What’s wrong with US Skiing

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An insightful post from Dan Leever. Mr. Leever is founder and Chairman of Vail Snow Sports Foundation and TA Foundation; non-profit organizations dedicated to promoting youth snow sports through financial support to young athletes. He serves on the boards of the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association, the governing body of USA Olympic skiing and snowboarding, and Ski and Snowboard Club Vail.

As a student of the sport of ski racing, I have devoted thousands of hours to understanding development trends. Much of this work is captured in what is referred to as the “Leever Study”. You can find it here. tafski.org

For years I operated outside the US Ski Team system as I believed the USST “just didn’t get it” and would never change. Then when Tiger Shaw became CEO he invited me to get involved. I joined the board and served on several committees in hopes of influencing change over the next couple of years. Alas, it was to no avail. At the last board meeting, I resigned my board seat on the Foundation and US Ski and Snowboard in recognition that change was not going to occur. I had intended to just quietly go away, but upon reflection, I just couldn’t. I love this sport and it wouldn’t be right to just walk away. Here is the background.

I believe USST is irreparably broken. In my view, there is no incremental approach that can turn around our situation, as evidenced by our abysmal performance in alpine at the recent Olympics. Two medalists, superstars Mikaela Shiffrin and Lindsey Vonn, for a total of 3 medals for the women, none for the men.

What is wrong?

First and foremost, US Ski and Snowboard does not sufficiently respect the athletes. The USSA should be all about the athletes. We should have virtually no administrative and support staff until we fully fund all the athletes on any team. Park City is full of people who should be employed only AFTER the athletes are funded. We need to care deeply about each and every athlete.

US Ski and Snowboard acts as an athlete management body. We organize camps and travel and competitions pretty well. But, that’s not the primary strategic initiative we should be pursuing. We should be developing, not managing these athletes. If we have a group of athletes under our charge who are not progressing, who bears the responsibility? The current system says, “you didn’t make it, you are cut from the team”. It’s YOUR fault…Hogwash. No, I believe it’s OUR fault.

We should never disrespect an athlete who is representing the USA at a World Cup. How is it that, as I understand it, a College athlete was invited to start a World Cup this year, but had no support. In fact, there was no one at the start to put her in her skis! We must do better.

We have an ethical and moral responsibility to develop our athletes as humans, not just as ski racers. The idea of forcing our athletes to make a “Hobson’s Choice”, chase your dream and give up your education, or, pursue your education, and give up your dream, is reprehensible at the most fundamental level. This is a fundamental issue for which there should be no compromise. We must fully embrace NCAA skiing. There is millions of dollars of funding available in the NCAA system. The NCAA programs can do a perfectly good job of developing athletes in-season, the biggest gap is in the prep period. This should be easily doable and affordable for USST. There may be a real phenom who comes along once in a great while, where it makes sense to forgo an education, think Mikaela Shiffrin, Ted Ligety, Bode Miller, Lindsey Vonn, Julia Mancuso. But for all the rest, college is a better track. To dangle the carrot of a USST jacket as these athletes forgo college for years of PG, or post high school, which leads to what? You get appointed to a USST team and spend years more without a system to develop you. Many athletes blow through their eligibility and lose the opportunity to be educated and experience college skiing. If I may digress for a moment, I believe college skiing is the pinnacle of the intrinsic joy in ski racing. One would be well advised to attend a NCAA regional or National event to see this first hand. It’s a shame our governing body is denying our athletes that experience. For men especially, athletes are nowhere near fully physiologically developed as 18-20 year olds. Pursuing an education while they “grow into” their bodies is a far better use of their time. I am not suggesting the college system is perfect. There are rule changes that are necessary if college skiing is to deliver on it’s full potential. That is the subject for another day.

We need to think deeply. Simply saying, “this is what the Europeans do, so we should just copy them”, is overly simplistic. I spent a lot of time interviewing thought leaders in Europe. Virtually none of them thought Americans should simply follow the European model; i.e. work into Europa Cups and then to World Cups. Europeans are in their home territory for virtually the entire season. If they have a short break they can go home and see their parents, boy/girlfriends, get laundry done etc. Euros are not living out of a suitcase for months on end. Yet, blindly follow that path is precisely what we do. This is a huge difference. The Europa Cup is arguably harder than the World Cup. Getting beaten down and demoralized on that circuit is not a winning developmental strategy. We need to have a robust NorAm circuit, especially for tech, with minimum penalties. The approach of gaining a six point profile in North America, and then test yourself at the World Cup from an advantaged start position, is a well-trodden path, which the USST still denies. Look at Erik Read, Johnathan Nordbotten, Leif Haugen, etc.

USST shouldn’t be selecting athletes to live a full-time gypsy lifestyle at 18-20 years old. They should simply offer developmental opportunities during the prep period and at major races, for as many athletes as possible, then see who bubbles to the top in NorAms. If an athlete is not winning NorAm’s consistently, they should keep developing through the college system until they are. Erik Read was an excellent model. He went to DU, competed in NorAms, got six points, tried his luck on the World Cup the following season. It didn’t work out the first time, so he spent the next season back on the NorAm circuit, scoring six points again. Then he went back to Europe in his third season of this progression, and this time was successful getting traction on the World Cup. Meanwhile earning a degree from DU (finishing this spring).

The most recent example of a NCAA skier following this path is Brian McLaughlin of Dartmouth College, who accomplished this as I was writing this memo. After winning the NCAA National Championships in GS he went to the NorAm Finals and locked up the season standings and six points. He will have start rights to every World Cup next year and enjoy a start position in the low thirties. Brian has been supported by Peter Dodge the men’s coach at Dartmouth in the winter. Brian was also a member of the National University Team for two years. After the team was eliminated, he continued to train in the preparation period under Peter Lange, the former N-UNI coach and now Team America coach. Team America is a privately funded team.

