Inside the skiing pipeline: The Leever Study
A 2016 study deep-dives Alpine ski development patterns across Europe, hoping to bring answers to America.
There may be no individual in the ski world who has utilized his resources to dig into the discussion of development more than Dan Leever. In 2016, he literally took it upon himself to find data-driven solutions.
The owner of Ski Racing Magazine, majority shareholder of ski apparel brand SYNC and chairman of the board of the World Pro Ski Tour — just three items on a long list of ski-related involvement — has also served on the board of Ski & Snowboard Club Vail for 15 years and the U.S. Ski Team board and U.S. Ski Team foundation board.
His now 43-year-old son Harold (Skip) went through the system first, followed by recently retired 27-year-old World Cup slalom specialist, Alex. The gap allowed the family to learn about ski development firsthand.
“We were the typical family. We didn’t know anything,” he said of parenting Skip through skiing.
“So, just at the point we were starting to figure out how this sport really works, he was done. And that happens to almost everybody. But in our case, along comes Alex right after Skip had retired. So now, at a minimum, we knew what we didn’t know.”
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At that point, he was running a multinational company, which allowed him to access thought-leaders from different countries. He asked a simple question: “What is development like in the rest of the world?”
“But that was anecdotal in a lot of respects,” he described of his on-the-side inquiry.
“That was something I did on my own, and it wasn’t really supportable.”
When Tiger Shaw became CEO of U.S. Ski and Snowboard, he invited Leever to get involved. Leever struck up a conversation with Shaw.
“I said, how about I formalize that. How about I do a real study and figure out what the development pathway looks like around the world.”
Leever and a few of his colleagues spent a year spearheading a project that would become known as “The Leever Study.”
It explored three major initiatives: a survey of World Cup skiers, which asked about their development, dozens of interviews with coaches and other thought-leaders on the topic, and finally, a statistical deep dive into the progression of the top-30 World Cup skiers.
“Who made it, who didn’t, and were there commonalities between the ones that did and didn’t,” he described of the project.
From it, Leever created a “statistical pathway” for American juniors hoping to achieve a World Cup top-30 ranking.
“Roughly what would be the markers along in your career you’d have to achieve to have a statistical probability of making (the top 30),” Leever explained.
The U.S. Ski Team’s response to Leever’s research was upsetting.
“I did that. And then they said, ‘well, we’re really not interested in the top 30, we’re only interested in the top 10,'” he said.
“So they made it much more difficult. They decided that that wasn’t near stringent enough, and they made it much more stringent than that and as a result, no one could meet the criteria and it basically demoralized the whole community.”
The Leever Study: goals and takeaways
1. “To gain a better understanding of the development pathways in ski racing, with a goal to provide insight toward development and improvement in the future of USA ski racing.”
2. “To identify the motives, processes, people, cultures that drive elite performance from junior levels to World Cup competition.”
3. “To produce a body of knowledge of best-practices and overarching themes to enable informed decision-making and alignment among organizations, coaches, officials, parents and athletes.”
4. “To understand the European development system.”
After completing, presenting and having his findings rejected by U.S. Ski and Snowboard, Leever penned an op-ed titled “What’s Wrong with U.S. Ski Racing?”
“I was super critical of them; I quit in protest,” Leever said in reference to the article. Convinced change wouldn’t occur, Leever wrote in the 2018 piece, “I believe (the U.S. Ski Team) is irreparably broken.”
Leever criticized U.S. Ski and Snowboard for “not respecting athletes” saying, “We have an ethical and moral responsibility to develop our athletes as humans, not just as ski racers,” and “U.S. Ski and Snowboarding needs to put the athlete at the top of the pyramid.”
He also praised the National Collegiate Athletic Association system but lamented its lack of incorporation. Finally, he argued that U.S. Ski and Snowboard, while organizing camps and travel competitions well, is not focused on a more important initiative. “We should be developing, not managing these athletes,” he wrote.
“If we have a group of athletes under our charge who are not progressing, who bears the responsibility? The current system says, ‘you didn’t make it, you are cut from the team — it’s your fault.’ Hogwash. No, I believe it’s our fault.”
Leever also pointed to European coaches’ perspectives, which cautioned against Americans simply copying their blueprint, a culturally and geographically based blunder. In interviews for this story, he mentioned that up until recently, the U.S. team has had a “club mentality.”
“If you’re part of the club, you’re welcome, if you’re not part of the club, you’re not,” he said, telling a story of how his son, Alex, had to have a Canadian coach put him in his skis during a World Cup he qualified for on his own, separate from team nomination.
