“Bring shape to the gate;” “move to the apex;” “you’re pinching the line;” “you need more direction;” or, my favorite; “take it deep!”
Anyone who has spent time around ski racing has heard the above comments time and time again. Tactics are critical to speed and control in ski racing. I reached out to a handful of World Cup athletes and coaches to get their perspective on tactics.
What are tactics?
plural noun: tactics
1. an action or strategy carefully planned to achieve a specific end.
Marco Sullivan: “I think that everything starts with tactics. In order for a skier to perform technically well, they need to tactically put themselves in the right position.”
Laurenne Ross: “As far as tactics are concerned, I compare ski racing to race car driving or biking (road, mountain, motorcycle, etc.). If you take the correct line, you give yourself the opportunity to generate or maintain much more speed.”
Are tactics important? Why?
Ian Lochhead: “Tactics are incredibly important. The line you are on will ultimately determine whether you are fast or slow. Mostly everything you work on technically is just to allow you to ski on a fast line while minimizing mistakes. We see all sorts of different techniques on the World Cup and there are a lot of different ways to make your ski bend, but if you are on a slow line, you are slow, period.”
Steve Nyman: “Tactics are huge in ski racing, especially in speed. In speed, tactics play a bigger role in your race because you ski more of the hill than the gates. I like to say, “the gates shouldn’t determine where the apex of your turn is,” you have to read the terrain and conditions. I like to look at the hill and read how and where I will gain max speed, and I have to adjust my tactics to get to that max speed.”
How do World Cup athletes develop balance?
Lochhead: “We spend tons of time discussing and working on tactics. It's such a fine balance of finding a line where you can hopefully minimize mistakes but still be pushing the limit. Ultimately, the goal is to go as straight and clean as possible while keeping pressure in the fall line. There's always a new scenario to try to master. There's basic principles that work, but to be really good, you always have to make minor adjustments to your line to fit the situation.”
Nyman: “Mostly through trial and error, visual analysis, and coach’s wisdom. Your coaches can mention what they think is right, but you have to believe it yourself and try it out. Over years of experimentation and learning, your knowledge will grow, your decisions will become more accurate, and your confidence will become more solid.”
Are bad tactics generally a result of technical problems or do you think it is primarily a lack of tactical understanding?
Lochhead: “I guess it's different for everyone. There are definitely cases where, even if a racer understands what they should be doing tactically, they aren't able to because their technique won't support it. Other times, I think it’s a lack of understanding or not having the experience or knowledge to adjust to different kinds of snow or course setting.”
Nyman: “Bad tactics are usually from a lack of understanding on a few fronts. It could be truly a tactical miscalculation, but also a lack of understanding of technique can bring you into a bad tactical situation. If you don’t have a solid technique that isn’t reliable and you don’t know the tempo of your turn, it would be hard to make proper tactical judgments. Having a good understanding of technique is the first building block of good tactical decisions.”
Why do you think tactics are such a difficult thing to teach?
Lochhead: “I think it's so hard because the teacher, or the coach, isn't skiing. We don't see what the racer sees, and I think that vision aspect is a little bit different for everyone. Telling someone to go straighter or to bring more shape or release sooner is interpreted a little bit differently for everyone. For the racer as well: watching video of your line is so different from skiing and having the POV of what is actually happening. A lot of times it looks a lot different on video than it looked or felt while they were skiing.”
Ross: “Tactics are difficult to teach because they are intellectual concepts that many athletes are not fully aware of. The benefits of tactics are often overlooked, especially as young racers, and tactical wisdom requires experience in many conditions: different courses, snow consistencies, terrain, weather, etc. It takes time and focus to learn about tactics, neither of which every racer seems to have.”
How can coaches develop and improve the understanding and execution of tactics?
Lochhead: “Looking at the rut or looking at tracks is something that people don't do enough of. Take a couple runs and do a re-inspection once there are grooves in the snow. Look at where the line is and where the pressure is, discuss it, and go ski it some more.”
Andrew Weibrecht: “I think that an understanding of tactics is easy. Execution of tactics is really tough, and that's where I see the other two aspects of skiing coming into play (technical and mental). To put tactics simply, it's mostly about hitting certain points (physically on the course) and then from that point using the technical skill to move through the turn. However, without the requisite technical skill, you cannot physically hit these points, and, without the proper mental clarity, you cannot see/understand where these points are.”
I hope you enjoyed these comments as much as I did. My takeaways: tactics are crucial to speed in ski racing, and tactical ability comes from a combination of technical ability, proper coaching, experience, and confidence.