Tuesday, November 30, 2010

So what's the Point?

So whats the point? What good is it to hear that someone “improved his points” if you don’t get the point? So today I'm offering a tutorial on the US and international points ranking systems. I hope you'll find this interesting, since this is the fairest ranking system I've seen in any sport. BCS, look to your laurels…

When do points come into play? Youth Ski League racers (12 and under) race in their region, searching largely for individual medals. There are no “standings” per se, and even if there were, those standings would offer little benefit. However, once a racer reaches “Junior” status, (age 13) it’s all about standings and points. Medals mean little or nothing unless they’re earned at a major championship... rankings are what count. There are two very similar point systems, one for USSA (US athletes) and one for FIS (international). US athletes are only ranked in the USSA points list at age 13 and 14. From age 15 through adulthood, our athletes are rated on both lists.

Why are points important? Many races are over solicited, so the entries are accepted based upon points standings (lower points are better). Also, the start order is based upon points, with the lower point athletes starting sooner. Obviously, the sooner one starts, the better the course conditions, and the greater the likelihood of finishing well. But most importantly, points are like the SAT of skiing. Spots on the US Team and top NCAA teams are offered based upon points and world rankings.

How are points earned? Points are earned using an intricate formula; here's how it works: The five lowest pointholders out of the top ten entrants are totalled and added to the five lowest pointholders of the top ten finishers. The sum is divided by ten, then a specific factor is added. This yields what is called the point penalty for that particular race. Once the penalty for the race is computed, each finisher receives the penalty plus race points based upon his finish order, the length of the course, and how far behind he was. For instance, if the penalty for a race was 30 points and I won that race, I would leave with a point result of 30. Let’s say you finished in 9th place, 1.2 seconds behind me, you might get penalty points of 30 plus race points of 7 for a 37 point result. Our results are then entered in the USSA and FIS data bases and averaged with our previous best points finish for the type of event. So, if I earned a 30 today in slalom and my previous best slalom result was a 38, my new points profile for that event would become 34.

Why aren’t medals important? Because I could seek races with weak fields and win every race. So what? My points (and world rankings) would never improve. Instead, racers seek events where the competition is better than them. That way the point penalty is lower and if they ski well they can improve their own point profile. Every racer starts his career with 990 points as a profile for each event. Racers on the World Cup have points in the single digits. It’s a long road to the top, but it is eminently fair.

Scott's FIS points in all events are around 40. Last year as a J2 in FIS elite races he was frequently amongst the early starters. But to get better he has to face tougher fields. So now he's in races with single digit athletes at NORAM level races. Since they're at the front of the start order, they're on the smooth, perfectly prepared, course. Scott and his fellow aspirants are starting way back in the 70's and 80's. So not only are they facing very fast athletes, but they are suffering a handicap from the course conditions. But it's all fair. I'll take this over the French ice skating judge any old day!

Monday, November 29, 2010

The Ladder

Sometimes it might sound as though Scott has made steady, uninterrupted, progress up the ladder of ski racing success. He has done well and is on a great trajectory, but the rungs on this ladder are getting further and further apart. Sometimes one has to leap for the next rung, get a fingerhold, and pull up. Sometimes one loses his grip. Scott has lost his grip three days in a row -- let me explain.

He's been training hard for weeks and feels ready for a breakthrough. In training he's running even with and often beating athletes with half his FIS point rank. He's primed for success. One problem though, this sport gets tougher at each interval and the only way to reach the top is to claw through seemingly unfair odds. When Scott runs even with the 20 point racers, they're all on roughly the same snow. Their first run is on smooth snow, and as the day wears on and ruts form, they all face the same ruts.

In races like the ones Scott's been in this week, the field is mighty "deep." The World Cup and Europa Cup guys, already infinately better than Scott, get to start in the top 30, on a relatively smooth course. The 20 point guys he trains with get to start in the 40's and 50's, and Scott is starting anywhere from position 70 to 90. But it's fair... every one of those guys ahead of him faced the same challenge and battled through. That's the ladder Scott now faces. He's handling it well mentally and just needs to keep grinding it out. I'm sure he will.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

First Blood

The North American Cup (NORAM) season began this week at Loveland Basin and Aspen, CO. The NORAM, or Continental Cup, circuit is most easily defined by comparison with AA baseball. These are the top athletes in North America who have not yet been called up to AAA (Europa Cup) or “The Bigs” (World Cup). The competitors are aged 15 (rarely) through adult, with competitors from all over the world, which sometimes includes a smattering of Europa and World Cup athletes.

