Coach as Leader

Whitcomb and His Magnificent Seven


Led poorly, a team can devolve into an aggregation of egos. Led well, team members pursue their own development goals, but also merge their competitive spirits into a culture of mutual support. It’s a delicate balancing act to cultivate that collective psych, especially when leading a team comprised of fiercely motivated individual contributors — such as elite cross country skiers — who are, actually, co-competitors.

Matt Whitcomb, who has coached the women of the U.S. Women’s Cross Country Team for eight seasons, seems to have struck that balance remarkably well. Not only has his team achieved more material success than any other U.S. cross country team in history, but he — and the other coaches on his staff — are creating a team legacy that will persevere long after they’ve moved on.

He demurs, however, when given even a soupçon of credit for the success of his athletes.

And that’s exactly the point.

In the overcrowded and often preachy domain of management literature, there exists a simple theory called “servant leadership,”  which is a counterintuitive idea, because it doesn’t resemble generally-understood notions of leadership at all. Servant leaders ”choose service over self interest,” according to the management guru Peter Block, author of Stewardship. They are apt to lead from behind. They ask rather than tell. They are caretakers of sorts — not in a paternal sense — by providing their teams with resources and support to excel. To servant leaders, the organization doesn’t simply serve to further its best interests, but serves as a vessel that functions on behalf of its community. “What can I do to help?” servant leaders might ask. Rarely, if ever, do they say, “Follow me.”

Thing is, leading from behind requires a level of emotional intelligence that’s not easy to come by, in large part because it requires stuffing one’s ego, and letting go of control.

Matt Whitcomb / Photo by Noah Hoffman

Judging by the cohesiveness of the U.S. Women’s Cross Country Team and yes, its success, Whitcomb, who undoubtedly is beloved by his athletes, practices a form of servant leadership. It’s clear that he actively places the needs of his athletes over his own need to control. Not a bad leadership style to emulate.

I caught up with Whitcomb by phone several months ago when he was up on Alaska’s Eagle Glacier with the team. We chatted about the art of coaching, the U.S. Women’s Team, individual athletes, and the upcoming Winter Games in Sochi, Russia.

SPWith respect to the Women’s team’s success: What’s going on here?

MW: I think what has made the difference on the women’s team is that we’ve learned to operate as a team instead of individuals. You can certainly find women out there that can benefit from just training on their own, maybe with just one coach, and one or two teammates out there, but as a group, we’ve found that we really need to work together. We need to take Kikkan’s strengths and plug them into the group, and we need to take Liz’s strengths and plug them into the group, and Sadie and Ida and Holly and Sophie and Jessie – everybody has these incredible strengths where on any given day they can be the strongest in a certain portion of the workout. When we learn to work together, we can have somebody pushing the very best strengths, just for a particular part of a session, and then fall back onto somebody else, while they’re pushing their strengths. That’s just sort of how working together has translated in the workout situation for us. And it’s been great.

Then there’s the whole aspect of working together to sustain a quality of life on the road that you can tolerate. Cross country is by nature inherently an individual sport, and so what we’re trying to do is to make a team sport out of it, so that the family environment that we try to cultivate allows us to look forward to being alongside each other on those long trips to Europe. And when we find ourselves competing against one another, the stress becomes just a little bit higher, and the duration of the trip can just drag on and be much less enjoyable. When Kikkan is invested in Jessie and Sadie, and everybody is equally concerned not just for success for themselves, but also for the success of their teammates, then we really start to create this sustainable environment on the road. We’ve hit that with this group for sure.

I’ve watched some of the videos by team members and those outside of the team, and I observed the girls at the Tahoe SuperTour races. Seems to be an unusual degree of emotional intelligence, for lack of a better term. People get along – and if you had a difficult personality – it would break this bond. You called it a family bond. Are you filtering for temperament for the team, or did this just happen organically?

