Luke Bodensteiner, executive vice president of USSA, took to his association’s blog last week to provide a data-driven analysis of a survey issued last winter to clubs and coaches nationwide in order to determine on-snow training levels for the country’s alpine athletes at the youth and junior levels. These training volumes were directly compared to the recommendations set forth in USSA’s own Alpine Training Matrix.
According to Bodensteiner’s blog entry, the survey revealed the following data points:
- On average, U10 athletes ski close to the number of target days (40-60) of skiing per year. But a significant number ski 31-40 days, or in some cases less, and a minority ski more at 60-100 days.
- At the U12 level, athletes are slipping behind the recommended 60-80 days, still skiing predominantly 40-60 days per year. A smaller population achieves the recommended number of on-snow days.
- At the U14 level, the trend of falling behind becomes even more pronounced, with the large majority of athletes falling significantly short of the recommended 90-110 days on-snow.
- The trend of deficiency continues at the U18 and U20 levels, where many of the athletes in the system fall short of the recommended on-snow volumes.
- U10 racers predominantly compete as much as recommended, up to 10 starts per year.
- Many U12 athletes compete less than the recommended 10-15 starts per year.
- U14 racers become more balanced, but still a significant number of athletes fall short of the recommended 12-24 starts.
- The trend continues at the U16 and U18 levels with a growing number of athletes falling short of the recommended 20-40 and up to 55 starts per year.
- This deficiency in on-snow days also creates an imbalance in the ratios of training–freeskiing, structured freeskiing, competition training, specific competition rehearsal and competition.
- U10 athletes are generally over-emphasizing competition (13% vs the recommended 5% of on-snow time) and competition rehearsal (10% vs the recommended 5%). They are generally freeskiing (29% vs the recommended 35%) and structured freeskiing (25% vs the recommended 35%). Competition training at this level is largely in line with the recommendation.
- U12 athletes are generally over-emphasizing competition training, competition rehearsal and competition (51% vs the recommended 40%) and under-emphasizing freeskiing and structured freeskiing.
- Training at the U14 level comes closer to recommendation, where athletes are using 55% of their on-snow time for competition training, competition rehearsal and competition, versus the recommended 50%. Due to lower than recommended volumes, freeskiing and structured freeskiing are being sacrificed.
- At the U16 level, competition training and freeskiing come very close to recommended levels (58% competition and competition training/rehearsal vs the 60% recommended), but the freeskiing training that is done shows a higher ratio of unstructured freeskiing than structured freeskiing. At this level, structured and unstructured freeskiing are split 50/50, with the recommendation being 37.5/62.5.
- U18s are very close to recommended ranges, but could do slightly less freeskiing and more competing.
The purpose of the survey analysis is not to point fingers at coaches, as Bodensteiner himself realizes that some factors fall outside of the control of program design.
“There are many factors that can lead to imbalances and insufficiencies in these volumes and ratios, including availability of training space, length of on-snow season, motivation of coaches, preference of athletes, and pressures from parents, who report that the number of competitions days at every level is ‘just right’ according to survey results,” he acknowledges.
Still, the deficiencies in proper training volumes on both ends of the spectrum, from U10 athletes all the way to U21s, is alarming for the future success of alpine athletes in America. Is the reign of the ‘Best in the World’ team in jeopardy if the national team athletes of tomorrow are missing the mark on training volumes today?
“It has been well-documented that high volumes of specific and purposeful practice develops elite performers. USSA Clubs and coaches should evaluate their own practices in line with the recommendations of the National Training Systems when evaluating and designing their athlete development and high performance systems, and create their plans accordingly to give their athletes the highest probability of reaching exceptional levels of achievement,” Bodensteiner suggests.
While the volumes outlined in the Alpine Training Matrix are designed to elicit elite performance, every alpine club in every corner of the country is not necessary looking to pump out finely tuned elite athletes. In many cases, athletic participation, in and of itself, is the end goal and desired outcome for both parents and racers. My childhood home state of New Jersey, for instance, only hosted five races last winter for U18 and U21 athletes. Although six were on the original schedule, one was cancelled and another postponed to an alternate date when December and early January racing was impossible. U16 and U14 athletes who qualified to participate in regional projects had significantly greater access to training and competition than peers who only raced in-state, but even the most accomplished U16 and U14 athletes still fell short of the recommended starts. A top-performing U16 in New Jersey who qualified all the way to the Am-Can event could have had up to 12 competition opportunities during the season.
It can be misleading to evaluate the strength of elite athlete development nationwide while surveying clubs and teams with different goals and limitations. I can recall playing youth soccer as a kid, and a wide assortment of opportunities were available for varying levels of competitive interest. I could play on the in-town recreational league, tryout for the more competitive town travel team, qualify for Olympic Development Program (ODP) projects, or even play independent of my town for a regional club team. All of these varying options had incrementally greater time commitments and training and competition volumes applied, but they were all governed by U.S. Youth Soccer.
There doesn’t appear to be room for my recreational league or the town travel team in the USSA Alpine Training Matrix, and maybe that’s why the data is skewed toward underperformance with respect to training volumes. Some kids just like to play and have no intention of pursuing the sport on an elite level, and this is indicative in the drastic drop in USSA membership rates among older athletes who eventually prioritize other opportunities and activities over alpine ski racing.
Despite the lack of acknowledgment for members who are disinterested in elite athlete development, the analysis of survey responses is still useful information for all clubs in the nation. Parents who also have access to the training volume recommendations will be better informed in the future to determine if their children have proper access to training and racing opportunities.
“Clubs and coaches should also educate parents and athletes about the recommendations of the National Training System so there is greater understanding and buy-in behind the club’s development performance approach,” notes Bodensteiner.