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Team USA Develops Gold-Medal Coaches With Innovative Leadership Education Program

By Darci Miller | Oct. 05, 2015, 2:37 p.m. (ET)

Participants of the National Team Coach Leadership Education Program pose for a photo on Sept. 17, 2015 at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo.

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- ­A volleyball coach, a speedskating coach and a wrestling coach walk into a room.

There’s no punch line. It’s the very real environment of the United States Olympic Committee’s National Team Coach Leadership Education Program (NTCLEP).

The NTCLEP is the USOC’s blueprint to assist Team USA coaches in achieving international competitive excellence. The program is open to national team coaches of any Olympic, Paralympic or Pan American sport, and over the course of 16 months, coaches attend five seminars. This allows coaches the opportunity not only to learn from experts within the seminars, but learn from their colleagues as well. For many of the coaches, this unique environment was a large part of what attracted them to the NTCLEP.

Coaches work on a personality assessment exercise as part of the
National Team Coach Leadership Education Program on Sept. 17,

“Really, one of the biggest pieces is being exposed to all the other coaches, all the other sports, and all the different perspectives that they have,” said Mike Jankowski, head coach of the U.S. Snowboarding and U.S. Freeskiing teams for the halfpipe and slopestyle disciplines, and a member of the first cohort of NTCLEP coaches. “We all share common goals, and at the same time, we all have such varied sports and varied backgrounds. So it’s really interesting to get everybody’s perspectives on things and share best practices, challenges that we’ve had along the way, and how much we’ve learned so we can really feed off of each other.”

While similar coaching education programs exist, this inclusivity across both summer and winter sports make the NTCLEP the first of its kind in the world. The USOC brings in some of the best leadership developers in the world to work with the participating coaches, tailoring the seminars to provide development that the National Governing Bodies specifically asked for. Seminar topics include discussions about high performance sport, a look at personality types and communication, practice structure and skill acquisition, how the human brain works and other aspects of sport science, how to cultivate a coaching staff and more.

“The USOC has never really offered any type of continuing education to our national team coaches, so we wanted to come up and fill the gap of not necessarily sport-specific information, but some general pillars of knowledge that they would need,” said Christine Bolger, associate director of coaching education at the USOC.

Over 40 national team head or assistant coaches applied for each of the two cohorts, with 24 in total being selected. All of the 24 are medal-impacting coaches that will have opportunities at either the Rio 2016 Olympic Games or the PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Winter Games.

“We didn’t know what to expect when we put it out there because there aren’t any mandates for coaching education, especially at the top level, in the U.S.,” Bolger said. “So the number of applications we got, we were very excited about. Narrowing it down to what became 10 in the first group was very difficult because we want to get all the coaches trained and give them this experience.

“Since they’re coaches from different sports, it’s very rare that they get to sit around the table like this and share war stories and strategies and tackle issues together. It’s been fantastic to have them collaborate. We’ve got beach volleyball working with bobsled. Where are you going to get that kind of experience?”

The first cohort of coaches completed its fourth seminar last month at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, while the second cohort wrapped up its second seminar later that week. Though no coaches have yet been through the full program, many have already begun to see results by implementing what they’ve learned.

Coaches work on a personality assessment exercise as part of the
National Team Coach Leadership Education Program on Sept. 17,

Jankowski has been so pleased with the results he’s seen that he volunteered to give a presentation to the second cohort about how they can start implementing the lessons they’re learning.

“I just thought it’d be nice to share some of what I’ve learned so far in terms of using a lot of these communication styles, learning how to adapt to other people more quickly,” Jankowski said. “The results have been really, really phenomenal.”

Despite only being on their second seminar, the coaches in the second cohort are already appreciating how advantageous the program is.

“We’re trying to build a legacy for them, and connect the pipeline of coaches and have the information that these guys are learning trickle down to their development process,” Bolger said. “We’re seeing that with ski and snowboard already. We’ve got two coaches in the pilot and one in the second cohort, so they’re working together to kind of establish some processes that may not have been there before.”

Both Jankowski and Skogen Sprang, head coach of the slopestyle skiing team, were part of the coaching staff that led the freeskiing and snowboarding teams to an unprecedented five out of six available gold medals at the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games. In July, Sprang was named the USOC’s 2014 Coach of the Year. A finalist for that award behind Sprang was Tuffy Latour, head coach of the U.S. skeleton team that won two medals in Sochi. Already no stranger to success, these three found themselves in a room with coaches of equal caliber. While those in the room represented great variety among their sports and experience level, each coach had one thing in common: they want to get better.

“I just (wanted to) learn more about all types of coaching and push myself to learn more just in general,” Sprang said. “I’d been an athlete for a bunch of years and just wanted to meet all these (other coaches), find out what their perspectives are, and just push myself to learn more.

“I think it’s been really good, for sure. As (Jankowski) has mentioned, he’s applied it towards (our teams) and I’ve applied a bunch of it as well, with recognizing different personalities different athletes have and working on just being better in categories like that. And I really like the idea of reflecting and using a journal, things like that. You do some of these things already but there’s ways to improve them and do them better so you get more out of it.”

Bolger says that the feedback she’s received so far has been overwhelmingly positive. As the coaches chatted during breaks in the seminar, congratulating each other on recent world championship wins and discussing coaching methods, it’s easy to see why.

“I’ve been to many leadership seminars and coaching groups over the years with mixed results,” Jankowski said. “This has really stood out as being really effective, really practical for me to use in my teams that I work with and really just develop great relationships with some other coaches at other NGBs where we can use each other as resources when we come up with challenging situations.

“It’s gone above and beyond my expectations in many ways.”