“And I think they’re getting it,” Leever positively remarked in a phone interview this May.
“I think they’re waking up to that and recognizing that respect for the athlete is first and foremost, so that they accept that wherever that athlete comes from, if that athlete has the speed, they’re welcome with open arms.”
A new chapter
For Leever, constructing a healthy pipeline and preventing a financial arms race at the youth level depends on clear communication to families in regard to what is truly necessary for maturation in the sport.
“It’s unfortunate, because if you see someone having success, you’re going to copy what they’re doing,” he said of the multitudes paying for private coaches, dozens of annual races and expensive off-season camps.
“It can drive the cost up for everybody else,” he said.
He argues that skill acquisition on snow — early and often — with intentional practice, as well as appropriate, local competitive opportunities are irreplaceable cornerstones for long term success. Even though expensive equipment can make a difference “at the margins,” Leever said it isn’t necessary to dwell on that component.
“A person with outstanding skill level with subpar equipment will do just fine, especially when they’re younger,” he said.
“When you get to the highest level, equipment starts to make more of a difference, but I think at a young age it makes almost no difference. Skill level way outweighs the equipment. In most cases it’s about skill acquisition. You gotta practice smarter and harder.”
The way Leever sees it, while certain sports are motor sports — basketball and football — and rely on coordination, skiing — like golf, figure skating and gymnastics — relies more on skill acquisition.
“It is on that side (skill) of the spectrum, so, if you don’t develop the skills exceedingly well, you have little chance,” he said.
“The best way to evidence that is to look at the number of athletes that come later in their development and enter sports versus skiing. It’s virtually unheard of for a 13-year-old to start in ski racing and make it.”
Leever feels that skill acquisition is so important, in fact, that regardless of talent, well-coached individuals can succeed. He recalled a conversation with Ante Kostelić, perhaps the most famous Alpine ski coach of all time.
“He told me, you give me five 5-year-olds of average ability, I’ll put them all on the World Cup,” he said.
“There’s an absolute path that you can follow to get to that level, and if they’re of average ability, I’ll get every one of them there. And they had no money growing up.” Kostelic mentored his children, Croatian skiers Janica and Ivica Kostelić, who won multiple FIS Alpine World Ski Championships, overall World Cup and Olympic titles between 2001 and 2014.
Still, Leever cautions against specialization, noting that his son Alex, who blossomed into a World Cup skier, “concentrated” on skiing but was active in soccer and even had a junior blackbelt in karate.
“He had a lot of things he did, but he focused on skiing,” Leever recalled.
“Specialization means you do that thing at the expense of everything. Concentration means that you do that mostly.”
The conundrum lies in the fact that clubs have an incentive to convince families that investing heavily is in fact necessary. It makes starting a conversation in the other direction difficult to begin.
“I don’t know — that’s a hard one,” Leever responded when asked how those discussions between ski clubs and communities can get off the ground.
“I’ve been preaching til I’m blue in the face to Ski Club Vail to make sure that at least in our community that we communicate that, and they’re doing a better job of that. There’s a lot of peer pressure.”
Leever has been encouraged by steps taken by SSCV.
“Vail’s probably further along than anywhere else in the country in many ways. We have this brand new venue, which is an amazing training environment — you want to talk about skill acquisition — there’s no better place for skill acquisition maybe in the world than right here in Vail,” he praised.
“And it cost the local community less than zero. All the money was generated by donations and the underwriting costs were even covered by donations for the first several years. So, it cost less than zero. That’s how you make the sport less expensive.”
As far as the general direction of U.S. Ski and Snowboard, Leever sees some good and some bad.
“I don’t think a lot has changed and I think up until recently, we’ve made the same mistakes for the last 25 years,” he said.
Some of the recent staffing changes are possible lights at the end of the proverbial tunnel, though, like bringing on Sophie Goldschmidt as the new president and CEO of U.S. Ski and Snowboard.
“They made a lot of changes recently. They brought in a new CEO who seems really smart and focused on the right things. They brought in a chief of sport, a new head coach — so they’re making a lot of changes. I’ve had discussions with Sophie Goldschmidt — it seems like she’s going in the right direction to me,” he said.
“It’s kind of early, so it’s hard to say. There were things I felt were really critical that they addressed,” he added.
“The first of those was this communication process to the broader community about what is necessary, and I do believe that we need to have our eyes wide open in regard to what it takes, but at the same token, we can’t become too exclusive and elitist either.”