As we pack up on our last day of camp #2 here in Saas Fee Switzerland I wanted to provide an update on both camps and the U16 HPP program to date in 2022.
We are very pleased with the success of both camps. All of the athletes, without exception, made terrific progress. There is no doubt that those athletes who were able to attend both on-snow camps saw significant progress, with the ability to pick up where they left off from the first camp and continue progress. But it was also fun to have new athletes, coaches, and energy at the second camp. And we are thrilled that you chose to send your kids with us. Thank you!
AOA has several objectives in running the U16 HP Program.
The basics are:
1) to provide time on snow in quality training environments, with top coaches. Together with the clubs we want to provide a volume of skiing or number of days on snow consistent with the Alpine Canada Long Term Athlete Development Plan (see volume matrix here: https://ltad.alpinecanada.org/uploads/documents/v81Training_and_Competition_Volumes_by_Stage.pdf). For skiers pursuing a competitive pathway this should target 100+ days on snow, with 16-24 competitions, depending on the athlete’s Individual Performance Plan.
2) To bring together top athletes and coaches from across the province.
3) To deliver technical messaging, terminology, training priorities and approach, that are consistent with top provincial, national, and international coaches.
4) To develop physical fitness and prepare athletes with healthy habits, and the physical capacity for the demands of the sport.
5) To develop athletic character, mental preparedness, resiliency, and a positive athletic culture that will continue to bring these kids together and keep them in the sport for as long as possible, or prepare them for life, whatever they chose to do.
And last but not least 6) Experience! We want to show them the full rich experience of being involved in ski racing that so many of us are able to enjoy for a lifetime.
The on snow, technical and tactical piece is developing well. Yesterday, as with the last camp, we finished by training GS on the “FIS” lanes, alongside World Cup and high-level FIS teams. The men’s US WC speed team was two courses over, so their start was about 30 meters from ours. They are called “FIS’ lanes because the hill is long, steep and demanding. The course sets have bigger, rounder turns than U16 course sets, so the speeds are higher. As with camp #1 the athletes did great! They were intimidated at first, there were some challenges, but they all persevered and did fantastically well. Some of our athletes made it look easy, and were skiing just as well, and with the same confidence as strong FIS skiers in the other courses.
Bringing the coaches together is just as important as bringing the athletes together. At these camps we have a curriculum, with clear technical and tactical priorities and terminology that I know to be consistent with our WC coaches, and spot on for this age group. It is extremely important that our coaches are on the same page. This sport is challenging enough without kids being introduced to new concepts with each new coach they work with. If we are consistent, the athletes can have a consistent focus on acquiring skills with clear goals, year after year, coach to coach. Anyway, the athletes progressed very nicely, and I hope they have come away from the camp(s) with clear objectives and a heightened understanding of technique and tactics. This will be an ongoing learning process.
Improving health, wellness, and physical fitness has been identified as a high priority for our athletes. We know this from testing data, from general data about this generation of kids, and from what we see on hill. Athletes need to arrive at camp physically prepared just to handle the general demands of the long days, let alone training volumes, or farther still, being in peak condition to perform. We know that general fitness levels are lower than historically (with some exceptions) so we decided to increase the daily focus on fitness at on-snow camps. We hope that the habits and best-practices that they learned at the camps will stay with them, and build as they move forward. (For each camp we recruit coaches that also have a specialty or interest in physical conditioning.)
When at home – athletes being active and playing sports is a great start, but the demands and physical loads of ski racing are unique and specific, and athletes of this age should regularly be training in environments that are specific to the sport. You can read more about that here: https://ltad.alpinecanada.org/athletes/physical-fitness. Even during the winter months, they should be working on physical conditioning a few days per week. We did provide conditioning programs, designed by Active Life Fitness who are partners with the Canadian Sport Institute of Ontario and work with the Ontario Ski Team and Ontario Development Team, but we are not sure who or how many athletes are following them. Effectively delivering programming and support to athletes from across the province has been elusive so far. We will be considering this, so look for an enhanced approach in 2023.
In terms of athletic character, our basic expectation is that each athlete focuses and tries their best to learn and improve in every organized environment, and outside of training hours, they are well behaved and respectful. The mental preparation piece is something we address daily on and off snow. We encourage them to write down daily goals from video and rehearse or visualize before bed. We encourage them to focus for at least 30 seconds before they take the start each run, and rehearse exactly what they need to do. We encourage them to refocus quickly and keep going when they make a mistake. These are all basic tools of mental preparation.
While at home we have webinars including “the confidence course” with Kiri Langford, who has a Master’s Degree in Mental Performance. We also have two sessions for Mental Health and Mental Hygiene with Dr. Heather Wheeler (Mental Health Lead for the Canadian Sport Institute), and Dr Leanne Lapp. I can’t encourage you enough to ensure your son/daughter participate in the next session on October 25th.