The early season races in Colorado are a tough game. When the World Cup moves to North America, many of the international racers use NORAMS as “tune-ups” for the upcoming races at Beaver Creek. Such was the case this year, with World and Europa Cup athletes from Austria, Sweden, Canada, Switzerland, Norway, Germany, Finland, Korea, France, Slovenia, Netherlands, Japan, Argentina and Belgium jamming the field, along with the entire US Team. Add seven of the top Div I NCAA teams to the mix and it was hard to even qualify for a spot on the start list.

The slalom track at Loveland is a varied and steep pitch with many off camber areas and plenty of “micro terrain.” The surface this year was injected a few weeks ago, although several inches of snow fell and were groomed over during the past two weeks leaving a varied surface with some chop and ruts for the later racers.

Scott had a good day. He started 85th and blew out of the course half-way down, but he had a good day. How can that be you ask? Because victories are few and far between in ski racing so one must celebrate the bright spots whenever they appear. Scott absolutely ripped the top of the course, including two tricky combination gates, however, he hit a pot hole created by the other 84 competitors and was spit out of the course. So the bright spot is that his head was in a good place at the start (and after the mishap) and he knows he can rip. That's good enough to bring him back full-steam tomorrow for the next race. Sort of like hitting a great drive on the 18th hole after playing a miserable round of golf!

Oh, by the way, only 42 of 102 racers finished the race. Wait a minute, these are the best in the world and in the USA... how could that be! Because at this level everyone rips and there's no room for temerity. Go all out and see where the chips fall.

Hopefully I'll have a great report for tomorrow.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Skiing Homework

There's a reason most great downhillers are old, or at least experienced. World Cup downhill courses are surveyed and set exactly the same year after year. Experience pays a huge dividend as the competitors seek the perfect line. These two minute races are normally decided by hundredths of a second. We're trying to catalogue and retain all of Scott's downhill experience as he gains it.

Ever since Scott was little I'd have him run his favorite races through his head and visualize himself in action. It was a useful tool to help him develop the mental skills needed for race preparation, while also increasing his "familiarity" with the regional venues. As time went on, he learned to "rerun" certain frames until he got the turn or move perfectly. Then we progressed to him rehearsing the race against a stop watch to see how close his visual run was to an actual race he'd already completed. Mental training and preparation are essential to success in any sport.

Two years ago we started watching World Cup footage of downhills Scott would someday race. This was helpful his first time down the tracks at Alyeska, AK and Lake Louise, AB, but a video doesn't tell the whole story. So, starting with the Lake Louise World Cup track last year, we began the process of "charting" downhill courses on paper. Scott has a ten page (taped together end-to-end) chart of Lake Louise with footnotes of everything he learned last year. Our plan is to update it and add detail every year he races there. Likewise, he may be forerunning the Birds of Prey World Cup Dec 3rd, so we have just prepared a full length chart of that course, with all of the key jumps and turns labelled. Although Scott ran the bottom 2/3 of the course numerous times in 2007 during the National Development Speed Camp, we aren't going to add any of his notes until he's done a full course inspection this year.

So last night we watched Darren Rahlves' analysis of Birds of Prey on video as step one for next week. We also watched the entire "Thin Line" video to create the mood. I've dusted off our Lake Louise notes for Scott to study on the airplane to Canada immediately after the Birds of Prey. Hopefully my anal tendencies and Scott's focused preparation will pay dividends against the clock.

It never ends...

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Chillin' in Dillon

Break time!!! Scott's final pre-season training block came to an end on Saturday and he's been enjoying the time off. As a bonus, his girlfriend is in town. She's also a top racer, although not yet on the Team, and is out here for a National Development Camp. They've been able to visit a couple of hours a day -- real romantic stuff like tuning skis and doing homework. Her camp finished today, so they're ice skating this afternoon before she heads to Aspen tomorrow.
There are many aspects of a national athlete's life which aren't self-evident. At age 17 Scott lives on the road, sharing rooms with people he really doesn't know, working all day either on snow, in the gym or in the tuning room. Not alot of the normal stuff a High School senior might experience. Scott's further complicated the mix by having a girlfriend from Nevada who travels similarly, but on a different circuit. They won't cross paths again this season until April. It's an interesting life.

The past three weeks have had their good and bad sides in many respects. On the positive side, Scott is skiing the injected surfaces with confidence and strength. He's also right in there with athletes two or more years ahead of him. His health is good, and he's excited about the coming season. His strength is excellent. In addition to hours on the snow each day and some fairly light-weight dryland training with the team in the afternoons, he's been stealing off to the gym at night with a few of the more hard core guys and getting in some extra lifting. He's trying to adhere to our regimen of last year, which was designed for him to continue getting stronger through the competitive season.

