Meet the man behind Britain’s Olympic ski talent

The man credited with propelling British cycling into the big time at London 2012 wants to send Britain into the ranks of the top five skiing and snowboarding nations by 2030. Matt Clark asks British Ski and Snowboard’s new performance director Dan Hunt about his plan, and about our prospects for next winter’s PyeongChang Olympics

Matt Clark: First, congratulations on your new role with British Ski and Snowboard.

Dan Hunt: Thank you!

MC: So, let’s jump in. Can you tell us a little about your personal history with sport?

DH: I grew up playing all sorts of sports, including skiing, but entered the world of high-performance sport in 2000. I was a sport scientist working at the University of Bath, then went to the Welsh Institute of Sport. In 2005 I was headhunted for the position of National Women’s Endurance Coach for the Great Britain Cycling Team. I coached the women’s team through the Beijing Olympics, where we won two golds and two silvers, then took the men on in London in 2012. I helped established Team Sky, and worked as Sports Director there for four years. After that I went to the [football] Premier League as Head of Performance for three years, before jumping into winter sports.

Armed with a mighty CV, Dan is charged with taking British snowsports to the very top of the podium

Armed with a mighty CV, Dan is charged with taking British snowsports to the very top of the podium

MC: How much do you ski?

DH: From the age of eight I skied every year until a little while ago, so it’s been a few years… although I’m heading out to St Moritz tomorrow [for the World Championships]. I don’t think it’s a big issue as my role is largely strategic.

MC: You’re known for your success with the cycling team in the 2012 Olympics. How can you apply that to skiing?

DH: We had huge success with the cycling team, and developed coaching philosophies and values. When I stepped out of cycling and into football I saw a lot of the same factors lead to the success of coaches and athletes. Now I’ve stepped into snowsports, the traits that allow people to be successful are the same. I’ve learnt what it takes to win at the highest level, and have a thorough understanding of what it takes to compete at the Olympic Games – and to sustain success between Olympic cycles.

MC: What traits and factors determine a winning athlete?

DH: Obviously there are physical, technical and psychological factors, but at the top end everybody is good. It’s often about dealing with pressure, maintaining focus over a sustained period of time – often years! – and being able to recover from adversity – be that rejection, deselection or injury. Athletes who develop a grit and resilience tend to be the ones who find their way to the top. But the most important thing it takes is time, and the discipline, commitment and sacrifice over years. Nobody stands on an Olympic podium having had a smooth journey.

Dave Ryding on route to the podium in Kitzbühel | Zoom Agency

Dave Ryding on route to the podium in Kitzbühel | Zoom Agency

MC: What are the challenges facing British ski athletes?

DH: There are a lot! One that is constantly levied at me is that we don’t have mountains or snow, so how can we become competitive? But what our athletes are already showing in Park and Pipe, and Alpine, is that we can – we just have to
do it differently to traditional snowsport nations. Another issue is funding and resources. We now have two fantastic initiatives: the snowsports charity [British Ski and Snowboard National Foundation] and the snowsports fund [British Snowsports Fund], to help generate revenue to drive our Olympic ambition.

Sports have to be able to be commercially viable; they can’t just be reliant on UK Sport. UK Sport funds our Park and Pipe programme, but nothing else. Ultimately we want to stand on our own two feet financially – we’re in this for the long haul.

MC: GB Park and Pipe do a lot on social media to raise the profile of their athletes. Is it important for athletes to do this?

DH: Social media’s a massive part of communicating messages and raising awareness, and like you say the Park and Pipe guys do it very well. Organisationally we use social media… but we could probably improve.

MC: Some of our freestyle athletes have been achieving incredible results. Will you concentrate on disciplines where we’ve already been successful, or maintain a broader focus across all disciplines?

DH: Our ambition is to be a top five snowsports nation by 2030, and to do that we have to keep a broad focus. That doesn’t mean we want to dilute where we are successful – we want to continue to invest into those areas – but we want to look at opportunities where we’re perhaps not medalling, or even competing now, to see where we can become competitive over the next 14 years.

MC: What do you feel about the inclusion of freestyle disciplines like half-pipe and slopestyle at the Olympics?

DH: I think they add to the Games. Ultimately the Olympics are a reflection of participation, and more and more people are participating in the freestyle/extreme disciplines. Televisually it’s fantastic and the athletes are amazing role models. Of course there’s a place for the more traditional sports too. While we are doing very well in Park and Pipe, we’ve also had great performances in cross-country and Alpine, and we need to invest more in some of those disciplines to make that success sustainable. We also need to make it a little more systematic: rather than bringing one or two athletes who are able to compete on a world level, it has to become five or six, or ten.

X Games stalwart James Woods

X Games stalwart James Woods

MC: Are Olympic results the main focus? Or are World Cup or X Games results just as important?

