Chris, you took over the Development team in 2003 after working with Miles Minson for several years. What are some of the ideas and objectives you’ve tried to build and instill into the program?
I learned a lot working with Miles. He was always thinking about improving the basics. He made me realize it isn’t super hard to prepare people to race fast. We spent most out our time, going back, working on the fundamentals. That’s the advantage with working with eighteen, nineteen, twenty year old athletes.Â They are not trying to be internationally successful right now, today. They are looking to be the best in 2010. There is much less worry about fine tuning. They are concentrated on the big things.
Trond Nystad said that he has the right athletes on the national team — ones that were continually striving of become better, never complacent with their skills or where they’re at.Â What are some of the qualities you look for in development team athletes?
Good question. First, the athlete must have a certain level of talent. This isn’t seen in some laboratory setting. Certain development team athletes have high oxygen uptake numbers; some have lower values but higher lactate thresholds. With skiing changing (mass start racing, duathlons, sprints) there will be more and more physiological pathways to skiing success. I see talent as overall athleticism. Good skiers pick up skills in other sports fast. You need this to make technique adaptations, have a feel for the ski or gliding.Â Second is work ethic.Â It always seems like there’s an athlete s with talent, or with work ethic. It’s rare to find those with both. The ones with both though are the ones we want on the development team.
With American skiers, where do you see the biggest possible gains?
It’s no mistake the athletes making world junior teams continually come out of the same five to six programs. In finding a way to motivate athletes to get out the door every day, you’ll see gains.Â Â Number one, just get out there.Â Number two is having a program emphasize technique first, then strength and speed.
The motto of the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association is â€œbest in the world.â€Â Does the cross country ski team have the athletes and resources to actualize this mantra?
The (national team and development team) athletes are defiantly the starting point. To truly be the best in the world we’re going to need a bigger team. The teams that dominate have big teams to cultivate skiers. To be the best in the world with a small team and staff is unfeasible. We need to grow to make that happen.
You’ve been racing and coaching throughout the country.Â Skiing Bill Koch league through high school in Anchorage, then for Dartmouth, coaching for Sun Valley, Stratton, Mt. Bachelor now the U.S. Ski team- the list goes on and on.Â From any of these different places is their any insight or way of doing things that stands out, that you incorporate into your coaching?
It’s not the places but the coaches and athletes that I’ve had to work with that stands out. In every coach I’ve met there’s something I want to emulate into my own coaching style. Rick Kapala (coach of the Sun Valley Ski Team) is a major influence, whose coaching style and energy I try to emulate.Â Kapala loves cross country skiing. He puts his mind and his heart into it. He relates to athletes on a very personal level, in taking an interest to what they’re doing inside and outside the sport. He has amazing energy.
Leif Zimmerman told me he doesn’t think the NCAA circuit has a high enough level of competition. At 20, he chose the development team over free school.Â Kris Freeman and Andrew Johnson also left school early, and have had success.Â Are these unique individuals or is the NCAA collegiate ski system antiquated?
It’s not outdated. NCAA skiing is a great development tool for ninety-nine percent of American skiers.Â Then there are those skiers with a desire to devote more time to skiing that must look to the national team, Scandinavia or a factory team to pursue skiing. For most NCAA is a great system.
Where do you think NCAA skiing could improve as a development pipeline, or should that not be one of its intents?
I feel for the NCAA coaches. They are under very strict guidelines.Â There are times of the year when they can’t even (initiate) talks with their athletes. Â In that respect their hands are tied. Â There are coaches out there who would like to run more year round teams but can’t, simply due to the rules of the NCAA.
Chris, what’s your take on sport psychology?Â
Sport psychology is very important. The athletes I have a chance to work with have somehow acquired the most important sport psych skills- concentration, stress management, arousal, confidence – but no one has the complete package. We use sport psychology to make sure they can at least leave this program with a working understanding of psychology.
Where does self confidence come from?
Self confidence is a super skill to have. It usually comes from year after year of success in sports. That’s why we bring our athletes along at their own pace. That way they can have success each year, building and maintaining that confidence.Â The other import part is to race races that are age appropriate. It’s one thing to bring a World Junior level athlete to the World Junior Championships.Â It does nothing but make them lose confidence to race them at the World Championships.
Is it true that the more difficult the conditions, the better a mentally tough racer will race?
Absolutely. When the conditions are tough the mentally tough rise to the occasion. Mentally tough athletes are also almost always the strongest, best prepared skiers.Â This strength allows them to maintain technique when the track and conditions are bad.Â Mentally tough skiers make the best out of a tough situation.
We’re generalizing now, but would you characterizer the American skiers that race at World Juniors, Scandinavia Cups, Europa Cups, etc. mentally tough?Â
That’s a tough one. The best ones are very mentally tough. The thing is when we go over to Europe they emphasize head to head races.Â This year on the Europa Cup there isn’t a single individual race start. Â They are used to this kind of style of racing.Â They don’t get knocked around. We need more exposure to this rough style of racing.
Who were some of your early heroes?
I’d have to say Gunde Svan.Â He was one of my first heroes. When Bill Koch was at his best I didn’t have much awareness to what was happening internationally on the ski scene.Â At his time Gunde had had unprecedented success. He was the one guy you could get a poster of.Â Occasionally Gunde absolutely dominated.
Where does the U.S. ski team go from here?
I feel were heading in the right direction. As new talent emerges we need to incorporate it into the (national and development team) programs. And if there’s one thing we have (in the U.S.) its talent. Finally we desperately need coaches’ education to develop this talent in similar ways.
Chris, thanks for you time and insight.Â