The United State’s cross-country team has set the precedent of what it means to be a team, which in sports that revolve around individual success is often hard to find. After years of hard work by coaches and athletes alike to foster a healthy team culture, the fruits of their labor have shown in their results. For example, at the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics, Jessie Diggins and Kikkan Randall teamed-up in the sprint to win the first gold medal for the United States in cross country skiing. Team veteran Sophie Caldwell was the first United States skier to win a classic sprint on the World Cup circuit and has eight World Cup podiums under her belt.

Now, cross country teams across the world want to train with the United States to see exactly how they do it. Coaches and athletes from other teams join in on camps just to observe. U.S. Ski & Snowboard’s initiatives to build a more open, communicative environment across all teams is modeled after the cross country team’s system. So what is it exactly that this team does that others don’t, in order for athletes to prosper?

“What the cross-country team has been so good at, that we would really like to see the other teams be better at, is really controlling the environment that the team is in when they are not competing. The off the hill time, the social dynamics, the way people behave with each other,” says U.S. Ski & Snowboard President & CEO, Tiger Shaw. 

Each spring, the team (including both men and women) get together to have a team culture meeting, where the group has a chance to collectively reflect on the successes and failures of a season. They talk about what they’ve done well, what they can improve, what they are known for, and what they want to be remembered for. Thoughts and initiatives are then recorded in a cohesion agreement, that lays out how the team plans to move forward into the upcoming training and competitive season.

“It opens your eyes to something that could negatively be affecting someone else that you didn’t realize before, and that’s a way you could be a better teammate,” says Caldwell.

Each year tiny adjustments are made that give the team a chance to be even better than they were before, but both Caldwell and Diggins have come to learn there are a few key ingredients each athlete must work on from year to year in order for the ship to sail smoothly.

Jessie Diggins and her teammates at the 2019 Nordic World Championships in Seefeld, Austria prior to the 4×5 Relay. Photo: Reese Brown/U.S. Ski & Snowboard

1. You don’t have to be best friends, but you do have to be best teammates.

“If you take 10 strangers from across the United States and put them together, you know realistically not everyone is going to be best buds,” says Diggins. “And being best teammates is actually a lot harder than being best friends because you get to choose your friends, and you don’t get to choose your teammates.”

“Pretty much what that means is being supportive of one another, but also understanding that everyone is different and coming from different places. What might affect you one way, could affect someone else a totally different way,” adds Caldwell. “When you take the time to really think about how other people see certain situations and feel about things, it makes you grow an appreciation for them and it also makes it a lot easier to become friends. It becomes a really fun process for us because when we invest so much time in being good teammates to each other, you become invested in a person as a person, but also in their results.”

2. You get what you put in. 

“We place a really high value on being a good teammate, even more so than racing well. Yes, you can be proud of a good race, but if you are such a good teammate and you contribute a lot to the team, and you put a lot into the team, in my eyes that’s valued so much higher than just being quick on skis,” says Diggins. “By placing that above all else it means that your priority is to be a good teammate and to put effort into the team, and of course you get that right back out. Everything you put in, you get out. People are there for you and supporting you as well. It’s not just a one-way street, you get out what you put into a team.”

“When someone does well,” says Caldwell, “I’m invested and I can feel very happy for them and also feel like I was a part of that. We push each other so hard in training and all year long and even though it’s an individual sport I think we’ve done a very good job of turning it into as much of a team sport as we can and as a result, a win for anyone on the team is a win for the whole team.”

3. Leadership comes in many forms.

“We don’t have one team captain or one team leader, and that’s on purpose because it’s everyone’s job every single day to find a way to contribute leadership to the team,” says Diggins. “I think it’s one of our strengths as a team that we recognize that we need every different type of leadership, every type of communication skills, to make this work and to make it a really awesome place for everyone where everyone feels supported. Everyone is expected to contribute in some way, and it doesn’t have to all look the same, in fact, it’s better if it doesn’t. Everyone is expected to help push the team forward and to help give back to the team. For me, that’s the most powerful thing that we have.”

“I tend to be someone who is not the loudest person on the team, I tend to be more shy,” says Caldwell. “But I really value one on one, more personal conversations. So, I think my role isn’t necessarily the one who is going to lead the team meetings or have the most to say in big groups, but I really try and find the time to connect with each one of the younger girls outside of team meetings or race time. I want to set a good example being a positive role model for them. As far as my relationship with them goes, my leadership role is maybe one of the quieter people but taking the time to check in and form those relationships.”

Jessie Diggin hugs her teammate, Sadie Bjornsen, after the Team Sprint at the 2019 Nordic World Championships in Seefeld, Austria. Photo: Reese Brown/U.S. Ski & Snowboard

4. Lift up the next generation.

“Some of my best memories from last year were when the young girls came on the World Cup and it was some of the first few times we got to share that experience with them,” says Caldwell.  “I think it’s really important to have that overlap before we retire and before they are on the World Cup full time to being able to share some of those moments. They’re all very curious, and not afraid to ask questions. I think coming out of [spring] meetings and just the camps in general with them is an important reminder for me that everything we do sets an example for them. It’s important to set a good example, but also to spend as much time as possible with them because we want to show them what a good thing we have, and we want them to be a part of it before we move on.” 

5. Do not be afraid of someone else’s success.

“Just because somebody is good at something, it doesn’t come at a cost to you. In order for you to be good, someone else doesn’t have to be bad,” says Diggins. “One thing on the Nordic side that we talked about is we take ownership of each other’s successes because we help them get there. So if I go out and win a race, Sophie [Caldwell] is so happy for me and so proud of me but also proud of herself because she knows that the only reason I was able to get out there and have the strength to win is because she helped push me in training, so part of that win belongs to her as well. Nobody gets better just totally on their own. Everyone needs a team, coaches, people around them who push them and help them become better and succeed more.”

“You don’t have to be scared of someone else’s success, and I think that that’s the root of a really strong team,” she adds. “If you’re insecure in yourself and scared of somebody else being better than you and replacing you that’s what holds you back from being able to truly and emotionally support your teammates.”

At the end of the day, no team is perfect. Each athlete and coach must actively choose the team over themselves day in and day out to make the group collectively successful. The cross-country crew knows it’s not easy, but if they want to be the best team in the world, self-sacrifice is part of the game. The following results and camaraderie make it well worth it.

“It’s important to remember it’s not rocket science,” says Caldwell. “It just takes some buy-in and commitment from everyone, and sometimes that means not putting yourself first, which for an athlete in an individual sport can sometimes be difficult. But when you try and look at it as a team sport, it gives you a lot more to fight for and also a lot more to celebrate. It could be a bad day for you, but if someone else is having a really good day, then it’s a great day for the team.”

Associate Editor – Born and raised in Metro-Detroit, Michigan, Mackenzie grew up ski racing all over the Mitten.​ She moved out west in search of mountains and attended the University of Oregon, where she achieved degrees in Journalism and Environmental Science. She raced USCSA and was captain of the UO Alpine Ski Team. She currently resides in Salt Lake City and serves as Associate Editor for Ski Racing Media.