Life Lessons From an Olympian

The Cochran family has produced two generations of World Cup and Olympic racers. Now, Olympic gold medalist and performance coach Barbara Ann Cochran shares her secrets to success.

Was it a coincidence that Richmond’s Mickey Cochran, a teacher, and his wife Ginny, managed to raise four kids who won multiple national championships and raced on the World Cup—and three who were Olympians? Those four skiers then produced offspring such as World Cup racers Jimmy Cochran, Robby and Tim Kelley, and current World Cup competitor Ryan Cochran-Siegle.

Was it genes? Or was it something else?

There are few greater dynasties in sport than the Cochran family. And while good genes may get handed down through the generations, in this case, there is something else.

A World Champion and Olympic gold medalist in slalom, Barbara Ann Cochran has learned a thing or two about what it takes to do your very best. Photo by Lisa Lynn

Spend an hour sitting in the simple base lodge at Cochran’s Ski Area in Richmond listening to any of the Cochran clan talk about their approach to skiing, to racing and to life, and a philosophy emerges that others have labeled The Cochran Way.

If there was a keeper of that magic, or an evangelist for the Cochran Way, it’s Barbara Ann Cochran, 69. The second of Mickey and Ginny’s four kids, she grew up in her sister Marilyn’s shadow. “Marilyn was 11 months older than I was and as a kid she won everything—she even beat the boys,” Barbara Ann recalls as she sits at a wood picnic table at the ski area her nephew Jimmy now manages.  Across the walls hang race bibs collected from races around the world.

In 1972, both Marilyn and Barbara Ann went to the Olympics in Sapporo, Japan. Barbara Ann won the first run of the slalom. At the bottom, she learned that Marilyn had fallen. As doubt plagued Barbara Ann in the starting gate of her second run, she remembered what her father had told her one time at the World Championships: “I always thought you were the cool cucumber in the family. Now go out and do your best,” he said. “I’d never thought of myself as the ‘cool cucumber’ but from then on I did,” Barbara Ann says.

Putting her doubts aside, she followed his advice. “I told myself that I could win just as well as anyone else.”  She skied fast enough to win by a minuscule margin of 0.02 seconds and became the first American skier in 20 years to take home gold.

“For most racers, winning is 98-percent mental,” she says. And as a coach, she likes to help everyone (from superstar Mikaela Shiffrin, to her own son, World Cup racer Ryan Cochran-Siegle to the 3- to 5-year-olds in her Ski Tots program at Cochran’s) achieve their best.

What was your first memory of coaching or teaching?

My dad had put up lights and a rope tow behind our farmhouse in Richmond and one day a couple in their 20s showed up from New York and wanted to learn. I offered to teach them—I think I was all of 11. After not making much progress, I ran in and asked my dad what to do. He said, “Sometimes you need to change the language. Instead of telling them what to do—as in ‘put all your weight on your downhill ski,’ he said, ‘Tell them the opposite, what not to do—as in unweight the uphill ski.’ I did and it taught me that when things are stuck, change the language.

You talk about staying “cool as a cucumber.” How do you actually do that?

There’s a cycle whereby you have a thought, then an emotion gets attached to the thought. Every single emotion affects your body in a specific way—your heartbeat, your adrenaline, your breathing rate—and so you get a specific athletic response. The emotions you feel at the bottom of a race when you’ve had a great run are the same you want to be feeling at the top. I know athletes (and even Mikaela Shiffrin) who used to be so anxious they would throw up before a race. I tell them: ‘You don’t even want to think about the outcome of the race, you just want to think about doing your best.’ To practice, I ask athletes to circle words on a sheet describing their emotions at the start and at the finish of a race and then to try to keep those in mind.

How do you change that mindset?

Interestingly, there’s a book called “Mindset” by Carol Dweck that I recommend. It talks about two mindsets: a fixed mindset and a growth mindset. The fixed mindset is focused on the outcome. I look at my sister Marilyn and she definitely had a fixed mindset–she kept her focus on winning. Coming in second to her meant losing. Me? I was always used to coming in second, or much worse, so I developed a growth mindset. What I was looking for was just to do the best I could and to improve.

And what does it take to be a winner?

Honestly, so many of the top skiers have the same skills. They are all good and that’s why you see races won and lost by fractions of a second. What it takes is believing you can do it—and really wanting to do it. You need to tell yourself: ‘I’m willing to put my best effort into this. That’s all it is. I’m just going to try and do my best.’ So, it’s all about the effort—and it is effort. Dad taught us all to work hard if we wanted something. That’s the first thing.

Then the second one is to build up your confidence. And that’s something that can come from repeating a simple statement like ‘I can do this’ and saying it until you believe it.

And the third thing is trying to get yourself into those positive, high energy, pleasant emotions that bring out the best in you.  Try saying something like ‘This is so much fun. I just love racing slalom,’ or whatever it is you are trying to do and see how that changes things.

For more on Barbara Ann Cochran’s coaching (she speaks and works with individuals and groups, ski clubs and businesses) visit sportssuccesscoaching.com 

Featured Photo: Barbara Ann Cochran’s son, Ryan Cochran-Siegle, is currently one of the top-ranked Americans on the World Cup. Photo by Jamie Walter.

Lisa Lynn

Editor of VT SKI + RIDE and Vermont Sports.

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