I was recently asked to write a chapter on the benefits and costs of sports participation among youth for a new parenting book. It got me thinking about all of the different sports that I have competed in over the years including competing internationally in ski racing (okay, I'm a bit biased), as well as tennis, karate, running, cycling, swimming, and triathlon. I've also thought about the wide range of sports in which I have worked with athletes on sport psychology. That list includes both well-known sports, such as tennis, golf, basketball, baseball, soccer, and ski racing, as well as somewhat esoteric sports (at least in the U.S.) like squash, fencing, diving, and mixed martial arts.
These ponderings led me to think about these sports and the many different demands -- both external and internal -- that they place on athletes. I've come to the conclusion that alpine ski racing is one toughest sport (and could be considered one of the toughest).
Let me preface my argument that alpine ski racing is one of the most demanding sports out there by offering up several others that could be anointed the top honor with my reasoning for why they don't quite make the grade.
The first one that comes to mind is our Nordic cousin, cross-country ski racing. There is little doubt that it may be the most physically demanding sport out there. A few ticks against it include not being very technical compared to some other sports (I'm sure I'm going to get blow back from that statement) and, because of its long duration, racers can recover from mistakes and still do well.
The second nominee goes to mixed martial arts which requires incredible physical strength and stamina with a high tolerance for pain. I disqualify MMA because it is, despite its exposure on television, pretty far outside of the mainstream of youth sports (do you know any teens who are training to be MMA fighters?).
Other sports that might earn a nod include ultrarunning, Ironman triathlon, soccer, and basketball.
I could continue to nominate and then disqualify many sports that are challenging in their own way, but I think it's time to argue my case for why alpine ski racing gets my vote as the most demanding and unforgiving sport.
I'll begin with equipment. Ski racing is an gear-intensive sport (though not quite as much as, say, sailing or car racing, or as inconvenient for traveling as pole vaulting). Of course, you have multiple pairs of skis, all of which need to be tuned with such precision, with edge bevels and base grinds, that only an engineer, much less a teenager, could achieve (no wonder so many fathers are their children's ski technicians). Boots need to fit like very tight gloves which usually means great discomfort and little blood flow. They need to be canted down to millimeters. Bindings need to be adjusted so they are tight enough so you don't pre-release, but not so tight that you can't release when you need to. Then there is all of the other gear, including poles, helmets, armor, and race suits. And have you noticed the price of wax these days? You'd think it was gold! And don't forget about having to lug all of your gear around every day.
Don't forget the physical demands. Though not at grueling as endurance sports, alpine ski racing requires a rare combination of strength, agility, fine motor skills, stamina, and even flexibility. Add in the fact that almost all alpine racers will experience a serious injury (and the painful recovery that is required) at some point in their careers and you have one more reason to believe that alpine ski racing is one demanding and unforgiving sport. Lindsey Vonn can speak to that after her recent crash and injury at the World Skiing Championships.
One thing that really sets alpine ski racing apart from other sports is the conditions in which you have to train and race. Let's start with the weather. It can get really cold out there. The coldest race I was ever in was when I was 13 at Jay Peak in Vermont. It was -42 degrees plus a bitter 20-mph wind. Add in the snow conditions which can range from bulletproof ice to slushy ruts. Of course, race courses are like snowflakes; no two are the same. And don't forget the terrain which can range from a near cliff to flat as a pancake, all in the same race. In sum, the individual conditions that alpine ski racing throws at you are enough to send you off the rails. When you combine all of the possible conditions that you face at a race, you're confronted with a tsunami of challenges to overcome.
