Future Of Speed Camps Put The Focus On ‘Future’
by Nicole Haase
Just about any kid who takes up speed skating dreams of one day competing in the Olympic Winter Games.
“But we’ll never get a chance to win an Olympic medal with a kid who dropped out of the sport,” said Chris Needham, the Development and Partnerships Director at US Speedskating. “We need to cherish every single athlete that we have and retain them in the sport as long as we possibly can.”
That’s what Needham and US Speedskating are trying to do with the Future of Speed camps designed for skaters ages 7-12 years old. The camps, which have been held for both long and short track, are intended to give younger skaters the opportunity to spend time on the ice while learning and developing new skills in a fun environment where it’s easy for them to learn.
The most recent camp wrapped up recently in Milwaukee, in conjunction with the US Speedskating Age Group Nationals Short Track. The camps were added to age-group nationals programming as part of a new developmental stance from US Speedskating intended to prioritize skill development over competition for young skaters.
According to Needham, the federation did a study that found over the course of a youth National Championship, the skaters are on the ice for a total of about five minutes throughout the weekend. The camp ensures they get hours of ice time in addition to dryland training and skills development.
“A lot of people try to focus on competition with this age group too much,” Needham said. “We don’t shy away from competition, but what’s most important to us is that their early experiences in the sport are fun, and that they stay in the sport. With this age group, the most important thing for us to work on is skill development. We want to get them technically proficient in speedskating at an early age because our brains are really susceptible to learning at a young age.”
A focal point of the camps, he said, is what he calls sensory preparation. A speed skater has to be in tune with every part of their body and be able to make small adjustments. That can be overwhelming for children, who might not know what changing the angle of their hips, straightening their knees, or putting their weight on the midfoot means or even feels like when they’re not in skates.
At the Future of Speed camps, there’s a focus on basic language that helps them to understand the jargon of the sport in an environment where it’s easy for them to learn. Walking on their toes and heels across a workout room helps them connect with the feeling of sinking their weight and posture into their midfoot, for example. Sharing different colloquial names for stretches helps the kids know what they need to do now but will also save time when they work with different coaches in the future.
The main focus of the camp, however, is fun.
Kids will experience learning, skill development disguised as games and the opportunity to work with a number of different coaches, with the ultimate goal being to ensure that young speed skaters stick with the sport.
“We don’t want to burn a kid out physically or mentally at a young age because we’ll lose them then we’ll never know but could have been,” said Needham.
Camps are open to kids of all ability levels, and Needham also encourages coaches from around the country to join in. This widens the sphere of influence on the children attending while also giving the coaches resources they can take back to their clubs.
“It’s just sharing of knowledge and sharing of expertise that ultimately allows us all to learn more,” he said.
The Future of Speed camps are meant to be replicable. The camps at age-group nationals are put on by US Speedskating, but they’ve also been developed with the idea of working in conjunction with speed skating clubs around the country.
Needham said he is careful to never proclaim that his way or US Speedskating’s way is the only and correct way to do things. The idea is to have a US Speedskating staff member visit a club and collaborate with their local coaching staff to help run a camp at no charge to the club.
Speed skating clubs are a fundamental part of the sport in the U.S. and critical to US Speedskating’s future, Needham said. Offering the framework of the Future of Speed camps is one way US Speedskating is trying to support those clubs and partner in the development of young skaters that can help grow the sport.
Ultimately, the camps are about recognizing that young speed skaters require a different approach in coaching and making sure those needs are met.
“It’s important to realize that young athletes are unique,” Needham said. “They shouldn’t simply be treated as if they’re just small grown-ups. There are things about them that make them unique from a physical standpoint, from a cognitive standpoint, from a social and emotional standpoint, so we can’t simply train them like they’re miniature adults.
“We need to do a better job of understanding their unique needs and how to address those unique needs. I think that’s really what we try to do with this camp and what we try to convey to coaches who participate in this camp with us.
“If we can do that — coach these young athletes in the appropriate way that the experience will be more fun for them — they’ll stay in the sport,” Needham continued. “This is 100 percent about retention, and creating fun experiences around speed skating for these kids so that they want to come back to us.”
If you would like to sign up for a Future of Speed Camp, check out our events page and find a camp near you!