For six years I trained and competed as a member of the Canadian bobsleigh program. In 2016 I suffered an Achilles tear that nearly ended my career. During the summer of 2017 I made a bold move. I decided to fly to Germany with my friend and teammate Alex Kopacz to train with his coach Olaf Hampel, former German bobsleigh brakeman and 2x Olympic gold medalist.
I didn’t know what to expect at the time, but I was about to begin a life changing and transformational adventure that would take me to the 2018 Olympic Winter Games in Pyeongchang seven months later.
My time training under Olaf was special. I learned how to be a better push athlete no doubt, but I also learned some very important lessons about coaching and training athletes – lessons that serve me in my current role as a speed, strength and conditioning coach.
Simply said, Olaf is unique. He has an excellent grasp of sport performance, which he can talk about without end, balanced with a quirky sense of humor. He was an absolute hammer on the back of the sled in the 90’s, regularly breaking push records at tracks around the world. As a coach, Olaf is patient, generous with his time, and very attentive to the details – often picking up on things that others miss. He’s the type of coach who knows the right thing to say at the right time and makes a big impact with a single sentence. Below, I have selected a few of his famous one-liners to serve as titles to introduce topics in this article. Some of which are direct quotations or translations from German. It’s not quite the same as hearing the words from his mouth, but I hope to provide enough context to elucidate the powerful message they each deliver.
“Du bist der Chef. Mach es! (You’re the boss. Do it!)”
How do you get the most out of your athletes? You empower them. Among all the things I learned in my time training under Olaf, this was perhaps the most valuable lesson. I know this because I experienced the impact of it firsthand.
When I first arrived in Germany, we left swiftly on a road trip to Italy for a weekend of bobsleigh push training at the Sporthotel Zoll. Across the street from the hotel was an outdoor bobsleigh push track (a common attraction at most hotels, right?) that the Italian team used occasionally for summer training.
I was quite nervous about pushing again since my Achilles injury, even after PRP injections and extensive rehab, was still giving me some anguish. I remember sitting down to put my spikes on during the warmup for the first session. Olaf walked over, put his hand on my Achilles and palpated it for a couple of seconds. Then he stood up, looked at me, smiled and said, “it works.” I had only just met the man so naturally I was confused. I remember thinking to myself, “um…Ok? Does he have an MRI machine in his hand or something?” I carried on with my warmup. Once on the sled, he encouraged me to gradually ramp up the intensity of each rep. He reassured me that my Achilles would feel ok due to the longer and more stable ground contacts that occur while pushing a heavier sled. He was right. With every rep I gained the confidence to push a little harder. He gave me cues to improve my technique and the adjustments made an impact immediately. I felt smooth and connected to the sled. I was accelerating like I never had before. Between reps he and his wife Kerstin would look at me with cheeky smiles on their faces and say “See! It works.” A few times he yelled in German “You’re the boss! Do it!” By the end of the weekend my confidence was at a level it hadn’t been in a long time. I felt like I was “der Chef (the boss).” I was in control of my mind and body. I was in the driver seat again. I remember one push in particular where I finally let go and pushed all out. It felt great and the time was fast. A huge sense of relief hit me, and I remember getting a little emotional. At that moment, I realized I was in the right place with the right coach. Above all, I realized that I could do it. I could come back to this sport, and better yet, I could come back better.
I faced many trials on my journey to the Olympics that season and Olaf was there in my corner through it all. He was a grounding force that constantly reminded me of who I was, what I was capable of and why I deserved to be in the hunt for a spot. He believed in me, and eventually I learned to believe in myself. I was empowered, and it gave me a strength that I never had before in sport or in life.
The experience has changed me for the better as a coach. It’s often easy for coaches to pick out what athletes are missing and what they’re not. It’s easy to be critical. What requires more work and thought is to look closely at someone and see the possibilities. To see what they might become based on what they demonstrate now, and how that may evolve into something great down the road. Everyone has something to offer, even on their worst day. Everyone has the potential to become the best version of themselves, whatever that may be.
As coaches, it is our responsibility to set our athletes up for success. To build them up and empower them. At a time when I needed it most, Olaf was there to do that for me. I was very fortunate. These days, I strive to do the same for the athletes I work with. I want them all to feel what it’s like to be “der Chef.”