MW: There’s no question we’re really lucky with the seven athletes that we have, for starters. I would be lucky to be able to draw upon seven individuals ten years down the road who are as team-oriented as these seven are. But I don’t think it just has happened naturally, because they have really had to work for it. We work at it every day. Just in little ways. As a group, somebody’s always going to be doing something that annoys you. You can choose to be tolerant or intolerant; how you treat each other resonates into the future. And we definitely have seven very different athletes. They can be grouped together as one for the media, but all seven all one another to be themselves. At the same time, if somebody is struggling, they’re picked up by their teammates, or kind have fallen off the positive vibe a little bit, if they’re getting a little bit negative, a little bit snappy, they put them in check pretty quickly. There’s not just one great leader on the team, but everybody’s willing to help out but also to enforce these team dynamics. The “happy athlete” concept is definitely our tactic here. I feel like when we can have a happy group of athletes, not to mention happy coaches, which definitely goes hand-in-hand, the training really starts to work. When the training works, the racing works.

You’re the leader of a high performing team. Coach as leader. What have you specifically done in past years to seed that sense of team – call it team building – and then what do you do to maintain it? How do you see your role as leader, and what have you done to create the team?

MW: I do see myself as a leader, but I see myself as one of the leaders. Almost an assistant. I think there are days when I’m not the leader, and it may be Jessie who is leading the dynamics of the workout. It is not a team that is dependent on me as the coach. I’d like to believe I have a positive influence on the group, but it’s not one that falls apart the second I take a step back.

Having said that, we do some fairly deliberate teamwork drills, and one of the things I feel lets these girls have long careers, is that none of them likes to see themselves as just skiers. So when they identify themselves as simply skiers and nothing more, their careers seem really long. When they feel they’re fairly well rounded in what is a very specific lifestyle, biting off ten years as an elite-level athlete seems much more doable. We try to do as much as possible and really believe in, is having some impact on the community – specifically with developing junior women for the U.S.. Any way they can reach out and be good role models – seems to have a big impact on the juniors themselves, but it really helps our athletes as well. We’ve got a project in the works for this fall that I can’t unveil yet, but it’s similar, to try to activate the clubs throughout the U.S. It doesn’t just have to be women that these girls are trying to be role models for; it can be the junior men as well. These girls definitely operate under the guidance of each other, and the more the merrier, and to leave a legacy after they retire would be the best accomplishment – I think that would exceed the goals of World Championship and Olympic medals. Something that sustains after these girls move on.

What does the legacy look like?

MW: To leave a legacy in my eyes would have to change the culture so it continues to pedal itself a little bit. It’s not dependent on just Kikkan being here. Or just Jessie or just Ida being here. You leave the team knowing that the next Jessie, the next Sadie, they are coming up, regardless of whether you’re here or not, because the momentum’s been created; the energy has been cemented.

What I’m hearing is that it’s critically important to cultivate this notion that a career is more than just skiing — and giving back to community is important – but the original question was actually about this creation of the team, and your role as a coach. What specific moves have you made?

MW: I think there are a few ways, with no one thing being responsible for the success of the team, because a good team chemistry is a fragile thing that can fall apart with just a single episode. So it’s something we’re always working on. As a coach I think it’s really important to realize that feedback is a two-way street and we’re pummeling these athletes twice a day during their training sessions and perhaps a third time when they’re getting video review; it’s constant feedback and constructive criticism. If we can see this as a two-way street, where they can also provide us with feedback as coaches – tell me how to do better, tell me what works for them – then I feel that they’re much more accepting of feedback when I offer it, to say nothing of the times I feel I improve as a coach are often when one of my athletes tells me how to do something better. That’s something that as a younger coach I was really struggling with. We always want to be right in the plans that we write and the advice that we give our athletes and you learn to swallow your pride and ask for some help – particularly from your athletes who know best how to coach themselves. Then we can really start to grow as coaches. It’s a fairly open, communicative team environment that we have going. We do sit down – feedback surveys twice a year. It’s a pretty formal process, and it’s anonymous, so they can tear into me if they want. I just got a nice spring review – so it’s always a slightly nerve-wracking process opening that Excel file and seeing what you’ve done well and what you need to work on. But it’s the most fulfilling process as well for me, because that’s when I can really improve.

