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Wild Rumpus Sports

Cross Country Skill Development

When skill development is discussed in cross-country ski racing, the concepts of technique, aerobic capacity, and general strength soon follow, and rightly so, but they are not the only areas worth including in the discussion. An elite cross-country ski racer boasts a cadre of advanced skills. Here are several additional difference-makers that come to mind after witnessing the World Cup races in Davos this December.




Because of the thin snow in Davos, and being limited to man-made snow, we often had icy training and racing days there. Sometimes extremely icy conditions. If you’ve watched the video from the races, you can readily see the difference between the athletes who felt comfortable skiing fast in those conditions, and those who didn’t. Skiers who were comfortable looked relatively balanced, stable, relaxed, and fast; able to correct easily in the event that their ski failed to edge on the ice and they slipped-out. Those athletes that were uncomfortable often appeared rushed, off-balance, and unable to apply power effectively to the ski, resulting in an incomplete kick or an ineffective poling motion. The difference between these two groups was confirmed by the results at the end of the day.


As young athletes, you have to prepare for this condition. Practicing cross-country skiing aggressively in icy fast conditions is one way to prepare, but it’s not enough. You need to be a master of standing on any kind of slippery surface. You need to get totally comfortable moving fast over that slippery surface. The good news is that it’s easy to do and a lot of fun. Put a helmet on, and then spend time alpine skiing, snowboarding, skateboarding, telemark skiing, rollerblading, ice-skating, playing hockey, surfing, as well as cross-country skiing. As you mature, you’ll build critical core strength and your confidence as you learn to master moving quickly in a dynamic environment, and you won’t have your performance limited by icy fast conditions in a cross-country ski race.


Not Afraid to Fail


I was really surprised to see three men double-pole the 15 km classic race in Davos. We’d seen athletes double-pole many classic races before, but only marathons in gentle terrain, sprints, and medium-distance races on relatively flat, turning courses like Beitostølen. The Davos 5 km course winds steadily up the Flüela Pass for its first 3 kilometers before descending for 2km back to the stadium. It’s a serious climb. The men had to make this loop 3 times during the race, and my first thought was when I saw them was that they would be hard-pressed to be skiing fast the third time up the Pass. But they did; all 3 finished in the top-10 and one landed on the podium.


The take away for me was that these three guys were not afraid to fail. They knew it would be a risk; a risk that could pay off in potentially winning the race, but one that could easily result in a bad performance as well. No doubt they were methodical and rational when assessing this risk of double-poling the course with their coaches. No doubt they have a great understanding of their relative strengths compared to the field. But when decision time came, they had to walk down to the start line with skate skis in their hands. In Davos, it’s a long way from the wax area to the start, and you have to pass a lot of athletes, coaches, technicians and fans! It took a lot of guts to make that call, and to do it, they couldn’t be bothered with looking bad or the real possibility that they might not be able to do it.


As coaches, we’ve all seen athletes back down from challenges over the years. Every day we encounter those skiers who shy away from a difficult task that presents the athlete with the real possibility of failure. There are so many excuses and rationalizations that come with backing away from a challenge; the wrong equipment, not feeling good that day, too much homework, wax not working, etc. It’s human nature to back away from a challenge where the potential for failure is quite real. But great athletes look for that challenge and embrace it. They thrive when they are discovering their limits and pushing past them. They seek out those that are stronger than them, and they try to keep up. They push themselves incredibly hard and sometimes fall on their faces. Great athletes don’t shy away from competition; they are cross-country ski racers because they love competition. Great athletes are not afraid to fail.


If you are a young skier, look for the opportunities to push yourself to a new level in the sport every day. It might present itself as an opportunity to focus on a particular technique that you struggle with, it might be learning how to apply a klister binder, pushing yourself to keep up with a much stronger skier in an interval session, or entering a competition that is bigger than anything you’ve raced before. If you are a coach, foster a team atmosphere where the athletes are challenged daily and where the willingness to tackle a daunting challenge, and often fail to meet it, is encouraged and rewarded. The end goal of this strategy is clear: we want athletes that can arrive at a classic race day in slow kick-wax conditions and say: “You know what, it might be faster if I double pole this race”!


