USA Water Ski & Wake Sports

Ski By Faith; Not By Sight

Note: This article first appeared in the Summer 2021 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

 

Corey Vaughn slalom skiingI love coaching skiers of all levels and I am often struck by parallel themes that affect beginner, intermediate and advanced skiers, alike. Throughout our water ski journeys, we learn new skills and then refine them at higher and higher levels. One common thread I see at every level is a tendency to wait for visual certainty before committing to the turn. This lack of faith affects skiers attempting to learn the slalom course, as well as highly advanced skiers cutting to that new, unchartered line length.

Skiers just getting into the course tend to underestimate the actual amount of space and time that a turn takes. They wait until they are practically or literally at the buoy before attempting to change direction. A seasoned skier knows that this hesitation will cause the turn to end up going way down course, and though the skier will get that buoy, they have sabotaged their chance for the next buoy or the one after that. If you can remember your first time running the course, you may recall how surprisingly early you had to start your turn to complete the pass.

This tendency, however, is just as common among skiers attempting to run 28 off or 38 off for the first time. As skiers gain proficiency in the course, they build skills to create wider, earlier looks at the buoys and start the turns sooner. But in the never-ending challenge of slalom skiing, those looks change with faster speed and shorter rope lengths. That means the look that you have grown comfortable with is not going to work at the next level and may not even be possible to achieve. You may have the look for less time or the best path through the course simply may not give you that look at all. This is where the trouble for some may begin.

Let’s say you finally mastered your 22 off pass and are starting to take more attempts at 28 off. At first you may feel like 28 off is physically impossible, except that you know other people can do it. The fact is that you are never going to get the same look at the buoy through the pre-turn that you do at 22 off. The problem is that your mind wants that comfortable visual reference. This desire leads most people into bad habits like holding the cut too long or riding flat after the wake (neither cutting nor committing to the edge change). On a theoretical level, we all know that as the speed gets faster and/or the rope gets shorter we need to be starting the turn sooner, but that knowledge rarely overrides our intuition in the moment when we come out of the wakes and do not trust the picture we see.

When it comes right down to it, we get addicted to our visual reference points. Take the buoys away from many advanced skiers and you will see some sloppy free skiing. Similarly, take some rope away from a progressing skier and you will see good form and rhythm go haywire. To become a great skier, we need more than what our eyes, alone, can tell us.

So, what is the cure?

Sure, vision is crucial in the course. If you have ever skied in sun-glare or in the dark or without your contacts, you know how critical good vision is. However, equally important is the feeling of rhythm with the rope and boat. A consistent rhythm gives us the ability to make predictions. Rhythm gives us something to trust besides our visual input. Placing faith in your rhythm is the key to staying ahead of the course rather than waiting for your eyes to dictate or validate the timing of your movements.

Think about clapping along to a song or playing music with other people. How do you know when to clap or at what tempo to play? You feel the rhythm. Each line length and speed have their own unique rhythm. Becoming attune to that rhythm is paramount in order to master that pass. The more challenging the pass, the more critical it is to rely on rhythm rather than your visual cues.

Skiing with rhythm is the foundation for committing to an early edge change, a properly timed release, achieving full extension or apex and finishing the turn with a tight line. To run that next pass, you are going to have to trust that early edge change and release off of the handle before your eyes validate these movements. Most likely, you will not even be seeing the buoy as you achieve your full extension, nor do you need to. In fact, this is about the point in time that you will want to start shifting your gaze to where you are going, rather than trying to look at where you are. You would not look at the front tire on the ground while mountain biking, would you? The fact is that you do not need to see your ski go around the buoy, nor do you need to take your head around the buoy to make a good turn. Can you imagine a concert pianist having to watch his fingers strike each key? It would be hard to play a complex symphony that way, and slalom is a complex symphony.

It is important to realize that as the boat speed gets faster and the rope gets shorter, the skier is carrying more swing or momentum when exiting the wake. That means, the edge change and the release off the handle are going to achieve more lateral or outbound direction more quickly. Thus, you need to trust the speed that you are carrying and let it move toward that apex at a faster tempo. Waiting until you have visual certainty that you are going to make the upcoming buoy means your turn is heading down course (or into slack rope if you decide to abruptly turn on the buoy despite your down course speed).

In short, your eyes are trying to trick you into remaining in a narrow comfort zone. Do not let them. Realize that you have a whole other set of sensations on hand to help you progress. Your sense of feel and rhythm is your friend and the more you cultivate these senses, the faster you will improve. Plus, skiing with two senses (sight and feel) is far better than skiing with just one. Pay attention to your rhythm and let it inform you. Do not wait for the evidence of your eyes, it will always come too late. Like so many things in life, to reach mastery you will need a healthy dose of faith and trust.

A couple of other prescriptions:

  1. Give yourself a guarantee of width by generating sufficient speed and power into the wakes. Do not rely on a long cut, a double pull, or a delayed edge change to get to the buoy. Build speed and edge into the centerline so you can trust that your timely edge change and release will get you wide enough.
  2. Keep the handle close to your body through the edge change. All of your hard work will be lost if you allow your arms and handle to separate and move away from your body as you edge change.
  3. The edge change is not a change in direction. You want to keep pressure on the rope and continue on an outward path as you stand up and let your ski transition to the turning edge.
  4. Start learning the next line length at a slower speed. For some reason, most slalom skiers only practice at tournament speeds and rope lengths and follow the traditional tournament progression of passes (up the rope). It is called practice for a reason. If you want to learn 28 off, do not try to learn it at max speed. If you are running 22 off at 34 mph, you should also be spending a lot of time at 28 off at 31-33 mph. You should also be tasting 32 off at 29-31 mph. You will learn skills at these line lengths that 22 off cannot teach, and it will make you a better skier much faster. If you have a rope with training loops, you can involve even more variety in your training.

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 PeaceLoveAndWaterskiing.com for more information.