The camps are all focused on the training, of course, but we’ll do a formal meeting at every camp and sort of tackle what we want to accomplish that year outside of training and racing. How do we want to impact the community this year? Last year we thought it was really important for our team identity to get a poster out there – not just a poster to market our own athletes, but a poster that some aspiring juniors would want to be on some day. I think that was pretty effective, and we felt there was a lot of excitement stemming from that and wish we had printed more.  We’ll do something similar to that again, but it’s always these little projects that we’r eworking on that makes these athletes feel like there’s more to it than just racing for themselves. It seems to be pretty effective. It works for us coaches too, because it can pretty quickly become just ski racing if you’re not on top of things, and not doing fun things with the team. Outreach to the community…

Borrowing from a corporate environment, for example, it’s not uncommon for intact teams to come together – and it’s a little bit of a different dynamic on a ski team, when people are pulling together and they’re also competing against one another – but have you used any psychometric instruments like the MBTI, or have you brought somebody in from the outside to facilitate some sort of team building sessions?

MW: For starters, each athlete works with one or two sports psychologists that our team has become familiar with, so we have done some personality tests as a group actually, which turned out to be quite hysterical, because we go through each of the five or six categories and when you’ve been together long enough together on the road, and it comes time for Holly to read her score on a certain category, I think everybody in her own head already knows what score she’s going to read within reason. It’s a fairly funny process doing those personality tests. I don’t know if we accomplished anything from it other than sort of proving what we already knew about each other, and it certainly was a funny drill; these seven athletes know each other so incredibly well. So any time we can stimulate the brain and their relationships in different ways, I think we grow from it.

What is being a coach of highly motivated human beings like? Is it like growing a garden or something, or do you think of yourself as in some sort of metaphorical role?

MW: The interesting thing – the one thing I always enjoyed about coaching juniors was the motivation was so fun for me to try to tackle – you had to be so creative to figure out how to motivate juniors so they would continue to ski race. I think that in many ways is our biggest challenge as coaches – not to teach them how to ski technically perfect, but more to teach them how to ski long enough, and how to enjoy it, and then they can master the technique. But with elite-level women, these women are so unbelievably motivated; I sometimes find my job being more as a regulator, and making sure that too much work isn’t done. It’s sort of harnessing all that energy so we don’t hit our February peak in October. There’s no lack of motivation on this team, and I think that the trick is to how to creatively apply the motivation that these seven have.

Can you tell me a story that might epitomize the kind of spirit this team has?

MW: It would probably take me forever to think of the perfect story, but I can think of a bunch of examples that may or may not apply. I’m up in Alaska right now at our third annual NAWTA Camp (North American Women’s Training Alliance) and the philosophy of the team – that is to share, pay it forward, try not to be too good so that we don’t feel we can’t benefit from  inviting better skiers to our camps. So we created a strong partnership with the Canadians a couple years ago, and have done a number of camps with their women. Last year we started to branch out and use some of our World Cup connections; Kikkan invited Aino-Kaisa Saarinen, who was the World Champion, and this year we have Astrid Jacobsen, who was a 2007 World Champion – she’s got twenty-something World Cup medals, or something crazy like that – and the fact that NAWTA exists is a good representation of who this team is. It’s a sharing  team. It’s one that is not hiding any secrets. We want to help anybody from any country get faster, for the sake of the sport. We feel like when we share a secret, which perhaps we think we have in some aspect of skiing, we feel that it gets returned to us tenfold. Having Astrid here – yeah, we hope it makes her faster, we hope it gives her a better shot at winning a medal in the Olympics, because we’re certain it’s benefitting us.

Are the men as inclined to work together as the women?

Matt Whitcomb, regressing / Photo by Noah Hoffman

MW: I don’t know that it’s gender-specific; it certainly isn’t in our country. Our guy’s team is very much a part of our success as well. The guys we have on the national team are so bought into the success of the women that it almost feels funny to call it a women’s and men’s team sometimes. So perhaps it more serves as an example to teams that focus a little too intensely on the training before they focus on the team chemistry. I think you can’t put the cart before the horse; it very much has to be, build the team environment, make that right, and then the training is right and then the racing is right. When all of those things happen in kind of that sequence, I think it’s really easy to sustain a long career as an athlete. It’s a hard career. It’s an unusual career. You don’t make a lot of money; it’s subjecting yourself to some hardcore weather, a lot of personal stress and to be able to sustain it the way these guys do is really telling of what they’ve created.

The training and racing seems to be incredibly stressful, but everybody seems to be smiling at the end of the day in all of the candid photos I see on all of the ski team blogs. It’s kind of like, “Really?” I’d be asleep in a corner, probably.