Digging Deep


For both distance races in Davos, I was stationed at the high point of the 5 km course, where approaching racers had just completed 3 km of steading climbing from the stadium. One of the most notable differences in athletes at the top of that long climb was the very audible variety in breathing patterns. There were many athletes that you couldn’t actually hear breathing as they passed. Other skiers were a bit labored with their breathing, but were also relatively quiet. And then there were those that were winning.   From the side of the trail, one can hear Therese Johaug coming from 40 meters away; you know who is coming without having to see her. Martin Johnsrud Sundby always appears to be swallowing air in the biggest gulps possible, all the while maintaining excellent body position and technique. These are two prominent examples of athletes digging deep.


My point is that there is a level beyond the current capacity of each athlete. And there is a level beyond that, and one more behind that, etc. As athletes, you have to push yourself to break through to those levels, and once you’ve found the next level, you need to find a way to get comfortable there so that you can start looking for the next level. Only then, will you begin to unlock your real potential for ski racing. Oh yeah….. and it’s OK to have saliva all over your face. That just means you are busy finding that next level.




  1. Tuck Miller says:

    Been following these posts from Chris and watching comments and his responses. This gives me some hope as I have found the silence over the past few years problematic. I know it’s not the head coach’s job to be the PR and marketing person for the sport but I think your engagement can provide essential leadership.

    I have some skin in this game as I’ve been in it since I was in Seefeld as a sixteen year old spectator and watched Kochie win his medal. I have great respect for guys like John Caldwell and Marty Hall as they actually made guys internationally competitive on a shoestring (kind of like what I suspect is going on again based on USSA funding). Also have much respect for many of the coaches who have jumped into the fray and tried to lead the US forward internationally–without their foundation over the years, ain’t no way we’d be where we are now.

    I have been a junior coach for many years (mostly by default because my hometown is probably never going to come up with 100K a year to have truly professional coaches) and have coached junior national champions and also have a daughter who is in the netherworld of chasing ski racing or college. Also contribute a bunch of money and other resources to move skiing forward. Not bragging, just stating the obvious that there a whole bunch of volunteers out in the hinterlands.

    So what do I think we need to do to “break through to those levels.”
    1. Spend our resources better. USSA is never going to be a reliable funding source for Nordic skiing (I find it embarrassing that when a USST athlete breaks his leg overseas, he has to use airline miles to get a ride home). There is a boat load of money going into Nordic skiing development in the US we just piss it away.
    A. No flour waxing at the junior level. Take all the money for waxes, test fleets and wax coaches and put it toward coaches actually coaching instead of hunching over wax benches. We do it regionally, USBA does it to pick WJC teams. Save all us coaches in the trenches. We’re developing juniors who have access to resources and discouraging skiers who can’t compete with the extensive ski and waxing resources at larger programs.
    B. Quite schlepping everyone out to East Mudwhump for national championships. We are already geographically challenged lets not make it worse by having races in places that drain more money. Make JO’s and senior nats in places that are close to major airports. Anchorage, SoHo, Minneapolis all have great courses less than 10 hours from an airport.
    C. I added the millions upon millions of dollars being spent by parents and skiers and it’s a serious chunk of money. I bet we spend more on developing skiers than any other country. It costs at least 20K (in many cases over 50K) annually to keep a junior skier going to all the right races and events, and there’s a lot of kids doing this. Just the 3K price tag for JO’s precludes many people from participating. Run Nordic as a business and look at how we can spend this money better.

