2017 U.S. Juniors in Europe

Update from the Junior National Team Coach, Erin Schirm, who is on his way to Finland for the Junior World Orienteering Championships with a strong team of six young men and six young women: Isabel Bryant, Tyra Christopherson, Julia Doubson, Siri Christopherson, Caroline Sandbo, Katie Petersen, Martin Heir, Peter Zakrevski, David Runde, Anton Salmenkyla, Thomas Laraia, and AJ Riley.

This month, I will be heading to Europe for my sixth tour as Junior Team Leader/Coach. The last six years have been quite a journey. I’ve learned a lot, and I’ve also witnessed an increase in the level of competition at the junior level. I cheered as non-European countries excelled: from Lithuania where Hanny Allston won Australia’s first junior gold medal, to Slovakia where Emily Kemp of Canada took bronze in the long distance, to Bulgaria and Norway where Tim Robertson of New Zealand won gold in the sprint. It was awe-inspiring to watch the epic performances of European athletes such as Sara Hagstrom, Simona Aebersold, Olli Ojanaho and the Swiss men’s team in 2016. The level and depth of competition is evident in the continued depth of the Scandinavian teams and the number of countries represented in the middle distance finals.

Our athletes have improved, too! In a recent analysis of our JWOC results over the last few years, our athletes were consistently closer to the winner with some better placings than in the past, but in such a competitive field it is easy to lose sight of American results. How do we gain a competitive edge, and is that even possible?

The last five years have been a huge learning experience for me as a coach. I’ve explored the limits of how much training we can do in terrain leading up to JWOC while maintaining our athletes’ shape, I’ve learned what psychological tricks and techniques work to prepare to race 5 out of 6 days in a row, I’ve discovered how to deal with crazy weather conditions around the world, and I’ve worked with all the athletes to learn their individual balance training/racing stress with health. Every setback is a learning opportunity. Most coaches will tell you that every year is different, and no matter how well you have the training principles dialed for your athletes, each year brings different success and new struggles. I have learned to be flexible and adapt, while using fundamental training philosophy to keep the team progressing.

Since I first experienced JWOC as an athlete, I’ve wanted to go back and win a medal to show that the U.S. can compete with the best. All goals start with a dream! We face vast challenges in the USA:  Huge distances, spread-out maps, other sports competing for our best athletes, very little team/club culture, and very little depth of competition. Despite this, each year I have coached them, the U.S. juniors have improved. They have stepped up, used their mistakes as learning opportunities, and keep putting their best foot forward. This work ethic comes from the belief that we can be as good at orienteering as the best, and even if it’s not attained this year or the next, we are laying the groundwork for the future. This dream has been gathering momentum and inspiring juniors around the country.

I look at the next five years and I can see an orienteering revolution. Thanks to the work of many who are promoting awareness and the fun of navigation, before we know it young kids will be aspiring to be like Michael Laraia, Isabel Bryant or Julia Doubson. Young athletes who are already watching the hard work get done can see the connection between that work and the results. As a coach, it is a pleasure to watch these athletes grow and to guide them as best I can to be the best person they can be and to find success, in orienteering and beyond.

                ;

L-R: Michael  Laraia, Julia Doubson, Isabel Bryant, Anton Salmenkyla
(click on an image for larger view)

So as I head off on my sixth odyssey to Finland for Jukola, training camps, and the 2017 JWOC competition, the question rattling around in my head is: What makes our training any different or gives us an edge?

In preparation, we focused on four areas of development: physical, technical, individual and team. My work as coach centers around applying both physical and technical, and communication and dialogue between team and individuals. I have enhanced the physical program with elements I have borrowed from other programs and sports, such as agility training, strength and conditioning for power, form and cross training for injury prevention, and specific terrain training to develop speed and forest flow. A lot of the physical training is to deal with the specific challenges of Finnish terrain. Our technical preparation has centered on the fundamentals, with specific situational application of these skills to meet the demands of Finnish terrain. At the team level, we have focused on what it means to be a group and to push and encourage each other, maintaining positivity and social health. Individually, we have worked to develop habits that help us focus and refocus in tough situations.

The nature of our system asks each athlete to discover their own strengths, weaknesses, and tendencies. Each athlete has visualized themselves in the situations they will face at JWOC, and how they will respond to that situation. Many of the best athletes do all these things, but I think what gives our team a competitive edge at this level is how well they know themselves.  Our athletes have learned how to anticipate and respond thoughtfully to situations rather than just reacting, and this has led to much more consistent orienteering in high-pressure situations for the American juniors. Last year, many of our athletes had multiple races with less than two minutes of mistakes, a remarkable result considering where they started and what they are up against.

As a coach, I commend these juniors for the incredible amounts of work on themselves and in their training. Every year is different. We have a young team, with most of the athletes having 2-3 more years as a junior, and yet we are more prepared as a team than we ever have been before. The dream of a medal inches closer, and once a dream is realized as a goal, it becomes inevitable. Maybe not next week, but one day soon we will see U.S. juniors in the mix at the top. It’s going to be an exciting summer, so tune in and watch these young men and women lay it out on the line for themselves, their team, and their country!

You can follow the Junior Team’s adventures and stories on their blog, where they will be posting regularly: https://usajwoc2017.wordpress.com/

posted 19 June 2107