What do the experts say? Integrating Canada’s high performance sport and education.

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As we continue to examine ways to build the “Gold Medal Pathway” for athletes in Canada, the question has been raised about working with the Canadian Inter-university system (CIS) and sport schools or academies. Two studies have been undertaken fairly recently in Canada, examining how our education system works with High Performance Sport.

The broader review was undertaken by Own the Podium (OTP) at the request of the Minister of State for Sport (at the time) Gary Lunn. A panel made up of sport experts and organizations including OTP, Canadian Inter-University Sport (CIS), select National Sport Organizations and Sport Canada examined the relationship between the CIS and Canada’s High Performance System.

The study acknowledged the gap that now exists between Canada and our prime competitors in international sport: “what was once a pre-eminent example of a successful marriage of education and sport has stalled. Both the Canadian High Performance Sport System and Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS) have failed to keep pace with improvements in other nations’ athlete development system.[1]

And some of the recommendations developed by the Panel included:

  • Creation of a clear athlete development pathway through CIS to National Teams
  • Establishing training & development sport academies to work with the school system and act as a feeder system
  • Full commitment of the NSO is essential to build a successful program pathway through academies and CIS

In the meantime, as we saw repeatedly during the Pan-Am Games, many Canadian athletes reside within the NCAA world. Our international success in many sports remains tied to an external organization.

Prior to the CIS Review, the OTP winter sports group undertook a review of international sport academies which focus on high school years, visiting Stams, Austria, Engelberg, Switzerland and Berchtesgaden Germany and gathering information from the US and Canada. Here are several of the conclusions of the study[2]:

Germany, Austria and Switzerland have aggressively promoted the importance of developing sport academies to maximize the development of athletes. It is quite evident that athletes attending these sport academies have been and will continue to be better prepared for success at the international level than their Canadian counterparts. Additionally, a striking difference between the Canadian and European model is the effective integration between all key partners: NSO, PSO, school, integrated support team (strength & conditioning, physio, medical, sport psych, nutrition, etc.) and facility operator.

The Canadian sport system must assess our financial investment into sport and determine whether or not a greater amount should/could be allocated to global or multisport projects such as sport academies.

Regardless of our investment into Winter Gravity Snowsports (alpine, freestyle, snowboard), it is unlikely Canada will increase the number of Olympic medals won on a consistent basis, without significant investments into the development of well-integrated junior development programs

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So who pays? Funding the Sport and Education Pathway

We’re all acutely aware of the financial challenges currently facing our sport in Canada. Calling for a national discussion about a sport and education pathway is not a call for funding. Our sport leadership is not in a position to take on additional financial responsibilities at this time. The objective is to stimulate discussion and action, to bring together experts and keenly interested leaders. To plan, share information and build a plan costs nothing. Any plan can only be built with available resources.

So the call for a discussion is to explore ways Canadian ski racing could better coordinate the very significant investment made by US and Quebec Universities into Canadian athletes on their varsity teams alongside the additional investment made by each athlete and in most cases, their family. The investment is already in-place. From schools and the athletes. Support varies widely, but don’t underestimate value of an NCAA athletic scholarship or the contribution already made by each individual athlete. This investment gives recruited athletes a program that allows them to maintain – and with support – continue to improve.

The recently released ACA Strategic Plan projects: “(We have) created educational pathways and partnerships to enable those athletes who want to train and study to remain in the sport.” So if Canadian ski racing is serious about building an inclusive world-leading athlete pathway, then it follows that an action plan is not only necessary but given the numbers of Canadian elite athletes now choosing this path, a priority.

The scope of the NCAA/Quebec Universities investment is staggering when we consider the number of Canadians that benefit. One hundred percent of it comes from schools and the athletes. So it’s not funding that is needed. It’s connectivity: knowledge, contacts and understanding. And from this starting point, putting in place an action plan built on available resources, to incorporate this newer dimension of our high performance sport pathway to enhance opportunities for all athletes though greater depth in our events and in our programs.

The Gaps: NCAA varsity programs can’t do it all.

