It’s that time of year. March Madness. And of course I’m talking about skiing not basketball. This is when it all happens—regional champs, state champs, Junior Olympics, etc. Lofty goals and supercharged energy converge as the biggest events in a young ski racer’s life play out in one scrambling month. Hotel pools, team dinners, game rooms and way too many vending machines fuel the fire.Throughout the month there will be big winning moments and crushing losses. There will be the elation of putting two clean runs together and the devastation of screwing up right at that spot the coaches pointed out. This annual angst we have chosen for ourselves is normal. And yet, every year it seems like the end of the world is near when things don’t go according to plan, when that one chance at making the states, the uberstars or the intergalactics slips away like so many skittles off a frozen mitten.All of this means it’s the ideal occasion for the “Long Road” speech. As in, it’s a long road we’re traveling, people. As parents cheering from the sidelines we can’t help but want our kids to succeed at everything they do, on every outing. We understand that real progress is often a barely perceptible crawl, and that what we really want for our kids is long term success in life, not in a silly sporting event. But still, we secretly hope for success every time. Wouldn’t it be easier to just have the good days and put off the agony of defeat indefinitely, or at least until adulthood?
I can say from experience that the fantasy of child stardom is not all its cracked up to be. The pros are, of course, an early sniff of glory and an instant endorphin hit of success. Up into my early teens I won every ski race I entered. I fell and got up, and won. My boots got stolen from the car so I borrowed a friend’s mother’s boots, and won. A big kid in ski boots stepped on my bare toes and broke them the day before a race, and the next day I won. You get the picture. Yay me.
But then one day, I didn’t win. And I kept not winning, like it was my new job, until it felt my world had crumbled. I had three close friends who resided solidly in my rear view mirror during my young days of untrammeled fabulousness. All three of them scooted past me and made their ways on to the US Ski Team while I ground my gears. They were teaching me the lesson I had taught them long ago—that sooner or later you’ll get your butt kicked, so you’d better know how to deal with it. I did not appreciate the lesson.
For the next few years (not weeks or months), I wanted to quit more days than not. I was discovering the cons of child stardom, chiefly the unrealistic view it creates of what it takes to succeed. It takes perseverance, self-confidence and a bit of blind faith. Fortunately in my case, the urge to sniff glue, roll in a ball and make it all go away was overcome by the urge to dust myself off and get back up, as if to say, “Thank you sir. May I have another?” Sticking to that decision has made all the difference, not only in ski racing but also in every challenge since. When I see these kids make that same commitment day after day I am truly inspired.
All this leads to my compulsion to give the “Long Road” speech, which is closely linked to the “Box of Chocolates” principle. Well into their teens kids are growing and changing and learning so quickly that you really have no idea of the potential that lies inside of them. In the words of Mr. Gump’s momma, you never know what you’ll get. As proof look no further than Ted Ligety, who barely made his ski club team at this age, and even as a 17-year-old struggled to keep pace with his peers. Skiing and all sports are riddled with examples of unremarkable young kids who turned into great champions through perseverance and hard work. Likewise the path to the top is littered with one-time sensations who got off track and lacked the will, the desire, or perhaps just the plain old good luck it takes to get to the top of their sport.
Not that true success has anything to do with “making it” in a sport or not. There is no “it”, no achievement that confers success on you. It really is all about finding what matters to you and going after it with all you’ve got. How often do we get to do that?
The long-term view is a very tough perspective for a young person to have. One kid going through an exceptionally frustrating bout of character building summed it to his parents as follows: “I know that this is making me a better person. But right now it sort of sucks.”
He’s right. And there’s no way around it. Dwelling on disappointment is neither healthy nor productive, but disappointment in itself isn’t such a bad thing. It means you have some skin in the game. Coaches and parents may seem to be discrediting the right to be disappointed, and diluting the value of a competitive spirit with default comments like “just have fun,” and “keep smiling.” I still cringe a bit when I interpret those words as admonishments. But as a quasi grown up, I get the broader intent, the reminder to keep your eye on the bigger prize, on enjoying the process. Enjoy the things you get from having the dream, making the effort and going out each day with a goal to get just a little better.
