NOW THAT YOU ASK ME
WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?
By Dick Taylor
The following reflections began as a letter written to U.S. Nordic Director Luke Bodensteiner last January, following the Olympic Team selection. The immediate prompt for the letter was the manner in which the points system had been applied which caused wholesale bafflement within the Nordic community. Simply put: How could someone like Dave Chamberlain have done so well at the Nationals and not be named to the team? The prompt to speak up again now has been both a lack of further response from USST personnel (not to me, but to the problems presented) and the level of agreement with my analysis which has been expressed by a number of Nordic skiing people with years of commitment to athletic performance and coaching, and to industry as well. This is criticism, yes; but more than that, it is critique in the interests of gaining ground in a sports endeavor that is our common joy.
The focus here is not on Chamberlain's individual case. The team had indeed followed its stated proceduresóand Chamberlain, nobly, never faltered in his competitive spirit. Rather, the light shone most brilliantly on the astounding poverty of the thought processes and the lack of coherence in the use of the point system itself. Any future success of U.S. cross country skiing will depend on a substantial elevation of critical thinking and intellectual discipline at both administrative and coaching positions, neither of which seem evident.
A grasp of both logic and modern training experience has remained staggeringly lacking. I regret having to use strong adjectives, but anything less would be too meek to accurately describe the situation.
Using last year's points to average into this racing season's points was like taking one's algebra grade from last year and averaging it into this year's performance in calculus. And allowing a guest racer, Ivan Babikov, to race in the National Championship was fine, but it was a major bungle to figure him into the point base. No Olympic selection designated event would have allowed it, and biathlon, though inviting Canadians to its trials, appropriately separated them from the US Team point base. Babikov's stark superiority relegated the points for high US finishers to among the lowest available in the selection races. Justification for including him in the calculations, while appropriately excluding him from the National Champion titles, was patently contradictory, vacuous thinking.
It has been asserted that the USST is de-emphasizing Nationals anyway in its selection process. This is condescending nonsense on several counts. As other countries have recognized, Nationals are both important in themselves (for the spirit of both racers and sponsors) and serve as a legitimate measure of the relative training states of the athletes. A statement that people who peaked for Nationals did not do well in Olympics, which followed, is belied by both European practice and by our own disappointing results in Turin.
In our own country there is a large community of well-educated people who understand sport and who know how to collaborate to reach the higher levels which the USST and a nation of fine Nordic athletes deserve. Americans are not being beaten by superior bodies but by superior learning curves.
A further assertion that the team was looking for the skier who might produce a superior result rather than one who was consistent also flies in the face of even the most rudimentary knowledge of long-term trainingóconsistency of training and racing is the only basis upon which superior performances arise, even surprising ones.
In sum, the Nordic USST cannot hope to inform or inspire the athlete community with this level of thinking. The results at all levels will remain beneath the legitimate expectations of athletes and supporters alike until leaders are put in place who can link in a scientific, truly collaborative manner to all the relevant domestic and international sources over the extended time required for rational development. Recent statements demanding athletes' responsibility to high standards (set by the USOC and USST) and commitment to the USST-determined training program ring hollow if the coaches and administrators do not show themselves inclined or equipped to match those high standards of thinking themselves.
Some observations on last September's National Coaches' Conference in Lake Placid make clear how substandard that leadership has been. Of the presenters only the two non-USST people aimed directly at the level of competence of the audience. A presentation on training plan spread sheet construction was nothing but a presentation of what has been practice among coaches for over 20 years.
"Periodization of Strength Training" was likewise a subject well known to most. In a small group I mentioned this subject had been well founded in a number of fundamental works many years ago. All in the group nodded in agreement.
Two USST coaches also gave presentations of the "How We Do It" type, which were more anecdotal than instructive. Neither was anchored with any reference to current physiological or biomechanical research. Goodwill and knowledge will not help athletes until there is commitment to comprehensive scholarship in the sport. Personal experience marks only the beginning of necessary competence.
Jan Helgerud, the Norwegian scholar/researcher whose collaboration Torbjorn Karlsen sought out in coaching Beckie Scott, has criticized former athletes in his own country for not getting a thorough scientific education before they undertake to coach others. Without it, he asserted, they will hurt as much as help. Particularly in light of the general downturn in U.S. results in Turin relative to Salt Lake, thorough education and significant collaboration are needed to assure success.
At the very least we need an open, published assessment of the year's successes and disappointments, with short- and long-term responses to each. That will require a four-year, or better yet, an eight-year plan to reach international levels more predictably than just here and there. That plan must reach down at least into the development guidelines for current J2's.
The German model, developed in 1996, might serve as an example of both the system and the thought process needed. German Head Coach Jochen Behle's role might also be considered. In April he holds planning meetings with the coaches, but he does not coach all the National Team athletes; they choose their own primary coaches. He does assure consistency and standards, and coordinates the applied training science, testing and competition schedules.
In our own country there is a large community of well-educated people who understand sport and who know how to collaborate to reach the higher levels which the USST and a nation of fine Nordic athletes deserve. Americans are not being beaten by superior bodies but by superior learning curves. But leadership is ultimately measured by the number who choose to follow, and that number right now is needlessly small. In purely human terms that means the leaders must recognize their scientific, even moral, obligation to become better educated in both content and the principles of thinking and communicating. Trust in the body, which governs our sport, will follow only from that. As it stands today, that trust is not present. It is the right time for further reflection and for fundamental change in USST personnel and program.
Dick Taylor is former Olymian and National Team Coach, and has coached for many years at Gould Academy. He has trained and coached many of America's top skiers.
© Cross Country Skier: October 2006, Vol. 26 Issue 1