Thursday, November 29, 2012

East Yellowstone

The Craftsbury Outdoor Center has changed skiing in New England.  This year instead of going to West Yellowstone, I skied at Craftsbury on their 1.3K loop of manmade snow.  I know that sounds short, but with a rolling loop through the woods with a couple of good hills it was fast, fun, and challenging.  How does that compare to a trip to West Yellowstone?  It's hard to beat the scenic beauty of the west. When the snow is good the skiing is wonderful, and the crowds of elite skiers are inspiring.  On the other hand, there is the long and expensive flight to get there, the lung-burning thin air, some years with bad snow and trips to the plateau, and being away from family for the holiday. 

In years past I have taken the trip out west, and enjoyed myself.  The highlight of trips there came in 2003 when I skied for 90 minutes with Thomas Alsgaard.   But in terms of improving fitness and getting ready for ski racing I've always felt that the trip was a wash at best.  Sure I'd get some great time on snow, but the stress of the travel and time-change left me more tired than fit at the end of my trips. This year's experience at Craftsbury was so easy and so satisfying.  I could drive there, stay on my normal schedule, and ski as many kilometers as I could handle.

Next year CSU will be skiing at Craftsbury for Thanksgiving weekend!

Banging out a few K's at Craftsbury. (Fabio Schiantarelli Photo)

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The Fantastic Race

"Chance favors the prepared mind" - Louis Pasteur

All Nordic skiers dream of having great races.  We want that transcendent experience where everything flows smoothly, we ski our very best, and have an exceptional result.  How do we get there?

I watched a good TED talk ( by Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of the best-selling novel "Eat, Pray, Love".   She ponders why so many artists are self-destructive or suicidal.  To find an explanation she examined how ancient Greek and Roman artists differed in how they viewed the creative process.  In those times artists credited their creative vision to a Genius, an external spirit,  that would possess them and provide the creative material that they merely had to record with pen, paint, or carving.  This took a lot of pressure off the artist.  Bad work?  It's just that the Genius didn't show up.  Great work? Can't take too much credit for it and get a swelled head.   Ms. Gilbert suggests that modern artists swing between narcissism after a triumph to despair after a subpar performance.  The ancients kept a more level keel since they viewed an external force as the source of both success and failure.  She suggested that modern artists can take the same attitude by just showing up every day to do their work and to not worry about forcing creativity.  They can wait "for a muse of fire to descend".  Sometimes it will and sometimes it won't.

I thought how this idea might apply to ski racers.  Think about your best results.  Did you know ahead of time that you were going to have a great race?  Or did it take you by surprise?  I know in my experience there is no correlation between my feeling before a race and its outcome.  Days where I felt sick or ill-prepared I've had dream results while on days where I thought I'd have a great day I have seen it all fall apart.  Often things outside of my control such as weather, wax, equipment, or competitors  have determined the outcome.  I think we can follow Ms. Gilbert's advice to artists: just show up every day, do your best work, be patient, and the Genius will appear on some days with the inspiration for an exceptional performance.   If you fall flat don't beat yourself up.  When you really shine enjoy the moment, but don't get full of yourself.  We need to complete our part of the bargain by being as well-prepared as possible.  When your good Genius inspires you then you be ready for that fantastic race.

CSU girls were well-prepared to take advantage of conditions to be named number 1 club team in the U.S. at SoHo JNs.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Teach Your Children Well

“Teach your Children Well: Parenting for Authentic Success” by Madeline Levine

I recommend reading it.  I found that it had many good insights about the developing teenager.  One thing that is clear is that we coaches can play a vital role as trusted advisers at a time when children need to achieve independence from their parents, but are still not ready (are we ever?) to be completely autonomous.

One of my big goals for our program is that we produce young adults with excellent RESILIENCE.  Many kids arrive at college in what college administrators call a “failure-deprived state”.  They have been so coddled and supported that they have never experienced failure and learned good coping skills.  Ski racing is wonderfully complicated and gives our kids plenty of chances for “successful failures”. 

Resilience is not a character trait but a learned skill.  It’s what we teach.   Ms. Levine suggests seven important coping skills that teens need to learn over the four or five years of adolescence when we are coaching them.  I’ve listed them below with some ideas about how we can help develop these skills.  As always, I’ll be interested in your ideas and suggestions.

1)      Resourcefulness
2)      Enthusiasm
3)      Creativity
4)      Work-ethic
5)      Self-control
6)      Self-esteem
7)      Self-efficacy


Can the teen solve problems in an ethical (no cheating) and healthy way without his or her parents?  Can the teen self-soothe, calm down, and stay focused when things go wrong?
We can develop this by having kids be responsible for their own equipment and training.  The J2s do not have the ability to plan their own training and need to be told exactly what to do.  But, by the time they are second year J1s they can think about their training, and figure out how to get their workouts done despite obstacles like school work, family parties, and transportation.  We can teach psychological skills like visualization and meditation.


Junior cross-country skiers tend to be an enthusiastic group. That’s good because zest is the internal driver of accomplishment.  However, it’s important for us to always remember the joy of skiing, to have fun, and to demonstrate and encourage love of the sport.


Most people think of creativity as only meaning the arts, but in fact it is the ability to come up with original and useful ideas.  Business leaders value it more than any other quality.  And creativity is the opposite of boredom.  Ski training requires a structured program, but it can have  much room for creative work.  How can a teen arrange his or her schedule to get in workouts?  What training can he or she do to address a weakness?  How do we ski a piece of terrain for optimal speed?  I think all of us coaches enjoy coaching because it gives us the chance to be so creative, but we need to not solve all the juicy problems ourselves, but give our athletes the chance to solve problems,  and enjoy and develop their creativity.


