Helping an athlete to manage mental pressure is one of the most important factors for Alain Masson. Athletes need this kind of mental skill if they’re going to try out for the Olympics — and we’re all pretty proud when hometown athletes take the podium.
Masson knows that kind of pressure – he has competed in three Olympics. For the last 18 years he has been coaching Yukon youth in cross-country skiing, sharing his knowledge of what it takes to compete at a high-performance level.
And during the time he has been head coach of the Yukon Ski Team, 14 athletes have risen to the national team.
Last week, Alain Masson was inducted into the Sport Yukon Hall of Fame for his contributions to the development of the sport.
The success of the program with Masson at the helm can be seen not only with the parade of skiers who have made it to the national team, but also in the Olympic hopefuls we have right now.
Graham and Emily Nishikawa, who were coached by Masson and are now training at the national centre in Canmore, are hoping to compete for team Canada at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
“Emily and Graham have a realistic chance – but they still have to make it,” Masson says. “They’re at the right age, right stage in their career, and they have as good a chance as other athletes. They’ve got great fitness and great mental disposition. Now everything has to fall into place – for example, be healthy and be injury-free.”
Even for athletes of their level, it’s not easy to get to the Olympics.
There hasn’t been a Yukon cross-country skier on the Canadian Olympic team since Masson’s wife, Lucy Steele-Masson, competed in the 1992 Olympics (she is also in the Sport Yukon Hall of Fame).
Nevertheless, even if we don’t get to cheer any homegrown athletes in 2014, Masson says the skills these athletes develop through rigorous athletic training help them in any profession they choose.
“One of the reasons for (high-performance athletic training) is not just for the outcome reasons – like winning,” Masson says. “It’s building their self-confidence, giving them mental skills for training to be successful. They develop a good work ethic – they become really good citizens. Dependable. They work really hard; they are efficient, because that’s what they do to be successful (in sport). They’re a gold mine for an employer.”
In addition to developing life-long skills, the athletes are also exposed to different cultures and people around the world. Being able to bring those experiences and skill-sets into the lives of youth is a big reason why Masson coaches.
“That’s one of the reasons I decided to do this,” Masson says.
Last year, for example, Masson accompanied Yukon cross-country ski athletes to Turkey to compete in the Under-23 World Championships. Of the 16 competitors on the Canadian cross-country ski team, five of them were from the Yukon. Thus, his program was a success in terms of performance, but also in terms of the opportunities that it afforded the athletes.
It’s been a long-term commitment.
“The program has gone from having a much smaller community of skiers to having one of the strongest programs with athletes at the national level,” Masson says. “It doesn’t happen quickly – it takes about 10 years.”
It also helps that we’ve got a great winter here in the Yukon.
“The ski season is one of the longest in Canada, so that allows us to do that much more specific training,” Masson says. “We’re on snow – on skis – on average seven months of the year. Whereas in Ontario you’ve got three months.”
Sport Yukon executive director Tracey Bilsky says that thanks to Masson and the program he has developed, our homegrown athletes are now a force to be reckoned with.
“Cross-country skiing is one of the sports where having ‘Yukon’ on your back does not mean you’re an underdog – it means you’re to be feared,” Bilsky says. “And that is because of the work and the structure that Alain Masson has put into the club here. He has been able to develop a solid volunteer coaching club and that is integral to the success.”