Richard P. Phelps
[Summer, 2002] After the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics, the U.S. Olympic Committee met for its annual retreat to learn the latest findings from advanced research in education, and to determine if some of the new, groundbreaking ideas, developed in the country's most prestigious education schools, might be appropriate to their own training needs.
The retreat agenda was developed by the leadership of the American Educational Research Association (AERA), with input from leading education researchers and theorists in the faculties of the country's leading universities. As a group, they had published hundreds of books, thousands of articles in peer-reviewed scholarly journals, and given thousands of paper presentations at research conferences all over the world. The retreat team also included most of the staff from the prestigious, federally-funded Center for Research on Essential Skiing and Skating Techniques (CRESST), based at UCLA, and the National Research Council's Board on Athletics and Measurement.
The particular theme chosen for the retreat was speed skating performance management and measurement. The AERA instructors argued that traditional methods amounted to an artificial training of speed skaters, one distanced from the experience of the skaters and the knowledge base of the trainers. Natural, genuine training had been supplanted by activities whose sole purpose was to reduce the times of speed skaters in particular races. That led to "drill and kill" training techniques, not appropriate to the development of the "whole athlete." Scarce training dollars had been diverted away from such high quality training needs as better skates, higher pay for trainers, and nicer ice rinks in favor of skating drills of limited training value. Skaters were even being made to skate in conditions strikingly similar to actual races, which was far removed from a natural and authentic way of skating.
These endless, mind-numbing practices only served to narrow the training, take time away from genuine, authentic training in real skating, and reduce race times at the expense of deep, long-term skating understanding. In traditional training, too much time was spent focused on a narrow set of activities, such as leg strokes, rounding curves, arm movements, and endurance training. Not enough time was devoted to more substantive training, with a focus on rich and creative training techniques that allow the whole skater to emerge with critical skating skills responsive to a wide variety of challenges that may face them in the future. If skating skills are to endure, they must flower naturally from each skater's own well of experience and understanding. Each skater must construct his or her own, unique skating skills.
The CRESST researchers conducted a study in which they attempted to determine if traditional speed skating training did anything other than reduce speed skating times. In other words, they wanted to see if the results of traditional speed skating training were "generalizable" outside the narrow field of speed skating to other, related fields, such as figure skating. They found that after a year of traditional speed skating training, which substantially reduced speed skating times, the same skaters had become no better at figure skating. They attributed this lack of generalizability to the phenomena of "teaching to the race" and "narrowing the training."
Moreover, the AERA team argued that an over-reliance on improving race times caused a severe decline in training quality particularly for those skaters with the greatest training needs. The one-size-fits-all training approach was alien to these skaters, and far removed from their experience and culture.
The Olympic Committee already felt extremely sensitive to problems of fairness and equity in skating. The popular, independent watchdog group, the National Center for Fair and Open Skating (FairSkate), had issued a scathing report, quoted widely in the press and given full-feature treatment in "skating's newspaper of record," Skating Week, showing the U.S. Olympic Committee to be biased in favor of skaters from the Upper Midwest and New England.
At the end, the Olympic Committee left very impressed with the ideas of the education researchers, their focus on a rich and creative training program, and their incorporation of newly emerging research findings and innovative training techniques in their proposals for a new speed skating training program. After receiving a $50 million dollar grant from the federal government and a matching amount from the Ford Foundation, the Committee decided to award a contract to the AERA to train the U.S. Olympic Speed Skating team for the 2006 Winter Olympics.
The AERA team made several innovations to the training program, including: