Monday, January 31, 2011

Taha's Family

Day One


Taha had initially learned to ski in Austria but had mostly skied in Kazakhstan - so this was definitely going to be interesting. I've never met anyone before who skied in Kazakhstan. Prior to changing anything we recorded his skiing on video. Well I had to give full marks for determination.  It probably takes a lot of talent to ski so well with so little technique.  The skiing was visibly stressful and not looking like a whole lot of fun - so there was clearly a lot of work to do to put this right.

The main problems obvious in Taha's skiing were that he was leaning on the back of the ski boots and locking up the leg muscles. The legs were stiff and static. The skiing was two footed and with a twisting outwards of the upper ski  into a stem to begin the turn. The entire body would rotate and and he would drift sideways as a result. The hands were held way too low pulling the shoulders down. On the positive side he did move into the turn with his body once there was a bit of speed - and he never fell over despite all the problems.

It was very difficult to know where to begin so I decide to try "dynamics" because Taha had quite an aggressive attitude and would not be afraid to experiment with accelerations. At least with the dynamics it might be possible to become aware of "pushing out" the skis and start to replace it with a conscious movement inwards of the Center of Mass.

Taha quickly understood the difference between "balance" and "dynamics" and could understand that the idea was to "fall over". We did the standard "wall" exercises on the slope with Taha leaning against my shoulder and feeling the effects of both statics and accelerations on the pressure on his feet. He was able to change this in his skiing almost immediately, but only when doing it as an exercise. When thinking of anything else the old movement pattern would return with the leg pushing out instead of the body moving in. This is normal for anyone with a strongly built in movement pattern and a successful survival strategy invested in it.

Skating Lesson
Taha had never skated and had no skating skills. This was obvious because he could not skate across the flats to displace himself. Skating is an extremely important fundamental skill to have in skiing so we needed to look at that as soon as possible. I rapidly taught Taha how to skate on the flat by diverging his skis and having him hold onto my poles and push me along backwards. Replacing me with a slight fall forwards causes forward propulsion. Gravity is actually the source of the forwards propulsion when this is done correctly. Most people think it is just muscle power but it is a controlled fall. This fall relates directly to dynamics in skiing for several reasons. Basically skiing is just an exaggeration of this fall with the ski actually bringing the skier back up. The timing of the leg use - down then up - corresponds to the dynamics of "toppling" or falling to get the CM into the turn and then the ski bringing the skier back up out of the turn.

Feet and stance
Over a coffee indoors we removed the ski boots and worked on the basic stance and use of the feet. Taha kept one boot on and when he placed the weight evenly over the feet and bent down he could feel the ankle "collapse" on the leg with no ski boot and the other ankle being supported by the ski boot. I explained that both are wrong. We never want the ankle to collapse and never want the boot to take over the work of the leg. We need to support ourselves and strengthen the ankles. The key to making this simple I demonstrated was to stand on the heels. Bending when standing on the heels causes the ankle to stiffen and all the bending to take place in the hips and knees - which is what we want. If you pull up the toes you can feel the anterior tibialis also stiffen up and strengthen - that's the muscle running up the outside of the shin. This can be complimented now by using the freedom of movement in the sub talar joint between the ankle and the heel to rock the feet from edge to edge - corresponding to the edges of the skis. This stance does NOT cause a skier to fall backwards - it permits him to stand up. Taha's "leaning back" comes from a combination of simply trying to remain vertical instead of perpendicular to the slope and because he was always previously trying to press down and in on the ball of the foot and big toe, bend the ankle and lean forward - which collapses the ankle and causes instability and "falling backwards" instead.

Feet rolling
Taha immediately incorporated feet-rolling with his new dynamics and when he did it correctly it really made a difference. The problem is that he would keep reverting to his old ways.


Little Mete, aged six and a half, was starting from scratch.

We began on the flat just stepping around in circles. To begin with Mete creatively found his own way of turning. I wanted him to push off the ski using the edge but he decided to push off the other foot and step the ski out and turn it in the air at the same time. This was easily corrected and we soon moved on to sliding along on one ski, then to skating on two skis and bringing in the knees slightly to feel the inside edges of the skis. His knees were initially going outwards so the correction was necessary.

Pole holding
To get Mete up and running quickly I decided to help him by using one of my ski poles to support him along side me. He was quite comfortable with this approach and I'd be able to control him so that he would get the right sensations of parallel skiing from the very beginning.

Forward diagonal Sideslip
The start of the beginner's slope is quite steep so it involved a lot of forward diagonal sides-slip. Mete had no problem copying my skis  with his ski and never once struggled or had a problem. He responded well to be pulled into a parallel turn from the side-slip so I maintained this process - always starting this turn from the uphill edges.

Pulling top ski against my pole
I used my pole in the ground for Mete to pull against with the inside of the tip of one of his skis - so that he could feel the adductor muscles on the inside of his leg and how to use them. He understood this very effectively and was able to exploit it correctly right from the start - because he didn't have any "snowplough" to deal with.

Pivot turn
Mete was shown the pivot turn from the top ski and understood it straight away. He wasn't pushing the top ski out anyway so had no trouble keeping the top ski off its inside edge and pulling it into the turn. he quickly managed to do this when skiing with me supporting him and then I asked him to control and dictate the turns - which he managed to do well.

By the end of this first session Mete was able to ski the bottom part of the slope alone and some turns were almost parallel already.

Day Two

Mete and Cagatay

Day two was for both the boys - Mete and Cagatay. Chagatay missed day one due to feeling poorly after travelling but now looked in fine form to get started on his skiing.

Cagatay already had a very little bit of skiing and so could slide down a very small slope and snowplough, so we didn't waste any time and just went straight up the moountain - to the top - of the beginner's slope - where I would assist both Mete and Catagay to descend. To start with I took both of the boys side by side on my ski pole and was surprised to find that it worked very well. I expected some sort of pile up but it never happened. Both boys were thoroughly enjoying themselves and I was focussing on making them feel the right sensations of acceleration, edging, side-slipping  and speed control across the hill. This is just another way of learning to "understand" skiing - without too many words.

Mete very rapidly progressed so that he could descend nearly all the slope by himself and after a few runs he was even able to tackle the sheet ice traverse with a very long forward diagonal side-slip - his top ski slightly diverging uphill as I had advised. Most people panic on such a traverse and point the top ski downhill in a plough and then accelerate out of control. Mete did a good job here and had good control over his body. 

