It’s not even Halloween, but skiers are already nervous. We’re looking at brown vistas on Colorado mountain cams; we’re hoping that El Nino means, not just copious precipitation but the right kind of copious precipitation in the far west; we’re praying that we didn’t use up all our snow luck last year in the east. I wish I was joking but I’m not. Not even a little bit. This is when skiers find religion.
I totally get the wholehearted desire for snow and the anticipation of ski season. And I get the anxiety about climate change, the feeling that every year we’re playing a game of Snow Roulette with ever worse odds. That’s not a good feeling but it is a reasonable feeling based on real concerns and scary projections.
What I don’t get, is the anxiety that comes from trying to keep up in the relentless race for ever more snow time, the drive to amass so many on-snow days that the thing we once called an off-season no longer exists.
Remember when it used to be a bonus to be able to ski by Thanksgiving? Now, getting on snow by then feels late. U-14’s and younger are cranking up for early season skiing with pre early season skiing, because the late spring and early summer skiing wasn’t enough, and because they have to be in peak racing form by…March. Yeah, March. Last time I checked March was many ski days from November.
I am continually struck by the tendency for people to commiserate over skiing’s cost and then advocate for more and more off-season skiing. Parents typically take the rap for escalating youth sports, for pushing the price tag, the pressure, the time commitment and the general professionalization of sports. Certainly there are parents with massive checkbooks who will make every effort to buy their kids’ way to the top. Fortunately, such efforts are mitigated by the hard fact that common sense is free. Most parents I know are making every effort to do the right thing, following the herd as a way to do what they think is legitimately best for their kids.
It’s the leaders in this vexingly insider sport that need to make a stand. That’s coaches, programs, mentors, spokespeople, current stars— anyone who has a platform, a sense of perspective and a genuine desire to help the sport grow, rather than the narrower interest of helping one group or kid outperform another at every stage of development by maxing out every resource possible. It all comes back to the long road—back to having a long-term perspective for the benefit of each kid and for the entire sport.
How do you know when your best interests are being considered? It comes down to trust. You need to have absolute trust that your program or your coach is truly looking out for your kid’s best interests. It also helps to be aware of the Overhead Equation: MO=MC, as in More Overhead = More Costs. More coaches, more facilities and more training resources mean more cost that has to be spread out over more camps attended by more people. You can see where this is going. Suddenly it is vital that everyone gets max snow time. How else will the bills get paid?
I’m not at all saying that well-funded programs are necessarily bad. They can offer economies of scale as well as a wide range of options and resources to serve a variety of skill, interest and investment levels. But they warrant scrutiny. The bigger the overhead (let’s put the Center of Excellence on one end and Cochran’s Ski Club on the other), the more vigilant you need to be about the ethos of the club. Are they helping you make smart choices or just demanding more? Do kids pay the price in any way—with peers or coaches— for not having the latest and greatest of everything or not signing up for every extra? How does each training phase play into seasonal goals and long term development goals for each individual? Is there an option to order a la carte or must you order the five-course Prix Fixe menu? None of these questions are complicated, so if they can’t be answered, check your address. You may be at the wrong party.
One of my favorite stories to write so far this year (coming up soon in Ski Racing) is about Garret Driller, a young skier who defied the traditional capital-intensive path of ski racing by doing minimal off-season training and going straight to Montana State University from high school. By the end of his freshman year he landed on the N-Uni Team. I asked one of his coaches, Karl Johnson, who was himself an NCAA skier for Dartmouth College, if he thought the lack of summer training had helped or hurt Driller’s development and he said this: “At a certain point ski days do count. But not skiing in the summer only really hurts you if you feel like you are missing out.”
He went on to explain that if you believe your off-snow training is making you stronger, more athletic and more mentally tough, the long break will allow you to stay fresh later in the season when it really counts. (Remember the part about March?) It reminded me of another conversation with Hermann Gollner, who believes that the real value of camps is the time in between them, when you synthesize the skills you have learned.
I recently looked up a racer who had been identified as having less snow time than other teammates. According to Instagram, this “behind” racer, by the time ski season rolls around in this country, will have completed four off-season ski camps (three of them international). This racer is 14 years old. Honestly, this revelation made me want to cry.
How many studies must we see about too much of any one thing—from bacon to sunshine to training—being bad for your health before we question the edict that more is always better? How many reports must we see showing the long-term athletic benefits of playing multiple sports before we stop the rush to grind out 10,000 hours of deliberate practice? When will we get it? Even if we can get kids on snow eight, nine, ten months of the year it doesn’t mean we should.
What should we do? Ask questions—of coaches, of other parents, of anyone who knows the sport. Is this necessary for my kid’s progression? Is this necessary at all? Is this going to help my kid stay in the sport longer? Go with your gut. If your kid likes more than one sport, thank your lucky stars and encourage that as long as possible. If your kid loves this sport more than anything in the world, do it in a way that it can be fun and sustainable for as long as possible.
If you do happen to come from a humble program or have partaken in a long off-season, take heart in this quote from Andy Wenzel as he lamented the cost of skiing in Europe where it is far more affordable than it is here. “The really good ones, the rough diamonds. You know, they don’t come from places like Gstaad.” If you happen to be from Gstaad, take heart in being Swiss, and always spending your money wisely.