USA Water Ski & Wake Sports

Get Out Of The Box

Corey Vaughn slalom skiing


Note: This article first appeared in the Winter 2022 issue of The Water Skier magazine, the official publication of USA Water Ski & Wake Sports. If you are not a member of USA Water Ski & Wake Sports and you are interested in receiving the quarterly magazine, join now.


Written by Corey Vaughn

Photography by Jason Lee


When I was a kid, every day on my slalom ski felt like the dawn of a new season. I experienced the exhilarating blend of curiosity and boundless potential. If I had a great set, I would rush back to the house and report my progress to my grandma. If I skied poorly, I just let it roll off. I would continue playing; enjoying the long summer days; not thinking twice about my performance; knowing that the next set would be better.

Paradise Lost

Sometime later, I became more fixated on my buoy count. I tracked my competitors’ scores. I formed expectations for my performances, both in practice and in tournaments. I rode the high and the promise of a stellar set for hours, projecting what gains might come next. A bad set, however, would also stay with me for hours, creating self-doubt and an anxious need to “fix” it with a better set.

If you are like the current me, and like most skiers I know, your mindset is probably less like the capricious child and more like the determined adult. For some of life’s endeavors, this shoulder to the grindstone, head down approach is best. For slalom skiing, however, it is a curse.

I am not saying that goals and focus are unimportant. I had goals as a kid, and I realize now that I brought better focus in the moment to my practice, when I was not attached to the results. Sports psychologists and Zen Buddhists call this sort of focus “beginners mind.”  The idea is that you can be more present with the task at hand, by not having your mind cluttered by expectations, doubts or preconceptions. It is an open state of mind, rather than closed. Like many skiers I work with, I have been closing myself into a box for years. The sides are made of expectations (which are different than goals). The lid is solid anxiety, and the latch is made of doubt.

The Wrong Turn

For most of us, there was a sweet spot in our skiing journey in which we were improving constantly. We just needed water time, and every day at the lake felt like a step forward. We became addicted to the pursuit of more buoys. Indeed, a primary reason that slalom skiing is so fun is that practice mimics “game play.” We do not have to do monotonous, painstaking drills and walkthroughs (think learning to play zone defense). We can strap on the ski and try to “hit home runs,” “score goals,” or “nail three-pointers.”

In our phase of rapid and automatic improvement we not only became addicted to the progress, but to the feeling that with concerted effort, it would always continue. By this point, we knew enough to be dangerous. We knew the lingo, how many buoys we gained last season, how many buoys someone else gained in a single season from our current level, and upon reaching our first plateau, we began constructing the box.

Breaking Out

Just like the technical elements of slalom, changing mindset is far easier said than done. The good news is that I have discovered a hack, which is practical, simple and fun. I am not against drills, visualization, or other methods of practice. Indeed, they can be beneficial and part of an out of the box approach to improvement. I also know, however, that many skiers simply do not and will not take these avenues, simply because they do not enjoy them. They enjoy being on the water and want to get better at skiing by skiing more.

It is said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting different results. Yet this is what I see most skiers doing in their practice – the same sequence of passes, hitting the same wall, stuck in in the same box. It is time to break out.

The Prescription

Stop being a slave to tournament speeds and rope lengths in practice. Variety is the spice of success here. The speed control in our boats today allows for adjustments of 0.1mph. That is an incredible tool. Jumping two miles per hour in speed can exponentially increase the degree of difficulty at any line length. Even one mile per hour is quite a leap. Take advantage of the ability to make incremental speed gains.

Moreover, several companies make trainer ropes with intermediate loops between the standard competition lengths. These ropes are invaluable tools and everyone should have one. Companies, like InTow for example, will make you a custom rope, with trainer loops only where you need them.

Let us look at an example. Say you are stuck at 2 buoys at 32 off, 34.2mph. You run 60 percent of your 28 off attempts but cannot seem to make any headway at 32 off. You have reached a wall and by continuing to reinforce inconsistent 28 off runs and the same one or two buoys at 32 off, you have put yourself in a box.

