Steve Victorson
The Champion's Way
Steve's book The Champion's Way is now available on Amazon. learn more about the book here.
Swymfit: A Water and Fitness Gym

Q: While written against a sports milieu, The Champion's Way is a book for everyone who wants to become a champion of his or her life. What advice would you give those looking to put their life on a championship track? How could the 11 qualities in this book apply to their pursuit?

A: I would say start down this path slowly. In the words of a great skiing champion, it is not for everyone. Take bits and pieces of what you read and apply them to your life. To fully embrace the champion’s way, you must adopt a very singular approach. Your family will have to join your support team and fully back your efforts. My suggestion is to start this path early in life, while you have very few obligations. If you are in the middle of life and are looking for a change, these factors can be applied to every aspect of your life, not just sport. You can become a champion husband or wife and put your energy into developing a strong family.

One aspect of The Champion's Way is awareness. If you have reached the highest levels of athletic maturity, the champion's level in sport, you are aware of what you need in order to win. Having awareness enables you to achieve more than your peers as you are efficient. Awareness is knowledge; it lets you streamline your activities. Waste is eliminated and balance is achieved. You can walk the narrow path of a champion.

The 11 qualities in this book are essentially a blueprint for creating a successful and productive life. You can take these factors and use them to work towards any goal that you desire. I would also suggest that you take your understanding of these factors to put your life and the life of a champion athlete into perspective.

Q: The Champion’s Way originates from your work with the US Ski Team, followed by your doctoral study. Could you talk about your US Ski Team experience?

A: That was one of those dream jobs that falls into your lap from being in the right place at the right time and working hard. The experience was challenging and very enjoyable. I was with the men's slalom and giant slalom team. I came in on the end of Tamara McKinney's and Bill Johnson's careers, and the beginning of the careers of Picabo Street and Tommy Moe. I was part of an organization that helped and supported their careers and only was occasionally involved with any direct coaching of these two athletes. It was athletes that I worked directly with that motivated me to do my research. I believed we had a very talented group of athletes, and I wondered what could we have done differently, if anything, from an organizational and staff perspective that might have helped them reach higher levels of success. I also wondered how to improve the development of such athletes so that, once they got to the team, their chances of success would be higher.

Q: Could you share a story from those days that captures the essence of the champion's way?

A: We had a young and very talented athlete moving up through the ranks. At times he was a challenge for his coaches and teammates, and probably even himself. I felt then and now that what got in his way, besides his personal choices, was a challenging situation at home. The Champion’s Way speaks to the need of a stable home environment. Talent alone will not get someone to the top. In the case of this young athlete, he fell short of realizing his full potential while on the Ski Team. This particular case played a role in my desire to return to school and ultimately do this research.

Q: Picabo Street became a folk hero of sorts during her career, and is back in the public eye as a co-star of the new TV show Stars Earn Stripes. Can you share a story that typifies her character and personality?

A: About 13 years ago or so, I met a young kid with a kidney disease that required regular dialysis. This kid loved to ski and was especially interested in Picabo’s career. I made a few phone calls to track her down. I had not spoken to Picabo for five years or so. We quickly caught up and I asked her for a signed picture. In less than a week, a personally signed picture arrived. You can imagine the smile her heartfelt words put on this kid’s face.

Q: And Tommy Moe?

A: In short, Tommy was steady and very easy to be around. Tommy was and still is relaxed and even keeled. What you see is what you get; he’s a very solid and straightforward person. He never tried to be anyone else, but Tommy Moe. He could have as much fun as the next person, but he still respected himself and those with whom he spent time  – peers, coaches and family.

Q: You also worked with a young Daron Rahlves and formed a special friendship with him. Can you elaborate?

A: I had the pleasure of teaching math to Daron when he was in the 8th grade. Already, he worked harder than everyone in the class. He was focused and had strong, supportive parents, who I also got to know. He enjoyed skiing and was very open to learning and working hard. Daron did not waste time. He did not partake in the distractions of typical 8th graders. He seemed to already be walking a path in life. I will never forget a conversation I had with a group of highly respected and very talented US Ski team coaches, back around 1987 or 1988. I said to my peers that they should look out for this kid named Daron Rahlves. They looked at me and joked as coaches often do, “What do you know, you are just a trainer!” They did not see Daron’s future success. They just saw a young kid whose technique at the time did not suggest he would become the most victorious men’s downhill skier in the history of the US Ski Team. Picking winners is elusive.

Q: What is your personal athletic and competitive background?

A: I played water polo through high school and college. Our college team was ranked as high as 6th in the nation. I was a goalie. I also played a lot of tennis and golf. Of course, I also spent a lot of time skiing. During high school and college, I spent virtually every winter weekend in the mountains. I always enjoyed a strong workout.  

Q: What led to your interest in coaching?

