This was written as a low level U14 coach. As the kids get older and more experienced, obviously time in gates should go up. Age however is not the only factor: some younger kids are better and have good fundamentals and then they should spend more time in gates. My point here is that they should not do so at the expense of their friends. Also, kids should not spend much time in gates with poor technique, as they will only engrain this poor technique.
Here are some immutable principles of practice, to get us started:
The CSCF guidelines specify 50% of time to be spent free skiing and drilling, with the other half split between full gates scrimmage and environment training. See Aim2Win page 38. So, basically, only 25% of the training time should be spent in courses, at 12-14 years of age.
This is about a self-professed lower level racing club, with a focus on making these kids great skiers, in a safe and fun environment.
Even if you're seriously interested in a racing future, I know it from WorldCup-level coaches that at the ages of 12-14, the most critical aspect of a future ski racer is proper acquisition of technical free skiing skills in different snow conditions. Race results do not matter as they have largely no bearing on their future performance at 16 and up.
Excessive gate training breaks ALL of these guidelines.
The current guidelines given in the "Long Term Skier Development" model are based on the age of the skier. But this assumes a good training and proficiency.
While they do mention that coaches should be aware of the distinction between the developmental and chronological age, what about the "skill age"? If a U18 has poor skills and skis technically at the level you'd expect from a well trained U12, either because they started skiing late or got bad coaches, does that mean they should spend 80% of the time on a course? Really?
It's bad enough we waste a lot of good training time, racing too much throughout the season.
It is my firm belief that excessive gates training retards skill acquisition by most skiers. 12 year-olds that do not have good technique, will not acquire it efficiently in gates. Throwing a kid lacking fundamentals at gates in the hope that he will acquire those fundamentals is like banging your head into the wall and hoping that makes you a better coach.
Running courses does one thing well, and that is to build habits. Not technique, but tactics.
If you have bad technique going in, you will have bad technique coming out and not only do you NOT learn something useful, but you INGRAIN something bad. It is extremely hard to correct bad technique than it is to teach new technique!
There is one thing that gates do and do it well: they keep coming at you. No matter if you ski well or bad, they keep coming at you. No matter if you're on the right line or off, they keep coming at you. No matter if you can hold an edge or not, they keep coming at you.
This is why running courses retards skill acquisition: the brain is simply too busy with too much other stuff, to be able to focus on something new. And no, this is not external focus of attention - we're not built to learn to run while chased by a tiger, but while playing or drilling.
You need to slow things down, give the brain time to think it through and feel it. Fail it and correct it. When you fail in a course, the next gate still comes at you and that rut is still there - your brain is too busy keeping the rhythm and making the next gate, to think about the failure and correct it.
Courses have but one external cue: making the gate.
You are told to "coil more". So you go up again and you try to coil more. You spend the entire run, 30 turns, trying to keep your rhythm and make those gates while coiling more. You are certain you did. You get to the bottom and you are told: "coil more". WHAT?
"How do I know I did it? You go faster! Do you time me? Nope! So how will I know? I'll tell you next time you get to the bottom!"
Here's the same thing in an environment with well spaced out stubbies: ski the stubby course, touching each stubby with your butt. You can tell if you coiled properly in each turn, giving you 30 feedback opportunities, not just one. You don't even need a coach, what's more: you coach yourself.
Here's the same thing in a classic drill: touch your outside boot with your outside hand. You can again tell if you did it properly in each turn, giving you 30 feedback opportunities, not just one.
Can you seriously think your brain will learn faster in gates? I, and many training specialists do not!
That's how courses retard skill acquisition!
There are thousands of environment possibilities, which really do teach technique and improve skills: combinations of gates, stubbies, brushes, paints, yelling coaches, dancing bisons etc. Environments are awesome tools for learning.
Next time you see a coach eager to set some gates and just cycle the kids through, ask yourself if he bothered to ever set an environment that showed the kids the proper line? Maybe last year? What about the new kids? Where to start turning? Where to finish the turn? Where to switch edges? Some cues anywhere?
