I spent the last couple of weeks in the beautiful (and über-expensive) Swiss Alps town of St Moritz, working with some athletes at the Bobsleigh and Skeleton World Championships. It was great catching up with a lot of my old friends and colleagues - as well as many of the athletes I have worked with over the last decade or so. Included in this was 2010 Olympic Gold Medalist, Steve Mesler, who passed through town for a few days on his way to some corporate meetings in Lausanne and Geneva (he's pretty big-time now - I felt lucky to catch a couple of days of his time!). We talked a lot about high performance sport...the requirements from both a coaches' and an athlete's perspective. Not everything had gone smoothly - or exactly according to plan - over the eight years that I coached Steve - but somehow, we always managed to figure it out; and in the end, the struggles...the work...the detail....we applied...all worked out pretty well. The USA Men's program was going through a difficult period...I'll let Steve tell the story:
Last week I was in the lobby of my hotel in St. Moritz, Switzerland. It was the same hotel the USA National Bobsled Team was staying in - the bobsled-famous Laudinella - and I was feeling at home since we’d stayed there for nearly a decade when I was competing. I love staying there and it’s always fun to see everyone; and every time I’m back around the guys I’m reminded of what performance is really about in the most random of ways.
As I was standing there, walking toward me were two of my former teammates, Curt Tomasevicz and Justin Olsen, along with the beast of an athlete that replaced me, Steve Langton. I asked them where they were headed and Olsen grinned and replied, “You gotta come with us and see this!”
I followed them into the basement garage of the Laudinella and they explained to me that the coaches thought they saw something on video. Their 4-man Night Train sled was bouncing down the icy straightaway on the natural track in St. Moritz a bit more than the other teams. You see - the defending Olympic and World Champions had finished 17th in the previous week’s World Cup, weren’t particularly fast in training during the week and the staff was desperate to find something wrong to correct before World Championships kicked off in a couple days.
We walked down into the garage and the guys flipped their Night Train sled down onto its transports. Their job was to stand in the sled and jump up and down, bouncing the sled.
Yes – Olympic gold medalists were standing in their bobsled in a cold garage in Switzerland jumping up and down as if they were in one of those big inflatable castles you see at a kids party. They each had this awesome smirk on their faces that said they were completely aware of how ridiculous they looked.
Looking on were our long-time mechanic Frank Briglia (who’s been threatening retirement for the better part of his life); 5-time Olympian, Olympic bronze medalist and Head Coach Brian Shimer; their driver Steven Holcomb (the Holcy Dance is your chance to do the-); and coach Mike Dionne (the guy I took my first ever bobsled ride with and I usually refer to as Dijionaise – don’t ask me why).
As 670 pounds of bobsledders jumped up and down, everyone looked for anything wrong with the sled.
Was the cowling (the shell of the sled) dropping below the split (where the sled torsionally pivots), thus causing aerodynamic drag? Was the frame bending as their weight landed in the sled?
The one thing that I really miss about bobsled – about being involved in sport, is the lack of ego when things go wrong. Athletes and coaches are willing to look at EVERY SINGLE OPTION, no matter how outlandish it might seem or how stupid you look figuring it out. Because all that matters is winning on the day that it counts, that’s it.
We practiced this for years. Watching video every night, dissecting our actions and those of our competitors. We practiced dry loads (jumping into the sled while the sled is sitting in the garage) for hours and discussed the effect different training would have in the short and long term. We looked in every nook and cranny to find more speed and if things were going poorly there was always a reason.
“For some reason…” isn’t in the vocabulary of an elite performer. At no point do you not know why something is happening – good, bad or indifferent.
Or at the very least you try to figure it out as soon as possible!
I now spend my time working with executives and corporations as they try to improve their businesses, teams and bottom lines. It’s difficult to convince people to work on the little things - over and over - no matter how bizarre it may seem at the time. I meet resistance and receive funny looks on a weekly basis.
And every now and then I forget what it took to accomplish the things my team and I did on the track year after year. I mean, who wants to remember sitting in a cold, damp sled in the middle of Switzerland doing the same thing over and over again?
It’s way more fun to recall partying in downtown Vancouver in late February of 2010!
But while I stood in that basement in the middle of Europe, laughing and joking along with my old team, I remembered that this is what it takes. It takes being able to put your ego away. Put away the fact that you’ve fully dominated the major competition of the season three of the last four years.
You’ve got to leave behind that no one does what you do better than you. You have to go back to having a teenage-like vulnerability and recall that not knowing is what got you to work hard enough in the first place!
For those 20 minutes in the garage the guys proved that in order to perform at the highest levels it doesn’t matter what you did yesterday. It only matters what you are willing to do to make sure you do it again tomorrow.
After the worst four-race stretch the American program has seen in the past 15 years, they earned their way to the hardest fought World Championship bronze medal USA Bobsled has ever won.
They reminded me in that in order to perform we need to put our damn ego away and just bounce!
|2013 World Championship bronze medalists Steve Holcomb, Justin Olsen, Steve Langton, and Curt Tomasevicz|
Steve also writes monthly on the United States Olympic Committee's website http://www.teamusa.org interviewing top American hopefuls for the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics.