I’ve been around boats all my life. I come from a long line of lake-loving water skiers, both my parents being slalom and barefoot skiers. But I have a confession… I can’t water ski.
And I don’t have to look back and wonder why I never took to the sport as a kid—I know the precise moment! On one of my first attempts, not only was I unable to hold myself up, but—determined to make my parents proud—I held tight to the rope, dragging myself beneath the waves. Needless to say, I swallowed water and cried a few tears, and I didn’t want to water ski again.
As an adult, I still have zero desire. But watching younger cousins stand on their first few lessons with minimal effort, I often wonder what could have been done differently to make my experience more positive. Here are my thoughts.
The Best Tips and Tools for Teaching Kids to Water Ski
1. Introduce them to other fun water activities
Before you even introduce the idea of water skiing to youngsters, let them first become familiar with the water. Give them space to splash and jump in—making sure they understand how to hold their breath and stay calm underwater.
To make your boat a fun, relaxed place for them, you should also check out our 15 favorite ideas to make boating more fun for kids.
Water skiing involves tapping into a new set of motor skills and it’s a balancing act all its own. So after they’re comfortable around water, then introduce them to a towable tube float. Let the kids tell you how fast to pull.
2. Show ’em how it’s done
The best way to learn is by first watching someone demonstrate. As an adult who loves the water, I’m guessing that you’ve already water skied in front of your kids before. But this time, explain to them what you’re doing and why.
A little sibling rivalry can go a long way. If you have multiple children, allow the older ones to show the younger ones how it’s done. Sometimes watching an older sibling or cousin will entice kids to want to try skiing also.
It’s worth also mentioning that you don’t want too many eyes on the novice skier. Just let it be immediate family and don’t go inviting the neighbors on this first boat ride. It puts a lot of pressure on kids and embarrasses them when they don’t get it right in front of a larger audience.
3. Teach proper positions and hand signals
Give some demonstrations—preferably while in the water with an adult—on the proper body positions. Teach them how to lean into the skis.
The best way for kids to retain hand signals is to have them be a down spotter for the captain. If the demonstrating skier gives a thumbs up, let your kid alert the driver. Sometimes they may forget and say “mom gave a thumbs up.” Just remind them that means “drive faster.”
4. Start with dry land training
Practice on shore with an adult using their strength to pull the kid across the land on skis. Teach them how to bend their knees and keep their arms straight out here.
5. Then find a quiet cove for your first lesson on water
It’s intimidating to see fast boats speeding around an area where you might need to let go of the rope. Even if you have to give your lessons in the morning or evening, choose a time when most boats aren’t out on the water yet.
Find a quiet area where there aren’t many boats zipping past. This reduces the amount of waves for your novice skiers and keeps them focused on the lesson rather than the proximity of passing boats.
6. Be positive and constructive
Whatever you do, stay patient and be positive! If a child is having a hard time remembering to keep their skis together or keep bending their elbows instead of keeping arms straight, tell them why it’s incorrect and show them the correct method.
Kids are eager to please, but if you get snappy or irritable they may never want to ski again! Encouragement and keeping it a fun experience will have any kid begging to go skiing by the end of the season!
7. Lengthen the ski rope in increments
Don’t tie off the rope to the boat. Keep an adult in back to hold it instead, so if the skier falls you can release the rope. In hindsight, this might have helped in my situation. There are many reasons kids hang onto the rope, and fear of the boat leaving them stranded is one.
The same goes when using an inflatable tube. A kid will more than likely be thrown and have no reason to hold on, but a large float can be seen by passing boaters, making them feel safer in open waters.
Allow enough room between the boat’s engine and the child. A common misconception is that the less rope the more taut and secure the child will feel. But there are also rougher swells closer to the engine. Start back with more than enough distance—avoiding prop-wash and keeping them where the water is smoother—and let the rope out in increments of five feet.
8. Keep a dialogue going
While the rope is shorter, make sure to keep a conversation going. It keeps kids comfortable and reassures them. Also, let them tell you when they’re ready for more rope. Eventually they’ll be so far out that you may have to yell or use hand signals.
