I ran Rossignol’s race program in the 70’s. Vividly recall inviting Honore Bonnet (Vice Lombardy of French ski racing) to a coaches seminar in Boulder for a review of coaching concepts. The Swedish team was coming on strong and Thomas Carlson gave a very in depth review of highly technical principles including muscle biopsies to predetermine athletic performance. Bonnet on the other hand gave a simple and logical approach that led me to believe he had the answer. He simply stated that in order to become a proficient skier one had to ski. He started by saying that athletes no matter how strenuous their dry land training, without exception always had stiffness when first getting on snow. This led him to believe that to be in skiing shape one had to ski into shape. At the beginning of each season he would find the best snow and terrain and have his team just free ski for endless vertical on all types of snow. He would log in the vertical and how his skiers felt and only after they had “skied themselves into skiing shape” would he let them run gates. This was the approach with the French team and they dominated the early years of World Cup racing like few countries since.

In the ensuing years I have seen a greater and greater emphasis on more and more gate training at the expense of free skiing. The end product is a racer who can ski. My observation over many years is that a skier who can race will always beat a racer who can ski. Many years ago I read a great Wayne Gretzky interview when asked where did he learn all his unique skills. Amazingly he stated that most of it was learned by himself playing “pond hockey”. Endless hours just skating by himself trying new things. Michala Shiffren’s father closely monitored her free skiing vrs gate training and racing starts during her formative years and the end product speaks for itself. At the very young level there is way too much gate training and way too many race starts. This dramatically reduces the amount of vertical a skier can accumulate during a season and will have a long term impact on the ability of a skier to reach their full race potential in later years in my opinion.

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While at an Aspen World Cup with then Ski School Director Curt Chase I recall standing on Ruthie’s Run watching the racers free skiing prior to the race. The visual was remarkable. You did not need a stop watch to see who were the most proficient on snow. Over the years whether it was the Mahres, Tamara McKinney, Bode Miller, Cindy Nelson, Christin Cooper, or Machela Shiffrin, they all are phenomenal free skiers who when plying their trade within gates naturally find the most efficient and fastest line down the hill.

The US has now lost its way in new talent development in my opinion. The natural approach is to do more of what we are doing, hoping this will reverse this negative trend. It is time to totally tear up our development formula and start anew with the simple premise that we will develop the finest all terrain, on any snow skiers. Rest assured they will also be the racers that will be first down the mountain.

— John Douglas
Stowe, Vt.
Mount Mansfield Ski Club

This letter was submitted in response to the article, Fall Line: Exploring North American development — what are we missing? Have some thoughts on this? Send a letter to the editor. If it’s good, we’ll publish it.

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2 COMMENTS

  1. Well said! Now let’s see if we can get parent, athlete, coach and USSA buy in. I hear much lip service given but reality remains gates gates gates race race race – and that’s for the U 10’s and 12s

  2. Good to hear from you, John! Here’s a story to support your theory.
    The winter of 1976 was my first on the US “C” team, and I was renamed to the team for the following winter. In the fall I attended Dartmouth, and In the late fall, the US Team was training at Killington, prior to the Holiday Classic races to be held there. I drove over from Hanover to ski there whenever I could, but against the coaches’ wishes, I didn’t run gates. I didn’t feel that I was skiing well enough yet. I free skied GS all over the mountain, working diligently on my turns. By the day before the first race, I was running on all cylinders, and ready to run GS gates, but there was no course! The team was taking a rest day, and the Cascade race trail was closed. So I tried to prepare mentally for a GS on Cascade, a steep, long, solid ice course, where I had never trained or raced before, having skied zero gates.
    Race day, I drew bib number 1, not what I would have wished for under the circumstances. But I knew I was skiing well, so I hoped that within 10 gates, I could find my line and timing. It took about 5 gates. I was second or third on the first run, won the second run, and was second in the race.

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