It’s no secret that in recent years, U.S. Ski & Snowboard has fallen from the top. Yes, there are a few stand-out athletes who carry the team name to great heights, but looking through the lens of pure performance, Ski & Snowboard as a whole is not getting good marks. Performance at the Olympics has fallen since Vancouver in 2010. World Championships medals have plateaued. But perhaps the greatest failure of the organization is that the athletes and alumni are unhappy.
Over the past year, a third-party, private consulting group took a deep dive into the foundation of Ski & Snowboard to assess where the organization could be doing better. Seventy-two interviews were conducted in order to distinguish the NGB’s wrongdoings, also referred to as “pain points.” Thirty athletes across all sports participated in interviews, 14 athletes are currently active, 16 are considered alumni. The assessment of athlete interviews has come to fruition as The Athlete Project, the official name of the report that acknowledges said pain points, and Ski & Snowboard is busy outlining plans to address them.
The conclusion is that, aside from serious financial and marketing shortcomings, the biggest issues at Ski & Snowboard lies in their relationship at the core of the organization – the athletes.
The “pain points” noted throughout the athlete journey are many, so many in fact, that only a few could be prioritized for immediate action. According to Tiger Shaw, President, and CEO of U.S. Ski & Snowboard, the organization struggles with onboarding, experience during competition years, and offboarding – which essentially amounts to the entire life of an athlete’s experience. The positives – on hill interactions between athletes and coaches are great. Off the hill is where the trouble begins.
Overall, there is a perception among current athletes, alumni, and other stakeholders that Ski & Snowboard’s culture does not value or support all athletes. Athletes feel their relationship with Ski & Snowboard is transactional and that communication between athletes and coaches is poor. Athletes do not feel engaged with Ski & Snowboard and do not understand the role it plays in their careers, nor do many athletes feel supported by the organization.
Stand-out athlete comments released in the Athlete Project include, “Performance drives sentiment towards the team. When you are performing well, you get attention, people care and you feel better. When you’re injured, communication from the team drops off and makes coming back (from injury) a nightmare.”
“If you’re named to the roster, and you’re on that team, we [U.S. Ski & Snowboard] owe you everything,” says Julie Glusker, Director of Athlete Career and Education. “If you are in good stead as a team member, you’re doing what you need to do to excel and working well with your coaches and trainers, we owe you everything we as an organization have to give. This is also true when an injury occurs; injury is integral to these sports, and they should not be the delineator between our focus or non-focus (attention or non-attention) on our rostered athletes. Our focus will always be getting an athlete back to high function.”
Another athlete comment read, “The biggest thing is creating an atmosphere that is inviting, supportive…if the athletes aren’t feeling like they’re being supported, it’s a poor reflection on U.S. Ski & Snowboard,” alongside the comment “When I think about the team, I think about my individual team, I don’t think about the U.S. Ski Team.”
Ski & Snowboard has a plan to address these shortcomings, some of which went into action last season. Their first attempt at bridging the athlete communication gap was establishing athlete liaisons prior to the 2018/19 season. An athlete liaison is a current member of the team who is essentially the voicebox for his or her teammates. They have the responsibility of gathering feedback and sharing that feedback with their coaches and the organization.
Breezy Johnson, a current Alpine A-Team member, stepped in as athlete liaison last season for Resi Steigler as Steigler recovered from injury. Johnson has already tried to address some of these issues within the alpine women’s team. She and her teammates are working to hear what each and every girl has to say, particularly young athletes who are new to the national system.
“New athletes got their nomination letter, they were expected to show up in Park City, but nobody really helped introduce them to their team, helped personalize their experience,” says Johnson. “The team already seems a lot scarier from the outside than it really is. I’ve been on the team for about five years now and I’m sort of realizing that the idea that coaches are going to think that you’re a problem child if you speak up about things, I find inaccurate like 95 percent of the time. By opening up a dialogue, we are saying this isn’t a scary place. We want you to feel comfortable here, we want to tailor this experience to you, rather than just being like “I’ve made champions, so follow my lead and I will take you there. Don’t ask questions.” I would rather see a really active, involved athlete body.”
Aside from the athlete liaison initiative, the Athlete Project outlines three major movements toward a healthy team culture that they hope to implement within the next couple of seasons.
- Create a targeted plan to address pain points at critical junctures with U.S. Ski & Snowboard that help build a culture that values all athletes.
- Design a short mobile survey to create a Team Barometer, a ‘real-time pulse check’ on athlete experience that measures progress and creates accountability.
- Update coach hiring process to select coaches for leadership skills, and incentivize coaches to clear ‘athlete experience’ targets.
Of course, these initiatives cannot address all of the pain points outlined in the Athlete Project, but it’s a start.
“One of the most positive things to come out of this Athlete Project is that our failure to communicate with our athletes is out in the open, and everyone cannot ignore the fact that we need to make massive improvements in communication,” says Glusker. “The athlete’s were happy to be able to share the truth of all they were feeling and thinking. We need better and different kinds of communication, communication that is more relevant. They get good technical coaching communication, but they also need to feel they are being cared for off the hill. This was one of the primary athlete complaints.”
In addition, organizational changes will be made to accommodate the quick movement of these initiatives. A strong message has already been sent through recent changes of staff – any member of the organization that does not prioritize building a healthy athlete experience for all U.S. Ski & Snowboard athletes will no longer be involved in the organization, according to the higher-ups.
“Looking forward, there is much work to be done”, Shaw said. “Alumni should be recognized for their contributions to the sport in the United States and to their teams, through mentorship and/or celebration. Communication protocol needs to be established for injured athletes so they can feel supported upon their return and overall communication frameworks for active athletes and coaches need to be implemented so that athletes have an opportunity to excel.”
In sport, common sense would point to athletes being the priority of an organization that wants to be the best in the world. Shaw and his team are viewing the poor report card as an opportunity for long-overdue change and recommitment to athletes. The drop in Olympic performance and the plateau in World Championship medals highlight that within Ski & Snowboard the athlete has not always been the priority. And if the athlete has, then that has not been made clear to the athlete themselves.
Any team, whether it be a club or an academy, can learn from the shortcomings of the U.S. Ski Team, and also from their push to acknowledge their failures, and their focus on working to make it better. Changes in ideology and culture come slowly, but the first step toward betterment is acknowledging that drastic changes are needed. If anything, U.S. Ski & Snowboard has done that. They have the information at their fingertips, now it’s time for action.