Sliding Rails and Building Character:
Henry VanDerwater’s Vision for Holiday Valley’s Snowboard Team
The Holiday Valley Snowboard Team is more than just a season long program where kids learn about the differences between a carved and a skidded turn or the proper way to spin off of jump in the park. It’s a team that is based on camaraderie, passion and teaching aspiring young athletes’ life lessons that will serve them well later on down the line. Most importantly, the team is out there on the slopes to have fun…in an environment that prioritizes safety while also helping to get young riders comfortable with pushing the boundaries of their comfort zone.
This season, there will be a new Head Coach overseeing the development of the team. After a few years living out west where he was a counselor at Woodward Copper, Henry VanDerwater has returned home to his roots (he grew up riding and instructing at Kissing Bridge) and is excited to work with the next generation of terrain park riders.
We recently caught up with Henry to find out what has him the most excited about for the upcoming season and why he thinks the Holiday Valley Snowboard Team is the perfect way for aspiring snowboarders to spend their winter.
What inspired you to make the switch from skiing to snowboarding and how did that transition ignite your passion for the sport?
The year before I switched, I had started experimenting in the parks on my skis, but I had the wrong setup for it. I tried snowboarding by switching equipment with a friend once and immediately had more success in the park on a snowboard than I ever had on skis. I was growing comfortable skiing the same small resort, so a new discipline allowed me to see all the familiar terrain in an entirely new light. In addition, the group of older park riders that took me and my friends under their wings were mostly snowboarding.
What brings you back to Western New York?
The WNY ski/snowboard community, although not as big as others, is a uniquely friendly one in my experience. We all understand our snowpack isn’t the deepest, our mountains aren’t the tallest and our weather isn’t the most conducive to late or early seasons. But ultimately I think it’s that humbleness that has brought me back- the bigger ski towns can be flashy and glamorous (and full of egos), but there’s something about that east coast honesty and genuine community that I’ll always want to be around.
Reflecting on your diverse experiences in the snowboarding world, from instructing to building parks, to working in shops, how do you think these roles have prepared you for your position as the Snowboard Team coach at Holiday Valley?
I think all of those jobs will have an impact on how I run the team. From ensuring the team has appropriate features for progression (Park Crew), to communicating effective movement analysis (instructing), to making certain the team's equipment is properly adjusted (shop), to keeping the team stoked and safe (Woodward). In addition, I’ve worked for the Buffalo Public School district which has made me comfortable managing groups of youth and resolving issues that may arise.
As someone who has been deeply involved in snowboarding culture, what aspects of the community and sport do you find most influential and hope to pass on to your team?
A unique aspect of snowboard culture that has influenced me to commit a large part of my life to it is the camaraderie. Unless you have a bib on and you’re about to drop in on a course, everyone is on the same team and that team is Fun. It’s also an incredibly supportive community; it’s instinct for us to let out a whoop when we see someone do something sweet- whether we know them or not. It’s just as much instinct to skip your favorite feature to check on the guy you saw fall hard. Although I obviously hope to train some awesome snowboarders, a big part of snowboarding is deeper than what tricks you do. I aspire to bring that supportive aspect of the community to the team.
Can you describe the moment you realized you wanted to coach and mentor the younger generation of park riders?
I think the moment it clicked for me was midwinter 5 years ago. I had recently gotten a new park deck, so I gave away my old one to a local younger park kid. Although I had already been an instructor at that point, I had never done any park instruction beyond a few lessons here and there. I never formally instructed that kid but seeing him grow and progress on the same board I learned so much on had a big impact on me. That’s when I realized I wanted to help the younger generation experience what I love about this sport.
What are your goals for the snowboard team at Holiday Valley and how do you plan to help the team progress?
I will work to bring excitement to the team, to help athletes improve all season long and to help them feel pride in their hard work... Imbuing a love of the sport is a big part of progressing. At the end of the day, snowboarding is a physically demanding and at times a psychologically intimidating athletic endeavor. Without loving snowboarding for snowboarding’s sake, it’s difficult to improve. We’ll start with having a supportive team and everything else builds from there.
For parents considering enrolling their children in the snowboard team program, explain the benefits of snowboarding for young athletes, both on and off the slopes?
The obvious draw for a competitive snowboarding team is for your child to get better at competitive snowboarding. This is of course my primary goal, to train these athletes in preparation for competitive events. However, there are many other benefits which come along with that goal. There is a clear physical component to the sport which results in faster reaction times, better balance and air awareness, improved aerobic capacity and enhanced coordination. But there’s a significant mental component as well, which can help with confidence, overcoming fears, work ethic and inner motivation. The part of snowboarding that affected me the most is the lesson that mistakes are just a part of the journey. When you’re learning a new trick and pushing out of your comfort zone, you’re likely to fall down a couple times. The willingness to fail and try again is a valuable skill that comes with committing to this sport.
Safety is always an important part of being on the snow. How do you intend to ensure a fun and safe learning environment for the team?
Safety is a huge component of our freestyle program. Helmets are required when riding with the team. We perform riding evaluations at the start of the season to make sure we’re coaching ability-appropriate tricks on appropriate features. Where possible, I’ll be coaching the component maneuvers in a low-risk environment prior to going into the parks. For example, if an athlete wants to learn a back lip slide, they will be coached on it on a balance beam on a mat, then take it to flat snow, then low pitch low feature, then finally to the beginner parks before stepping up once to an actual rail. The greatest risk is at the early stages of learning a trick, where your brain can hardly make all those movements at once, let alone correct for an unexpected development. By coaching the movement separate from the magnitude, we can help the athletes progress while minimizing risk.
What can young snowboarders and their parents expect from the training program at Holiday Valley? And how does it cater to different skill levels?
Prospective team members and their families can expect direct and personalized coaching and feedback, along with a supportive team environment. Regardless of skill level, each athlete will have access to every tool we have available to allow them to develop as snowboarders. From learning their first 50-50, to stomping a huge 7, the athletes will be progressing and leveling up regardless of their starting point.
Woodward at Copper attracts some amazing up-and-coming athletes. How did that experience help shape you in terms of not only being a counselor but also when it comes to viewing snowboard culture in general?
Working at Woodward Copper has had a big impact on me. Seeing 200 kids signing into camp on Sunday all psyched to ride together is incredible. However, without all the other campers and counselors and coaches, Woodward would just be a patch of snow. The magic of snowboarding comes when you’re making friends, talking tricks at the top of the drop and supporting each other after a stomped trick. That’s what I plan to bring to the HV Freestyle Team - a healthy, happy attitude towards our training days.
Finally, what message would you like to share with parents who are still on the fence about signing their kids up for the snowboard team program at Holiday Valley?
The benefits of enrolling your child in this program extend beyond improved placements at competitions. The USASA events are a significant component of the program, but this program is also the top coaching experience your child can experience at Holiday Valley for snowboarding in general. The snowboarding skills they learn in this program will last the rest of their life and enhance their ability to enjoy this activity we all love. The team coaching format allows the athletes to make new friends who share the same interests they do and the team trips to Northeastern resorts for comps will create amazing memories. Last but not least, we’ll be outside every weekend getting better and having fun doing it. I look forward to this new role at Holiday Valley and the opportunity to work with the next generation of riders.