This is the full version of an article written for Racer-Ready Magazine about reforming the British Children’s Ski Team by Ross Green
Click on “READ MORE” for complete article.
I spent nine years with the national team competing at the Olympics, World Champs and ended my career by tearing my ACL on my World Cup debut. I made a comeback but had no realistic chance of fulfilling my UK Sport imposed targets to be able to continue. Life is tough at the top; it is cut and dry in the world of sport. At the 2002 Olympics, there were only two athletes younger than me who beat me. For years I have considered a proper comeback – I even discussed it with my family quite seriously last year. I still love it. I love the sport and I know how tough it is.
When I stopped competing in 2004, I set about gaining as many coaching qualifications as I could. Having gone to school in Austria I undertook my Austrian coaching badges and finished their system. I completed the BASI instructor system as was common practice for the best coaches in the world (having both instructing and coaching qualifications). Eventually I ran out of courses to do and started on other sports, most notably gymnastics and football.
Snowsport GB asked me to develop the British Youth Academy and after much planning and work, it never came to fruition as the burden of providing an education was seen as too great a risk for the governing body. Malcolm Erskine appointed me as Head Coach of the British Ski Academy and at the same time I was appointed Head Coach of the British Children’s Team. Since then I have worked sporadically with the national team and various clubs and have spent a lot of time working with the U10 age group.
I was elected three times by FIS license holders to be the athletes’ representative at board level and have acted as coaching representative on the alpine executive.
I was recently consulted on the reform of the British Children’s Team being led by Tim Fawke of Snowsport England. The BCST is something that I have had firm beliefs about since being in position as head coach, although my views have certainly changed over the years.
It’s funny what you remember from your career. I remember a lot about my own BCST experiences. They were fantastic. My first year of children 1 racing I was selected to go to Trofeo Topolino. I’d won the important BARSC races and was seeded first. We were sent down the men’s world cup piste at Madonna di Campiglio. When you’re 11 years old that is terrifying. It wasn’t so much an eye opener as a show stopper. I was mortified. I couldn’t even imagine skiing down there, let alone race a slalom properly. I remember a gate judge sliding all the way down the steep (even though he had crampons on!) during inspection. Needless to say I didn’t get far that year.
The experience was more about what the other kids looked like and how they behaved, sometimes even just my own team mates. We had a great time off the slopes and challenged the coaches that were in charge of us in ways that only kids can. It was an amazing occasion for so many reasons.
I was selected for Topolino three out of the four times I was eligible. My parents were told that I’d been twice already and would be going next year so not to worry (for the year I wasn’t selected). At the time they didn’t question this although I was pretty miffed myself. Communication was done somewhat differently back then. The rumours then were that if you wanted to be on the BCST, then you had to be a member of the DHO club.
I’m still proud of my achievements at Topolino, I finished 13th in the GS in my last year of children 2 after starting in the second group. Benni Raich won and Ivica Kostellic just pipped me. I still know this stuff twenty years on.
Children’s international racing gives you the opportunity to experience so much about the sport in a way that is not replicated until Europa Cup levels and beyond. FIS racing isn’t even quite the same.
Robert Poth had an outstanding result this year in the Czech Republic. You can’t do better than win. Well done Robert, nice one! Everyone in the skiing community is proud of you. What I would like to offer though is some context which is in no way is meant to diminish the result.
I believe that I’ve competed in over 1000 races during my career, mostly internationals. I’ve never competed in an international race in the Czech Republic. Why? And why is this a relevant point? Because the standard of competition at an international race in the Czech Republic would not have been worth attending in order to improve world rankings. Winning a FIS race is tougher than winning a children’s race and where you win those races and who you race against is important.
International children’s races involve a select few athletes from each country. FIS rules govern the amount of races children can enter. Each country has its own selection method and often some athletes affiliate themselves to a country in order to get a start that they wouldn’t otherwise qualify for. The field is therefore smaller and of mixed abilities and conditions often create a start number lottery.
Dave Ryding’s performance in securing the overall Europa Cup Slalom standings is impressive. That’s very close to the pinnacle of the sport. The next one up to win is the World Cup. Go Dave! His search for two 6 point results and an early 30 start number in World Cup is admirable. The gulf between Robert’s Czech result and Dave’s performance is monumental (as I’m sure Robert knows).
I’ve raised these two examples as most readers who know the sport will be aware of both of these results, yet they are on a completely different planet. We give so much importance to international children’s results and we quickly forget about the real journey. The real one starts with an international FIS license and with lots of hard work, it might get us somewhere near Dave’s dizzy heights. We currently let our athletes disappear into the abyss of U18 and U21 international racing, while rewarding them once a year with trophies at nationals as they learn just how tough it is to be really good at ski racing on the international stage. The problem that the sport needs to address is how we look after these athletes. If we hype up the importance of U16 (or younger) racing, what else is there to aspire to? Why would you want to go through the hard stage of FIS competition?