We recently had the last of our qualifying races for the state championships, followed immediately by the naming of the State Championship team. Kids who miss the cut-off can battle for a spot at the champs by going to the state finals, but this is the big announcement. They start with the first qualifying individual and go down the list to the last, making it an agonizing ceremony for anyone who is “on the bubble” unsure of whether he or she made the team. I can assure you from experience that whether you are waiting to be picked last for a softball team on the playground, or listening to a coach read off the names of who made the Olympic team, it’s all the same anxiety.
This time, as always, there were a few athletes on the bubble who did not make it. These are kids who have put in as much time, worked just as hard, and wanted it just as badly as any of their teammates. But for whatever reason, it hasn’t all come together for them, yet. When the last name was read I wanted to cry. OK, maybe I did cry. But I tried not to show it, because one of the bubble kids came straight up to me. He looked me in the eye and announced, “I really think I can qualify through the finals!” That was his first reaction–not tears, or moping or a tantrum, but a positive plan.
That moment in itself reminded me of why we put ourselves and our children through this. The bravest skier I know used this quote to get through life threatening illness and injury, as well as a ski race or two: “Success is not the act of never falling. It is the act of repeatedly getting up.” If a 12-year-old kid has learned to greet adversity with renewed effort, he’s pretty much learned the secret to success in anything.
As I said, it’s a long road. Some take the highway, and some take the scenic route, but in the end we’re headed for the same place.
2013 update: It is that time of year again, so you might want to circulate this to keep blood pressures in check. By the way, the kid at the end, who almost made me cry? He was among our top qualifiers for the state champs this year. More importantly he perfected the technique of grinning ear-to-ear even while gritting his teeth.
Alexis Pinturault, needs a really good friend right about now. Look at the video to see who he turns to.
February Break. It's not just a week of snow days and too much hot cocoa. It's prime time to chill, relax, build some snowmen, get some freeskiing and, most importantly, press the reset button. From here on out the ski racing season is a sprint, so this is your opportunity to ratchet back the intensity and regain focus by tending to the basics.
To inspire this I am retelling a tale, that, based on field analysis, needs constant retelling: Once upon a time, we all had to learn some basic skills before we even thought about carving a turn. We did so with the help of instructors, who relentlessly hammered into our muscle memory the humble pole plant. For my husband, that instructor was Sigi Ploberger, a diminuative Austrian ski instructor with a commanding voice, who followed her charges, reminding them to "Tak!...Tak!...Tak!..." with metronomic regularity after each turn. For me, and for other western skiers I suspect, the most formative instruction came from slopes like Squaw's West Face, and Jackson's Tower 3, where you either planted your pole on every turn, or ended up in a heap at the bottom of the run.
Either way the message was clear to all skiers: Your pole plant is your best friend. It is the key to timing the release from one turn and initiation of the next; it restores proper fore-aft balance before each turn; it positions you solidly over the downhill ski (your second best friend); it commits your body to the fall-line, helps you adjust instantly to terrain changes, provides a pivot point in tight spots, prevents rotation, etc, etc etc...Basically, whatever trouble you get into, the pole plant's got your back. Skiers of all ages accepted this, and if we needed any reassurance we looked no further than our bookshelves (remember those?) and the cover of "Pianta Su" with its frame-by-frame sequence of Gustavo Thoeni's perfectly choreographed plant.
As time went on, skiing got easier. Fancy groomers and summer grading tamed the terrain so most runs resembled inclined ballrooms of uniform surface. Then came shaped skis, pretty little things that made carving easy and fun, especially on these manicured trails. Carving was suddenly as easy as leaning whatever direction you wanted to go, standing against the ski, and enjoying the ride. These new friends became the life of the party, letting new skiers skip right to the prize, without the drudgery of learning and rehearsing something so mundane as the pole plant. Why bother finding the front of the boot, figuring out how to use your ankles or pledging allegiance to your outside ski when these little vixens would show you a good time without all that effort?
