In ski coaching, one of the biggest challenges we ever face comes right at the beginning of the relationship with any athlete: gaining a clear understanding of what we are working on together. Seems simple, right? The coach is there to help the athlete improve. That much is a given. But, if the athlete really wants to improve, the discussion should go a whole lot further: improve towards what end? At the very least, coach and athlete should sit down and hash out an end point goal for what their working relationship is structured around. After that, a multitude of questions come pouring forth—how much faster must the athlete be? what is holding her back in classic uphills? where can she gain time in downhills? how much time should be allotted for mental training? is the ski quiver adequate to the demands of competition? is she training too hard during easy training? is her nutrition good? is she balancing work, school, sport demands? what steps need to be taken to improve V2 in uphills? The list goes on and on. In the end, what both athlete and coach need is a clear understanding of their common goals. What they seek is clarity.
Clarity in coaching begins with listening: the athlete must dictate the end point, at least for the annual plan. Without hearing what the athlete wants, it is far too easy for us, as coaches, to prescribe training that is inappropriate to the time/motivation of the athlete. However, once the athlete has set a clear goal for the process, we can proceed with a straightforward series of questions:
1. Where is the athlete today, relative to the stated goal? In terms of speed, percentage back, total time back, technically, mentally and physiologically? These are simply data points from which we can begin to outline a plan forward.
2. What is the athlete’s training knowledge base? Without a clear understanding of basic training principles, an athlete has almost no chance of progressing without constant attention.
3. What are the athlete’s greatest weaknesses? Particularly with athletes heading into the early senior years, weaknesses should be addressed first—simply to bring the athlete on to “schedule” with her peers.
4. What are the athlete’s greatest strengths? Knowing where the athlete excels helps to plan not only training sessions, but specifically to make good tactical decisions in laying out both the overall competition schedule and race plans for individual events.
5. How much time is the athlete realistically willing to commit? Every athlete has a set point where training becomes much more than training—some can find balance training much more than 600 annual hours, others start to feel time crunched with fewer than 500 hours of training. Most athletes have school, work, social and family commitments, and health issues to balance with training. Planning more than the athlete can hope to handle is not only counter productive, but irresponsible.
Clarity in training begins with excellent athlete education. We are not simply physical coaches. We must also set aside adequate time (both within and outside of workouts) to explain the principles of both training and competition. Most athletes I’ve seen over the past two decades can readily declare a competition outcome goal: “I want to finish in the top 5 in the first carnival”. But, most athletes cannot tell me how much faster they need to ski over 15km in order to be in a position to achieve that top 5 finish. They do not readily know how much faster per kilometer 2 minutes in a 15km is. They have no idea what percentage faster than they are currently skiing 8 seconds per kilometer is. They aren’t sure if 4.6% faster is a realistic goal. Quite simply, most athletes are not educated enough to make good training decisions based on their own goals.
It is our job, as coaches, to bring clarity to this project. We all need to remain young enough to believe in revolution. Athletes can make the kinds of improvements required to hit their goals, but they must understand clearly just what it is they are undertaking. They need to be able to plan concretely as they prepare to dedicate thousands of hours of their time to sport. It is not enough for us, as coaches, to simply run practice. We need to educate toward a better understanding of just what it takes to achieve the lofty goals we hear each day.
At Mountain Endurance Sports we believe in improvement aimed at excellence, in evolution of the individual, in ascension. While it would seem to parallel our philosophy, programs aimed at U20 and U23 aged athletes referred to as “development” programs too often detract from, rather than contribute to this rapid improvement in this age. OK, we get it: development connotes patience, progress and giving athlete the time to grow. Obviously there is a place for this in endurance sport. In fact it is a requirement. However, is that place with 19 year old athletes? Our basic premise is that this period in a nordic athlete’s career should be aimed not at development, but instead at rapid achievement.