Additionally, I wouldn’t like to see Robert’s result put down to the successful workings of the BCST. Let’s face it, success at U16 level in Britain is largely due to parental effort in securing the right environment and club coaches plus forking out a lot of money.
The Chief of Championships at the British Seniors has highlighted in his report his alarm at the dwindling numbers of athletes. These are the ones that ought to be crying out for investment and support. They’ve given up crying out, in fact, they’re giving up the sport. There’s not much to aspire to. There’s no team other than one that offers ‘status’ which basically means we know you’re there, we just can’t help you. That’s just not true and it’s not fair.
Support systems offering athletes (and parents) education, networking opportunities, access to appropriately trained people within sports science aspects, training in strength and conditioning, access to the ski industry and suppliers – all of this can be created by official channels and managed by parents. At the moment this isn’t there. In fact, there’s not even a vision or a plan for how it might get there.
We’ve had an extraordinary investment in the BCST from a silent benefactor (£300k!). In terms of legacy it looks very much like it’s been wasted. We have a BCST in pieces that British Ski and Snowboard (BSS) has to look after. This is not their problem and it’s quite bizarre that it ever has been. BSS and SnowsportGB before it were designed to manage our elite athletes. With international elite ages in their late 20s, why the governing body has to waste its precious resources on 15 year olds and younger is beyond me. From what I understand it’s also beyond the incoming board members of BSS, hence the review.
How I’ve changed my views and why
Coaching is personal. It’s about relationships and working together to progress and improve. You need respect from both the athlete to the coach and the coach to the athlete. I’m a big believer in work ethic being the best way to demonstrate this. I also know that you have to work hard to achieve your goals.
When I was coaching the BCST I had a very strong group of athletes many of whom were with me all year round at BSA. We had a great rapport and we worked hard for each other and we saw this on a daily basis. It was often suggested that I had a conflict of interest in my role as BSA and BCST Head Coach. I didn’t have a conflict of interest, I had a vested interest. It mattered to me that the athletes were good, learning, doing well and happy. They knew this.
My first camp as head coach was an eye opener. In general, the children were not physically fit. There was a massive difference in ability both physically and mentally. I had some outstanding athletes and some holiday campers. Training had to be organised differently just to accommodate the weaker ones. It was a ‘jolly’ for many involved. In fact I wrote this afterwards in an email and got into hot water. I just couldn’t believe how far this whole enterprise was from the real world of ski racing. And these ‘athletes’ were branded as Great Britain and sent all over the world.
Having not long come from the sharp end of racing it hurt. This wasn’t fair on the system. This wasn’t right.
I tried to change it and failed. I resigned when I realised that I could make more difference on the outside than in position on the inside. It was all so wrong that it was pointless.
So what did I want to change? Well I wanted to give those ‘outstanding’ athletes the support they deserved. I wanted a smaller team that we could develop properly. One I could work with that would create brilliant skiers. I wanted respectable fitness standards to be a pre-requisite for being able to come along on training camps. This core group would lead and pull the community in an attempt to raise standards across the sport. It was elite. It all made sense at the time but now I’m pretty convinced it was the wrong approach.
We know from research that making sport inaccessible leads to drop-out. If it’s exclusive and you can’t get in, then kids give up and drop out. Creating brilliant skiers age 15 requires a large amount of specific practice (or deliberate practice) and there’s still a long way to go to get to the top. You could train an immense amount of gates (like the current young world champion Mikaela Schiffrin) and be highly skilled at specific things – but this is actually high risk. You risk burnout and loss of interest as this sort of training isn’t much fun, even less so as a young teenager. Your ‘skill-set’ is quite narrow and in the world of ski racing where the ability to adapt your skills to a multitude of different conditions is a vital attribute this approach seems unwise.
Ski racing is a very late specialisation sport and in speed events in particular, experience is key. The more exposure young athletes have to different opportunities within skiing, the greater their experience and the more ‘motor-programmes’ they can call upon in times of need. It is for this reason that free skiing has long been hailed as the saviour. This isn’t quite true. Exposure to purposeful practice under different conditions would create a better trained (or skilled) athlete.
With this in mind, the opportunity to create learning opportunities for young athletes and develop their skills more broadly requires more time and experience. In snow sports this is particularly hard for a UK based athlete. Snow time is limited and has to be used appropriately when available.
