AVSC’s Clubhouse Chronicles: The art of coaching our young winter athletes

Andy Davies
AVSC Director of Academics
Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club
Courtesy image

The thrill of victory — the agony of defeat — and every emotion in between.

Competitive athletes want to win, yet with a field filled with talent and dedication, a spot on the podium can be elusive. There has been much written about the value of grit and perseverance, and competitive sports provide an ideal platform for youth to develop these attributes in a safe environment.

Developing these “soft skills” requires support: coaches must use not only their expertise in the technical aspects of sport, but also their understanding of the mental training required to persist and succeed in sports with margins of hundredths of seconds or tenths of points. This requires our coaches to not only understand the range of emotions an athlete experiences on any given day, but also guide the athlete through them in a way that promotes reflection, learning and growth.

I have been an educator for over 25 years and a parent of Aspen Valley Ski & Snowboard Club athletes since 2009. I began working at the Club in July, and I have seen up close the care and dedication that the coaches have for their athletes and their emotional development. Social/emotional learning is something we’ve been discussing and focusing on frequently as a staff this fall, and as we move toward the busy season we look forward to keeping it top-of-mind.

AVSC’s coaches work with each athlete to identify season and long-term goals and to develop personalized training schedules and plans to align actions to aspirations. Much of this work includes observing the attitudes and approaches through a social/emotional developmental lens. The Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning, (CASEL — and we include athletic) cites five primary pillars: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making. Each of these is broken down into more discreet competencies, and by nurturing these, athletes cultivate both the physical abilities and mental aptitudes necessary to reach their goals.

Here are a few examples of how these skills develop through on-snow programs:

• Self-awareness is critical to success in most endeavors, and stress management, one competency in this pillar, is one of the most important skills for athletes to develop. Competitions are by nature stressful situations, and athletes exhibit a variety of behaviors at the start. Coaches work with individual athletes to identify tools that help each temper his/her sense of stress, so the athlete can perform at his/her best. In addition, competitive athletes travel quite a bit and report that keeping up with school work on the road is a major source of stress. Therefore, athletes need to learn how to balance demanding training schedules with the rigors of academic life. This requires a high level of executive-functioning to plan and schedule, to manage multiple deadlines and to communicate effectively with teachers and coaches.

• Impulse control is another area of self-awareness that many youth need to develop. When coaches help teens understand the critical consequences of literally “leaping before they look,” youth learn the value of managing impulses through authentic experiences. Young athletes learn how to inspect the safety of jumping off a cliff or are required to be cleared for inverted jumps on an airbag. These daily lessons instill the importance of managing impulses which will serve the athletes well in all aspects of their lives.

• Athletes must learn how to put results in perspective. Whether standing on a podium or trying to figure out why a best effort falls short, an athlete needs to reflect on each competition and learn from it. Those who tend to do well need to consider how a teammate might feel who is disappointed. And when disappointed, an athlete needs to ignite the passion to come back the next day and give it his/her best.

Coaches have lived the triumphs and disappointments of competition and call on these experiences to support young athletes through the roller coaster of emotions throughout the season. As a society, we know that youth who have trusted adults outside of the home develop a stronger sense of self that sets them up for success as adults. Our coaches are dedicated to developing each athlete to the best of his/her ability and understand that by taking into consideration the social/emotional development of each, AVSC will fulfill our goals of producing “Great Athletes, Great Kids.”

Clubhouse Chronicles is a twice a month, behind-the-scenes column written by the Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club. It runs in the Friday Outdoors section.