If there’s one thing Americans love, it’s a good underdog story. Real-life examples of improbable success stories like the 1980 Miracle on Ice or Tom Brady’s famously shaky start to his record-breaking NFL career, to famous legends from the silver screen like Rocky and The Karate Kid have captured the imaginations of generations of aspiring athletes around the world that they too can make it big someday.
For us ski racers, we have our own underdog stories fueling the hopes and dreams of countless racers hoping to someday make it to the sport’s biggest stages. Double Olympic gold medalist Ted Ligety’s parents being told their son wasn’t good enough for the Park City Ski Team as a child, Lindsey Vonn going from being far from the fastest kid at tiny Buck Hill in Minnesota to becoming the Queen of Speed. Then there’s the story of how Austrian legend Hermann Maier was working as a bricklayer and ski instructor before making his World Cup breakthrough. All have been cited countless times as testaments to the underdog legend.
In today’s world of sports-science and data-driven training, what exactly is a “late bloomer” and are these famous underdog stories of the ski racing world really underdog stories at all?
Finn Gunderson knows a thing or two about developing young athletic talent in the ski racing world and across the entire youth sports spectrum. A mainstay at Vermont’s famous Burke Mountain Academy for 25 years, Gunderson also served as the Sport Education Director as U.S. Ski & Snowboard from 2003-09. Gunderson is currently the Director of Sports Education at High Performance Sports, a Pennsylvania-based sports-development firm affiliated with the Philadelphia Union of Major League Soccer.
“After all these years of talent identification and thinking we could identify the future superstars, what the research is saying now is that up to about 12 to 14-years-old, it’s a roll of the dice,” Gunderson says. “You just cannot identify great talent at that age.”
In other words, although the Ligety and Vonn stories of untalented ankle-biter to Olympic gold medalist might make for great TV, it’s not the story of what most professionals would necessarily consider as that of a “late bloomer.” In fact, according to Gunderson, athletes like the 10-year-old Ligety or Vonn actually become top talents far more often than many people might think.
The concept of relative age effect, or RAE, in youth sports is nothing new. RAE is a term used in the sports-science world to describe the discrepancies in participation and success in youth athletics towards those born early in a relevant selection period such as a birth year, an age group in sports, or a grade in school. On average, athletes born earlier in a selection period become physically developed faster than their peers born later on.
A 2017 study by the Norwegian University of Science and Technology and Nord University looked at RAE in the ranks of the alpine World Cup and drew some intriguing conclusions when it comes to cases of elite skiing athletes who physically develop slower than the rest of their peers.
The study tracked the birth dates of the top-50 ranked skiers in the world and their World Cup points over a period of 20 years. According to their findings, RAE can be observed in the junior ranks but disappears and even reverses on the men’s side on the World Cup. Male skiers born in the later months of the year collected, on average, more World Cup points than their earlier born counterparts. Interestingly, no such effect was observed on the women’s side.
“The beauty of skiing is that technique and tactics can make the difference,” Gunderson says. “You can come in as a 14-year-old at under 100 pounds and still go to the Olympics. The key is that coaches and clubs, regardless of the size of the kid, that they look at more their skill level, coordination, and determination to work hard.”
In short, small kids have to fight their way to the top. The skills learned in order to succeed as an undersized youth are the same skills that time and again prove handy once the physical playing field has been leveled as athletes enter adulthood in their late teens and early twenties.
How do we relay this message to young athletes and their parents? According to Gunderson, it all comes down to clear communication between the coaches at these young age groups, their athletes, and — perhaps most importantly — their parents.
“When clubs have their pre-season meetings where you gather all the families together, you really need a knowledgeable coach who can get up there with research and say, ‘Hey, look, let’s give these kids an equal opportunity even though they might be a little behind physically, technically, or tactically,’” says Gunderson. “You can find traits that they do well or sections of the course where they nail and always give them hope.”
But what about the Hermann Maiers of the world? Although a talented but scrawny skier in his teenage years, Maier managed to put in the effort necessary to become one of the sport’s greatest champions, despite not making his World Cup debut until he was 23-years-old. An American example of this type of athlete would be someone like David Chodounsky. Chodounsky was always near the top of the junior rankings but never quite made the U.S. Ski Team cut in his junior years before going on to become a top-seeded slalom skier on the World Cup following a successful NCAA career at Dartmouth College.
These types of athletes are more like the Tom Brady and Rocky Balboa breed of late bloomer immortalized on TV and in movies. Athletes like Maier and Chodounsky managed to overcome early physical, technical, or tactical setbacks and still find success at the top level of the sport at ages not typically seen in ski racing. For athletes cut from this cloth, mental skills become the real driving force behind their success later on in their careers.
“Once you get to the upper levels of any sport, pretty much all the physical skills, within reason, are developed and those mental skills become more and more important,” Gunderson explains. “Your ability to compete, your ability to train, and how much you are willing to sacrifice and work hard really come into play.”
Gunderson points out that in more recent years, much of the focus in the talent-identification world has been centered on determining what an athlete’s mental skills are as opposed to testing for pure physical prowess. In fact, many of the world’s best soccer clubs now subject potential talents to various cognitive tests before admitting athletes to their youth academies. An athlete’s psycho-social skills like emotional maturity and resilience can in some cases be the determining factor for their true potential when looked at in conjunction with their athletic skills in their chosen sport.
“Just measuring physical skills, like whether a kid can run fast, doesn’t really mean much outside of the 100-meter dash,” Gunderson adds.
The good news for ski racers? The already tough nature of the sport lends itself well to developing these ever-important mental skills. It’s no secret that ski racing is a sport of hard knocks, both physically and mentally. If a young racer can keep their head on straight when things get rough, there’s no telling how far they might take their career.
“Skiing is a damn hard sport, at least at a soccer game half the kids go home happy,” laughs Gunderson. “It’s hard to say at a ski race how many people at the end of the day are satisfied. It’s hard to convince a kid who started number 80 and finished number 40 that that’s a great result, which it is in many ways, but the kid might say, ‘No way, I was eight seconds out!’ It’s a cruel sport and it comes down to who has the drive, the discipline, and who is willing to put the extra work in. That will absolutely make the difference.”