I recently heard a discussion about the “The Rule of One,” in the context of coaching. The premise, as stated in the related article, was this:

“One person. One comment. One time. It can change a life forever. Our words can be affirming and life changing, or demeaning and depressing. We don’t get to pick and choose which ones stick, and which ones our kids forget, so we better be careful.”


It got me thinking about the awesome responsibility and invaluable opportunity that goes along with being a coach. As 1984 gold medalist Deb Armstrong says, “It’s simple yet not easy. It’s not rocket science but it’s the most difficult thing ever.”

When people talk about the magic of great coaches, one statement always comes up: “They believed in me.” The simple yet critical act of believing is what allows a coach to have profound impact on an athlete, and unlock his or her highest potential. Belief, however, is not a matter of saying, ‘I believe in you, so believe in yourself.’ It is a two-way street, traveled by coach and athlete, that spans hard work, honesty and mutual respect. A relationship of trust that begets belief, is the basis for all great coaching, which makes it a great place to start:

Coaches who look to build athletes into better, stronger, happier more capable people are building transformational relationships, that often last a lifetime. This is very different than the transactional relationship based on achieving results.
“My best coaches were invested in me personally, because we had a relationship with each other, we wanted the best in life for each other, like friends,” says 1985 World Championship bronze medalist Eva Twardokens. “They reminded me that ski results were not going to make or break my life.” She uses that approach in her current life, as a personal trainer and health practitioner: “They are not clients, patients, or students—they are all relationships.”

As the saying goes, “They won’t care what you know until they know that you care.” That statement is as true with horse-whispering as it is with ski racing and virtually any learning environment. The place to start is eye contact, even when it means getting you’re your knees to talk to a 6-year-old. US Ski Team Women’s Speed Coach Chip White started his ski coaching career in Mammoth under Dennis Agee, who taught him the importance of treating each athlete with respect. “He told me, ‘You need to make them believe they are the most important person right then. Look them in the eye and let them know you hear them.’” This does not mean you gloss over hard truths. “You have to be honest, but you have to be present with them at that moment,” adds White, who strives to create a team environment where every member of the team, including coaches, athletes, service and support staff feel connected, valued and included.

Image Credit: Alain Grosclaude/Agence Zoom

“You can smell emotional commitment from a mile away.” So said Gene Webb, a pioneer in business organization at Stanford University. Jim Thompson, founder of Positive Coaching Alliance, once worked with Webb and in his work now he observes that where coaches have a pied-piper following, “connection precedes commitment.” Said one 18-year-old of his best coaches: “They care. And they are in to it.” Great coaches bring an infectious level of enthusiasm to everything they do. They may or may not be great skiers, but they are connected to the sport and the athletes, often leading the charge on a powder day. When a coach doesn’t care about an athlete or the sport, coaching becomes just a job and a very uninspiring one at that. When a coach constantly questions or challenges an athlete’s commitment it erodes trust and confidence. When the connection is authentic and sincere, however, athlete commitment—to a coach or a program—naturally follows.

Ski racing is a complex interplay of technique, tactics and equipment over variable terrain, which is further complicated by constantly changing weather and surface. The last thing an athlete needs is a coach with TMI. Mark Smith, head FIS coach at Ski Club Vail, has a coaching philosophy inspired by his own coach, Hermann Göllner. “He was always very calm and broke things down into simpler terms so I could stay focused. That’s what I like to do now.” Smith’s technical progressions build on each skill only after it has been mastered. A measured, incremental approach allows athletes to break a complicated sport into simple, achievable steps. The slow and steady build may not be difficult, but, in a hyper competitive environment where chasing races can be a year-round pursuit, it takes discipline and resolve to execute. When talking about coaching Smith’s best advice is, “The biggest secret is there is no secret.” Smith notes that one thing in this sport has remained simple: “It still only takes two races in a year to score and move up.”

Athletes need to push their limits to excel. Setting a goal too low does nothing but feed the ego, but setting it too high kills confidence. “Each athlete has that sweet spot where the challenge is easy enough to inspire, but hard enough so that it will take a leap—of faith and in learning—to reach it,” explains World Champ medalist coach Doug Lewis. “Ultimately, they are giving you the confidence to know yourself, identify your needs and gain independence.”

