Interview: Patrick Coffey on Learning to Coach and Developing American Athletes (and Clubs!)

Chelsea LittleJune 17, 20111

(Note: this interview is the third in a series of profiles of USBA coaches. The first two were with Per Nilsson and Jonne Kahkonen.)

When Patrick Coffey was hired by the United States Biathlon Association (USBA) as an assistant coach in 2008, he had only three years of coaching experience, making him an unusual choice for a national team position.

But what he lacked in formal training and experience, he made up for in passion. In those three years, Coffey had grown the Ethan Allen Biathlon Club almost tenfold and turned it into one of the top clubs in the country, seemingly through sheer power of will and positive thinking.

“We had him join us at some national team camps as a part of our coach mentor program,” USBA President and CEO Max Cobb told FasterSkier. “He demonstrated his great enthusiasm for coaching and brought a lot of energy to his work. Biathlon is a very coaching-intensive sport and we recognized that we needed more coaching manpower to deliver a really good program for the national team.”

Since then, Coffey has grown into his role with the national team and is beloved by his athletes, several of whom asked FasterSkier to do an article on him. He currently works with the resident athletes in Lake Placid and the women’s national year-round and coaches the IBU Cup trips in the winter, and is the only American member of USBA’s coaching staff.

“Patrick has and continues to work really hard to deliver well organized training for the athletes, all the while learning from our senior coaching staff,” Cobb said. “I think it has worked out well for the program and for Patrick too.”

When FasterSkier talked to Coffey a few weeks ago, the interviewer had just completed a long hike in the White Mountains with Susan Dunklee, one of Coffey’s athletes, and that provided a jumping-off point for the convseration.

FasterSkier: First of all, Susan told me to let you know that she hadn’t done a whole Presi Traverse, because she knew you weren’t psyched about that.

Patrick Coffey: I was wondering. I was actually going to spy and ask how long she went for.

FS: When we were hiking along, she mentioned that more than some of the other coaches you encourage workouts and adventures like that one. What do you see as the benefit to really long adventures in the mountains?

PC: Well, I don’t know that I would endorse people going out and doing huge twelve, thirteen, fourteen hour days, because those are really hard to recover from. I think that probably more what she’s hinting at is that I think it’s important for people to individualize the training so that they’re happy as a person. So she likes to go out in the mountains and hike, backpack, trail run, so I try to work that stuff in a little more for her. We have other people who are like, tell me to go on a four hour bike ride and I’ll go on a four hour bike ride. They’re happy doing whatever is considered the absolutely best possible thing.

FS: So now that that’s out of the way, could you tell me a little bit about how you got started coaching biathlon?

PC: The long saga is that I grew up in Essex [Vermont], right near the Jericho range, and started skiing as a freshman in high school. I trained at the range, saw biathlon, and really wanted to get into it, so I competed for six years, was pretty bad, never super successful, didn’t ski in college, ended up having surgery when I was 21 that made it fairly clear that I was not going anywhere as an athlete.

So I had a friend who was coaching in Jericho at the time. I couldn’t drive after the surgery so he would pick me up on his way to the range and I would help him coach. That was kind of my introduction to it and I realized that it was a great way to stay in the sport.

I moved to Montana for a while and when I came back I decided that I wanted to start coaching in Jericho [for the Ethan Allen Biathlon Club] and really get the club going there. I totally lucked out that within three years I was working for USBA. They – I don’t want to say that they took note, but they noticed that there was actually a person trying to coach, an American, and man did they take a gamble. Because it’s just scary to think about what I didn’t know when they hired me. But they gave me an opportunity to coach at the highest level, and I like to think that I’ve been maximizing that opportunity and really trying to go for it.

FS: So…. did you have any training as a coach, then?

PC: Nope [laughs]. Basically what I was trying to do was emulate my junior coach, which was impossible because he was a drill sergeant, you know, that which does not kill you only makes you stronger. I’m much more of a, well, I guess you could say a mother hen. So I tried to take what I knew from him and adapt it to my own style. But it’s true. I was painfully clueless. I had way more motivation than I did knowledge when I started, but I figured that was enough to get things going.

FS: Right now Ethan Allen is a pretty big club. Has it always been that way?

PC: Well, in the mid and late nineties, USBA started five Regional Centers of Excellence (RCE’s). One of them in Jericho, and it was a thriving junior group. That started to fall off when I went to college, and then through college and when I was living in Montana I kind of lost track of things. When I came back, I want to say there were two or three athletes there.

FS: That’s a big change.

PC: I set goals for myself. I kind of made a three year plan, that I wanted to get twenty kids in the program, start a masters program, place at least one athlete on the junior worlds team every year, and then by the third year have one on every team. A lot of it was ignorance is bliss, but I’ve never been very practical.

FS: But you did grow the program a lot.

PC: Yeah, I was really lucky. I think that one of the best things was starting a masters group, because I’m still really passionate about community development, and I think you need to have it not just on the highest level of people who are national team, World Cup, Olympic-bound. And the idea was to have the masters as part of the community. Because yeah, they’re not going to go out to U.S. Nationals and get a podium and try to make these national teams. But, they love the sport, they’re going to talk about it, and if you need to run a race, that’s a great group to tie into.

And out of that group we’ve had two folks join the board in Jericho, and one of them, John Madigan, is the president of Ethan Allen. He’s doing such a fantastic job. And I’d like to think that part of his introduction to the sport at Jericho in a bigger way, was because it was a masters group.

FS: To backtrack a little bit, what happened to the RCE’s, and what are your ideas about developing more biathlon clubs in the U.S.?