These diverse challenges result is levels of uncontrollability and uncertainty that are rare in sports or even life. Consider your preparations for, say, an exam in school. For the most part, everything in the test-taking process is within your control (aside from the test itself). In general, if you are well prepared for the exam, you will do well on it. Now let's compare this mostly controllable situation to ski racing. You can be completely prepared physically, technically, tactically, with your equipment, and mentally for a race, but any one of the conditions I discussed, for example, a gust of wind, piece of ice, or chatter mark, can cause you to make a mistake that results in a DNF or a significant loss of time. You can have had a truly spectacular race run, but that one mistake can mean a slow time and making your effort go for naught (at least in the results; you can still be proud of your skiing).
Speaking of time, in alpine ski racing, time is all that matters and there is not much to play around with. Races are won and lost by hundredths of a second, so every mistake means critical time lost. There are very few sports in which you don't have the opportunity to make up for a mistake (100-meter sprint?). For example, in tennis, you can serve a lot of double faults and still win. In golf, you can plunk several shots in the water, but still have a great round. But in alpine ski racing, one mistake and your race day can be over.
Another thing about ski racing is that it is absolutely objective. Our sport doesn't give style points, there is no judging, and there is excuse line on the results sheet. You get the time you get and that's all that matters at the end of the day. The harshness of time being the only clear criterion of success and the miniscule increments that separate success from failure means that alpine ski racing is an unforgiving sport in which excitement and despair are only moments apart.
Everything I've discussed so far focus on the tangible aspects of our sport, all of which cause alpine ski racing to wreak havoc on you psychologically. It is, by nature, a risk sport meaning the consequences of failure can be dramatic and traumatic. What happens if you strike out in baseball? You feel disappointed. But if you crash in a ski race, you really feel pain! At a recent World Cup downhill in Wengen, Switzerland, the Frenchman Johan Clarey was clocked at 100 mph! Now that is scary!! You need to be supremely confident and trusting of your ability to be willing to take the risks necessary to ski your fastest.
You need to be able to control your anxiety and fear that is caused by two powerful forces. First, as I just mentioned, injury is a caught edge away, so every time you get into the starting gate you must overcome your fear of injury. Almost as powerfully, you must also quell your fear of failure which is just about every racer's deepest fear.
Focus is another mental area that alpine ski racing challenges constantly. Many other sports allow for a lapse in focus without serious consequences. In basketball, a pitcher might throw a wild pitch. In soccer, a forward might have the ball taken away by a defender. In either case, games aren't usually on the line. But in alpine ski racing, a loss of focus can mean, at best, a mistake that costs you a good result and, at worst, a bad fall and even an injury. And alpine ski racing provides you with a myriad of distractions that can easily throw your focus out of kilter. These focus-killers can include internal distractions such as doubts, irrelevant thoughts, emotions, and physical tension. External distractions include the weather, snow conditions, the approaching finish line, and people on the side of the course (have you have seen or heard your parents or coaches on the side of the course as you go by?). If you lose focus for a split second, your race can be over.
Alpine ski racing also takes you for a ride on an emotional roller coaster. You can feel inspiration, excitement, joy, and pride one run and then frustration, anger, despair, and disappointment on the next run. Because you care about ski racing so much, you feel these emotions powerfully and frequently.
Lastly, for the parents of ski racers, alpine ski racing forces on them everything I've just discussed as they experience their children's racing ups and downs vicariously. Just watching your kids in a race is a brutal parenting experience because you want them to do their best and be happy. What makes it so painful for parents is that in wishing the best for their children, parents have little control over what happens to them between the start and the finish.
Oh, and lest I forget, alpine ski racing is a very expensive sport. As my own daughters immerse themselves in the ski racing world as part of the Sugar Bowl (CA) Ski Team, I fantasize about the low cost of sports such as swimming (suit and goggles), running (shorts and shoes), and soccer (a ball). But then I return to alpine ski racing and realize that all of the costs, the conditions, and the physical and psychological demands that are placed on racers have a valuable payoff: determination, confidence, resilience, and, well, just plain toughness. And those attributes will serve them well in school, career, and life.
One last thing. What else in alpine ski racing makes it so demanding and unforgiving? And what other sports do you think are equally or more so?