If You Can’t Play, You Can’t Perform.

Author: Cameron Smith, Co-founder of Headstartpro Performance Training

Are you like me, one of those coaches that plays the sport you coach?

Most of us are…

I’m a freestyle ski coach who enjoys being an athlete from time to time. It can be a challenge wearing both hats, or perhaps better said, it can be a challenge knowing when to wear your ‘athlete hat’ vs. your ‘coaching hat.’ Sometimes it’s obvious when to wear the athlete hat, but other times we need to adjust on the fly.

One of my jobs when I put on my ‘athlete hat’ is jumping through a ring of fire in Whistler, BC in front of thousands of spectators while performing flips and spins. It’s called the Fire and Ice show. As dangerous as jumping through a ring of fire on a pair of skis sounds, the number of injuries is close to zero. How so? When skiing in the show, it’s hard to think about anything else. Complacency is almost at zero when you jump through the ring. Mentally, you lock onto the task at hand. There is minimal room for error, so every move is calculated.

Photo: Cameron Smith
Photo: Whistler Blackcomb

When I’m not soaring through a ring of fire, I wear my athlete hat while coaching. Depending on the day, I can switch back and forth between coaching and skiing numerous times. Sometimes I have to demonstrate tricks on the same jumps as my athletes. Other times, it’s a matter of discussing technical skills or their state of mind.

Some of the questions I ask to make sure my athletes are in the right mental and physical states are: On a scale of 1-10, how is rushing affecting you today? How frustrated do you feel? What is your level of fatigue? And, are you noticing complacency creeping in? I find it extremely beneficial to check in with my athletes to help them stay in the zone, and for me to understand their mental focus. Once I know their physical and mental states are in check, they’ve visualized their trick, and their self-confidence is up, it’s time for them to perform.

But, they say you’ve got to practice what you preach…

During a routine training day near the end of last winter, I was skiing with a group of talented young athletes in the Yukon Territory. On this particular day, I had to switch back and forth from my coaching hat to my athlete hat and demonstrate a few tricks. I had a couple of heavy landings where I went a little bit too big on the jump, landing close to the bottom of the landing hill. The impact is intense when you go that big! This should have been my first red flag to ease up, but I kept on jumping. It was too nice of a day not to, I thought, and after all, it was the last day of a five-day camp. I noticed my fatigue was at an 8/10, but we only had a few runs left, so I decided only to perform the tricks I know I can do well. That should have been the next big red flag, my fatigue was high, and complacency was creeping in.

My turn to go, so I set off down the in-run to demonstrate a cork 720 tail-grab (two off-axis rotations, while grabbing the tail of my ski). As soon as I left the ramp, I knew I was going too fast, and even though I landed on my skis, facing downhill, the impact was heavy. I heard a “pop” that no skier ever wants to hear. My weight was on my left side, and my knee gave out. I fell over and slid to a stop in excruciating pain, resulting in a completely torn ACL with multiple meniscus tears. My ski season came to an abrupt end, followed by an extremely uncomfortable flight home later that day. My knee swelled up like a balloon.

Blowing your ACL is common in freestyle skiing. It’s something that no one wants to happen, but it’s a risk of doing the sport. Rehab will be a lengthy process following surgery, but my goal is to be back skiing at 100% next season. Things could have been a lot worse, but thankfully, I didn’t hurt anything else or get a concussion after crashing to the ground.

Have you ever been injured in front of your athletes?

It’s a little embarrassing when you’re the coach, the expert. But at least it’s an excellent example of what not to do. After analyzing the situation, I’ve recognized a few patterns leading up to the event that, if I’d acted slightly differently, could have prevented the injury altogether.

  1. There had been signs that my knee wasn’t 100%. It had been sore in the days leading up to the crash, but I kept on pushing myself. My body was tired, and my mind was tired. Recognizing cumulative fatigue is important.
  2. I decided to keep hitting the jump, even though it was close to the end of the day, I’d been jumping for a while, and my acute fatigue was high. 
  3. It was an “easy trick” in my mind, so I was complacent and not as focused as I could have been.
  4. I misjudged the jump due to complacency, causing me to rush through my pre-drop-in routine.

The athletes I was coaching joked, “Cam, why didn’t you self-trigger?”

They know about Headstartpro, and they were right! I knew my fatigue was high, and I should have known complacency was rising. Had I self-triggered and took a minute to slow things down during my pre-drop-in routine, focus on my breathing, visualize the trick, and keep myself in the moment, it could have made the difference between just another day coaching and ten months of rehab.

So, what should I do now? And, what should we all do when we make mistakes?

Well, I probably should have self-triggered and changed my actions that day I crashed. But, what’s done is done, and I can now take the time to analyze my error. I could have self-triggered on fatigue and rushing. I need to keep practicing the Self-trigger technique. Just because it didn’t work for me that day, doesn’t mean I should stop practicing. I can’t count all the times it has saved me; I just need to keep it up.

I can also keep working on my routines and habits to make sure this doesn’t happen again. If I always visualize my trick and go through my breathing routine before dropping in every time, it will compensate for the times I am complacent. All in all, this is a painful but valuable learning experience that I’ll continue to share with my athletes when I’m coaching.

If you can’t play, you can’t perform–a rule of thumb that isn’t just for athletes.

Coaches hate to see their athletes get hurt. When an injury happens, the whole team is affected. You don’t just lose a player; the flow of the group becomes out of sync until they can adjust and find their rhythm again. And for the injured athlete, it is often tough bouncing back. Whether it takes a week, month, or ten months to recover, the mental and emotional tolls are heavy, beyond the obvious physical challenges. 

For coaches, so much of your time on the rink, field, court, or hill is focused on our athletes. We spend most of our time worrying about their health and longevity, but injuries are prevalent for us too, like a hockey coach straining their back from slipping on the ice or a soccer coach spraining his or her ankle during a drill. Sometimes they can be more severe, like a basketball coach tearing his or her Achilles tendon on a lay-up.

It may not be part of your role as a coach to hit big jumps and flip in the air, but take a moment for yourself, and make sure you are in the right physical and mental states to perform at your best. Sometimes all it takes is a couple deep breathes and a quick self-check. We’re our athletes’ role models, and what we put into practice will influence them too. In the end, if you can’t play, you can’t perform, and if you can’t perform, your athletes also pay the price.

For more on the Critical Error Reduction Techniques, a full list of performance-related habits, and other strategies for combating complacency, check out our online courses for coaches and athletes:



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