We coach only two kinds of kids: crazy or lazy.  The lazy ones are easier to deal with.  Just keep nudging them to do the work.   The crazy ones are sometimes more of a challenge. They want to work too hard and we need to rein them in and show the difference between hard-work and obsessive-compulsive disorder.  The team is especially important for both types of athletes as they will gravitate to the group norm and do what the other kids are doing.


We all know that it takes many years to develop self-control.  How do we help?  First, we must demonstrate it ourselves.  Second, we make the rules clear.  We suggest how to follow them.  In the famous Marshmallow Test four year-olds could resist eating a marshmallow (to get a delayed but bigger reward) if they didn’t think about it and focused on other things.  We can teach how to focus on long-term rewards (e.g. trip to Alaska in March!) and remind kids how today’s decision to work will pay off later.  After a really bad race we can say “Go for a ski. You have ten minutes to mourn this bad day.  Then, you need to come back and be ready to move forward” (credit to Donna Smyth for this idea).


We want our kids to feel good about themselves.  How?  Self-esteem comes from the combination of competence and confidence.  Our kids are driven to be competent.  We can help them gain confidence by being honest with them about what they are good at and what they are bad at. We push them out of their comfort zones to try new things when we know they can handle it, and praise them when they really do achieve something.  One of our most important jobs is helping them break big goals down into very small, short-term goals so that they get constant feedback that they are acquiring new competence that will build their confidence for additional effort.


Kids need to feel “What I do makes a difference”.  We can show them that if they work harder, eat better, sleep well, and are organized then they will ski faster.  They need to be actively involved in their own development so they grow their sense of personal power.  We coaches can make clear the consequences of decisions, let them try, let them fail, and help them learn from their failures.  We can also help them develop efficacy in relationships by emphasizing the importance of supporting their teammates.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Above: Julia Kern, 3 time National Champ at JN's displays some powerful skating form

Above: Leah Brams will be a J2 to watch this year

“Train your weaknesses, and race your strengths”

We ski coaches spout this timeless bit of wisdom.  How do we put this catchy phrase into practice?

As part of our club testing program, we have a 100 meter rollerski course marked off on a gradual uphill.  In the past we have done a simple speed test where we time the athletes for a moving start, all-out, solo run on the course. I prefer a moving start since I’m interested in moving speed, not starting quickness.

 For our last test I changed things up by having them do one pass using skate technique with no poles, one pass using full skate technique, and one pass double-pole (in their skate gear).  The results revealed some very interesting weaknesses.  And weaknesses are the low-hanging fruit that we pick to reap the harvest of improvement.

Our best male skier was 12.8 seconds for full technique, but 17.0 for no pole, and 14.4 for double-pole.  Do you hear alarm bells ringing?  His no pole time should be similar to his double-pole time meaning he is about 15% off where he could be.  He has the power in his legs as demonstrated by his running under 10 minutes for the 3,000 meter run.  He will work on technique changes to apply more of his leg power and to lower his full technique time even more.

One of our best female skiers had times of 16.6 for full, 16.6 for no pole, and 18.6 for double-pole. The warning siren blasts the message, “weak arms!”  If she skis no pole as fast she can go full technique then the arms are just along for the ride like a T-Rex chasing its prey.  The solution  is a combination of more specific strength work and technique changes so that she applies power with her arms and core as she kicks.

The final skier I’ll describe is a solid collegiate skier home for the summer and back with our program.  His times were 13.9 for full, 17.5 for no pole, and 17.7 for double-pole.  What I see here is a skier using excellent technique to generate good speed from average fitness in both legs and upper body.  The opportunity for improvement is open if he can do a little more of everything: more specific strength, more intensity, and more distance.

The other skiers in the test were less extreme variations on the three themes described above.  Most skiers seem to appreciate having just one area to focus on for a while.  If I can tell them, “you need more upper body power, focus on that for the next six weeks”, then they will do that, see an improvement, and be inspired to work on what is now their new relative weakness.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Double Poling

Here's a video of some great double poling:

The skier here is Hannah Smith, who just finished her freshman year at Williams after spending 4 years with our CSU program.  The video is from our Double Pole Test.  The test consists of 4 repeats of double poling as fast as possible up a hill.  Times for each repeat range from 2:20 to 5 minutes depending on the age, strength, and ability of each skier.  We sum up the 4 repeats to get a total time.  In this video Hannah is in the process of setting a new course record for females of 11:26 with her fastest rep being 2:41.

What are the elements that make her go so fast?  First of all she has an excellent fitness base and great strength.  At 14 she looked like a stick figure drawing, but with five years of very hard work she is now a very strong 19 year old.  Cross-country ski racing requires a very high level of fitness.  Now that she has the fitness she is doing some really good things technically.  Starting from the lowest position her arms swing up quickly and pull her body up and forward.  Too many skiers stand up first and then swing their arms and lose the chance for momentum in their upward swing.  Her strong upward swing gets her forward and her weight up on the balls of her feet.  She maintains what coach Frank Feist calls the "banana spine" with a good rounding of the shoulders.  Using her whole body she drives down on the poles with arms, core, and legs to get a powerful crunch and drive herself up the hill as her weight goes back on her heels.  Notice the dynamic action of her legs.  Most skiers are double poling with just their arms and maybe their cores.  But, DP is a whole body technique.

Hannah is a great example of the rewards that come from years of hard work and deliberate practice.

And here is some video of the Master of Double Pole, Frank Feist:

Hi Ski World,

I've started this blog so that I can share my coaching ideas, insights, questions, and stories.  I know that I don't have all the answers, but when I figure something out I want to share it.  And, I hope others will share with me what they have learned about coaching.  Eventually, I will put these blog posts together into a book on coaching.  Let the dialog begin!