A: As a high school student, I enjoyed teaching swim lessons. I became a ski instructor while in college. Learning how to coach was the next step. Fortunately, at Cal State Hayward (now Cal State East Bay), we had two very successful coaches who let me observe their programs. We also had a very strong physical education program that fed my interest in the human potential. The idea of coaching was secondary to the concept of teaching, but part of the picture. Helping others reach their potential has always been my interest.

Q: You have a pretty diverse coaching background, between skiing and the fitness center, etc. What sports and levels of athletes have you coached and worked with?

A: Virtually all of my coaching work is based around physical training and preparing individuals for sport or for life. Athletes at every level, from beginner through Olympic and professional, have participated in my exercise/training classes. I have also had individuals who need general health and fitness. The sports range from figure skating, to basketball, football, tennis, skiing, lacrosse, distance running and triathlon.

Q: When did you start to realize some of the differences between the ways that champions prepare for competitions, and the ways of other athletes?

A: I began noticing some of the other national ski teams who were beating us regularly, and wondering what they could be doing differently. At the time, I was not so focused on what the champions of that era were doing, but what entire teams and conditioning coaches were doing differently. We had a talented group of athletes who worked very hard. However, the approaches of the other teams brought out the best in their skiers. During that time, I especially noticed the Swiss Ski Team. Athletically, our guys could beat them in volleyball, but when it came time to ski race, the Swiss were on top.

Q: When you sat down with the Olympic and World Cup champions, what did you notice about their mannerisms, demeanors and ways of focusing that led credence to your notion that champions really were cut from a different cloth?

A: There were many nuances in their mannerisms. In particular was their approach to the interviews I conducted with them for my doctoral dissertation — which led, ultimately, to The Champion’s Way. They were all 100% focused. They did not waste time or effort. They looked me in the eye and held nothing back. You could feel their power and strength, even decades after their careers. Once the interviews began, everyone wanted to talk beyond the allotted time. There was no small talk or unnecessary pleasantries, nor was anything held back. You would definitely follow these individuals into battle.

Q: How did you come up with the 11 criteria that form the book’s framework?
A: I conducted qualitative research. I personally administered and recorded every interview and transcribed every word, with some help. Then I read each interview over and over and uncovered different themes in their answers. If you ask enough questions and allow people enough time to answer those questions, their personal qualities will emerge. When you start comparing people, you notice where their answers correlate. The themes that emerged became the 11 factors. In fact, this process was so interesting and involved that I was able to take that experience, listen to interviews of athletes on television or read them in the paper, and know what would happen next.  

Q: A central piece of The Champion’s Way is the path itself, through five defined stages of athletic achievement and athletic maturity. The height of this path is what you call athletic maturity. Could you elaborate on this concept?

A: I coined the term “athletic maturity” about 10 years ago. Much like our own personal maturation process, there is a certain level of growth that has to be reached before you can be consistently successful. In the case of sports champions, in order to win regularly, the athlete must reach athletic maturity. At this stage, all of the necessary physical and technical skills have been mastered. More importantly, so have the mental skills. This athlete knows what he or she wants and needs. There are no more small issues that can get in the way. An athlete who has gained athletic maturity knows the goal; for the champion, that means winning and knowing how to reach that goal. This athlete has the ability to become a consistent winner. With enough victories, he or she may become the next great champion in sports. 

Q: You discuss how a champion’s approach and attitude can be misconstrued by fans and media. They often describe it as arrogance, aloofness, or even rudeness. You cite this as part of the champion’s preparation and supreme focus on the goal. Likewise, you discuss how champions do not view their pursuits as a matter of sacrificing key life experiences – long holidays, other sources of fun, relationships and the like – to attain their goals. Can you talk about these dynamics?

A: Winning requires absolute, 100% attention to every step and detail. Every human being only has a finite amount of energy to focus on a given task. Following and staying on the champion’s path requires all of that energy. Protecting and regenerating this energy is mandatory, but it is also the source of negative perceptions. Champions might receive criticism for not granting interviews, not showing emotions, maintaining privacy, or putting sport ahead of family. This behavior is not intentionally negative or hurtful towards others. In fact, in some cases, I would say that the negative assumptions and judgments of the fans and media are the real problem.  

I did not find that champions called their chosen path a “sacrifice”. Becoming the best is a choice; the actual sacrifice would be to take a lesser path when you know it is possible to reach the top. More to the point, if you are doing what you want to be doing at any given moment, then sacrifice does not work and the concept of sacrifice is not present.

Q: Where do you think the problems lie in this blurring of purpose between winning and losing?

A: I could talk about this topic for hours! Let me tackle one aspect of this question. In sport and in the business world, we have reached a state of absolute efficiency. Direct, excessive focus on the end goal alone has assaulted the tenants of fair play, honest effort and acting within the law. It is as if we will do whatever it takes to be the very best, as quickly and easily as possible. Consequently, those who reach the highest levels of sport and business are often unprepared for the pressures of their new positions, as they have not done the base work to earn their new place in the hierarchy. They do not understand their own power; in business, this can harm livelihoods and lives. In sports, the damage to observers and fans is a loss of faith. If everyone is a winner, I would go to the extreme and say that without losing, progress stops, or at the least is greatly slowed down.

