For the past few days I’ve been stalking the Ski Racing site for a piece I have coming out. (Update: It’s up. Read it here!) It’s just some common sense advice Doug Lewis and I put together about choosing a summer ski camp, or choosing not to go to a summer ski camp. It offers thoughts on things to consider, but basically advises people to do what’s best for their own kids.
I’m stalking the site because I’m worried that it won’t come out soon enough. I worry that it worries me so much, but it does because I feel protective of this sport. This sport is vulnerable. I felt it in every one of the panicky calls and emails I got this spring from parents agonizing about the decisions they face: whether to send kids to a summer ski camp and which one/ones to go to; how to rationalize not sending their kids to a ski camp; what to do when their kid got invited to a special camp; what to do when their kid missed the cut for a special camp. All of this anxiety is related to the trend—not only in skiing but in all youth sports—of escalating the commitment and expense at ever younger ages, dictating more conditions on participation, and trying to sell one elite path in the pursuit of sport.
Sure, some of these conversations are just about summer camp, and yet, they are a barometer of the relentless escalation that’s not going to support long term participation. Because we’re on the topic, let’s just look at participation in terms of the summer camp decision. Going to any camp should be fun, whether it’s on snow or at a lake with spidery cabins. It should be an experience, something that feeds your sense of adventure. Your kid, if he or she goes to summer ski camp, should be begging to go, excited to get there and prepared to fully exploit the opportunity of more time on snow with people who share the nutty compulsion to pick mountains and ice over the beaches and water.
It should not feel like punching the clock, or fulfilling an obligation or following a rigid path. I am not sure when all of a sudden every 12-year-old had to go to summer ski camp, and every 15-year-old had to go to multiple camps and that striving to ski 200 days a year on snow became a good idea. It may have shifted that direction when we started calling 12-year-olds “athletes,” drinking a glass of water “hydrating,” and taking a nap “regenerating.” Again, this happens in all youth sports, but the financial commitment in ski racing is so high, that early escalation can knock a kid or a family out of the game in a season.
That reality is what troubles me. Categorically pushing kids and parents into more, more, more is an example of winning the battle but losing the war. Resources are finite, and for many families, whether they realize it at the time or not, summer skiing decisions are about tradeoffs: Could a kid benefit more from a killer mountain bike that supplies multiple summers of fun and strength?; will an extra ski camp mean skimping on next season’s equipment?; is the money and discipline of a summer job more valuable at this stage than 10 days on snow?; will this deny younger kids future experiences?
For those who really want to go to camp and have prioritized the resources for it, summer skiing can be way more than logging days on snow. If the “right” camp with the “right” coaches doesn’t fit your schedule, then it can be a great opportunity to go meet new kids and coaches. Maybe it can wrap in with a really cool family vacation or be a chance to separate siblings who need a little breathing room. When looking at the options think beyond the number of runs per day, and look at the larger experience. As a rule of thumb, choosing a summer camp—of whatever flavor—should not involve pressure.
There are 12-year-olds who would wear their helmets on the plane if it meant getting on snow in July faster, and there are 15-year-olds who would rather play summer baseball than go to a ski camp. Both kids can be equally as committed to the sport. True motivation has less to do with your number of days on snow than with how you maximize those days. Enthusiasm, fresh energy and a desire to improve are what moves you forward. Figuring out how to tap into that—be it by getting stronger, taking a mental and physical break, getting on snow with a new crowd, sticking with your comfortable tribe—will involve a slightly different recipe for everybody.
As a skiing community we should all be less concerned with getting the most days on snow and more concerned with keep families (our own included) in the game. How can we put another kid on skis, or get a kid to stick with the sport another year? We should look for ways to get more people involved for longer instead of blowing them out faster. I know that many parents, myself included, often feel like they stepped onto George Jetson’s treadmill. The natural instinct (when “Jane, stop this crazy thing!” doesn’t work), is to jump off. It would be great if we could help each other make wise, individually relevant decisions rather than pressuring each other to simply run faster; if we could figure out how to make this journey feel less like a make-or-break race and more like a grand and wild adventure.
It’s actually not that hard, but it takes communication. The ski world is small and nobody is very far removed from a resource of sound advice. Ask questions, set priorities, go with your gut. There are so many places to go, things to see, people to meet and ways to achieve at every level of this sport. I think I’m a pretty typical ski parent, in that I want this sport to be a vehicle for my kids. I hope they can use it as a way to channel their energy and focus, yet I hope it never feels like a funnel or a possessed treadmill. So that’s the big picture. In the near term, what I really hope is that every kid out there has the best summer ever.