Posted December 3rd, 2008
Matt Johnson is a former captain of the Middlebury Nordic Ski Team, a World Junior Championship competitor, and the current assistant coach at Burke Mountain Academy. He talks about his transition into coaching, why he likes ski racing, and why he stayed in Vermont after college in lieu of returning to his native Alaska.
AG: You went from athlete to coach pretty quickly. What prompted that transition and how has it been?
As my time at Middlebury started to wind down, I was eventually forced to think about what I wanted to do with my life in the real world, and where, geographically, I wanted to do it, and how skiing factored into my future. After the last race of the season last year, I was cooling down, and it just didn’t feel like the end of my competitive skiing career. At the same time, my body was telling me that it needed a break physically and mentally from the rigors of daily focused training. I also looked back on my racing career and thought about all the people who helped me achieve what I did, and I felt like I really wanted to help the next generation of skiers as my parents, coaches, and friends helped me before. When the Burke Mountain Academy job was advertised, I got really excited, because I knew it would be a great opportunity to stay in Vermont, stay connected to the world of Nordic skiing, and to give something back to the sport.
The transition has been pretty seamless and really fun for me so far. The Burke Nordies are awesome, and the school as a whole is a really positive environment for both athletes and coaches. As a first-time coach, it’s been really helpful to have a talented and self-motivated group of athletes to work with, as well as an incredibly knowledgeable and experienced head coach/mentor, Pete Phillips. Pete and I have very similar philosophies about training and technique, so the athletes don’t hear many conflicting instructions.
What are your goals for the year?
My primary goal for this year is to do everything I can to help every member of this team reach his or her full potential this winter, whether it is making the World Junior Team or getting top 10 in an Eastern Cup. In some ways, it’s really nice to have such a small team because I feel like I have a good grasp on the strengths and weaknesses of each athlete, and Pete and I are coming up with individualized plans to get all the students where they need to be by race season. This winter, I really want to solidify my knowledge of kick waxes and how to match them to snow conditions. There are a few other little things like waxing that I want to work on, but essentially they boil down to my goal of learning as much as I can to improve the quality of coaching I can provide to the team. I’ve also been inspired by Donovan Dums’ amazing grooming at Breadloaf last year, and I aspire to provide the same quality of tracks to the Burke community this year. I think MC KillaGram sums it up best when he says, “Corduroy 15 feet wide, yeah we got’em—tracks so deep ya can’t see tha bottom!”
What are the biggest challenges your athletes face?
Not many. I grew up skiing in Anchorage with an awesome coach and an amazing program (Jan Buron, Alaska Winter Stars) on great trails with consistent snow, so I don’t have any complaints about the environment I grew up skiing in, but I haven’t seen a more ideal environment for fostering successful skiers and community members than at Burke. Every kid at this school is extremely self-motivated and talented, and training and living in a place where everyone is so focused really inspires all the athletes to work as hard as they can every day. The teachers and coaches communicate well with each other so there is a good balance of academics and athletics, and there are very few distractions that can detract from the goals of the athletes. Everyone works hard, trains hard, eats well, gets enough sleep, and all that. So, not to duck the question, but I don’t think these guys have any bigger challenges than anyone else. Staying healthy is always tough, especially around this time of year, but it’s no more difficult here than anywhere else. I’m talking about it like I’m trying to sell you the place right now. I guess it’s just something you have to experience. People are friendly here, they smile a lot, they don’t complain about much, they all want to win, and it will all show up in the results this season.
Being fresh out of college and working with junior skiers, what advice do you have for juniors who are about to make the jump to college or a post high school program?
The advice I end up giving skiers and parents the most these days is to make your decision your own. I decided to go straight from high school to college without any time off, and I think that was the right decision for me. I have friends who took time off and skied in Scandinavia for a year, and they had a great time, grew a little physically and mentally, which prepared them better for skiing and college, and they have only good things to say about taking time off. Then I have other friends who went straight into college, but probably could have used some time off before taking the plunge. Whatever you decide about where you go or when you go, don’t tell yourself that “everyone does it this way,” or “everyone wants to go to this school,” and think, therefore, that you should do that, too. There are plenty of good programs and good schools out there, and pretty much all my friends were really happy with wherever they decided to go!
The other advice I have for all high school skiers about to enter the college circuit is never take the results you are getting right now for granted. People mature at different rates and figure their bodies out at different times, but the playing field becomes more even in these respects at the college level and therefore everything becomes more even. The top of the results list transitions from the kids with the most natural strength and talent to the athletes who train the best. My basic advice is to train as best you can, stick to the training plan, listen to your body, pay attention to details… it’s that advice you’ve been hearing for years that you goes in one ear and out the other… but now it’s important if you want to win!
Andrew Gardner is the Head Nordic Coach at Middlebury College. Find out more about the Middlebury Ski Team at www.middleburyskiing.org.