With Mete now fully independent I could focus on bringing Cagatay up to speed. He responded in a similar way to his brother and liked speed - but only when I was holding on to him! Both Cagatay and Mete had difficulty standing on the left leg and had strong tendencies to prefer the right leg - even when they should have been on the left. All this takes to cure is for it to be explained and for more practise. We all have a preference for one leg or the other - it is only more obvious when dealing with beginner issues and when learning skiing without  a snowplough - thus a requirement to stand on one leg and ski almost parallel from day one.

Cagatay was taught the "pivot turn" just like Mete the day before - but had a tendency to convert it into his snowplough  to begin with. I talked him though the turns constantly and progressively he managed to change things. 

Lifting and padding inside ski
Mete was able to go off and ski with his dad while I focussed on Catagay. I told the boys to lift up the inside ski during the turn - but to pad it up and down on the ground through the turn - so as to make them stand more on the one outside leg and to reduce any tendency towards a defensive snowplough. 

Magic Wall
The boys heard about the "Magic Wall" for the first time - the invisible wall that appears either side of them when the move forwards! I pretended to be that wall and they did the dynamics "shoulder lean" exercises. I explained that the harder they pushed against the invisible wall the stronger they would be and that they couldn't fall over - if they believed in the magic. Of course they would feel nothing against the shoulder because you don't actually feel the invisible wall (in adult speak the invisible wall is called an "angular acceleration" - and it's real)

The boys both practised the magic wall and lifting the inside ski and by the end of the day Mete was more or less skiing parallel - that is he was parallel on his right leg and not so much on his left. Cagatay managed to ski from half way down the slope on his own in good control so he was already semi independent with the snowplough steadily disappearing and being replaced by dynamics and the support of the outside leg.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

St Foy - from scratch

Day 1

A fine winter's day in St Foy - warm in the direct sunlight, no wind and very few people! Perfect conditions for learning to ski! Roger, Ian, Jenny and Carol had all tried skiing before and been traumatised by the experience so there was a great deal of apprehension reverberating in the clear mountain air. All had suffered from either poor teaching or through succumbing to peer pressure - "Sure you'll be fine, just come with us up this red run, we'll look after you, it's easy... "

Roger had the unfair advantage of possessing a bionic knee. On occasion  there was to be a battle of wills between Roger and his knee and the knee did seem to be winning at times. Jenny  would probably have preferred to be having her head hacked off by the Taliban rather than find herself here sliding on skis. Ian gave a good impression of being an ex Olympic skier just pretending to be a beginner and Carol was outstandingly normal.

Jim and Carol no.2 could ski and wouldn't be in the beginner's group. Jim repeated the fact that he had only skied 4 days often enough for nobody to believe him in the end and Carol-2 just got on with enjoying St Foy.

Where to Begin?
When you have a mixed bag of beginners - all with different personal histories, different morphologies, different fitness levels and different motivation levels, then the first thing to do is to determine exactly where to begin and along what lines to proceed. All were adults and would therefore accelerate faster than small children. (due to body volume to surface area ratio). No one had any experience of skating. Lack of skating experience (therefore ability to slide on one leg) and risk of quick accelerations, plus a short beginner slope and short period of available time meant that only one option was available - the dreaded snowplough.

Ski Familiarisation.
When people are not familiar with skis - or suffered some deeply discouraging experience 20 years earlier, which prevented them from skiing again, then they need to get used to skis in a safe  and progressive manner. On a tiny patch of level snow (where nobody had yet built a house) we all put one ski on. I suggested the right foot because most people are right footed. Walking and stepping around in circles with one ski on gives people time to get used to the enormous foot they now possess. With the right ski on it's important to step / turn to the left, learning to feel the inside edge of the ski and foot. This is also the first introduction to sliding on one leg - which is what skiing is really all about - though people don't realise this yet. Edging skills are already being developed. The ski is held on edge by the stiffness of the boot shaft running up the leg - the foot cannot flatten - so this gives the experience of gripping with a sharp edge on the inside of the ski while always stepping to the left (when using the right ski). The person is also learning to displace the body (centre of mass - CM) by gripping with the ski. Skaters do exactly the same but the blade is under the centre of the foot so there is no need for a laterally stiff boot shaft to prevent the skate/foot from flattening. Some people struggle already with this because they find the ski just slipping away from them sideways instead. Stepping to the left onto a ski boot - with no ski - gives a sense of security and a freedom to move the CM towards the intended direction of turning. The turns here are meant to be incremental step turns. Everybody managed this fine. Ski poles were used for stability and support. After several minutes of this we removed the ski and placed it on the other foot. This also allows people the opportunity to get used to getting in and out of skis without fear of sliding off out of control. With the ski on the left foot we did step turns to the right now. I pointed out that all twisting actions must be avoided - that turning was through stepping at the moment - definitely not by standing on the ski and twisting it in the desired direction. This is the essence of lesson No 1 - twisting doesn't work. Do anything but twist. Don't twist anything - unless you can afford to break it. The bionic knee initially had a strong desire to twist the ski into a turn - but gradually it was tamed and brought under control - at least for a while.

Most people would think that there is very little interesting about stepping around with one ski on, but the reality is that seldom is enough time spent doing this and a lot can be learned from it. We need to get used to using the edges of our feet in skiing because they relate to the edges of the skis. Normally our feet flatten when we stand on them so we don't use the edges of them - except for some martial arts kicks to the head.

The body also needs to get used to accelerations. When people are not used to accelerations the body reacts reflexively by fighting the acceleration instead of going along with it and it can take anything from a few minutes to a few hours for this to stop. Interestingly though, it does stop all by itself - only patience is required. Any rapid increase in accelerations beyond those that the body has already accepted will cause the same reaction - and each time patience is needed until a new threshold level is established. Usually after the initial adaptation to micro-accelerations has taken place it becomes much easier to adapt to bigger changes in acceleration.

Two Skis
The inevitable next step was to put both skis on and to continue stepping. One other advantage of doing this on the flat is that it isn't too tiring. We could have worked on quite a few things here but I cut it short. Had the plan been to develop the skiing though skating we would have remained on the flat a lot longer and developed skating skills and ensured that there was also correct use of the ski edges for stepping uphill and back downhill - but the decision was to go straight for the dreaded snowplough and build skills in a different manner.

