Homegrown Hope

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I love the start of ski season for the same reason I love working the start area at races: There’s so much hope. Now, when most of us have felt the crunch of snow under our feet or seen an errant flurry, but few have actually clicked into skis, it feels like anything can happen.

As the anticipation of the season builds, it’s also a time of year when access is still extremely limited, whether for economic, geographic or academic reasons. Some will get on snow before Thanksgiving, some won’t. Some got to ski in the summer, some didn’t. Kids can get frustrated by every delay in getting on snow, mostly because they just want to ski but also partly because they don’t want to get left behind.  That last bit brings me to a fitting topic for kicking off the season: patience

Of all the things I hit on this blog and elsewhere, patience, I believe, is the most repeated and most important message. Most recently in this article in Ski Racing I make the case for patience, while also explaining why it is so hard to have it. Despite the massive amount of evidence and sentiment advising against the professionalization of youth sports, and the “race to the bottom” that it creates, the push to do so persists. Ski racing is like so many other sports, where the long road is the route to fulfilling potential, but is very often deliberately obscured.   

Last summer I heard a podcast with Rasmus Ankersen that stuck with me. I’ve been thinking of it even more lately, as we head into the season, because his insights feel extremely relevant to ski racing, and support the pleas for patience.

Ankersen built the first soccer academy in Scandinavia by pursuing a “reject strategy” that capitalized on talent that wanted a second chance. He wrote a book called “The Goldmine Effect” which investigates the factors behind certain communities that become talent hotbeds and produce a disproportionately high number of top athletes. His research led him right back to his hometown of Herning Denmark, a town of 50,000 that in the past ten years has put more players into the NHL than Chicago or Detroit. The resulting movie, “The Hockey Miracle in the Middle of Nowhere” came out this fall. When Ankersen talks, he details the factors that contribute to this small town advantage, and the patience that is baked into the recipe for success.   

To illustrate his point on patience, Ankersen relates a story about an exercise done at his own soccer academy. He had each coach on the staff write the names of five kids at the academy who they thought would be great in five years. When they opened up the envelope five years later, not one had picked Simon Kjaer, who went on to soccer stardom, and captains Team Denmark.  

The takeaway, told by this example and so many more, is that we (including and especially the very best coaches and organizations) are not very good at picking talent at a young age. In fact, we can’t be, because there are so many factors that go into any one athlete’s success. There are many things, however, that we can do to foster long term success, and they happen naturally at small clubs. These are places that may at times feel disadvantaged, but are in fact perfectly positioned to offer the things that make a talent hotbed. Ankersen explores them in his books, talks and, now, movie.

KEEP EM COMING BACK FOR MORE

When you have a small talent pool, retention is critical. Consequently, every player is valued and all the stakeholders are invested in making the sport fun and inclusive. While these modest programs survive by figuring out every way to keep kids playing, larger or “elite” programs are more often looking for ways to cut them. By contrast, high participation and high retention keeps the competitive engine running, and increases the chances that the next great superstar will stick with the sport long enough to emerge.

Another big factor in smaller towns and clubs is the proximity to role models, especially when they come back to their home turf. Proximity to role models demystifies what it takes to be good, be that commitment, consistency, the willingness to try and fail, persistence, positive temperament, or love of the sport. It also shows the imperfections of these top athletes and their progress, and makes success feel achievable. It’s not enough to just know of these mentors. The magic happens when kids know them, see them and have interacted with them.

I thought of this last weekend when the Dartmouth Ski Team came out to run the Club Cup dryland session for the kids in our Ford Sayre Ski Club. Kids were grouped into “national” teams to take on a variety of challenges, and matched with NCAA mentors to provide guidance and encouragement.  We’re extremely fortunate to have top athletes in proximity or as alumni of the program. Many clubs also nurture aspirations by bringing in fast skiers for clinics or guest appearances, making pilgrimages to watch high level races and creating some connection between youngsters and their heroes.

Ankersen also describes how fancy facilities can be a detriment if they separate the top talent from future or developing talent. In Herning, he explains, because there were no modern facilities and everyone trained in the same place, there were many micro interactions that created a natural exchange of habits. It brought to mind many humble race rooms and base lodges, where athletes of all ages and levels (from groms to legends) mingle.

Throughout, Ankersen reiterates that in any program early selection, or rather deselection, becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and entirely misses the “Talent that Whispers,” the stars who will emerge if encouraged, and given the chance. If there is a need to make selections, Ankersen suggests looking for characteristics that are better predictors of long term excellence vs current performance. His soccer academy’s reject strategy exploited the inefficiencies of a system that misses so much talent by abandoning them too early.

Culturally, this approach of taking responsibility for developing kids and keeping them in the sport, rather than deselecting them, lends itself to a more holistic approach than the sink or swim model we have come to accept.

The line that stuck with me the most was this simple statement: Discouragement is the most powerful curse.

On the flip side, encouragement is magic. That’s what this discussion all comes down to. It’s what was happening naturally in that dryland session and it’s something any club or coach can choose to prioritize every day, with everyone. The season is just about here. The guns are fired up and so are the kids. Let’s be sure to cheer them all on. We’re going in!

4 thoughts on “Homegrown Hope”

  1. Thank God for local programs like Ford Sayer! Wish there were more programs like it. Fun and inclusive!

    • Thanks for reading Mark. Ford Sayre is special, and there are a ton of great programs and people out there committed to keeping it fun. Props to all who carry that flag!

  2. Great article Edie. I have been so amazed that all sports at every level has this problem. My daughter has sworn off all sports because of this and it breaks my heart. Always insightful stuff.

    • Ugh. Sorry to hear that Margaret. But I can totally understand it. I hope your daughter has found another focus that feeds her soul. But dang…I wish we could get a handle on it and ratchet sports back into a more sane zone.

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