FROM SKIS TO SADDLES TO SWINGS, SPORTS SHARE
SOME BASIC PRINCIPLES BY BILL MCCOLLOM
I happened to listen in on a training session the other day. The
veteran coach was bursting with energy, focused on his athletes
and working with a purpose as he arranged the warm-up course.
He first asked both athletes what they wanted to achieve from this
session. Once he was confident everyone was on the same page,
the athletes started taking laps on the course.
“Maintain your rhythm and keep it regular,” he said to one athlete.
As the other athlete came through the series of drills, the coach
shouted: “Look ahead, think ahead, be balanced, keep going forward! Focus! Perfect practice makes perfect!”
All the input was positive and filled with words such as “tempo,
balance, focus, eyes up, stay quiet, be supple.”
After 20 minutes on the warm-up course, the coach then shouted
out to his athletes: “All right, now bring your horses over here, and
we’ll set up a full jumping course.”
Yes, this was a horseback riding coach. But he could just as easily have been on the ski hill. Or the tennis court. The messages
would have been very similar. It seems there are sets of common
rules that apply to learning physical skills, tactical strategies and
mental approaches for all sports. The jargon may differ and the
training methods will certainly vary, but when it comes to master-
ing movement, the messages are remarkably similar.
“Regularity” is the buzzword in the riding world, “tempo” is more
common in golf, and “rhythm” is often the word of choice in ski-
ing. Proficient athletic movements are smooth, graceful, and flu-
id. In their most highly evolved form, they seem effortless, much
like Roger Federer floating around the tennis court as if he had
wheels on his sneakers, or Ted Ligety darting in and out of giant
slalom gates without a trace of excess movement.
The images encouraging smooth, athletic movements are plenti-
ful. I once overheard a ski racing coach explaining to his student:
“You have to squeeze on the pressure to make a good GS turn,
just like you were squeezing toothpaste onto your toothbrush.
You’re squeezing the tube so hard it’s going to squirt all over the
Another golfing friend used to mutter “super fluid” before each
swing. The movie “Caddyshack” brought the reminder “be the
ball” to the sports world, and of course it was Mohammed Ali who
famously coined the phrase, “Float like a butterfly, sting like a
Back in the training session, the riding instructor then set up a
series of jumps at seemingly random intervals. Some of the jumps
were so tight there was hardly space for the horse to land before
taking off again. The first rider on course jumped too deep into
one combination and smacked into the second jump, scattering
rails across the grass. Upon releasing her grip on the horse’s
neck and sliding back into the saddle, she emitted a squeak: “But
my horse has never done this before.”
The coach bellowed: “Well, he’s done it now, and he’ll do it some
more. If you only practice what you’re good at, how are you going
to be good at anything else? Right? Expand your comfort zone!
Solving new questions takes lots and lots of time and repetition.”
The coach had hit upon yet another couple of universal axioms
for the sports world — there is no place for negativity and learning
new skills takes time.