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Monday, February 09, 2009

Project 30 breakdown

I've been reading the 69-page Project 30 Task Force report whenever I've had a free moment today. Note that I'm just a fan, and not an insider.

Going straight to the "Recommendations" section, my reactions...

1. Hire a professional General Manager of High Performance
They want someone who knows how to lead, manage, and build consensus, rather than someone who specifically knows track. They see advantages if someone from outside of USATF is chosen, "[n]ot the least of [which] is having no prior alliances or debts of gratitude that must be repaid." They also want a person who can be fired if their Performance isn't High enough.

2. Create a transparent, criteria-based Team Staff selection system
I think it's weird that the #2 recommendation is about picking people to coaching positions for US teams, as they are largely symbolic positions with almost no real coaching duties, but this is a bureaucracy I guess.

"USATF should develop an impartial, point-based system for evaluating coaches who wish to be on national team staffs. Such a system would de-politicize selection and create an incentive-based criteria that could serve as a source of inspiration and aspiration for coaches of all levels." And cut out the ass-kissing that gets people into these positions, which then means they no longer owe something to the people who put them there. "The staff will report directly to the GM, who will be responsible for ensuring team staffs are fulfilling their job requirements for international teams." So screw-ups won't be picked again.

3. Restructure the composition of Team USA Staffs
The recommendation is to let coaches be coaches and let managers pick up some of their busywork. A good idea: a "friends and family" manager.
A minimum of one manager should be dedicated exclusively to assisting athletes with issues pertaining to their families and other support mechanisms at international events. Concerns over family ticketing, housing, travel and other matters are significant stressors to athletes that can negatively impact their performance. Having a staff member in charge of handling these stressors should improve performance.
There would be two of these at the Worlds and Olympics, one at other national-team events.

4. Shorten the Olympic Trials to five days
This is the one that gets the big headlines. My initial reaction was disapproval. But I read on, and got convinced.

Let's remember where our current Olympic Trials format came from. Up through 1968, it was always a two-day meet. In 1972, the first time it was in Eugene, the trials were expanded to a full week in order to expose neophyte athletes to mutliple-round competition before they went off to the Olympics. Back in the pre-professional days, hardly anyone went to the Olympics more than once, and it was the only big championship meet of its kind, so the idea was to get people prepared.

But these days, everyone knows what multi-round championship meets are like and there's no need for the Trials to mimic them. Not only do athletes stay in the sport longer, but the Worlds make a big international championship meet nearly an annual affair.

The downsides to a week-long meet are many.
The 2008 Olympic Trials were considered among the most successful Trials ever, yet the success and intensity of the meet led to athletes being perhaps even more physically and emotionally tired than normal after an Olympic Trials.

In addition to being physically draining, the 10-day length of the Trials can be emotionally and financially cumbersome for athletes. Athletes are given a small stipend for travel, and if they must be on-site at the Olympic Trials for in some cases more than a week, they must pay for many costs themselves. Several cited the high costs incurred by their families, as well. A handful of athletes favored having multiple days between qualifying and final rounds in field events at the Olympic Trials, as is the case at the Olympic Games, but many also cited the boredom and
financial cost of such a lengthy schedule.
I'd add that the first round of many events at this year's Trials hardly eliminated anyone and were essentially pointless.

It was also noted that our Worlds team is picked at a four-day national championship, and typically brings home more medals than our Olympic team.

5. Terminate the National Relay Program
"The United States has made relay running a 400-meter enigma, wrapped in a conundrum and shrouded in mystery." For the uninformed, the National Relay Program is described:

Following initial meetings in 2001 and 2002, The National Relay Program was launched in 2003 after a “meeting of the minds” in Las Vegas the previous November. At that meeting, nearly 60 athletes, coaches, and administrators developed the template for the National Relay Program. The program was created in order to streamline methodologies for running relays in international team competition, and to provide American sprinters with several opportunities each year to practice and compete with each other in relay competition.
The National Relay Program brings together American sprinters six to ten times per year, often in early-season meets, for relay training and competition. USATF flies athletes into locations to take part in the program and leverages local athletes as well. In 2008, 98 men and 75 women, for a total of 173 athletes, participated in the program in at least one location.
Basically, this program has been a waste of money and has produced no results. Our relay performance at the Worlds and Olympics has been worse after this program started than before it began. While not stated in the report, I've read accusations that the program had been used as a slush fund by its director in order to consolidate his political power within USATF. Good riddance.

