Building the Engine & Attitude of a Champion

September 11, 20093

One group near the top, another headed that way.  (Photo by Shaky Fecteau).
One group near the top, another headed that way. (Photo by Shaky Fecteau).

“After Torino, I wasn’t going to spend the next four years to hope American skiers could win Olympic medals in Vancouver. I am done with hoping,” said Pete Vordenberg on the first night of the September National Team Camp in Whistler, B.C. “I dedicated the last four years to knowing we can have that success this winter. That’s what the last four years have been about. This is the difference from Torino to now. This is the difference of four years. Now I know. Now I know we have the team, the service team, the talent and the requisite winning attitude.  Now, when we come back here in February – after we’ve completed the remaining most professional, most inspired 162 days of preparation of our lives we have left until the Games start – you will have more than hope, you more than believe that we have what it takes to compete to the top of the Olympic podium.”

Pete didn’t have to ask twice.

“Talent, it’s as common and as cheap as table salt.”

From here, sport psychologist Dr. John Hammermeister took over the talk, asking each of the members of the ski team to build their own perfect model of a ski racing champion, then discern whether the attribute was influenced most my talent, skill or attitude. Attributes bandied about included a commitment to excellence, focus, self-confidence, and endurance, along with a whole host of others.  By the end of the exercise, intriguing themes emerged. The attitude attributes – that is, when we make a conscious decision to act, think or feel about a situation – and skill, an attribute that improves through perfect repetition – far outweighed genetic parameters. As Morgan Arritola said, “You need the gift. Then, when you have this, it comes down to ‘What will you do with your talent?’ For this, you need the right attitude.”

According to experts interviewed for this article, including an exercise physiologist, a sport psychologist, national team coaches and a former Olympic champion there is a talent cut-line aspiring Olympic medalists need to have.

As Head US Ski Team Physiologist Randy Hill points out there is a definite genetic cut-line, particularly in engine-based sports. “In a skill-based sport like aerials, there’s a softer genetic cut-line. In engine-based sports there are no ifs, ands or buts.  But if you’ve made the club, physiological factors like Vo2 max or cardiac efficiency give way to other factors, like teasing out who works hardest within the group, who learns the quickest, and who is the most resilient. These characteristics then become the most relevant factors.”

But, as John Hammermeister said, “Sure, there’s a genetic cut-line. But you can be on the line and still make it happen. I’ve seen this many times before. Many, many times.”

“Of course, the guy whose the most professional, always bringing his A-Game to the table, are necessary prerequisites,” said three-time Olympian and current national team coach Justin Wadsworth. “But the attitude of a champion goes about this in a humble way where it adds to the team dynamic. The champion adds to another individual on the team’s feeling about him or herself. If everyone steps up like this together, this becomes a culture; a cycle and we grow as a team. I think we’ve been doing this the past four years.”

An athlete asks Matt Whitcomb, “We have 162 days to reach our Olympic objectives. What are the keys to making this happen?”

“What’ll make it?” replies Whitcomb. “The athletes functioning as the athletes they’ve become from the past ten, fifteen years of preparation instead of throwing a hail-mary for the Olympics. The wood’s in the shed. Now, we’ve got to burn it when the time is right.

“We don’t have to do anything special at the Olympics. Obviously, there’s something special that goes into every race. Changing our program because the Olympics are such a high-profile event just to grab those results we want would not be effective. We need to do what we need to do. No, we need to do what we know how to do. We need the hardest of workers who are able to raise the level of those around them.”

Torin Koos / Xanadu Communication* 2009 * All Rights Reserved

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  • Patrick Stinson

    September 11, 2009 at 11:16 am

    I like the last part from Matt.

  • genegold

    September 12, 2009 at 10:43 am

    Is the fact that this (confused) discussion is going on a good sign in general, let alone two months before the season starts?

  • Marc Beitz

    September 13, 2009 at 8:50 am

    Agreed. The strngest counter-indication that any of this is true is the fact that this article was written. And by a member of the US Ski Team. Xanadu, indeed.

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