Structuring Your Slalom Sets and Why We Sometimes Don’t

I’ve often heard that we just don’t think enough about set structure, planning, or strategy in this sport of slalom water skiing. I generally totally agree that most of us need to add a little more structure and strategy for each set we ski. We’re going to talk about some options for adding structure and strategy to your next season in this post, but first let’s figure out how we got to this “structureless set” thing.

Why we tend not to structure our sets

The main reason slalom sets tend to be structureless is because for most of us, 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.

So there you go: 5 reasons that every set is basically miraculous.

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.

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:

Set Structure 1: The “rollback” 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.

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