A coach’s perspective on the Olympic Games: an interview with Ricky Bower
Interview by Tricia Byrnes
Originally featured in Snowboard Mag Vol. 10, Issue 4 | The Olympic Issue
As the Olympics approach, athletes start to step up their game on and off the hill, new trainers are enlisted, carbs are cut, protein shakes are mixed and sports therapists and hypnotists are on speed dial. Anything and everything a rider thinks will step up their game is thrown into the mix, and coaches are relied on more than ever. Ricky Bower has two Olympics under his belt as the coach of the US team, along with an extensive career in shred (‘99 World Champion, ahem), so I picked his brain on the ins and outs of managing meltdowns and guiding riders to the top of the podium.
What is the biggest difference between the Olympics and a regular season event?
Now, more than ever, young people have been snowboarding with the goal of going to the Olympics as a main source of motivation. That adds up to a lifetime of work that may only pan out to be one shot at the Olympics, if they’re lucky. Making the team for the US is no joke; plenty of very talented US riders never make the Olympic team. The Olympics is for many a once or twice in a lifetime experience that takes a rider’s entire focus for decades. Any other contest is just that – another contest. Wait a week, there will be another one.
How do you balance four riders all gunning for the same goal, and then the huge ups and downs you share with each rider?
That is one of the hardest things. There can only be one winner, so even in the best case scenario, with USA sweeping the podium and then finishing 4th, that 4th place finisher is going to be bummed, super bummed, and I’ll be bummed right there with them. As a coach, the Olympics is always a series of dramatic highs and disparaging lows – all separated by milliseconds. More than once at the Olympics, I’ve watched one of our riders drop in and blow it and then have to turn around and be ready to support the next rider dropping in. I can’t show any of that frustration or anguish that I may be feeling because now it is all about the next rider and their potential. I have to be able to stay positive and switch focus like a light switch without digesting the meat of what just happened and it’s hard.
What do you see is your biggest role as coach?
Being in a place mentally to be able to sense what our riders need and to support that need effectively. A lot of coaches just say stuff to hear themselves talk. The most important part of coaching is listening, and really trying to be with an athlete on the journey towards achieving their riding goals. It’s a learning process that involves constant interaction and communication. Coaching is definitely not about the coach telling the rider what to do; everyone is different, and coaching is about people skills and learning to communicate with the various characters that make up our team.
What’s the most stressful thing about your job?
Watching any of our riders drop in for their run at a contest. I get the same kind of nervous butterflies that I used to get as a rider, but 20 times in one day.
How has being a competitor helped or hindered your role as a coach?
I think it has helped. I still remember what it is like to work super hard at a trick and not progress at the rate I wanted to. I remember what it is like to drop at a big event and I most certainly remember what it is like to blow it at a contest. All of those potential circumstances that can really mess with you as a rider I had to battle with myself.
How do you manage riders’ expectations, especially at the Olympics?
Everyone wants to win, but unfortunately there can only be one winner. The Olympics are very tough. Someone is always bummed out at the Olympics and someone is hopefully stoked because they got on the podium. I have been fortunate to be involved with the coaching staff at the 2006 and 2010 Olympics, both of which went pretty well for US Snowboarding. Even in the best-case scenario, if our team placed 1,2,3,4 at the Olympics, that 4th place person is going to be super bummed to miss the podium.
The Olympics has a way of bringing out the headcase in all of us… how do you manage athletes melting down and what can you do to help that?
The pressure at the Olympics is unlike any other contest, and it has a way of catching people off guard. The worst thing a rider can do is pretend that the Olympics is just another contest and not talk about why and how it’s different and know that it’s OK to be super nervous and freaking out. It’s what they do with that feeling that’s important. If they can look at it like, ‘I have nothing to lose,’ and think, ‘I’m gonna go out there and send it and not hold back,’ great things tend to happen, but sometimes it’s hard to get there mentally.
Which has better Olympic results, knucks or high fives?
Do you get celebrity, VIP status at the Olympic?
Hell no. At the Vancouver Olympics we couldn’t even watch the other competitors’ runs live. We had to go back into a tent and watch the live feed. As a coach it’s all about the riders, so you need to be prepared to not get a uniform, sleep on the floor, and do it all smiling.
Favorite Olympic moment? And why?
I have two. Scotty Lago’s 2010 bronze medal run. He was in such an amazing mental place and gave a shout-out to Danny Davis and Kevin Pearce as he dropped in. Before he even hit the first hit I knew he was going to do great things.
My other favorite Olympic moment was in Turin in 2006 with Hannah and Gretchen. We were freeriding at the top of the mountain before finals practice to have a little fun, but unbeknownst to us patrol had shut down the trail to the pipe and they were telling us to download which would have caused us to miss the 20 minute practice, so we ducked the fence and poached the side of the race course and actually slashed some pow in the process. It could have all gone wrong; a rocky turn, a blown out edge, missing practice… I would have been in some deep shit for that, but they went on to claim gold and silver, so it worked out in the end.