Some of my fondest memories of my early U.S. Ski Team days came during the fall when I traveled with the downhill team around Europe, training on snow in the mornings and working out all afternoon. Physical training consisted of weights, agility drills, ski specific leg routines, hikes and games. Plus, every fall we would fit in a “Greatest Athlete Competition” where we were in tested all sorts of challenges from squats and bench presses to sprints and box jumps. Results were not adjusted for age or weight, so being the youngest, smallest and lightest, I was always at a disadvantage, but that never deterred me. In fact, it made me push my limits even more. Although I lagged in strength, I would typically be top three in the box jumps, agility and sprints. This would place me in the top five, but never higher than third. A fact which frustrated me, but kept me motivated, hungry and always training.
While pursuing my dreams of ski racing glory, I always thrived off of my teammates. I was very lucky that I had a great group of teammates and competitors surrounding me. For most of my career, I was on the younger and smaller end of the curve, but my speed and determination always kept me in the game. The older guys became my mentors and leaders. They taught me everything from respect, to pushing limits, to never giving up.
It is interesting that all three of those skills were psychological, but proved to be critical when it came to my physical success. Learning fitness skills is relatively easy. Learn the technique and then practice as much as possible. In the end, however, it was the mental skills that I learned from my teammates that gave me the edge.
Imagine what it would be like to work out with Ted Ligety and Bode Miller. That was what it was like for me growing up on the team with Phil and Steve Mahre – Google them if you are too young to know them! They were both my heroes and eventually my teammates. As a young, hungry, intense rookie, they taught me that you had to ride a fine line between seeing the veterans as competitors who you wanted to crush, and seeing them as valuable mentors to learn from. I learned that by showing them respect and by intensely studying what they did, they in turn would help and mentor me, and eventually treat me as an equal. I think it helped speed that process along once I finally beat Phil. Of course, the only way to beat a technical specialist was in a downhill!
In the end, however, it was the mental skills that I learned from my teammates that gave me the edge.
Working out alone is a challenge, as you never really know where your limits are. You can keep adding on weight or upping the intensity, but until you go against someone right next to you, you have no idea how fast, how strong, or how agile you can be. It was a wake-up call when I finally got to workout with the U.S. Ski Team. I came in thinking I was the fastest, quickest and gnarliest ski racer ever. That was until Tris Cochran crushed me in the weight room, Felix McGrath effortlessly breezed by me in the 440 sprint and Sandy Williams put me to shame with his freakishly superior coordination and balance skills in the obstacle course. Being surrounded and challenged by teammates every day, shows you where your limits are and gives you the focus and motivation to go hunt down those targets.
Lastly, no one wants to lose, especially a uber-competitive person like myself. Giving up or mailing it in was never an option when I was with the team. If I couldn’t beat them, I would be the person who would never give up trying. When I first arrived on the scene, I was the annoying little guy who would line up in front, but finish in the back. I quickly figured out that although I couldn’t lift as much, I always had the option to just do more sets. It was those years on the team where I struggled to measure up, that taught me never to give up. To all my old teammates, thank you for that! It is a skill that has stayed with me well beyond my ski racing career.
I am now 30 years past my ski team days and I still work out with a bunch of guys. They are now my “team”, and I am a better athlete because of it. We may lift less weight and focus on keeping our weight down instead of up, but we still motivate each other to push harder and reach our personal bests. That sense of camaraderie is what gets me out of bed and off to the gym at 4:45a.m. five days a week. That kind of motivation only comes from being part of a group of athletes with a commitment to a common purpose – to work hard toward your goals – whatever they may be.
You don’t have to be on the U.S. Ski Team to get the benefits of a team atmosphere. Ski clubs around the country are now starting to meet up for weekly dryland sessions. Make it a goal to get to those workouts and find that group of teammates who will push you to new limits. Be the person who suggests that after practice is over, the group run up the ski hill one more time. Create a contest of strength, agility and speed. Hold weekly competitions and push each other to the max! Embrace the fact that you may not be the strongest or fastest and commit to learning from your teammates on how to improve. You will be a better athlete because of it.