Skiing and the Freedom from Winning
Why some people thrive outside of the team
I was once the principal speechwriter for a high-ranking sports league executive. There were many themes about which this executive liked to wrap speeches, but the primary ones were competition and winning.
“The abilities to compete and win are learned,” went one line of a 2008 speech that carried a clear subtext: professional success comes only from winning a competition of some kind, and those who play team sports in their youth are inherently better positioned to win these competitions than those who do not.
This belief seemed to form the foundation of this person’s self-image. And while this recurring narrative and focus on their own athletic success often seemed designed to draw hardship from an upper middle class upbringing that was likely entirely free from it, it also echoed a broader American belief, drawn from our crush-your-enemies capitalist business culture, that life is a vast and savage competition for power and glory that can be achieved only by vanquishing your rivals.
Articulating this viewpoint was an odd position for me to find myself in. I have always intensely disliked participating in team sports. Not because of the motion and exertion and challenge, which I enjoyed, but because I found competition itself exhausting. The antipathy from both the opposing players, who are programmed to view opponents as different-colored enemies engaged in actual war, and your teammates, who devolve into pouting and tantrum-throwing infants should each play not be executed perfectly, made me feel bad if I lost and bad if I won. This was a dynamic I distanced myself from quite early in life.
When at 16 I discovered skiing, it was as though I had landed on the shores of an entirely new country. Here was an activity with all the physical demands of team sports, but none of the interpersonal drama that I found so grating. Here was something wide open and fast and technical. Here was an arena with zero rules and endless creativity. Here was adventure and variety and the outdoors. Here was a place I belonged.
Within the crucible of team sports and its ever-present audience, I had found it difficult to develop – I played soccer for 10 years and never scored a goal, despite being fast and well-positioned at halfback (as they called midfielders in Central Michigan rec leagues). Skiing removed those constraints. I could sit alone in a room reading ski magazine tips on how to plant my poles and then drive up to the hill and endlessly practice these drills without a critical audience. This was ideal for me. I have never been a fast learner. I am deliberate and methodical by nature. Skiing accommodated that.
Following this read-and-drill pattern I achieved a level of competence on a ski slope that I had never been able to accomplish in sports like basketball or baseball, leveling up through crud to bumps to trees to wild and technical rock garden-type stuff of the sort that I wrote about recently at McCauley in Upstate New York.
What skiing has given me is the rush of athletic accomplishment without the debilitating pressure and psychological gamesmanship of competition. I can be alone or with friends, and the competition is always the same: me versus the mountain. Since the winner (the mountain) is preordained, there is nothing for me to do except have fun with it, push myself a little, fall once in a while, enjoy the screaming leaning turns on a 50-mile-an-hour morning groomer and the hop-turn technical glades spilling off some remote flank of the resort. There are no winners, because that is not the point. The point is exhilaration, escape, and fun.
I am aware that this there-are-no-winners-and-losers mindset is grating to some people. I don’t care. I find and always have found the win-no-matter-what mindset to be clichéd and, frankly, idiotic. If you have ever listened to an interview with a professional athlete, you know what I’m talking about: brainwashed from walking age with this combat rhetoric, they become entombed within that mindset, unable to articulate life in any terms other than competition and winning.
This seems more debilitating than helpful as a general philosophy of how to live, and this was the mentality championed by this sports league executive, who from my approximation was a successful person career-wise, but a superior and condescending asshole who exalted in berating subordinates in a publicly humiliating way. This, too, is a legacy of team sports.
Probably because of the primacy of team sports in American culture, there is a tendency to lionize the team as the ultimate unit of productivity, which is an odd ethos for a nation of lonely individualists. And teams can be great – you couldn’t run a mountain or a company without one. They can also be stifling, counterproductive, and marred by inefficiency. I have been lead author on enough executive memos and press releases to know that a single author at a desk can produce a Harry Potter novel faster than a dozen people with advanced degrees can draft a three-paragraph statement to the media.
This skepticism of the primacy of teams is, I suppose, why I became a writer. It’s also why I became a skier. Doing so was, in fact, the first great act of self-determination in my life. No one in my family skied. It was an expensive curiosity. But it was a powerful medium for expression. By deliberating choosing this as my primary pastime, I was making a declaration of independence from the pressures and limitations of teams and the constraints of living within a win-lose dichotomy. Skiing has represented freedom for me ever since.
I actually enjoy watching team sports, even as I dislike playing them. I formed this habit watching the late ‘80s Bad Boys Detroit Pistons and now mostly focus my attention on the University of Michigan football team.
