NewsCoaches Around the Country: Walt Berling

FasterSkierFebruary 26, 2007

** Editors note: This will be a weekly column highlighting our ski coaches from around the country… including elite coaches, college coaches, high school coaches, volunteer coaches, and learn-to-ski coaches. This is an effort to sample a diverse group of coaches and recognize the people who are the backbone of today’s skiers. If you would like to nominate a coach for an interview, please email Please give coach’s name, email, phone, and a small paragraph describing the nominee. The more diverse, the better.

Walt is Head Coach of Jackson Hole High School (JHHS) in Jackson, Wyoming.

Brian Schilling, Parke Cogswell, David Bergart, Walt Berling, Ali Deines

I am old and getting older – 52 – I still feel I have the same level of love for the sport and kids, but I do get more tired. On the interval days we ski with the kids. I no longer jump in with the fastest!

What do you think your athletes would say about you as a coach?
I think and hope they would say I value all kids on our team – not just the fastest. My rule on being a teammate is that you are either adding to a situation or taking away — our best years are when all kids have and opportunity to give and do. I love skiing and I share this with them, I am not the most technical person, but good on the emotional side – a side I feel is very important is team spirit and racing to your best. I work hard and expect them too, but also feel ‘fun’ is very important. If you are not having fun, even when it hurts, you are not going to last in the sport. Also, I speak too fast and can even on occasion confuse myself, and at times things come out of my mouth that I have no idea where they came from!

Why do you coach?
If you don't coach for the love of the kids you shouldn't coach. Love of the sport must also be there but you are really there as a people person. At many times I see skiing as a tool – it brings such great things beyond the joy of skiing itself. I tell the kids that just skiing fast in itself is not really that valuable of a skill. The work you do get there is what makes you a great person, the ability to focus on a task, the ability to push your self in often brutal conditions with no one watching – this is why NORDIES ARE THE BEST!

Coaching is a great fit with education (my job). At school, I work with learning disorders and behavioral challenged kids. Coaching is teaching, teaching is coaching.

Behavioral challenged kids? …I always say that is pretty much what the ski cabin looks like before practice! You better get the kid’s interest – get your point across and then get out of the way! FAST!

Beyond the kids – it is the coaches. They are the finest group of people one could ever ask to meet. Rick Kapala gets a lot of ink and deserves it — who would you rather go to a race with? John Callahan also amazes me — he works so hard – stays so calm. These guys now get to work full time in skiing. On the high school side where resources can be limited, two coaches jump out at me. The first is Marty Stannard of Cody, Wyoming. He was the bus driver for their ski team for many years and did a lot more coaching than the actual coach. When the coach resigned Marty took over — still drives and coaches. The team is an hour plus from snow – their practices on snow means parking the bus with its lights on shining on some snow and skiing back and forth. Their town is often too windy to roller ski in the summer – yet his team just keeps growing. The other person that comes to mind is Bob Matson — teaches PE in Casper and has been coaching 27+ years. He heads up the new division of HP and has been the guiding light of Wyoming high school skiing. It is also refreshing how coaches from competing nordic programs all work (for the most part) together – you see very little cut throat behavior. I think as long as coaches make decisions on what is best for the kids, which a times may not appear what is best for a program, things work out well.

If you were to write a book about nordic skiing, what would the first chapter be about?
You are heading into one of the most beautiful sports in the world. It can be as challenging or relaxing as you make and need it to be. Nordic is based on things so simple that can take a lifetime to achieve – relaxed balance, a commitment to a ski, developing a feel for the snow, and a commitment to lifetime fitness and a healthy lifestyle. You will meet great people and probably a few angry moose.

Masters – skating is great but classic rules. It takes longer to master, but nothing beats a solid kick followed by an effortless glide. On a great day it is Zen-like, and that is coming from a former alter boy!

