Friday, December 20, 2013

Tough Love and Skiing

A couple days ago, I swished into the lift line, bent to unbuckle my boots, and looked up to see a weathered and familiar face. Dirk? Hi!!! Do you remember me??? It was my coach from elementary school and junior high -- one of the most influential coaches in my life, and one I haven't seen in probably 12 years.

I'll rewind to give you some context: my mama and I are up in Tahoe for the week, skiing with an intensity only the two of us can conjure. (For reals -- 70 runs in two days. Yes we count.)

The first day on snow is always a little bit dicey. It's like dusting off the cob-webs that connect my brain to my hips, knees, and ankles and reminding them how to coordinate a smooth turn. Like riding a bike, it comes back. But unlike riding a bike, skiing takes significantly more focus to bring it back. Back in the day (i.e. high school), my first day on snow was usually in November and only after an intense couple weeks of drills and training did I feel good in my boots and really ready to race. I don't race any more, so now about five runs suffice to re-instill my confidence in my edges and trust in my skis and faith in my own ability to save myself if things go wrong.

View of Lake Tahoe from Mt. Rose.
So anyway, I was at that point, feeling pretty good towards the end of our first day, when we ran into Dirk.

When Sister1 and I joined the Northstar Ski Team in 1994/95 (I was in 3rd grade, she was in 5th, and Sister2 was child-care-aged), we were terrified of Dirk. Everyone was terrified of Dirk. He was intense, and mean, and scary, with a low gruff voice and a death stare that could literally make people cry, and coached the competitive "big kids" (which at that point meant 4th-7th graders). By the next year I was shyly trailing at the back of his pack, just hoping to keep up, keep improving, and earn his respect. 

He was an ex-Marine and ran his team like a drill sergeant. (This all sounds a lot harsher, thinking back on this now...we were 9 to 12-year-olds!) 
  • Skiing in a snow storm: You're cold? You want hot cocoa? Stop whining and give me 50 hop-turns, that'll warm you up! 
  • Learning to pole plant: I want you to imagine a bunch of little bunnies running alongside you when you're skiing. Now every time you initiate a turn, I want you to STAB THE BUNNY! And the next turn, there's another bunny on the other side -- STAB THE BUNNY, COME ON STAB IT!
  • Sitting on the chair: Get'em up! Come on lift your skis up straight and hold them like that. Quads burning, he would then use his poles to push on our skis, creating resistance for "extra fun." 
  • When one of the boys sassed him: Oh shut up and stop being so ugly and stupid. 
  • In the team locker room: Stop horsing around. Give me 20 push-ups. Oh come on, those were sissy push-ups, give me 20 more. Now who wants to arm wrestle? 
  • At the end of the season: I want you to go home and start working now. And work hard all summer, so that next season at the first race, you can stand in the starting gate and look around and say, Hey, you know what? I've worked harder than everyone else and I know that I am the strongest, toughest, fastest kid on this mountain. 
So clearly Dirk was tough. But he loved us. And we loved him. I remember epic powder days that ended in even more epic snowball fights, five kids tackling Dirk and him somehow prevailing and stuffing all our coats with snow. This classic quote, repeated almost daily: Put on some sunscreen, you don't want to look like an old catcher's mitt by the time you're 30. Or playing Tag down the mountain -- one ski, no poles, trying to catch Dirk dodging at high speeds through the trees (for reals, it is a miracle I survived my childhood). And all the time he spent -- literally 9am-4pm -- carefully teaching us the technique and tactics we needed to be ski racers.

Like many a CA December, not a whole lot of snow here right now...
When a coach like that praises you (Well well well, looks like you might be starting to ski like someone who might maybe get good at this someday!) it is like the best thing ever. And as an athlete, you learn to see criticism as praise, because if you're worth criticizing, then you know that your coach thinks you have the potential to improve. I don't know if he planned it this way, but it was all about teaching us work ethic and high expectations. Coaches like this expect a lot because they know you can give a lot -- they think more of you than you think of you, which ultimately results in you expecting more of yourself. And even though I am no longer a ski racer, the attitude Dirk taught, and the self-competitiveness he instilled, has stuck with me. 

I read an article recently bemoaning how young people these days can't handle criticism -- that the everyone-gets-a-trophy mentality means that everyone loses. This has not been my experience at all. Dirk was not the first tough-love teacher I had (oh flash-backs to Ms. Zora in ballet!), nor was he the last, but running (/skiing) into him the other day made me realize what a huge influence spending four ski seasons with him had on my life. 

We rode the chair with him and his son, briefly caught up on things (26, grad school, sisters are good, etc.), then skied away. 
Mama: We're on a program -- this is run #39. 
Dirk: Nice! 
Just one word, but clearly he approved.