Seder-Skier Podcast Reflections: Nathan Alsobrook – “The way coaching should be.”

Below are my reflections on my conversation with Nathan Alsobrook, the head coach at Bowdoin College. Our podcast will be released tomorrow.

Maine’s state slogan is, “The way life should be.” After my conversation with Nathan Alsobrook, who joined us on this episode of the Seder-Skier Podcast, I was left thinking it might be appropriate to apply the saying directly to the Maine-based Bowdoin College’s head ski coach, hence the title of this post.

Nathan’s persona and coaching philosophy embody values we ‘should’ see at every level of skiing, and clearly, he’s finding success with his recipe at the NCAA level. In 2018, he was honored as the NENSA Coach of the Year after his squad finished in the top 6 as a team (XC scoring only) in every EISA carnival race. An article on Fasterskier, lauded his program’s steady and consistent improvement since taking over in 2007. The recognition was well deserved back in 2018, but those successes were dwarfed by what happened in 2020.

“This has been our best season ever,” Alsobrook reflected when I spoke with him a couple of weeks ago. The team repeated as Chummy Cup champions, an all-Maine school competition, a feat they accomplished for the first time in program history in 2019. They qualified 5 out of a possible 6 spots for NCAA’s, by far their largest group, and finished in the top 3 in four out of six carnival races.

What is the secret behind this improvement? Alsobrook credits consistency in leadership, gradually changing perceptions of the program, and an increase in the ability to bring in stronger recruits each year. Avoiding turnover in leadership, however, is only beneficial if the leader is fostering healthy elements in a program, something an inside look at the fabric of the Brunswick, Maine institution’s team clearly proclaim to be happening. It’s also evidenced by the coach’s recognition of the most important catalyst for improvement: the presence of a supportive and positive team culture.

“I think that regardless of the talent of the people we’re recruiting, we’re putting them in a situation where they have a bunch of really supportive teammates and a coach whose flexible and supportive and cares about them as people.”

Prioritizing a positive team culture, one founded in a relationship-building devotion towards his athletes and a belief that a satisfying student experience goes hand in hand with striving for true success, is what matters.

“I think we’re creating an environment that makes this fun for them. Makes it a positive experience. Makes them want to go out and train – makes them excited to ski fast – not just for themselves, but for the team. And I do think we’re creating an environment that makes those things possible, and that helps them ski faster regardless of whether they came in with a strong JN’s background or just a more humble high school background.”

Even though currently more blue-chip high school recruits will give Bowdoin the time of day, the environment is built to maximize the talent and potential of everyone who assimilates into the Polar Bear “way” – which is to say they work hard, are great teammates, and understand values which transcend what happens on the snow.

“I try to be intentional that our program is a place where you learn values that have nothing to do with competition. …being a good teammate, person, being someone who contributes to society in a positive way.”

I’m always fascinated to learn about the route people take in life. The Vermont native didn’t began skiing himself until his junior year of high school. Roped in by some persistent friends who needed a 4th skier to score, he eventually relented to the positive peer pressure, figuring worst case, it would help him in track.

“They pestered me,” Alsobrook says in describing the situation. “I was on the running team and played soccer with them and stuff – until I decided to give it a try.”

Although he had grown up being involved in all sports, coming to cross country skiing later than most was understandably unnerving. “It was pretty far out of my comfort zone,” he remembers.

The experience was life changing. Blessed with a great team and supportive coach, the rookie on skis was quickly hooked. “It became a cornerstone of my life at that point,” he aptly admits. His progression as a skier inherently laid the seeds for a desire to form a career in skiing, though the road back to his alma-mater was a bit winding.

His improvement and enjoyment during his two high school seasons persuaded him to give collegiate skiing a shot at Bowdoin, but the shock of a new level of performance in the NCAA threw him back to the bottom rung of the ladder.

“I was absolutely terrible as a first year in college,” Nathan admits. One should know and will realize from our interview, just how humble this coach is, making it somewhat difficult to ascertain the truth regarding his athletic ability and accomplishments. He would work his way up to what he considered to be a “mid-pack” skier by the end of his career. Continuing in his analysis of his racing experience, Alsobrook pinpoints perhaps the more poignant trophies he acquired from those years, elements which are reflected in the program he now runs: “But, I learned a ton, had fun, and made great friends on the team.”

