Structuring Your Slalom Sets and Why We Sometimes Don’t

It seems like common practice to not think much about set structure, planning, or strategy in this sport of slalom water skiing. How’d this come to be?

When I think about why a lot of my sets seem to fly by in a blink with very little structure, a main reason for me is that every slalom set is a damn near miracle as it is.
We need five things to ski a slalom set, and missing any of them can screw up or totally bag the set: People, Equipment, Environment, Health, and Weather.

  1. People: A driver we trust and feel good skiing behind that’s available at the same time as we are, for the same length of time we are for that set. In some states and clubs we also need a spotter.
  2. Equipment: A functioning, available boat. Gas in the boat. Boots, skis, ropes in good condition and not forgotten at home or lost or damaged in luggage, all functioning properly and adjusted properly. If skiing the course, a slalom course with 6 turn buoys, gates, 55M buoys all generally there, buoys at the right height, etc.
  3. Environment: If it’s a private lake then water level needs to be neither flooded/high or too low. Your set needs to not conflict with other site members’ sets timing-wise. If it’s a public lake your environment could be compromised by fishing boats, PWCs, and other boaters creating rollers in the lake. A public lake could also have too high of water causing a no-wake rule or too low from lack of rain. You could also be dealing with excessive seaweed/milfoil issues, bacteria levels, wake/no-wake hours, etc. Lots of environment variables.
  4. Health: Acute injuries, nagging chronic conditions, illness, overuse injuries, hangovers, surgeries and related recovery. All of these can affect a set or even an entire season.
  5. Weather: Even if everything else is perfect, weather can make every set a game-time decision. Rain, lightning, heavy fog. Excessive winds, winds from unprotected directions. Cold. Hot. Frozen, unfrozen.

There’s nothing like the feeling of standing on that swim platform, about to hop into the water knowing how lucky you are that all of those conditions are met and you’re about to do one of the most fun and rewarding activities on earth. As such it’s no wonder that we’re not thinking about set structure most of the time. We tend to just want to ski our best each and every set.

All of that said, I believe in set structure whenever possible. How could we structure our sets?

I’ve talked to a lot of skiers about this and heard a variety of set structure strategies over the years, so I’ll share a few of those here. Note that these are going to be set-by-set tactics vs. “season-wide” strategies. Very few of us have the luxury of structuring a whole season around a particular goal (e.g. “peaking at nationals”)– I certainly don’t so I can’t contribute much regarding that type of strategy (feel free to share some of those season-wide strategies in the comments below). The set structures below are posted for informational purposes only. Please use the comments section to add in any additional set structures that work for you.

Overarching theme for all set structures:

  • Six Passes: Assuming a 6 pass set for all examples.
  • Openers: Make the first pass, the “opener”, a can’t miss pass and don’t think about ANYTHING on the first pass no matter what. You shouldn’t be flooding your thoughts with tips and tactics on your first pass. Just ski and be comfortable.
  • Thoughts/Keys on the next 5 passes: Think of no more than 2 keys/thoughts in your gate setup and no more than 2 keys/thoughts in the course from gate to gate.
  • Ski each pass like the “next” pass: In other words the mentality should not be to just barely make each pass. Instead you should strive to ski each easier pass earlier, wider, and with a gate that you will need for the next pass. Ski 15 like 22, 22 like 28, and so on. This helps give each pass a sense of purpose vs. just “making it”.

Example Structures (literally examples, I personally don’t use most of these):

Set Structure 1: The “rollback” set. Aka The Ripley set.

Pass 1: Opener pass, the “can’t miss”
Pass 2: First line cut or speed increase of set past the opener
Pass 3, 4, 5, 6: If you make the previous pass comfortably, cut line/increase speed for each subsequent pass. IF NOT, “rollback” to previous line or speed until made comfortably, then progress forward.

Set Structure 2: The “reinforce then push” hybrid set.

Pass 1: Opener pass, the “can’t miss”
Pass 2, 3, 4, 5: 4X skiing the same moderately difficult pass for these 4 passes with no increase in speed or line cuts, this is maybe 1 pass back from your hardest full pass. (e.g. for me -28 is the hardest full pass I make, this set would be -22 for passes 2-5). On each of these repeated passes we are working on specific keys and focusing on executing them.
Pass 6: Increase to your hardest full pass for the last set.

Set Structure 3: The “hardest full pass” set

Pass 1: Opener pass, the “can’t miss”
Pass 2-6: Your hardest full pass 5x whether you make them or not. Each pass we are focusing on keys while feeling the physics of these “hardest pass” conditions.

Set Structure 4: The “easiest full pass” set

Pass 1: Opener pass, the “can’t miss”
Pass 2-6: Your easiest full pass (past your opener) 5x whether you make them or not. Each pass we are focusing on keys while not having to endure more difficult conditions.

This last summer I was doing 2x-22 and 4x-28 a lot. Big volume on your second to hardest pass after 2 at your third hardest pass. Had multiple 3x28 but never did get that 4th one!

How do you guys approach set structure?

@joel, Good topic, and I agree with most of the post. I would delete weather and environment. Why? These items are out of our control. I know when I first started skiing the course, 1995, yes I am old, my thoughts were in line with your initial opening statement, I love skiing like this and I am so blessed to be doing this on a private ski lake in Dayton Ohio. My goal each time…run freaking buoys. Didn’t matter how, just run buoys, always thinking about the next rope length.
Thank God my brain does not allow me to be involved in ANYTHING, without pausing and challenging myself to do better, be excellent. That’s when I started with professional coaching. It was then my skiing structure change and I actually developed one.
Chet basically asked me to develop a “check list” much like a pilot. This is why, once it is my turn to ski, I am not all chatty patty in the boat or on the dock while I am getting ready. I’m in my brain. This has really improved my sets and time on the water. Then another blessing happened 7 years ago…I purchased land and now have my own lake. This totally changes ski set structuring:
I am not limited to number of passes per set. Limiting factor is my body/hands or irritation and brain.
Weather…I can wait it out. Too windy, wait till evening. Rain…wait or go to gym. In spring the water is high, and roll back can be a slight factor. So I wait a little longer at each end. However, after Memorial Day, a little wind will not deter me if the water is not rolling or breaking. I figure I may be at a tourney and there may be wind. If the water is capping, nope, go to gym.

My structuring is different for the season:
Early spring: pre course being put in, free ski. My lake is about 100 acres of water, so I have plenty of room to free ski. This is a great way to get in ski shape, get muscle memories back and it is flat out FUN. Course in: Work and concentrate on gate timing and drop in. Run 28’s for 3-4 X, then shorten to 32. Goal: work on body position, being patient coming back to handle, looking down course, not overloading the rope or ski going into the 1st wake or b/h the boat at CL, staying connected to power source as long as I need too.
Mid spring till Early summer: Opener is 28. However, I think about this pass. Pull out, getting up on boat, standing tall in glide while keeping elbows stuck to sides, looking down 2,4,6 buoy line. At CL, allowing the ski to roll to inside cutting edge by allowing my body to release the ski.
Pass 2: 32 and regurgitate all the above. This pass I want to “see” where I am in course. How up course can I be? Especially at 2/4. my offside.
Pass 3: 35. Now the thought is “less is more”. What? Yep. Let the boat and ski do what they were designed to do. My number one thought now is Patience. Don’t rush back to handle. Stay connected…handle control. If 35 goes down easy…
Pass 4: hardest pass, 38. ARGH. I’ll try 3-4 passes if I am getting to 4-5 each time. If only getting to 2 or barely to 3 I’ll do only one or two.

I’ll finish the rest of this post in another post. Too much info presently.

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