One inquiry I received questioned why “the system” needed to provide any support to student-athletes. (“If the NCAA is such a fantastic system as you repeatedly point out, then the athletes who don’t make Ski Team criteria and end up going to school should have every opportunity to perform and re-qualify for the ski team.”).

This is why it is important to connect on the snow: go to races, meet the coaches, watch the events and network with the system – to understand how it works. NCAA ski programs are very good and very committed, but have limitations. You need to know the rules that govern the amount of athlete-coach contact, periods of training, clear and very strict rules about financial and sponsorship support within the NCAA environment.

The gaps vary, but in general, student-athletes seek peer group training, spring/summer dryland & strength and conditioning guidance, summer and autumn on-snow training opportunities and management at events not supported or attended by the NCAA coaches as they cannot attend all FIS events.

NCAA athletes who are keen to maintain their competitiveness seek ways to fill the gaps. Provincial Ski Teams of BC, Alberta, Ontario and Quebec have been actively supporting their alumnus athletes. Others join for-profit elite programs. Many link up to train independently.

We have a window of opportunity with so many athletes having chosen the NCAA option (those in school and recent graduates). Although serendipitous, we have accomplished a fundamental element of the Gold Medal Pathway: retention of our elite athletes, which builds the competitive pool of the Nor-Am Tour. They are still ski racing. And if they are ski racing, they have medal potential.

But we’re not doing our best to harness this potential in a way that lifts the Canadian system for all athletes.

Where next?

Shifting the Canadian education paradigm is not going to happen quickly. But, one always hopes there is a will to try inside the CIS, especially with new leadership now in-place. There are sport academies and universities in Canada that are keen about winter snowsports. We need to support them: Lakehead University, Université Laval, McGill, Université de Montreal, Gatineau-Ottawa, UNB, National Ski Academy, National Sport School and I am sure there are many more. We need a comprehensive screen to determine where the programs are and where there may be potential interest. Bottom line: there is a will to develop a better relationship between academic institutions and sport, to attract student-athletes who are seen as valuable contributors to the diversity of the school culture.

Fortunately, while we work on re-establishing wintersport athletics within the CIS, the NCAA is an existing, incredible option for athletes in alpine and cross country. (Note: and the USCSA for alpine, cross country, snowboard and freestyle) We can harness the NCAA and student-athlete investment to strategically and tactically lift Canadian ski racing, lift our competitiveness, continue to deepen the Nor-Am circuit and inspire our entire ski racing system. And NCAA ski racing is growing. A second tier of racing was added to the Carnival program in the eastern US last season and several schools have applied to join in both east and west or are considering re-establishing programs.

We need to come together to establish the framework for our system: create an Education Committee. Build an inclusive committee that brings together experts, representatives of the schools, coaches and experts to help guide and inform the NSO and PSO’s. Coupled with a clear Sport and Education Strategy this will have an enormous impact on every single ski racing family in the system, from U10 to the National Team. It sends a clear message to every family: we care about your future as an athlete and a person.

Cross Country Canada is already there, having established a Board Committee in 2014 which has reported and recommended new policies and a strategy to begin harnessing this potential.

Most important: It’s time for a little inspiration for the current crop of high performance athletes who are pursuing the education option but ready to put in the hard work to remain competitive …. we can keep this generation energized and committed to excellence.

This is the fourth in a series of blogs posted to share ideas, information and encourage debate about the role of high performance sport in Canada’s education system. It is focused on alpine skiing, but many Olympic sports share similar circumstances.

If any errors or omissions are noted, please advise the author and the blog will be updated. “To err is human; to forgive, divine” (Alexander Pope, “Essay on Criticism”).

[1] Canadian Inter-university Sport High Performance Program Concept, 2012

[2] International Sport Academy Review. Nick Bass. 2010Note:

The author served as a member of the Panel, representing wintersport.

About Ken Read

"You're off to Great Places! Today is your day! Your mountain is waiting, so…get on your way!" - Oh, the Places You'll Go (1990) Dr. Seuss
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