Preview of the 2017 Cross Country NNF/U.S. Ski Team National U16 Camp, Sun Valley, July 23-30

Athletes on the new rollerski sprint training loop at Community School’s Dumke Family Sagewillow Campus. Photo by Paul Smith.

Although the U16 camp is held in a different region and location each year, the focus remains the same. Athletes are here to train hard, walk away with some new sport knowledge and build community; ultimately becoming better athletes in every way. This year’s camp takes place in Sun Valley over the course of seven days, with athletes training at Community School’s Dumke Family Sagewillow Campus, Lake Creek Hut and around the Wood River Valley. Athletes will be staying at the Community School Residence Hall.


The group

The top 50 male and female U16 athletes from across the country are invited to the camp, based on performance at Junior Nationals. Each region is afforded a few discretionary picks, as well.
Rick Kapala, SVSEF cross country program director and U16 camp director: It’s by design this big, unwieldy beast of a camp – we want to capture as many as possible in this talented group of young athletes, and get them to identify with the sport in a really positive way. What we know about younger ages is you can’t really pick winners and losers. You can only really identify a group. So this group is big, because we want to throw as big a net around as big a group as possible. As they move up through the U.S. Ski Team training camp food chain, if you will, the groups that are selected as they get older become inherently smaller. This U16 camp is the first step for many of the kids in the U.S. Ski Team Development Pipeline; that’s why we have 20-25 boys and 20-25 girls from across the country at this camp.

The coaches

RK: I’ve been doing it every year (myself and three other people started the camp and the other three are gone), but there’s another couple coaches who have been, by and large, helping on and off over several years. So it’s a nice mix of people who have been at the camp and know how it flows with some other people. Every year we have eight to ten coaches who come and help with the camp; we have coaches from NCAA institutions, we have top club coaches – and this builds better relationships and fosters more cooperative relationships among them. It’s a little bit less of, “we need to beat them” and a little bit more of, “how can we work together to push the sport forward?” We also oftentimes have a few younger coaches at the camp, and it’s a great coaches educational tool.

The speakers

RK: All of the athletes on national team are so hyper-focused for the Olympic Games that’s it’s really hard for them to put in any extra time for travel, and they have a really big camp coming up in New Zealand in a little bit; we didn’t really want to push that. We have our own Gold Team here and so they’re going to do a panel. The Gold Team that we have is great because we have national champions, NCAA champions, U23 world championship team members and people who have been top 10 at U23s. You get a variety, and just like we have a wide range of kids here who are all different personality types, our Gold Team is a wide range.

The goals

1. Build community

RK: We’re trying to identify talent, and we’re trying to get them to connect to the sport by creating a culture around the U.S. Ski Team Development Pipeline that really fosters the positive messages associated with sport. We have to recognize that many of these talented athletes at this age are also engaged in other sports. So a big part of this is to build community among this group of athletes and get them to identify with the sport so that, as they continue to evolve and grow in it, they ultimately pick cross country. Aerobic talent is aerobic talent, so it’s not surprising that some of our best kids are really good at running, or really good at biking or swimming. And they’re being courted by those other sports as well, so we have to be aware of that.

2. Impart ski knowledge

RK: Every evening is an opportunity for us to give the athletes very very detailed, and hopefully insightful, sport knowledge. We recognize that no camp in and of itself is going to be an adequate substitute for training at home really effectively. You have to be able to utilize your club at home and take the motivation and information that you get from a camp like this, which often is being reinforced by the coach at home. Its not a strategy of the U.S. Ski Team to have the Development Pipeline be a replacement for home programs; we are just simply a support system for those programs. We’re reinforcing messaging, which is really key in a way that is hopefully transformational – that encourages change in behaviors. Because you can message people all day long, but without a consequent change for the better, you’re talking in the breeze.
One of the biggest things that we message regarding sport education is having a flexible, adaptive mindset. When athletes come to something like this, they’re going to see some differences, because they’re shoulder to shoulder with all these other really good kids who they may not really know that well. Being at this camp demystifies the approach that the other kid may be using, but they also may be getting some really poignant, powerful lessons like, “well, that kid isn’t cutting the workout short.” Or, “this kid is actually paying attention when a coach is talking about form.” It’s that sort of learning that occurs organically in this kind of really heightened opportunity.
Not every moment is this opportunity for creative insight. Artists don’t work that way, and neither do people whose work requires a lot of psychological engagement partnered with skill application – not every day is focused or the best day. So one of the things about a camp like this, is it really sort of elevates your psychological readiness and your physical readiness to take a jump forward. And that’s what we hope happens.

3. Challenge athletes to train hard

RK: These kids are starting, through their successes in skiing, to identify themselves as potentially unique athletes that have the set of capacities that will allow them to grow and excel in the sport. A training plan for the week looks like double days every day, except the day we run the Harper’s hill climb time trial, and then they get an afternoon off. So they’ll have five days of double days and two days of single days. What’s really cool about doing the camp in a place like here, surrounded by these beautiful mountains, is we’ll do a long peak-to-peak over distance the final day of the camp. For a lot of kids, they may not have spent any real time in the mountains yet, so that’s a good introduction for them.

The aftermath

RK: We do a lot of tracking with kids in the camp. We see a lot of kids who are in the middle of the selection process elevate, which makes the competitive standard in the country better. This is an important thing to understand – when the camp is big, one of the ways we push skiing ahead is not just by trying to make the faster kids faster, but by trying to make the middle kids faster, because it holds the faster kids to a higher standard. So we’re trying to elevate the whole group, and that’s what we see happening. We see kids in the camp improve during the week, but we’re also seeing that the standard at JNs, which is the primary way we have to assess these athletes, is tightening, is getting better. It’s getting harder to bust into the top 10 now than it was 10 years ago. Is that just because of this camp? Certainly not. There are more coaches doing a better job and who are better engaged, but it’s one of the pieces of the puzzle that’s so important. And for most of the kids, the first really big international opportunity is the Scandinavian series, where the U.S. sends its six best boys and girls to some place in Scandinavia; the oldest kids in this group will become eligible for that trip this coming winter. We’re seeing that the lion’s share of kids who go are coming through this camp. And that’s not surprising, because we’re taking the top kids – but we’re also seeing improvement of performance at the Scandinavian series every year, incrementally. And again, it’s all this collective effort on the part of the home coaches and the part of camps like this, and reinforcing the same messages. We’re just trying to create this landscape where there are many opportunities for kids to engage with the sport, challenge themselves, learn and progress.
Athletes arrived last night; training begins today and continues through Sunday, July 30.