Lewis has been coaching kids ages 9-14 at his ELITEAM camps for 26 years. The task of getting 60 kids that age to work together and stay positive while pushing their physical limits and learning new things would be akin to herding cheetahs without some serious organization and prep. “Great coaches are organized and prep for every session,” says Lewis, “because they know that time spent training should be spent training—not setting up, not finding things, not waiting on people, not waiting on OKs, not in lines at the top of the course, etc. Athletes deserve as much prep from the coaches that the coaches expect from the athletes.” So there!

It’s not enough to have a plan. You have to communicate it clearly, ahead of time. Doing that makes even tough messages easier to accept, and invites input before it is too late. Smith, whose seasonal plans typically involve more gradual progressions and less total racing than parents are used to, always explains the plan and its purpose, and welcomes questions, well before the training starts. “If you explain the program really well up front, people tend to buy in to it,” he says.

The last thing any athlete needs is more pressure. The ability to create an environment that is both low stress and high energy, one that allows a team of fierce competitors—all of whom have the very highest expectations—to sit at the same dinner table, is an art. When a coach can do this, you see a team dynamic that lifts each individual to higher levels. Michel Rudigoz, who formed his coaching style under France’s Honoré Bonnet, enabled that magic with the early 1980’s US women’s ski team. “What he did was to soften the ambience,” says 1983 Overall World Cup Champ Tamara McKinney. She recalls Rudigoz using kindness, humor and solid advice to lift her out of a 14 DNF streak. “He brought the love of life, and humanizing to that level of the sport.” Rudigoz’s gift was in balancing the discipline of hard work with the freedom to relax, be yourself and enjoy the journey. “I was not cracking the whip,” explains Rudigoz, who advised younger athletes to learn from their environment. “I would say: ‘You’re great! But you’re going too slow. Look at the fast girls. Train with them.’”

Leaders need to exude confidence, especially in tough situations. That does not mean you have to be a know-it-all dictator. “If you know everything it’s time to get out because you are not going to help anyone, including yourself,” says White, who credits his coaching style to many mentors along the way. “I like listening to people. As long as you feel like you are being heard it goes a long way. That goes for me too.” Coaches who are open and eager to learn about their athletes and their sport are in the best position to get the most out of everyone around them.

As Celtic Football Club manager Brendan Rogers says it, “Every player has four words written on his or her forehead: “Show Me I’m Loved.” One of the most common bad coaching moves is to play favorites, giving more time to the strongest athletes and less to the struggling ones. “This drives me crazy,” says Lewis, “and I see it and hear about it all the time. All athletes deserve the same amount of energy and love.” In fact, the fastest athletes typically need less time and attention from the coach and the struggling ones need more. Great coaches put extra effort into athletes who are putting their hearts into the sport, despite struggling to fit in or find success. Tiny victories for those athletes are far more valuable and rewarding than another win for a super star.

Image Credit: Gabbi Hall

Finding that perfect coaching match is a rare and wonderful thing. “Athletes and parents need to know that it’s not a given, and not something you are entitled to,” says Armstrong, now a U-10 coach at Steamboat. “It’s like finding the love of your life. When you have it, love it. If you don’t have it, don’t worry about it.” Armstrong found that magic in her high school basketball coach, Ralph Hayden. “First, he taught me the skills and had the knowledge. Second, he really appreciated me and believed in me. I FELT his commitment.” A great coach for one person may not be great for another, which brings us to…

If you stay in any sport long enough you will run in to coaches that don’t know their stuff, are arrogant or insecure or both, erode confidence, ignore struggling athletes, have no plans, have inflexible plans, say nothing, say too much, etc, etc. Great coaching is often best defined by how it contrasts with examples of not-so-great coaching. The image of my kid’s soccer coach, sitting silently on the water cooler through an entire game with his head down comes to mind. I’ve seen, heard and lived through far too many bad coaching moments, at every level, to recount. The lesson is that a great athlete can’t depend on coaching. “Ultimately you will be by yourself as you progress and move on and up through the ranks,” says Lewis, who credits bad coaches with teaching him about self-awareness, self-advocacy and independence, all things that enabled him to coach himself.

Nobody but nobody is perfect. When great coaches mess up, lose patience, make a bad decision or otherwise are off their game, they acknowledge it and apologize. Those little acts of honesty and humility are memorable and powerful.

Author’s note: A huge thanks to all the athletes and coaches who contributed to this piece, knowingly and unknowingly, by good example and bad. Anyone quoted and referred to was first identified by multiple athletes as a great coach. I spoke to and about many great coaches not mentioned by name. To all of you great coaches out there, hopefully along the way the people you have impacted let you know!