DH: It’d be remiss to suggest the Olympics are the pinnacle of some of the disciplines! It’s obvious the X Games are massive, and a huge draw to athletes and fans. From a BSS point of view, to become attractive to UK Sport investment, our Olympic ambitions have to be right up there and at the forefront of what we do, but not at the exclusion of the X Games. We saw Katie [Ormerod] winning bronze and Woodsy winning gold, and that’s fantastic – both for BSS and for the athletes – because that is the highest level of competition in the world.

MC: What are your aims for the Olympics? Do you have a specific number of medals in mind? 

DH: At this stage I wouldn’t put a number on it. Realistically we have opportunities… As performance director and an ex-high performance coach I know how quickly things can change in a pre-Olympics year, but we have opportunities to medal in cross-country, Alpine slalom, ski and snowboard slopestyle and snowboard big air. Our role over the next 12 months is to turn those opportunities into medals, but we can’t focus too much on the winning bit; we need to focus on our approach, our training… We can’t really worry about a number, we’ve got to focus more on how we convert opportunities into Olympic performances.

MC: Can you tell us about the road to the Olympics, and what sort of preparations athletes are making?

DH: Right now, the guys are tired. They’re coming to the end of a hard season. They’ve been on the circuit all year to qualify for Olympic points so they can have a more targeted approach in the final run up to PyeongChang, rather than be chasing points then. There are a few injuries, and a few injury concerns. We’re very focused on the Sierra Nevada Freestyle Ski and Snowboard World Champs. Then we’ll review where we are against where we want to be, and we’ll write the final 12 month journey for each individual athlete. But that will start with a little rest period after the World Championships.

MC: What sort of changes have you implemented – or do you plan to implement – since joining BSS?

DH: The biggest change so far has been the establishment of what we’re trying to do as an organisation. When I arrived we had people coming in doing lots and lots of good things, but not in an aligned way. So the first thing was to decide collectively what our future ambitions are, and then see what this looked like for each discipline. My focus now is on recruiting internationally credible head coaches.

We have amazing coaches in Park and Pipe: the work they do, their attention to detail and the culture and environment they create around their athletes is fantastic. And this is coming from a guy who came from one of the highest performing teams in world sport. I look at them and say: “Wow!” Pat, Hamish, Lesley, Jack and Jamie… They’re a privilege to work with. We need every discipline to have appropriate leadership from a coaching point of view, and I hope we’ll have those people in place in a matter of weeks. We’re taking British snowsports very seriously now. 

MC: It’s interesting you mention the Park and Pipe coaches, because I think sometimes there’s a perception from the public that a lot of the freestyle guys aren’t… you know, so serious athletically, and that they’re just ripping around and partying.

DH: You’ve only got to see the athletic ability of the athletes, and the attention to detail that coaches put in, and the environment the coaches are creating around empowerment and ownership. The public perception may be that they’re out having fun, but these guys are serious about what they do and the coaches are professional and competent. They’re intelligent, articulate, and they’re doing a very good job in an ever-changing environment. You’ll have seen World Cups cancelled due to weather, you’ll fly from event to event and your kit doesn’t turn up, and you’re carrying injuries and people are tired… And these guys are out there on the coal face delivering high-performance coaching to high-performance athletes.

Freestyle coach Pat Sharples with slopestyle skier Katie Summerhayes

Freestyle coach Pat Sharples with slopestyle skier Katie Summerhayes

MC: How much does mental preparation come into training?

DH: It’s something we’re looking at across the board, and the need to look at mental preparation is coming more to the fore. Many of the coaches are ‘people people’ and psychologists in their own right, but we need to engage a little more formally
in the psychological approach to training and preparation. First of all on a generic level, but then working with individual athletes and their individual needs.

MC: If any of our readers – or their friends or children – are talented skiers and think they could potentially have a future in competition, what would your advice to them be? How can they embark on a path to become a professional athlete?  

DH: Start engaging with clubs, and with the home nation programmes across the disciplines. Don’t specialise too early, but instead try different disciplines and learn different skills. The most important thing for the younger age group is that
they enjoy their skiing and snowboarding, and have fun with it. As they progress, expose them to a relevant level of racing or competition, and hopefully then start getting some results that the home nations programmes will look at and accept. Then move up through to the national programmes.

MC: Do you have a message for our readers as to how they can help support British skiers in PyeonChang?

DH: Get involved with the charity and the British Snowsports Fund (bssnf.uk), as that will help us fund future Olympians at PyeongChang and beyond; and otherwise just get behind what we’re trying to do. We’ve set ambitious targets and we’re taking this very seriously. We want to make Team GB and Great Britain really proud of our winter sports and ski athletes. 

See teambss.org.uk and bssnf.uk to find out more.

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