I am not a casual fan. I have season tickets and attend four or five games per year, even though I live 628 miles away from Michigan Stadium. In the past decade, I have traveled to 70 Michigan games, both in Ann Arbor and around the country, despite the expense and logistical hassle. I do this because I love the team and the traditions and the pageantry and the biggest-in-the-nation stadium. I love seeing the buddies I grew up with and waking before dawn for the tailgate and getting drunk in the daytime and and playing cornhole and moving with the streams of maize-and-blue bedecked fans to the stadium and the chants and the feeling of walking back to the car after a win.
But even as a passive observer, team sports can traumatize. Somewhere inside of my fandom I began to lose myself to it, and the outcome of games became consequential to me. If you know nothing else about Michigan football, you should know that their great rival has for decades been the hated Ohio State Buckeyes. Around Thanksgiving week you will hear endless waxing on ESPN tagging this The Greatest Rivalry in College Football. They say this because of the prominence and prestige and huge fanbase and financial power of each program, but I am here to tell you that it is no such thing. It is not a great rivalry and has not been for a very long time. While the series was even through the ‘70s and ‘80s and Michigan dominated in the ‘90s, they have since floundered. In 19 years, they have won this game two times. Two. Many of the losses have been blowouts. That is not a rivalry. That kind of unrelenting ass-stomping more closely resembles the U.S. invasion of Grenada than a contest of equals. When Michigan is having an off year, Ohio State wins. When Michigan is having a terrific year, Ohio State wins. And when Michigan marched into Columbus at the end of 2018 with the nation’s top defense and Vegas odds to win, the Buckeyes responded by crushing the Wolverines with their largest point total in the rivalry’s history.
This was year four of supposed-to-be-Michigan’s-savior Jim Harbaugh’s coaching tenure. The team had dominated most of the year, only to end humiliated. And here I was, watching from a couch in Brooklyn, completely deflated, angry and frustrated over the outcome of an event that I had no power to control.
This was not healthy. I needed, once again, to detach from the concept of the team, to find something else upon which to focus my passions and attention. Something I could control.
That thing was skiing. Last winter, I skied more than I had in a couple decades. I targeted powder days and every day felt like a victory. If I skied with others, we all won. Here, in skiing, again, was joy without competition.
And here, perhaps, was a platform. On the long drives back and forth to Vermont last season, I would often shut the radio and think. It was in this period of self-reflection that the idea for The Storm was born.
This was not an easy thing to create, but it was entirely self-driven. There was no competition and no winning and no losing. And yet, somehow, I achieved something personally and professionally significant. Imagine that.
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Check out previous podcasts: Killington & Pico GM Mike Solimano | Plattekill owners Danielle and Laszlo Vajtay | New England Lost Ski Areas Project Founder Jeremy Davis | Magic Mountain President Geoff Hatheway | Lift Blog Founder Peter Landsman | Boyne Resorts CEO Stephen Kircher | Burke Mountain GM Kevin Mack | Liftopia CEO Evan Reece | Berkshire East & Catamount Owner & GM Jon Schaefer| Vermont Ski + Ride and Vermont Sports Co-Publisher & Editor Lisa Lynn| Sugarbush President & COO Win Smith| Loon President & GM Jay Scambio| Sunday River President & GM Dana Bullen|
Sooo true! Competition creates winners and losers: the winners gloat the losers sulk. You can enjoy skiing totally without competition but if you want to ride the gloat ‘n sulk cycle try ski racing. I’ve seen skiers break poles over their thighs after a bad run, hurl obscenities at the skies and curse the snow they stand on - all for their love of ski racing. Of course the winners get to gloat with the I’m so much better than you mantra and the losers can expiate their loserness by buying beer for the gloater. Or like Kipling advises “You can meet with triumph and disaster and treat those two imposters just the same”. Except I’ve never seen anyone who can do this: winning feels great. Losing sucks rocks. And that is why I no longer ski race.
Unbelievably relatable article. Great article to send to those who don't understand why some people do sports but don't join any teams. I've definitely had folks in my life confused by my major love of skiing and complete unwillingness to join a ski team. Skiing is primarily about freedom and adventure to me. Being on a ski team where I'm lapping the same run over and over again trying to get the quickest time possible, is antithetical to the freedom and adventure I associate with skiing. The last thing I would ever want to do is destroy the magic of skiing to me, and I could very quickly destroy that through being on a ski team.
Different topic, but the same applies to me with video games as well. I enjoy the single player and cooperative experiences, but avoid the "competitive/versus" modes like the plague unless it's purely a fun little competition among my friends, not against pale-skinned hardcore gamers online who haven't seen the sun in months.