Competitive Edge

Straight Talk on Youth Programs

By J.D. Downing

Last season, I explored many of the more-prominent success stories, questions, potential problems and future challenges facing the development ladder from youth to post-collegiate cross county ski racing. Whereas those columns were designed to encourage the cross country community at large to do a little self-examination as to where we are and where we want to go, little was actually directed straight to the athletes, parents and other adults directly involved in the competitive development process. 

This year I’m going to spend several columns going through the development cycle once again, but this time offering comments and observations specifically for those truly on the front lines. 

We start this journey with the youth years and – as was pointed out in these pages last year – there is an awful lot like about youth cross country skiing. Few moments in life compare with a bunch of elementary age kids zooming around on skis with the backdrop of a perfect winter day. 

Yet, as was seen last season, youth skiing can present distinct philosophical, logistical and directional challenges for youth program leadership. This can make the pristine days on snow slightly less bright for kids and parents. Now it would be a rare child, indeed, up to 11 years old, to actually voice an opinion over the actual design of youth programs. At this age it really is up to parents and other interested adults to take an active role in the how, when, where, why and who regarding youth ski programs. 

This call for an “active role” is no small thing. Over the past 35 years I’ve seen first-hand how parents and community members can easily slip into a mindset of making youth cross country programs little more than a form of outdoor babysitting. As parents, it is awfully easy to claim that, “I’ll just let the pros do it all,” instead of being directly involved in what happens out on the snow. This is big mistake.

Youth cross country skiing can – and I maintain, should – have direct involvement by parents on a regular basis. Not just in terms of off-snow logistics such as fundraising and transportation, but actually out on the snow being part of the fun. This parental dimension is so important because the future our favorite sport (perhaps our future period) depends, in large measure, on children buying into the concepts of a lifestyle built around health, lifelong fitness and connection to the winter wilderness. 

Families that end adult involvement at writing a check and driving the kids to the Nordic center are missing out on imparting the oh-so-powerful messages that not only Joe or Jane Coach are capable of skiing when “really old, like 40,” but parents, aunts and uncles, and even grandparents (heck, even great-grandparents). This family dimension is most important at the earliest ages (say 6 to 10 years). But the case can and should be made that the family dimension on the snow continues to be important in some way all the way up to the teen and college years .

Does this mean that parents should direct the curriculum and lead all aspects of every youth program? No. I’ve been involved with parent-directed programs with my own children and there are weaknesses to such designs, just as there are with simply dropping kids off with the pros. 

But direct parental or adult family involvement does mean that adults attached to cross country skiing kids do have at least a conceptual grasp of what the over-arching goals and season objectives are within each youth program. Think of it as being part of the local school board or volunteering regularly in the classroom, as opposed to actually being the second grade teacher for your child. You partner with pros to educate the child. Same with skiing.

I made the case in last year’s columns that we have widely divergent youth skiing designs in the U.S.; some much better than others. One way to get wicked good youth programs is to hire genuine wizards of youth and junior skiing and give them a massive budget to hire all the help they need. That can be tough financially and logistically, but it’s one route. Another way – far cheaper and arguably better in the end for the sport and the world at large – is to expect parents and pros to work together to form a powerful alliance of skills, networks and communication. 

It’s been my experience that the best youth program design strikes a balance between a professional curriculum and having a strong family dimension. Parents and family members are actively involved, not only in program management but also in each snow session, under the guidance of experienced “pros” (paid or volunteer). The snow sessions operate within a carefully designed skill-based plan appropriate for the age group. Ideally this program design meshes with regional or national standards so you aren’t reinventing the wheel or missing out on critical age-appropriate curricula. This type of program really drives home the positive messages about “sport for life” and “cross country families.” It also helps to radically reduce program costs and strengthens the entire cross country community. 

When considering athlete development, a strong cross country community is no small issue. Many great champions started as the little brothers, sisters or friends tagging along on family ski outings. In addition, parents and other relatives that are actually out on the snow themselves are far more likely to really “get” all that cross country skiing offers, as opposed to someone passively sitting on the proverbial bleacher sipping coffee at the Nordic center. Athletic depth in a small sport like cross country skiing is a function not just of athlete numbers, but of annual adult support and participation as well. The bottom line: if we have 100 little kids out on snow, we should have at least as many adults connected to those little kids getting into the sport in a big way for their own benefit.

O.K., but what about the actual curriculum of youth programs? Is there a magic rulebook?

Rule number one – find creative ways to constantly develop individual skills every season while making it fun. Rule number two – find creative ways to expose kids to the amazing diversity of ski sport while making it fun. Rule number three – be organized, be realistic, prepare your adult leaders and keep it fun. That’s pretty much it.

The fact is that elementary age children can respond positively to just about anything you want to do out on the snow, if you keep these basics as a foundation. These rules are very easy to grasp in concept, but they often demand a level of preparation and attention to detail that requires a significant resource investment. If a program has a good blend of pros and parents, the demand for resources can be spread around without requiring huge fees.

The same principles apply when it comes to families skiing together. When my wife and I ski with our kids, we follow most of these “rules” on our good days – and we invariably break a rule or two on the days that don’t go so well. 

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