Photo courtesy of Sven Thomann/Blicksport
The Austrian men’s team had won 27-consecutive Nations Cups. But in 2020, Thomas Stauffer’s Swiss men’s team did the unthinkable; they won the cup. In his sixth season with Switzerland, using a progressive system alongside a great staff and talented athletes, the Swiss men steadily rose from sixth in Stauffer’s first year to best in the world.
Alpine ski racing is a high-profile sport in Switzerland, and even though Stauffer grew up close to two small ski areas, he only dabbled in ski racing as a child.
As he puts it, “I played a lot of sports as a kid. I tried some ski racing, but the season was at the same time as team handball, so I would say, ‘I started late and quit early,’” Stauffer joked in a recent interview with Ski Racing Media.
Sports are a passion for Stauffer. At the age of 19, prior to entering the Swiss army, he began his coaching education in fitness while also pursuing an education in civil engineering and a trade education and apprenticeship in masonry. Upon finishing military recruit school, U.S. women’s coach Fritz Vallant offered Stauffer an opportunity to help out with the team in Europe. During this short time with the Americans, Stauffer was exposed to elite ski racing — and he was hooked.
His resume quickly snowballed. After completing the required certifications, he first took a job as a fitness coach with the Swiss men’s Europa Cup program, followed by a regional team position at the Swiss middle region performance center. These experiences led to jobs with the women’s Europa Cup team in Switzerland and women’s national teams in the United States and Sweden. In the spring of 2004, he accepted his first head coach position with Sweden. He would go on to direct the alpine programs of Sweden (men and women), Germany (women), and Switzerland (men), where he is currently stationed.
It is impossible to understand Stauffer’s success without understanding the philosophy he applies to his relationships with the ski racing community, particularly his approach to athletes and staff and how he forms training groups.
Stauffer manages all Swiss men who ski in the World and Europa Cup. The C team is the entry to the national program funded by Swiss Ski but it is independently managed by development. Although development staff communicates with Stauffer, unless the C team member is skiing World or Europa Cup, they are overseen by Hans Flatscher, the development director..
Switzerland’s World Cup and Europa Cup men’s teams consist of 40-plus athletes supported by 37 staff. Stauffer sees himself as the spider in the middle of the web. He believes to do his job correctly, he must first be aware of and support the needs of all the individuals in the program.
Stauffer believes one of the keys to success is the ability to precisely craft the composition of training groups. He explains, the more “compact” a group can be, the more successful they are. He defines a “compact group” as a group that has very similar shared needs and requirements. To further refine the critical goal of compact groups, he also creates groups within groups. A good example is the World Cup GS/SG group. This group has a head coach who handles most of the annual planning and directly manages the best GS skiers. Meanwhile, the assistant coach supports the entire group, and he is directly responsible for the development of the athletes with a primary focus on GS.
When it comes to his staff, Stauffer takes an understanding approach.
When hiring any type of staff member, Stauffer believes there is an initial period when he is primarily trying to understand how to work with that individual. He believes the time invested in learning how to work with staff creates a vital opportunity to better collaborate on successful programming.
“Wherever they are in the world, I am available to my staff 24 hours a day,” says Stauffer. “If they have an issue, I want to immediately address those issues so they can stay focused on their jobs without drama or distraction. I can handle many of the changes and challenges, keeping the staff confident and focused on what they need to keep us moving forward.”
Stauffer is known for being calm in the face of the storm. Experience has taught him not to worry about things he can’t control, and having multiple contingency plans when dealing with challenges, he says, provides a layer of confidence.
When it comes to planning, Stauffer believes he needs three kinds of staff members. He has some coaches whose focus is day to day, developing and executing the plan for the immediate. Then, he has coaches leading training groups, who are focused on the plan for the year. Finally, as the head coach, Stauffer must develop strategies for its members three to four years down the line.
From the outside, it appears the Swiss federation is very patient with the development of its athletes. There are a combined 40-plus athletes on the men’s Europa Cup and the World Cup teams, and the vast majority of these athletes achieve team criteria. The team carefully crafts criteria to be achievable, believing it allows progressing athletes to focus on reasonable goals needed to advance. The Swiss are intentionally designing standards to reduce the number of athletes who feel threatened by the criteria. It is believed this design frees their skiers to better focus on maximizing their performance.
“The criteria do get more difficult as they get older, but they will likely make the next criteria if they are getting better,” Stauffer explained. “As long as they make criteria, we won’t push them out. We invest a lot in the athletes over their careers, so unless they are way off the criteria, we will normally give them at least one more season. No matter what, you give them all you have to make them better.”
“When setting the criteria, I have to consider that I have quite a strong World Cup team,” he added. “I have to have some athletes ready to compete, even if they don’t have a spot. We have disciplines that have six or seven in the top 30, and we only have eight spots, so it is tough to get in now. But I have two to three older athletes, and unfortunately, you always have an injured athlete.”
“You need someone there who can make the top 30 and score World Cup points. You need people who are potentially able to create a quota spot for you. You need to keep these guys around because you can’t just put young ones in the World Cup if you need to fill a spot. You can, but if they are not ready, you will lose your quota spots. Wanting to remain a strong team, I need to keep athletes in the second division who have World Cup experience who are ready to step in and compete. We need them,” he said.
“Athletes who are capable of making their own decisions are the most likely to succeed,” Stauffer says.