MW: (Laughs) It just comes down to enjoying the process, and those seven-day tours or four-day tours seem like a month when the smiles don’t come out after a race. Some of our athletes need to be a little bit serious on race day, and some of our athletes need to be a little bit goofy on race day. And it’s all about what you sort of require as an individual – trails off – here’s a good example of what it means to be a good teammate – I just got a cup of coffee delivered to me.


MW: You know, I think the smiles are a little bit…(pauses). Sometimes you have to force them, too, to serve your role as a good teammate, and eventually they become more and more natural. Then you find yourself as a naturally smiley teammate and in an infectious sort of way despite being in a physically demanding sport.

Talk about the Olympics.

First Snow, Sochi Russia

MW: The expectations are high, and the trick for us is to not look at it a whole lot differently than we looked at last year. It was a World Championships year; certainly there’s much less pressure, but there’s still a significant amount of pressure surrounding WCs. So we saw last year as our trial run. We tested a lot of things; we tried the Tour de Ski as an actual stimulus to become fit at a major championship event in February. Based on what we found there, we’ll use the different results for individual athletes to create the right training and racing program for this season.  And so in a lot of ways we feel like we’ve already had a lead-up to the Olympics. We feel pretty confident in knowing that it works. There’s no better thing going into an Olympic season than coming out of the previous season feeling confident. And this team does feel confident. A lot of years we’ve gone to the Olympics talking about medals, when perhaps that was a little bit ambitious. We were throwing Hail Marys and being disappointed when they didn’t turn out. This year we know in order to win a medal in the women’s relay, we are going to have to be competitive in the two women’s relays leading into the Olympics and the World Cups.  And for a few of our athletes to have a shot at the podium during the skate sprint or the team sprint, we know that we’ve got to have a significant number of podiums leading into the Olympics. And so you can look at it rationally: if we’re successful leading into the Games, then we can just keep on coasting. The opposite of that is that if we don’t have success in those specific Olympic events leading into the Games – there will be 20-some opportunities to practice during championship events – we’re going to know what we can realistically expect by the time the Games comes around.

Is there a different psych in camp knowing that there will be more eyeballs on the team this year?

MW: We try to keep things sort of disconnected from what other people think to make sure we keep functioning as a team, and that’s one freedom that we do have – that we can be as affected as we want by the media. We can use it to our advantage, and we can certainly use it to our disadvantage if we start to listen to everything that’s being said out there. So all we have to do is close the door and turn off the phone, and keep the computers unplugged and we’re insulated back into our safe team environment. I’m not too concerned. I think the excitement’s been building for a couple of years anyway, and so I don’t see this as something that’s going to be entirely different in terms of the attention. Yeah, there’s going to be a lot – there’s always a crazy amount of stress around the Olympics, but we have a lot of veterans who have already dealt with that in their first Olympics, and if they’re just moving into their first Olympics in 2014, then they’ve been able to learn from veterans like Kikkan and Holly and Liz. So I’m not too concerned with this season being any different.

Can you talk about the Sochi courses?

MW: I’m psyched for the courses, and I know that our team is confident, too. We went there (last season). We weren’t necessarily firing on all cylinders, I mean, Kikkan was sick, Liz and Holly were tired, yet Kikkan still won a race, and Liz was top 10, Holly qualified seventh, Ida made it to the final. Jesse qualified really well. Sadie had an incredible team sprint. We were able to put together some incredible performances. We just had such a good weekend there, firing on only about half of our cylinders. So our general memory of the venue is a very positive one. I mean, from the perspective of what it takes to get to Russia – it’s a hard place to host the Olympics. For our team, the harder the travel to get to the Olympics, the more difficult the venue is on the athletes, the better we do. Being North Americans, or perhaps being from anywhere other than Europe, which is the focal point for the World Cup, we’re professional travelers, so I say bring on the stressors, because our athletes know how to deal with them pretty well.

