My name is Tim Cafe and I am a former ski racer from Queenstown. I raced for 6 years on the New Zealand National Team to Olympic and World Championship level. After retiring from racing in 2011 I decided to enter the coaching and instructing world. Since then I have been coaching the Queenstown Alpine Ski Team (QAST) and instructing in Aspen, Colorado.
The life of an elite athlete is intense. The focus is almost entirely internal. You become goal-driven, one-tracked and completely absorbed into your sport. Your emotions, which are so often worn on your sleeve, are a product of both your successes in terms of results and how hard you feel you have trained.
The life of a ski instructor, by contrast, is externally focused – we are constantly judging someone’s motivations to ski and how to best fulfil the needs of the guest. We have to make their goals our goals.
The coaching world lies in the most challenging area of both worlds – we are responsible for designing programmes which best fit athletes’ needs, but at the same time we have our own goals for the athletes. The success of the athletes has a major bearing on our job satisfaction and, in truth, whether or not we are doing our jobs properly.
During the 2011 winter the NZSIA offered national team members the opportunity to sit Level 1 and Level 2 exams at a reduced cost. When I saw this opportunity I decided there was no downside – I might as well do the qualifications. This was a few months after a successful World Championships in Germany and I was having a bit of a tough time resetting my goals. In the racing scene one in every 4 seasons has no major competition (World Champs, Olympics), so there is no pinnacle event to focus on. Passing the exams became a perfect target for me. As it turned out, I learned a lot about technique and my understanding of skiing improved hugely through the process.
By the end of that winter I had made the decision to end my racing career. This is always a tough decision for any athlete. Transitioning from a goal-driven, purpose bound life into the world of the unknown is SCARY! I know many athletes who would rather hurl themselves down the Hahnenkamm Downhill at Kitzbuhel than trawl through job postings on TradeMe looking for career inspiration. There is a certain security in being an athlete. It’s not financial, at least not at the level I was at. It’s just life in your own bubble world with only one logical pathway to choose. Ski racing teaches you incredible risk management and instantaneous decision making skills, but it also breeds people who lack perspective. Freedom is TERRIFYING.
Whilst deciding to finish my racing career I couldn’t help but think about my recent ski instructing qualifications. I also thought a lot about my former coaches, for whom I have a huge amount of respect. So I decided to join the world of race coaching and instructing. Whether I made the decision out of sheer terror or a desire to stay in the sport I love can only be judged now in hindsight.
The thing that nobody ever explains to a retiring ski racer is how incredibly difficult it is to find your purpose in skiing. Ski instructors are experts in figuring out what makes people tick on skis. Ski racers aren’t even sure why recreational skiers keep turning up – especially after a couple of days in the pouring rain or howling nor’westers. I will say I always found enjoyment in freeskiing, even during my racing career. But it was usually on perfect powder days, or in the sunshine slashing spring corn. The last 3 years since I quit have been all about purpose. Learning how to love skiing. Learning what it is that other people love about skiing. Resetting my goals technically, tactically and professionally within the skiing world.
In 2012 I was thrown into a full-time job coaching for QAST. The job was incredibly demanding, and despite my obvious lack of experience in the coaching world a lot was expected of me given my recent racing career.. It was a hectic season managing poor snow conditions and a tough job. I had no intention of sitting Level 3 that season given the time constraints. That was until it was mentioned that the Demo Team tryouts of 2013 would be open to Level 3 instructors. All of a sudden I found a purpose again. In addition to loving the sensation and fulfilment of recreational skiing, I still needed challenges and goals to shoot for. With this as ammunition I trained hard for level 3 for the whole season, and breathed a very heavy sigh of relief when I passed.
The following two seasons, both Aspen and Queenstown, I spent working on technique. It took some time to develop the idea of what a demonstrator should look like. The goal was no longer fastest time/ultimate ski performance at all costs, even with technical flaws. It became an interesting blend of high ski performance and a visually accurate picture of skiing. By the time of the tryouts I was raring to go, hungry to be measured again as a skier. Nerves and anxiety fuel me and bring out the best in my performances.
I am proud to have been selected as a member of the demo team. Since selection I have been continuing to develop my technique, especially in the areas I am aware that cause both an inaccurate picture and (surprise surprise) ineffective ski performance. Yes, I will admit that ski instructor training and skiing has improved my technique significantly, and would have been helpful in my racing career.
Looking back on my career the most successful seasons have always stemmed from a healthy competitive team environment. A team of individuals who, whilst competitive with one another, are able to improve as a pack. To go out there into the world of skiing and prove New Zealand’s worth. I see incredible alignment of this idea with the ideals that we have put in place for the Demo Team. We are all part of the team. We are individually striving to be the best skiers and teachers we can but are also trying to prove the worth of New Zealand in the snowsports teaching world.
Interski is not by nature a competition, but everyone is there to perform to the best of their abilities. I am highly motivated by the idea of representing New Zealand once again on the world stage. I am impressed with every member of the current team and their commitment to working hard for this event. The training camp in June really proved to me that people meant business. A group of goal-oriented, focused and motivated athletes. Sounds familiar, right?
Which brings me to the final word of this piece. It is true that there are differences between the worlds of instructing and ski racing. But I see striking similarities between the most successful people in each world. They’re goal-driven, motivated, technically focused, and everyone is simply trying to manipulate a tool on snow to make the best damn turns we possibly can.