNION Academy and now play in a DI-III college/university.

    I believe we are selling our elite athletes short by having them stay in region too long, racing against their peers. Wrong, if that is the case why does someone enter a race knowing they will start #95 and finish 8-10 seconds out. We need more time in Europe to develop that much needed perspective and more exposure to faster athletes at home all for Free – no cost.

    I’m talking about the elite again, not the majority of work done by the clubs, which is excellent.

    But – I believe $$$$ are playing an even bigger role and will continue for the foreseeable future unless we eliminate It as a factor for the elite and for those top athletes choosing between our sport and others. For decades we have been tweaking the system but not improving it, with obviously a few exemptions. And, I don’t believe we can’t raise $150-200million, you have lived in Vail. We find billions to build monster football stadiums…

    I look forward to your next article,

    Your friend
    Finn Gundersen
    .

  5. Excellent insightful article. I’ve encountered many “strangers” on bike rides and you’re absolutely spot on. As a former ski racer and now a coach I couldn’t agree more about appropriate competition level. It was the races (and “base races”) that truly pushed me to beat all those kids that coaches considered better than me. What an absolute thrill when I succeeded! As confidence in my abilities increased so did my results because I started pushing harder in training AND racing. We never really had timing during training but that also turns up the heat. These days it is a lot easier to set up and should be utilized often.

    Last year my now 10 year old daughter was second in an 800m and got to stand on the field on a podium in front of hundreds of people for the first time in her life. She commented to me later that that was “the best feeling in the world and I LOVED it”. This ski season she missed top 5 at A local race and was angrily watched from afar as other girls got their medals. Do you think that made her train harder this summer at Hood? Yes, because she was 8th not 38th!

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