PC: To talk about the RCE’s, they put five of them together. In every sport, there’s the four year cycle with the Olympics. Every NGB (national governing board) swears that they’re not going to change anything, and then something always gets dropped. And that’s what happened. I can’t remember if it was after Nagano or after Salt Lake that the RCE’s lost their funding. But honestly of the five that were started, I can’t remember exactly who it was but there was a good group in Minnesota, a good group in upstate New York here and a good group in Jericho. Minnesota still has a program, Jericho still has a program – I would say that Jericho and Fort Kent are kind of the big programs as far as numbers go. Alaska has some amazing talent. Minnesota is obviously cranking out some amazing athletes as well.

And then as far as the way to kind of get back on track, I actually did write up a development plan, just because I do like to stick my nose in that business. As an American, I feel like I have a unique perspective. I have now worked with the highest level athletes, so I see where the road is going, but I also have a better idea of where it begins. We don’t have tons of organized clubs, we don’t have any culture that backs it. And I think what I’ve learned from my own experience is that the most important thing for getting a club off the ground is just to have somebody with energy and passion. You know, you could have somebody who knows everything about the sport, but if they’re not an energetic personality, who’s going to want to hang out with them?

I think that there needs to be coaching development as well as athlete development in this country. One of the things that I’ve been trying to get off the ground, and it’s an enormous undertaking, is a website with information for people who just want to start with the basics of biathlon. In retrospect, I went into Jericho not knowing my ass from my elbow. I wanted it to happen, I was organized, I was just kind of a driving force, and I think that’s the most important part. Because it’s a really interesting sport – it’s such an easy sell!

FS: What do you think can be done to get more fans interested?

PC: Boy. That’s one that I don’t have an answer for. I think that the problem with growing the community has to do with accessibility. Because if you’ve got snow and somebody with a snowmobile, you’re skiing, but the process of having a biathlon venue is so much more involved, when you add the rifles in there. It does blow my mind a little bit that every four years there seems to be a surge in interest, and then nobody keeps it. I wish I had an answer because about everything else, I’ve always got an opinion [laughs].

FS: You’re the only American coach on the USBA staff right now. Do you think you have a better understanding of how American athletes are developing, and how grassroots biathlon works in the U.S.?

PC: I think it definitely gives me a unique perspective. Because we talk about this all the time as a coaching staff and with our High Performance Director. There are cultural differences that are going to be very hard to understand no matter how much time these coaches spend around Americans. So that’s been a big advantage, not only for myself – I’m learning from them, it’s a two-way street. I’m learning their training philosophies they are bringing from each country, and I’m helping them understand why sometimes our athletes act the way they do. Not in a good or a bad way, but just the American mindset, I guess.

FS: You were the national team assistant coach for a while, and now you’re back to being the Lake Placid coach, is that sort of accurate?

PC: Yeah, it’s interesting because everyone asks me oh, what’s your job title. And on paper, I’m the Lake Placid High Performance Coach and the women’s national team Assistant Coach. But the reality is, now we’re a little more separate. Jonne [Kahkonen] and I are taking care of the women, Per [Nilsson] and Armin [Auchentaller] are taking care of the men, but it’s really fluid. All four of us are always in constant contact. I realize that of the four I’m low man on the totem pole. But I think that we’re not confined. My role is in the winter to be on the IBU Cup [a race circuit in Europe one level below the World Cup]. So anyone that ends up on the IBU Cup, I’m going to be working with. So the lines are not super definitive. And I feel like my involvement has increased every year, because I’m more knowledgeable and more confident, I’m able to add more to the conversation every year.

FS: What have you learned from working with Jonne and Per?

PC: Oh [laughs].

FS: That’s too general a question.

PC: No. I would say just about everything. I was super lucky to be put in the position I was in and I try to absorb as much as I can. What I’ve learned from Per is that the physical training can be as complicated or as simple as you want to make it, and that you can wrap your head around a lot of the big ideas and a lot of the individual ideas and boil it down and have a training philosophy. Within that you can be really specific but I think if you were to ask the athletes, the philosophy is really straightforward, and the training plans are easy to understand. Everything has a reason. I think that’s what I’ve learned from Per: that however complicated it might be in his head, when it’s presented it’s simple, it’s straightforward, and we don’t need to stress about some of the little details that are distracting.

FS: It seems like you have a lot of different athletes in the program, for instance some who have been doing biathlon since they were really young and some who just picked it up. How do you deal with that as a coach and make those athletes a cohesive group?

PC: The women have been doing a really great job of that themselves. Last year they banded together and said, let’s go ahead as a group, we’re going to gain respect as a group, and we’re going to respect whoever is in the driver’s seat on the World Cup and on the IBU Cup, and it worked. Any of the success that that group had last year, which is a lot, speaks well of the entire group.

But I think that it’s really important to understand that each athlete has a different background. So I’m not going to sit around and give Lanny and Tracy [Barnes] shooting advice, because it’s pointless. I feel like we should sit around and they should tell me some things. But it’s a matter of respecting the backgrounds but also understanding the personalities and how they absorb the information. So I guess any good coach would tell you that it’s about adaptation and not trying to use the same line of instruction with every athlete because it’s not an effective tool. You may want to get the same point across to two different athletes, and you have to do it two different ways.

Chelsea Little

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One comment

  • juniorbiathlete

    June 17, 2011 at 12:14 pm

    Great Article! Patrick truly is an awesome example of a Coach who genuinely loves what he does and wants to share that passion with the athletes. He always has an encouraging word, and a smile to back it up! (or at least 95% of the time!)

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