Becoming an Olympian at 27 with Holly Brooks - TAS #2

This week on The Alaska Show we sit down with Holly Brooks, owner of Holly Brooks LLC a counseling, coaching, and consulting service based out of Anchorage.

Holly made her first Olympics in Vancouver in 2010 at the age of 27, then went on to represent the US Ski Team in 2012 and the country in 2014 in Sochi. We talk about fostering healthy high-performance young athletes, sports psychology, her childhood, how moving to Alaska and coaching the West Anchorage High School team laid the groundwork for her olympic run, her experiences as a pro athlete, and retirement.

JJ and Alex discuss news and events, including the overnight survival of four lost children in a blizzard in Western Alaska, the pros and cons of selling Alaska back to Russia, Iron Dog, Fur Rondy, and Alaska's first Comic Con.

Alaska News & Events with Alex and JJ (0:48)

Interview with Holly Brooks (13:48)

IG @alaskashow @alexandertrokey @jcoe_photographer

Show Notes


News Stories - Four children survive night outside in blizzard

- Alaska being sold to Russia?


- Comic Con in Fairbanks, Fur Rondy Festival kicking off February 21, Iron Dog race ends in Big Lake this weekend


Ex-professional cross country skier

Professional career sort of book ended by two olympics. Famously qualified, by surprise, at age 27 for the 2010 Vancouver olympics, was a member of the US ski team in 2012 for the first women’s relay team, and went again to Sochi in 2014.

Formerly coached West Anchorage High School and APU ski teams

Found time to win the Mount Marathon race in there twice in 2012 and 2014

Since then has raised ski marathons all over the world in Europe and China

Now runs Holly Brooks LLC - Counseling, Consulting, and Coaching. Helping high performers, especially women athletes, dealing with everything around the actual performance. Stress management, preparing for big events, transitioning, setting goals, team dynamics, etc.

Rebranding her business

Holly is a curious person – her niche was working with athletes at the intersection of mental health and performance as an LPC – but it has expanded

Does speeching engagements, coaching, and therapy

Takes the tenets of sports psychology and applies it to other areas of life

Kids athletics today are all about early sports specialization and are trying to attain that college scholarship which often doesn’t exist. This has become the dominant model over the last decade in Holly’s view – which leads to mental burnout and physiology problems.

Alpine skiing was recently said to cost $500,000 to get a kid from youth to the professional level. It’s prohibitively expensive.

Sports performance is tied into all areas of life. Someone who comes to Holly to work on sports psych skills might be forced to address anxiety, outcome-driven attitude, strained parental relationships, and self-worth problems.

Holly came from the polar-opposite of this high-pressure performance environment. Holly’s story offers hope to her clients because she didn’t make the Olympics until age 27. She is a self-proclaimed “mediocre skier” from Seattle, Washington.

Holly uses the term “clients” rather than “patients”

Most common struggles kids have with performing in sports is loving the process over striving for a certain outcome. An outcome perspective causes anxiety. She tries to implement the 95-5 rule – 95% of your thoughts should be spent on the process and just 5% on the outcome. The outcome is necessary and good for motivation, but most people should focus more on the process.

Holly makes her clients figure out the process and write down how they get to a certain outcome that includes training, skills, sleep, diet, and overall health.

She likes to work on a sustainability plan with her clients. What makes her clients happy? How will they do that? People can’t engage in their training plan if they hate what they’re doing.

Holly can work with clients on changing their individual thought process, but it’s hard when they go to a team or culture that is outcome-driven.

Holly thinks the Olympic culture has forgotten that athletes are actually people. There’s a bottom-up movement to focus on people-first, which is a paradigm shift, especially on the back of the Larry Nassar scandals.

Holly is trying to work with more teams rather than individuals, but it’s tough because the coach has to be progressive enough to bring in a consultant to work with everyone.

Kids should be picky and choosy about what team culture they go into in college.

Due diligence for college team culture:

Team retention data from the Athletic Director – how many kids come in and then drop out?

