Nordic Gold Can be Mined For Healthier Kids
The Base Of The Pyramid
Pyramids hold their timeless strength in their wide bases. The physics of these structures has allowed them to stand the tests of environment and time.
In terms of sport, there are many analogies and illustrations one can make with pyramids. The most profound analogy came to me from a wise Physical Education professor in a Foundations of PE class I took at Mankato State University.
Lois Musset was my advisor and professor there, and I learned an awful lot from her. In this lesson, Musset drew two pyramids on the chalkboard, one base-side down, and one inverted, wide side on top.
The base side down pyramid represented number of sport participant's opportunities to play at early ages (lots of younger kids at the bottom), and showed the number of participant's opportunities to play diminishing as they got older, forming the peak of the pyramid. (Fever and fewer kids at the top as they got older).
The second, inverted pyramid, with the peak at the bottom and base at the top, represented resources ( money, facilities, equipment) schools and communities devote to the kids as they got older.
The net represents the reality:
1.more resources are devoted to older participants.
2. participants numbers dwindle in numbers as they get older, magnifying this effect.
Of course, the reasons for this are complex. Kids get busy, gravitate towards other activities, or simply realize competitive sport is just not for them.
Competition is Good!
Please be assured: I love competition.
Competition is the natural order of the world. Competition, in it's fairest and purest forms, brings out the very best in people. This article is not about the downsides of competition, which I will leave to the countless skeptics and critics.
For the last 20 years, I have been a competitor in Nordic Skiing, Inline Skating, and Mountain Biking. Before that I was a competitive Powerlifter, and grew up playing soccer, baseball and competing in wrestling. Some of my greatest moments in life have been related to my competitive pursuits.
I watched, at least 20 times, the recent Gold Medal performance of Kikkan Randall and Jessie Diggins, at the recent Women's Sprint Relay in Nordic skiing at the Pyeongchang winter games. It was an amazing performance by two incredible young women. The competition was fierce, and Diggins final sprint was one of the most inspiring performances I have ever witnessed.
Aside from the obvious sacrifice and tenacity, Randall and Diggins are some of the most gracious and humble athletes I have ever watched. Their interviews are the epitome of joy and class.
Highly visible, these two athletes will undoubtedly inspire countless girls and women to try cross country skiing! (And boys and men!).
Children look up to successful people. Olympic athletes, especially world champs like Diggins and Randall, have and will continue to be idolized and serve as inspiration for our youth. As individuals, I cannot imagine two better role models than Kikkan Randall and Jessie Diggins.
They both have many admirable attributes that any young person would be wise to emulate.
Reality Check #2
We must be careful, though, and not lose sight of the realities facing our nation in terms of youth fitness and overall health.
Quick reminder: There is currently an epidemic of youth obesity and poor overall fitness, and there is an ensuing tsunami that will wash over our nation if we focus on the wrong populations and goals for them.
The danger here is that, in the hubris of recent gold, we focus on the wrong part of the pyramids. The quest for "gold" is enticing. It's natural for fans, coaches, and sports organizations leadership to leverage current success on the podium to even more success. Gold fever is contagious! Americans love a winner, and Olympic medals are a very real source of national pride.
CDC-Childhood Obesity Trends
99.9% Will Never Win a Gold
As described in the pyramids example above, our past indicates that we allocate more and more resources to smaller and smaller numbers of children as those children grow from grade schoolers to high schoolers. We are leaving people behind. And those people will be very unwell adults someday.
As the sporting stage becomes more and more competitive, unfortunately for today's youth, junior, and senior athletes, they cannot compete globally unless they have the resources to do so. This should continue to happen. My argument is that we cannot chase gold and in doing so turn our backs on everybody else.
If we are being honest, we will acknowledge that the vast majority of world class athletes were born with some very good genetics. Olympic athletes are very, very special people. Our two nordic champions are both great examples of that. Kikkan Randall ran a just over 6 minute mile in 6th grade. Jessie Diggins was defeating much older competitors in junior high. Not only are Kikkan and Jessie uniquely genetically gifted, their parents had those gifts as well, and set the family dynamic athletically for these two at a very young age. Nature and nurture.
