By Steve Cuff
EARLIER this year Ski and Snowboard Australia (SSA) implemented significant changes to their Alpine Program structure.
With the appointment of new Alpine Director Mick Branch, a review was undertaking and the main findings being that race clubs (and parents) had too strong a focus of their children just skiing gates for training and not concentrating enough on developing essential skills.
It was acknowledged that Australia were not developing enough World Cup alpine skiers and part of the reasoning was the pathway through an athlete’s earlier years has been clouded.
Athletes were lagging compared to alpine racers across the world at the same age.
Australia is always going to be pushed to its snow limit to compete anywhere near the Austrian, Swiss or North American alpine skiers. The northern hemisphere has a longer season and with countries in Europe especially, skiing is a national sport much like AFL or rugby league in Australia.
But we can do better, and we have produced world cup skiers in the past.
“If you go back historically and look at age group 1977-1982 born, we had four males in the top 50 in the world scoring World Cup points and on the female side we had World Cup success and Europa Cup success,” said Alpine Director Mick Branch.
“From 1998-2008 we had seven athletes ranked between 43rd to 58th in the world. These athletes were racing on the World Cup and scoring top 30 results which garners world cup points. We also had another one of each gender in the top 100 world rankings.
“So, we have had success at certain times with groups of athletes. We did something right to develop them back in those days, so we know we can achieve that. Our strategy is to go back to what works, not just in alpine skiing but generally in sport, what are the fundamental things we need to focus on to have success over a longer-term period and develop skill.”
“We are using the best people in Australia to help us.”
In other snowsports disciplines Australia have had recent success, such as snowboarding, aerial skiing and moguls for instance where we have won Olympic medals and World Championships. And before everyone jumps on the bandwagon complaining those other disciplines receive more funding, you must consider that the Olympic Winter Institute of Australia and Ski and Snowboard Australia is not a bottomless pit of money.
They have apportioned their funding to where they get the best bang for their buck from investment. At present Alpine needs to lift and improve.
The Process So Far
A series of discussions were arranged where the SSA Alpine Review was presented to an alpine leader’s forum and then race club workshops.
“The clubs have received it well and they knew it was time for a change and they had to identify where the gaps were within the club system and where the areas that we were able to assist them to fill those gaps, so they have been very receptive to that,” said Mick Branch.
As outlined in the SSA Alpine & Ski Cross Review, SSA and the National Alpine Committee (NAC) view the Australian race clubs as the valuable key to delivering best practices for athletic and sport development. In June, SSA and the NAC hosted an inaugural SSA Alpine Club Workshop in Sydney.
The SSA Alpine Club Workshops was attended by the Program Directors and Head Coaches of the six core Alpine Ski Clubs being:
– Mt Hotham Race Club
– Mt Buller Race Club
– Falls Creek Race Club
– Thredbo Ski Racing Club
– The Thredbo Mountain Academy
– Perisher Winter Sports Club
The Workshop was hosted by SSA Alpine Director, Mick Branch, and presented by Andrew Logan and Dr Juanita Weissensteiner, newly appointed Principal Advisor of Talent Pathways for the NSW Office of Sport.
Dr Weissensteiner was the original co-author of the FTEM (Foundation, Talent, Elite and Mastery) Athlete Development framework utilised by the Australian Institute of Sport to inform the review, refinement and support of the entire athlete pathway from a foundational to a podium level.
Dr Juanita Weissensteiner and Andrew Logan were instrumental in supporting Mick Branch and Shawn Fleming (ski cross coach) with the development of the SSA Alpine & Ski Cross Review.
During the season SSA also held Alpine Physical Literacy Clinics and Alpine Skills Assessment to further communicate knowledge and information to athletes.
As part of the review and following on from the earlier workshops and forums the alpine racing calendar was changed to have main children’s and FIS races scheduled for later in the season. The theory being that during the Australian winter race clubs should concentrate on refining skills through free skiing and specific drills outside of the racecourse.
Then, at the end of the season the main races would have children at their seasons best. Previous years early season scheduled races had only allowed limited on snow time for athletes prior to racing.
Sport and Recreation Alpine Forum
Another major part of the SSA changes was to educate athletes, parents and the alpine community with scientific evidence from Dr Juanita Weissensteiner’s FTEM that highlight all aspects of an athlete’s career from the early years, through development stages and onto elite level.
With athletes all racing at these season ending races in September, Children’s Carnival at Thredbo and the Australian FIS Championships at Perisher, it was an ideal time to present to the wider racing community.
SSA and the National Alpine Committee held their first annual SSA Alpine end of season dinner and Educational Forum. The SSA Alpine Educational Forum is designed to assist the community to better understand Alpine and Ski Cross Athlete Development.
The event was hosted at Sport and Recreation in Jindabyne where an audience of 160 was expected.
Due to circumstances and soft snow conditions on the day at Thredbo, one children’s carnival race started and finished late. But the forum was pushed back in start time to allow for everyone to have time to attend.
