I just finished reading David Epstein’s “the Sports Gene,” which is a fabulous narrative on a man’s search for the underlying answer to the great nature vs. nurture debate. Epstein scours the globe, literally, as well as its experts, finding root causes for why Jamaica churns out Olympic sprinter after Olympic sprinter and no one can beat the Kenyans at distance running. At the end of the day, while there are some who lean more towards nature having the primary role in determining athletic performance and others who lean the opposite, the wisest approach is probably believing in a healthy mix of both. Reading the book as a nordic ski coach had me wondering a couple of questions:
- Why do some countries excel at the sport (is it nature vs. nuture?)
- What physiological and psychological characteristics would make the ‘ideal’ nordic skier?
I want to address both questions together, as I think they are interrelated. Instead of trying to organize this into two neat posts, one for each topic, I’m going to just ramble on until I think I’ve given everyone enough to chew on…and then pick up where we left off on the next post. That sounds publishable, right? I want to also give a review on my thoughts on the actual text itself, but I’m really excited about brainstorming on the above two questions, so, even though we probably should start with Epstein’s life work, I think I’d rather just naively make bold predictions and postulations…..here we go.
Ever gotten into a debate with someone about why the USA struggles, comparatively, to Europe in soccer? If you have, it is likely that you have said something along the lines of, “If Lebron James and Adrian Peterson played soccer, the USA would be the best. Our best athletes gravitate towards basketball, football, and baseball because that is where the money is.”
Is that true?
In terms of a combination of size, strength, explosion, balance, and coordination, Lebron James might be the greatest athletic specimen in human history. Courtside tickets to see players like Kevin Durant, Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid, Spud Webb would convince most people that the humans in the NBA are on a different level when it comes to athleticism. No, they obviously can’t run a 10k in under 30 minutes, but that is about the only thing they can’t do. Athletes in the NFL are very similar – though I would say what they are missing from NBA players is not only sheer size (NBA players are actually BIGGER than NFL players), but also coordination (which again, should be more difficult to hone in on the larger that you are). NFL players make up for that with increased strength and explosion, though, if you don’t think Lebron James would have been 2x better than Gronkowski, you are nuts. Gronk is 6’5, rangy, speedy for his position, etc. How about a 6’8 guy with a 49 inch vertical jump off of one leg who also weighs 268 pounds? Belicheat I mean Belicheck is already salivating.
So, in answer to that debate question, I would say definitively “yes,” that the USA probably would be the most dominant soccer team if all of our best athletes went into that sport. That got me thinking: what sport are all the “best nordic skiers” playing in the USA that they aren’t in Norway, Sweden, Russia, and Italy? Is there a mixture of physiological variables present in a group of athletes that, if they were raised on skinny skis, would elevate the USA to the top of the world? And, should we be trying to train our current crop of skiers in a way that transforms their bodies to be like that group? I think there could be: the decathlon.
Skiing: you have to be explosive and powerful and very strong throughout the whole body. You have to have good flexibility, balance, and range of motion. You need to have a good mix of type I and Type II and type IIa muscle fibers. Today’s sport probably puts a premium on the fast-twitch muscle fibers, however, and general upper body power. You also have to be the type of person who is willing to dedicate large quantities of time and energy to training for your sport, and be willing to hone in on meticulous technique details – many of which have a wide variance. While there are short skiers, generally speaking, being on the taller side of average, with rangy, long, powerful limbs, is advantageous is a skier.
Enter the decathlete. Here is an athlete who is explosive enough to long jump 26 feet, with the single leg balance and explosion to also triple jump over 50 feet. They have the top end speed to run a 10.3 100 meter dash, the range of motion to be world class at the 110 meter hurdles, the javelin, and the shot put, and the endurance to run, in some cases, 2:25 for 1000 meters (that is fast!) and under 4:00 for the 1500 meters (though, to be fair, many will run “only” 4:45-5:00). They also have the coordination and core control to pole vault over 17 feet, and the dedication to perfect all of these extremely different skills on a daily basis, training for the entirety of most days during their seasons and off-seasons. Not only are they the right physical specimens to excel at nordic skiing, they carry the mental traits that would transfer to the sport as well.
So, which is it? Are the best nordic skiers becoming decathletes in the USA? Or are the best decathletes going to become skiers before they discover their potential? Maybe more importantly, are the best, say, Norwegian decathletes being sucked up by the nordic ski train before they develop on the track? Or is it the other way around?
When we look at the data, it would seem to suggest that in the USA, our best decathletes are doing decathlon. At the last 6 Olympics, we have won the event. In fact, the USATF championships is probably more competitive than the Olympics in the decathlon. I think our US nordic ski team is made up of some incredible athletes, no doubt. They possess a rare combination of endurance, power, grace, balance, and technique. However, if we just look at physiological traits, do they compare to an Ashton Eaton? I would have to say, absolutely not. Now, if you took Ashton Eaton and put him on nordic skis, I think it might be disastrous! But, what if Ashton had been raised on skis AND developed athletically the way he has? I think we would have our answer to Bulshonov and Klaebo… he might even be the Lebron James of nordic skiing..
Editor’s note: this post was saved as a draft for a long time….I think it might stir up some interesting conversation, so I’m just going to post it as is…