Funny coaching stories?
Every day brings a smile and many things funny to us would be like watching someone's home videos. I guess the best story I ever heard didn't happen to our team, but to two skiers from Laramie. It was at the State meet in 1980 in Casper, WY. After the race the team walked into Casper for lunch. It was one of those days spring felt like it was there and of course kids jumped in shorts and t-shirts though it probably was still cold. Two boys grabbed some sub sandwiches and looked for a place to sit in the sun to eat. There is a railroad switching yard in Casper so they jumped on a flat car – it moved several times as groups of cars were being attached and they thought nothing of it as it began moving again. Well, 150 cold and dusty miles later with them laying and clinging to a dirty flat railroad car at 60 mph, they were finally saved by the cops. They just happened to end up in a town of one of their Grandmothers who quickly drove them back to Casper. They started the next day as nothing had happened.

If you could stand on a Soap Box, what would you say?!
Uh oh….here’s where I will get in trouble! I hate to see over-specialization in high school age sports. I think kids should be involved in many activities. I hate to see one sport or activity exclude participation in others. Many of our skiers compete in soccer, swimming, golf, and cross country running and I would like to see this continue. On the high school side I think many high school coaches look at their sport in the short term – what they can get out of a kid in three months and I don't think this is healthy. On the other hand some sports want 15 year old kids to commit to a one sport focus, this is where I think the goal of the club/HS team is over riding the interest of the athlete. Nordic is pretty clean in this area – but I feel Club and HS coaches should collaborate in the interest of well rounded kids.

Masters – The cost to enter nordic skiing is getting to the point where the dollar cost of equipment can create a barrier to a young athlete trying to start skiing. If you have equipment in the garage collecting dust – consider donating it to your local team or club. I feel the pool of athletes in alpine is often dictated by the size of their parents checkbook and that is just not right. Every year we have several kids who wouldn't/couldn't ski nordic except for the generosity of our locals. Our local shop Skinny Skis also steps up – one reason to support your local businesses. A donation to your local high school team or club can make a huge difference. Our team is budgeted from the school for a team of twenty – but we are near thirty – without support we would be in trouble – I would never cut on athletic ability. Do you want your youth coaches coaching or out begging?

Listen to NPR – Wednesday mornings at 7:50. Why? – Frank Deford. Though he speaks of main stream sports, his philosophy, in my opinion, is so right on – the over commercialization of sports is out of control. He speaks of fair play – including the use of performance enhancing drugs, sportsmanship, and what it means to be a champion.

Anything else you’d like to add?
My team, some of whom I let read this interview (before sending it back to the editor) pretty much gave me the word I had to write this next part – against the advice of my lawyer! The picture is great – but it shows Liver Eaten – covered with real liver, some real blood and some fake blood – I take about 3 showers after the talk! (see explanation below)

Our team (JHHS) has three imaginary friends. All three are represented on our team hats and I use them in team talks. The first is “Help Me Mr.. Wizard” – Mr. Wizard first helped our team in one of those situations, of which anyone who has coached a skiing has experienced. The day is 25 degrees – mass start classic 20 kids – everything is under control when along comes the sun and it goes to our favorite 32 degrees RIGHT before start. Mr. Wizard's name is used somewhat like an appropriate swear word. Mr. Wizard is also a bit mischievous – like HS kids and also a bit magical – he spreads stardust on our pillows of our team the night before a big race ( Yes – I realize I coach high school kids). Our second imaginary friend is Kokoppelli with skis, whom sports the front spot on our ski hats – he/she is a bit vain – but also timeless and reminds kids to relax before races and about the timelessness of our sport. Kokoppelli also reminds me that at the end of our season, dusty mountain bike trails and big red rocks in Utah beckon me. The third and last, and the most infamous or most politically incorrect is “Liver Johnston.” I first heard about Liver Eaten from a history teacher who gave me the book “Crow Killer, The Diary of Liver Eaten Johnston” and he has been a part of our team ever since. He was a bit crude – our favorite story is about when he escaped from the Blackfoot Indians and walked from eastern Wyoming to south west Wyoming in November, half naked with a human leg as nourishment! He comes and tells the story every year at our fall camp at West (see picture — yes, that’s me). He teaches us – be tough, only worry about what you can control, have a plan that can change if needed, and respect your competition (though he battles the native Americans he also knew he shared much with them and without them he would be nothing.) It’s a read you won't forget!



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