In a virtual meeting of the alpine U14-and-younger Working Group on April 23, several existing proposals were advanced, while new initiatives were also considered to improve the health of the sport in the younger age groups. All proposals would need to be sent to the Alpine Development Committee and later the Alpine Sport Committee for final approval.
The working group consists of Jim Hudson, Sall Utter, Trevor Davis, Beaty Schlueter, Jeremy Ueland, Dan Henry, Jim Schaffner, Kevin Keane, and Kathy Okeniewski.
In 2019, three rules were brought to the table in an attempt to decrease the overall costs of participation and support retention in youth age groups. These rules were tested throughout the 2019-20 season and all have been essentially supported by the working group for advancement through congress and into the 2020-21 season, with some minor changes.
The first, which is more of a recommendation than a rule, encourage divisions to hold two races that do not allow speed suits at U12-and-under level. According to the general consensus of the committee, this rule was well-received throughout the 2019-20 season. It will move forward again for next season with an emphasis on the idea that divisions and regions are responsible for implementing the rule independently.
The second point of discussion revolved around a one-ski rule implemented in 2019-20. This rule states that U12-and-under competitors are only allowed to use one pair of skis per race, for both inspection and competition. Parents, coaches, or technicians are not allowed to furnish additional pairs of skis for use during race day inspections or competition. To enforce this rule a statement reading “non-compliance may result in NPS or depending on circumstance, DSQ (proven violation after start).”
There were a few issues with verbiage, such as the true definition of the venue versus the race arena, and multiple outlier cases brought forth that indicated some confusion in regard to the rule’s implementation. However, the committee chose to leave a change of verbiage up to the Development and Alpine Sport committees, which are scheduled to meet next week.
The third point of old business was the wax rule, which states “U12 and under competitions should refrain from using fluorinated wax. Application of any type of waxing solution must not be applied at U12 and under competition venues. Use of ski preparation benches at the U12 and under competition venues is not allowed.”
This rule was approved for advancement and will now apply to all U14-and-younger competitors across the board. In addition, the word “refrain” was changed to “banned.”
New proposals under consideration pertain to U14 Regional Championships, U16-and-younger selection, and seeding, as well as the proposal to pull the ski cross discipline out from under freeskiing’s umbrella and into alpine. (Ski Racing Media plans to dive into the ski cross proposal in more depth at a later date.)
The U16-and-younger selection and seeding proposal reads as follows:
1. Eliminate the use of points in U16 and younger selections to regional and national events.
2. Reduce the impact of points in seeding U16 and U14 regional and national championship events:
- a. At U16 and U14 events, the top-30 athletes will be seeded according to the proportionality of regional or divisional quotas
- b. At U16 events, athletes may be seeded by National points from bib 31.
- c. At U14 events, athletes will continue to be seeded proportionally through the end of the field.
Due to the lack of points used at the U14 level across Eastern, Western, and Rocky/Central regions, the consensus was to support this proposal with no opposition. The U16 and older working group, which had met earlier in the week, planned to discuss verbiage and implications further in their second meeting but passed the proposal as it stood.
The U14 Regional Championships proposal, on the other hand, was tabled for further discussion. The proposal itself asks to “eliminate qualification for U14 regional championship events so all U14 athletes who wish to race can attend.”
The idea behind this statement, as cited in the proposal’s comments, is to philosophically move away from selections for U14-and-younger athletes so that every athlete can be included in the system throughout their prime growth and development years. The rule is modeled after the example of Norwegian U14 Nationals, where any athlete who wants to participate is able to.
In addition, the proposal claims to encourage fun, inclusive, end-of-year regional championship events, which would increase membership retention between U14 and U16 age groups while supporting the idea that scoring and selection are irrelevant for young athletes prior to puberty (which is prevalent in other sports).
The proposal suggests that regional championship events be structured to accommodate large fields with multiple race environments and the inclusion of parallel, team, and SkillsQuest competitions to emphasize the development of a broader skill set.
The proposal, which was submitted by staff to the working group a week prior to their official congress meeting, appeared difficult to finalize on such short notice despite support for its overall philosophy.
“I think this is very important to the health of our sport, to the health of our U14 and younger groups,” commented Jim Hudson. “I think it also needs a lot of time to really vet and make sure we have covered all the possibilities. The East has different numbers and different problems than the West does. This just really is something big and gonna take time.”
A few voting members expressed concerns that their systems may not have the capacity to host such large events, as well as concerns that this new rule may limit talented kids in the U14 age groups that could be identified as potential up-and-coming talent. Although Chip Knight, the current Director of Alpine Development, stood strong on his stance that no talent identification is occurring at the U14 level, some committee members such as Sally Utter of the Eastern Region and Dan Henry of the Western Region were skeptical that was the case.
“There may be super tight criteria for U16 nationals to qualify at U14, but because that exists we are still catering our talent to it,” said Henry. “One of the challenges with the U14 regionals is I don’t think it promotes healthy U14 development, because it forces early season training for kids. It’s much more appropriate if we can push our U14 competitions back into April so that we don’t have to hit U16 Nationals. I think that would help tremendously.”
“If there is a pathway for the best and the brightest, that is talent identification,” said Utter. “It needs to trickle down from the top, for them to say that it’s appropriate for this age group to stay regional. We can’t be in conflict with what [leadership is] planning on doing at the national level with this age group.”
Despite Utter and Henry’s concerns, Knight continued to reiterate that U.S. Ski & Snowboard is not focused on identifying talent at the U14 level.
“As a staff, we would like to preserve that [pathway] as it’s been a great avenue for some of our brightest up-and-coming athletes to get some ski-up exposure at the end of the year,” said Knight. “But other than that, as evident in this proposal, we believe that as a country we should be as inclusive as possible and stimulate the discussion and the message around subjects like skill development and long-term athlete development.”
Citing personal experience with his nine-year-old son, Knight acknowledged the elimination issue is rooted deeper than simply at the U14 level, where event eliminations are being made before skiers even reach the age of 10. Are multi-tiered events a good option? Not in his opinion, because it continues to perpetuate the idea of failure, and reaffirm to young athletes that they were not good enough to make it to the top.
“I fully recognize that we might not be able to embrace this kind of idea so soon but we have issues in our sport, issues related to cost and travel and inclusiveness that we do need to address as a community,” Knight added. “And the system we have is certainly not the best, but I would argue that it could use an overhaul, and thinking about it in new ways.”
Ultimately, the proposal was tabled for further discussion, with the acknowledgment that a subcommittee is needed in order to properly address the matter. A representative from the East, West, and Rocky/Central will lead the committee. Final members have yet to be officially communicated.
Beginning May 4, these proposals will be presented to the Development Committee, where they will again be discussed, approved, or rejected. If approved, they will move onward to the Alpine Sports Committee for further discussion.