Maddie Phaneuf: The Joy of Coaching

Longtime U.S. Biathlon Team athlete Maddie Phaneuf grappled with her life’s direction after retiring. A full time move into coaching wasn’t really in her plan. But, today, she enters her third season as a coach – leading one of America’s most noted biathlon programs, studying with coaches from nearly 20 nations at International Biathlon Union workshops and serving as a role model for women in coaching. Most of all, she’s feeling gratified by the experience and having fun giving back to the next generation of biathletes.

Phaneuf, who was featured in season one of Heartbeat with an episode entitled Finding Her Way Back, has truly found her way back. From introducing the sport to Alaskan children north of the Arctic Circle to teaching kids in Lake Placid how to gently squeeze the trigger, she is finding a meaningful pathway in the sport as a coach.

After losing her Olympic opportunity in PyeongChang due to race-morning strep throat, she battled with depression, stepping away from racing. During her sabbatical she volunteered on a NANANordic/Skiku trip to Noorvik, Alaska – which opened her eyes on what she had to offer as a coach. She came back in 2020-21 for one of her best seasons ever! After that season, she decided to move on. And when a coaching opportunity came her way with New York Ski Education Foundation, she jumped at the opportunity – rising up after a season to become NYSEF’s first head biathlon coach.

In this episode of Heartbeat, Phaneuf covers it all – from the success she enjoyed as an athlete to her mental health challenges after PyeongChang to her experiences working side-by-side with other coaches from around the world.

Going back in time, how did you get into biathlon?
I moved to the Adirondacks when I was eight. My family spent the first chunk of my life down in South Carolina – so the complete opposite of the northeast. I began cross country skiing at a young age and got into biathlon with the Polar Bear Biathlon Club when I was 15. That was my first introduction and I quickly fell in love with the sport and kept getting after it and trying to make Junior Worlds.

Had you considered coaching after your athletic career?
When I would think about my career as an athlete and what I wanted to do with my life – my first thought wasn't coaching. I was ‘oh, I think that's something that I don't want to do’ actually. But my first taste of coaching a little bit was when I would help the Polar Bear Ski Club. And when I was an athlete, I would go down and help with some sessions now and then during the holidays. And then my first real taste of coaching was ... I did a NANANordic program. It's basically a volunteer-based program to go up to rural communities in Alaska and bring a skiing program to them for a week or so. So that was my first real taste, and I loved it. I loved working with those kids. It was so fun and different. And so when I was retiring, or kind of in that in-between limbo of not quite sure what I wanted to do with racing or moving on stage, I was still here in Lake Placid. The former head coach, Shane McDowell, was looking for some extra support with the biathlon program. I wasn't fully training, but I also wasn't working, so I figured I would just help and kind of see if I liked it. Then that just turned into me staying with the club and being their first true head biathlon coach, and I've been loving it ever since.

Mental health is very important to you. What counsel would you give young athletes and their parents?
That's a hard question, because I just remember when I was in high school and maybe it's different now. I feel like when I was in high school the last thing I wanted to do was tell my parents anything about what I was going through. Maybe that was just my own personal relationship, because I have a much better relationship with them now and tell them everything. But I think as a parent, it's mostly important just to keep like an extra eye in a sense of like, you don't need to constantly always ask your child, like, ‘how are you doing?’ But it's important just to notice their patterns. And if something seems a little off, like notice it at first and maybe ask them or at least give them the opportunity to be like, ‘hey, you do know that my door is always open. I'm happy to talk to you about anything. And if I'm not the person you want to talk to, I'm totally happy to help you find someone else that you want to talk to.’ That's the main thing – just not expecting your child to want to necessarily open up to you because they might not feel totally comfortable. But if you notice something, at least give them the resources to know that it's okay to talk to somebody else.

You’ve now made friends with coaches from around the world in the IBU coaches program. What are your takeaways from that experience?
It’s really interesting because coming from a sport like biathlon and a lot of these, these coaches, having been involved in the sport when they were young or even recent years, we all have a similar tie. Obviously we all understand the sport. We all are in it for the same sort of reasons. We love the sport, we're passionate about it. We're obviously coaching because we want to give back to the community and want to continue growing the sport for next generations. And so it's cool because we all kind of have this similar bond and we can kind of connect over that. And the other thing that I find really interesting is learning how coaching in different cultures is so different. Like for instance, I would have never known that in Finland, for instance, this coach was saying that the athletes there are fully expected to kind of ask questions and probe why they're doing a certain thing. But for athletes who are maybe in Ukraine or Moldova, it's very much more like authoritarian type coaching, and they're not really expected to ask why they're doing a thing. They're just expected to follow what the coach informs. 

As a woman coach, you’re blazing new territory. Are you motivated to be a role model for women in coaching?
When I first heard about biathlon, the club at the time was only kids that hunted, and they were all boys. And I remember thinking, ‘okay, so biathlon is for boys and it's for people who like hunting’ – which is so wrong and not accurate at all. As I got older and was competing more, becoming a woman and an adult, looking around the world and really, truly realizing what patriarchy is and like how instilled it is in our society that men have these positions of power where women don't necessarily. In a sport like biathlon, it's very male heavy. So it kind of opened my eyes to not only within biathlon, but just the entire world and how male dominated it is in these roles where people are making decisions like coaching or officiating. I just kind of became more interested in taking up more space and being a woman in those roles. And I really, truly encourage more women to take up more space and push the boundary into coaching or officiating.

Are you still playing music?
Well, I recently picked up a piano off the side of the road this past summer. So I am dabbling back in the piano, which I've played since I was eight, so that's been very nostalgic and fun to get back into.

If you want to hear more about the piano, listen in to this episode of Heartbeat where Maddie Phaneuf talks about coaching, mentorship, mental health, being a role model, U.S. Biathlon’s Try It laser rifle program and much more.

Heartbeat: US Biathlon Podcast (c) US Biathlon