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American alpine skier Madi Springer-Miller races against the clock on the slopes of Bald Mountain, Sun Valley, Idaho, 28th November 1951. Springer-Miller is training with other hopefuls for the United States Olympic ski team ahead of the 1952 Winter Olympics in Oslo, Norway.
(Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

I’m at the top of Bald Mountain in Sun Valley, Idaho. The day is cloudless and I can see not one, but four different mountain ranges from the top of the lift. I feel like I’m standing on the roof of North America. Very pretty, but also a long, long way down. Save for a lone cat track (my friend James, a longtime Sun Valley resident, shudders when rookies like me call them “catwalks”), there is no easy way down this mountain, and I haven’t skied in a calendar year. Every green circle marking is either an exercise in foul deception or a compliment to you: the avid skier who considers a bumpy, two-mile run down Warm Springs to be nothing more than a bunny hill.

I alternate between cocky and wary. I’ve gotten in better shape since the last time I stared down a mountain, but I’m also still a rickety 46-year-old with brain damage and a spine made of puff pastry. The last time I went skiing, I fell numerous times: a couple of “sliding onto your bum” falls that don’t really count, but also one or two legit wipeouts. The kind where a ski comes off its binding and you have to walk-of-shame 10 steps back up the mountain to retrieve it, with everyone watching. I also fell in the chairlift line, again with everyone watching.

I don’t want that to happen again. When I rented my skis this morning, I asked the dude to make sure the edges were super sharp so that I could dig in easily. He told me these ones were sharpened enough to shave off a layer of your fingernail. “If you fall, it won’t be because of the skis,” he said. I believe him, but I may still blame the skis anyway if I wipe out. I mock the prideful, but possess no shortage of my own pride. Everyone has pride. No one enjoys looking like a fool, even if they don’t look nearly as foolish as they might feel in the moment. So I have drawn up a game plan to make sure that I either don’t fall, or have a manufactured scapegoat just in case I do.

I’m with four friends, six if you count my friend Robin’s children. All of them, the kids included, are faster skiers than me. I mush along the top of the mountain, looking at the trail markings and peering over each run to determine its potential fatality. Black diamonds are out, because I don’t want to die. Anything with moguls is a loaded gun I don’t care to play with. I look at the blue squares and ask around. Is that REALLY an intermediate slope, or will that fuck me up? Every answer hews closer to the latter than to the former. What about the greens, I ask everyone. Which green is, like, the greenest? My friends point me to Broadway before they go bombing down to safer ground. I slide to the precipice of this supposedly tame run and peer down.

All right, Drew. Let’s do it.

I go down. If you’ve ever gone skiing, you know there’s a fine line between deftly navigating the slope at top speed and going so fast that you feel like you’ve lost command of your own body. You never quite know where that line is until you’ve crossed it. I cross it once or twice, dragging my poles behind me in a futile effort to slow down. I will do this, on reflex, many times down my first few runs. And every time I do it, the voice in my head takes note.

You’re dragging your poles. That’s not gonna do you any good. You don’t ski with your arms. All of your confidence is in your legs. Use those.

So I carry both poles in one hand and ski without them, like I’m a six-year-old taking a lesson. When I see the growing shadow of another, better skier coming up behind me, I have a mild bout of panic. Maybe they’re gonna plow into me. Maybe they’re gonna do a daffy and then accidently drive the tip of their ski through my head. Maybe they’ll think I’m old and helpless. I park myself on the far right of the run to let them pass, and to rest. My friends have to periodically stop at interim trail markings to wait for me. It’s a long wait, but they’re cool about it. I almost don’t want them to wait. I’d rather work this shit out alone. Every time I get going back down, the coach in me gives me a series of reminders:

Tighten your core.

Stick your butt out.

Don’t drag those poles. Keep your hands in front of you.

Bend your knees.

As the run flattens toward the bottom, I get into rhythm. The coach in me turns encouraging, telling me Now you’re fucking rocking and rolling, and the jukebox in my head queues up some Queens of the Stone Age for my triumphant arrival at the mountain base. My friends have waited for me. We’ll do many more runs that day, with my inner coach repeating the above orders to me over and over again. Over the next two days, I’ll only fall once: another slide onto my butt that everyone agrees doesn’t count. I do not kill myself. I win.

