Ski racing is the kind of sport that stays with you.
It takes the form of weaker knees and troubled joints sometimes, but something special comes from trying your best to do something very hard.
Bill Pennington recently wrote about the culture of Norway’s ski team in The New York Times, and it got me thinking: What can you really do to help an athlete win?
The piece’s headline — “The Ski Team That Sleeps Together Wins a Lot of Gold Medals Together” — implies a cuddle-centric strategy that fortunately is not the secret. Sharing beds is common for budget-strapped skiers, but a structure that deepens their relationships with teammates is not.
Pennington details five rules that fit pretty well into organizations both on and off the hill. Here’s the secret sauce:
- No jerks.
- No class structure.
- The social fabric of the group is paramount.
- Talk to each other, not about each other.
- Friday night is taco night.
This recipe got six of their athletes ranked in the world’s top 30 at the same time. And at some level, sign me up. I am here for taco night in a way that I can be only for my closest friends.
But why is this such an ideal structure to grow in, and what can we learn from it that’s useful beyond entertainment?
I was never going to carry the Olympic flag, but I did spend more than a decade as an alpine ski racer and coach. It’s a craft, much like investing, and it takes a specific atmosphere to flourish.
I had the tremendous luck to learn under two legendary coaches: Carl Williams, who coached the Salisbury Ski Team for 45 Years, and Ron Bonneau, who took at least one of the College of Idaho’s teams to nationals every year from 1999 to 2011 and was deservedly named US Collegiate Ski and Snowboard Association (USCSA) Coach of the Year in 2016. Carl has passed away and it’s been a while since I caught up with Ron, but it’s a safe bet both would endorse the framework.
These cultural factors are critical because ski racing is not a strictly pleasant experience. Remember: The goal of the sport is to go as fast as possible, often on the most dangerous part of the mountain. It will get icy, and then the ice will find ways to get even worse. It changes speed, catches skis, and grows ruts just to demonstrate character. As you improve, you are hitting a gate with your body at almost every turn. This leaves bruises and brittle plastic behind. When you’re done, you take off your skis, walk up the hill, and ski it again.
And your feet are cold the whole time.
So, in honor of the Winter Olympics and the athletes who prosper in chilly, challenging conditions, I thought I’d explore three of the big lessons I learned on the hill before launching into the usual weekend menu of links.
1. “Bend ze Knees und ze Ankles”
During Carl Williams’s career, the sport of skiing changed as much as anything else in the world.
He started coaching for Salisbury in 1965, which means not only straight skis but also plenty of colleagues from abroad. Apart from the US Army’s 10th Mountain Division, there weren’t many Americans who could link turns.
Of course, there’s a limit to how much experience you can import, and that’s how this came to be a catchphrase. I still crack up thinking of Carl describing teams of Austrians giving up on their American students after the exhortation to bend didn’t quite take. His impression of their frustration became something we repeated to each other out of intrinsic value — this was high school, after all — but the message is really important. There’s no point having the best of the best as instructors if you don’t speak the same language.
2. Expect the Best Day Ever
Ron Bonneau asked if I was breathing at the end of one of my first practice runs in college.
“Oh wow, I’m not making this team” was my immediate thought. But his point was that I wasn’t going to win anything all stressed out. Racers at the peak of their capabilities still need to overcome their mood. For Ron, the secret to winning was remembering why you are competing: It’s fun.
This is really easy to forget! Remember the bit above about bruises? The added intensity that comes with competing at the college level makes it easy to burn out.
If you can convince yourself that the day ahead of you could be your best ever, it’s a little easier to keep moving.
3. Ski Fast, Have Fun, Don’t Fall Down
Carl saw plenty of disruptive innovation on the hill: plastic ski boots, breakaway gates, heel release bindings, and shaped skis. But there’s a central truth to the undertaking which never changed a bit, and so I’m pretty confident he shared the same secret recipe each successive year.
It’s easier said than done, but that’s sort of the point. Advice always works that way. But the happy-go-lucky attitude at the center of it has helped me in situations far beyond the back bowls of Butternut Basin where we trained.
My thanks to Carl, to Ron, to all the teammates I shared their wisdom with, and to you for indulging me. Now, as promised, here are some links that I think you’ll enjoy.
Keep the optimistic spirit above in mind when I say: This might be the weekend when you finally “get” cryptocurrencies.
Give these a look if that sounds fun:
- “‘Know When to Hodl ‘Em, Know When to Fodl ‘Em’: An Investigation of Factor Based Investing in the Cryptocurrency Space” (SSRN)
- “From a technical standpoint: Why does every blockchain projects need their own coins?” (reddit.com/r/cryptotechnology)
- “Maybe Journalists Need to Own a Little Bitcoin” (Bloomberg View)
- “The Technology and Economic Determinants of Cryptocurrency Exchange Rates: The Case of Bitcoin” (Decision Support Systems)
We Stabilize the Price of a Cryptocurrency?: Understanding the Design
of Bitcoin and Its Potential to Compete with Central Bank Money” (SSRN)