Bullfighter Turn
We continued forwards, taking us straight across into the middle of the beginner's slope. First of all everyone had to realise that both skis had uphill edges (corresponding to the feet) and they both had to be used to prevent any sort of unexpected charge straight down the hill. Each person in turn would have to execute a "bullfighter turn" to get the skis pointing downhill without sliding off. The poles are held with the tops in the palms of the hand and then the points are placed at full reach downhill - one either side of the body with respect to the fall line. There must be an almost straight line from the pole tip up to the shoulder so that bone structure is used for support and not muscle power.  Prior to doing this I had demonstrated the special version of the dreaded snowplough that would then be required to take over from the pole support. The poles are then returned to a normal hold with the points facing slightly behind the skier and the grips properly in the palms of the hand.

Natural Snowplough - straight running.
Remember I mentioned that the feet go flat when we stand on them? This is the key to making a snowplough much more functional and bearable. If you ever have to do a snowplough for any reason then do it this way. With the skis in the classic plough position let the legs go loose and floppy and notice that the feet go onto their outside edges. The knees go slightly outwards and there should be no muscle strain on the legs or hips.  With the legs sticking out to the sides the ski boots will be at the same angle to the ground as the legs and this means that they will not permit the skis to flatten on the snow. Both skis will remain on their inside edges. The skier's feet however will try to flatten inside the ski boots and for this reason they will end up with all the pressure along their outside edges.
We now have the seemingly odd situation where the skis are on their inside edges but the feet are on their outside edges inside the ski boots. Well, get used to it. Everything is really weird when you first come across it, but you get used to it after a while.

When stepping we used the inside of the foot and the inside edge of the ski, but now we use the outside edge of the foot with the inside edge of the ski. There are four possible combinations of foot/ski edge relationship. We used inside edge of ski and inside edge of foot for our step turns (and also for skating) then we use inside edge of ski and outside edge of foot for basic snowplough.

This stance in the snowplough releases all tension in the leg muscles and allows the legs to be pushed out very wide even for relatively stiff people. The braking effect of the plough is increased the wider the plough is and reduced the narrow it becomes. There should be very little muscle power involved. Most people try to "pull in" to slow down with the feet on the inside edges - and this just leads to a battle with all parts of the the body and skis in a massive conflict and the victim being the skier himself. Everybody managed a controlled descent with easily varying the width of the plough. You can see when someone does this correctly because the knees point slightly outwards. Some people do get knee pain from this though, but they tend to get pain from any form of snowplough and less in this way than if they were trying to hold on desperately with the inside edges of the feet.

Turning with Centre of Mass
First turns in the Natural Snowplough were made by simply moving the CM slightly in the direction of the new turn. Already in the step turns we had been doing the same thing naturally. This is what we do when we walk or even unconsciously when riding a bicycle.

Jenny never got this far because her refusal to go at more than 1mph evolved into a decision to remove the skis and bring the torture to an end. She was doing fine but was obviously very, very tense and too uncomfortable to get any pleasure from her progress. I'm sure Jenny will have another go in her own time when she can build up the right motivation to deal with the tension. She was perfectly competent but a little bit undermined due to fixing her stare on the ground - which always makes you think that you are moving much faster than you are - just like looking at the ground out of a moving car or train window.

At this point all I explained about the movement of the CM was that by moving it very slightly to the left it would cause the left ski to flatten slightly and the right one to go a little more on edge. This is more than enough to cause a turn to the left just due to the function of the skis. The motion of the CM in this case  is very subtle and requires that the skier avoid any twisting or contorting of the body. The movement has to be natural just like in walking - the whole body very slightly toppling in the direction it wants to go.
Only Roger had a few problems with this because he was being taken over by the bionic knee and constantly twisting his body away from it to place it over the human knee instead. Basically, because Roger's body unconsciously didn't want to stand on his left leg (bionic knee) there would be tendency to twist the body away from it over the right leg. This twist caused the CM to move to the left and flatten the left ski and raise the right one more on edge - making a turn to the right extremely difficult. It's a vicious circle because it leads to more twisting to the right to try to force everything around - which makes it worse. To be honest a more gentle and longer slope would have helped a great deal - but if that terrain existed here a hotel would already be built on it.

This mechanism of turning is already opposite to that taught in ski school. With schools using the incorrect concept of "balance" they tell people to transfer their weight to the outside ski (right ski to go left) and so move the CM to the right to get the weight on that ski. The ski is pointing downhill and so immediately acts as an accelerator and with the CM going towards the outside of the turn the skier simply heads off downhill out of control - or fighting to stay in control. With our Natural Snowplough the weight if anything moves over the flattened inside ski and that ski acts as a brake feeding the skier into the turn slowly. As the skis come around (due also to their different edge angles) when they cross the fall line (line straight downhill) the lower ski naturally takes the weight due to geometry (slope angle) and continues to give the security of a brake as it is also on the uphill edge. The turn continues as long as the skier keeps the CM towards the centre of that turn. The skier always has pressure on the ski that is below him on the mountain and always has a brake for control.

Separating Cause and Effect
Much of classical science is about separating cause and effect. It's important to start to become aware of the difference between cause and effect even here in skiing. The pressure changes under the feet are mainly:
A) an "effect" due to the geometry of the mountain changing with respect to the direction of gravity during a turn.
B) Through the angular accelerations generated by the skis.
C) Through our muscle induced accelerations of the CM into the new turn.
"Weight Transfer" is commonly talked about in skiing and it is thought of as the primary cause of pressure changes under the feet, but it is not. The fact is that you can turn perfectly well  in both directions on one ski alone so some other mechanics must be at work. The idea of Weight Transfer is simply mistaking  mechanical pressure changes for the simple act of the body internally switching from one leg to the other. For those of us lucky enough to have two legs we generally benefit from using both alternately.

Adding the "Little Toe"
With the basic mechanisms in place we were able to start to look at more detailed issues. The body's interface with the ski is the foot - so awareness of what is happening at the feet can have a big impact. We have 38 muscles in the feet and I'm sure you can name every one of them and move them individually. To begin with I set the task of using just the little toe on one foot. When turning to the left, using the little toe of the left foot to try to push the tip of the ski across into the turn to the left - helping to feed it into the turn. Most noticed straight away how this made the turn considerably more active and rapid. This subtle action is causing the downhill ski to "pivot" into the new turn, supporting the larger part of the skier's weight. While this happens the other ski can also do a better job of pushing the skier into a turn too.

