Good things take time. Good ski racers take a LOT of time. I was reminded of that while following the early Nor Am races that just kicked off last week in CO, and seeing familiar faces on the top of the results. Some have been poking their way through to the top for many years; others rocketed to the top at a young age and have since endured the roller coaster ride that is elite sports.
While the early success of phenoms like Alice Robinson and Mikaela Shiffrin make the journey to the top look more like an express elevator, for most it is indeed a wild and circuitous ride.
When I first published the long road speech, in March 2012, the intended audience was U-12’s and U-14’s and their keepers—parents and coaches. The message was to calm down and be patient, because long-term development is a long-term commitment. I didn’t realize that nearly eight years later that same message would be even more relevant to those very same kids, parents (myself included) and coaches.
Readers of this blog undoubtedly notice that I beat the same drum of steady progress and persistence, and I am not alone in pushing against the compulsion to fast forward development. An entire industry is booming around the effort to talk parents down from the “race to nowhere” in youth sports. The book Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World (I swear the reading list is coming!), picks up where The Sports Gene left off, going beyond sports to show the many benefits of building a broader range of skills over time, rather than cramming to get results as quickly as possible.
In skiing, perhaps more than any other sport, the value of this patience and long term perspective is key, yet hugely underrated. Rather than acknowledging how long it takes to fully mature—and why—we tend to celebrate and covet the express route, then stack the odds against anyone taking the (ultimately richer) scenic route.
Recently, a reporter asked me what makes ski racing so uniquely challenging. When I started ticking through the list, I marveled at how anyone with a somewhat normal support network can achieve consistent success in this sport. Sure, there are fairy-tale esque exceptions, but most ski racers take a long time to develop consistency. In case you need to remind yourself, or anyone else, here are a few reasons why.
WHY IT TAKES SO DANG LONG
THE VENUE: First and foremost, ski racing is an outdoor mountain sport. This isn’t a pool or a track or a gym or a field. It is an ever-changing arena impacted by changes in terrain, weather, snow condition, course condition, running order, course set, light, etc, etc. All of these can work in your favor or not.
Related to the above is the sport’s seasonality. Getting days on snow in a sport with a significant off-season is a factor that varies greatly from one athlete to the next (depending hugely on resources, as well as other athletic interests/pursuits), and can create an early advantage that will disappear over time. Real talent will rise, if afforded ample time and opportunity.
THE RAW MATERIAL: Two big components of success are physical strength and technique, both of which need to be built in layers. Again, early development may bring success and late develop may bring frustration, but those advantages and handicaps eventually even out. As for good technique, it requires good coaching, which, even if you are lucky, will come and go. Unless you have a private coach or advocate looking out for you at every step, success lies in becoming an expert in your own body and technique. This takes—you guessed it—time.
THE GEAR: Equipment is another huge factor in success. At every level, you need to have equipment that matches your strength, style and ability. It takes time to figure that out, and then as you grow, it all changes. At the higher levels, there is not only the challenge of getting good equipment (which is so critical and difficult that it is another story entirely) but also getting and maintaining the right preparation. But you’re not done yet! Top racers are continually tinkering with their set-up, tweaking boots, lifts, ramp angles, etc.
THE REST OF THE STORY: IF you get all that just right, enter the dizzying array of daily variables to which one must adapt (see outdoor sport, above). Ski racers compete on a venue that changes day to day, run to run and turn to turn. That doesn’t even take in to consideration the near constant travel and all the strain and potential problems that go along with it. (Unless and until you are going five-star, ski racing involves long van rides, cramped condos and shared everything, including viruses.)
The ability to adapt to all these variables on the fly takes experience. The ability to do it again and again—on days when you’d prefer to be under a blankie watching Netflix, on days when expectations are high and it feels like your future depends on this one race, and on every day in between—requires iron-clad mental strength.
THE HEAD GAME: This is perhaps the biggest hurdle for any athlete to master, or simply wrangle. It is especially difficult in the unforgiving world of ski racing, an individual sport with so many factors out of your control, where success and failure is determined by hundredths of a second.
THE WILD CARDS: As a final treat, skiing is a dangerous sport, where injuries large and small are not just possible but virtually inevitable. Even when you do all the steps to build your body, mind and technique, trot around the globe to chase your optimum ski days, line up and dial in your equipment and have every detail in place, you can get sick or injured or have some unavoidable setback that makes it seem like you are walking in sand.
THAT, is why developing ski racers takes time. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth the effort at every stage. It does mean that there’s no upside to panicking, and to feeling like each race or each season is make-or-break. To live each season feeling that false sense of urgency, is to miss a lot of the upside along the way.
STOPPING THE MADNESS
Real learning takes time. We need to be continually reminded of this in youth sports, and especially in ski racing. Here are some modest suggestions to keep in mind as we all head into the season.
Don’t…get caught up in perfection, in any one standard or in perceived limits based on ideal circumstances. Some people have done amazing things with sub optimal prep, and others have prepared perfectly and bombed. You’re story is your own, and the script is a work in progress.
Do… the best you can as much as you can. Nail the things in your control, then put your poles over the wand and go. It’s a long season but it goes by quickly if you’re not looking ahead to slay the next gate, the next run, the next day. Other than that, settle in, work hard and enjoy the ride.