Training Wheels

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Every summit starts with the first step, and maybe an annoying song in your head.
Every summit starts with the first step, and maybe an annoying song in your head.

Goooooooooooooal! Oh yeah. We’re into World Cup soccer now, and as long as everyone is yelling, screaming and vuvuzela-ing about goals, it’s a good time to talk about them.

I know…YAWN. So let’s ease in to this by talking about summer camps. My kids’ favorite camp of all time is Eliteam, put on by Doug and Kelley Lewis. As a parent it’s been my favorite camp too, because it has put my kids through Basic Training of Essential Suffering for ski racers and disguised it all as fun.

My kids come back from camp with a training bible of core, strength, cardio and agility workouts, with a good working knowledge of nutrition and hydration, and an appreciation for the importance of warm-up, flexibility, mental preparation and journaling. They learn about yoga and mental imagery, about teamwork and fear management, about sideaches and lactic acid and about how to make chocolate cupcakes out of avocados.

None of this, particularly the avocados, would they have tolerated from their parents. I know this from experience. My attempts to guide my kids through stomach routines or circuits were torturous experiments for all involved. And yet, the highlight of the week at Eliteam is a grueling event called “Sufferfest” where the kids revel in gritting through a seemingly impossible sequence of exercises, and glow with the sense of accomplishment afterwards.

Training wheels are key: This is a good thing because there comes a time, at about age 13 or 14, when kids who want to pursue sports at a high level have to start devoting time to real off-season training. Ultimately the motivation to train has to come from inside each kid, but the adults around them can play a huge role in framing training as something accessible and enticing. It involves more than handing them a workout and saying, “Just do it!” As when learning to ride a bike, a little support in the beginning is all it takes to get kids moving all on their own.

It’s all about the goals: In talking to Doug recently, I realize the success in his approach is largely about creating goals. Each year his camps have a specific goal as the theme. It might be 1000 pushups or burpees in 6 days, or hauling sandbags or hurling rocks. Whatever the goal is, they start chipping away at it consistently every day.

Really, that’s what training is—setting and achieving a series of goals. Without the individual goals, training just sounds like one heavy, endless chore. It’s like starting a hike up a mountain. If you look up to the summit from the bottom too long it’ll just bum you out. It’s better to just put one foot in front of the other and pick a good tune to hum.

Training your way: One of the many beauties of skiing is that it calls for the ultimate generalist, who has a good base of strength, power, agility, endurance, coordination and flexibility. That leaves the door wide open to a lot of fun cross training, be it mountain biking, waterskiing, dirt-biking, rock climbing or whatever makes you strong and takes you to your happy place. Nerves of steel help, and those too can be built by steadily ramping up challenges in your off-season training To be successful in ski racing you don’t have to be off the charts at any one thing but do you have to bring together a diverse collection of skills, to figure out as many pieces of the puzzle as you can and then put those pieces together.

Test for yourself: Like it or not—and trust me I was wayyyy on the not side of this—testing is part of training. Testing can range from a formalized official event to you and a stopwatch. Either way it is less a judgment than a benchmark, a snapshot of your relative strengths and weaknesses and a framework for setting goals. Not to sound too much like Oprah, but you only have to worry about being your best you. Doug is quick to point out that people tend to do more of what they’re good at vs. training their weaknesses. In his career he made it a point to hammer on his weaknesses, and at Eliteam the diversity of activities is set up to reveal and then stage small victories over everyone’s weaknesses. The lesson here is to use your strengths for the confidence to overcome your weaknesses.

Write it down, shout it out: As Doug says, “You have to put it out there to make it real.” Once you start talking about your goal it’s a lot tougher to blow it off. This is why people commit to marathons and crazy endurance races and riding up the Appalachian Gap every day for a month (ahem, Doug). Training programs are golden. Get one, or make one and follow it. Your program is a mini goal setting path that breaks many larger goals into discreet objectives that can be approached as daily tasks. There is something very satisfying about checking things off, putting numbers in squares and ultimately seeing progress.

Put the force of habit to work: “The chains of habit are too light to be felt until they are too heavy to be broken.” When I first read this quote it bummed me out because I thought about it in the context of all my bad habits. But it is also true about good habits. If you regularly set goals and get up every day and start working towards them, pretty soon you are a doer. You are a person who does 50 push ups before breakfast, does squats and crunches during commercial breaks, sprints up every set of stairs instead of walking them, does a long ride every Saturday morning or tackles that particularly heinous workout twice a week.

And finally, crotchedy grown-up advice: I recall when a former teammate, both of us then new parents, reflected on our lives as athletes. “Remember when we thought it was virtuous to train hard, and it was our job? Now training is a total indulgence!” If you have the physical ability, the motivation and the support to dedicate your time to training, it’s a privilege. So go out there with a smile and suffer, if for no other reason than because you can.


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