Adding the "Inside of the Heel"
Once everyone had assimilated the new feelings to a reasonable degree it was time to add the next part. Still using the example of turning to the left, it was time now to roll the right foot over onto the inside of the heel. This would bring this foot onto its inside edge for the first time in the snowplough and even cause the adductor muscles to be used on the inside of the leg. With the CM having moved to the left slightly it would mean that it should now be easy to "pull" the right foot over onto its edge and increase the grip and directional effect of the right ski. Now the feet are doing opposite things - the left one on its outside edge with the little toe pushing to the left and the right foot on its inside edge on the inside of the heel and pulling inwards providing more grip than before. Carol was the one to mention how she felt the extra grip.

Great progress was being made by this stage so I decided to throw a potential spanner in the works and see if I could get anyone to make a quantum leap directly into parallel skiing. There are two ways to do this on normal skis so I decided to try both of them.

Instant Parallel Method 1 - Top Ski Pivot (evolved from bottom ski pivot in the plough)
Until now the turn speed had been controlled by using the "inside" ski (inside of turn) pivoting into the turn and  then letting the new downhill ski take over in the second half. I now wanted it to be understood that the same mechanism could be transferred directly to the uphill ski and the whole turn could be carried out on it. This involved placing the two skis close together as in a traverse across the hill and making sure that both skis were on their uphill edges. The lower ski was then lifted off the snow leaving only the top ski on its uphill edge. A small movement of the CM downhill would be enough to cause this ski to pivot into a turn. The ski would change edge in the fall line and complete the turn as the skier's CM continued to fall slightly into the turn. Ian and Carol managed this quite well but Carol was quickly back to the security of the snowplough. Beginners tend to look for stability from two legs instead of stability from "organised accelerations" on one leg. Part of the skier's development is to steadily replace all "balancing" mechanisms with accelerations.

It was pointed out that one key to this exercise was to commit to standing only on the one leg and not putting the other one down. This is a key to parallel skiing in general and although both feet are normally on the ground the skier's stance should be as if on one ski.

The use of the downhill pole was added for support to replace the support of the "removed" downhill ski at the start of each turn. This helped people succeed better in the pivoting exercise.

Here the skiers were unwittingly introduced to a third combination of foot/ski edging. At the start of the turn (to the left) the (right - uphill) ski is on the top (outside) edge and the (right) foot actually rolled over onto the lower (inside) edge. This is another new sensation and now which is normally totally ignored in ski teaching. This is the key to very tight and rapid pivoting of the skis. Basically unlike the plough where the outside ski is placed on its inside edge and can't turn quickly, here it is on it's outside edge and so in the downhill direction there is no resistance against the lower edge and nothing to stop the ski from slipping rapidly into a pivoted turn.

It was also pointed out at this stage that the pivoting ski was assisted with a pulling inwards through the adductor muscles (groin/inside of upper leg) and that this muscle movement pattern was the exact opposite of the snowplough. In fact the reason that I try if possible to avoid teaching snowplough is because it trains the wrong movement pattern for skiing in general. It teaches people to "push outwards" instead of pulling inwards. The need to pull inwards during a turn is critical but mostly people persist for a lifetime in doing the opposite and this severely limits their skiing development.

Instant Parallel Method 2 - Basic Dynamics
Despite the rapid progress I was seeing with the pivoting turns I wanted to get to parallel even faster so decided to teach "dynamics". There is already a lot written in this blog about dynamics so I won't go into a great deal of detail here. The exercises to transmit the feeling of acceleration of the CM were done - where the skier had to lean hard against my shoulder and various ways of moving against the shoulder were tried and the effects of pressure at the feet observed. The aim was to teach what it means to accelerate the CM and to build confidence so that even though I wouldn't be there to push against - when actually skiing - it would be still worth attempting this crazy counter-intuitive act simply on trust alone. Carol managed it very well but Ian really connected with it and was skiing parallel straight away. Dynamics is the real driving force behind skiing and it's the mechanism that permits parallel skiing. Basically - accelerate your CM left to go left and right to go right. If you do this correctly the acceleration puts pressure on the foot of the outside of the turn - accelerate the CM left and the pressure goes on the right foot. Move too slowly and the opposite happens and it doesn't work. It takes a commitment. I later found out that Ian is a keen motorcyclist and that pretty much explains why he isn't afraid to throw himself down into a turn and why he responds comfortably to accelerations.

Ian's Blues
Four thirty and a quick decision was made to whisk Ian up the chair lift for his first run on a green piste. Unfortunately nobody had told me that the green piste was not open! Luckily Ian was up for it and fully prepared to try out his new skills and understanding on the blue run. Very little correction was needed as he did a great job. On the steeper sections his inside ski was catching on its tail - which just meant that he wasn't moving inside the turn enough with the dynamics. Telling Ian this once was enough to correct the problem and he really enjoyed the descent.

Day 2

Beginners practise and work through a few things alone.
I happily let the beginners go up and down the beginner's slope on their own because they needed the time to work through things.

Explain Skating Timing to Jim and Carol
Jim and Carol were going to ski on their own so before they went off I decided to give them a few useful ideas to work with on their skiing. I'd noticed that Jim was a real two footed "heel pusher" skiing with almost linked hockey stops and Carol didn't have a lot of edge control so a useful start would be to think about skating. Skiing is really skating in arcs instead of straight lines and it's a very one legged act - but none of this is normally visible. I demonstrated skating downhill and then introducing bigger dynamics so that the skiing would simply turn into skiing without losing any rhythm or anything else changing. As the dynamics increase and the skis turn you more there is simply less and less divergence of the skis  - because you are turned instead. This "skating" is one legged, rhythmic, uses a "down/up" muscular action of the leg and projects the skier's CM into the new turn. All very different from a two footed push out to the side! I knew this would be hard for Jim but he actually performed it first time very naturally and well - but he was so concerned about feeling unstable on the one leg that he didn't realise it. Carol didn't quite have the edge support to permit skating at this stage.

