By Bob Lawrie (as told to Katherine Dolan)
I am an oxymoron.
I am a downhill ski coach from Manitoba.
Yes I know, when you think Alpine you think Alberta or B.C., not Manitoba. But I’ve been a full-time coach in the province for the last 20 years and we’ve seen plenty of talented alpine skiers come through our program. From Yale to Harvard, we’ve had our fair share of young athletes head to the U.S. on NCAA scholarships.
The problem is, Alpine Skiing needs a facelift and I’m not afraid to say it, because change can only make it better. The last massive superstar from Canada in Alpine was Nancy Greene and more recently Eric Guay but he just retired. We need to be as innovative, different, interesting and purposeful in our sport, as coaches, and as an organization so that young athletes get engaged and involved with alpine skiing.
As the program director and head coach for Manitoba Alpine, I work primarily with 14 – 18-year-old athletes helping them as they dip into the waters of international competition for the first time. The great thing about getting involved in alpine is that we are not a one-dimensional sport, in any way. So trying a variety of different sports will make you a better athlete all around, especially in alpine.
One of the questions I do get often is what makes a good alpine skier?
It’s the latest buzz word out there, which essentially is defined as your brains’ ability to adapt to change. In alpine skiing that’s a big factor because the ability to adapt to change and make decisions in a split second is huge. Our sport is three-dimensional and is always changing. The ski conditions are so different from morning to afternoon, one run to the next, snow conditions are changing constantly and you have to be able to make decisions quickly.
Neuroplasticity is good for all young athletes of all sports, so how can you develop it?
Make things fun either as an athlete or as the coach. Keep things light, fun and interesting in all you do so that everyone is engaged. Ask questions don’t just go through the motions. Be respectful of the process, but make sure to continue to ask lots of questions and be inquisitive. And be as innovative as possible, especially if you are a coach. I am certifying younger coaches and I always say, don’t be afraid to look stupid. Try new things, engage your athletes because we need to try something new to keep the sport alive and to produce that next massive superstar.
Are you intrigued? If so, let me tell you how to get involved in alpine OR get your child involved in alpine.
First off, it’s never too early to start and it helps an immense amount the more times you are on snow. Like anything, the more you’re on snow, the better you’ll be at it. We all know the stories of Wayne Gretzky being on the back pond, firing pucks into the garbage cans, only coming in when forced to by his parents late at night. Alpine is the same, get out and get on snow as much as possible.
We are a skill sport, similar to gymnastics, but we need the power, as we are power and skill combined. The reality is that selections for alpine begin when kids are 14, 15 years old, not true selections but the skill is already visible in the athlete. Don’t be discouraged if you start late as I got involved late in the sport, but if you can start early.
From there, girls tend to mature faster than boys. Mikaela Shiffrin is a great example of this. From the U.S. she’s one of the best of all time in terms of victories and was only 17 when she won her first World Cup Race. Most girls achieve their potential at around 19 if they are World Cup driven.
As for males, they typically burst onto the scene around 20. Marcel Hirscher is 30 now and just retired but he made a statement when he was 20, as do most males who hit their stride at 20 or 21. Then as they get older they move towards more speed events like Super G, so they can extend their careers, as there’s not as much pounding on the body.
What I love about coaching in this sport, and is a theme I see from elite athletes through to the developing athletes I work with, is the drive of these young kids. They come from families that are just as driven in their sport and as they are in their lives. It’s a very specific attitude that comes into ski racing as these athletes look for fractions of a difference when it comes to marginal gains. They are continually looking for any way to get ahead of the competition because we measure our sport in hundreds of a second. This drive is rewarding to work with, but also seeing that attitude translate into success later in life, is incredibly fulfilling.
I also appreciate it, because my own personal coaching philosophy is all about excellence. It can scare people away, but excellence to me means doing whatever it is you’re doing, as well as you can. And that isn’t just a philosophy for sport, but truly in life as well. Do as well as you can in the moment and that is your true excellence.
And never say no, to yourself, to me, or to anyone in the program. My biggest pet peeve is when someone says no, because one of the biggest things you can do for yourself is not to settle with no as an answer. If someone says to you no we can’t do that, I will actually exclude them from our team unit and find a way to make it happen.
It takes a lot of mental toughness in our sport, and I see no reason why we can’t make anything happen. You have to find a way to do it and stop at nothing to make it happen. I am not always friends with everyone because of this, but I don’t stop if something is needed, I won’t stop until I get it. For that reason, people love and hate me at times.
So here’s my final words of advice for athletes, parents of athletes and or coaches of young athletes:
You have to love it. Number one. If you don’t love it, it turns into a job and you just go through the motions.
It’s sad to see someone lose that passion, but it’s even worse for those behind you who have that passion and are trying to get past you if you are at the top.
Follow your passion as much as you can, ask questions as much as you can, don’t be disrespectful, but question how things are done to see if you can get better. The more you understand the process, the more you are going to buy into it and the more you are going to love it.
Never take no for an answer.
See you on the slopes,