But if it seems too good to be true...Yep, eventually the truth came out. Anyone can make pretty turns on a well-groomed even pitch, but what are you going to do when you're cresting a knoll onto a steep pitch, when you hit an ice patch and lose your balance, when your skis lose snow contact in a rough spot? These fancy new fun-loving friends will get you up to speed all right, but what happens when you have to get back in control...immediately? Who's your buddy then? (see what Alexis Pinturault doesbetween :52 and :54 for a clue)
That's right. Your pole plant. Coaches of "modern technique" who advocate learning the pole "touch," or the "motion" versus the plant, need a reality check: when hardwiring kids with essential skills, nuance and shades of gray don't fly. Those who maintain the pole plant is passé need to watch the Wengen slalom, or the recently contested slalom portion of the Super Combined in Sochi. And those who say it is irrelevant in speed events need to take a closer look at the Steilhang of the Hahnenkamm downhill. Real men-real big, fast men-plant their poles mach schnell when necessary. No single skill remedies as many weaknesses and crises, no matter what time of day you call. That's why a simple pole plant drill says a lot about your skiing future.
As on coach puts it, "Pole plants are kind of like manners. If you don't have them when you're young you'll probably never have them. And if you want to go as far as you can you'll need them in your quiver."
So the skiers all woke up after the big party with their new fancy friends, and one by one they realized that they could never really be happy without including their old friends-the outside ski, the ankles, the front of the boot and, most importantly, the pole plant. And they lived happily ever after.
Edie | February 15, 2014 at 2:38 pm | URL: http://wp.me/p2Ob1Z-ak
As athlete's develop and acquire skill at a young age, there is a constant evaluation of one's progress and technical level. One question we here again and again is relative to young athletes and cross-blocking. Edie Thys-Morgan addresses this question; a good read for athletes and parents.
"When can I cross block?"
Once the slalom gates are set in the snow that is the most common and the most cringe-worthy question a ski coach for junior racers gets asked.
The answer? "How about never?"
First off, the term cross-blocking is misleading. It is often referenced as a good thing, a sign of advancement, while in reality it is quite the opposite. "Blocking" is simply clearing a gate out of your path. "Cross," well it has no possible upside here.
If your skis are arcing hard around the gate, your feet are close to the gate, and your body is angled so far into the hill that it actually passes on the inside of the gate...if all that is happening, then your outside hand is the closest one to the gate, and is therefore the one to "clear" the gate. Look at a top NCAA skier, or watch a World Cup and that is what you see. Calm, disciplined, upper bodies with arms, hips, knees always pushing forward and down the fall-line. Like a metronome the outside hand ticks the gates out of the way without creating any extra movement or influencing body position.
If your skis are not arcing hard around the gate and are not very close to the gate, the outside hand is nowhere near the gate. To clear the gate with the outside hand you would have to reach across your body. In so doing you lose all pressure on your outside ski and any prayer of carving a turn or generating any power from the ski. It is rare to see a U14 who can consistently carve clean turns while running a tight enough line to warrant outside clearing. I have yet to meet such a U12. They simply do not have the strength or technical ability.
Armor is good. It saves on orthodontic bills, bloody knuckles and bruised shins. Better safe than sorry, and besides armor looks cool. It makes us feel stronger and more powerful. But put a kid in armor and all of a sudden he or she feels the need to hit something. Who can blame them? It is hard to resist the siren song of guard on plastic, the satisfying thwap of a gate bowing from our assault. But if you listen more closely, you will also hear another, less heroic sound. It is the rasp of edges skidding around a turn.
Here's what's happening, and it happens every day, every run, with every kid who wants to "cross block." Skier sees gate, skier goes straight at gate, skier blocks gate with outside hand. The act of reaching over to the gate releases pressure from the edges before the turn is anywhere near completion. Skier must complete turn after the gate by skidding skis around and is already too low to make a good turn on the next gate. So, skier goes straight at that gate, whacking it out of the way, and again releasing any pressure and negating any turn initiation that might have been started above the gate. Pattern repeats until skier passes through finish and wonders, "Why am I so slow? After all, I hit all the gates!"
What do we do?
First: Accept that cross blocking is a Faustian bargain. One you reach across your body you are trading the long term prospect of clean powerful turns and engaged edges, for the immediate gratification of plastic-on-plastic impact.
Second: Ditch the term cross blocking altogether and use the proper term for getting gates out of your way-clearing.