Explain Dynamics to Carol
Just so that Carol would have a better chance of getting something constructive from the short lesson I explained dynamics to her - with the exercises as presented above. This is always something basic to work on and even when not carried out very strongly it still helps. Any improvement in dynamics helps a skier. The point to get over is that the moving skier should be trying to fall over - not to stand up in "balance".

Heel and Foot Roll for Beginners
Without going indoors the basics of how to use the feet were explained to the beginners. Placement of the weight on the heels to strengthen the ankle joint, bending only at the knees and hips. The anterior tibialis muscle on the inside of the shin was pointed out - the raising of the toes and standing on the heels tensing this muscle. It was shown that the boots can support a skier leaning on either the fronts or backs - but they are not intended to do so; the skier has to stand up and a strong ankle works best. On the heel the foot can be rolled from edge to edge using the sub-talar joint below the ankle (hinge only). This cannot be done when standing on the whole foot or bending the ankle and on the front of the foot.
Once control of rolling the feet was established it was time to apply this to skiing.

Apply Foot Rolling in straight run
Keeping a snowplough I asked each skier to only roll the feet and see what happens when travelling straight down the hill. They noticed that there was a very strong directional effect just from manipulating the feet alone.

Apply Foot Rolling to turning
The idea now was to return to turning and introduce the feet rolling. Everyone had more grip and more directional control win the turns. Rolling the feet left to go left and right to go right. Roger was still in a battle of wills with his bionic knee and so was somewhat distracted but appeared to more or less follow what was going on. Ian was able to apply the foot rolling directly to parallel turns. Roger at this point had to be corrected on dynamics because he was moving the CM too slowly into the turn so we briefly ran through the exercises again and this helped. Roger's distinct preference for one leg would simply take time and persistence to overcome. He did one descent amazingly fast though and fortunately I caught that on video and included it in the edited clip.

Both Jim and Ian were at a stage where they could really appreciate the value of the counter-intuitive insights required to develop a clear understanding of skiing.

We had already dealt with the illusion of "balance" and now understood that the opposite was required - the skier had to try to fall over. Ian noticed for himself that he couldn't actually fall over very far when he tried and so I pointed out to him that when developing skiing the goal is to increase the "dynamic range" - the amplitude with which you can "fall over" and this is the single most difficult thing to do. The intermediate level skier might only be able to incline to about 20° at most. What is shocking is that most people are trying deliberately to stay upright and even the instructors are examined on their "balance" - by examiners who are no wiser than their victims.

"Centrifugal force" was our next illusion to receive a visit. Just like "dynamic balance" it's a fiction - it doesn't exist. I used the analogy of a ball on a string spinning around your head. The only force acting on the ball is the string pulling inwards. This continually pulls the ball in - away from straight line travel - creating an angular acceleration of the ball. We have one force and one acceleration. There is no force going outwards - no "centrifugal" force. Let the ball go and it goes off at at tangent - not straight out from the centre of the circle but at 90° to it. When you sit on a merry-go-round you swear that you are being thrown out - but you are not. When you go around a turn on skis you swear that you are being thrown out - but you are not. You react in skiing by pushing your skis out hard to brace yourself against this outward force - but it's an error because it isn't there - it's an illusion. You should be pulling inwards instead. This brings us to the next illusion...

"Frame of reference" is what separates Einstein's physics from the classical physics that went before it. Newton's mechanics has a "subjective" frame of reference. Watch a ball travel though the air and you see a parabola. Einstein pointed out that there was an alternative frame of reference. Go off an Olympic 110m ski jump and take your ball with you. Once you take off, throw the ball. Watch the ball. What do you see? It  goes away from you in a straight line - exactly as in outer space. The ball travels in a straight line. Someone on the ground still sees a parabola - he is not in a "local" frame of reference. When skiing we need a "local" frame of reference for the ski. Our subjective view of the ski is that it skids outwards in a non-carved turn (careful here - carving is referring to edge lock turns only). Viewed from the ski something else is happening - the ski is travelling in a straight line at any moment and is being deflected "inwards" during a turn - not outwards - exactly as with the ball on the string - the only "turning" force is inwards. We have to help the ski work inwards and not be distracted by the illusion that it is skidding outwards. If we react by "pushing" harder on ice for example it will just make the ski skid out of control and the leg/hip muscles lock up, but if we pull inwards it will grip. Everything works inwards - CM, legs, skis, feet, skis and even our thinking must work in this direction.

On Ian's second run down the blue he managed to start to roll his feet into the turn and improve on his grip and turning control. He became aware of the connection between the feet, the CM and everything working inwards. In the second half of a turn there is however a component of gravity that literally is pulling you out of the turn, and the skis are powerfully trying to bring you up. If you want to complete turn effectively at higher speed then this needs to be taken into account and it requires a great deal of awareness of the body to be able to get the CM much further towards the centre of the turn - and then out again rapidly when required.

Monday, January 24, 2011

1st Winter Run

Decided to start running again despite the inevitable washing load that each run generates - with four or five layers soaked through with sweat. Started with a very short 30 minute slow run so as to avoid the dreaded DOMS. Running is definitely more suited to skiing than cycling because it involves strong eccentric contraction of the leg muscles - as does skiing - and cycling doesn't do this. The other advantage of running is that it increases bone density and strength - which is pretty valuable for skiers! Normally when I pick up running again after a lay off it's tempting to go too far too fast and then there are four days of painful muscles to live with while the legs recover. The eccentric contractions put a violent load on the muscles that really hurts them when they are not adapted. I don't know why it should be so, but no amount of cycling fitness can protect you from this effect when you start running. You'd think that cycling fitness would help to some extent but it doesn't.

There is very little snow or ice on the ground this year even in the shade here in the valley at 700m altitude - so it's perhaps a good winter to exploit that situation. I think that winter running is probably best kept to short distances - about 10k -  to avoid freezing once the sweat soaks everything. Another advantage of running is that it brings variety to exercise and the legs travel though a far greater range of movement than in either skiing or cycling - where the legs are always in front of the body. I find this stretch of the legs behind the body helps to mobilise the lower back and to relieve stress in the base of the spine.

Skiing fitness...

Bit of a lull in the teaching just now - late January being a very quiet period with few people on holiday. This would be an ideal time for people to come out skiing because there is less crowding. Personally I always try to organise myself to avoid the crowds - but then I've never followed the crowd.

