Perfect practice is often misinterpreted. Coaches trying to make practice perfect measure all their
gates and set the same course within a tight range of parameters. This is not perfect practice. Perfect practice is the skier’s intent of trying to be perfect while in an imperfect environment. Sets that
are difficult, whether it’s the distance between gates, the horizontal dimension, or the terrain or snow
surface, all provide opportunities for perfect practice. While not good on the ego, these courses are
good for the skiing.
Angle of repose
The angle of repose is a geologic term used to describe the incline that results when a material is left
to pile up on top of itself. Children playing in the sand at the beach intuitively understand this angle
when they try to make a pile of dry sand. They quickly figure out that if the sand pile is going to be
high it also needs to have a broad base.
Figure 1: Angle of repose. A broader base of skills allows
for a higher level of technique.
Technique is a lot like the sand. If the ski racer wants his or her technique to reach a high level, they
will need a very broad base. The base of technique is skills, and solely focusing on technique won’t
broaden the base. When ski racers keep training on similar courses, their improvement slows down.
They may have their 10,000 hours but without deliberate practice they will not improve.
Skills are improved by skiing courses of differing dimension, or skiing the course on one ski or a
myriad of drills and exercises. A good rule of thumb is that if the task is difficult, do it. It is common
for a typical training session to mostly emphasize race-like skiing and sets. The athlete would benefit
more by attempting difficult sets and challenging drills. Anything that is difficult for the athlete will
improve skills, while any task that is easy is just beating a dead horse.
You are no better than your skills
At age 50, Phil Mahre decided to make a comeback to ski racing. Not an easy task, but Phil Mahre is
not your average retired ski racer. He won the overall World Cup three times in a row while winning
27 World Cup races. You could say he had a lot of hay in the barn. His skill set was still quite deep in
spite of his long hiatus. The graph in Figure 2 shows Phil over the two seasons during his comeback.
He had 19 GS starts and 15 finishes. Even after 25 years of non-competitive skiing he skied at a
very high level. What is interesting is that adding starts did not see his points decrease. It takes only
two results to create a point profile,
and Phil pretty much had an accurate profile after two finishes. At 50,
he was a solid 60-point skier. Just
like any other athlete, this was not
going to change unless he changed
something in the training. The trend
line in Figure 2 shows this.
Figure 2: Phil Mahre’s 15 GS fin-
ishes on the horizontal axis and
FIS points on the vertical axis.
Becoming faster and lowering points requires deliberate practice — practice that emphasizes skills.
Running more gates will only take the ski racer so far. If you’re a 60-point skier, you’re a 60-point
skier. Something has to change in the underlying skill set if the technique is going to improve. More
practice without being deliberate and increasing the skill set will not see much change in your point
profile. If you think the course is bad and should be reset, then it is actually the course you should be
training on. This is when your body will learn, and summer is the time for this. If the course is easy,
your learning will be minimal.
The way to Carnegie Hall is with practice. But it also goes through the trials and tribulations of Hamburg. Deliberate practice that emphasizes skills will build your pile of technique sand to a high level.
If you want to change, you must change something in your training. The road to Sochi may just go
through Mount Hood, Mammoth, and the Southern Hemisphere training areas. Summer is the perfect time for this change. Note: Ron Kipp is the USSA Alpine Sport Education Manager.