Neil MacGrain – freeski coach and photographer

Neil MacGrain - the lecht

Photo: Neil MacGrain
Combining a coaching career developing Scotland’s promising young freeskiers with his own photography business, the affable Neil MacGrain reckons that, in the end, it’s all about working with people.

When and how did you first get on skis?
When I was about nine, on a school trip to the Hillend dry slope outside Edinburgh. From there, it grew into a passion. I guess my mum needed a way for my two brothers and I to burn off our energy – all three of us ended up being fanatical about snowsports.

How did it become a career?
I started as a snowboard instructor while at university, and worked nine winter seasons abroad – in Australia and New Zealand, then seven at Mammoth Mountain, California. For the first few years I taught recreational skiers and snowboarders. I found I enjoyed working with higher-level skiers, so after my third season at Mammoth, I started coaching on a competitive programme for kids. I’m now coaching manager at Snowsport Scotland and freeski coach at the West of Scotland Snowport Centre at Bearsden, which has some of the best freeski facilities in the UK at present.

What do you enjoy about coaching young people?
I’d not made a conscious decision to work with kids, but now I enjoy it. I love witnessing those moments when something just clicks for them, or when a competition goes well because they’ve worked hard. Their determination, fearlessness and brazen confidence make young people a joy to coach. They have the same intensity and passion about the sport as I have.

How do you harness that raw energy of youth to hone them into top athletes?
If you try to handle them as a teacher at school would, you’ll lose their attention in no time. They need the space to be responsible for themselves; there has to be a high level of trust that you know what you’re talking about… and you believe that they’re capable of tackling it. It’s all about building relationships. When new arrivals on the Bearsden club programme see me working with the kids at national level, it helps to build their trust quickly.

“It’s an exciting time for freeski, with half-pipe and slope-style included in the 2014 Winter Olympics”

What is freeski? It’s a relatively new discipline?
It’s perceived as being new, but has been evolving as a grassroots participation sport for the last 15 years; I’ve been coaching it for around ten. It’s all about style and doing tricks. There are three disciplines: half-pipe, slope-style and big air. Half-pipe has its origins in skateboard parks, while slope-style is basically a selection of jumps, boxes and rails to slide along and jump off, doing tricks. Big air is one single jump with tricks. It’s an exciting time for freeski just now, with half-pipe and slope-style included in the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. There’s talk of big air being included for 2018.

Do you think freeski is more attractive to youngsters than the traditional snowsports?
Freeski is very much skills-based, but skiers also need a fearless mentality to chuck themselves off things. Competitively, it’s a youthful sport – kids are winning at 16 and we look to start developing athletes from age ten. You typically only have until they’re 25 or so before they stop competing – the repeated impacts take their toll on the body!

What does this winter hold for you?
At national level, I’m working with our top Scottish athletes – whom we’ll take to the British Championships in Tignes, France, in March – to widen their repertoire of tricks. Hopefully we’ll see some of them in Team GB for 2014 and 2018. And at Bearsden we have some really passionate kids coming through, whom I’m watching closely. Talent-spotting is very much part of the job.

You lead something of a double life as a photographer. How did that start?
I fell into photography while working abroad – I bought a reasonable camera to shoot snowboarding and skiing and my interest grew from there. After returning home, I shot some weddings for friends, then friends of friends, and it became an income earner. It’s a lot of work but very rewarding. I still shoot quite a lot of snowsports too.

What does your typical week look like?
I usually spend three days in the Snowsport Scotland office and coach two or three evenings a week. There might be events and competitions at the weekends, and a few nights away… it varies every week. In the summer, when things are quieter on the snowsports front, there are weddings to photograph.

How do you switch gear from coaching young skiers to photographing brides?
They might sound like worlds apart, but essentially both boil down to working with people, getting to know them to bring out the best in them.

If you had an eighth day in the week, how would you spend it?
My daughter would sleep until 8am and I’d leave my computer and phone switched off. The three of us would go skiing, hang out and have fun on the hill. Then my wife and daughter would go home a little earlier and I’d stay on to do some extra laps with friends. Then home and a barbeque with a few beers… bliss.

More information

Snowsport Scotland is the governing body for skiing and snowboarding.

Neil’s photography website is at

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