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Wild Rumpus Sports

Development: Part 1

All sorts of comments are springing up on my blog about development, so it’s a good time to share some thoughts. As someone suggested, the topic of development is broad, and makes it hard to know where to begin, much less to structure the discussion in a meaningful way. But let’s dive in.

The U.S. XC program is currently not investing enough on Development. We are being greatly outspent by some of our competitors. As an athletic staff, we know this. We talk about this all the time. We have development strategies created that detail how we would spend additional funds if we were to have them, specifically in the area of infrastructure. We recognize that there is much more we could be doing. The U.S. XC program is also not investing enough in the elite side. Some of our competitors have resources that are on scale far beyond our current reach. This makes it quite hard to compete effectively at the highest level. So our needs are great all along the athlete development pipeline.

Some people want to argue that we should be spending more on development and less on elite teams, or more in a certain area of development; but from my perspective it’s not the most productive argument to get into. We should be investing more everywhere. Of course every club in our country needs investment and could use more funding as well.

When we look at the U.S. development ranks, there is a lot of talent and promise out there. We are always trying to figure out how to get these young athletes more support. We also have very talented and hard-working athletes at the top end; perhaps one of the most talented generations of skiers in U.S. cross-country ski racing history. They too deserve our support. I hope that our developing skiers gather some inspiration from the results of our World Cup and Championship Teams, and through these athletes, see a path for themselves within the sport and recognize that with a lot of hard work, it is possible to succeed at the highest level. Hopefully there is some trickle-down from the limited success we’ve had on the international stage; people tell me there is.

If you haven’t been behind the scenes at a World Cup recently, it’s probably hard to understand just how we are being outclassed. The wax trucks are the most obvious physical manifestation of the arms race that we are engaged in, but the challenges are much greater than what one can see from the sidelines. Other elements include the location and quality of training camps (preparation period and competition period), the number of highly experienced coaches and service technicians surrounding the athletes (and their salaries), the incredible amounts of money being spent on wax, grinding, and service technology development, physical therapy, sports science support, etc. The money that we are spending on the elite side of the sport is nothing to laugh about, and it is being spent in a careful and calculated manner, but we are not in the same league as the strongest nations in the sport.

On the development side, we have more infrastructure than dollars to provide. We have a Development Coach, Bryan Fish, who spends his year organizing, attending and coaching at camps (U16 Elite, REG, NEG, NTG) and organizing and leading race trips (JWC/U23s, Europa Cup, Scandinavian Cup). Bryan also spends an incredible amount of time working on Coaches’ Education, writing and compiling materials, leading coaches’ education clinics and seminars, etc. He has just completed an excellent and comprehensive Level 200 Coaches’ Manual that contains more relevant information about cross-country ski racing and endurance athletics than one can reasonably absorb in a week. It will be an incredible resource for our skiing community. The World Cup coaches (Matt, Jason, and myself) help out with many of these development projects, as do many of our best club coaches, but it’s impossible to be everywhere at once. We are a small staff attempting to cover a big country.

Although we’ve made investments in the infrastructure surrounding developing athletes (staff, facilities, equipment), the USST provides little direct support to young athletes themselves (i.e. they are responsible for their own airfares, room and board). Luckily the community, via the NNF, has stepped-in to lessen the financial burden for the vast majority of international racing trips at the development level, and some of the preparation opportunities as well. The NNF is lessening every athlete’s direct costs for these trips, sometimes cutting their bills by more than half. It’s a very special gift that the community and some generous individuals are giving these young skiers every year, and those of us that work at the USST are grateful for the NNF’s dedication to their mission.

So where are funds best spent: on elite athletes or on developing athletes? Elite athletes are certainly a more prudent investment. After all, they have already demonstrated that they can compete at the highest level. No guesswork is necessary. The further we drop down the development ladder in terms of age, the risk on the investment becomes greater. That is, there is less and less potential return on investment because we need to support a large group of athletes knowing that only a few will actually stick with the sport and make it to the top. But we clearly need to spend money in both areas (development and elite teams); we need to set ourselves up for success now and also in the future. So we would be wise to spend money on development by spreading it over a big number of projects, requiring unproven athletes to cover many of their own costs, and then gradually increase the amount of direct and indirect financial support an athlete receives as he or she gets closer to the top.

All of this is predicated on the end goal of winning medals at the highest levels: the Olympic Winter Games, the World Championships, and the World Cup. We recognize that this is not the only reason that many athletes, coaches and parents are involved in cross-country ski racing, and we have a lot of respect for the different paths that athletes take in the sport. Participation is an end goal of many. All paths are valid and rewarding. But here I am talking about attempting to win medals.

Here’s a question: when it comes to development, what is the responsibility of the U.S. Ski Team, and what is the responsibility of the clubs? The U.S. Ski Team has the responsibility of fielding teams at the highest levels of the sport, and we are uniquely positioned to do just that. We are tasked with fielding teams at JW/U23 Championships, World Cup, World Championships, and the Olympics. On the other hand, local clubs, colleges, and assorted teams are uniquely positioned to do the heavy lifting of daily and weekly athlete development. Coaches in local programs do the day-to-day work of developing and fostering talent. So when it comes to development, at what point does the USST step in?

How much does the community want the USST to be involved? Several years ago we canvased the regional coaching communities at the REG camps, and specifically asked how many national-level development opportunities they wanted to see each summer and fall. The answer surprised me a bit. I thought the coaches would want to see more from us. For the most part, these coaches thought we currently had a good balance between time by an athlete spent in his or her home club, and time spent at regional or national level development camps with the USST. One coach put it like this (I’m paraphrasing): a high-school or collegiate athlete is out of school for 3 months during the summer; that’s the club’s time to make some progress with that skier. Now often that athlete will be away on vacation with their family for 2 weeks, then they attend a regional-level development camp (another week), then they perhaps attend a national-level development camp (another week), then they need some time to recover from those camps, etc. By the end, there isn’t much time to make real progress during the few months when the athlete is not in school and not participating in another fall or spring sport.

Not every coach felt this way. There were a few that wanted more camp opportunities. But the majority wanted time to make progress with athletes on a week-to-week basis in their home club environment, coupled with a few select regional or national level development camps to remind top athletes of where the next level was. So we’ve tried to find the right balance here, but I welcome feedback from those working in the sport concerning where we are in striking this balance. As club coaches, you know better than I do where the limitations in athlete development currently lie, and which limitations can only be overcome with help from the USST. Just remember that whatever your position is, there are likely to be coaches in your region who don’t see it quite the same way.

No matter what, rest assured that we are actively talking about how to create additional opportunities for young athletes, and the NNF is as well. I welcome comments that identify specifically a developmental limitation that athletes in their community are experiencing.

So I would encourage us a community of people that are passionate about cross-country ski racing to not get too embroiled in debating whether our limited dollars are best spent on development or elite teams.   We need to increase our investment in every possible place; that’s clear. We shouldn’t spend too much time debating the best way to cut up a small pie; instead, we need to increase the size of the pie. That’s something both the NNF and the US XC program are currently engaged in.