Building National Alignment to Support Shared Performance Goals
The measure of intelligence is the ability to change.” – Albert Einstein
The aim, says Chris Jeffries, is to “reframe the conversation.” To “change the tone of the discussion.”
“If we didn’t do this,’’ assures Nordiq Canada’s freshly minted High Performance Director with flat certainty, “we were never going to have unity.
“Never have buy-in from athletes, never have buy-in from coaches.
“Basically, standing pat meant pushing against our community to try and accomplish our goals, instead of making our entire community a part of those goals, and our success.”
More flexibility. More adaptability. More willingness to listen.
The National Team structure has been decentralized to a fair extent for quite some time, with the three National Training Development Centres (NTDC) dotted across the country – located in Canmore, Alta., Thunder Bay, Ont., and Mont-Sainte-Anne, Que., but this year is the first time that the NTDCs and some High Performance clubs will be the Daily Training Environment for all national team athletes. No more National Ski Team athletes supported daily by National Ski Team coaches in Canmore.
This shift in structure is infinitely more complicated, involving more moving parts and a quantum increase in required avenues of communication.
But wholly necessary.
“If we are going to accomplish our goals, which are (Olympic) podium performances in 2030 and, if everything goes to plan, before then, in 2026, it’s not going to be easy,’’ adds Jeffries.
“We have to do things that are hard. And this is one of the hardest things we have to do.”
Jeffries is a cornerstone piece of this seismic, relatively recent (within a year or so) Nordiq Canada reboot that includes, among others, Robin McKeever (National Team Coach, Olympic), Julie Beaulieu (Sport Development Director), Eric de Nys (NextGen Coach), Matt Smider (Development Coach) and, since October of 2020, Chief Executive Officer Stéphane Barrette.
“The way I operate, you have to have trust in order to have meaningful conversations,’’ says Jeffries.
“It feels that the trust has been challenged between Nordiq Canada and the Training Centres for quite some time as funding to the Training Centres started to get cut year after year, until 2021. Nordiq Canada has had to earn back that trust and it had to start with a change in attitude towards Training Centres, including a reversal of the funding trend to give the Centres a true chance of meeting expectations. While this shift is still in its early stages, it has begun.
“For me, this year it was important to get our own house in order.”
In the move to de-centralization, athletes are being encouraged to choose an option that best fits their needs, their lifestyles and their futures, aligned with their competitive ski goals.
“The demand on athletes,’’ says Jeffries, “has never been higher, in terms of going to school, being an athlete, the financial demands. Living in Canmore has become increasingly less desirable for our young athletes.
“There are so many lifestyle factors, social factors, that have led to this increased de-centralization. The desire by athletes and parents to incorporate post-secondary education in their pathway might be the single most important factor we must consider.
“Things change. When I was a kid, for instance, I had a coach on the other side of the country because there wasn’t much institutionalized knowledge for different sports and different programs. So living in Ontario, I was being faxed a training plan to my dad’s office from a coach in Saskatchewan.
“Because that was the best option for me as a kid in high school to get good quality programming. That’s not the case anymore, obviously.
“Even though we still think one of the biggest gaps in our country is coaching development, we have so much more knowledge in this country, so many more coaches, now. Just the generational turnover of years and athletes in this country has created that institutional knowledge.
“And there are better facilities across the country than there were 20 years ago. The sport is growing up.
“And from when I got into coaching 12 years ago until now, what athletes are looking for in their programs has changed drastically.”
To that end, Nordiq Canada has relinquished the day-to-day instruction from National Ski Team coaching staff and placed it in the hands of the Daily Training Environment (DTE) coaches located at the Training Centres, or in some cases, local clubs or university programs: the people who know their skiers better than anyone.
Some athletes prefer a club or NCAA program. But the vast majority have chosen the Dailly Training Environment Training Centre option.
“We’re really trying to strengthen the partnership between ourselves and the Training Centres, rather than having an agreement in place and then having them do a quote-unquote ‘service’ for us,’’ stresses Jeffries.
“The feeling in the past was often that we were competing against the National Ski Team instead of being their partner. In my previous role as Head Coach and Program Director for the Alberta World Cup Academy, I often struggled with how the Training Centre was valued in the high performance system.”
Greg Manktelow, who as chairperson worked with Jeffries at the Alberta World Cup Academy (which grew from eight athletes to 27 during this time), feels the ideal person is on the job.
“Chris has a vested interest in seeing the Training Centres continue their success and build on that.