Considering this was a key part of the future development of alpine racers and dinner cost included in the season racing it was disappointing to see only about half the expected crowd in attendance.
Having been in the industry for over two decades following alpine racing I often listen to all aspects of the racing community complain about the governing bodies not assisting enough. So you would have assumed this was a prime opportunity to extract valuable knowledge to help athletes’ futures.
What they missed was an extremely informative session full of information. Speakers were SSA CEO Michael Kennedy, Alpine Director Mick Branch, Peter Caine Precision Athletica’s Head of Snowsports and key note speaker Dr Juanita Weissensteiner.
After the presentations a panel including Caine, Weissensteiner, Mick Branch, Nick Kennedy (father of ski cross racer Sami Kennedy-Sim) and World Cup racer Jono Brauer answered questions from the audience.
During her presentation Dr Weissensteiner dissected every stage of the athlete pathway through the FTEM which detailed how no matter what the sport, it was critical that every stage was met from a young age if an athlete was to reach the elite level.
The whole presentation from Dr Weissensteiner was first class and it opens your eyes to all the finer points of the pathway that athletes need to tick off their list to know they are progressing.
One point she did make was after a presentation in Melbourne last year where she talked about the developmental journeys of our finest Olympians, former World Cup skier and possibly Australia’s finest ski racer Steve Lee said everything Dr Weissensteiner spoke about was exactly what he had done in his career.
Peter Caine offered some invaluable information and insights into fitness, rehabilitation and nutrition.
Jono Brauer detailed aspects of his career including his thoughts as a young racer and onto World Cup. Nick Kennedy offered his thoughts from a parent’s point of view.
The Alpine Review has undertaken extensive research by all parties and identified areas to improve with a huge emphasis on the FTEM pathway.
Part of the research is analysing world cup skiers. A look at this graph shows the top 30 giant slalom world cup racers in the world and where their world ranking was coming through the junior ranks. The yellow line is the top 25th%, the blue line is the maximum outlier and the rest of the field sits in the middle.
Of our current crop of alpine racers we have male skier Louis Muhlen-Schulte ranked 7th in the world for his age and a highest world ranking of 123. Harry Laidlaw has a best world ranking of 86.
Female racer Greta Small has a world ranking 106 and Maddison Hoffman ranked 13th in the world for her age has a highest world ranking of 172.
In a comparison Sami Kennedy-Sim has a top ranking of 13 in skier cross. Kennedy-Sim was previously an alpine racer in her early career before switching.
While these are very encouraging for these alpine athletes, it is the next phase of their racing careers that will be the toughest.
Looking at the graph you can see as racers move into their late teens and early twenties you need to stay in touch with your age group peers. There will also be many up and coming gun races ready to leapfrog you as well.
The last top 30 result for an Australian male was 2009.
“Ultimately, we are trying to provide an opportunity and a daily training environment for kids to develop skill, whether that’s on snow, physically, mentally, to understanding what it looks like, what you are trying to achieve,” said Mick Branch.
“Then what are the steps to take to get there and how we can assist the clubs to help them do that.
“Our biggest goal and focus is to continue to build the clubs so our goal is to ultimately develop a sustainable pipeline that we can continue to move kids through the system and be able to provide them with opportunity as they go through the pathway.
“We have to go from a foundation level to develop those skills and move them all the way through. We’re invested in developing a better daily training environment, building the profile of the clubs, getting stronger clubs. Without clubs it is not sustainable for people to be spending that kind of money travelling all over the world. We’re not getting the desired results in terms of building the base, and building bigger pods within each age group.”
Performance versus Participation
One of the key aspects of identifying talent is to firstly work our whether kids are there for the participation and enjoyment of the sport, or they are serious about performance and becoming a ski racer.
At present in most clubs there would be mixed groups of participation and performance. This could be difficult for clubs to employ extra coaches if all age groups were to be split, but if we are truly serious about encouraging the best out of our serious athletes, these groups need to be adjusted. So, there is some emphasis on the clubs to look at their structure.
“The big thing we are trying to educate about the honesty around the clubs and the parents and community about what is participation and what is performance,” said Mick Branch.
“Once we identify that then participation goes in one direction, they have different needs than performance. But at the moment they are gelled together and the kids who are striving for that performance pathway, they are not getting what they need to develop the way they need to develop to continue through the pathway.”
“That’s how it needs to be. What are you hoping to achieve, I just want to participate? Well then we will structure that in terms of the steps you need to achieve that.
“I want to achieve World Cup success at the highest level, then that looks totally different. And we are not doing a good job of that, so we have to bring in a more professional strategy to the clubs for individual performance plans, physical conditioning benchmarks, mental preparation and all these things at a young age to provide that environment to develop all those skills.”
So where to now for the alpine racing community?
Let’s hope they have all embraced the Alpine Review and that the 2018 season was an eye opener to what is required to progress.
I for one sure hope we can see more top-level ski racers representing Australia in future World Cup races, but there is plenty of hard work and grind ahead.