Friday, January 9, 2009

Why Can't Andy Win?

Andy Newell already has the weight of the entire US ski community on his shoulders, so no harm in piling on with a blog post, right??

See, Andy Newell has this thing he does, where he qualifies really really well and then finishes not so well. Which isn't to say he's a bad sprinter -- in the cutthroat sprinting world, where you can win one day and miss the heats the next, he's been a remarkably consistent contender, week in and week out. Seriously, Andy Newell is very good, and this article is not going to dispute that.

But we are fickle American ski fans. Andy has broken my heart over and over with his qualify-high-finish-low antics. The last two weeks, he's qualified 3rd, finished 26th (Davos), and qualified first, finished eleventh. I cannot take it any longer! I must analyze his shortcomings numerically!

All data is from (or linked to) his FIS profile.

Since the start of the 05-06 season, Andy has qualified in the top four an impressive 14 times. This is close to being the best racer on the circuit over that time -- I checked a bunch of the "heavy hitters" and only Bjoern Lind had more (15). Interestingly, many of them had far, far less -- like Tor Arne Hetland (3).

Unfortunately, our hero has only converted those 14 top-4 seeds into 3 top-4 finishes.

As shown above, Andy drops an average of over 8 places between qualifiers and finals -- when he qualifies in the top four, anyway. Dear god, Andy can't close the deal! Say it ain't so!

Well, it might not be so. After all, when you qualify 1st, there's nowhere to go but down. Everyone who qualifies at the front is more likely to drop places than gain them. Don't despair just yet -- let's look at how the other top qualifiers did, in the fourteen races Andy qualified in the top four. (Actual data hidden for brevity; if you really want the excel sheet, leave a comment.)

So the average top-4 qualifier drops about five places, while Andy drops 8.7. At this point, it's safe to say that Andy is noticeably worse than the other top qualifiers at living up to his seed. Of course, you can be "noticeably worse" that the best in the world and still be very, very good -- but it appears as though Andy is not just as likely to win as any other guy who qualifies in the top four. It may not just be a matter of time until he wins the first modern World Cup for an American male.

Let's look at the results for two other guys who qualify fast with regularity, Swedes Bjorn Lind and Emil Joensson:

Lind has dropped an average of 4.4 spots in 15 attempts (2.7 spots in 9 attempts during his insane 05-06 season), while Joensson is even better, falling only 1.88 places in 9 races. If Andy is "noticeably worse" at heat racing than the other high seeds, these guys are certainly "noticeably better."

So what makes the Swedes good? What makes Newell not as good? This is the uncomfortable part, where a random blogger attempts to get all Vordenberg about things, without upsetting anyone.

First off, it's evident that qualifying fast and sprinting fast are different skills. They are related, to be sure, but there's a big difference between a 3-minute, all-out time trial and a 3-minute, head-to-head cat 'n mouse sprint heat. Newell may be the best 3-minute time trialist in the world, but winning heats is more about short, raw bursts of speed than sustained velocity, at least on the men's side, where skiing the whole race from the front frequently leads to getting passed on the final straight.

My humble opinion is that Newell verges on being too polished in his technique to be a successful sprinter. He's incredibly powerful when he's turning over a steady V2 on his terms, racing his tempo, but all too often he lacks the extra, thrashing, gear to come from the back on the final straight, or to hold onto a lead to the finish. He's beautifully smooth, to the very end -- unlike someone like Petter Northug, who is almost legendary in his flailings.

His constantly perfect technique may be the cause, or just a symptom, of his missing burst, but the results suggest it's not up to par -- how else to explain the poor heat results? I'm sure this isn't news to him or any of his coaches, and damned if I know how to fix "not being the fastest guy in the world." He only needs a small improvement and/or a little luck to win a World Cup.

There's another factor to heats beyond pure speed, though -- tactics! Nowhere is this better recapped than Devon Kershaw's account of the Prague sprints, where he qualified #1 and then crashed himself out in quarterfinals, only to watch eventual winner Tor Arne Hetland come from the back successfully in each of his heats. Hetland is one of the oldest sprinters out there, but he just keeps winning, even though he's almost never a top qualifier, by being fast and crafty when it matters.

