Wild Rumpus Sports
 

The Power of the Team

First of all, a big thanks to the editorial staff at FasterSkier for agreeing to host this blog.  I was looking for an outlet for sharing insights and observations with the greater cross-country skiing community and recognized that FS has the most reach of any Nordic media outlet in the U.S.  It was the first place I went, and I appreciate their willingness to give me a platform.  I’d also like to thank FasterSkier for helping to advance U.S. XC ski racing over the years.  In a country where it’s often impossible to view a World Cup ski race on TV, FasterSkier has been instrumental in telling the story.  The Internet has been where young American cross-country skiers learn about their sport, and FasterSkier is often the website they visit first.

My intention with the blog is to share occasional thoughts from the road.  The FS staff does an excellent job of reporting on races, camps, sport developments and controversies, and I don’t want to waste your time or mine by mirroring those accounts.  Rather, my hope for this blog is to occasionally tell a bit of the story behind the story, from my perspective.  Over the past 14 years as a National Team coach, I’ve had the opportunity to watch many great athletes train and race, many exceptional coaches coach, and witnessed a few big ski races from behind the banners.  I’d like to share some of my observations from past and current experiences, and occasionally add clarity to misconceptions in the community.  Due to my somewhat hectic schedule, I won’t be the most prolific blogger, but I will endeavor to record some thoughts when time permits.

Here we go.

The Power of the Team. 

There’s been a lot of discussion and reporting centered on the cohesiveness of the US Team in recent years, and specifically how that Team atmosphere has resulted in improved performance.  I’ll come back to that later, but only briefly, since that story has been told many times.  The reason that I’m thinking of it right now has to do with watching Norway so utterly dominate in Period 1 of World Cup.  As we’ve already discussed with the various media outlets, including FS, we knew the U.S. Team would have a slower start to the World Cup season this year, and indeed we did.  We had more of our share of bad luck this fall in terms of injury, illness, falls, and the occasional tough wax day.  But our shortcomings so far this season were overshadowed by the Norwegian dominance.  In fact, their skiing superiority made every team on the World Cup, including the US look totally unprepared.  I’m on my way back from Davos at the moment, and I can tell you that almost every National Team coach out there is scratching his or her head right now.

Norway is currently the measuring stick by which every aspect of cross-country ski racing can be measured.  They may have one of the biggest annual program budgets in the world.  Their service team is on the cutting edge of technology, available resources and know-how.  They have great people working for them, with decades of knowledge, helping athletes at every stage of development and with the critical understanding of what it takes to win at the highest levels.  Norway has created incredible resources in coaches’ education, sports physiology and psychology, nutrition, etc.  The leaders in the Norwegian program tell me that currently cross-country ski racing is the most popular sport in the country, and because of that, they are recruiting many of the most talented athletes to the sport.  On top of all of this, they also have a Team.

Several years ago, Jon Arne Schjetne, at that point a recently retired assistant coach and sprint coach of the Norwegian women’s Team, came and talked at our National Coaches’ Education Symposium in Park City.  One of the topics he covered was an account of how Egil Kristiansen helped bring the Norwegian women’s program to it’s current dominance in the sport, after the program had not lived up to it’s own expectations in Torino in 2006.  He illustrated the dichotomy between a group of individuals competing for themselves in an individual sport, and the true Team that Norway has become over the years.  One of the small strategies that he shared was the move by the coaches to rent fewer hotel rooms during the preparation period, and instead reserve more cabins.  As we all know, the hotel room tends to isolate the individual by it’s very design; whereas the cabin is intended to bring people closer together.  It sounds utterly simplistic, but I think anyone who coaches and manages a team has seen this first hand.  Jon Arne also talked about the power of proactively addressing conflicts within the team in an open, thoughtful, and supporting manner.  These are simple steps that Norway has taken that have contributed to big results.

I’m not privy to the inner workings of Team Norway.  I only know what it looks like from the outside.  In general, they seem to be for the most part a collection of happy, open, and talented people.  Yes: having a lot of success tends to put a smile on your face.  But the athletes and staff are friendly, open and approachable.  They are willing to share their knowledge, and although they are naturally proud of their country and fierce in competition, they are happy to see other nations realize success as well.  They’ve created a program of the highest level of professionalism, but also one, from my perspective, of genuine caring and support for one another.  On the women’s team, there is a lot of hugging and a lot of pats on the back.  The men don’t hug as much (they are Vikings after all) but the genuine camaraderie is often palpable.  The coaches work tirelessly and selflessly.  They are often the first ones out on the track supporting workouts in the morning and the last ones walking around in the hotel lobby in the evening in ski clothes still working.  I only know this because US coaches work similar hours!  But my point is that one can easily witness the actual care and affection Norwegian coaches and athletes share with one another.