Stauffer and the men’s team recently experienced an athlete, Tanguy Nef, who successfully skied both the World Cup for Switzerland and NCAA for Dartmouth. I asked him how the experience went. He addressed the Nef situation and, by doing so, discussed the Swiss philosophy concerning education.
Stauffer explains, “When Nef went to Dartmouth, he was a C team member, and we were aware of him and knew he had something. He performed well at the FIS level. It was the C team that made the agreement that Nef would attend Dartmouth and made the agreement that Nef would not need to attend all the camps. By skiing NorAms, he maintained his team status every year. When he qualified for the B team and started skiing in our program at the World Cup, I was happy to have him continue his education.”
Stauffer explained that of the 40-plus male athletes skiing World Cup and Europa Cup, only one athlete didn’t continue his education beyond mandatory school. He said the athletes either do a Matura, a college degree, or a trade school diploma. With excitement, he informed me that Beat Feuz, World Cup downhill globe winner, has the same trade diploma as Stauffer — a bricklayer.
Referring specifically to Nef’s decision to attend Dartmouth, Stauffer says, “When Tanguy went to Dartmouth to continue his education, I was fine with that. You want to have mature athletes with their own minds, I absolutely had no problem with it. When the C team agreed to Dartmouth, we knew it was a four-year project. Why should we agree to a four-year program then after two years change everything? It wouldn’t make sense. It may have been a little easier to make criteria with the FIS points on the NorAm circuit, but he was on plan, and he met B-team criteria, I am not going to quit that.”
He went on to say, “You need education, or you won’t get a good job when you stop skiing.
“It is true that one of my objectives is to create independent athletes. However, it is always a balance between telling them everything and having mature athletes that make their own decisions. Sometimes, it is important to guide them and tell them what they are doing is not good, but I want them to be educated and become mature athletes who can take care of themselves. When they come up with good ideas, then you have to help them execute these ideas. If you want them to mature and develop, you can’t say I don’t want you to come up with ideas that are different from mine. I want them to feel I am open to their ideas. I must consider good ideas, and if it makes sense, I need to support them if my goal is to develop confident mature athletes,” Stauffer said.
Stauffer went on to address the Nations Cup, saying, “The Nations Cup is a vision; the goal is to make sure individual athletes rise to their potential. You need everyone to score the most World Cup points possible. If you achieve that, then you will compete in the Nation Cup standings.
“This year was cool. I was named head coach the season after Sochi, then the Swiss men were sixth in the nation standings, but it was already a vision to take back the Nation’s Cup. It took everyone coming together. The top guys and the second group are consistently scoring points.
Then you need a third group ready to go in and score some points when given the opportunity.
“We have older athletes who score many points, but we need to have a plan to replace them in the next few years. That is the goal now—developing athletes who are competing for podiums. We now have one of those with Daniel Yule, which is cool. With this plan, we will be in a position to stay at the top of the Nation’s standings. But it is always the individual athletes that determine your Nation’s status. You also need a certain number of athletes; you can’t do it with only a few,” he said.
When understanding the Swiss development system, it is essential to remember that Switzerland is undoubtedly a small country, yet it has three distinct regions (West, Middle, and East), and each has school and a performance center.
The first level for FIS athletes is the regions (controlled by the regional federations), then the next step is the performance centers. The development system, directed by Flatscher, manages three performance centers and the C Team. Swiss Ski hires a sports director for each performance center, but the regions/centers appoint the balance of the staff. The regions do receive grants from Swiss Ski and they have regional and local sponsors.
All three regions have identical criteria for the teams, and Swiss Ski works with the regions to develop goals and guidelines. However, the performance centers are independent. The regional system keeps the athletes closer to home and keeps athletes from the same cultures together as they grow and mature.
Team America has been fortunate to have trained with the Swiss men at camps worldwide, and it is interesting to see a parent of an athlete attending and sometimes helping out with the training. Some of them have very famous skiing names, and some don’t. So, we asked Stauffer about those relationships. He says, these parents are welcome to be around; they just need to make sure they allow the staff to do their jobs.
Concerning involved parents, Stauffer says, “It is hard to exclude them from everything since they were following their kids over their whole careers. They are the most consistent part of the athlete’s development and have been there throughout all the levels.”
There is a great deal of speculation regarding compensation for young European ski racers and when they start receiving it. Stauffer was willing to explain part of the situation in Switzerland.
Some members of the C team are receiving financial benefits. Often, they find sponsors in their region who require no exposure and moderately compensate young athletes. The compensation gives these athletes some walking-around money, but it makes a more significant difference in their attitudes; it makes them feel professional
If the athlete achieves a higher level of performance, such as the Junior Worlds team, they can likely obtain a head sponsor that provides visual exposure for the sponsor.
Once the athletes are 18 (most recruits are 20-23) and are members of the A, B, or C team, they can join the sport army. After completing recruit school, basic military education, and athletic training, they can complete the rest of their required service with a limited number of days per year with the army and the rest by training and competing as members of the sport army. These athletes receive compensation directly from the military.
It is interesting to note that the army plays another beneficial role in ski racing by supplying funds to Swiss Ski to subsidize its military staff members’ compensation. The relationship with the military requires extensive record-keeping and reporting by Stauffer, but the benefits are certainly tangible.
Editor’s note: We appreciate Thomas Stauffer and his willingness to discuss the important topics covered. Stauffer is considered one of the best head alpine coaches of all time. He is the giant slayer who led his Swiss team to the top of the nations standings. Ski Racing Media thanks him for sharing his thoughts on the sport we all love.