Start including 28 off at 33mph into your practice routine. Show yourself that you can run this pass with confidence and ease. If you can own the pass at 33 mph, you will immediately feel like it should not be that different at 34 mph. Even still, put small steppingstones in front of yourself, and try to run the pass equally well at 33.3 and 33.5 mph. If these are going well, mix in some 33.7, 33.9 and 34.0 mph passes. The idea here is to run the 28 off pass every time and own that line length. Completing all six every time, at say 33.8 mph, builds tremendous confidence that you can do it at full speed, and we all know that confidence goes a long way.

Secondly, get a rope with a 30 off section and find a speed that allows you to run this pass, well. That speed may be 32.8 mph at first, but as you spend time with that line length, that speed will naturally increase. A trainer loop is a bridge between the pass you know you can run and the pass that you have never run. Do you think Steph Curry became a great three-point shooter by only taking shots from outside the arc? No. He took shots from every square inch of the basketball court, and that variety created a keen sense of range in his mind. We like to think that we should only attempt shots from specific places on the basketball court and that there is nothing to be gained from shooting around. Talk about inside the box…

Thirdly, spend time every set at 32 off at a slower speed, which makes that pass runnable. That speed may be 31.9 mph. Get your ego out of the way, and avoid the trap of “I should be able to…” We need to get familiar with that new line length – its looks at the buoys, its swing, its rhythm. Why do we think we would best learn the characteristics of a new line length at the maximum speed? Do we think that football players only practice at full speed? Quarterbacks and receivers spend hours running routes at three-quarter speed to perfect the timing and location of those routes.

Finally, take an occasional look at 35 off. If 32 off is the hardest pass you have ever seen, it is going to seem impossible. Slow the boat down and get a taste of what even less rope feels like. It will likely reveal that your gates have been too narrow and/or that you have been staying on edge too long after the wakes. It could be a number of things, but the variety has something to teach you. Do you think Steph Curry learned to be a great three-point shooter by only taking shots with his toes at the arc? 35 off will teach you skills that you would not pick up at 32 off, but will serve as invaluable tools, when you go back to 28 and 32 off.

Yes, the variety alone will allow your mind to draw from a wider range of experiences. The skills will come naturally, as you are forced to adapt from your typical routine. Most importantly, however, by experimenting with different rope length and speed combinations, you can recapture the curiosity of the child and fall effortlessly into beginner’s mind. You do not know if you can run 32 off at 32.9 mph, so your mind is open to the possibility, making your focus sharp. Keep changing it up and challenging yourself so that you stay in the curiosity of the journey and detach from some hypothetical destination.

Get Your Ski Partner Involved

If you have a trusted ski partner or driver, share this article with them and explain your commitment to getting out and staying out of the box. A good ski partner can help you stick to your plan. The power of habit is strong, as is the ego, and you will find yourself defaulting back to old ways. A good ski partner can foster the spirit of adventure found through this method of practice, keep you accountable and keep it fun. If you trust your ski partner enough, you can even turn over the rope length and speed decisions to him or her. Best of all, do not even ask them what you are running, just focus on bringing all your abilities to the pass you are attempting.

We have applied this method at my ski school and the results have been astounding. For those who are open to it, the gains have come far faster than expected. It has been a delight to surprise skiers at the end of the set that they had already exceeded their expectations and without even knowing it. This is the power of clear focus and getting out of one’s own way. It is the power of confidence and enjoying the journey. We all know the supremacy of these intangibles, but rarely practice in a way that unlocks them. Give this approach a try, and I too will be trying to unleash my inner child next season by blowing my boxes to smithereens.

Corey Vaughn skis for Radar Skis, MasterCraft Boats, InTow Ropes and Handles and for love of the sport. He owns and operates the Bum Pass Water Ski Club in Virginia and welcomes skiers of all ages and abilities. Visit for more information.