Third: Refocus on the one core skill that will never fail you-pole plants. Even when you are so awesome that you are carving and clearing with your outside hand, you'll still be planting your pole. It's what completes your turn, what allows you to get off one ski and on to the next, all while moving your body down the hill. If you can't plant your poles, something is wrong (hands too low, timing not right, poles not in correct position, etc.) Figure it out with your coach, and get back to planting those poles.
Fourth: When you are planting your pole every turn and making clean turns above the gate and a gate gets in your way...CONGRATULATIONS! You can ski a line close enough to the gate to have to clear it. So knock it out of the way, without bringing your hand across the body. If you do that, you will automatically be clearing with the "correct" hand, be that inside or outside. You've got the armor-use it! And worry about your feet not the gates.
Fifth: Give it time. The above situation will happen sooner on flatter terrain, easy snow or on a straight course. Don't expect to be able to run the same line on steep, icy or turny course. You will eventually be able to, but only if you take the time and go through the steps to master the basics of clean skiing first.
Thank you for reading. That will be all.
Edie Thys Morgan
Author of the book Shut Up and Ski
We're less than one week(!) from hosting our first USSA race in two years. Very Exciting!
If you have questions, please feel free to ask!
On behalf of the staff, our athletes and the rest of NVC, thank you for making this event happen!
New York Times writer Bill Pennington frames the story of Mikaela well. Bill also has two talented ski racing daughters who I've had the pleasure to work with. I think his parental perspective provides additional color and enjoyable commentary to the story.
In case you missed this week's email from Alex Krebs, VARA Youth Coordinator, she championed a recent article by USST alum Edie Thys Morgan that helps to frame our sport, keep things in perspective and grounded. You can learn more about Edie and her unique voice on the sport at: www.racerex.com
Timing Isn't Everything
To all parents glued to their smart phones this weekend, here is some food for thought. This article ran recently in Ski Racing. Find it here
or below in a slightly longer, less official looking version. Based on reports from the field, as the competition season begins in earnest this message bears repeating. And trust me, Live-Timing addicts, I fully understand the power of the rabbit hole. Ok-read on!
You've probably seen one by now: A picture of an intensely focused ski racer arcing a beautiful turn in front of a cluster of spectators, all of whom have their attention fixed not on the racer, but on a little, "smart" screen. They're not likely looking at a vital message from a loved one or a work emergency. No, they are probably looking at Live-Timing. Chances are also high that rather than results from a far-off race, they are checking the time of the kid just ahead of the kid they are all now ignoring.
As a coach, my usual position on race day is at the start, where everyone is full of optimism and energy and there is little time for anything but turning screws, cleaning boots and getting psyched. For those of us challenged at multi-tasking, this is a Live-Timing-free zone. As a parent I am beginning to see this enforced disconnect as a gift.
Don't get me wrong-I am a huge fan of Live-Timing. Having a universally accessible real time scoreboard is liberating. In the old days, "live timing" was someone's mother who shuffled between the timing shack and the scoreboard with the latest batch of times, then transcribed them, usually legibly, onto the board to break the suspense. Emotions ensued, the mother returned to the shack, the crowd dispersed, and the next wave of racers built in front of the board.
Live-Timing not only did away with that finish line ritual, but the God-like awareness ushered in a host of freedoms, like knowing exactly when to make your way to the course to race or to watch. It eliminated the need for detailed phone reports at the end of a long day, gave faraway family and friends a way to follow the races, and afforded absent parents a heads-up on the prevailing mood to expect upon homecoming. Heck, it even lifted the burden of performing basic math.
But as with many modern conveniences, this one offers up potential abuse, particularly by "Live-Timing parents," members of the parental species who have become overinvested in their childrens' results. Like many traits, overinvestment is often hard to recognize in oneself. It's like in the movies when Harry breaks the truth to Sally that she is in fact a high maintenance woman: "You're the worst kind; you're high maintenance but you think you're low maintenance." If you're not entirely sure whether you have been sucked down the rabbit hole, here are a few red flags:
- Do you call or text the coach the second DNF pops up next to your kid's name on Live-Timing?