This is also a conundrum for Long Term Athlete Development (LTAD). For LTAD to be possible, parents in particular have to believe that their child will succeed several years down the line. LTAD doesn’t really work unless the entire system, parents and athletes, coaches and governing bodies all believe in it. And that’s a big ask. How could anyone believe that an athlete, who has been exposed to all of the right ingredients at the right time, all of the correct training stimuli at the right age, become a champion? That’s too much to ask of any one individual family. So while we know what LTAD development might allow us to achieve, it’s not a realistic prospect and not one that fits in with any selection criteria based on performance in age group competition.
We select our athletes based on results and age and any other measurable qualities. In an ideal world, LTAD would ignore this and look into the future. We can’t do this though and we certainly can’t wait until we produce the athletes to find out if our LTAD plan works, we’d be waiting 10 years. So we have to (and we do) select on current results and form.
However, given our sport’s requirements for experience, why do we select at all so early? Why not keep the sport open to more, make it inclusive for as long as we can? Well we can but it would involve a change of attitudes and a better understanding of the sport by those making the decisions.
I’ll outline how I would change the BCST below.
The problems then and the problems now
One of the biggest issues I faced as BCST coach was winning the trust of the athletes who weren’t involved with my programme when not with the BCST. I found this a challenge. There was often little time to catch up and create a rapport as we were heading straight into competition. It was a problem then and it remained a problem for those in position after me. In fact the number of coaches who have done the job looks similar to Chelsea’s manager appointments. It’s cringe-worthy and disappointing for the children involved. Clubs, academies, parents and athletes have all felt frustrated and antagonised by the demands of the system and management for this age group.
Acting head coaches have to learn how the system works before changes can be made. The management however, has long been part of the system and knows how to play the game.
Stability is needed for the children involved as well as the coaching and club community at large. Development of a plan and a vision that gives hope to athletes and makes them want to keep going in the sport to find out how good they can be is more important than ever.
How I’d change it
Here’s what I’d do. I would offer the winning club of the team trophy at the British Championships the right to choose which international race they would like to attend the following year. Second place would get to choose next and so on until the international children’s races were allocated to the clubs. I would call this process ‘International Allocations’.
The winning club would decide which athletes it wishes to take to the race – the criteria is that they should be members of the club. If they don’t have the required 10 athletes they could join forces with another club that has been allocated a race or just not go. This would require negotiation and teamwork.
Each club is asked to provide transparent accounting and a report for each international race so that other clubs can provide future budgets and the system is not abused.
This information would be provided to the BSS performance director who is responsible for accepting club allocations.
It is each club’s responsibility to oversee the race management and organisation for their selected event. Clubs can invite athletes that don’t qualify via the club system by advertising/posting their available spots via social media (or a webpage designed to advertise race spots).
All correspondence with international organisers would be fulfilled by the clubs (or through relevant channels where required – for example BSS sends the entry form)
The performance director retains the right to veto clubs who abuse the system.
In an ideal world, clubs would only qualify if they met the Snowmark standard (SSE) or similar. This serves as a quality control for appropriate coaching standards as well as a pathway from school to international starts.
These allocations would be known to the athletes as international starts and are recognition of a good team performance at the British National Champs.
BCST would no longer exist in its current form.
Jackets/uniforms are not required, as per international FIS starts in U18 and beyond. National team status is preserved for national team.
Fitness levels and training camps can be run and monitored under the umbrella of HN talent ID camps (meaning more access for more athletes).
Pros and cons
This is a much more inclusive system and fits in with aspirations of LTAD as best as possible, backed up by research demonstrated by the BSS performance director.
Athletes may switch club to go to a higher profile race – so what, big deal, the club chooses anyway.
The system is open to corruption – pay more and child X goes – again, this would be at the discretion of the club, if the club benefits then good for the club, if an individual benefits then that changes the situation. At least BSS would not have to spend the time sorting it out.
Clubs and academies already have the infrastructure to be able to go to races, as well as the coaches. They would have ample warning of dates and they would be able to prepare in time.
This would reduce the administration time for BSS in particular, leaving them to concentrate higher up the pathway. It would allow more clubs and coaches in the sport to experience international children’s racing. It would allow parents to be involved.
It would diminish the importance of the international children’s races to an appropriate level within the pathway.
It would raise the level of knowledge and therefore standards within the ski racing community while giving greater access to successful organisations.
The administration aspect for BSS in total would be reduced.
I think that the International Allocations would be a big change for the sport but one that addresses the issues of teenage dropout and the lack of resources for our best athletes. It would make our sport more inclusive and make a wider group of people aware of the standards of international racing. I’m sure there are many aspects I’ve missed, but I’ve made my opinions public so that holes can be found and fixed. I would really welcome feedback.
See you at the races!