WHY YOUNG TALENTED SKI RACERS FAIL AND EVENTUALLY QUIT RACING


The impetus for the subject of this post came from interest in my post FEATURE POST: MIKAELA SHIFFRIN: THE POWER OF SHEAR FORCE and an article (1) in the  February 14, 2017 edition of Ski Racing by sports psychologist, Dr. Jim Taylor.

Taylor’s article is aimed at U14 and younger ski racers. He points out that this is the age where the foundations are laid which often determine how well a racer does and especially how long they will remain in ski racing. Taylor cites statistics that show that qualifying for Topolino or Whistler Cup (international competitions for 13-15 year olds) isn’t highly predictive of success even five years later. Specifically, only 25% of those who qualified for those race series later earned a spot on the USST. Moreover, 35% were off the elite ski racing radar within four years; some before their 18th birthday. The problem, that is the focus of Taylor’s article, is that parents enter what he calls the “too” zone, where the parents of kids, who are 11 years old or younger, have become “too” important to the parents who have become “too” invested in how their kids do (or don’t do).

The question I have is what events preceded parents getting to the “too” zone? I have seen more than one situation where a child who started ski racing at a very young age and who would be considered a child ski racing prodigy, had a promising career unravel soon after they reached their teens. Why? What, changes happened that could have caused this tectonic shift?

Let’s go back to beginning when the racer first showed promise. Many racers demonstrate prowess when they are only 4 or 5 years old. Often, one or both parents are elite skiers. One of both may have raced. So their child has an excellent role model. As a result, the child quickly becomes comfortable following one of their parents down the ski hill. But there are also some important factors in their favour when a child is young;

  • They are light weight.
  • They are short in stature.
  • Their muscles and skeleton are not yet fully developed.
  • Their feet are small.

A significant factor is that young racers often learn to ski in their mother’s ski boots or boots that would be considered too big for their feet if they were older. The implications? Young racers acquire a kinesthetic sense of how to stand in their boots in what I call the SR Stance (3 to 10). As a consequence, they learn to utilize the mycostatic reflex balance response.

The authors of the Polish study on skier balance (2) note that three types of postural reactions to the loss of the body’s balance can be observed.

  1. The first reaction is the mycostatic stretch reflex, which appears in response to changes in the position of the ankle joints, and is recorded in the triceps surae muscles. This is the earliest mechanism, which increases the activity of the muscles surrounding the joint that is subject to destabilisation. The reflex caused by a mycostatic stretch reflex causes its contraction, which then results in the stiffening of the surrounding joints as a response to the stimulus that has disturbed the balance. For example, changes in the angle of the joints of the lower limbs are followed by a reflexive (fascial) tensioning of the adjacent muscles. The subsequent release of the reaction prevents an excessive mobility of the joints and stabilises the posture once again.
  2. The next reflex in the process of balancing is the balance-correcting response, which appears in response to a strongly destabilising stimulus. This reaction has a multi-muscle range, and occurs almost simultaneously in the muscles of the lower limbs, torso and neck, while the mechanisms that initiate the reaction are centrally coordinated.
  3. The last of the three types of muscular reactions is the balance-stabilising response. In a situation of a sudden loss of balance, a stretch reflex first occurs and then is followed by a balance correcting response, which prevents a fall.

I call these responses green (1), orange (2) and red (3).

As young racers enter their teens, a number of significant changes have occurred.

  1. They are much heavier.
  2. They have grown in height
  3. Their muscles and skeleton are more developed.
  4. Their feet have grown larger and are more defined.

It is about this time in what is appearing to be a child’s promising racing career, that parents turn to the experts in a well intended effort to maximize their child’s chances of success. One of the key things parents often do is to get race boots for their child and have them customized with footbeds, form-fit liners and increasingly, heat molded shells. The process typically involves race fit which is downsizing ski boots to the smallest possible shell that the feet can be squeezed into. Custom footbeds or orthotics are integral to race fit because they prevent the foot from spreading and elongating; they prevent the fascial tensioning that enables the mycostatic reflex associated with ultra high speed spinal reflex balance response (11).

No longer able to use the mycostatic reflex (Green = Normal) balance response, the CNS shifts to Level 2 (Orange = Caution) or even Level 3 (Red = DANGER).

What happens next? The young racer starts to become intimidated by courses and conditions they were previously comfortable with. When this happens, their brain senses imminent danger of serious injury or worse and resorts to what I call the Survival Technique. Survival becomes the priority at the expense of speed. Racers start losing ground to other racers. Not understanding the cause, parents and coaches start pushing the child in an effort to get results. The more the child tries, the worse things get. When this happens, frustration sets in. Eventually, the child no longer wants to race. Defeeted by their boots, the child eventually and takes up soccer or some other sport.

Unfortunately, this story is all “too” common. This is also one of the “toos”.


  1. What Young Ski Racers Need – http://www.drjimtaylor.com/4.0/young-ski-racers-need-dont-need/
  2. Influence of a nine-day alpine ski training programme on the postural stability of people with different levels of skills  (April 2016, Biomedical Human Kinetics (DOI: 10.1515/bhk-2016-0004) – Michał Staniszewski, Przemysław Zybko and  Ida Wiszomirska,  Józef Piłsudski University, Warsaw, Poland.
  3. THE SR STANCE: SURFACE EFFECTS,
  4. THE SR STANCE AND TOTAL BODY CORE INTEGRATION
  5. SR STANCE: ROUNDING THE BACK AND SHOULDERS
  6. THE SR STANCE: AFFECT OF JOINT ANGLES ON COM
  7. LEARN THE SR STANCE IN 3 EASY STEPS
  8. SR: ACHILLES-ARCH TENSION
  9. SR STANCE BASICS: ECCENTRIC MUSCLE POWER AND THE STRETCH REFLEX
  10. I-C-E: SR
  11. INNATE FLOW BALANCE