Took advantage of the down time to get back on the bike - indoor trainer (virtual reality). Was amazed that I haven't lost a lot of power since peaking back in late October. Back then I could average 224 Watts output for a course of 01:06:10 hrs but yesterday managed 215 Watts over 01:08:40 hrs. The only real difference was an average heart rate of 161 instead of 149 back in October.

Downhill skiing is definitely not great for fitness but there is usually quite a bit of skating around during the day. Still, I'm surprised not to see a greater drop off in fitness. Weight is going up quite rapidly though so at the end of this month it will be time to discipline all of that and get it under control - so that the entire summer is not spent sorting it out once again! I'm one of those people designed to survive an ice age - not global warming. Just looking at food causes a weight increase.

Frost - chaos

Car windscreen - this morning!

Just having written yesterday about chaos theory and the infinite variation that it generates, I couldn't resist taking a few close up photographs of the frost patterns on my car windscreen this morning. The patterns all look the same but are all different.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Emperor's New Colthes -Part 2

Why is standard ski instruction completely wrong? Why are the instructions back to front? Why can practically no-one see this or deal with it? What is going on?

Meet Mr d'Alembert... (or if you prefer not to heat up too many neurons go directly to the end of the post)

Jean le Rond d'Alembert, born 1717, found abandoned on the doorstep of the church of "St Jean le Rond", was just 10 years old when Sir Issac Newton died. D'Alembert became a brilliant mathematician. He had pretensions however to be a physicist and believed that physics should be based on metaphysical principles and not experimental evidence. Newton in sharp contrast based his laws of motion on experimental evidence. D'Alembert was rather special though because it was he who introduced "string theory" to the world in 1747 and that is today's main topic of theoretical physics and he directly generated the foundations of electromagnetic and other field theories, special relativity, and quantum mechanics.

So what has d'Alembert got to do with us? More importantly, how did he manage to screw up so many skiers?

Engineers today still use d'Alembert's mathematics to number crunch their way through mechanics problems. D'Alembert's concepts are logical and rational but unfortunately do not describe reality. There are many tricks in mathematics that work very well using abstract concepts - such as "imaginary numbers" - but which are not present in reality. Newton's physics - which is based upon reality - is the correct version. Newton's second law describes how unbalanced forces cause the acceleration of an object. A bullet leaving a gun is accelerating and just has one unbalanced force (ignoring air resistance) against it. This subject is called "dynamics" and is the mechanics of "disequilibrium". D'Alembert saw this problem from a mathematician's perspective and was interested in making calculation easy. He simply removed the acceleration and replaced it with an equal and opposite fictitious force - balancing the real force. This removed the pesky accelerations and made calculation simple and accurate. This reduced the dynamics problem to a statics problem with balancing forces - however to clarify that it was not statics he called it "dynamic balance". "Dynamic balance" is of course a fiction - not a reality. In the real world we have accelerating objects that are out of balance. Unfortunately people in engineering tend to think that D'Alembert's principle is the same as Newton's second law - but it is not. It is just a mathematical trick - there is no such thing as “dynamic balance” in reality.

Medical texts and sports instruction continually refer to "dynamic balance" with an air of authority - but they never explain it. Dictionaries define the issue away in a purely circular manner also without explanation. They are all paying homage to the Emperor's new clothes. The King of engineering standing in front of me summed it up when he admitted that he didn't know what Newton's third law was. That's quite something from someone who claims to be the most famous engineer in the entire world. The self-proclaimed king of engineering also stated the entire universe is in equilibrium and that even if he fell over he was still in balance. He didn't know Newton because he worked with D'Alembert's mathematics all the time and believed that this is how physics worked in reality. I wouldn't have bothered but he was telling me that all my theory (Newton) was wrong and I had used this theory to work out my ski teaching exercises. He did at least acknowledge that the exercises worked! 

The issue becomes even further clouded because we also use the term "dynamic balancing" for correcting the rotational behaviour of a wheel or for stabilizing a movie camera. There's more sense in this application but in reality this is not about "dynamics". A stationary mass may be in perfect balance on a fulcrum, but due to asymmetrical shape it will not remain in balance when spinning. The spinning object will then wobble and counter-weights need to be added or subtracted from the system to remove this wobble and also keep the object in balance when not rotating. In mechanics however a rotating rigid object is actually a form of "statics" (Newton's first law). Send it into outer space and it will rotate forever because there is no unbalanced force accelerating it. Some people might think that we are applying "dynamic balancing" to skiing - but this is simply not relevant. Newton's second law, dynamics, is relevant to the skier. Newton's third law describes the complete system of both the skier and the ground - with opposite and equal forces acting upon each separate object - unbalancing both objects. The Earth is so big though that we don't notice it being accelerated by the skier.

People are unconsciously determined to cling on to anything that justifies the naive belief in "dynamic balance". It's not because they want to believe in "dynamic balance" - it's just that they need to praise the Emperor's new clothes because if they don't they will risk being considered stupid and incompetent - exactly as in the fable. D'Alembert was apparently an argumentative and stubborn man and probably thrived on intimidating those around him – in fact he designed the Emperor’s new clothes for himself. It was for this reason that he appears to have failed to understand the significance of the experimental nature of Newton's physics. It's a bit like how people use a GPS without thinking for themselves or worse, without looking out of the window. D’Alembert was lost in an abstract world of mathematics.

People don't consciously try to conform like this, but there is usually something else helping the situation along. The idea that we are in "balance" is seductively simple and until very recently there were massive gaps in science that meant we couldn't explain how complex systems worked at all. Newton's laws at one stage almost became a religion with mathematicians such as Laplace thinking that if you knew the initial position of every atom in the universe you could calculate the future trajectory of everything and literally see everything in the future - like a God. The first people to spot that there were serious problems here were artists and poets who were not attracted by the ugly industrial revolution resulting from Newtonian mechanics. William Blake famously referred to this as "Newton's death" and spotted the "infinity in a grain of sand" that would reveal the limitations of Newtonian mechanics and pre-empted the discovery of chaos theory. Basically when dealing with more than two objects Newtonian mechanics broke down. Calculating the trajectory of planets worked perfectly when only two were considered, but no one could calculate with three planets. Newtonian mechanics went on to become the basis for social sciences and even brought the invention of communism. Modern mathematician Ian Stewart said "If Newton couldn't predict the behaviour of three balls, how could he predict the behaviour of three people?" Chaos theory simply points out that you can never know the initial position of objects accurately enough to be sure of the eventual outcome in a complex system. Laplace was wrong. Chaos theory explains why every snowflake is different and why every skier is different. The upright human being is more than just an unpredictable personality - he is a perfect model of physical chaos theory - a classic "feedback driven disequilibrium system" - constantly and unpredictably out of balance and corrected by feedback. We remain stable as an outcome of this "out of control" control. Newton's laws still underpin the basic motions but the physical control comes from intelligence - not balance. It's still tempting to define all of this away as simply "dynamic balance" - but that doesn't just tell us nothing - it's categorically wrong.