- Have you ever referred to your kid's performance collectively, as in, "We need a good result today...We need to finish...We had a fast run"?
- Do you, after monitoring Live-Timing, call other parents to update them on their and your kid's results?
- Have you shed tears (not of joy) over your child's performance?
- Do you regularly crow about your child's results in social situations or (cringe) on a social network?
- Do you remind your child before races or runs of what result he/she has to achieve to qualify or succeed according to some external standard?
This is a partial list, but if you answered yes to most of these questions, you may be a "Live-Timing" parent, and you may want to consider a step-down program. Why? First there is the practical consideration of lowering your own blood pressure, and that of anyone in close proximity. More important is the damaging effect that this hyper-awareness of results can have. While it may seem harmless, consider the message it sends to our kids when we tell them to have fun, relax and do their best, then have our eyes on the screen each run, calculating place or race points to determine how close each kid is to qualifying for the next competition.
Knowing our kids' results, often before they do, tempts us to put our own judgment on their performances before knowing how the kids feel about them. Maybe she was ok with the run until we walked up with a sad face to console her. Maybe he knows exactly where he had trouble and has a plan for the next run. Maybe the time was fast but she is nonetheless disappointed because she knows she held something back. Our kids have plenty to process without the addition of unsolicited parental input.
Admittedly, as a parent I do not always master the fine line between being supportive and being over-invested. Last year I was at a race away from my own team, without any coaching duties and with time to live-stalk on Live-Timing. I attempted to follow boys and girls races in two age groups at two separate mountains, while watching my own son in person at yet another mountain. At first I rationalized that I was merely checking up on my flock. But pretty soon there I was, like a rat in a Skinner Box, incessantly poking the refresh button for another hit of new information, cursing "that darned sun" while shielding my screen from its glare. Not surprisingly I was missing a lot of what was happening on the hill.
Quite simply, seeing the times is not the same as seeing the race. Live-Timing doesn't show the spectacular recoveries, the partial yet brilliant runs, the massive physical divergences amongst same-aged juniors, the skills and moves that are mere glimpses of the possibilities that lie ahead. We have to be on the hill, lift our eyes and put away our smart phones to see all those things.
I suspect most of us struggle to define the etiquette of managing all the information at our fingertips. (Ok, perhaps the parent making Facebook posts of screen shots from Live-Timing-with his kid atop the results-is unburdened by this struggle). My own sanctuary is imposed ignorance at the start. When a kids reports after his run, "I got a 53!" that number means absolutely nothing to me, so I am left asking the same questions the old style, race-watching parents are asking their kids: "How did you feel? Was there any spot that gave you trouble? Was it easier or harder than you thought? What would you do differently next run?" And sometimes there is nothing to say. From their expressions or their body language you know to just give them a hug or a high five. Either way, you'll want your hands free for that.
Many thanks to MRSC Board Member Ellen Hauser, and club parents John Boland, Mike Morelli, and Scott Johnson for their help setting up and taking down the fence. We performed basic fence maintenance that will make subsequent installations much easier. Seeing that this is a weekly activity that we MUST do, we NEED your help. We will not hold training on the Practice Slope pitch unless protection is in place. Thanks for your understanding.
We need your help assembling and installing B-Net on the Practice Slope each Saturday morning and rolling each Sunday afternoon. If you're available between 8:30am and 9:30am to help assemble and installation of fence and/or the rolling on Sunday from 2:30pm-3:00pm please let Jim know
. We do this every week and would appreciate assembling a knowledgable group of volunteers. This allows our coaches to "coach" and helps protect our athletes during training.
We wrapped up our Holiday Training Block on Wednesday with the annual French Fry Cup. Athletes put their dukes up as they went head-to-head in dual format to claim bragging rights and their cup of fried starch product (the universal diet of all ski "racers"-according to coach Rick Ruback)!
Thanks to all who helped make this week a success; that many continuous days on-snow, on the same hill is challenging. That aside, it afforded us an excellent opportunity to stay focused on the fundamentals of ankle and knee movement and how they relate to balance, angulation and...just about everything! Those that capitalized on the training opportunities really benefitted from the focus and attentive approach to skill acquisition. Great job!