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, aimed at U14 and younger ski racers, 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 the 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 was considered to be a child ski racing prodigy, had a promising racing career unravel soon after reaching their teens. Why? What, changes happened that could have caused such a tectonic shift?

Let’s go back to beginning when a 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 and one or both may have raced. In such a situation a young racer would have had an excellent role model that would have helped them  become comfortable by following one or both of their parents down the ski hill. But there are also other important factors in a young racer’s favour:

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

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 (stretch relfex) Stance (3. to 10.). As a consequence, they acquire dynamic stability that provides superior edge and ski control while enabling the myotatic stretch reflex balance response.

The authors of a Polish study on skier balance (2.) cite three types of postural reactions to external forces that disturb equilibrium and can cause the body to lose balance can be observed.

  1. The first reaction is the myotatic 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 a joint that is subject to destabilization. Spinal  reflex triggered by the myotatic stretch reflex response causes the muscle to contract resulting 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 adjacent muscles. The subsequent release of the reaction prevents 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 is evoked in response to a strongly destabilising stimulus. This reactive response 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 reaction is the balance-stabilising response. In a situation of a sudden loss of balance, a myotatic stretch reflex first occurs and is then is followed by a balance correcting response, which prevents or attempts to prevent a fall.

I call these balance responses green (postural reaction 1), orange (postural reaction 2) and red (postural reaction 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 what is called race fit wherein ski boots are downsized to the smallest possible shell that the feet can be squeezed into. Custom footbeds or orthotics are considered an essential integral component of race fit because they prevent the foot from spreading and elongating. But this actually interferes with or even prevents the fascial tensioning process that enables dynamic stability and the myotatic reflex associated with the ultra high speed spinal reflex balance response (11).

No longer able to use the myotatic 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 of the CNS at the expense of speed. Racers start losing ground to lesser racers. Not understanding the cause, parents and coaches can 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. Defeated by their boots, the child eventually quits ski racing and takes up 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