With respect to the courses, I think they too suit us really well. We don’t yet know what the women’s relay course is, but we know the sprint courses for our candidates. For the skate sprint, we have a team that’s really comfortable with finishing speed – that’s something we’ve been working on. It’s a fast finish – it comes off a hill and around a couple of corners and it’s something we’re prepared for. The classic sprint has a nice gradual striding section, which certainly benefits the striders on our team. I feel like we could struggle with some steeper climbs like they have on the guy’s side, which is omitted on the women’s sprint course for the team sprints, and I think the specific courses really benefit us. The skate course is incredibly difficult. It just bombs you down to the bottom of the valley, and then turns you around and sends you back up it; for the women, the climb was five and a half minutes for the World Cup during the Skiathlon. So someone like Liz or Jessie or Holly – I mean, they’re chomping at the bit for a course like that. Kikkan included. So I’m really looking forward to the courses. One thing that will be challenging – I don’t see it as a negative, it’s just something that we’re working on strategies to overcome it  – the trails are so demanding that it’s hard on training days if you’re at the Olympics for three weeks, to ski enough easy terrain so you don’t tire yourself out. That’s one thing we ran into at the World Cup this last January – we thought we were pretty tired leaving Russia. The training trail is really difficult.

Any other strategies? Planning on bringing Robin Williams out to entertain the team? Remember Moscow on the Hudson?

MW: (Laughs) I’d love to. I think that would be a great idea. But I think we’re going to try to take the money that we do have and spend it wisely. You know, Russia is a really special place that we feel fortunate to go to in our lifetimes. The venues were incredibly well managed when we were there during the World Cup. The volunteers were so friendly – I mean, the number of photos we have of volunteers was telling of our experience in Russia. We have nothing but good vibes, and we can’t wait to get back there.

The U.S. Cross Country Team, post World Championship victory by Kikkan Randall and Jesse Diggins at Val di Fiemme, Italy / Whitcomb Collection

What will be the most exciting stories on the women’s team in this Olympics?

MW: From a results perspective, probably the women’s relay, because  — yeah, you could have an athlete win a medal in the skate sprint or the team sprint, or the 30k skate, but if we have a team win, the women’s relay, then we feel we’ve accomplished something as a country. There are enough women – and we have seven or eight that we feel could actually be contributing members to a medal-winning relay team – then we feel like we’re making some progress. Sure, while we have a shot at medals in several of these events, there’s nothing easier than not winning a medal at the Olympics, so we’re keeping things in perspective…but I would focus on the women’s relay.

How about Kikkan?

MW: Of course, with the freestyle sprint, there’s the story of Kikkan having won two consecutive globes leading into the Olympics, but there’s also the story of six women – really competitive women – who can all qualify in the top ten, vying for the four starter spots at the Games. And so it’s not just the Kikkan story, but there always is that story, too!

Right. To what extent do you become concerned when the media focus on Kikkan and single her out as the medal hopeful – or probable winner, rather – and the effect of that outsized interest in Kikkan on the rest of the team. Do they know in advance that there may be a disproportionate amount of media interest in Kikkan? Do you prepare them for that, or are they emotionally prepared to know that hey, it’s just a part of the game?

MW: It’s a part of the game, for sure. Kikkan’s gone through times when she has been affected by the pressure leading into an event. I mean, it did used to be the Kikkan Show. We would show up at a Championships, and she was our shot. We wouldn’t treat team meetings like this, but Kikkan’s a very smart person – she puts together the importance of a medal to our country, and she knows what that means, and there’s nobody on our team that doesn’t want Kikkan to win an Olympic medal. I mean, I think there are many athletes on our team who would almost volunteer to sit out of the Olympics if they could watch Kikkan win that sprint race. That’s how invested they are in her success. Because of what she’s given back to our team, I mean, she’s just a focal point of energy right from the beginning. What I think has helped a lot is that now it’s not just the Kikkan Show; it’s the seven of them now. Yeah, she has a good shot at a medal. She may or may not get that. But she could also get a medal in a few other events. There’s the 10k classic, there’s the women’s relay, there’s the 30k skate. But there are also other athletes who can medal, to take some of that pressure off of Kikkan, so the country is not really relying on that one shot at success from Kikkan Randall. I think that will be something that positively affects her. Sure, she wants that victory badly, but she’s also pretty excited that she’s not the only horse going into the Games with a shot at a medal. She feels well flanked.

– original posted at Sustainable Play

1 comment

  1. Excellent article. Happy athletes and leading from behind appear right on target. The described collaboration of each teammate in contributing to the growth and well being of the individuals within the team seems a most worthy goal for us at all levels of the sport. Great job coaches. What you do makes me smile.

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