Next time you see a coach eager to set some courses and cycle the kids through, ask yourself if he can actually coach otherwise. Is he bored? Is he motivated?
It takes a great amount of planning and work to coach outside gates:
* need a subject or list of subjects * need an introduction / information session * need a plan, list of drills, well designed to progress to a new skill or advance an existing one * need to adapt and change plan as the success rates go up and down or conditions change * need to keep the kids interested, invent games * design drills that challenge the kids, keep them in the challenge zone * etc
You don't need much planning when running gates... often, it's been my experience that there is no intro session, no conclusion etc.
Next time you see a coach eager to set some gates and just cycle the kids through, ask yourself if he is technically strong and could teach the technical aspects of skiing.
Some parents apparently, equate great skiing with gates and they insist the kids run gates. Some kids have more fun in gates than working on a skill. I hope this can help educate them that free skiing, drills and environments are a lot more useful in creating great skiers than running courses.
If those parents and those lazy kids have their way, they can screw it up for the others, that actually want to work and become great skiers.
As a parent, insist your kid gets enough technical training in free skiing.
As a kid, say "I don't get it - can I do a drill for it?".
Just been through my first season of setting and running gates myself and coaching a bunch of great U14 kids, and man, I gotta tell you: "running gates is overrated".
I know it from myself and others and I see it every day on the hill: it is very difficult for anyone to learn new technique or perfect what they got while just running courses. Those gates just keep coming at you and that ice keeps messing with your balance and those ruts just keep grabbing your skis too much, for you to focus on one NEW technical element. The human brain is simply not built to learn in that environment.
Affectively, more than half of participants (both kids and adults alike) get a "whatever" attitude, since their feedback has not essentially changed throughout the season... "angulate more and be early" of course we try to keep their spirits high, by cycling feedback and look at positives etc, but their skiing hasn't essentially changed throughout the season.
I keep hearing that "some kids improve their skiing over the summer" and "some don't improve much in the season" but I do not agree... it leads to surrendering to "I can't help them either way, so why bother?".
Oh, and "we don't need free skiing and drills, we can create the same situations in gates" - that's just ignoring how the brain learns most efficiently - read above!
Here's what a former Canadian National Team member with decades of coaching and instructing experience has to say about the subject:
Remember, "Practice" (gate training) only serves to produce habits, not technical proficiency . Only "Perfect Practice" gets you what you want. And as many have stated and realized here, coaching is so poor, and most coaches have no idea how to develop skiers through free skiing. Perfect Practice in free skiing, is very hard to come by, if not impossible, so why not train only in gates, because that's all we know how to do.Harald Harb, forum post
Now, I think that's kind of radical, but do ask yourself: do you want to be one of those coaches? Do you want to have a coach like that?
At Spartak, the Moscow tennis club, there is a rule that young players must wait years before entering competitive tournaments. “Technique is everything,” said a coach, Larisa Preobrazhenskaya. “If you begin playing without technique it is big mistake.”Daniel Cole, The Little Book of Talent
Here's more quotes from different pros in other sports:
In the long run, hard skills (technique) matter more than soft skills (tactics). Take it a little bit at a time. This advice works because it accurately reflects the way our brains learn. “It’s not how fast you can do it. It’s how slowly you can do it correctly.”
What's a coach to do? Re-read your manuals, there's tons of guidelines and ideas in there. If they were built for gates training, they'd be 3 pages thick - instead they're 20 times that, and get thicker as you go higher.
In the larger picture, a day [or half day] of ripping up the mountain will still be more important than another five runs in the gates – just ask Julia Mancuso, Olympic double medalist, who finished 3rd in 2010 in the World FreeSki Finals without even trying…David Peszek, USSA, in his blog
If you're really interested, here's some training and practice books I highly recommend (many of the training and brain development ideas mentioned above came from these books):
One good argument for doing more gates in the east coast is the lack of varied terrain and snow conditions. It is hard to keep the kids motivated skiing the featureless and pedicured hardpack every day. Man-made features and environments are a must in these conditions.
Read more drill ideas.
I have some training ideas that combine gates and drills and free ski and I will post them in due time - if interested, stay tuned!