In the December issue of Cross Country Skier, this column began a “big picture” view at the many positive things that are happening in U.S. youth and junior cross country skiing competitive development, while also pointing out some of the challenges facing the youth and junior scene.

This issue’s column continues the theme, moving up from the high school ages into what is now being increasingly known as the “U23” (under 23) young adult demographic.

Benefits and conflicts for junior clubs

Although around for several decades, cross county skiing junior club programs have really hit the big time in the past 10-15 years, with coast-to-coast proliferation and amazing growth in almost every possible way. 

Several junior clubs are Nordic co-disciplines within alpine/snowboarding educational foundations, while others are stand-alone entities. While many clubs are small-time non-profits heavily dependent on volunteers, some of the most powerful clubs have full-time staffs and annual budgets exceeding some national World Cup teams. In a few cases (mostly in the east) one can find club ski programs combined with an academic boarding school. Overall, funding for the vast majority of these junior clubs is divided between athlete fees and public donations/fundraisers.

The upside of the typical junior racing club, in terms of athlete development, is significant. The most obvious benefit is the quality and breath of coaching that pre-teens and teens can receive. Typically coaches are paid a real working wage -- some full-time, year round -- a big reason for relatively consistent coaching staffs. This compares with the often frequent turnover with high school programs where coaches are lucky to get a little stipend for three or four months’ work. Because some club staff positions can be pretty decent jobs, the experience and qualifications of coaches is often significantly higher than typical school programs. The scope of the coach-athlete relationship is also increased to include much more of the year than is possible with school programs.

Another major benefit of club programs is that schedules (both practices and competitions) are written with an eye towards what is best for skiing rather than what fits into a school calendar. As we will see, this can create friction points -- but it is an undeniable benefit in terms of athlete development. With the bigger clubs, infrastructure is also enhanced including handy things such as vans, facilities, trails, training equipment and gym access.

The potential downsides to junior club programs are far more inconsistent than the benefits. 

In some communities, clubs and school programs are utterly symbiotic. Where the school program ends, the club program picks up. Teens get to enjoy the social benefits of school teams, while simultaneously adding the clear athletic benefits of more sophisticated club programs. Unfortunately, in other situations there is a near-constant power struggle in the winter months between school teams and clubs. Program leaders, school leaders and parents literally determine the path -- harmony or chaos -- with kids left hanging in the balance.

No matter how mature the fundraising program, clubs can be hampered by financial realities. A winter-only program can run $1,000-$1,500 for coaching and transportation. A year-round program can easily double that amount. Adding race/trail fees, snow and dryland equipment, year-round camps and long-distance travel can put the total for a high-end cross country skiing junior around $10,000-15,000 per year. That cost isn’t going down, either.

Most of the bigger club programs offer scholarships that help reduce some of the financial load. But anecdotal reports from parents and community members nationwide paint a clear picture: cost blocks many lower and low- to middle-income families from being active in junior clubs. This economic divide has been a well-known fact in competitive alpine skiing for decades, but cross country ski competition has typically been able to cast a much wider net. That may now be changing -- at least at the highest levels of junior development.

The fundraising side of club programs also presents a mixed bag. Clubs can be a positive way to channel local energy and funding to benefit junior skiing, which most cross country skiers would universally see as a good thing. But powerful junior clubs can also sometimes siphon off local energy and funding away from school teams, trail funding and other worthwhile Nordic programs and projects. 

It can be argued that, in the coming decade, the most common organizational priority with junior development will be controlling costs and maintaining community cooperation so this balancing act doesn’t spin out of control. Just who is writing a training plan for a given talented junior seems much less likely to create long-term fissures in ski communities than forcing tough choices on how best to divide local funds dedicated towards our sport. Competitive cross country skiing is far too small and vulnerable (given future challenges) to last long if we fail to constantly work together in positive ways. 

More on the next page