When you think of a great coach, what type of personality pops into your mind? Is it a strong-headed leader with a masterful understanding of the sport or someone who goes above and beyond to support their athletes, facilitating their success regardless of the circumstances?
With U.S. Ski & Snowboard’s recently published “Athlete Project” illuminating some of the organization’s “pain points” or opportunities for improvement in recent years, a spotlight has been shone on the role of coaches and how their interactions with athletes and leadership can, in many ways, be the biggest driver of success on the hill.
Since the conclusion of last season, the sport education staff at U.S. Ski & Snowboard has been collaborating with their counterparts at the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC) to implement an innovative program that on the surface seems all too simple — teaching coaches how to be better coaches.
“I think there’s opportunities that we all have in any sport to sharpen the pencil and be more precise and concise in each and every aspect of the role of a coach, which is, as we all know, a massively complex role,” says U.S. Ski & Snowboard Director of Sport Education, Gareth Trayner. “I think with developing any skill, it’s a perpetual task. You can always be better.”
The initiative, dubbed “Project Apollo,” centers around the greater role of a coach and looks at the job as much more than just understanding the Xs and Os of their given sport. More specifically, how coaches with a wealth of technical and tactical knowledge about ski racing can become better communicators and advocates for their athletes and form better off-hill relationships.
“We generally find that in any sport in the U.S. the knowledge of the sport is there but how do we, with the advent of sports science in the last 20 years, best support those principals?” Trayner adds. “We’ve evolved from solely having sports psychology science and now we have coaching science.”
The product of the routine reflective period after an Olympic cycle by the USOPC, Project Apollo was born following the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea. The project is aimed at working alongside the USOPC’s various national governing bodies to help arm their coaches with the educational resources necessary to succeed year-in and year-out at the highest international levels.
Nadine Dubina is the Manager of Coaching Development at the USOPC and has been working closely with Trayner and his staff at the Center of Excellence in Park City as well as the other winter sports NGBs that are part of the greater Project Apollo over the past year. Dubina and her colleagues’ role is to serve as a consultant to U.S. Ski & Snowboard, providing coach education and development programming as well as feedback to the coaching staff on how to improve their best practices.
“I think that’s where we come in nicely,” Dubina says of the USOPC’s role in Project Apollo. “Part of the Apollo group laid out an entire ‘quality coaching framework’ that expands beyond just the technical and tactical side of coaching. We really focus on how to be better teachers, better reflectors, and better communicators. I don’t like calling these ‘soft skills’ soft skills, because if you’ve ever tried to do a soft skill, it’s really, really hard. We really work on that space because that type of teaching really doesn’t exist in a lot of places in formal coach education programming.”
“It’s almost a chicken or the egg type of situation where does the coach need to know how to teach a sport correctly or be able to connect with the athletes?” she adds. “In reality, it’s an and situation, they need to do both.”
Coincidentally, U.S. Ski & Snowboard has been somewhat ahead of the game in teaching these “soft skills” to new coaches, as much of the recently reimagined level 100 coaching certification is centered around reinforcing things like coach roles and responsibilities, sport ethics, and the art and science of teaching and learning. The missing piece, however, was that same education for the coaching staff at the national team level.
This early work, according to Dubina, made the buy-in to Project Apollo at U.S. Ski & Snowboard a no-brainer.
“That was a unique characteristic at U.S. Ski & Snowboard, we didn’t have to come in and try to convince people,” she says. “Everybody from the beginning jumped on the bus and was ready to go full gas forward.”
Dubina also explains that focusing on the coach is a natural starting point when trying to change the overall culture of an organization as they are in a unique position where direct contact with both athletes and leadership happens on a regular basis. In short, a coach’s influence over all aspects of the organization is greater than if it started on either the athlete side and moved up or the leadership side and moved down.
Happy, well-respected coaches make for happy, high-performing athletes and, finally, happy leadership.
“Since the kickoff meeting in April, we’ve basically had all of our national teams in projects and in environments supported by visiting USOPC staff,” says Trayner. “I’ve been able to attend a couple of those and the reception they’ve had is superb. The coaches have really shown vulnerability and opened themselves up.”
Looking towards the immediate future, Trayner and his staff have plans to implement a level 100 minimum requirement for all coaches in U.S. Ski & Snowboard’s system by spring of 2022, pending board approval next spring. Currently, to become a licensed U.S. Ski & Snowboard coach, an applicant must complete their SafeSport training and background checks, basic first aid, and complete a bare-bones coaching fundamentals online course. Trayner’s vision is to add another layer to that initial coaching education.
“Over the next three years, we would be increasing our clinic attendance rate by 25 percent a year and create the opportunities for coaches to hit this requirement by spring of 2022,” Trayner says, but the push won’t be without some challenges. “This is a huge country with 6,000 registered coaches and we’re a department of six people trying to drive it.”
From Dubina’s perspective, U.S. Ski & Snowboard’s early coach education efforts combined with the elite-level education facilitated by Project Apollo can only increase the organization’s chances of building an effective system poised for success at every level.
“You can’t just come from one way or the other,” she says, “You can’t start at the bottom and try to push it up or start at the top and try to push it down. By being able to work at both ends, we are able to build a pipeline where everybody is talking the same language and sharing the same best practices. If we only have one end, it’s really hard to make a system that is set up for success in 2022 or 2026. We’ll only see those gains when he whole system is in alignment.”