“Be cool,” Olaf would say to me and Alex. Sometimes that line would be followed by an entertaining impression of a man suavely taking a puff of a cigarette and flicking it away. The message was simple: trust in your training, and the process. There was no need to be frantic or be stressed that we weren’t prepared. We didn’t need to change anything last minute or pull something out of thin air that existed outside of our current abilities. We had worked hard and had all the tools we needed for success. All we had to do was…“mach es (do it).”
In bobsleigh, anything can happen up until the very last moment. Even in the face of the wild, crazy and truly bizarre happenings of an Olympic year bobsleigh season, Olaf was grounded and calmly made adjustments to our plans as needed.
These days as a coach, I strive to “be cool.” Whether it’s reassuring an athlete that they are ready to perform, navigating complicated training/competition schedules or handling adversity, staying level-headed is paramount. When a sudden shake-up, injury or unforeseen circumstance occurs, I try to remember to “be cool.” When things get complicated, I bring it back to basic principles and start to problem solve from there. I trust that I have the base of knowledge needed to work through things and if not, I have smart people in my network I can consult as well. “Be cool” also encourages me to be patient – to let the plan unfold the way it needs to. We don’t have to react to every little thing that pops up. Many times, just staying the course, with a few minor adjustments here and there is all that is required for a successful outcome. Being a natural overthinker, I’m not always entirely successful with this in practice. However, I strive to do my best and to be as much the cool, calm problem solver that Olaf was for me.
“Don’t run through the wall. Take the door.”
Part of what made Olaf so great for me was that he made things simple. Sometimes, I would be so lost in my mind about the details. I would stand beside Olaf at training and ask, “What if I turned this way a little bit? Did this a little more? Stayed in this position a little longer?” Olaf would look at me and say something like, “yes of course we could talk about this and talk about that. What could be, would be, should be. But this isn’t helping us. You are strong. You are fast. End of story.” In other words, “tell your brain to shut up and stop making it so damn complicated! You’re doing fine.” And he was right. I was doing more than fine. I just needed to get out of my own way and let myself perform.
His approach to creating training plans was also quite direct and straightforward. We lifted, we sprinted, and we pushed sleds. We moved methodically from one phase to the next and if Alex or I fell into “der Keller (the basement)” as Olaf called it, he backed off the volume and intensity so we could recover. He had the ability to add and take away elements all while never losing sight of where we were going and what was truly important – to push fast when it mattered most.
Although not always easy, I try to keep things simple as a coach. I try not to succumb to the “righting reflex” – to jump in and fix things at every turn. Too much information and thinking is a recipe for overly mechanical and forced movement, confusion and frustration for the athlete, and poor performance as a result. Even when it seems like someone is making progress it’s important to pump the brakes and not “overcoach.” Many times, I’ve had an athlete finally execute something well, only for me to ruin it by jumping in prematurely to add something else to the mix. Olaf was very selective about what he said and when. I challenge myself often to say as little as possible or even to say nothing at all (I don’t always succeed). I ask the athlete what they think and encourage them to self-assess in hopes that in time they won’t have to rely solely on me for feedback.
In creating training plans, I strive to always keep the big picture in mind. To appreciate basic training principles and what the main drivers of adaptation are in the plan. To have in my head what our target is and to not get lost chasing something that ultimately is not important to our end goal. Many obstacles encountered in the training process can be dealt with by using simple solutions rather than complete overhauls or drastic measures. It’s easier said than done. There are plenty of distractions along the way. You may get so turned around that you think you have to run through a wall to get out of a tough spot. Stop and take a second. There is likely a simpler answer. “Look for the door”.
Living and training in Germany that summer, “Culture Days” were an important part of our program. In fact, activities such as “dinner with the grandkids” and “going for ice cream” were sometimes written into our actual program. As a generalization, for Germans there must always be a plan, so naturally it made sense for this time to be structured as well.
Training at the level of a world class athlete comes at a great cost. Due to the time commitment and hyper focus of this venture, it is quite easy to lose yourself and forget who you are in a sense. Your world can become very small, and the training and testing outcomes can easily become intertwined with perceptions of self-worth. If training is going well, then life is good. However, if it’s not, then you can find yourself quickly in a downward spiral of negativity and rumination. I know of many athletes who can relate to this rollercoaster of ups and downs. Olaf understood this, and as a result made efforts at times to lighten the mood or broaden our perspective to see the “real world” outside of sport. Even small doses of humour have a large impact. For example, he amusingly dubbed my Achilles “der Nachbar (the neighbour).” Like the annoying neighbour that won’t shut up and leave you alone. He’d ask, “What is your neighbour saying today?” It was a small thing, but it had a big impact and helped to soften the anxiety I often felt in times when it would flare up.