On the negative side, I see some regimentation in his skiing, for want of a better word. He's skiing well, but an element of freedom is missing... the freedom that takes it down the hill hard. In the tech events I attribute this to the focus on "carving from the top" which has thrown his timing off a bit. He needs to get back to running the longer line, as we patterned during the first week out here before the Team arrived. If he can just add that back in, he'll be scary fast. He's been working hard in speed and is a natural at those events. However, he's so fucused on the carve that he's too precise to go fast. Now this may be the by product of any number of things such as soft snow conditions at Copper Mountain, working on new stuff, or whatever. But he needs to loosen up a little and let them run. Tonight we're going to watch some of his ski video, followed by the classic downhill documentary "The Thin Line" to get him into the mood for speed!
This "rest" break isn't all relaxation. We've been spending a couple of hours in the weight room every day, plus we've been getting all of his skis super prepped for the next two weeks of racing. Scott's also been doing schoolwork each day. We're looking forward to Joy and Bonnie getting here for the long weekend. Unfortunately, they already had minor car trouble and are now travelling in a winter storm watch. Hopefully they can push through today.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Level 300 and the Moving Target

For those of you who think I live a blissfull life in the world of pure athletics... think again. Yeah, there are some great times. Being around high level competition is always exciting. But like everything else, we have our bureaucracies, one of which is coaches education.

Now don't get me wrong, despite the inconvenient schedules, expense and dogma of "continuing education" I've learned alot from the clinics and courses offered by USSA (the governing body for US Ski Racing). My problem rests with the management of the programs and the constant change. When I first Joined USSA as a coach in 1998, one could get certified as a Club, State, Regional or National Coach. OK, catchy names, geographically oriented, easy to understand. But wait, a couple of years later they changed it to Level I, Level II and Level III, with advancement through a series of clinics. So I dutifully completed Level I and attended the Level II Slalom and Giant Slalom Clinics, but there were no Speed Clinics to be had. Life superceded education and I dropped out of the process.

When Scott was 12 I offered to enroll him with a traditional Junior program for his teen years. He said he wanted me to remain his coach until he either made the US Ski Team or quit racing. Uh-oh! FIS and National level racing looked pretty complex from the outside so I decided to reenter the education pipeline. Unfortunately, it had changed again and now had three levels labelled 100, 200 and 300 -- how clever. The path was also more complex. For Level 200 one had to attend three different clinics, take two sports science courses from those available, take two management courses from a college, have a first aid ticket (no problem) and be a referee (also already done). Since I knew I was going to be going for Level 300 as well, I took all of the sport science courses. They were pretty good and included Strength and Power Training, Sports Psychology and Nutrician. The management courses were pablum about running a generic sports organization and fund raising -- sort of anticlimatic after 28 years in the Army and 12 years running a ski team. Then of course, there were the clinics; Training Environment, Tactics, Course Setting, Slalom, Giant Slalom, Speed. The challenge -- snow is required to have clinics, but most of us are working as coaches when there's snow on the ground. Scheduling was tough, and just when I'd get the clinic I wanted it was cancelled due to under-enrollment. Long story short, I finally completed my final on-snow clinic this week.

Not so fast! Sure, I've taken everything USSA has to offer, received my Level II Referee card, updated my first aid, undergone another background check and finished all the clinics... but at the end of our clinic this week the instructor mentioned they weren't quite sure how they were going to handle Level 300 after all. They still hadn't defined the management requirement and they might create a comprehensive final exam covering everything plus a practical application test (which has already occurred at each of the clinics). I promptly sent them a complete resume of my military management experience, 10 years a a Ski Patrol Director, 6 years as Chairman of the National Avalanche Board and 12 years running race teams, plus my MBA. I'm hoping to9 hear soon what remains to be done. Far from being a badge hunter, I'm just interested in getting this off my plate.

OK, so much for venting. I just wanted you all to understand why the guy in the photo has only a few hairs left and they're all grey. Aside from management challenges everything is going well and Scott is happy to be on the team. His gear is running well and he is getting faster by the day. He's not perfect, but he knows what to fix. That's progress. Perhaps tomorrow I'll provide a more upbeat look at life on the road.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Golden Peak, Vail

This has been a big week for Scott in many ways. This is his first time housed with the entire team (including Olympians) as a member of the team. He's rubbing elbows with the big guys, many of which he knew before. He's enjoying that aspect, plus the grade "A" accomodations. Scott's sharing a swank one bedroom condo with hard wood finishes, flat screen TV, etc, etc. It's 100' to the wax room and the dining room where he grazes through a buffet line twice daily -- Scott heaven!

The training hill is directly across the street. It's a fine hill where one can set 1 minute Super G courses and full-on Giant Slalom. The slope starts mellow (24 degrees) for about 8 GS gates, then roles to about 38 degrees for 8-10 more gates. After that there's a "shelf" which is about 22 degrees and 10 gates long followed by a sustained pitch of 30-32 degrees for perhaps 15-20 gates. The slope is triple injected, providing a firm training surface similar to what Scott will encounter on the NORAM circuit. To give you an example, 30 guys did four runs of Super G the other day and there was nary a rut.

