The Health of Sport Task Force was created during the 2019 U.S. Ski & Snowboard Congress, and charged with looking into the related issues of excessive racing, travel, cost, and missed school days among our FIS athletes. The group consisted of sport leaders representing each region of the country, and also included an athletes’ representative. Across monthly meetings, there was widespread agreement about the challenges currently facing alpine ski racing in this country and that we should move to create a system that is more focused on local and regional competition, with races that are designed and calendared for appropriate ability levels, and with limits in place to check the short-sighted incentive for younger FIS athletes to travel widely in pursuit of lower FIS points.
To be clear, racing in and of itself is not bad. In fact, our sport incorporates that very word in its title: “ski racing.” Athletes love the feeling of pulling a bib over their shoulders, being with their teammates and coaches during the ritual of a race day, stepping into the start gate for their run, and going as fast as they can down the mountain. However, if our athletes race too often, it directly detracts from their training days. Moreover, those training days are almost always at home, capitalizing on investments in club program fees and season passes without incurring any additional travel expenses, and offering five-10 times more repetitions than on a typical race day. Sure, it’s important to learn how to compete, but it’s critical that our young athletes refine their motor patterns and skill sets through multiple repetitions in the training environment. In short, if athletes race too much, it costs more money and they miss out on valuable training—therefore sacrificing long-term improvement for potential short-term gains in their seeding points.
Some people in our country have argued that limiting race starts should not be the job of a U.S. Ski & Snowboard governing committee. The Health of Sport Task Force, and many sport leaders, disagree. There is a widespread feeling that “we” can’t help ourselves: if there are races on the calendar, coaches, parents, and athletes will feel compelled to travel far and wide to attend them. For this reason, the Alpine Sport Committee will consider the Health of Sport Task Force’s comprehensive proposal during the upcoming 2020 U.S. Ski & Snowboard Congress because it would help establish guidelines for our domestic system within which best practice long-term athlete development decisions could be made to optimize racing programs while preserving critical training time for young athletes.
Limiting FIS starts has been a heated discussion point at the international level for many years. Until the 2015-16 season, FIS had a maximum 25 technical-event start limitation in place for first-year athletes. The two explicit goals of that rule were to promote long-term athlete development, creating more training time for young athletes, and allowing space in the competition calendar for participation in the speed events. That rule was dropped when the eligibility age moved to 16-years-old, but it remains a major talking point as many countries are seeing the same problems continue: too much racing and reduced participation in speed events. In fact, FIS is actively discussing reinstituting the start limitation rule and perhaps even expanding it for second-year athletes.
More broadly, there is widespread recognition of the challenge we face in the speed events with dwindling participation, a limited number of host venues, and increased costs. As a country, we have been working deliberately in recent years to provide meaningful speed exposure projects at the U.S. Ski Team Speed Center at Copper Mountain for FIS and U16 athletes, as well as through training and racing opportunities for regional athletes at sites like Sugarloaf, Burke Mountain, Aspen Highlands, and Schweitzer Mountain. Philosophically, the U.S. Ski Team believes that if we develop athletes with broad and adaptable skills across all disciplines, they will be most poised for success at the highest level of our sport. It is vital that we continue this direction so athletes will learn to glide, jump, and move over terrain, not only in speed but in all events at the upper levels of our sport.
In the end, all of this discussion is an important part of our governance process. Next week’s annual U.S. Ski & Snowboard Congress is a valuable time for sport leaders to connect with each other, review the previous season, and debate new proposals and rule changes to grow and improve our sport. This year, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we have been meeting virtually over the last two weeks, and the conversations have been more vibrant and engaging than ever. There are robust discussions ongoing about the health of our sport at multiple levels—FIS, U16, and U14—and some exciting ideas about how to broaden our long-term development perspective. I would encourage anyone who is interested to tune in to the open video conference meetings and participate in the process. Schedules and log-in credentials can be found at https://usskiandsnowboard.org/governance/meetings and minutes will be posted after the meetings are complete at https://usskiandsnowboard.org/governance/committees-councils/alpine-sport-committee.
Only by working together can we make the best decisions for the health of ski racing in our country, and most positively impact our champions of the future.