This is my speculation – to a certain degree, I think it is possible that Nathan’s coaching philosophy and overall life philosophy can be traced back to those early experiences as a skier. When a person is NOT raised in this sport in particular, it substantially affects their long term approach to their involvement in it. Attitude towards learning, teaching, and performing in it change – I say this from personal experience working with know-it-all’s who shall not be named and people who maybe do ‘know it all’ now (like Nathan), but only because they approached everything as a humble sponge, soaking up knowledge from every other coach, athlete, and teacher. It’s manifested in a unique, innocent enthusiasm for the sport, which only serves to further inspire steady improvements and growth.

These traits are evident in Alsobrook in many ways, one of which was of particular interest on our show: his graduate work at MSU-Bozemon on the relationship between upperbody strength and classical ski performance. While we didn’t completely nerd out during this portion of the conversation, if you must skip through it, do so at your own risk. I found learning less about the inner workings of an interesting and relevant thesis topic and discovering more about his character as a person and coach. That is to say, Nathan is blessed with the ability of being a true lifelong learner, and it bleeds into his coaching and working with athletes.

Since those first practices as a junior, he has been fortunate to combine learning experiences from both sides of the coaching spectrum – the “art” of experience from people like Marty Hall, Tracey Cote, and many others, as well as the “science” of sport from those same individuals as well as people like Dr. Dan Heil at MSU. Each morsel of knowledge gets accurately placed in its proper spot along the continuum of learning by virtue of his approach to continued learning. Along the way, he was also afforded the chance to teach skiing to a wide range of ability levels, from beginner to high school to college, an essential tool which no doubt has been invaluable, even in his present post working with experienced athletes. Because of all of this, Nathan possesses something few coaches who work at his elite level have: freedom from a particular dogmatic theory on training, racing, and anything else, and the consequential ability to learn from every experience along the road of life, which he does.

Part of the reason for this is his willingness and proficiency in self analyzing, all of which is completed for the betterment of his interactions with athletes – the people he really lives for in his job. It’s refreshing to hear him speak to his strengths and weaknesses and how he has learned to grapple with each generation of athlete. I’ll save those quotes for the podcast.

When asked why he does what he does, Alsobrook reveals again his student-centered approach, saying, “The reason I coach is because I love working with the athletes. I love the energy that they bring and that they give to me. I love seeing them improve. Love getting to know them and building those relationships. I genuinely enjoy spending time with my athletes. They’re just such nice, smart, fun, kind people. It’s genuinely nice to go to a camp with them and to ride in a van with them.”

Something which resonated deeply with me during our conversation was the foundation upon what he has built for those athletes in his program. Ultimately, he is working to give them a rich and fulfilling experience, something he realizes is defined differently for every person but can be accomplished best when there is a shared pursuit of high level performance. It was refreshing to hear a coach echo the truth that high level striving for success in sport and ‘having fun’ are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they are part and parcel to each other. It is, in fact, the best avenue for personal growth, one of his cornerstones. “I’m hoping that when they walk out the door I’ve helped them become a better person in some particular fashion.”

I suppose one reason Nathan Alsobrook is successful doing this for kids is because they see him live it out. Last year, as a first year, enthusiastic coach at the University of Maine Presque Isle, I was thrust into a situation where by the time our Thanksgiving training camp rolled around, our numbers had been reduced to three skiers – two of which were freshmen. By the time of the first carnival, we had only one skier. Nonetheless, from my first encounter with Nathan at Foret Montmorency, where his team also spent Thanksgiving week training, Nathan always made sure to look out for me and my team’s needs. At every race weekend, he would answer all of my questions (even though he was often busy waxing his team’s fleet of skis) with kindness and thankfully, accuracy. He wanted to make sure my athlete had a great experience – and part of that was obviously connected to the speed and effectiveness of her skis. He made sure that happened for us, and as a result, he was someone I was able to learn from, even if only for a short time. His grace and mercy towards personally spoke volumes as to the kind of person and coach he is.

While Bowdoin’s program is one where student-athletes inherently learn how to be successful in other walks of life, a cornerstone in my own teaching/coachin philosophy, it is the above paragraph that is probably the foremost reason I can say, “This is the way ski coaching should be.” This is how any coaching, teaching, private lessons, etc. should be.

If I have a son or daughter who wants to ski, I hope Nathan is still around so I can send them way out east, his way, someday. Hopefully, I’ll have them grow up on skis …. and hopefully they’ll still be a humble, kind, relational, morally centered, lifelong learner all the same.

Be sure to listen to our full podcast/interview with Nathan tomorrow on the Seder-Skier Podcast.

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