Killer In­stinct

SkiTrax - - Contents - By Andy Newell

by Andy Newell

Some­thing many cross-coun­try-ski­ing fans and TV view­ers are prob­a­bly un­aware of this sea­son is that some of the new rules put in place for sprint rac­ing have def­i­nitely added a new di­men­sion to race-day tac­tics. The two ma­jor rule changes this year are 1) a new heat-se­lec­tion process af­ter qual­i­fi­ca­tion and 2) a yel­low-card in­frac­tion for a false start in a sprint. Now, be­lieve it or not, these two very dif­fer­ent rules have a lot more in com­mon than you might think, and hope­fully I can pro­vide some in­sight into how it is af­fect­ing the World Cup ath­letes.

Since the days of the first sprint races, a skier's qual­i­fy­ing time de­ter­mined which heat the skier would race in. This qual­i­fi­ca­tion place­ment de­ter­mined which of five quar­ter­fi­nal heats the skier would be in, as well as which lane choice the skier would get at the start line. It all seemed pretty sim­ple at the time. If you qual­ify first, you are in the first heat with skiers 10, 11, 20, 21 and 30.

This ap­proach was sim­ple be­cause there was no de­ci­sion-mak­ing to be done on be­half of the ath­lete. Ini­tially, there was some kind of math equa­tion in­volved that con­cluded a bracket sys­tem such as this was the fairest way to split up the top-30 skiers, try­ing to sep­a­rate the top-five fastest qual­i­fiers so that they were each in their own heat. Af­ter years of us­ing this method, more and more re­search came out show­ing that it was, in fact, not a par­tic­u­larly fair way to sep­a­rate the top-30 sprint­ers es­pe­cially for the sec­ond- and third-fastest qual­i­fiers stuck in the bot­tom half of the bracket. The pri­mary lim­it­ing fac­tor for these skiers was a short­ened re­cov­ery time be­fore the fi­nal.

The stud­ies showed that skiers who came from the top of the bracket and the first semi­fi­nal were 80% more likely to be on the podium be­cause of this ex­tra five min­utes of re­cov­ery be­fore the fi­nal. This es­sen­tially made it more likely for the 10th-place qual­i­fier to be on the podium than the sec­ond or third qual­i­fier. To fix this prob­lem, last sea­son the In­ter­na­tional Ski Fed­er­a­tion tested out a “choose your own heat” sys­tem in or­der to fill the brack­ets for the heats, and it put the new rule in place for the en­tire 2015-2016 sea­son.

I have to ad­mit that ini­tially ath­letes and coaches were a lit­tle bit skep­ti­cal about the new change, think­ing it would just add ad­di­tional stress and con­fu­sion to an al­ready long race day. How­ever, af­ter we learned to use the new sys­tem, it has added much more con­trol over the ath­lete's path to the podium. Of course, if you have qual­i­fied in the high 20's, you won't have too many op­tions to choose from, but for the top-15 qual­i­fiers, there is more per­sonal ac­count­abil­ity. Does it mirac­u­lously make it any eas­ier to get through to the al­ways tight quar­ter­fi­nals? Def­i­nitely not, but de­pend­ing on ath­letes' strengths, it can al­low them to im­ple­ment a dif­fer­ent strat­egy on the day.

The first ob­vi­ous ad­van­tage is for any type of team tac­tic. You can ei­ther choose a heat your team­mate is in so that you can push one an­other, or stay clear of the heat to cre­ate dif­fer­ent sce­nar­ios for the team to ad­vance. If you are one of the top-15 skiers to choose, you can po­si­tion your­self in the top half of the bracket for more re­cov­ery time, but also risk a se­verely stacked heat. There are al­ways trade­offs. One ma­jor fac­tor, es­pe­cially for the women's heats (which tend

to string out more), is that skiers can opt to choose a heat with a few top sprint­ers, know­ing their like­li­hood for a Lucky-loser po­si­tion with a top-four fin­ish is greatly in­creased.

This has been a ma­jor strat­egy in both men's and women's heats be­cause, in gen­eral, we are seeing the first two quar­ter­fi­nals stack up with more top sprint­ers than un­der the old for­mula, in­creas­ing the like­li­hood of Lucky-loser spots from those two heats. With that be­ing the case, it can of­ten leave the fourth and fifth heats more open, with slightly less com­pet­i­tive quar­ter­fi­nals, so we have been seeing some skiers opt for the op­po­site strat­egy, de­pend­ing on their goals for the day. When skiers are more fo­cused on scor­ing a top-10 fin­ish (and a podium fin­ish is more of an af­ter­thought), they might try to po­si­tion them­selves in one of the bot­tom-bracket heats for a bet­ter chance of ad­vanc­ing.

In the end, it still comes down to cap­i­tal­iz­ing on your heat, ski­ing to your strengths and know­ing, no mat­ter what, it's go­ing to be a fun, tough bat­tle to the fi­nal. These changes were pri­mar­ily in­tro­duced with the con­cern of re­cov­ery time in mind, which brings us to the sec­ond rule change of false starts.

In the past, the first false start by any skier in a heat sim­ply re­sulted in a warning. The sec­ond false start in that heat had more con­se­quences, but the first one was ba­si­cally a “gimme” un­der the old rules. What be­came an is­sue, be­lieve it or not, was that typ­i­cally in the fi­nals skiers would false start on pur­pose in or­der to buy them­selves a few more re­cov­ery min­utes. This was a strat­egy em­ployed by many skiers if they had come from the bot­tom bracket and needed a few more min­utes to catch their breath be­fore the fi­nal.

Now with the new yel­low-card rule, if a skier false starts in any heat, in any race, it's a yel­low card that will re­main in place for the en­tire sea­son. Two yel­low cards can re­sult in a dis­qual­i­fi­ca­tion, so es­sen­tially two false starts dur­ing the sea­son and you will get a dis­qual­i­fi­ca­tion. This is mak­ing rac­ers much more cau­tious at the line, with good rea­son. Although these changes seemed a bit dras­tic when first en­forced, the World Cup has adopted them and rac­ing con­tin­ues on more smoothly and with fair com­pe­ti­tion. Although these rules are not yet im­ple­mented on the do­mes­tic cir­cuits, look for them to adopt the changes in the years to come.

New sprint rules have added a new di­men­sion to race-day tac­tics in ad­di­tion to teach­ing old dogs new tricks.

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