Go to a meet or race – see how the team interacts. Is everyone talking to each other and having fun?

Go out to lunch with someone on the team to get more insight on the culture.

Nature vs Nurture. Holly was in a situation where her love of the sport grew. Her best memories were skiing with her family, so it was a very positive experience that was filled with love that let her go the distance. These days, she thinks a lot of people do things they’re good at but don’t love. It’s important to be immersed in a nurturing environment to have that love for the sport build. Because of that Holly still skis to this day, as opposed to many people who retire and don’t ever play their game again because they aren’t as good.

She encourages parents to value good coaches and culture over just a high-winning record.

Holly, as a coach, spent more time with her kids than their teachers or even parents. If the coach is a really good role model that’s a huge win. Kids with no love for a sport have no resilience, which is necessary 100% of the time to make it to a high level.

Holly grew up in Seattle, Washington – she was a proper city girl in the grunge era – even building a shrine at Kurt Cobain’s house when he died.

There’s a very small Nordic skiing culture in Seattle. She has triplet siblings, who were her teammates, and her parents were coaches. She represented the PNW at some Junior Olympics and was always middle of the pack. For college she decided to go to the west coast and went to Walla Walla Washington. She never made NCAA and ended her senior year sick.

She decided to move somewhere to be immersed in ski culture rather than living in the rain and driving to the snow. So she moved with a teammate to Alaska. Chose to be the West Anchorage ski coach for basically $2.50 an hour. That decision to coach skiing rather than take a job in the “outdoor” sector was pivotal and set her on a track to becoming an Olympian, because she wouldn’t have had nearly the natural amount of training she did as a coach.

Alaska is the epicenter of cross-country/Nordic skiing in Alaska. Obviously it’s because we have lots of snow October thru May, although Holly says that’s changing. Alaska also has glacier training facilities for summer training. APU has one outside of Girdwood – one of 3 or 4 in the world. There’s a lodge that holds 25 people and a commercial kitchen, and the elite team trains there one week a month in the summer. Alaska is the epicenter of access to snow and the culture around that.

Glacier ski camp. If the weather is good it’s the most beautiful thing ever, if the weather is bad it’s horrible. There is no visibility and they’re “skiing by braile” just following orange pulls. If they get lost they could ski into a crevasse.

She had 100 kids on West Anchorage team – students from the national champion to literally kids who have never skied before. It was a big deal at the school and in the city culture, because Alaska doesn’t have other professional sports teams. The skiers are kind of the local sports stars. Holly ended up skiing for fun and work and got into really good shape – almost by accident. The level of general proficiency is really high in Alaska so other professionals around the city are really good.

What did Holly do good and what could she have done better at West Anchorage?

What she did good was building positive culture. Even with the disparity in skill she put a lot of effort into making them one team. She’d have team buddies and theme days and ra-ra stuff that worked. As a result kids supported each other. Varsity kids cheered for D-teamers. They would do things that would acknowledge things that had nothing to do with winning. For example at the West Anchorage HS Skiathlon, they decided to turn it into the Pie-athlon that including an eating contest after the ski race. Each team had to make one pie and one student had to eat the pie in front of 1000 kids. It let people who weren’t fast shine in a different way. It brought the team together and it was tons of fun. It created community and a positive culture.What she could have improved was sustaining that setup. It was a hard time financially and wasn’t possible to sustain. She was putting forty hours a week into that plus other side jobs.

How do Olympians fund training and travel? Holly says people bootstrap it. A small handful of people are making a lot of money but the rest aren’t. There are tons of pressure during Olympic years because that’s the one time people care and smaller athletes can get sponsors and make some money. Every sponsorship comes with obligations including speaking engagements and such, and it cuts into your recovery time.

The US is the only Olympic committee that is privately funded. Every other country’s committee is publicly funded, and they get some kind of government stipend. Canadiens, for example, get $30k a year to be on the national team which helps a lot.

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