Culture trumps strategy every time.
This quote, often used in a business context, is equally true in sports. “Culture” is the overriding set of values and norms that guides a team. It is the intangible outcome of behaviors that are shared and celebrated as a group. The culture of a team—whether positive and negative—has an enormous effect, not only on the experience players have, but also on their performance.
The best coaches are “Environmental Engineers” who create an atmosphere that leads to a positive and productive team culture, where little successes are acknowledged, incremental confidence builds on itself and the whole is far more powerful than the sum of its individual parts. Indeed, culture comes from the top, yet it can’t be dictated. Rather, it is a consequence of values and daily habits nurtured with intention and authenticity. Culture is also impossible to measure. Good or bad, it’s just there, wrapped around the team like an invisible blanket. Whether that blanket is warm and cozy, or cold and wet, its effect is inescapable.
Ski racing is that strange animal that is contested as an individual sport, but practiced as a team sport. With the amount of time it takes to fully develop as a ski racer, most of it far from home and family, the benefits of team—though hard to quantify—are undeniably important. I think about that a lot this time of year, when so many American ski racers are spending time away for the holidays. For the vast majority of ski racers, team becomes family. The exceptions are the superstars who operate with an independent entourage. That is another story, but relevant here, because success need not be a Faustian bargain, whereby teambuilding is sacrificed at the altar of individual success. Historically, there have been pockets in US Skiing when positive culture created an engine to drive unstoppable results—not only from the superstars but also from the emerging talent escorted into their slipstream. To better understand what fueled these dynamics, I spoke to some of the coaches credited with creating and supporting the culture in those eras.
But first, I asked Google for some hard proof. Google embarked on analyzing culture during a two-year workplace study called Project Aristotle. Until this study, Google assumed building the perfect team meant assembling the brightest stars in their respective fields. They discovered, however, that who is on a team matters far less than how the team works together. Of the five critical success factors that set great teams apart, the most important—and the basis for all the others— was psychological safety. Feeling included, heard and understood supports the risk taking and the vulnerability necessary to reach for, and ultimately achieve, extraordinary things. Simply put, greater psychological safety= higher performance. Athletically this makes total sense: Physiologically, fear weakens us; psychologically, living in a state of anxiety prevents us from fully focusing on performance. With that in mind, I started making calls.
THE POWER WOMEN
The US women’s team of the Early 80’s was a power house, with superstars like Tamara McKinney, Cindy Nelson and Christin Cooper and a galaxy of first seed skiers. They ushered in young medaling phenoms like Deb Armstrong, Eva Twardokens and Diann Roffe. US Women finished top 3 in the Nations Cup all four years from 1981-84. Many of them credit Michel Rudigoz with managing such strong individuals within a team construct. Rudigoz took the reins of the US Women’s Ski Team in the spring of 1980, and set about creating an environment that valued teamwork as well as individual freedom. Before taking the job, he secured his own team, with coaches he trusted and an assurance of support from the equipment suppliers.
Small but important tweaks set the tone: everyone went to the awards; team meetings were at 7 pm, allowing athletes, coaches and reps to go out or eat dinner afterwards if they wanted; when eating together, they sat together as much as possible; coaches and reps socialized after hours as well. The massive, multinational Thanksgivings Rudigoz created on the road, often in Tignes, France, were legendary. Rudigoz cooked the turkeys and the athletes made the pies. His attitude was to help everyone feel comfortable in Europe, and operate like a big family. He also encouraged independence amongst his athletes. “If girls had boyfriends, I’d say ‘Great! I buy your train ticket and you pick up the rest.’ I was very happy for them to go on their own. We didn’t have to take care of them and they came back with a smile on their face!”
Rudigoz also lobbied hard to recruit and bring up younger athletes. “You have to keep the train going. Keep pushing them from below.” To this day he wishes team policy had allowed him to fill the 1984 Olympic quota. When all of the top skiers fell, slalom gold went to one-hit-wonder Paola Magoni instead of the young, rapidly emerging American talent left at home.
Rudigoz inspired hard work from the group with concise explanations and advice that fostered growth. “I was not cracking the whip. The younger ones came to me and said, ‘You’re not telling me anything!’ I said: ‘You have a problem. You’re great but you’re going too slow. Look at the fast girls. Train with them.’ You can’t write a book every time. Keep it short and simple.”
His one regret is that the group disbanded too early, with most of them retiring or departing after the 1984 Olympics, when the team was still young. “We were just beginning. If we had stayed together…” As an athlete who came into the team right afterwards, I admit to being wistful as well. I wonder how my teammates and I might have fared, supported by a solid team structure and positive culture rather than dizzying organizational turnover and a constant state of turbulence.