The leaders of US Ski and Snowboard have said that their focus is on World Cup podium-track athletes. I get that athletes not on this initial progression are outliers. However, we do not have the depth of athletes like other, predominantly European, nations that allows us to only rely on phenoms. We don’t have that luxury, so we need to think differently, and commit resources to a wider base of skiers. Promoting the culture of ski racing is also important. We need fans, and a broad base of supporters. We can’t have a USST of ten athletes and disrespect all the others, and expect to have a thriving sport. Without a robust college circuit, there is no long game for 99% of our junior racers. Without a long game, how do we expect the grass roots of our sport not to wither and die? Think about it.

In fairness to USST, they are making some changes for the better. They have eliminated the full time D Team. Opting instead for a more local approach to development, supplemented by the USST. We’ll see if they support the NorAms and college racing.

There is much to be done. The first step is treating the athletes with upmost respect, valuing the many years of dedication in their journey. Our athletes are not assets to be managed. They are real men and women, and are the core of US Ski and Snowboard. It’s about time we treated each and every one that way. US Ski and Snowboarding needs to put the athlete at the top of the pyramid. Everyone at USST should be subservient to the athletes. We need to demonstrate that respect by radically restructuring the budget so that every athlete is fully funded.

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After this post appeared, Dr. Jim Taylor came out with his response.

U.S. ski racing

I’ve been involved in U.S. ski racing for—Yikes!—more than 50 years. I started ski racing as a “Chipmunk” at Mad River Glen, then moved on to the Valley Junior Racing Club (at then Glen Ellen, pre-GMVS), Burke Mountain Academy, Middlebury College, the University of Colorado, and even two seasons on the old pro tour. Since then, I’ve been actively involved in our sport as a sport psychologist. In these capacities, it seems as if I’ve seen it all, from the medal feasts to the medal famines, programmatic successes to abysmal failures, phenoms to projects, with healthy doses of politics, ego turf, and stagnation, as well as inspiration, cooperation, and collaboration.

Every decade or so, there are calls for change, some whispered and some yelled. We hear that the system isn’t working, it’s not producing athletes, we’re wasting money, our sport is dying. Such a call has come again from Dan Leever in a post titled “What’s Wrong with U.S. Ski Racing?” Dan certainly has some valid points. And we need voices to challenge the status quo and to spur change. There’s no doubt that U.S. Ski & Snowboard has a lot of work to do to develop programs that result in consistent and broad-based success at the international level. It also needs to do more to support its athletes as they climb the competitive ladder.

But, as the 2017-18 season is coming to its conclusion, I’m not writing this article to pile on the criticism. To the contrary, though I also have concerns about the present state of U.S. ski racing, I do believe in approaching challenges in a positive light. I also like to provide balance to the divergent perspectives that are expressed. All with the goals of bringing people together, finding a shared vision, and catalyzing a coordinated effort to solve the decidedly first-world problems that our sport face.

So, today I would like to talk about what’s right about U.S. ski racing in the hope that the positive tone of my article ensures that all of those in our sport with divergent perspectives and opinions can join hands, sing Kumbaya, and work as one to build U.S. ski racing up, keep doing what is working, fix what is broken, and, ultimately, help our athletes become the best in the world.

What’s Right

As I work with racers and families, speak at ski clubs, and attend races, I see tremendous passion for our sport. Everyone has been predicting the demise of alpine ski racing for decades, yet it seems to be not only surviving, but actually thriving in many parts of the country. I see race fields of more than 200 boys and girls at the U10 and U12 levels and then strong numbers into FIS.

I see kids who are out there for “grins and giggles” and others shooting for the impossible dream. I see those same kids training “full strip” in subzero temperatures, doing endless drills, running innumerable gates, skiing out and falling down and then sliding right back into the starting gate until they get it right. All for what? Not results, but the joy of being on the mountain, the thrill of skiing fast, the satisfaction of mastering new skills, and the just plain fun of bombing around with their buddies.

I see USST athletes with endless drive and determination striving to be their best despite the financial and physical challenges they face. Steve, Nolan, Ted, Wiley, Lindsey, and Mikaela, as well as those still climbing the competitive ladder, deserve our admiration and support.

I see parents who are willing to shoulder the expense of ski racing and drive their kids to the mountains every weekend (the Mammoth parents who live in Southern California get the award for driving!). Parents who see the value in ski racing, not in the results, but in the life lessons they learn as they hurtle down the mountain. Parents who volunteer their time to manage ski clubs, run races, raise money, and build community.

I see so many coaches, from those still coaching from back in my day to young coaches who want to make ski coaching their life’s work. Being a ski coach is really hard work, between the long hours and days, the cold weather, carrying gates, setting courses, organizing training and races, the list goes on (and they aren’t paid very well either). Their commitment, passion for our sport, and dedication for their kids is so worthy of respect and admiration.

I see the people who work for U.S. Ski & Snowboard doing the best they can with what they have. I’ve visited the COE and have seen the coaches and trainers working with the athletes, the blood, sweat, and tears of extreme exertion, all in the name of their search for that elusive goal that we call excellence. I see the administrators who are essential cogs in the wheels of the U.S. ski racing machinery doing their part to support the athletes. And, I see the leaders, however maligned they may be sometimes, trying to find certainty in the uncertain business of athlete development.

Finally, I see a lot of very smart people all over the country who are dedicated to making our sport better. Some are seasoned professionals who bring decades of experience and “institutional wisdom” to table. Others are newer to the game, but bring knowledge and experiences from other domains that can help challenge the status quo and bring fresh ideas to the fore. What I know for sure is that when you combine smart and passionate people with a shared vision, an openness to change, a culture of innovation, and a spirit of collaboration, good things will happen.

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