One of the most frequently asked questions alpine racers ask coaches is “Why am I so slow?” It is also a major source of an athlete’s frustration and parental concern.

Skiers could wear the same outer wear, have the same skis, make the same moves on snow, train equally hard, have the same coach, pay the same fees and yet they get stuck in 60-point range for years or display slower progress to their goals than the rest of their peers. The reasons for this stagnation are very individual from skier to skier and to a large degree it is related to age, body strength composition and somatotype. For junior skiers in particular, strength development could vary from year to year due to growing process.

There are also a number of factors involving the tactical and technical aspects of skiing, which are the more often focused on factors in the growth or stagnation of an athlete, and each has been studied, analyzed. Things like line, transition, pressure, timing, inclination, stance, center of mass, stiffness of boots and skis, cant, bevel, wax, etc. All of this has to be examined for an individual athlete.

Some other factors that play into speed – tasks, like waxing and tuning – are handled by coaches or parents for young skiers and will later become the athlete’s responsibility.

At some point the individual will reach a certain level of physical maturity and should be at what coaches call the “baseline”. It is the “check point” and a point at which athletes can be compared with peers of the same age. The first year of an athlete’s ability to compete in the FIS system is one of those comparison points used by many, including the U.S. Ski Team and College programs. Although, it has changed slightly with the new FIS changes this year, by in large at the junior level many decisions and selections are based on an athlete’s FIS point profile. The first four years of FIS competition is critical to determine next four, or more. For parents, the first year of FIS competition is also the time to ask “How is my investment doing?” Sometimes, the even tougher question is “Is this the right sport for my kid?” Parents analyze whether or not their athlete is on the right track after 10-plus years of racing and assess what are the chances of advancing to the senior level?The athlete’s twenty-first birthday is the deadline for NCAA Division 1 college enrollment. Some individuals can be talented and lucky and make the U.S. Ski Team or a Collegiate program earlier, while some push it all the way to critical point.

Alpine skiing is one of most diverse sports combining strength, agility, speed, balance and of course mental qualities. Having two runs, sometime three hours apart and a five-month long season of competition and you have to add endurance to the equation.

In other words, examining the simple and profuse question “Why am I so slow?” requires looking at an extensive range of factors. The most important one of these factors however is strength.

As the sport has progressed and before carving turns became the rule, strength was not as critical. Modern skiing however, has become a strenuous sport. In fact, strength is a key element and here comes the real question when examining the speed of an athlete:“How does an alpine skier handle the forces?”

The giant slalom turn serves best to explore the question.

The desired scenario is a clean turn, on a firm surface, executed over a turning radius as prescribed by the radius of a given ski.

Ideally, it will be an efficient and fast turn executed with proper technique. This ideal turn will require racers to handle the biggest forces. To measure such a force is very difficult task and a number of methods have been employed with more or less success.The closest we can get is to say the ideal turn can generate G2+ force.

Strength and weakness is a common term for many forms of physical and mental qualities. In sport, strength refers mostly to an ability to master the task. In skiing, it is the ability to resist forces, which combine gravity, centrifugal forces and body mass.

Strength also takes into account a combination of “power and weight” which enables the body to handle space and time in an efficient way. Light frame and a strong engine is the number one rule for any speed sports.The ratio is critical to success.

The bottom line is this: the fastest skier is the one who handles the forces generated by turning around gates, better and in the most efficient way.It is a mater of both strength and technical skills.A lack of strength and technique would force a skier to compromise the radius, thus get slower.Excessive strength without a fine juggling of the center of mass would have the same result. Skill without strength would have an equal outcome. But, if you took two skiers of equal skill and mental fortitude and one was a well-conditioned, physically strong athlete and the other was less strong, the stronger athlete will always be faster.

Skiers these days are developing technically, but are often compromising speed because they are not strong enough. We all are familiar with the picture of the GS gate after the race, where the line leading to the apex is fairly identical and on exit the from the turn, it spreads into broad spectrum.Somewhere in that spectrum is the ideal line. Sharp and firm. A few skiers over-estimated the entry to the next turn and got too high, most likely coming that way from the previous turn, already in slower speed.Most of them however could not resist the force in the end of the turn and got pushed out of the line, lost the edge of the ski and skidded the turn or had to open the radius to lessen the force. That is where the speed has been compromised.

Being efficient requires clean execution of a turn with a dynamic body being still able to absorb bumps and ruts. For example, imagine a 450cc dirt bike and a Harley Davidson on a rough twisted road. In a ski race we can see a whole range of executions from stiff, static stance on both legs, to an ability to handle all forces on a dynamic single leg. The last is not necessary a standard situation, but good to have it in arsenal because it wins the race.

This time of year, it is good to remember the importance of strength in the trajectory of an athlete at any level. From a coaching perspective, on-snow time in the summer is widely seen as a “must” and parents are convinced that it is a good investment. However, there is not a substitute for a strength training. It needs to be consistent and year-round. The quality of summer strength training can accelerate technical development in the first weeks of fall on-snow training far more than going through the motions after spending the summer making laps in the southern hemisphere.

There is also an important mental factor to be considered. “Load and rest” is a fundamental principle of any training and should apply to both physical and mental aspects of training. To take a break from skiing helps to reboot the system and adjusts for better focus in needed time. It is also a time to catch-up with the strength and conditioning.

This could be an answer to the original question.

Coach’s Corner is a newly resurrected, co-operative column that runs periodically. 

Article Tags: Dispatches, Dispatches - Coaches Corner, Opinion, Premium

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Richard Rokos
Head Coach University of Colorado Skiing
- Now in his 28th season as the University of Colorado’s head coach and his 31st overall year at the school, Richard Rokos has guided his team to eight NCAA titles and his Buffaloes have won individual titles (42 total) in 18 different years.
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