So what do Hetland, Lind and Joensson all have in common, other than winning a lot? They're all on strong Scandinavian teams. Tor Arne can replicate a World-Cup-quality sprint heat just by calling up his five next-door neighbors (assuming he lives next to Hattestad, Northug, Roenning, Kjoelstad and Svartedal), and that's a huge competitive advantage. Lind and Joensson can race Toby Fredriksson, Peter Larsson, Petter Myhllback, Robyn Bryntesson -- plus all those Swedish club skiers who made the heats in Stockholm last year. Not as star-studded as the ultimate Norwegian heat, but still leaps and bounds above the best six the USA has to offer.

And it makes a difference! How many "sprint simulations" do you think Andy can do over the summer, when he can beat any guy on this continent just leading from the front for three minutes (ok, maybe not Torin Koos)? How many times does he find himself at the back of a six-man, world-class field, outside of the World Cup? Possibly never. There's no way he has the experience that the Scandinavians do in terms of fighting through traffic for the last qualifying spot, and it shows in his results.

In some ways, this is a bigger problem for Andy than his burst, because short of training with the Scandinavians there's nothing he can do about it. The only bright side of is that he can still get quality experience in the World Cup, and guys like Hetland (and Zorzi?) show you can be a competitive sprinter well past age 30. He's got plenty of time left to figure it out.

Disclaimer: This whole post isn't meant to be an attack on Andy or the US Ski Team; They have done a remarkable job consistently competing with, and beating, the best in the world -- with a smaller budget and an ocean in the way. All we're doing here is examining the extent of Newell's heat-racing problems, and suggesting some possible causes.


Anonymous said...

Would be interesting to include height/weight as well in analyzing the heat waves. Lind is a big guy and when he was in the top 4, he was well positioned to use his size for positioning with other racers. Andy is relatively smaller compared to some of the other top sprinters. Tougher to be in the mix down the stretch if you get bodied out.

Your point on the 30-50m explosive sprint speed is a very good one. It is what is determining a lot of the mass start races more often as well.

Christopher Tassava said...

Great analysis! Really thought-provoking. I'd be interested in seeing (though of course who's got the time to figure it out) what other racers lose 8 places between qualis and the heats. Are there any "name" racers who routinely lose that many spots, thus making it seem like Newell's in good company? Or do few of the "name" sprinters - say, the top 10 men and women last year - fall that far? Or maybe those who routinely lose eight places fall from, say, 12th to 20th, or 20th to 28th - thus putting them outside the bubble of could-win sprinters in which Newell lives. Care to speculate?

Luke S said...

Interesting, well thought out and analyzed and all that...Andy Newell actually is (has been?) ranked number one on the FIS Sprint list, which is based totally on qualifying.

keeron said...

1. Other than Kershaw, you mean about Newell skiing anyway from anyone else on the continent.
2. Now that I've got that plug out of the way, I totally agree with the tactical angle you argued for his lack of success. But I think it has to do with tactics in the qualifier as well as in the heats. The Europeans have realised that qualifying high counts for very little if you don't have the goods to back it up - therefore they expend as much energy as necessary to get into the heats. A lot of guys who qualify know how to turn on the jets at the right time, and have the jets because they haven't wasted their quads winning the qualifier by 2 seconds.
North Americans are relatively new to this whole 'qualifying' business, and tend to go a little crazy when they get in, whether it be first or 30th. (Even though at this point Newell should be used to it) To sprint well requires a ton of focus, and when you're all high on the fact that you're skiing in the Top 30 in the world, and that there's a pile of pressure on you to perform well you might not fully realize that Sami JaeuhoJaervi has boxed you into a corner, or that Christian Zorzi's washed-up ass isn't going to be the best guy to follow down the finishing stretch.
Conclusion to simplfy that mess: Don't be dumb.

Colin R said...

Keeron -- I'm not sure that there are "tactics in the qualifier" that are significant enough to make a difference in the heats, two hours later.

A glance at the Davos sprint qualifier shows only 6.5 seconds between the #1 finisher and #30 -- Even if a guy like Tor Arne Hetland is so in touch with his sense speed that he backs off a little bit in the qualifier, (knowing he can make the heats) he's only skiing a tad slower than the #1 guy. I'm skeptical that that helps him in the heats -- although it does contribute to the fact that guys seeded 20-30 routinely make it to the final.

And you're right about Kershaw, too bad him and Newell don't race each other more often. And I'd still claim Newell is quite a bit faster -- Kershaw's history isn't exactly littered with top-30 sprint results, while Newell only rarely misses the heats.