Ski Racer Chaser: 102 The Best Coach to Get Your Kid to the Top
Let’s face it– every race parent wants the best for their racer. Ski racing in an expensive sport and the thought of throwing away dollars without a shot of your athlete reaching their potential is unconscionable. While the athlete themselves will have the single greatest impact on that success, coming in a close second are the individuals who are leading and guiding their skill and technical development.
Almost every time I have stood at the bottom of a race course, Mighty Mite through FIS, I have heard well-meaning parents evaluating coaches…their team’s coaches, other team’s coaches…who is good, better and best. It’s easy to get caught-up in the gossip. I’ll admit it, I have done it, heard the gossip and thought “Oh, they are no good” or “He/She’s the best.” The problem is once a coach’s “grade” gains traction in the court of public opinion it seems to be cemented as truth. Over time I came to wonder just how “true” those rumors and rumblings were. Exactly what grading system was being employed?
Over the last 15 or so years, I have had an association with 6 different race programs which include the full range of clubs from a weekend only program to large race academies; some nationally recognized as top tier clubs, others flying under the radar. I have met, interviewed and secretly watched the coaches from each of those clubs as well as many more clubs we chose not to join.
What did I learn? I have learned that what a coach looks like from the perspective of the podium and what they look like when they are standing with their buddies at coach’s knoll or driving your kid in the van or representing them at a big race can be very different things. I have learned that some people are just magic, that coaching competence can be predicted based on certification and education, age plays a factor, there are some important “non-negotiables” that all parents should insist upon and that the court of public opinion may be vocal but it’s not very accurate.
Certification & Education. More often than not, the best coaches have pursued continuing education in demonstrated competency by USSA coach or PSIA Ski Instructor certification. While I have heard parents and others denigrate the “ski instructor as coach” and in the past there was a degree of mistrust or misunderstanding between the coach and instructor worlds, today’s professional coaches and instructors are working together to achieve higher standards of coaching excellence. Both groups recognize that by combining their strengths athletes win…literally and figuratively.
For instance, this summer the US Ski Team Men’s Alpine coaches and athletes participated in a week-long camp lead by PSIA instructors to help coaches better understand the fundamentals of good skiing and how to be faster at every level. Sasha Rearick, Head Coach – Men’s Alpine said, “The week we spent with PSIA brought our athletes and staff full circle through the process of teaching skiing from the true foundation up. From that, we’ve gained an invaluable perspective on how to be faster in every condition, every gate set, basically every variable that you can possibly be presented with on snow.”
There are philosophical differences between the coaching world and the ski instruction world that are important to understand when evaluating a coach. Certified ski instruction’s highest priority is to be “student-centered.” That means the primary job of the instructor is to understand each student as an individual and adjust their teaching to best meet the students’ needs. That is why ski instruction includes a highly developed pedagogy. Ski instructors must also pass rigorous exams were they are required to demonstrate skill, teaching and technical knowledge competency.
In contrast, race coaching is performance oriented. A certified race coach’s primary job is producing a race result. As most race coaches have a background in racing as a past athlete participant or parent observer; coaching certification assumes coaches have a level of “competency”. Coaching certification courses do not involve an exam to gain certification. Instead coach certification focuses on learning the specific tools (sports science) needed to support athlete performance (win). Coaches show-up, take a clinic and get their certification for participating. It is important to note the coaching certification does not currently describe the actual experience of a certified coach. For instance a part-time, recreational race coach from a small nob in the Midwest that raced until he was 12 with a best finish of 32nd, will be given the same certification as an ex-World Cup athlete with a degree in education that coaches full-time for a premier race academy…just by attending the same clinic. An exception is the level 300 which includes a coaching assessment and the 400 and 500 which are awarded to coaches for their contribution regionally or as US Ski Team staff.
Both USSA and PSIA have different philosophies and different strengths. I have found the most consistently highly respected and effective coaches are professionals who pursue excellence in both worlds. However, they are not the only competent coaches. Any coach, who pursues knowledge about their sport, who studies and questions, is open to learning and improving can be good, even if they don’t have the certification to prove it.
*For detailed descriptions of just what it takes to earn and maintain coaches and instructor certification go to:
Some people are just magic. While certification may be an easy, objective parameter by which to judge the competency of a coach there are other keys characteristics to consider. My experience has taught me that some of the best coaches are great just by virtue of who they are. The quality of their character, values, world view and life experience combine in a unique way that can be appreciated but not easily measured. Here’s an anecdote to show what I mean. One of my favorite “great coach” observations involved two unlikely characters; a part time, weekend-only mighty mite coach in their first year of coaching and an experienced elite FIS athlete ranked in the top 5 nationally for their age. The athlete was struggling with a peer conflict at the scoreboard. “Great coach” (GC) was passing the athlete on the way to the lodge and stopped to ask them what was wrong. GC listened intently then gave them a simple strategy. “I want you to close your eyes. I want you to visualize the athlete at the scoreboard who was unkind. Now see what they said to you and imagine it as a rock. Can you see it? Can you feel the weight of it in your hand? Now I want you to imagine yourself giving the rock back to the athlete. Can you see it in their hand? Now open your eyes.” GC gave the athlete a hug and told them to hustle or they would miss their second run and headed back toward the lodge. The athlete turned to me after GC walked away and said “Oh, I get it. I can just let it go. It’s their problem not mine. Cool.” Problem solved.
