When U.S. Ski & Snowboard unveiled the new Project 26 development initiative earlier this month to coaches and club executives, questions arose as to what this new development structure would mean for the relationships between athletes, clubs, regions, and the national team.
Project 26 re-emphasizes development at the club level via a decentralized program that now has named development team athletes staying in their home clubs and receiving project-based support throughout the summer, prep period, and winter. Head men’s development coach Sasha Rearick and a yet-to-be-named women’s coach will lead these projects as opposed to the full-time programs of the past.
“Project 26 is definitely trying to work more closely with the clubs around the country,” explains U.S. Ski & Snowboard Development Director Chip Knight. “Our clubs are really well resourced, increasingly well resourced in the last ten years. All of our big clubs are going to the Southern Hemisphere and running full-year programming. We’re trying to integrate with their programming and really develop a strong partnership between our strongest clubs and our national level of programming at the D-team level.”
In addition to providing supplemental programming for development team athletes, Project 26 also will draw from a pool of athletes called the National Development Group (NDG). The NDG is made up of athletes with a top 50 world rank for their age and will join named development team athletes at various projects throughout the year.
One question that came up during the discussions about Project 26 was how the new NDG differs from the old National Training Group (NTG) that served a similar purpose in years past. For the Mammoth Mountain Ski Team’s Athletic Director Peter Korfiatis, the old NTG presented a sticky situation for regional teams around the country.
“You had these regional teams trying to figure out where they fit in the system,” Korfiatis says. “Is it their job to take the U19s and move them to the development team or the C-team? In theory, that’s the way it should have been, but when you had the NTG, those were all of your top athletes at NorAms and the regions didn’t have them anymore.”
The new NDG structure hopes to alleviate that problem by basing all development athletes, regardless of whether they are part of the regional or national team, at their home clubs. According to Knight, the problem with the NTG model was precisely what Korfiatis experienced at the regional level.
“The NTG grabbed athletes for the whole year and we are just trying to expose athletes at specific projects,” Knight explains. “We’re not trying to grab them for a whole year and completely uproot them; in fact, we’re doing the opposite. We want them rooted back at their clubs and their region. The NTG not only diluted the regions, it diluted the clubs by pulling athletes out at 14, 15, 16-years-old and left no one for anyone else to chase at the local level so we’re very much going against that model in this new Project 26 model where athletes are based in the club so that other athletes will have the ability to chase them.”
In theory, this will allow athletes to mature more in an environment familiar to them and experience better skiers for longer in their regions while also exposing themselves to high-level training and racing at key points throughout the year via development projects with the national team.
Knight is quick to point out that there will be a challenge for each region to develop a system that best suits the needs of their athletes. In the West, for instance, where their elite level regional athletes might be spread out over a vast area of the country, quality regional programming is more important than a region like the East where the vast majority of their best athletes are all within a reasonable driving distance from one another and can easily get together and train.
“What we’re really trying to do is expose the best athletes who aren’t at the D-team level to pace and quality training environments that are going to be impactful and going to add value to their club-based program,” says Knight. “Each region is different and the challenge at the regional level is to figure out what the region needs that the clubs can’t provide. The solutions need to be specific to regional needs.”
“One of the reasons why the West has been successful in the past is because of the geographical nature of the region and we all know that we have to work together to develop the kids,” adds Korfiatis. “When you have the top kids from each club coming together at the regional level, that’s what drives the pace and that’s what drives the push and that’s what develops athletes.”
Whether Project 26 stands the test of time really comes down to buy-in at every level of the development pipeline and a willingness to adapt to the new development landscape.
“The system and concept put forth is, in theory, really good,” says Korfiatis. “Now it comes time to determine the best way to activate it. If we can stay true to that, then I’m 100% in support of it and let’s figure our how to make the nation better, that’s the end goal here.”