There is a lot of data on the mental health challenges of young people, and athletes. It is an increasing problem that spiked during the pandemic, and shows no sign of decreasing. Even if your child is currently happy and healthy, this will give them tools to cope, should that change. My experience with this is that kids/athletes can be fine and resilient, until all of a sudden, they aren’t. Even at the highest levels, athletes that exhibit incredible mental toughness and resiliency, have been experiencing mental health issues at an increasing rate. And this is true across all sports and nations, and of course outside of sport as well. Based on the statistics, it is extremely likely that there are kids enrolled in the U16 HP Program that are suffering from Mental Health issues, if only mild. It’s a problem. Drs. Wheeler and Lapp do a terrific job of teaching about the distinction between normal stresses and challenges, versus more serious issues. Please have your child participate.
I want to address the resiliency piece separately. Something that I always tell athletes of every level, is if there is one thing that is absolutely 100% certain in their journey – there will be challenges, setbacks, and disappointments. And of-course this is true of life in general. What is important is how they respond, and overcome. One of the wonderful things about our sport is that at the grass roots clubs are very family and community based. And for a long part of development, kids of different skill and performance levels become friends and are part of teams together. This is true in many sports, but especially true in ski racing. Eventually, as they grow, and if they are pursuing a competitive pathway, some will qualify for certain races or camps and others won’t, for example. This is true in all competitive sports. It is an uncomfortable process, particularly for kids this age, but the important thing is that if they enjoy it, they should stay with it.
British slalom skier David Ryding is a friend of mine, or close acquaintance at least, and I’ve known him a long time. At 18-19 he probably wouldn’t have qualified for the Ontario Ski Team. In 2022 he won his first World Cup, (at Kitzbuhel), at the age of 36. He did a little talk with the Ontario Team athletes a few years ago and I asked him what made him stick with it all these years. He said: “I didn’t know I could do it, but I didn’t know I couldn’t do it. I love ski racing, so I decided to stay with it and see what I could do.” I can only imagine he’s had many disappointments and setbacks in his journey.
There are racers that are top performers from a young age, to when they win at the highest level. But by no means all of them. Many won’t show up until later, but only if they stay with it. If I google “why enroll kids in sports”, one of the very first things that always comes up is that it teaches resiliency. Try it out. Ski racing is also a golden opportunity to instill one of the most important life skills. I encourage you as parents to support your coaches, and your children, in this process.
I hope that the athletes have enjoyed their experiences with us in Europe. They have been encouraging and pushing on another, having fun together, working through challenges together, and have become fast friends. This is how culture and momentum are built. Since AOA started the U16 HPP in 2017 we have seen an increase in skill level and performance, but equally important, we have seen an increase in the number of athletes continuing on to the FIS level in competitive programs. Coming together at these camps builds a comradery with athletes from different regions and clubs from across the province. Many of them will be friends for life. I met Bill Real (expert coach here with us in Saas Fee), when I was 12 and he, his brother Bob, and I have been close ever since. Bill and I ski raced together, went to high school together, coached different regional teams in the 90s, the Ontario Team together in the early 2000s, and here we still are. Kevin Gosselin and I (another top coach with us in August) were reminiscing about epic games of ‘Capture the Flag’ at Hintertux when we were 15, and similar memories. Kevin is from Peterborough. I am from Sault Ste Marie. We were both competitive people and skiers, but we don’t talk much about who won what races. Yes, the U16 HPP program is designed to enhance development and performance, but experiences are just as important.
Many of you, particularly parents of second year U16 athletes, will be helping your son/daughter decide whether or not they will continue into FIS, and if they do continue, what pathways or options to pursue. First, I strongly encourage the athletes to continue and see this through. Alpine ski racing is an early exposure, late maturing sport. Athletes at U16 are just beginning to understand the sport, and learning to deal with the pressures, so they can enjoy the benefits of all of their time and hard work. FIS teams are generally a bit smaller and more focused, and the athletes bond, and experience a lot of new environments, ski areas, and challenges together. There are many options for U18 athletes in Ontario – club programs, regional teams (SODST, NCO), the National Ski Academy, the Ontario Development Team, etc. AOA will work with those programs to publish information and selection guidelines (if applicable) in the near future so you have ample time to make good decisions about what is right for your son or daughter.
On behalf of AOA I want to give a big thank you to all of the coaches that supported the camps this year – Heather Metzger, Kevin Gosselin, Ryan Butler, Stefan Overgaard, Mary-Beth Hemphill, Mike Stratton, and Bill Real. These are high quality coaches, and solid citizens. Also a huge thank-you to AOA High Performance Manager Duncan Gibson-Maclean. Duncan wears hats piled a mile high, and is instrumental to the success of the program. And thank you to our sponsors – Mackenzie, Sporting Life, and Fasken.
And of course, thanks to the parents, for supporting your kids, and AOA. These projects play an important role in building athletic character and culture, love of ski racing, and the common belief that kids from Ontario can win at the highest levels, or succeed at whatever goal they set on in life. We wish all of the athletes and coaches great success in their upcoming projects and the competitive season.