How Kids Become Great Ski Racers

“DEEP THOUGHTS PART II: How Kids Become Great Skiers”…submitted by Kip Harrington

March 7, 2019 — Well, folks, I could be saying that spring is around the corner but, lucky for us ski people, it still seems to be mid-winter! It ‘s been almost two years since I returned to Ontario and I am pleased to see things moving forward nicely. Sure (a nod to the naysayers) we have work to do, but I see dedicated people at work, with the benefit of programs and initiatives paying off, and a clearer vision for Ontario ski racing starting to take shape. At the end of the day, I’m seeing kids skiing well, and having fun, which is what it’s all about right? There have been so many great projects and events this season but what I want to focus on today is skill development; and how kids become great ski racers.

About 20 years ago I heard a talk by a sports psychologist who I have since come to admire, named David Cox. He was talking about how kids learn and develop in sport, and had a great story about little kids competing in tennis. The story goes something like this… “There were two 8-year-old boys playing a tennis match. Both were new to the sport and having trouble swinging the racket properly or even hitting the ball. One of the coaches told his player to choke up on the racket to make it easier (we will call him player 1), the other coach encouraged his player to swing the racket properly and do his best (this is player 2). Player one crushed player two. Player one was happy with that and liked winning, so he kept choking up on the racket in future games. It was working for him. Player two was a little down about losing that game but got over it and remained focused on proper technique. He eventually became a really good tennis player. Player one did not learn how to swing the racket properly and eventually ran into some problems…”

What do these little tennis players have to do with ski racing in Ontario?” you might ask. I will tell you. I doubt that anyone is deliberately teaching wonky ski technique to kids to achieve short-term success. But I do think that we are in danger of becoming too focused on preparing for the next competition at the early stages, to the neglect of broader skill development. Setting aside time to invest in skill work is sometimes difficult, because it may not produce an increase in performance the next day, or week. But over time, it is absolutely critical, because if kids don’t develop proper technique, they will develop wonky ways of getting the job done. And eventually, those things will stop working.

Ski racing does this thing where, level by level, the courses become longer and more complex, the terrain becomes more demanding, the speeds become higher, and the equipment becomes longer and stiffer to perform in those circumstances with grown athletes. The complexity is one of the things that make the sport so fun and interesting. Staying in it long enough to develop the skill to ski those awesome courses and hills is a reward all on its own. On the other hand, if there is a lack of skill development over time, eventually it will catch up with an athlete and there will be a train wreck of sorts. The train wreck usually takes the form of a kid that was doing great and loving ski racing at U14 or U16 but now seems to have difficulty finishing courses, or keeping up with peers they used to beat, and it is usually accompanied by a lot of frustration. The sport just isn’t as fun anymore. Does any of that sound familiar?

The great news is that this can be avoided by taking time to work on a broader base of skills, all the way through a ski racer’s development. It is a long-term strategy but skills accumulate and build momentum, and it usually doesn’t take long for the benefits of focused practice to see a huge improvement. Kids learn fast if given the chance, and they find it rewarding. The new Alpine Canada LTAD (long term athlete development plan) recommends that racing programs should have a percentage of focus on freeskiing and skill work during training of the following: U10/12: 50-65%, U14/16: 40-50%, U19: 35%. That means, for example, that a U14 team should budget about 50% of their training time by day/week/month/year for free skiing, technical free skiing, drills and exercises, etc. versus gate training. The guidelines from Alpine Canada are consistent with other leading ski racing nations around the world.

A very valid point that I have heard about freeskiing in Ontario, is that the hills are shorter than Western Canada or Europe and that it’s easier to keep kids engaged by skiing gates. That is true, but coaches can use environments like ski cross tracks, terrain parks, or set improvised modified courses with brushes or stubbies that keep it fun and interesting. There are so many ways for kids to learn and improve while they rip around a ski hill having fun with their buddies.

Admittedly, I hadn’t worked with younger kids in a long time and I have noticed that initially, they are not overly excited about working on skills. But, I find that with some coaxing and explanation they are receptive. And once they see and feel improvements, they get in to it. Let’s face it, being good at skiing feels great. It’s one of the primary reasons we all do this. I also explain to kids that skill work is a constant in a ski racer’s career – it is not something for a particular stage, like for kids, or that should come later. Skill work is something that should start young, and stay with a racer all the way to the World Cup.

When I first started working with World Cup racers I was surprised to find how much they have in common with young racers – in the sense that they always have a technical skill they are trying to improve or refine, (they also struggle with nerves, doubt, and frustration by the way). Skiers that can consistently win or podium at the World Cup have mastered the technique, but they still work at it constantly. Skiers that can occasionally podium or finish near the first group, are extremely skilled, but there is probably a bigger technical gap somewhere that still needs to be refined or developed. There is definitely a progression of skills, starting with broad fundamentals like stance/balance, timing and coordination and then later building into skills that are more specific to racing and generating speed. But those broad fundamentals are the foundation for a ski racer. It can be very attractive for coaches and kids to want to jump ahead to more advanced skills, but it is close to impossible without a very sound technical foundation. Another thing that struck me about the World Cup level is that there really are no fancy technical secrets that pop up, mostly just mastery of the same stuff kids start learning and developing when they are young. Now, you might say that most ski racers just want to have fun, and only a few will make it to the World Cup. That is true. But the great news is that the same skills that develop World Champions also develop great skiers for life.

Think of little Player 2 that learned to swing the racket well when he was a kid. At 55 he probably enjoys a great game of tennis. Player 1? Not sure, but nobody wants to see a 55-year-old man choking up on the racket. It probably wouldn’t feel that great either. Now, imagine what the ski racing equivalent to choking up on the racket might look like for a kid or at 55 (you know, a technique that might be wonky but gets the job done at a U12 race, and then never quite goes away). In Ontario, we aren’t going to develop ski racers that choke up on the racket. We want to develop racers that have the skills to go on to great things, or just enjoy being a great skier.

Those skills competitions that AOA is running at the U14 series – they are important. Various clubs and regions have been doing this for years. Quebec and the USSA take skill development and skills competitions seriously on a bigger scale, with fantastic results. Of course, racing is fun and obviously very important. Kids don’t start out in a sport wanting to practice, they want to play the game. We just need to keep things in perspective. Practising and developing skills make a sport so much more fun and rewarding. Mixing skills and competition? Seems like a great idea to me.

Things to take away. Skills are cool. Skiing well feels great. Let’s take the time to develop great skiers. If we do that, we will also develop great ski racers! ~ Kip

Kip Harrington,
OST Head Coach & Performance Director
kipharrington@alpineontario.ca