Professionalism and team atmosphere created a platform for Norway to be successful, but hard work, smart training, and the power of numbers are what are leading to their current success.  With their current talent pool, Norway can afford to have days on the World Cup where their marquee athletes don’t perform to expectations, because there are many other talented athletes ready to step-up.  The 15 km F for men in Davos this past weekend is an excellent example.  Not too many people would have picked that particular Norwegian podium sweep the morning of the race.  Under the leadership of Trond Nystad and I’m sure countless other National Team and club coaches, the ever-increasing depth of their men’s program is now rivaling, if not equaling, their women’s program.  And once that ball gets rolling, it’s actually not that hard to keep it rolling, especially in a country like Norway.  The athletes get together for training camps quite frequently, they train hard every day, are smart about recovery, and push each other to new heights on a daily basis.  In a big camp, someone is always having a good day, even when the stars might be having a bad day.  This daily pushing by different athletes elevates the fitness of the entire group, creating a high standard for each and every workout, and catapults good skiers into the kind of fitness that is necessary to be a Champion.

In the US, we’ve witnessed vignettes from this same paradigm.  It’s clear that the success of the US women’s team on the international stage in recent years can be traced to the many workouts where they pushed each other and supported each other.  As with the Norwegians, different US athletes “won” different workouts each day and together they raised the overall level of the group.  We’ve had just enough athletes on the women’s side to make this possible.  Veteran athletes like Kikkan and Liz led by example with their professionalism and also their encouragement of the younger athletes, and all of them, including Kikkan and Liz, benefited.  We’ve also seen this team-depth scenario in places like Stratton, APU, CXC, and Sun Valley over the years.  With the right leadership and the right athletes on board, programs have been able to build and often sustain momentum.  The top athletes in the club have reached new levels of success, and athletes that one might have never guessed to be as successful have been swept along, discovering the occasional hidden talent along the way.

For the US, the success in building the women’s team and sustaining that momentum hasn’t been mirrored on the men’s side.    We’ve had great individual performances by Kris, Noah, Andy, Simi, and others, but not the same depth of Team results we’ve seen in the women’s group.  There are several reasons for this.  The main reason is that the women’s group contains more all-round skiers (distance + sprint) while the men’s team has had almost exclusively specialists.  This paradigm isn’t unique to the USA, but is a reflection of what we see on the World Cup in general (i.e. lots of female all-rounders and male specialists); but that’s a topic for another post.  Because of the number of all-rounders, the women’s team can come into a camp and basically all get on the same training program, allowing for the dynamic illustrated in the above paragraphs.  When the men come to some camps, the difference in training needs has often been so stark between the sprinters and the distance skiers, that we haven’t always been able to create the depth of the daily training session necessary to raise the entire group’s level.  We’ve been close many times, but we simply haven’t had the raw numbers of men that were prepared to train effectively at that level.   Inviting additional athletes to camp has helped with the depth, but we still struggle as a nation to find enough athletes that are training hard enough and well enough to boost the overall depth of the training group, and necessarily the standard of a given training session.

But we recognize where the shortcomings are and we will continue to push on this front as a group of coaches and athletes.  As a National Team staff, we are partly at fault for not effectively developing the talent that is certainly there, and the greater US coaching community is partly at fault as well.  Again, this is a topic in itself and something for another post.

For all of the coaches reading this that have been in the sport for a few years, you understand intimately what I’m talking about.  You’ve seen the great teams and the lackluster teams come through the programs that you work for over the years.  Like me, as much as you’d like to take credit for the great teams, you recognize that it is often the power of the group itself, rather than inspired coaching, that does most of the heavy lifting.  If you are aware of this potential, you can work hard to foster it, gently support it, step back a little bit, and catch lightening in a bottle.  Norway has this lightening right now, and they won’t be giving it up any time soon.  In the US, we would be smart to recognize the many things that they do exceptionally well and emulate those things, while simultaneously continuing to nurture our own powerful Team dynamic and work hard to bring exceptional new talent into the greater US Team.

Comments

comments

Comments

  1. Martin Hall says:

    Tried this once—- this is a test!

  2. Martin Hall says:

    Hello Grover—as you know, I think you have made a mistake only writing your blog for one web site. There are a lot reasons—the most important is that you are limiting the audience that you are talking—I would venture to say that the people you would be talking to via the NENSA website, and for that matte,r all the divisional web sites, would be a lot different then those people you are reaching via this web site. There are many sites that are going to reach a different segment of our sport population and I think your effort should be to reach them, so they understand better what is going on at the top end as you deliver your messages. It will bring a better understanding of how the mysterious top end of the National Team Program is run, developed and brought to the racing platform. I can go on and on as to, especially how the young people will understand what it is going to take to make this long trip to the top of the Competition Pyramid and for those people who money and time to give will be come encouraged to join the program, be it with time or money.
    I’m surprised that Tiger and Tom let you make this out of step move—-as you should be all inclusive in all that you do—never shut the door on whats important when you have the—chances to go through all those outlets. Have you thought of Ski Racing Magazine, SkiTrax , Master Skier , Cross Country Skier, Veissmann, and many others.
    Broaden you field that you want to talk to and wnat to have listen—you are on to narrow a path.