I had a lot of coaches in my youth. I had a youth swimming coach who taught me how to do a proper pullout at the beginning of a breaststroke lap. I had a wrestling coach whose conditioning drills were a master class in sadomasochism, especially “Indian runs” (now more typically referred to as “train runs,” for obvious reasons), where everyone at the back of the pack has to sprint past the man at the front of the pack, who must then sprint past everyone else once he’s fallen back to the end of the train. I had many, many football coaches. The young ones were fun and alive, the old ones were crusty and appropriately mean. One of them, a retired Army colonel, would spout out things he’d kept from his time in the military.

“Line up in a column of twos, men!”

“Quit playin’ alligator! You know what alligators do, don’t you? They drag ass!”

“I’ll trade you in for an old dog, and then shoot the dog!”

I make fun of coaches a lot in this space, particularly right around this time of year, when even the least known college basketball coaches somehow get more time on camera than the athletes in their employ. Some of these coaches, like Nate Oats, are scum. Some, like Tom Izzo, are belligerent fossils with a hardened bloc of insufferable, retrograde loyalists. Some are craven opportunists. Some are shoddy tacticians. Regardless of their shortcomings, I always notice the bad coaches before I notice the good ones, perhaps because I’ve been subjected to bad coaching myself. Not outright abusive coaching, but more in that soft zone where a coach can ruin your day simply by yelling at you in front of everyone else. I know how bad coaches operate, and I know when the media is trying to sell them to me. I always sneer when athletes are like, Coach Bonebreaker made a man out of me! as if time and hormones don’t already do that job for everyone out there. This is, on the whole, not a profession that I trust.

And yet I’d be fooling myself to assume that coaches don’t matter. That they aren’t important, even admirable when they do their jobs well. I was the recipient of plenty of GOOD coaching in my time, often from the same yellers that intimidated me. I still know how to do that breaststroke pull. I still hearken back to those brutal train runs whenever I’m shifting into a higher workout gear. I still hear the oaken voice of my old line coach counting off whenever I do calisthenics. But that last one is a rare instance, because the coach in my head these days often has my voice. Is me.

As with inspiration from any other source, I took in what I learned from my old coaches and subconsciously made it my own. The best teachers, the best editors, the best therapists, the best parents, the best spouses … they all leave you with the ability to evaluate your shortcomings and address them, all on your own. You hear them in your head anytime you’re about to do the wrong thing, and then you eventually hear yourself making those admonishments instead. The best people in your life teach you to teach yourself. To coach yourself.

It’s that coach I hear when I’m trying not to die on a ski slope. It’s that coach telling me you got this anytime I’m biking up a nasty hill. It’s that coach crying out COME ON DREW when I’m capping off a set of pushups. Coaching yourself is a lot like singing to yourself in that it’s never fun to be caught doing it, but I do it all the same. If it makes me look like the biggest steakhead on the bench press at Gold’s Gym, so be it. I need the coach in me, and I like him. I even go to sleep with this coach in my head. Apparently, my dream coach for the Minnesota Vikings is me doing a Kevin O’Connell impression. Yes, that’s weird. No, I don’t hate myself for it.

Alas, my external coaching skills still need work. If you have kids, as I do, you daydream about saying the exact right thing to your child to motivate them, and them having the exact right response to it. Real Ron Howard movie shit. You also know that those daydreams are NEVER fulfilled. My son plays soccer. Whenever I drive him to a game, I think about giving him an indelible piece of dad coaching, only to choke at the last second and stammer out something along the lines of, “Now go fight hard!” Other times, I’ve managed to fire off some insanely tight lines to my kids only for them to change the subject, talk over me, literally not hear me, or not give a shit. The more you lecture kids, the less they listen, and that’s true no matter how good the lecture is.

But they DO hear you from time to time, even if they don’t show it. You never know what’ll stick with them, but when it does, it stays. The other day, I came home and noticed that my son had written all over a greaseboard in the kitchen. I figured he just scribbled a couple of fart jokes on the thing, and then I looked closer:

  • S: Home workout
  • M: Recovery day, analyze pro game
  • T: Team training
  • W: Individual training
  • T: Team training
  • F: HS/park training (drawing of the soccer pitch at a nearby high school)
  • S: Team training

The boy has a coach in him. And he’s listening to it.

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