Middlebury Skiing Interview – The New Kid: Matt Johnson

FasterSkierNovember 6, 2008

Matt Johnson is a former captain of the Middlebury Ski Team, a World Junior Competitor and the current assistant coach at Burke Mountain Academy. He talks about his transition into coaching, why he likes ski racing and steps to take between high school & college.

Andrew Gardner:You went from athlete to coach pretty quickly. What prompted that transition and how has it been?

Matt JohnsonAs my time at Middlebury started to wind down, I was eventually forced to think about what I wanted to do with my life in the real world, where geographically I wanted to do it, and how skiing factored into my future. After the last race of the season last year I was cooling down and it just didn’t feel like the end of my competitive skiing career. At the same time, my body was telling me that it needed a break physically and mentally from the rigors of focused training everyday. I also looked back on my racing career and thought about all the people who helped me achieve what I did, and I felt like I really wanted to help the next generation of skiers as my parents, coaches, and friends helped me before. When the Burke Mountain Academy job was advertised, I got really excited because I knew it would be a great opportunity to stay in Vermont, stay connected to the world of Nordic skiing, and to give something back to the sport.

The transition has been pretty seamless and really fun for me so far. The Burke nordies are awesome and the school as a whole is a really positive environment for both athletes and coaches. As a first time coach, it’s been really helpful to have a talented and self motivated group of athletes to work with, as well as an incredibly knowledgeable and experienced head coach/mentor (Pete Phillips). Pete and I have very similar philosophies about training and technique, so the athletes don’t hear many conflicting instructions.

AG:What’s the biggest surprise you’ve encountered as a coach?

MJ:Honestly, it’s pretty much as fun and hectic and exciting and complicated as I expected… I guess one thing that definitely has surprised me being on this side of things is how much I miss doing hard workouts now that I don’t have to. I like to pull on the rollerskis and jump in the workouts with the athletes quite a bit, but I’ve been finding that I really have fun doing the long hard intervals with them. At our last camp in Lake Placid the kids did a hard hillbounding workout with the U.S. Ski Team crew and I was definitely wishing I was chugging up that hill behind them. It’s the sort of feeling that only Nordic skiers would understand.

AG:What are the best and worst parts of being a young coach?

MJ:There are a lot of “best parts”… Obviously the BEST part about the job is that I get paid to do what I love. That pretty much sums it up right there. I think being on the younger side is an advantage in a lot of ways. The kids definitely enjoy having someone who can keep up with them on workouts. I think it’s also great being able to be outside working out for a good part of my day while I have lots of energy… I have plenty of time to work behind a desk when I’m older (although I’m hoping to avoid that altogether) so I couldn’t be happier coaching at this time in my life.
The worst part of being a young coach is the occasional person who thinks I’m part of the team. Ironically every person who has mistaken me for a high schooler so far has looked a lot younger than me. I know I don’t look 40, but I don’t actually look 17 do I??

AG:What are your goals for the year?

MJ:My primary goal for this year is to do everything I can to help every member of this team reach their full potential this winter, whether it is making the World Juniors team or getting top 10 in an Eastern Cup. In some ways it’s really nice to have such a small team because I feel like I have a good grasp on the strengths and weaknesses of each athlete and Pete and I are coming up with individualized plans to get everyone where they need to be by race season. This winter I really want to solidify my knowledge of kickwax and how to match them to snow conditions. There are a few other little things like waxing that I want to work on, but essentially they boil down to my goal of learning as much as I can to improve the quality of coaching I can provide to the team. I’ve also been inspired by Donovan Dums’ amazing grooming at Breadloaf last year, and I aspire to provide the same quality of tracks to the Burke community this year. I think MC KillaGram sums it up best when he says “corduroy fifteen feet wide, yeah we got’em—tracks so deep ya can’t see tha bottom”

AG:What are the biggest challenges your athletes face?

MJ:Not many. I grew up skiing in Anchorage with an awesome coach and an amazing program (Jan Buron, Alaska Winter Stars) on great trails with consistent snow, so I don’t have any complaints about the environment I grew up skiing in, but I haven’t seen a more ideal environment for fostering successful skiers and community members than Burke. Every kid at this school is extremely self motivated and talented, and training and living in a place where everyone is so focused really inspires every athlete to work as hard as they can every day. The teachers and coaches communicate well with each other so there is a good balance of academics and athletics, and there are very few distractions that can detract from the goals of the athletes. Everyone works hard, trains hard, eats well, gets enough sleep, etc. So not to duck the question, but I don’t think these guys have any bigger challenges than anyone else. Staying healthy is always tough especially around this time of year, but its no more difficult here than anywhere else. I’m talking about it like I’m trying to sell you the place right now I guess, so I guess it’s just something you have to experience. People are friendly here, they smile a lot, they don’t complain about much, they all want to win, and it will all show up in the results this season.

AG:Being fresh out of college and working with junior skiers, what advice do you have for juniors about to make the jump to college or a post high school program?

MJ:The advice I end up giving skiers and parents the most these days is to make your decision your own. I decided to go straight from high school to college without any time off, and I think that was the right decision for me. I have friends who took time off and skied in Scandinavia for a year and they had a great time, grew a little physically and mentally which prepared them better for skiing and college, and they have only good things to say about taking time off. Then I have other friends who went straight into college but probably could have used some time off before taking the plunge. Whatever you decide about where you go or when you go, don’t tell yourself that “everyone does it this way” or “everyone wants to go to this school” and think therefore that you should do that too. There are plenty of good programs and good schools out there, and pretty much all my friends were really happy with wherever they decided to go!

The other advice I have for all high school skiers about to enter the college circuit is never take the results you are getting right now for granted. People mature at different rates and figure their bodies out at different times, but the playing field becomes more even in these respects at the college level and therefore it becomes more even. The top of the results list transitions from the kids with the most natural strength and talent to the athletes who train the best. My basic advice is to train as best as you can- stick to the training plan, listen to your body, pay attention to details… its that advice you’ve been hearing for years that you goes in one ear and out the other… but now its important if you want to win!

Andrew Gardner is the Head Coach of the Middlebury College Ski Team. See more of this interview at http://www.middleburyskiing.org

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