  3. To anyone else who had trouble digesting this post, I deconstructed it (by paragraph):

    1. USST has good team atmosphere, Norway has really good results rn.
    2. Beyond good results, Norway is operationally really good too.
    3. Jon Arne Schjetne attributed Norway’s good results to good team atmosphere, like renting cabins.
    4. Norway currently has good team spirit/team atmosphere.
    5. Big numbers and big talent pool are actually behind Norway’s success.
    6 .USA clubs have pretty good depth (and momentum – s/o to Pete!)
    7. USA men still don’t really have any depth though, plus they are too specialized
    8. We are working on this, its partly my fault, I’ll write more later.
    9. We should nurture our team dynamics, our talent pool, and be more like Norway by copying their operational excellence. Lightening (sic) in a bottle.

    Tldr; 1) team atmosphere, 2) depth, 3) operational excellence -> good results.

    In future blog posts, I would like to hear the leader of our skiing nation get into nitty gritty vignettes (“plans”) for operational excellence and depth. IMO: operational excellence -> depth -> team atmosphere -> lightening in a bottle.

    Currently here is the plan:
    ah, forget it, I’ll write more later. Check USSA website for updates, maybe find JN date/location on there.

  4. This is a pretty scatterbrained post so I won’t harp on my own analysis.

    Marty – while I think what you wrote is on point, especially the oversight portion from Tiger and Tom, I have to commend Grover for opening up a line of communication in any way he could. USSA is really bad at communication with its constituents on the XC side – but conversely, communicating with the community, in both directions, is its only hope for a brighter future. The best thing I can remember is Vordenberg’s blog from c. 2007 with a lot of cool pictures – and I don’t think that the USSA conference in Park City is particularly effective. Next best might be the coaches meeting at JNs. I’m digging pretty deep here. In the mean time, I think we’ve got a lot of skiers and coaches wondering where the leadership went.

    At the same time that USST is failing at communication, NNF is taking control on all of the points that Grover is making, and USSA is losing its grip. If this blog is a turning point that represents USSA’s renewed interest in connecting with the community, Grover is on the right track. I hope he takes the leadership portion of his position seriously (in past comments, I’ve taken the position that that is his only job) – and if this blog, for any shortcomings, is the start of that mission – Grover is reaching a pivotal moment in his career.

  5. hankmoody says:

    Isn’t it about now when Tim Kelly rises to the irrational and over-compensating defense of his Alaskan brother by another mother Grover?

  6. The need for some historical perspective is indicated.

    I congratulate Chris Grover for publishing anything. Back in the Dark Ages of the USST, I was told by an insider that it was “policy” not to answer queries or emails, not to put anything down in writing for fear it would come back to haunt you, and so on. And thus we have had this sort-of closed, alpine corporation that operates as it sees fit. Having served on the board of USST for a few years, I can tell you the members knew as much about xc as how to raise walnuts in Brazil.

    XC has always been an orphan, but when I was serving , ironically (not really!), Bob Beattie and Tom Corcoran supported the xc program. They had backgrounds in four-event college teams but are known mainly for their contributions to alpine skiing. Except for them, xc might have been dumped like the jumping and nordic combined programs of late.

    I eventually got off the board but started writing occasional letters (like this one) and for 11 (eleven, count ‘em) consecutive years I wrote Marolt and the then current nordic head honcho telling them they needed a development program. I never got a word in reply. The year after I stopped, they gave me an award, probably for shutting up.

    Back then the USST went along for years cherry-picking the top finishers in important US xc races and sending them to Europe for whatever, usually with less than commendable results. It was like throwing the dog a bone.

    Meanwhile, many regions and clubs started programs and along with NNF have taken over the development of US skiers. It’s just too bad this move was not pushed or sponsored by the USST, but of course they did not (do not?) have a clue about development. Given the international xc success of recent years, perhaps the USST is catching on and is starting to make a few good moves, like Grover’s letter. (I am an optimist at heart.) There are all sorts of things the USST could do to help the “developers.” I know they send an occasional coach out to some training camps and publish a few training guidelines (if one knows where to find them), but the effort is surely not worthy of a typical European National Governing Body.

    John Caldwell

  7. teamepokeedsbyn says:

    USST gets majority of funding from lift serve sports, Nordic sports contribute almost nill, save for the USOC money for NGB status, so we all know there is no surprise USSA/USST does not gives a damn about funding little old x-c regional programs. Eastern USSA is long gone….