“If I only knew then what I know now.” It’s a phrase most of us have probably said many times, and it applies to watersports as much as any other facet of life. My 43 years of being a wakesport fanatic — and decades of coaching, competing and observing everyone from beginners to the best in the world — have given me insight into what works and what doesn’t. To keep as many of you as possible from having to utter “If I only knew then what I know now,” here are 10 pieces of advice that will give you a jumpstart for the upcoming season and get you on the right track to learning more, having more fun and doing so safely.
1) Get educated. Learning by trial and error is an excellent way to learn bad habits and become discouraged. Before you try any wakesport or a new trick, watch instructional videos and read instructional articles. Also, get up close, preferably in the boat, and watch someone proficient do what you want to do. Then get coaching, ideally from a professional, but if one is not available, find someone accomplished.
2) Be balanced over your feet. Most beginners put too much weight on their heels, which puts added pressure on the handle. Stand over the center of your feet and keep plenty of flex in your ankles. From this balanced position, you will be able to direct the ski or board more easily and use less strength.
3) Focus on the basics. We all like to aim for the stars, but slow down when learning. Think about the basics of what you are trying to do. It’s easy to see a pro perform effortlessly and want to do the same right away. However, it’s best to learn in increments. Always start with correct body position, balanced over your feet. Even the pros frequently return to the practice of the basics.
4) Diversify. There are many behind-the-boat sports, and each one appeals to different personalities. However, most people become passionate about one discipline and don’t even try the others. Though there are commonalities among the wakesports, each has unique characteristics, and some may be easier to master. Anyone who explores a variety of disciplines will develop a deeper understanding of body position and technique, have more fun and reduce the chance of burning out.
5) The lower-body matters. The quieter your upper body is, the more you will accomplish with less work. When attempting a turn on a slalom ski or a spin on a wakeboard, trick ski or kneeboard, think “Head and shoulders level, upper body still,” and let the lower body do the work. The upper body always follows the lower body.
6) Driving matters. Wakesports are a collaboration between rider and driver, no matter the rider’s skill level. The driver needs to get educated, through instructional videos, articles and rider feedback. A driver who doesn’t know a rider’s optimal boat speed or doesn’t have a sensitivity to the throttle and the steering wheel to deliver a smooth and straight pull will distract the rider’s focus. Speed control options available on today’s inboard and sterndrive boats are a huge benefit to giving every rider a perfect pull. A mirror on the dash or windshield is a must to assist the driver. Also, both the driver and the person being towed should know the body of water they are in and be aware of any peculiarities or hazards.
7) Equipment makes a difference. There are times when participants can share skis and boards. But, if your goal is to get really proficient, you want equipment that fits you specifically, especially bindings, where you want ultimate comfort and control to better direct the ski or board. High-quality skis, boards and bindings will be lighter and more responsive. Lines and handles are made specific to each sport, to provide the optimal pull. Wetsuits and vests should fit snugly. Neoprene that is too big or worn out will hold water. Of course, make sure all the necessary safety equipment is on board.
8) Change conditions. Early in my career, like most people, I wanted ideal conditions: same driver, same boat, perfect water. However, today I enjoy it more, progress quicker and increase my confidence by training behind a variety of boats, with different drivers and in a variety of water conditions. Even if it’s quite windy, I will work on basics to increase my skill level. Perfect and consistent conditions are great for learning, but once you master a trick or skill, start expanding your horizons and change the variables.
9) Don’t neglect off-the-water training. Maintain your ideal weight. Stay fit by cross training. Stretch like you would before a set. Observe good nutrition and sleep habits. I minimize sugar and empty calories to maintain my ideal weight.
10) Be a mentor and share your knowledge. Teach someone the skills you have mastered. Not only are you doing a good deed, but teaching others will reinforce your understanding of the basics, and that deeper understanding will help you learn new skills more quickly. Remember, everyone is unique and everyone learns through different ways and at a different pace, so be patient with everyone. This will teach you to be patient with yourself.