USA Water Ski & Wake Sports

Ski On Offense

Note: This article first appeared in the Spring 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 skiingThe truth of Chet Raley’s claim that “Water skiing is all offense all the time” goes beyond the football analogy I laid out in last issue’s article. For those who have a hard time envisioning themselves as a quarterback and a wide receiver, let us explore another sport and another way to apply this maxim to our practice.

Tennis Anyone?

Tennis matches are comprised of three or five sets, each set consisting of six games. Players alternate serving each game. Getting to serve is typically an advantage, as a good server can set the tempo for the point.

A good serve puts the opponent off balance. Because their return is a defensive shot, it allows the server to remain in control and on the offensive. By destabilizing the opponent with the serve, the shots returning to the server are predictable and easy to aim. Thus, the server can keep the opponent on their heels, chasing balls and doing all they can just to keep the rally alive. Best of all, they can do this with low risk of making a poor shot themselves – hitting the ball out of bounds or into the net.

As skiers, the serve is the gate. It is our opportunity to set the tempo for the pass and use the boat’s power to our advantage. Failure to execute a high-quality gate puts us in the position of the out-of-balance opponent. We find ourselves frantically darting back and forth, just trying to get to the next ball and praying to merely keep the rally (the pass) going. So, which are you, the great server who takes command of the point from the outset, or the frantic opponent who tries to overcome the odds in order to win the point?

Yes, tennis players are given two chances to hit their serve in play. However, because a “double fault” means losing the point, second serves are more cautious and no longer favor the server. Because the server must be more cautious on a second serve, the roles of offense and defense become neutralized, and it is anybody’s point.  In slalom, we have only one chance to nail the gate, which means we had better be training with accuracy and focus. Starting the pass on offense puts us in position to ski the entire pass with poise and confidence. 

Skiing On Defense

Too often, I see skiers tentatively tip toe up to the gate, like a tennis player just lobbing the ball into play. They make it through the gate and then try to get their game on starting at one ball. That is too late. This approach hands the advantage right to the opponent, or in ski terms it means surrendering control to the boat. Even a decent gate that works fine for our warmup passes becomes like a cautious second serve when we get to our most difficult pass. Roger Federer’s second serve would fly right past me, but when facing Rafael Nadal he needs his first serve in order to control the point.

I have written previously about the mechanics of a good gate (see Spring 2019 issue). Knowing the components of an effective gate is important, but equally important is the mindset that we bring to each pass and each set. Consider your mentality from the moment of your deep water start to your gate pullout through your glide, the turn in and the cut through the gates. Are you approaching these phases assertively and with confidence? Or are you going through the motions tentatively and on defense?

Sharpening The Knife

Obviously, we need to start with control to stay in control. Great tennis players do not just toss the ball up and try to smash it as hard as they can. Their powerful serves are also graceful and practiced to near perfection. There is a rhythm to the toss, the backswing and the swing through the ball such that they appear to be one continuous process. As skiers, we need to harmonize our pullout, glide and turn in in the same way. We are looking for the delicate intersection of width, speed and connection to the boat, all while maintaining balanced on the ski.

On easier passes, you may retain control through the pass even when your gate is a little narrow or slow or overly connected to the boat. That is your second serve working against a lesser opponent. To run your hardest pass, you cannot compromise width, glide speed or that light connection to the boat. The intensity and duration of your pullout and your balance in the glide are going to determine whether your gate is one continuous process or a disjointed series of component parts.

Think of every gate as an opportunity to sharpen your skills. At first, an optimal gate may feel like riding a knife’s edge between overly aggressive and purposely cautious. Only through focused repetition can we sharpen both edges of this knife so that we have a weapon worthy of the task at hand. Being too aggressive can mean too much speed and a loss of connection to the boat. Being too conservative can mean a lack of width, insufficient speed and too much connection to the boat.

Tennis players can practice serving hundreds of balls in a day to hone their skills. We do not have this luxury. Do not settle for an adequate gate on your easier passes. Seek to sharpen your skills every single pass.  Sure, you will make some mistakes, but those provide data and a learning opportunity. If Roger Federer became satisfied when his serve was as good as the 100th best tennis player in the world, we would not know his name.

Assertive Not Aggressive

You will know you are acing the gate when your pull out, glide, turn-in and cut all feel assertive. If any of these parts feel aggressive, you are probably compensating for another component being too passive. If you pull out too aggressively, you are likely to end up on defense with the turn in. If you pull out to gently, you are likely to have to turn in and cut too aggressively. If you are waiting too late to pull out you are either going to feel like you are flying by the gate when you get wide, or you are going to soften your pullout too much and fail to get proper width. If any or all of these phases feel tentative, you can be sure you are not training an optimal gate.

In The Heat Of Battle

There is one more key parallel to explore between these two sports. Let us imagine that you have sharpened your gate skills and that you are taking command of the pass from the outset. You are hitting your first serve in with accuracy. A common mistake for tennis players and skiers alike is to get greedy and go for too much all at once.

In tennis this means you have the opponent on the run and will win the point if you just keep making each shot harder to return. By, say, the sixth shot of the rally, the opponent will no longer be able to chase down your well-placed shots. But the server must be disciplined not to try to smash an impressive winner prematurely and risk hitting the ball out of bounds or into the net.

In skiing, this means staying true to the successful rhythm you have established. You are arriving on time to each buoy and do not need a big turn or massive cut to stay ahead. However, that wide early look at the ball is so tempting and we feel the desire to do something heroic. If you are the frantic opponent, you need the heroic turn or cut to keep the rally going and overcome your deficit. These low-probability shots sometimes pay off but should only be used when absolutely necessary. If, on the other hand, you are in command of the point, you just need to stay disciplined and hit the routine, high-probability shots that will get you to the exit gate.

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.