    2. De-conflict the development dilemma with going to college or being a full time skier by working with college coaches to develop PG’s. The number of US skiers making a real living off chasing the world cup could be counted on one hand, maybe just one or two at any time. As a parent of a college aged skier, my advice to skiers is don’t even think about full time skiing until you’ve got some education behind you. There are the one in a million talents who might step right into a solid international ski career (Kochie comes to mind) but most of these kids need to keep on with their education. College programs should be a part of the USSA development pipeline and kids encouraged to attend since their coaches are part of the USST development program.

    3. The recent advent of professional clubs (APU, CXC, GRP, BSF, SMS T2) has made a real difference in increasing depth. My hat is off to that one person at each of those clubs who has found the resources to put together top programs. Now, we need make sure we fill every international quota we can to reward those coaches for their commitment. They are out there beating the bushes in their communities for find money and supporters. When they can go to supporters and show they put skiers on WC, WSC and Olympic teams it creates so much more synergy in their communities. Get the kids in those races so they can get excited and keep their supporters engaged. The extra 10K it would cost to get them in an Olympics, WC, or WSC ain’t nothing compared to the several hundred thousand that has already gone into their careers. EVERY DAY AND EVERY RACE IS A DEVELOPMENT OPPORTUNITY.

    4. Coach development is as important as athlete development. I took the Level 100 certification the first year it was offered. Been waiting 5 years for Level 200. Informal development is great but it’s imperative that we professionalize coaching development.

    5. We need to learn to take criticism better. Imagine what happens to pro footballers or the Michael Jordans of the world after bad games. Engaging the public, for better or worse, is a key component of moving the sport forward. Dealing with doubters, naysayers, and non-believers is what takes true talent, we cannot shy away from the public because we don’t like what they say. No more PR fluff. Becoming insular is not a sign of a mature program–that’s why I applaud CG for getting in the public space and responding. The more he engages the more the skiing public will get behind our programs and that respect will start flowing.The is so little contact with the USST domestically that it is essential to engage the greater ski community whenever possible if we are to expect support. We’ve got to be tougher and smarter publically or the public will form a perception of our athletes not vice versa.

    6. Why are coaches being charged large registration fees and bib fees at major domestic championships. Seriously USSA, I already volunteer my tired ass off and I have to pay for that. I think every coach going through certification should be gratis. Might be a USSA issue and not a USST issue. Same goes for athletes, don’t know what they are getting for their USSA registration and race fees. Again, probably a USSA issue not a USST head coach issue–so why don’t I move on already?

    You are busy right now, WSC coming up, lots to do, good luck. Keep engaging. Everyone out there wants to hear from the Head Coach. Engaging us is essential, even with those crusty old bastards like John Caldwell and Marty Hall–what could they know anyway.

  2. Tuck you are spot on with your analysis… but here’s the sad truth of the matter.

    Cross Country in the US needs to move forward and develop on a deeper, grassroots level with or without help from the USST. Organizations like the NNF need to take over a larger proportion of the work because they are more efficient with their resources, and are doing a hell of a lot better job of developing skiing within the US. The USST is a bloated, inefficient corporation and behaves accordingly with the PR fluff, and while positivity is a great thing and keeps the team moving forward, it’s not good when the development pipeline isn’t keeping pace and are not challenging the established USST members.. It would be great to see US skiing detach itself from the USST and it’s politics, and see some accountability and as you say, run itself like a business.

    The travel issue is one that is hard to fix because it is such a huge country but as you said locations near major airports for Nat’s would help. I see the biggest problem regarding development being the pathway to U-18, WJC and U23 championships resting on your performance during one week of the year. This is completely ridiculous and basically requiring athletes to try and be at peak form for Nationals just to make the trip is absurd. Every other country has a series of races and looks at performance trends. This is why i think you see a lot of US skiers getting their asses kicked at international championships..

    It’s a messy tangle of issues but i think if we began refocusing our energy and resources on developing our junior skiers instead of completely devoting them to the USST members the results at international races would start improving dramatically.