9. Never push too hard
Pulling your body weight up over and over again becomes tiring. Try not to exhaust them on their first time out. If they look like they’re falling more often—or like they’re just plain frustrated—take a break or even call it a day. When they come in, make sure they eat a snack and hydrate.
10. Snap a photo and celebrate!
Last but not least, make sure they know they did a great job! Applaud them for their efforts, even if they didn’t get up, and let them know there’s always tomorrow.
Ask your kid if they’d like a photo to remember the day. I say “ask them” because, if they don’t feel proud about not accomplishing getting up, they may want to take the photo on the day they do.
And on another note, don’t take photos of them in the water on their first experience. It’s just another added pressure or embarrassment, similar to your family friends watching.
11. Start with platform trainers
EZ SKI trainers are awesome new floats for teaching youngsters how to ski. They have rave reviews and for several good reasons.
- They’re integrated wooden ski trainers set inside an inflatable water toy with a seat kids can rest on until they’re ready to stand. Instead of having a ski rope that’s tied to the boat and held by the kid, the float has a built in handle.
- They come in two sizes: EZ SKI 100 (buy on Amazon) for kids up to 70 lbs and EZ SKI 200 (buy on Amazon) for teens and young adults up to 120 lbs. The manufacturer recommends going at a maximum of 10 mph, but reviews have suggested it can be pulled faster at about 15 mph.
I kinda wish these were invented when I was little. They would have come in handy.
12. Upgrade to trainer skis
Trainer skis are proportional to a kid’s weight and have a crossbar which keeps legs together while skiing. When your kid has improved their balance, then you can remove the crossbar.
Just like shoes, kids grow out of skis fast. But there are a few brands that make junior water skis your child can grow into a bit. Gladiator, Connelly and O’Brien Jr. Vortex Kids Combo Water Skis (buy on Amazon) are good options for newbie skiers. Get a pair with adjustable bindings for growing feet.
13. Consider a boom
A boom (buy here on Amazon) adds extra stability for kids with shaky knees who are still learning positions. It also helps that it’s next to the boat where the adult instructor can coach without having to shout over distance and a motor.
Make sure you give kids floating water ski ropes with soft handles. Most ski ropes are around 75 feet (click here to buy one at this standard length) but you don’t want to give all that slack out at once.
15. Put safety first with life jackets and helmets
As always, get the appropriately-sized life jackets and helmets. They should be snug enough that there’s no wiggle room, but not so tight that they’re uncomfortable to wear!
Look for extra light jackets for toddlers and other very small, lightweight children, like these cute boy and girl jackets from O’Neill (buy on Amazon).
For children older than that (and weighing more than 50 pounds) you can find life jackets similar to the standard ones for adults, like this simple jacket from Stearns (buy on Amazon).
16. Arm them with goggles and nose-plugs
If there’s one thing I hated, it was getting water in my eyes. A pair of goggles (for sale on Amazon here) are a great idea for kids who keep squinting. They even prevent them from being blinded by the sun!
For kids who dislike water getting up their nose, nose plugs are another handy item (buy on Amazon).
Humble Advice from a Ski-hating Adult
My folks have a pontoon with an engine strong enough to reach speeds to pull an adult skier. (Yes, with the right motor, you can ski behind pontoon boats.) But that doesn’t mean I’m gonna one day get up and decide today’s the day to try again.
First, I have way too many other outdoor hobbies to add another. And second, these days, I’ve accepted that skiing is just never going to happen for me; I’m pretty clumsy and speed is not my friend. I’ve made my peace with it and still laugh with my folks how I didn’t let go of that rope.
Lastly, I’m not saying my parents introduced me the wrong way. I’m sure they did everything safely and right. But sometimes even the smallest thing can make children—especially an introverted child—uncomfortable and hesitant to try something for a second time (if at all).
My sincere hope is that with these steps, you can teach your child to water ski. Just don’t be disappointed if they’re more of a quiet paddle sport kind of gal (or guy). Kids need to find their own way to appreciate the water!