Lessons from the Ski Slopes

By John Kessel | Nov. 17, 2013, 2:34 p.m. (ET)

I have skied all my life, as do my kids, as there is nothing like skiing fresh powder on a sunny day, or doing a sport with your kids as early as age 4, where they can cruise and bomb an intermediate run with you, side by side.  I first was impacted by Jean Claude Killy’s ski racing in the Grenoble Olympic Games and would stand at the top of a dirt or sand hill, play the Olympic theme song in my head, then count the beeps at my gate before skiing down the dirt, running “gates” as fast as I could.  Fifteen years later while on a holiday break from playing pro volleyball in Italy, I got the joy to ski L’s Alp de Huez with Daniel Cathard, one of Killy’s teammates.

That same year, before the Olympics were moved to alternate two years apart, the Winter games came to Sarejevo the same year I worked them in Los Angeles. Bill Johnson set the standard then, like Babe Ruth calling his home run shot, Bill told the world he would win gold in the hardest event in skiing, the downhill. He was a skateboarder on skis - refusing to live on anyone else’s terms. Bold, uncompromising, often reckless. A recent ESPN 60 show brought me back to the future, seeing Billy now in a wheelchair, in part from a severe crash after an attempted comeback in his forties. He can barely speak and has signed a Do Not Resuscitate order. It reminds me of how so many athletes would be willing to take a drug that would guarantee winning an Olympic gold medal, but kill them in five more years. What price glory?

So with that background in mind, I found myself for about the 5th time up in Vail, working with  the top ski and snowboard club in the nation, year in and year out- Ski and Snowboard Club Vail (SSCV).  Director Aldo Radmus has grown the club, home to none other than Lindsey Vonn, to be the leader in the sport. What inspires me the most about working with the club’s coaches, is how motor learning  and core teaching principles carry directly into another sport, and how dedicated their coaching staff is. Each coach teaches on average 8 athletes a season.  For the 60 coaches in the program, all but a few are doing it as their second job, if that. Yet for TWO WEEKS, all day long, these amazing teachers attend training for themselves, to make them better. Safe Sport, Weight Training, Sports Psychology, Motor Learning, they do it all.  It just is so impressive to see how much they take on a growth mindset and lifelong learning to heart.

I have a slide I use in my volleyball coaching clinics showing a ski racer flying down the mountain, titled “Why Johnny Chose Ski Racing” It is followed by a slide called “A Gym is a Place for the Performing Arts”. The first slide came from SSCV clinic years before, where the coaches noted they get kids to come ski race from volleyball and basketball, based on what level of what I will call “parental and coach support,” the athletes get bombarded with from the sideline. They come to skiing or snowboarding as all they now hear in “support” is a very brief “GOOoooo” as they fly by mom and dad, while the coach now stays at the end of the training or race run. They are taped as they fly down the hill, get given a tablet computer to watch and study that very run as they head up the lift, complete with coaches comments coming in wirelessly. The second slide notes how great music, theatre, orchestra and other performing arts “coaches” give a lot of feedback during practice, but what do they do during the performance?  Yes, they let their athletes perform – not shout out feedback from audience or call time outs -- and simply take notes on what feedback to give at the next practice.

The “Randomness of life” hits often in ski racing, as also recently seen in Lindsey Vonn’s recent ski crash and setback. She was racing after men, who are heavier and were carving deeper ruts into the run, and one of those ruts brought her down. YouTube search for “Le Chance” and watch some fascinating examples of how people escape certain death in everyday life or more extreme sports, just by fractions of seconds. I especially enjoyed a recent ESPN 60 story on a Santa Anita Legend – John Shear. He has worked at the Park over 50 years, and said there is no way he will retire and still can do 30 push ups at the age of 92. On March 12, 2011 a horse got loose, in the walking paddock, a 3 year old gelding named Sea and Sage. Johnny saved Roxie Keen, a 5 year old from this runaway horse and spent 7 weeks in the hospital for his efforts.  Check it out here, and stay calmer the next time our sport of volleyball’s randomness happen, as it just changes the scores and outcomes of the game by large amount, but nothing life threatening…

Wishing our USA teams well in Sochi soon, maybe as I was, you will have kids inspired to play a higher form of volleyball because of the performances they will see.