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There once was a seven-year-old boy whose parents enrolled him in ski school at their local Utah hill. When the boy was nine, he tried out for the Park City Ski Team and didn’t make it. Disappointed because most of his friends were on the race-focused team, he continued with ski school. “The next year, he qualified for the ski team’s Devo program and became a strong, all-mountain skier,” says the boy’s mother, Cyndi Sharp. That boy is two-time Olympic gold medalist Ted Ligety, currently one of the best giant-slalom skiers in the world.
To be sure, ski racers like Ted Ligety and Mikaela Shiffrin are exceptional athletes who demonstrate a great work ethic and drive. However, they learned similar fundamentals early in their careers. “Ligety and Shiffrin are so skilled on their skis that they are able to react to difficult situations by adjusting and getting back in balance,” says Jeb Boyd, director of the Arc2Arc Alpine Training Center at Cannon Mountain, N.H.
As an instructor and coach, Boyd thinks the decision to move from ski school to a race program depends on where the child is developmentally and what makes sense for the family. “There shouldn’t be any pressure to get your kid in a race program early, because both ski schools and race clubs spend their time developing fundamental skills—it’s the application that’s different.” If your child can ski most terrain but still needs lots of personal attention, then continuing with lessons may be the best plan. But if she expresses a desire to race and can follow directions and ski independently, then she may be a race-program candidate.
“In ski racing, there is a high demand for self-organization, ” says Rika Moore, head Youth Ski League coach for Ski and Snowboard Club Vail. “During gate training, athletes circulate on their own and report back to the start. This freedom comes with the responsibility to get as many runs as possible without goofing off.”
Though Ted Ligety was not a standout racer until his late teens, he developed a great love for the sport during his early years. His parents were supportive but stayed in the background. “The decision to join a race program needs to be the child’s,” says Ted’s father, Bill Ligety. “The kids in Ted’s program who were pushed by their parents eventually dropped out.” According to the Ligetys, parents can help by exposing their kids to a variety of sports and seeing what ignites their passion. No matter what the decision, pros agree that fun is the most important thing when it comes to raising lifelong skiers.