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Team Selection Criteria:

The naming of national teams, as well as squads for major championship events is a process often filled with disappointment, controversy and confusion. In many ways that is the nature of the beast. Bubble athletes (skiers who are right on the cusp of making the cut) will always exist, and it is the job of coaches and team leaders to balance long-term development with the desire to field fast teams in the present.

Chelsea Little’s recent article on Zina Kocher, arguably the best female Canadian biathlete of the last half-decade, highlights one of the main challenges for athletes— the lack of explicit selection criteria.

Kocher, despite her past success, was left off the Canadian A-team and offered a spot on the B-team instead. Coming off her worst season in years, Kocher declined the offer and joined the independent Biathlon Alberta Regional Training Center.

Kocher told FasterSkier that Biathlon Canada did not publish criteria for 2012 until after the 2011 season— meaning she spent the winter unawares of the accomplishments needed to remain on the team.

On an individual level, this is certainly a hardship. Elite athletes are usually extremely goal oriented— you don’t become an Olympian by just going out and simply trying your best. Reaching the highest level of a sport requires incredible focus, and making a national team or championship squad is often a culmination goal— one that a series of smaller goals will lead up to.

In most cases, however, it is difficult to plan how to achieve these goals, often coming down to “I need to ski very fast.”

But the interests of individuals do not necessarily align with those of national programs.

The main argument against explicit criteria is that it takes flexibility away from coaches. The ability to adapt to changing athlete demographics, aging teams, specific race formats, etc. is important.

The US Ski Team (USST) has opted for a two-prong approach, providing explicit criteria for the top tier. Only those skiers who are competitive on the World Cup will meet the standards, while those who are strong domestically will need to be discretionary selections.

While this may be hard for those racing at the B-team level, the approach does make sense. If you are truly an international caliber racer, you are on the team. If you are not yet, you can still make it, but a number of non-quantifiable factors will be considered, including stage of development, recent improvement, injury and illness, and a host of others.

The system is not always perfect— take for example the case of Torin Koos, who just missed the explicit criteria. He was left off the team despite being one the fastest skiers in the country, and capable of strong World Cup results. But his inconsistency and age led the team to conclude he was not going to take another step forward with the program. But the decision was controversial, and could easily have gone the other way. Koos was just a few FIS points away from hitting automatic qualification.

Many other skiers, who missed out on discretionary selections to the US B-team (or were removed from that team) might also feel that this approach is not ideal.

Age is a major component in selection, and one that perhaps creates the most significant issues. The USST has spent time developing profiles of successful athletes, trying to pinpoint where skiers need to be at certain ages in order to compete for Olympic medals during their career.

These do not lead to hard and fast rules, but it boils down to the fact that as skiers get older they need to go faster than their younger competitors to make the cut.

We see this all the time in the US, where the fastest skiers, after the truly elite World Cup racers, are not named to the team. Recent examples include James Southam, Lars Flora and Holly Brooks, all of whom established themselves at the top of the domestic racing scene and in some cases produced impressive international results as well.

But based on their ages, national team selection was not going to occur without a significant leap forward.

All of three skiers mentioned above have made Olympic and World Championship teams, and the USST has often stated that those teams are less about development, and more about present success, providing an opportunity to “reward” the hard efforts of non-national team athletes.

But the criteria for these teams is as undefined as on the national level. Discretion is listed above everything else in the official selection guide. A skier with Olympic aspirations does not know ho he or she must perform— other than very well.

Once again, however, the USST wants to be able to maintain flexibility, considering who is skiing fast as the events approach, as well as strength in specific techniques and race formats.

Internationally, there is a mix of approaches. When it comes to championship teams, some countries are purely discretionary, with performance in specific races weighing in heavily.

This was the case in Norway where the World Championship sprint team was finalized just weeks before the big event based on results of a single World Cup sprint race— an approach that involves implicit or “understood” criteria. Those skiers knew how they needed to perform in order to make the Olympic team, even though that information was not official.

Other countries, like Germany and Canada have very clear methods of qualification— for example a top-10 World Cup finish or two top-20’s.

National team selection follows similar patterns, but is arguably more critical in North America. If you miss out on the Swedish national team, there is not only strong club support, but access to elite level racing is relatively easy. And with a majority of World Cup races in Europe, “call-ups” for non-national team athletes are common.

In the US and Canada non-national team options have grown significantly in past years, and European racing opportunities are increasing. But for many, particularly older athletes, missing out on the team can have a significant impact on career-trajectory.

While the details are complicated, ultimately, the issue of criteria is fairly simple. Teams need to maintain flexibility in order to pursue a mix of long-term and short-term goals. With limited resources, as in the US, a “mistake” can have lasting repercussions.