On “Culture Days,” we would go for light walks around town, see the sights and meet and socialize with neighbours and friends outside of the athletic world. We’d sit on Olaf and Kerstin’s balcony, drink coffee and chat (sometimes maybe a beer – Olaf was ok with us having one every now and again). Sometimes he’d bring the grandkids to training. They’d help their Opa work the laser timing gates or set up drills, all the while providing much needed doses of fun, levity, and sometimes…. perspective. On one occasion, 5-year-old Hanna said to Olaf, “bobsleigh is very easy Opa, all you do is push as hard as you can, then jump in and drive down.” Honestly, I can’t argue with her on that point!
Now I’m not saying that as a coach you need to take your athletes out for weekly gelato, but I think it’s important to find ways to bring some levity and/or doses of perspective to the training environment. It doesn’t have to be a big production. Training as a high-performance athlete is not fun much of the time so even something small can go a long way. It could be something as simple as starting or finishing a session with a game one day. It can come from the way you communicate and try to connect with your athletes. Taking a moment to find out about their hobbies or what interests them outside of sport. What other things do they aspire to do or accomplish in life? Maybe they have never really thought about it, so starting that conversation gets them thinking about it too.
“You must develop your own personal style.”
I’ve always admired Olaf’s ability to consider the individual in his programming and technical applications. Though Alex and I adopted the same philosophy, our programs were often very different. When it came to pushing, he would say, “of course I may think something works, but if we try it and it doesn’t work, then it makes no sense to keep doing it. We will change it and find a better way.”
Even with how successful he was as an athlete and coach, he was able to put his ego aside to do what was best for the athlete. He was open to trying new things and taking ideas from other professionals. If it worked, then that was what we did.
In the athletic performance industry, I often see ego get in the way of progress. As coaches our job is to serve the athlete. It doesn’t feel good sometimes to think that you’ve made a mistake or that you don’t have the answer for something, but it’s reality. Collaborating and taking in ideas from other professionals and even your own athletes doesn’t make you any less of a coach. In fact, I’d say it’s the opposite. By opening up and admitting you don’t know everything, not only will you find what works best for your athlete, but you’ll build better relationships with them. They’ll see that you are a coach that listens and respects them as an individual.
Developing your own personal style applies not just to who you coach, but also how you coach.
At times, coaches with less experience mimic what others have done. This is a good place to start if the adopted method has a proven track record of success. However, over time you need to develop your own philosophy. As much as I respect and learned so much from Olaf, I appreciate that I am not him. Simply becoming a clone of someone else won’t serve you or your athletes. Take what works and make it your own.
No doubt Olaf has left a lasting impact on me as both a person and a coach. He taught me how to “be cool.” He helped me develop “my own personal style.” He taught me the importance of keeping it simple and leaving some space for things outside of sport and personal ambitions. Above all, he empowered me to believe in myself – to be “der Chef” and take charge of my mind, body, and life in general. All his lessons and wisdom have served me well beyond sport and in my current role, coaching athletes.
The summer after the Games, Olaf and his wife gifted me a book filled with pictures from our journey together through 2017/18. On the last page they wrote a letter and one of the lines stated, “The Olympics were only a steppingstone for you, and we are sure that you will go your own way.” For a while I wasn’t sure I agreed with that line. How could something as prolific as the Olympics and that journey be a steppingstone to something else? Now roughly 5 years later I see that it was. Passing on the wisdom I learned from Olaf and witnessing the impact of it on others has been a rewarding experience. I’m now in a position where I can give the same gifts that Olaf gave me to generations of athletes. My journey has even more meaning today than it did back then. Alex and I are still close with Olaf and his family. In many ways he is still our coach. He always has wisdom to share, jokes to tell and time to talk shop. We share a special bond, for which I am forever grateful.
Joey B.Sc. (Kinesiology), CSCS, is the owner of Accel Performance Training. With over 10 years of experience as an athletic performance coach, and a former Olympic athlete, his mission is to help athletes determine their individual paths to success and to use his experience as both athlete and coach to guide them through their athletic journeys.