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.
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.