What does all this this actually mean then for the skier or other athlete receiving instruction? Quite simply, the instructions become completely reversed. (In a nutshell: The skier's job (and mindset) is to fall over. The ski's job is to lift up.)

Snowplough based upon “balance”…
Press the outside ski to turn. Move the Centre of Mass over the outside foot. If you want to balance statically over a foot you do have to move the CM directly out over it. This “outside” ski is pointing downhill and rapidly becomes an accelerator – the skier goes out of control and many problems arise because the CM has moved away from the turn instead of going into it as would happen in any other activity.

Snowplough based upon “dynamics”…
Move the CM over the inside ski. The inside ski flattens slightly and can slip into a turn but act as an effective brake at the same time. The CM has moved towards the centre of the new turn – which is a future requirement for more dynamic parallel skiing. When the skis cross the fall line the outside ski takes over automatically with the geometry of the mountain dictating the pressure on the ski – the pressure is always on whichever ski is downhill of the skier and helps the skier to brake and remain in control while developing the appropriate movement pattern for dynamic skiing. The start of the turn is actually done on the lower ski on its uphill edge. Later this skill is simply transferred to the other ski (one ski/one leg) and the plough is rapidly dropped.

If instructors can’t even teach a snowplough intelligently then they have no hope of working out anything more advanced – and unfortunately this is precisely the case. So what impact does this have on the ski industry?  There are several classic repercussions. The commercial ski industry is like a fast food business. This business thinks that people want to learn but without any effort or challenge and for a certain category of people they are correct – just look at how busy McDonald’s is normally. The “quick fix” simplistic “balance and emotion” based instruction will not challenge anyone – and it will certainly not challenge the ski instructor to exercise any neurons. Unfortunately it doesn’t work and most people give up after the first holiday – some statistics show that this is the case for 90%. Many people struggle on for several years to try to get rid of the snowplough – usually to try to please their friends or partners – and some people due to natural selection and variation simply succeed in spite of all the nonsense. Self-taught people usually fare better because at least they are not being brainwashed into doing the exact opposite of what is required. I know because I was self-taught and never had a lesson until starting instructor training. I was perhaps naturally selected to some extent but I did have a strong background in ice skating – which is really what skiing is all about anyway – except on a slope. In general the instructors themselves just muddle on the best they can. Some instructors succeed through pure personality - trying their best to help people to enjoy their experience even if they don't make much of their skiing. Many instructors just find ways around the useless teaching methods and have a bag of tricks they can use to help overcome the more obvious limitations - but few if any can really explain what is going on. Some revert to brutal natural selection in race courses - where in the USA it is estimated that from a starting number of 10,000 a team of 8 successful skiers will eventually be formed. On the more cynical side there is a great number of instructors who come to detest their job. They end up just doing it for the money. Many get into it because they think that they will be able to ski a lot and end up frustrated when they don't get that opportunity. They can't get satisfaction from teaching because they are trained to teach nonsense and it goes absolutely nowhere. The suicide rate amongst ski instructors in the Alps is shocking.

Skiing is a constant challenge at every level and that’s what makes it amazing. “Balance and Emotion” just don’t do it - and "natural selection" just isn't good enough.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Eilidh & Jon

Eilidh understood what she was trying to achieve from her previous work, but was not managing to get rid of the plough or to reduce the stemming (pushing out) of the skis to a convincing level. This left her feeling frustrated with herself. It's hard to enjoy your holiday when you are frustrated and annoyed with yourself and you feel that you just can't do something you know inside that you should be able to do. There is always a simple reason for this sort of issue and as a coach it's my job to isolate that reason and to show how to circumvent it. One of my favourite quotes from Einstein is "No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it."  Circumvention in this case would require a shift in awareness.

Jon had understood the message of the previous session - to avoid always initiating the turn on the inside (relating to the turn) edges of the skis - but wanted to improve also in other areas of his skiing. He was happy to work along with Eilidh who although at a completely different level of skiing would also be working on basics very relevant to Jon. Each skier would work on the same principles, only with different levels of awareness and control. I had already identified the main area for Jon to focus on next and this could be developed with a minor extension of the exercises that Eilidh would be concentrating on. Jon's main focus today would be on freeing up his hip joints, reducing  muscular "resistance" and generating upper/lower body separation and angulation. Another important goal for Jon would be to work on "timing" (in the event this was not necessary because by improving the other issues the correct timing appeared spontaneously.)

The parallel Universe of Eternal Snowploughers
I realised that I wanted Eilidh to escape from the unforgiving clutches of the snowplough and defensive skiing and that a direct approach was probably best. It's true that time and mileage can play a big part in overcoming problems but Eilidh had already persisted a long time in this manner without success - so it made no sense to continue along those lines. Even having a different understanding of skiing and the actions involved was not enough to break the stranglehold of the plough. There was even a risk that failure to bring about a rapid change would simply negate the value of the previous session altogether and Eilidh would be stuck in the snowplough for eternity. Most people however would just give up instead of continuing to waste their time snowploughing for frustrating mile upon endless mile of unpleasant muscle and joint strain. There is however an entire parallel universe out there populated with eternal snowploughers who never made it out. They are the 90% of beginners who statistically never continued.

The Plough Breaker
The only thing that appeared sensible to do with Eilidh was to literally break the plough by getting her to stand on the uphill leg though a complete pivot starting on the outside edge. This is a complete "plough breaker" move but requires some skill and definitely a lot more awareness of certain issues regarding standing squarely on one leg and accepting accelerations. Awareness in this department is quite a major issue because it involves commitment, overcoming fear and anxiety (courage), belief, acceptance of failure, persistence, trust (in the coaching), coordination, new feelings and understanding. Einstein was right when he called it another level of consciousness.

