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Positive Coaching or "Why Eli Brown is a great coach"

Thu, Mar  7, 2013 - By Megan Spurkland

PSIA Nordic Instructor Tip
Megan Spurkland

Several weeks ago I traveled south to race the Boulder Mountain Tour and had a great opportunity to briefly reunite with my old college ski coach, Eli Brown.  Eli was the coach for three of my years at Whitman College.  

Eli BrownPacked into the Galena Lodge before the start of the race, Eli introduced me to the masters skiers that he was coaching and said, "This is Megan.  I taught her, and now she teaches other people."  The he laughed and peered at me closely (everyone peers at each other closely in the Galena Lodge before the BMT), "What DID I teach you?"

I reflected on this as we traveled back to Alaska.  To be completely honest, I do not remember one technical thing that Eli taught me.  I am 100% sure that his coaching made me a much more technically proficient skier, but I can't dredge up any moment of "drive your leg forward," or "compress with your double pole."  Instead, what he taught me made me a better person, instructor, and eventually, a better athlete.

1. Eli focused on the POTENTIAL, not the shortcomings.

I remember distinctly one September as we watched a video of us rollerskiing by the local golf course.  Having just come off a three-month commercial fishing season, I was sufficiently strong muscularly, and sufficiently out of cardiovascular shape.  Eli watched the video and exclaimed, "Can you IMAGINE what you could do if you actually trained in the summer?!"  He said this without the slightest hint of negativity, and somehow his voice implied awe at the mere thought of me being able to train.  Immediately in my mind, I was in awe of the thought of myself training.  Just a few years ago when the salmon runs were particularly bad and I spent most of the summer tied to the dock, I found myself running solo marathons on village runways and flying through the mountain passes of Anchorage during trail races.  I had achieved the POTENTIAL that Eli had introduced into my imagination!

2. Eli rewarded the EFFORT, not the achievement.

Eli BrownAs school got out in the spring, Eli would give us a training log to fill out.  On each page was a suggested training plan, with two blanks after each day.  One blank was for what you actually did, and that other was for what other obligations you had in your life that day.  We were supposed to fill it out and bring it back in the fall.  I turned it in in September with TWO workouts, and 87 blank days that said "fishing" in the obligation box.  Instead of shaking his head sadly and setting it aside, Eli held it up in front of the team to applaud the fact that I had filled out my log and that it gave him (and me) an idea of how to plan my training for the fall.  My teammates, fit and fast and who obviously had done more than two workouts but didn't put it in a log, did not receive this recognition.  I have kept a training log every day since!

Eli's skill and enthusiasm as a coach is reflected in his athletes.  Just from our small college team I know that four of us are still coaching, racing seriously, and our most famous teammate, Holly Brooks, has blossomed into an amazing athlete and Olympian!  We were a tiny Division III school and he took us to Senior Nationals, hooked us up with forerunning the World Cups at Soldier Hollow and barbecued salmon for the whole team in his backyard.   He was enthusiastic, positive, and filled us with visions of our own potential.

As coaches, we may spend hours pouring over how to get an athlete to set their wax pocket correctly, but without joy and enthusiasm they may not stay in the sport long enough to learn it.  Enjoy your week and as we watch the World Championships in Italy, think about how each athlete represents a community of coaches that not only made them the amazing technical skiers that they are, but that fostered in them a love for skiing and faith in themselves.  Thank you, Eli! 

[This article appeared on in the Ski Post newsletter. You can sign up for the newsletter here.]