OPINION: Early talent identification trade-offs
Let me start by saying that I am encouraged by the turnover in leadership within USSA. Tiger Shaw has experienced every level of USSA skiing as an athlete, coach and parent, and I know that he has the vision and experience to make some of the changes that our sport sorely needs. Personally, I am highly invested in this effort — with three kids ages two and under, I do not want to be standing at a hockey rink in ten years.
What I took from Tiger’s keynote address at the 2014 USSA Congress was, first and foremost, that he is listening to USSA membership and that things are starting to change.
He is absolutely right that there needs to be a level of ski racing recognized as relevant by USSA between elite programs and NASTAR. In fact, it would seriously weaken USSA’s credibility as the National Governing Body if it were not involved with the majority of ski racing competitions taking place in the country. Recognizing USCSA and high school racing as relevant to the sport in the United States is an important first step.
(Of interesting note, USSA is one of the only USOC governing bodies that does not recognize growth of the sport in its vision statement. USA Hockey: “To provide an innovative grassroots foundation for the growth and development of USA Hockey, designing programs aimed at increased participation, improved skills and a responsible environment for the conduct of youth hockey.” USA Cycling: “The mission of USA Cycling is to achieve sustained success in international cycling competition and grow competitive cycling in America.” USTA: “To promote and develop the growth of tennis.” US Soccer: “To make soccer, in all its forms, a preeminent sport in the United States and to continue the development of soccer at all recreational and competitive levels.”
USSA: “The vision of the USSA is to make the United States of America the best in the world in Olympic skiing and snowboarding. The mission of the USSA is to provide strong leadership that establishes and supports athletic excellence in accordance with USSA core values.”)
That said, giving a thirteen year old the option to just “participate” instead of chase his or her dream to ski like Ted or Mikaela does not solve the problem of affordability in skiing. Tiger nearly acknowledged as much when he recognized that affordability for the elite pipeline was still elusive, but then he pointed to the challenge of raising money for USST programming as an example. While the lack of funding for national team athletes is a concern, it should not be the overriding one for the National Governing Body of skiing. Tiger is right that the costs of being in the pipeline is a concern. What he missed is that the current crisis, and the variable over which we may have some control, is the cost of entering the pipeline – the cost of being identified by the national team and the National Training Group.
The financial burden to families of skiers who want to follow their dreams is a concern – and a difficult puzzle to solve. What has been determined is that the value of bringing the best skiers together starting when they are as young as fourteen years old is worth placing that burden on families starting when kids are in their early teens. Identifying skiers at fourteen for elite level programs — bringing the best together — means that we are effectively forcing families to make the financial commitment to not only have kids increase skiing volume, but to invest in attending an academy for the winter-term in seventh or eighth grade, buy four to six pairs of skis, take a summer trip to Mt. Hood and spend almost a month in Colorado in the fall.
Is this necessary for elite athletic development? Is it good for the sport? My primary concern is that by following this model of early identification we are making a “talent” identification based as much on financial means as on athletic ability. What is lost by identifying kids three, five or even seven years later? The national team will contend that it is critical that kids spend their mid-teens within a structured development program skiing with kids at or above their level. Maybe so, but let us at least acknowledge the trade-offs we make when we ask for such a commitment out of families of young skiers.
Every fourteen year old harbors Olympic dreams; they are not ready to give those up and just participate. If we force them out of the pipeline by identifying their buddies and not them, we will inevitably lose some of them who were not able to reach that level because of financial constraints. Pushing that decision back gives families more time to decide if it is an investment they want to make (more families of marginal means will) and give athletes a chance to achieve greater financial freedom on their own prior to the seasons when they will be identified.
I hope that Tiger and USSA staff will examine the need for such early identification and make sure that it is balanced against the risk of unnecessary exclusion. Making sure that ski racing continues to exist relies both on maintaining it as an activity and on keeping alive the dreams of as many youngsters as we can for as long as we possibly can. That is not only good for the sport, but it will be good for the elite programs as well.
Roger Brown is a former U.S. Ski Team member, NCAA slalom champion from Dartmouth College, coach for the Liberty Mountain Race Team, past staffer in the office of Senator Patrick Leahy, and the co-founder of Slopeside Syrup.
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