I have learned that keeping an open mind with regard to coaches with hard to quantify and rare perspectives is important. Coaches are not like sugar cookies cut from a mold, everyone mostly just like the other. They are like a salad from a salad bar, each one slightly different depending on the toppings. You can make a lot of great salads at a salad bar, each distinctive from the other. Listing all the potential combinations that would likely produce a tasty salad or a great coach is impossible. Here’s some “ingredients” that should be contemplated.
Other important considerations; age, competitive experience, values and character
The age debate. A lot of parent evaluations of coaches seem to touch on age. This coach is too old that one too young. Like in all areas of life, youth and maturity each have their strengths. Race coaching is no different. For that reason, age while a factor, should not be a primary consideration in judging competency. A young coach newly retired from ski racing and passionate about the sport, wanting to give back and share the lessons they recently learned is a powerful thing. Equally powerful is the credibility that comes from doing the job over years. Young coaches are like new parents, excited and shiny and sort of feeling their way through their job. A coach toward the end of their career has most likely “seen it all,” and leads athletes with confidence grounded in experience, especially in times of crisis. I found that whether or not a coach was best for my athlete, never really seemed to be linked to the coach’s age.
The competitive advantage. Competition requires a special skill set. Elite competitive athletes…regardless of the sport they compete in, have very similar capabilities. They have developed unique abilities to succeed in their sport. Those abilities include things like mental strength, perseverance, gamesmanship, learning to deal with adversity, strategic thinking and self-esteem; qualities every parent hopes their athlete will learn from participating in competitive sports. This special skill set was honed and polished through their experience and it shines in a way that reflects who they are as an individual and what worked for them. Whether they were a pro football player, star college lacrosse player or stand-out ski racer on the world cup the same skills were applied.
Successful past competitive athletes will be an inspiration, they can motivate just by their presence but they will not automatically be a great coach. The ability to communicate and teach is not a sure thing just because someone was a good athlete. I have seen that play out more than once. I have sat-in on coach video review sessions with FIS athletes where coaches straight off the World Cup gave feedback. The kids sat there wide-eyed and expectant sure that the feedback about to be given was going to be the perfect nugget to propel them to the podium. Unfortunately, the skills and abilities needed for success on a race course didn’t prepare the coach for dealing with developing athletes. Instead they were often unintentionally demeaning, disheartening and sometimes plain old rude. With time and desire, those coaches will and did learn to be better. It’s just important to be aware that time to learn a new skill set will be required before they will be able to tap their coaching super power.
Values & Character “The Non-negotiables.” I have found in my journey as a race parent and coach that there are some values and characteristics that for me are non-negotiable. If you yell, get physical, lie, cheat, bully or demean an athlete, a parent, a volunteer or a fellow coach you will not be coaching my kid, I will not be giving my money to your program and I will not be working with you…plain and simple. If you use any of those behaviors as part of your coaching repertoire, I don’t care how many kids you got on the ski team, or how many awards or podiums your athletes have won, that you have a degree in sport science or brought dollars in sponsorship money to the team, I will not be able to turn a blind eye just for the opportunity you might represent.
I ask you to consider that a truly good coach…not even a great one, just a good one, can motivate, teach, mentor and inspire without denigrating, intimidating and even just sucking the love out of skiing. A coach that loses their composure and yells at parents because they are tired or frustrated, a coach that shows favoritism, a coach that makes fun of their or others’ athletes on coach’s knoll are doing so because they don’t have the skill to coach well and correctly.
Finally, as parents we can be tough customers. We have high hopes for our children and higher standards for the people who teach and coach them. Even higher sometimes than we have for ourselves. That is okay. Most quality coaches will see your love of your child as the motivation behind your concerns, comments and criticism. A good coach knows they themselves are not perfect and understands they have weaknesses. A great one will be open to your questions and feedback and will make a plan to improve and adjust their coaching when they understand they have an area for growth. Before you decide if a coach is good or great and who is best to get your athlete to the top take some time to dig deeper than the court of public opinion. Then, take what you find-out to the bottom of the race course and brag about the amazing talents of your team’s coaching staff.
-Ski Racer Chaser