In my life, I’ve been privileged to make turns with some pretty decent skiers. And one thing that’s stuck with me is the divide between skill and talent when it comes to skiing, or just about any other sport. It’s something I’ve run into over and over, in different contexts throughout my life.
By definition, skill is something you work at, something you build. Skill is acquired through experience. Talent on the other hand is what you already have, not something you build. It’s an innate aptitude or ability.
Some people are inherently more coordinated than others, more athletic. They can just move faster, jump higher, respond more accurately. Of course, that only goes so far, those are all opportunities to build skill as well, but your level of natural talent sets both your starting point and often your end ceiling.
The same applies to skiing. If you take two toddlers and give them exactly the same curriculum of ski skills, they’re still going to grow into different skiers with different strengths and weaknesses. They might spend the same time doing the same drills to grow the same skills, but the end result will never be quite identical. And often, the talents we show at a young age help determine how we develop and focus our skills. The kid who’s doing cartwheels through the lawn is a lot more likely to get signed up for gymnastics classes than the one who runs into stationary objects regularly. I know, because I ran into a lot of things growing up.
I am not a talented skier. It took me longer than it should have to figure out how to turn, how to get air. I struggled mightily against each new challenge that arose, forcing myself to seek out terrain I couldn’t handle and practice in it. I was the same way in basketball and lacrosse. Nothing athletic I did ever seemed to just magically flow like it did for other folks I ran into on the court, the field, the slopes. And over time I’ve made peace with that.
A while ago a buddy came to visit and ski with me. We’d skied together in high school, he’d skied probably two full seasons at around 10 days a season, and then I left town to chase skiing full-time and he didn’t touch skis again for five years.
The last time we skied together, we were at about the same level, somewhere along that divide that looms between Type III skiers and skiers who are competent enough to know that arbitrary skier type doesn’t matter for them anymore.
Then I went and skied every day I could. I moved to a ski hill, I traveled to ski in the summer, I stacked a whole bunch of days on snow, hundreds over those five years. I got myself to a place where I could confidently ski every run at my home hill. I built skill, and I thought it showed.
And then my buddy showed up after five years off skis, with maybe 30 total days of experience ever, I lent him some gear, expecting him to stick to the bunny hill. Instead, he could mostly keep up with me on every run on my home hill. It just clicked, he watched me doing the things I’d spent five years learning how to do and was able to replicate them nearly perfectly his first time back on skis.
I remembered it being the same way with him playing basketball. He moved effortlessly with the ball, and no matter how many hours I sunk into drills, no matter how many pickup games I played, I could never match that fluidity. He’s talented, naturally coordinated.
I’m reminded of that divide, even more, when I watch good skiers pick up snowboarding as adults. A few runs and they’re looking comfortable, taking on new terrain and linking turns effortlessly. I, on the other hand, have spent years doing the ski equivalent of pushups, trying to build form and technique, forcing myself to gain competence through repetition. And when I hop on a snowboard I feel like I’m starting over at square one, barely any of my time spent on skis translates, and I’m left feeling like I need to learn how to walk again.
Talented skiers can hop on a snowboard and figure out how to make it do what they want pretty quickly. Not all skilled skiers can do the same.
I’ve experienced the same thing playing pickup basketball with soccer players. They might not know the rules, but they know how to make their bodies move over the court, they have the talent and athleticism to be competitive even if they lack fundamental skills.
To make it as a professional in just about any sport I think you need a combination of both. You need the raw talent and athleticism that predisposes you to excel, and then you need the drive and opportunity to invest hours building skill. Being “a natural” only gets you so far, from there you have to put in the work.
I think it’s especially interesting to watch this play out in terms of style. Whenever I watch someone ski with a very distinctive style, I wonder where they got it. Do they just move effortlessly no matter what they’re doing? Or is every move carefully rehearsed, programmed into their limbs by repetition after repetition so that they can do it all by rote? Does watching them ski feel spontaneous or rehearsed? Mechanical or fluid? How much of that divide is a product of their inherent talent vs. skill?
The only skier I can answer those questions for is myself. I’d rate myself at about 10% natural talent and 90% skill. I had to rehearse hundreds of shifties before I got something that didn’t look stupid. I can sometimes do a backflip, but only if I make all the calculations correctly, pull from the experience of hundreds of failed attempts, and get lucky. I usually can’t just visualize a move and then make it happen, instead, I have to practice it, rehearse it, build skill to make up for a lack of talent.
I don’t begrudge the talented pros who make every turn look effortless, who can move from sport to sport easily. But I respect every skier I see who’s obviously doing the work to make up for their own weaknesses, who’s pushing themself, practicing, focusing on building skill. And I always wonder: how do they see themselves? How natural does skiing feel for them? How easily does it come to them? How much do they have to work for it?
How about you? How does skiing feel to you?