6. Establish a comprehensive 2012 team preparation program
There's a lot of blah-blah-blah about specifics of planning and credentials and Olympic training camps. Boring.

More interesting is the criticism leveled at athletes who competed in a rather haphazard way in Europe after making the US team, cashing in on their newfound Olympian status without regard to whole-season planning. Recognizing that these are professional athletes who need some competition, this suggestion is intriguing:
USATF should work with fellow federations to organize three televised, country-based dual/triangular meets in Europe in the weeks leading up to London 2012. Such meets would be a profit generator in selling European and international television rights, would give American athletes – especially those whose events have fewer existing competitive opportunities – a chance to sharpen for the Games, and would contribute to generating more of a sense of team among U.S. athletes. The Task Force recommends event-specific meets in a dual or triangular meet format. For example, USA vs. GB in selected events; USA vs. Scandinavia in throws; and an all-purpose, all-event meet. Athletes should be paid a stipend to compete in the meets to ensure their quality. The Statement of Conditions, which athletes sign as a requirement to be on national teams, should stipulate that all athletes who attend Training Camp participate in at least one such meet.
Also interesting is changing the lump-sum training stipend for making the Olympic team into a pay-for-performance setup:

The Task Force therefore recommends that USATF develop an incentive structure for the Olympic Games and provide financial rewards to athletes who achieve Seasonal Best (SB) or Personal Best (PB) performances at the Games. The amount of these incentives should be determined by the GM. Ideally the amount would be a few to several thousand dollars for SBs and PBs.
No word on how weather that negatively impacted performance might be taken into account, or allowances for distance runners (whose events are typically much slower in championships than on the GP circuit).

7. Target technical events for medal growth and develop these events
The Task Force thought the easiest place to get more Olympic medals was the field events, where we've got the athletes, equipment, and know-how but haven't been doing well.

One big point in this section was High Performance Training Centers. We've got one in Chula Vista, CA, and it's way under-used. The Task Force thought there should be more, and they should be put together where the athletes already are (think Santa Monica Track Club in the 80s or Florida Track Club in the 7os). In other words, work with the highly-performing groups that already exist instead of trying to make some out of whole cloth.

8. Create a well-defined Professional Athlete designation
You'd have to declare yourself a pro and sign a contract with USATF if you or your coach want funds from USATF.

Obligations might include "participating in a minimum number of press conferences, promotional events and local, grass-roots functions during the course of the year", and a more stringent doping reinstatement program (see the next point).

9. Establish a more stringent anti-doping reinstatement system
The Task Force noted that "the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency has in some cases persuaded athletes to truly “come clean”, but these instances are few and far between". Their recommendations:
Any athlete coming back from suspension should be required by USATF to provide a deposition under oath detailing what went into their decision to cheat, how they obtained and used their drugs, and who contributed to their cheating.
USATF should set up a “rehab” education program designed to teach athletes how to train and compete clean. In many cases, these athletes don’t believe that it is possible to compete clean; even more important is that they have no idea how to do so. The rehab program must include instruction on nutrition and periodization of training and should guide the athletes to train with a “clean” coach.
Any athlete who has been convicted of a doping violation who later pursues a
coaching career will not be eligible for any USATF coaching support or programs,
including but not limited to stipends, credentials, selection to Team USA staffs,
affiliation with HPTCs and access to other USATF coaching programs.
Coaches of banned athletes also should be required to go through this rehab program.
Until and unless the athletes fulfill each of the above two requirements – deposition and rehab – they will not be eligible to receive USATF benefits and support monies or participate in USATF-affiliated events, such as the Visa Championship Series.
These are very good ideas, and would be the trendsetter for the entire sporting world. If only one of these ten recommendations comes to be, this should be it.

10. Promote and foster a self-sustaining professional athletes’ union
Mostly, in order to encourage athletes to act in a professional manner. If the MLBPA is the Teamsters of sports, this would be more like the NEA.

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