The goal was to provide a Daily Training Environment for all these National Team athletes, and then you make the National Ski Team itself more of a training camp and competition type of program.
“Meanwhile, Tormod (Vatten) is our high-performance coach, and the daily coach for athletes like Dahria (Beatty) and Katherine (Stewart-Jones) and Xavier McKeever and all those younger skiers who are on the National Team.
“So, we’re mostly training them and that kinda takes it out of the hands of Nordiq Canada, allowing the National Ski Team coaches and staff to have better focus on the big picture areas and leading our national high-performance and development philosophies.”
The Centres themselves are naturally welcoming the increasingly invested interest from the sport’s national governing body.
“Having Robin McKeever come to Thunder Bay and join us for a training camp this past summer, integrate and fully throw himself into what we were doing, was a real tangible difference for us,’’ enthuses Thunder Bay Team Manager and Assistant Coach Leslie Bodie.
“That camp was a Training Centre camp, but we also expanded it to Ontario development athletes so the access to Robin and his expertise, him being involved in discussions and seeing what we’re up to in practice was, for everyone … fantastic.
“I think the relationship that formed – the athletes, with us as staff, with everybody, seeing where they could go and who they may be working with – was really good for us.
“Chris is also an alumni of Thunder Bay and aware of some of the challenges we face here. Having been through the entire process, he makes you feel as if you’re really talking to someone who knows where you’re coming from.
“Aligning with the direction of where Nordiq Canada wanted to go, where the National Ski Team wanted to go, and what we were up to definitely made it feel like a two-way conversation.”
Those more open lines of communication have also impressed Alex Harvey’s long-time coach Louis Bouchard, based, as he has been since 1999, at the Pierre Harvey Training Centre in Mont-Sainte-Anne, Que.
“The way (Nordiq Canada) sees the vision for the future, it’s totally different than two, three, four years ago,’’ says Bouchard. “After the 2018 Games, after 2019, there’s been lots of change in staff, and in thinking.
“Just totally different.
“Every month counts, for us. Every day counts, for us. To me, it was frustrating (in the past), I had to do my own thing because I cannot wait. The athletes, same. There is one big competition, then another, then another.
“I cannot wait. We cannot wait.
“The other countries don’t wait. I can’t say ‘Guys, I have a problem here in Canada. Can you give me two years?’
“Now, everybody’s on the same page. It’s easy to pick up the phone or text someone. Everybody’s willing to listen, to talk.
“Everybody understands that when I call you, it’s to be better. That’s it. It takes a bit of time for the athletes to see that, too. We have to prove ourselves to them in that way, about the new Team.
“Now, I think, they’re starting to feel we’re working together.”
Yes, they do.
“Just being somewhere you’re familiar with and the freedom to stay with a coach you know, not having to move and switch up a lifestyle that you understand works for you,’’ says Ottawa-born 23-year-old Pierre Grall-Johnson now in his third season in the senior national set-up, who trains close to home, in Thunder Bay.
“You can stay comfortable and focus on training, rather than moving to Canmore, getting to know a new coach, get used to a new training program and a lot of other stuff.
“It’s a big, big advantage for comfortability and focus of the athletes, especially in that transitional first year.”
The blueprint is in place. The goals are clear, and the pathway to those goals more and more a shared challenge.
“We’ve got such a big country, with vast cultural differences,’’ says Jeffries. “We want to have a greater impact, not only on our athletes’ ability to find a program that fits their needs and lifestyle, but also on the provinces and communities.
“If everything was to, say, happen in Canmore, our footprint on the country itself is going to be quite small. Then we were also asking athletes to put themselves into a box. Especially in today’s world, where mental health has probably never been such a key factor in terms of how we plan for our athletes – giving athletes choices.
“The more choices and less barriers we give our athletes, the more chance we all have of success. And this plan makes the country feel a part of it.”
While Nordiq Canada and the National Development Training Centres work in tandem to allow Canadian athletes to achieve their athletic and personal goals, the Training Centres are independent organizations that rely on volunteers and staff from the community to operate them.
Training Centres will run multiple events a season. From The Alberta World Cup Academy’s Strides and Glides duathlon, Thunder Bay’s Nordic Fest, and Pierre Harvey Training Centre’s Classique Alex Harvey, the events give community members the opportunity to participate in the sport at all levels while getting to know the athletes on the team.
Learn more about NTDC-Thunder Bay:
Learn more about Pierre Harvey Training Centre
Learn more about Alpine Insurance Alberta World Cup Academy