If you think of a recreation skier at the start of a marvelous day, the image that comes to mind is likely to be a familiar one—the temperature just right, the sun up for two hours or so, the trees brilliant white under a new snowfall and a whole wide slope of powder stretching out ahead. But if someone stood beside this hypothetical recreation seeker on this perfect slope and told him over and over that he must do this, or do that, or do something else, because otherwise he would not get the most out of his skiing, one main ingredient in the magic of his world would disappear. He would very likely ski better, but regardless of whether he did or did not, a certain amount of the pleasure and satisfaction that would otherwise have been his would now have been taken away.
To a greater extent than is generally recognized, some such hard-sell philosophy of ski training for competitors has become the fashion in this country—and scarcely a voice has been raised against it. For example, it was authoritatively stated recently that the rigorous training that our present Olympic skiers followed "must be copied by each organized racing program everywhere." And what did the training program of the American Olympic team include? Well, on the physical side, there was a daily regimen of tire-course running, high-speed rope jumping, bar workouts, a long mountain hike, wind sprints, full-speed foot races up steep embankments and group exercises with intricate steps—twists, straddles and stomps—performed by the entire troupe with all the precision of ballet dancers. The purpose of this "exhaustion technique," as it is called, is to force the racer to push himself on after he thinks he is exhausted, to show him that he is really able to do more than he thought he could do.
The only questions that interest the present-day theoreticians of the sport are those involved in getting the racer into the starting gate, down the slope and across the finish line as a winner. This is the goal of all the planning and all the training. It is the dominant philosophy in ski competition right now and it could hardly be simpler: win, win, win. The most serious aspect of this is that this hard sell is by no means limited to top-level competition. The same attitude is found in school and club competition—programs that involve thousands and thousands of youngsters from 7 to 17 years old, youngsters who are not ready to face this kind of physical and emotional test.
This new attitude represents a great change in American competitive skiing, and I think it is at least worth wondering for a moment whether or not the change is for the best.
Whatever else American ski racing may have been in the past, it was above all spontaneous. You raced because you loved it, and whatever you achieved came from within yourself. Perhaps because there were so few American skiers—and so little attention was given the meets that were held—a young beginner usually found himself in an atmosphere of casual goodwill with his elders right from the start. Often his elders knew no more about skiing than he did. But now the training of a typical junior team is a matter of barked commands, learning by rote and doing the same thing over and over. And too often you find youngsters coming off the slopes with their eyes glazed with weariness and a sense of inadequacy after the sort of afternoon that, under different training circumstances, could have been among the most exhilarating of their youth.
Winning is one of the pleasures of skiing, as it is of all sports, but there is a subtle difference about winning a ski race that separates it from most of the competitive efforts of mankind. The act of winning itself—even an Olympic medal—is incredibly brief. It takes only a few seconds, the briefest possible fragment of one's lifetime and an appallingly short period to be set as the goal of all one's efforts. But, according to the hard-sell philosophy, all training, mental and physical, must be directed toward it.
Even the most vehement advocate of the hard sell would not argue that the winning instant is the whole of the victor's winning experience. There have been millions of split-second efforts, moves and decisions before it. The win is merely the culmination of many flying hours, or of so many racing days and months and years, concentrated at a point that sums up the individual's character and mastery of ski technique. The theoreticians of the hard sell say that all those past experiences must be directed to one end—winning.
It is at this point that I strongly disagree. I feel that all the past experiences have their own intrinsic value, that their significance is not contingent on their leading to victory. Those experiences represent moments of elation, hours of exhilaration, days of release and relaxation, the joy of discovery and the thrill of competition. They also involve, for that matter, leaden days of sluggish performance when nothing goes right, periods of hopelessness when one gives up the whole business and the astonishing rediscovery of pleasure when all goes well again. Those past experiences have not only made the skier a winner, they have been woven into the very fabric of his consciousness, making him what he is—and will become—not only as a performer but as a person. Thus what seems to me to be vitally important is to get the skier into the starting gate—yes—and through the finish, and then out into the world with all that has gone before serving as a meaningful part of his daily existence. This does not happen if all you do is ski to win.
Along with the tremendous increase in popular interest in skiing during the past few years there has been a proliferation of ski literature defining and refining what the skier must do. Experts are everywhere. Competition is tougher. Equipment is better. All such changes have created a condition in which the ski expert flourishes. And because the level of competitive performance is improved, the experts' theories seem to be justified. But I wonder if cause and effect have not become a little confused here. There is an absolute necessity for a competitive skier to be in top physical condition—no one could argue otherwise. The question is how he is to be given his physical training. In the case of training at the junior level, it is a question of what is to be done to make him want to receive it. The exhaustion technique is just what its name implies, a matter of forcing the skier to push himself beyond his known endurance. Now, if you can instill in the individual the desire to do this for himself, without the authoritative voice ordering him to do this or that, he will achieve the same end, but he will have done it for himself. It is the forcing that is wrong and potentially dangerous. Encouraging an individual's desire, instead of compelling him to a predetermined condition, will make him just as good a competitor, and yet will let him retain his own zest for the sport.
The danger, obviously, is that we may be depriving the individual of his own urge for accomplishment. I believe, in fact, that we are cheating today's young skiers of one of the greatest rewards of competition: the thrill of self-discovery. I remember a race at Lake Placid in the early '40s. I was 10 or 11, but I was racing in a senior girls' event. In those days we drove from our home in Vermont to Lake Placid on Friday afternoon, unbundled ourselves and climbed up the course in preparation for Saturday's race. On the way up I made my first conscious effort to analyze myself, and I acquired my first self-knowledge. There was a steep, steep hill, which you climbed. You approached the hill from a relatively flat piece of country, and then, above the flat, and a little above the lip of the steep hill, was an island of trees. No matter how you looked at it, you had to go down the steep pitch. I knew where I wanted to be on the steep pitch. I knew where I wanted to be when I got off it, and I could see where I wanted to come into it. But then as I climbed higher, I found I could no longer see the steepness. Climbing up I could see it, but at the crest, looking down, the face fell away and the steepness disappeared before my eyes. In other words, I would not be able to see the lip of the pitch. But I knew it was there. And I knew I would now have to make myself go over something that I could not see, regardless of whatever hesitancy I might feel at the moment. I suddenly thought that the only thing that stops you from doing what you know you should do is lack of confidence, a certain disbelief that you can do it. I knew I had to make up my mind to come into this steep pitch with good speed and force myself to go over it even though I could not see it ahead of me. I would have to remember that I had seen it once on foot and that I knew it was there. I said to myself, "Look, this is where you are going to go over this thing and this is how you are going to go over it." In the race the next day I came down full-bore out, flashing past the trees and into the steep pitch with nary a thought of checking. I was young and dumb and happy and as pleased as punch with myself as I went yodeling down the hill.