At roughly 16 years old, the number of registered alpine skiers goes off a cliff.
B.C. Alpine athletic director Johnny Crichton spent his first year in his role analyzing why that is. The problems, he concluded, start much earlier than that.
In a report entitled "Time for a Change," available at www.wmsc.info, Crichton observed problems starting at the U12 level that leave kids physically burned out — and parents financially maxed out — by the time they hit sweet 16.
Noting it's a problem for clubs worldwide, Crichton spent last season travelling across the province to speak with parents, athletes and coaches while looking at the way skiers train and compete.
He found, especially at the U12 level, that skiers were racing far too much and working on their skills far too little. In recent years, the number of races has exploded and Crichton feels it's reached an untenable level.
"It just sort of happened organically. We just started adding more and more events onto this category because a lot of people were excited about it," Crichton said. "We had a pretty heavily loaded competition calendar without a ton of training. There were only a few clubs, a few athletes that were actually skiing their best.
"When you compete all the time, you don't actually get a chance to train that much, so it's kind of backwards, especially at that really important development age group from 10 through 14 years old."
Crichton, who has coached at the provincial and World Cup levels, said the recommendations aren't overly radical, but should help bring clubs back in line with the B.C. Alpine long-term athlete development plan, which calls for a ratio of eight days of training to one day of racing. Crichton found that many younger skiers were significantly off the proportion.
"We found most of B.C. was floating around the 5:1 ratio," he said. "A lot of programs at that age group were floating around training between 30 and 50 days and then racing anywhere from 10 to 13 times. It's just a little bit out of whack.
"People are spending a ton of money and they're not developing as well as they should be."
There's been something wrong for a while, Crichton noted, as skiers weren't at the level they should be by the time they reached the provincial team.
"When I had the B.C. team, we'd get athletes coming up to the team and we still had to do a lot of work on the basics. That's sort of always the case, but you shouldn't really have to do any rebuilding, more fine-tuning."
Crichton feels at the U12 level, clubs are more than able to provide effective race simulations or in-house races that will be just as effective for kids without the added costs of hotels, restaurant meals and race fees.
As well, Crichton recommends on race days, organizers offer four or six runs instead of the standard of two, and also give disqualified competitors or those who did not finish the previous run the opportunity to continue to race if possible.
Additionally, he hopes the report helps dispel myths about racing at the FIS level, stressing athletes don't need to compete in every discipline, sacrifice their education or dream about being a World Cup star for it to be reasonable to push on and compete at least until the end of high school. Admittedly, though, it's currently a difficult decision for those kids to make.
"We used to have a FIS team in every club just about and now we're basically down to regional teams and a provincial team so if you want to go onto FIS, you're basically going to have to move away to do it unless you're lucky enough to live in Whistler or where one of those regional teams is based," he said.
Whistler Mountain Ski Club executive director Mark Tilston said the club is facing many of the challenges outlined in the report and plans to implement many of the recommendations to get more quality time on snow in the coming season, including creating a six-race house league at all age levels.
"We're going to have six races just within the club. They don't go towards any points or any rankings," he said. "It's a race-simulation, race-training effect and then you have almost a full-day's training."
While Tilston agrees that less travelling would benefit many of the younger athletes, there are practical reasons WMSC will continue to attend many of the races throughout the province.
"A lot of smaller clubs use their races to help fund their programs, essentially," he said. "It's a difficult scenario, because if we didn't travel to the races, it would have a negative impact on those clubs and the health of the sport in the province and ultimately in the country."
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