On the flip side, athletes prefer to have goals to strive for with clearly defined benchmarks. At the very least it can be frustrating to never really know where you stand, and while optimism is critical, it can often lead to disappointment.

In Kocher’s case, it seems absurd that explicit criteria are defined after a season is complete. This is somewhat disingenuous— at that point, the team should just be considered discretionary, as retroactive criteria will be defined to create the team that coaches would like.

But we are unlikely to see a move toward more explicit criteria. Doing so would lessen disappointment and wounded feelings, but the goal is not to make people happy, or even to help any one individual reach their personal goals— it is to create the fastest teams possible.

In the case of the USST, there is only one goal— to win Olympic medals— and everything is structured with that in mind, and coaches make decisions accordingly.

Thus there will always be controversy around the naming of teams. A lack of explicit criteria will exacerbate this, but clear standards would not eliminate issues. People will take issue in both cases— either with the selections or the criteria.



3 Responses to “The Selection Criteria Challenge”

  1. Brent Knight Says:

    I think there are many good points listed in this piece. I do feel the US is making good steps forward however small they might seem. I would like to point out though that are cases where age should not even be in question. When naming a world championship or Olympic team, the fastest individuals should go regardless of age or international experience. If a skier at age 30 beats the skier at age 22, even if by only a few seconds, the faster skier gets named. Opportunity on the World Cup is the second place where age should not come in to play. If a so called bubble athlete is racing well (i.e. top three in supertour races or equivalent), that racer should be afforded the opportunity to race on a world cup regardless of age. Perhaps that experience on the elite international circuit is what allows that “older” skier to make the next step in performance. We have more World Cup start positions than we use and should be affording those opportunities to our bubble athletes. James Southam, Holly Brooks, and some of our other top skiers not on the National team should still be offered that opportunity to race at that level even if not on the US Ski teams dime. This is where those achievable goals can come into play. During the season though, skiers should be able to fight for established opportunities to race higher up. Outside of the FIS allotted position, an example would be if a skier were to podium in two or three races during a certain period, an opportunity could be allocated. This still allows for skiers to fight for a coveted few spots and the overall competition can grow and help eliminate the Gray Area that most skiers find themselves facing.The Ski Team can name who they want to the team and invest in those younger skiers that show promise. As much as I think the clubs should be the ones to develop the young skiers with outstanding talent, the Ski Team can invest in those young skiers they deem worthy and give them certain opportunities, but we need to remember we have good talent that has worked hard at all ages. Bottom line, if your the guy on top of the podium, you should have the opportunity no matter what age or what potential or lack there of there might be.

  2. Tim Kelley Says:

    On the flip side, there is a good argument to not encourage or support skiers past their mid 20’s to keep skiing full time if they are not reaching World Cup podiums. The reason is survival in today’s globally depressed economy. These days, and looking forward, it’s not a good idea to reach your mid 30’s, have no education, no job skills and no work experience. Your survival and quality of life options will be much diminished. It’s amazing that many xc skiers are willing to myopically chase Nordic glory and end up in this predicament. Is it worth “living the dream” until your mid-30’s if it means living at home until you are 60 and working part-time coaching jobs that pay less than Walmart?

    I remember people would give Jim Galanes flack because he would impress on skiers that they needed to plan for their future because they likely wouldn’t be the next Peter Northug. Reality advice like this seems to be verboten in the xc ski community. But Galanes helped skiers by telling them the truth and not sugar coating reality for them.

    Bottom line: not providing support for older skiers that aren’t standing on World Cup podiums is not all bad. It can force sub-World Cup elite skiers to get better prepared for their biggest competition … life after ski racing.

  3. FasterSkier Says:

    Tim makes a good point, but it raises the question of whether it should be the role of National Governing Bodies (USSA, USBA) to make those types of decision for athletes.

    USSA is a non-profit business with an explicit mission of winning Olympic medals. If supporting athletes beyond their mid-twenties furthers this mission, and they had the funds, they would be obligated to do it.

    Additionally, once skiers reach their mid-twenties and beyond, they are adults, and perfectly capable of making smart life choices for themselves.

    I don’t think it is the place for USSA or USBA to tell an athlete “We are not going to support you anymore because we believe you will be better of getting a real job.”

    We see skiers retire all the time before they have exhausted their potential as a ski racer, in order to focus on something else.

    However, when we turn to younger athletes it is a very different story. Coaches, parents, and administrators all have an obligation to make sure young skiers are not sacrificing their futures. The good news is that it is possible to pursue ski racing and get a high quality high school education – and often some incredible experience (travel, work ethic, etc) from the sport.

    The college issue is more complex, but a majority of skiers in the US do attend college. Others slowly pick away at a degree while racing at a very high level. with more and more Americans spending quite a bit of time post-college before focusing on a specific career, skiers aren’t the only ones to delay picking a specific path.