There are very few true champions of sport, and very few who reach the absolute pinnacle in business. It is very, very hard to reach the top and stay there. Unfortunately, there are many “wannabes” who have figured out the system and risen to high levels. This group can learn the most from the concept of  “Athletic Maturity”. Perhaps in the business world, this concept would be called “Business Maturity”.

Q: What do you feel is most present — and, conversely, most lacking — in our society and culture today to develop champions in sports, and in all walks of life?

A: Choice and opportunity are two benefits of 21st century life. We now have many opportunities and thus many choices. This allows virtually everyone and anyone to have a chance at success. The freedom to choice and opportunity has become an expectation. We are told to follow our passions and our dreams. It’s a wonderful concept, but with respect to sport, the odds are short that you will make it to the top. In most cases, anything less than the top will not pay the bills. Furthermore, if we are given the opportunity to pursue our passions, what if those passions change tomorrow, do we just quit the current path and start from the beginning?

Choices also can cause distraction by creating too many opportunities. With fewer choices, the work is harder to become the very best as the competition is more concentrated. This is another deep question. Having choices are important, but so is making a choice and sticking with it until the chosen task has been completed.

Many years ago, an extremely successful person and one of the quiet founders of a major American corporation that was first to enter a lucrative industry told me that he never started a new task until he completed the one on which he was working. Choice and opportunity are powerful and can be distracting. We only need to look at the great athletes who have made choices that completely derailed their careers. I wonder how many great champions of sport and potential future leaders and innovators we’ve lost because of distraction?

Q: During the past 10 years, according to the Athletic Footwear Association, youth sports participation in the US has dropped from 40 million to 35 million – a significant decrease. What will it take to improve the youth sports numbers against the currents of increased indoor time, obesity and other distractions parents and children face?

A: It will take an active push by parents and educators. It is easy to be average. If average means inactivity, most will end up doing nothing. This is unfortunate, as many of those who fall into this category could have just as easily chosen sport over the internet and their smart phones. Conversely, I could also argue that because sport has become so competitive at many levels and the kids who actually make the high school teams are playing one sport all year, the kid in the middle really has no chance. It is easy to point at laziness, growing obesity rates and the internet, but essentially requiring a kid to practice all year to make the high school team can be equally to blame.  

Q: Can you elaborate more on the importance of parents?

A: Since parents have the most influence over young kids by promoting play over sitting,  endlessly playing computer games and overeating, the real changes need to come from the parents. Furthermore, parents should not give in to the school coaches’ demands that their kids play a particular sport all year in order to make the school team. This approach is too aggressive for most kids. Healthy sport does not and should not require year-round practice. Playing multiple sports in school will keep most kids healthy of mind and body.
Pushing all kids to commit and work at the level of a budding champion will force kids away from sport. Coaches and parents need to remember that school age sport involves a team effort, and not every one on the team has to be the best person in the league, district or state.

Q: A subject on which you spend a great deal of time is this notion that if you participate, you’re a winner. You object to this approach from a sports champion’s point of view. Why?

A: Sport can teach kids about life. For most participants, organized team or individual sports end after the senior year in high school. What is learned about life and survival and success if, from day one, the participant has always been called a winner? When you never know failure, how to fail or how to work hard to improve, how can you know true success? We have the attention of kids while they are young. We can choose to teach them lessons and facilitate their growth, or we can protect them, eliminate all of the hard lessons and essentially reduce or eliminate the chances for real growth. If the goal of society is to slowly eliminate the desire to improve, win or become better from future generations, then telling kids that winning and losing do not matter is a sure way toward that path. How can society grow if kids are not taught to push the limits?  

Q: Sport really is just a game. It’s such a simple concept, yet we forget it in our sports-crazed culture that puts sport on a pedestal from the earliest youth leagues.
A: Most of us have participated in or observed sport from a very young age. We associate it with our youth or spending time with family and friends. It also provides instant feedback. So perhaps the reasons for our idolatry come from very deep places and our own inner desires and perceptions of life and the purpose of life.

Further, since the majority of individuals who participate in sport will never earn a paycheck from their efforts, sport is only a game that, when operated properly, can be very beneficial at every stage in life. However, for those playing at the highest levels, sport is a career and a profession. It is easy to look longingly at those playing on the biggest stages the games from our youth.

So sport for most is just a game. For a select few, it is a chosen career, a job. Those of us watching should enjoy sport for its ability to entertain and inspire each of us to our own life goals. The dangers come when we start comparing ourselves and our lives and careers to those of the great athletes. Your chosen career should be just as important to your family, friends and your life as the great athlete’s career. Rather than idolize great athletes, it is best to learn from their lives and, most importantly, enjoy the competition.

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©2016 Steve Victorson
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