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Want to be a better skier? Start with your mental game.


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By: Joel Hughes

First of all- why am I writing this and what business do I have doing so? I first ran the course in 2004 and did not run -28 at max speed (55K) until October of 2014, and not consistently until last summer. Over 10 years of skiing long lines and chasing my tail! In one summer I did more as far as getting to another level with my skiing than I had in all of those previous years combined. I did this not because of a focus on technique, but because of a focus on my mental game.

Couple of baseline rules to set baseline expectations before we begin:

  1. If you are looking for technical advice on what it will take to run your next pass, the Internet is already loaded with technical advice and there are tons of coaches and ski schools that will give you all the technical advice you will ever need to run anything. I also don’t think that I am the most qualified source for technical advice at this point so I’d be running into a buzz saw there! I do know that you can run -28 with even half-decent technique (and -32 and -35 as I’ve seen many skiers do). You cannot learn to run these passes or get to the next level in your skiing without the correct mindset. This is your foundation. It is more important than any technique. Chose what technical tips you use and your sources for them CAREFULLY and be very consistent with them throughout the season. More on that later.
  2. Who should read this piece? You’ve been stuck where you are, perhaps spanning many seasons/years, and you can’t figure out why. In my case it was -28 in particular, for you it may be -38. Or -22. Or -15. One thing is for sure, though- the shorter the line gets and the more you build up your own assumptions and truths, the more you need a head game as an athlete. To me this began to be grossly apparent at -28.
  3. If your mind is closed and your “cup is full” already, please move on. Open minds only from here on out. If you learned shortline so long ago that you don’t even remember doing it, why is that? I bet you had an open mind as a child and listened to what you were told!
  4. Several of the concepts presented here are not original so I’m not going to take credit for all of the individual points. My purpose here is to clarify, filter, sort out, aggregate, and present stuff that I have been lucky enough to pick up from my biggest mentors. I want to save you time.
  5. This is for informational purposes only and like anything this information should be only used at your own risk in this inherently dangerous sport.

Let’s get started.

First, let’s take a very hard look at your ego. Be blunt. Be honest. It’s time for a wake-up call this season, folks. You can thank me in September. Ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Am I only listening for advice I want to hear
  2. Am I internally weighing and/or biasing and/or filtering advice from better skiers based on what I already think I know
  3. Am I being inconsistent with my mental cues and keys in the course throughout the year
  4. Am I taking advice from unqualified sources (including your own self)
  5. Am I seeking shortcuts with hot tips, gear, or trends on a regular basis?
  6. Am I asking the wrong questions when I seek help

Your ego can be very sneaky in that the more your brain takes the above pathways, the less apparent it can be that they are wrong. Repeated thought patterns become essentially “normal” and undetected thought patterns. You may be in such a bad ski-ego position that you’re reading those six points and thinking “meh, that’s not really me”. Guess what- if you’re not running -28, it is you. If you’ve been stuck at your top pass for years, it’s you to some degree. Do not even read further until you can accept that. Takes one to know one.

Here is an example of ego getting in the way of progress: Let’s say one of your big cues in learning -28 is to get really high on the boat in the move-out (as it should be if we were talking technique but we are not). You look at video from your last set where you dipped your shoulders into 1-ball, broke forward a bit, and got huge slack out of 2-ball, couldn’t hold it, then fell. If you are thinking something like “ugh I need to level my shoulders at 1 ball” or “I need to counter rotate at 1” or “I need better stack out of 1” or “I need neon yellow gloves” or “I need to hold the handle out to the buoy line to 2 because I’m skiing right to it” or “I need to get a half-loop between 22 and 28” ALL of those thoughts are your ego redefining the truth. What about your first cue? Move-out width? Did you execute that? No, you didn’t. Stop wasting time by chasing your tail as your ego tries to deny the facts.

Let’s say we’re working on -28 as many of you are (we will use this example for this whole section). Ask yourself the following: Are you a 28 off skier? Well, are you? Yes or no? Do not read further until you can say “yes” to that question. Better yet, say you are a 32 off skier.

Why is this important? Because when we define the type of skier we are, we assemble the playground upon which we will execute correct thoughts and cues the entire season. A 28 off skier does things in the course that a 15 and 22 off skier does not do. Period. The playground includes:

  1. An open mind & ego in check (discussed above)
  2. An acceptance that in order get different results we must do different things
  3. Practicing long lines as if they were short lines
  4. An open invitation to leave our comfort zones every set
  5. An acceptance of physics in the course
  6. A switch from defensive to offensive skiing

If you are mentally still a 15/22-off skier then you are probably blissfully happy where you’re at. Why? Because you are unfortunately still in your comfort zone. You are comfortable with with your narrow move-out width, and skiing right to the buoys. You are comfortable with softer hits from the boat from the elastic nature of the longer line. When you see yourself barely clearing the buoys at 22 off, you tell yourself “hey that was a nice pass”. You don’t realize how much extra rope you have or how being closer to the boat should affect your cues in the course. Physics is not even on the table at these lengths. When the rope shortens to 14M you’re confused as to why all of a sudden you can’t ski the course at that length.