THE AMERICAN DOWNHILLERS
Team plays an even more vital role among downhillers, a rare breed of speed gypsies. You need a critical mass of people to train Downhill—not only coaches to set up and monitor the venue, but also athletes to run in the track, test lines, give course reports, etc. Necessary cooperation and the extremes of the event lend themselves to extraordinarily deep bonds. As AJ Kitt explains, “We were a different breed than the tech skiers. It took a different genetic mutation to go to Europe and chase speed on mountains unlike anything we were ever exposed to in the U.S. We felt like a small band of special forces guys who were totally detached from the Mother Ship, and on our own.”
Bill Egan first came to the US Men’s DH program in 1988/89, at a time when there was talk of defunding the young team. Egan saw past their inexperience to their pure athletic potential. When he took over the program in 1990, he brought a simple, task-specific focus and a positive attitude. Rather than working on their deficits, and what Egan calls “training for mediocrity,” he concentrated on building the positives for each athlete. He emphasized a focus on simple physical tasks, small goals, and good communication between athletes, coaches and parents. With everyone on the same page, controlling their own actions, they started making steady progress. “It wasn’t like we were focusing on outcomes. We were focusing on tasks and the results started to happen.”
Kitt was inspired by a spirit that started well before his time— “guys like Lauba, Cochran, Thys, Johnson, Brownie and Lewie passed the torch with rites of passage like Rookie Night and the Rookie Rock”(awarded to the Rookie most likely to slay Kitzbuhel in the upcoming season). In December 1991, Kitt won the Val D’Isere World Cup DH, igniting the successes of Kyle Rasmussen then Tommy Moe. They then nurtured incoming talent like Daron Rahlves, Bode Miller and Marco Sullivan, who officially coined the “American Downhiller” moniker.
“Tight Loose was what the USST DH boys were all about,” says Rahlves in describing his Downhill family that was tightly bound and wound, yet kept each other relaxed. “They got the work done and had fun.” Moe, too, praises a team dynamic that was, “close and competitive,” with the power of fully aligned purpose. ”I owe a lot of my success to Egan, [Ueli]Luthi, [Tim]LaMarche and [Jim] Tracy as coaches, Kyle and AJ for pushing it to the next level and of course my serviceman Willy Wiltz!” That sense of team and work ethic, more than any sophisticated training, created their momentum.
Like Rudigoz, Egan avoided the role of policeman, instead recognizing the toll of constant pressure and stress. “If they wanted to celebrate I stepped out of the way,” says Egan, who points out that these strong individuals came together to be proud of their successes and to grieve in their depressing moments. “Team is the only way to go. It gives the individual freedom and protection.”
STABILITY FOR THE STARS
Chip White started coaching the US Women’ Speed Team in the spring of 1996, and presided over a period of success that produced 122 World Cup podiums, 13 World Cup titles, 10 World Championship medals and six Olympic medals until his retirement in 2014. More impressive than individual wins of stars like Vonn and Street was the emergence of the speed team as world skiing power. Even with superstars like Vonn and Mancuso toggling between speed and tech, the surrounding teammates built their mojo, stacking the first seed and becoming regulars on the podium.
Last spring, White came out of retirement to rejoin the Women’s Speed Team and immediately set the tone. “We are stronger when we are a team,” explains White. “Creating a team environment creates unity and helps to build a program. If you build a program, the individual will shine.”
Any athlete coming in to the speed program is welcome as long as she fully integrates with the team. “That’s the way we operate,” says White. “It’s not a dictatorship. I am trying to create a situation where everyone—athletes, service, coaches—feel I am approachable, and feel like that door is open,” His goal is for everyone to have a voice and listen to each other. Can you say Psychological Safety?
White started his coaching career at Mammoth. There he was influenced by Egan’s motivational enthusiasm, and Dennis Agee’s personal ethos: “Early on Dennis told me, ‘When you talk to an athlete 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.’ It’s not about blowing smoke. You have to be honest. But you have to be present with them at that moment.” As Agee put it, in California highway speak: “395 goes both ways.” White also encourages more face-to-face communication, leaving texts and emails for updates and changes, rather than issues.
When we spoke earlier this fall, White was positive on the skiing of the vets and the youngsters, and on the team vibe: “The environment seems awesome, so I am trying to keep it going.” He’s focused on pacing the team in a pressure-packed Olympic year, and skipped fall training on the glaciers in favor of a conditioning block. “I want them to be strong and hungry going in to season” says White. How long will he stick around this time? “It depends on if they still want me,” says White, adding, “I want to be part of something good.”
The Women’s Speed Team kicks into race gear this weekend at Lake Louise., while the American Downhillers take on Birds of Prey at Beaver Creek.