Development is a necessary element in any athletic career. In endurance sport, it is absolutely required in the early stages of understanding both technical and physiologic elements of training. Without development, basically an early chrysalis phase of processing sport requirements, athletes will struggle to ever perform training correctly. (This too, occurs with startling regularity in nordic sport in the U.S., but we are focusing on U20 and U23 training here). Development does not, by definition, mean improvement. While ascension indicates upward progress. A development period in training should be characterized by acquisition of skills, identification of training zones, and practicing good training habits, as contrasted to our proposed period of ascension aimed at excellence, which would be focused on achieving ski speed sufficient to meet athletic goals, perfection of technical nuances and ownership of training objectives.
So really, aren’t we just splitting vocabulary hairs here? Well, yes and no. Obviously U20 athletes will continue to “develop”. Our beef is not with the process, but with the terminology. “Development” in athletes 18 and older just feels like an excuse: the athlete is “only” 19, there is time, he is “still developing”. Even a cursory glance at international results will turn up an overwhelming amount of evidence that most successful athletes at least show the capacity for World Cup point scoring ski speed by that age. And we’re not driving simply at international results. Right here on the SuperTour, on the NCAA Carnival circuit, and at JNs, athletes who have success are skiing per km times within 2% of the winners by their U20 years, at least occasionally.
It is our supposition that athletes need to understand the opportunity that the U20 (and early U23) years provide them. Most athletes this age are still entirely supported by their parents. Most are enrolled in either high school (senior year), a ski club PG program, or at college. All three situations generally provide more support than most national-level athletes in this country will ever receive: room, board, structure, coaching, access to physical therapy, athletic training, weight room, travel assistance and a strong social structure. In addition, for male athletes, they will never have another period of potential physiological growth that comes anywhere near matching this time.
This is truly the period for rapid improvement aimed at excellence—however excellence is defined by the athlete. This is the time for ontogeny to trump phylogeny. We see this time and time again; the age-old story of the “late” bloomer. It is the time in an endurance athletic career that focus on training pays the biggest dividends. The time that training well begins to overtake “pure” talent.
It is for these reasons that we strongly encourage U20 athletes to focus on three specific areas:
1. Train for adequate ski speed to achieve set goals. If you want to sprint on the men’s World Cup, that means skating 1km faster than 1:51. Aiming for a women’s JN classic title? Better be able to average at least 3:25/km in most years (often faster for U18s). It doesn’t matter what your goal is, the raw speed to achieve it is a prerequisite. Train that speed often enough to be comfortable at that speed.
2. Gain a nuanced understanding of technique. Most athletes by age 19 have spent 100s of hours working on V1, V2, V2 alt, diagonal and double pole. They know how to do it by now. Chances are they’ve adopted a technique that is relatively efficient for them. But few have spent focused hours on these techniques across the full spectrum of possibility thrown at them by most race courses: off camber pitches, uneven grooming, plowing new snow, breaking suction klister skiing, etc. Even fewer have actively practiced and refined gears within techniques like herringbone, double pole kick, and tuck skating. Far fewer still have checked times over the same terrain in several different techniques to determine where they can gain speed at little or no cost. Take the time to acquire a nuanced understanding of your technique and timing preferences.
3. Take ownership of your training. Through the “development” years of most nordic programs (let’s call it U14, U16, U18), coaches almost exclusively dictate the training plan and the specifics of each workout. This is entirely appropriate in most situations for those ages. However, spending another 4-6 years doing the same, or very similar, training at ages 18 and up seems to us a sure fire way to stymie improvement. How often have we heard that skiing is an individual sport and that each athlete may need different stimulus? Yet, how often do we see this actually applied? It is your athletic career. Take the time to educate yourself about your reactions to training. Advocate for yourself. Use your coach(es) as a resource: they have your best interests in mind, but they are often much more effective with clear input from you about what has and hasn’t worked in the past. You have the best training computer in the world right between your ears. Take these years to learn how to use it.
Obviously nordic ski training for U20 athletes is vastly more complex than this set of suggestions. However, we believe that solid application of the principles above can help athletes excel rather than simply progress
Mountain Endurance Sports focuses on coaching, consulting and retailing select gear to athletes seeking to excel in nordic ski racing, trail running and hunting. Follow our blog here and on Fasterskier to learn more about our training philosophies.