If you are a 28 off and shorter skier mentally you have written your brain a one-way ticket to get out of your comfort zone. If you want to have different results you must be doing different things, remember? When you find yourself in your comfort zone, you will now notice it and you recognize this as a bad thing. It’s not good enough to run your 22 off passes cleanly- you want to run them clean and wide. You want to be as high on the boat at 22 as you can possibly be, knowing that you are running 22 like 28. And when you start getting 28, you remember that you are a 32 off skier. You’re going to get greedy and start running 28 wide! Why? Because there is a TON of rope left, still. You recognize and respect the physics of the game. You start realizing that the higher on the boat you are, the more rope you get at the ball. You realize the less time you spend accelerating, the more time you spend turning. You might re-define how you approach your turn-in timing. You do this because you are a next-level skier and this is your new playground.

Let’s talk about offensive vs. defensive skiing real quick. Look at a video of anyone running shortline and they are on the offense. They are “attacking” the course. What we talk about a lot here with correct technique starts with an offense mindset. A good shortline skier is a quarterback the course. They are making crisp movements with authority. They are making defined movements from the moment they come out of the water. A solid moveout. A defined glide. A solid turn-in for the gate. Wake-to-wake they are moving with authority and determination. They are “working” in the course to some degree. Visually we often identify stuff like this as stack, stance, handle control, etc. but this starts with the mindset that they are not being controlled by fear or being a victim to what the course gives them. They are being an active participant in the game and they want to win. Mental game. Working with the boat as a team.

When we look at a video of a skier who is struggling with 15, 22, or 28 what do we see? We see an athlete playing defense. Their movements are tainted with doubt and fear. We see what we would consider defensive, reactive positions and movements in any other sport.

Have you been playing defense? Have you felt like a victim in the course? Change your mindset. “Man I don’t know what happened at one ball but I just broke over”. A winner accepts the truth of what happened and has the fortitude to correct it.

Outside the course 

There are plenty of things we can do outside the course to help our performance in the course mentally. These include:

  1. Reading books/blogs on mental toughness, athletic focus, athletic spirituality, brain function, meditation, etc. I mean are you an athlete, or what? May as well read like one.
  2. Establishing a somewhat consistent pre-ski routine
  3. Keeping our equipment organized, easy to get to, and consistent and in order to minimize distractions.
  4. Keeping a meaningful ski log (not what you did but what you set out to accomplish specifically and what ended up happening)
  5. Keeping a specific list of keys for the course, both pre-gate and post-gate
  6. Watching good skiers ski as much as possible from the boat
  7. Creating a ski set schedule and trying to stick to it throughout the summer
  8. Creating an off-season plan for fitness that in turn gives you mental toughness (for me CrossFit has been without equal here)
  9. Creating a “whole season” schedule and mindset where you ski during the winter at least once every 6 weeks.
  10. Be wary of advice or alterations to your mental keys throughout the year by those who do not share a next-level skiing mindset.

So there you go. Let’s see what you can do this year by adjusting your ego and mindset and turning both of them to the next level. It’s important to do this ASAP because it only gets harder!


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  • Baller

Joel, I was just telling my ski buddies I need to reprogram my brain. I've worked up to mid 28off several times over the last 5 years or so but never been able to run it at 34mph. The other day I said to myself no matter what happens I'm backsiding every ball and I made to 4 ball and probably should have run it. I wiped out last Thursday going from 3 to 4 and just about did myself in. I was getting some slack but still hanging in there. Definitely out of my comfort zone but I'm learning what it takes. I'm turning quicker and getting more angle out of the ball than I ever had before. 15 and 22 are getting easier but that 28off, its close. I've been calling it skiing aggressively but offensively fits as well.


I'm putting the pieces together. No coach ever told me you need to turn quicker and get more angle. Asher told me last fall I need to get back to the handle quicker that I was delaying the turn. Did some video coaching with CP and he worked on my gates which has been a game changer. Mapple told me a few years ago to get wider to pretend I'm trying to bust through a fence. I've had a lot of coaching that focused on preturn and turning but what I'm finding out for myself is that if I'm getting angle and cross course early the turn kinda takes care of itself.


Good advice Joel, glad your finally having some success.

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  • Baller

@gregy glad you liked the article! The biggest "comfort zone" difference going into 28 is getting wide on the boat in the move out and glide and the different "look" you get at the gates. I'm not talking about technique, I'm talking about how your mind reacts to the technique.


Another comfort zone thing is NOT over working in the course and not rushing the turns. Confidence and offense in the course doesn't mean over-doing it and killing yourself but actually the opposite- confidently doing only what is needed. The one single key that gets me deep into 32 is a slower turn. Why? Physics- if ball to wake is faster then wake to ball must be slower since boat speed and buoy distance are constant.


All mind game stuff. A new look at the gates can be terrifying. Forcing less in the course can be the same. You have so many various technique keys going on right now from so many sources and this is a main focus of the piece. Narrow it down to 2 gate keys and 2 keys in the course and stay focused on them. Don't get distracted. I did not make up this advice, it was given to me by a better skier.

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