The 150 Day Curse

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In ski racing circles the number 150 has become a Holy Grail of sorts. Specifically, 150 days on snow has become the perceived standard of what is necessary to compete at the elite level of the sport. The 150-day threshold is the default hallmark of commitment; programs that don’t offer it, or athletes who don’t aspire to it, are not to be taken seriously.

To accept this as the new normal is to miss something essential to the future of this sport we so love. Beyond the obvious questions of what, exactly, constitutes a “day on snow,” (we’ll talk about that later), the real issue stems from a more fundamental truth. We are in what feels like an “Emperor Has No Clothes” moment, where we need to address an increasingly obvious reality.

The 150 day standard, beyond reach for so many, is taking away the resource that matters the most—the kids. 

What we have now is simply not sustainable. I know this from talking to parents and kids, with burnt out wallets and spirits. I know this from looking at the price of gas and of airline tickets not to mention lane fees. I know this when I hear the astronomical cost of proposed junior camps this summer…before the astronomical airfare. These bills come from program directors who don’t feel any better about delivering them than parents feel about paying them. I know this when I see former ski racers who credit their success in life to their ski racing experience, yet cannot fathom their kids or grandkids being able to pursue the sport.  

Something has got to give. People are either going to pull ripcord on the sport entirely, or be brave enough to find another way, not predicated on numbers, to do it. I’m hoping with all my heart it is the latter, and here’s why I know it can work.

IT’S NOT (ALL) ABOUT SKILL

If achieving greatness was predicated solely on building skills, then success would be a simple math problem of accruing time (and the dollars needed for it) spent towards the pursuit. Days on snow, even if they could somehow be indexed to quality, would be a meaningful and defining metric.

That, however, is not how it works. Success is not just about skill acquisition. Success factors —particularly in the incredibly complex outdoor sport of ski racing — include what you bring to the pursuit. These are things like enthusiasm, tenacity, physiology, mental fortitude, humor, creativity, desire, resilience, competitiveness, optimism, joy and much, much more. Success depends on all those things you can’t buy.

DOING THE MATH

What is a day on snow? Is it simply putting on ski boots? Is it the number of runs or turns or gates? Is it bell to bell unchained on a powder day, or a tightly directed two-hour session? Do multiple sessions count as multiple days? Do max effort, measured repetition and soulful cruising count the same? Does it matter if it is on a slow chairlift or a fast T-bar? Does it need to surpass a threshold of physical strain? Does a session with low focus, high fatigue, or repetitive bad habits count as a negative day? You get the drift. The endless list of contributing factors make a “day on snow” a hugely inadequate metric that indicates very little about real progress.

Even if we could define what a day on snow really means, the number of days is less critical than the unique factor of what each individual brings to each of those days. That agency, and how it influences the equation, is where both the connection to the problem, and part of its solution, lie.

INTRINSIC vs EXTRINSIC MOTIVATION

A campfire offers a great metaphor to understand the dynamics of extrinsic vs intrinsic motivation. Extrinsic motivation is like putting lighter fluid on a hastily built campfire to get it started. The fire will flare quickly and brilliantly, but then it will quickly consume all that fuel and burn out. That is the equivalent of jacking up young athletes — giving them early advantage over other kids, pushing for early results, selecting young stars, chasing points to move up the rankings list, and all manner of familiar shenanigans.  

Intrinsic motivation, on the other hand, is like building a solid fire then igniting the dry kindling beneath it with a spark. In that scenario, parents and coaches blow on the flame and stoke it as needed, but once it catches it will continue to grow and eventually build on itself.

The lighter fluid approach of extrinsic motivation can and often will yield results in the near term: Win this race and you’ll get a bike; do your workout and I’ll quit nagging you; be the best on the team and you’ll get special treatment. Of course, there is also fear, which is perhaps the most powerful extrinsic motivator of all — be that fear of punishment or criticism, fear of failure, or fear of letting people down.

Long term, however, the steady burn of intrinsic motivation — something that can be supported and encouraged but never imposed — is what goes the distance. No amount of lighter fluid can match the staying power of raw drive, enthusiasm, and love for the sport and for working hard to get better at it. We’ve all seen this movie before: intrinsically motivated athletes who lean into challenge on and off the hill, with no grand plan and no reward in site, and continue to expand their limits; and the ones who seem to be checking the box, doing the assigned tasks in a prescribed plan, optimally hydrated and recovered, who get to a pretty high level then plateau.

SUSTAINABLE FUEL

If we could set aside the lighter fluid, and the relentless pursuit of early brilliance, we could focus on stoking many little fires, and fueling kids with the love of the sport. There is nothing wrong with getting 150 days on snow — those who can get them without busting their bank accounts or their spirits should go for it with all they’ve got and enjoy it!

Hitting the magic number, however, is a privilege and an opportunity, and need not be an obligation. There is no standard plan that delivers success, and no guarantee that comes from hitting the 150-day target. Let’s not forget that the 5th ranked slalom skier in the world first skied on snow at age 12, and raced on plastic until age 21, long after he would have fallen off any talent ID radar.

In a recent conversation with gold medalist Barbara Ann Cochran related to summer skiing, she said, “I never worried about someone getting ahead of me because they were on snow more.” Yes, times have changed, but there is no doubt that even then her European competitors were logging much more time on snow. It was the joy and drive she brought to her days on snow, and her belief that it was enough, that mattered more.

In a perfect world there would be patience and sustainability built into our system, guided by a council of wise elders. Instead we seem to have a council of big checkbooks expanding the racing calendar on each end, and throwing lighter fluid on the arms race. None of us can help what others do, but we can all stay open-minded about what it really takes to succeed in this sport. It is not a magic number.

There are many roads to Rome, Cortina and wherever else kids want to go with the sport. Let’s keep them all open.

8 thoughts on “The 150 Day Curse”

  1. I’m standing on my feet with my arms in the air screaming, “thank you!” This is exactly what I’ve been trying to say but couldn’t explain it the way no one other than Edie can.

  2. Pretty spot on as always Edie….Great perspective about skiing…and life…which are so often one and the same.
    Peeps

  3. Great insights Edie as usual,
    Back in the day, early 90’s when I was helping out with the Tech guys, no junior programs were thinking it would be wise for junior kids to ski as many days as the national team members. The thinking was:”Those guys are older and more physically mature, the teenagers kids cant take that kind of volume” and younger members of the team, like the new C Team skiers often passed up a project or two so as not to over do the volume.
    Times have changed!!

    • Here here! That’s some solid thinking and good judgment at work. I wish there was more of that going on and thanks for the insight as ever!

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