Scott's had either Giant Slalom or Slalom training every day since the 6th. Additionally, he's had 3 speed sessions at either Copper Mountain or Vail. I must admit, he's getting his money's worth from the standpoint of training environment alone. There's no way I could have put him on slopes and snow like this, day after day. And the two of us alone would be hard pressed to put up long courses like this, train, and tear them down. I'm already seeing the benefit of the environment and the volume of training in his performance.

Each day I sit a hundred feet from the finish, watching all of Scott's training through binoculars. Being old baseball guys, we know how to communicate from a distance -- Coach Givens would be proud. We also get to watch video together and talk each day. I'm really excited about how he's doing. He knifes the ice like a pro and his strength allows him to do some things others cannot. There are still lingering issues he's working on, such as a "lazy" right hand in slalom that likes to drop each turn and the need to run the deep line. And he still has the occassional problem with timing his turns due to the speed plus the purchase the skis make into the ice. However, even with the occassional major error, his times are right in there and he's not that far off the big guys.

Hopefully tomorrow we'll get a real good indicator. Unbeknownst to me, an official FIS race was scheduled for the US Team members and selected invitees. It's sort of like the NDS race Scott did last season in Park City to help prep the Olympians -- except this time he's infinately more prepared. Unfortunately, they're now calling for 6-12" of snow overnight, which would put the race at risk. Hope they can pull it off!

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Coming Out

Vail welcomed the US Ski Team last night, hosting the official announcement of the 2010-2011 athletes at Arrabelle Square. Easily 1000 folks filled the cramped confines. The event was shown on Universal Sports TV and streamed live over the internet. After the ceremony the Olympians stayed at a table on stage to give autographs and the other athletes were released into the square. Scott got a
good dose of autograph hunters and middle age
ladies looking for hugs.
He's still being harrassed about the later.

After the crowd thinned, our good friends the Johns and I took Scott to dinner at Pepi Granshammer's Gasthof for schnitzel, one of his favorites. It was fitting to eat in the restaurant of a former Olympian and one of the original World Cup Racers.

This morning they hit the snow early, with slalom training at 7AM. This was Scott's first day back on injected snow and he skied well. There were some hiccups, but all in all he's right in there.

Injected snow isn't something the average skier encounters. The crews take a 4" pipe the width of the slope that has mini nozzles every 6" or so. They hook a snowmaker hose to the pipes and inject water directly into the snow surface to saturate. Then the water is turned off, and the pipe is moved 6" downhill -- repeat. It's a tedious and miserable process which is normally done at night, but it yields a rock hard surface for ski racing. The original reason for developing this procedure was to ensure a nearly identical surface for late numbered racers. To level the playing field, so to speak. However, if the big races are conducted on this surface, then the athletes must train on it as well. Interestingly, once an athlete learns to effectively carve on this surface, it becomes his/her favorite since it's predicable and holds edges well.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Spring Training in November?

We just completed a great week of training at Copper Mountain with our Canadian friends, Michel Pratte and Matt Kerr. Although daytime temps reached a sunny 28 degrees each day, the snow at 12,000 feet was hard and consistent. We trained three days of Giant Slalom and one day of Slalom, with double sessions each day.

Scott's frustration and hard work during the summer paid off in one respect; he is definately developing pressure at the top of the turn and carving to the apex. However, the method they had him using was squaring him too much to the skis, putting his hips in the wrong position, and resulting in a boxy look and a slow line. Scott worked on opening his hips more this week and taking a deeper line which, when combined with the early pressure, generated some real speed. He trained against an older racer with far better GS FIS points (21) and beat him 13 of 13 timed runs by significant margins. Of course, training results aren't conclusive, but this was our first barometer of his progress this year. Scott is definately excited.

Scott also spent 2-3 hours in the gym every day and is looking and feeling really strong. His general health remains my only concern so we've been careful about diet, sleep and warmth. Hopefully his lungs will continue to heal from the pneumonia last year.

I just dropped him off with the US Team at Vail for two weeks of training. They're staying at Manor Vail, just steps from the training venue in some really swank condos. Scott's rooming with Keith Moffet, a top rising prospect who's recovering from a serious injury last year. They've met a number of times and get along very well. Tomorrow is a warm up day as the rest of the guys have been off snow since Chile. Then they kick into full swing, wiith early morning speed training at Copper Mountain followed by technical (GS/SL) training at Vail. I'll be on the periphery watching with my mouth shut.

We're rapidly closing in on the first races of the year and with each passing day the excitment becomes more palpable. Can't wait!