Keep in mind that in order to express their genetics, Kikkan Randall and Jessie Diggins have devoted their lives to training. They are incredibly driven, and hard work, not just genetics, got them to the podium.
Reality check: 99.9% of the population were not born with the gifts to win on an international athletic stage. No matter how hard they train, they will not find success at the highest level. This is the population we need to focus on. For this population, "success" has absolutely nothing to do with how fast they go. It has everything to do with the fact that they are given the opportunity to "go" in the first place.
Opportunities and Exclusions
We need to allow ourselves to be counterintuitive, and put the bulk of our resources at the base of the pyramid, not the top.
Nordic skiing is the perfect activity to combat childhood obesity, as it builds balance, endurance, strength, coordination, and is very low impact. It is the ultimate lifetime sport.
Here in the Minneapolis St. Paul area, parents and volunteers do a tremendous job at getting kids skiing through the Minnesota Youth Ski League. Thousands of elementary aged kids are seen on the trails, having a blast on skis. MYSL is primarily recreational, as it should be.
In general, once out of grade school, the next opportunity for children to participate in nordic skiing is on the school race team. And that is where they are introduced to clocks, finishing times, lycra, and countless hours of training. All of which present both opportunity as well as exclusion.
At this crucial time in their physical, mental, and emotional development, children are being offered either this...or nothing, in terms of institutional and social support. For kids with talent, desire, and supportive families (not to mention considerable financial resources), the race team is a tremendous opportunity.
I acknowledge the ski programs which welcome all kids! The vast majority of coaches(who are not coaching for the money, by the way) pour a huge amount of energy into giving every kid a great experience on their team.
But for a kid with poor genetics, no desire to race, possible body image issues, and low economic resources, a school race team (as an only choice) is exclusionary. So too with the student with lots of other interests and commitments. The racing team is for them just too big a commitment.
Nordic skiing is too great a lifetime activity to exclude anyone!
The Needs Of The Base
What does this second group need?
1. An activity based program that focuses on the joy of skiing, not race times, awards, or varsity/junior varsity levels of division.
2. Access to equipment that is simple and works in a very broad range of conditions. This includes clothing.
3. Transportation to and from the local nordic centers.
4. Instructors who understand the relationship between exercise, nutrition, and rest, and are happy with leading a non-competitive program which incorporates these principles so as to create lifetime skiers.
Who Has The Resources?
America is a wealthy place!
While we are compassionate, caring, and giving, we have to acknowledge that we are capitalists. We are driven by money, which leads us to the question:
"Who can gain from allocating resources to the base?
The answer, of course, is all of us. We will all see the benefits of a healthier youth population. As a nordic skier, I and my fellow skiers will benefit by seeing the sport we love grow. But in terms of direct financial gain, that would include:
-The retail outdoor industry
-Outdoor equipment manufacturers
-Healthy nutrition manufacturers
-Health insurance entities
If these groups looked at allocating resources to the base, in terms of a wise investment, they would see the payoff in terms of:
-Greater sales in the short term
-Crossover activity from xc skiing to other activites
This puts these industries in the perfect financial position to allocate their resources to their own collective future.
All Kids Want To Go!
Creating a strong team of Olympians is an admirable and desirable goal. Recent Olympic Gold will undoubtedly inspire young people to give nordic skiing a try.
My hope is that we serve, with our human and capital resources, all types of children who are so inspired. A vast majority of these resources need to be directed in a healthy direction, which in my opinion, includes the masses.
All kids deserve the chance to be lifetime skiers, regardless of their genetic gifts, economic standing, or desire to go fast. I believe that all kids want to "go". Some just need a fun and non-competitive environment in which to do so.
Our country needs a strong base of fit, active people. Our children deserve the opportunity to be a block in that strong, timeless structure, the pyramid.
I propose that we capitalize on our recent success by allocating time and financial resources to first repairing, then rebuilding, our base. We cannot squander our efforts solely at the peak.