Exercises and Progress


Restricted Dynamics.
Making the pivot into a real "plough breaking" move would first require some building up. Eilidh had until now tried hard to work on dynamics but for the pivot the dynamics are relatively subtle and often minimal. This type of turn actually starts with the body in the vertical (it's what mistakenly makes people think that fall line skiing in deep snow is done by "leaning back"). The dynamics must be restricted to somewhere between "vertical" and "perpendicular", but at no point should the CM pass over the skis beyond perpendicular because that would change the edges of the skis and we are specifically trying to avoid that here.

Pole Grip.
The pivot is heavily dependent upon good and strong pole use. First of all it's necessary to grip the pole handle correctly - normally between the thumb and two middle fingers. This grip permits the pole to swing easily with a simple wrist movement but still holds the pole strongly. When skiing minimal arm movement is essential much of the time so controlling the pole from the wrist is a very useful skill to develop. I ask people not to use straps for several reasons. Straps are very dangerous off-piste and near mechanical machinery. The straps also tend to encourage a much lazier grip. Most pole use does not actually involve much physical force so straps are simply not needed. Even when force is used a good shaped handle will provide all the security necessary so that the pole will not slip through the hand.

Pole Use.
The pole is used in the pivot to help the CM move over towards the centre of the turn and to help to keep it there. With a very slow pivot quite a lot of weight should go onto the pole. The pole actually slows down the dynamics and prevents the CM from crossing over the skis and helps to keep the feet/skis below the CM on the mountain. To some extent the weight on the pole actually directly replaces the accelerations created through gravity. This is similar to how the exercise of pushing the shoulder against "the wall" provides a force against the shoulder which substitutes for angular accelerations induced by ski design. Force and acceleration are interchangeable by definition though Newton's 2nd law. In a nutshell, the pole replaces dynamics where reduced motion of the CM is appropriate. Put simply; for the skier it is very difficult to pivot without the use of the pole. Most people fail to lean far enough down the hill to get adequate pressure on the pole for pivoting at the start of the turn.

Bottom up the hill.
Towards the end of the pivot everybody initially allows the body to swing around throwing the CM straight out of the turn. The CM in fact has to be held tight in towards the turn centre - well uphill of the Vertical after the ski changes edge in the fall line, until the turn is over when it can return to vertical. To develop this we removed out skis and using the two poles downhill of the body as a support practised pivoting with just the ski boots - until everyone stopped the hips from spinning around and throwing the body downhill a the end of the pivot. Effectively this feels like trying to keep your bottom continually facing uphill  - and forced uphill - throughout the turn and obliging a deep bending at the hip joints. Jon was able to begin working on upper/lower body separation here - and in the context of developing his pivoting skills and edge awareness.

Avoiding putting the "other" leg down.
Returning to the pivot on the skis the aim was now to focus all attention on simply not putting the inside leg down on the ground during the pivot. For Eilidh this was the biggest step to make - involving real determination. Everything in Eilidh's body and head was screaming at her to put that leg back down - but I was screaming at her not to. This is where real commitment to that leg is necessary while all the emotions are trying to tear you off that leg and the body is unconsciously contorting in ways to avoid standing on that leg. Bit by bit Eilidh cracked it and managed to make complete turns on just one leg with no pushing out (only pulling in is possible when starting from the top edge and only one ski on the ground). This is the real "plough breaker" moment. 

Pole replacing inside leg.
It was now time to apply the pivot to skiing instead of confining it to just an exercise. Now that Eilidh knew the feeling of turning on one edge and starting from the top edge there was a strong chance that she could keep the same process working while moving forwards. The pivot exercise is done form a pure sideslip to separate and clarify the movement - but when skiing those qualities blend into the overall movement pattern - though they remain completely opposite to any "pushing out" action of the legs. One key to succeeding here was to emphasise the use of support from the pole. Thinking about simply replacing support from the inside leg by support from the inside pole really helped to give the confidence necessary to avoid putting that inside ski back down and avoid reverting to the two footed "push out" mechanisms.

Diverging tips.
To strengthen the process of standing on one leg I showed how the tip of the lifted inside ski could be swung downhill slightly, causing a divergence of the skis. We practised this in the pivot exercise prior to bringing it into the skiing. When I taught in the USA in 1992 the American Teaching System had the "Diverging Parallel" as it's ultimate high level turn. Apparently this was removed from the system later on - which is a shame. The divergence can begin at any part of a turn though it is mostly seen at the end and linked to skating as a way of directing the CM higher across the hill. In our case the slight swing from the diverging ski at the turn initiation is enough to direct the CM subtly into a new pivot.

Javelin Pivots.
Back in the pivot exercises I had to point out to Jon that he was tending to flex and rotate in his spine instead of in the hip joints. To work on correcting this we did some Javelin pivots, which involve pointing the raised lower ski directly downhill (with the top ski directly across the hill) and pivoting though 180° without the inside ski changing direction. This exercise dramatically increases awareness of the hips and U/L body separation. Jon worked at this on his own, incorporating it into his pivots.

Increased speed, inclination.
Now that Eilidh had broken the plough she could introduce a little speed and body inclination into the turns. This increases feedback and stability bringing a stronger sense of security.


Now that Eilidh was able to support herself confidently on one leg and was fully aware of all the issues involved in achieving or failing to do so, we could move on to developing the principle further.
One of the clearest indications that you are on the right track when learning is that something you are trying to do intentionally changes into something that "happens to you". This indicates that you are working with the correct principles and executing them well. When we use dynamics well in skiing then many things "happen to us". One of the most obvious of those things is that you find yourself on one leg. In reality this can be either leg - a common sight in giant slalom racing is for the skier to initiate the new turn completely on the inside ski due to extreme dynamics - but he is still only on one ski. Normal levels of dynamics puts the skier firmly on the outside ski in the turn. The point here is that instead of trying to stand on the leg it "happens to you". This is the result of training to be able to emotionally accept the situation and simple mechanics of motion - in this case involving edge awareness and dynamics. Eilidh was now able to ski faster and directly work on increasing dynamics. When she stemmed she was now aware of the issue and able to use this as feedback to correct herself. The objective now was to move the CM. The CM is what controls the turn. Eilidh was now skiing and in her own words described this as "a different sport". When you can use the CM you are skiing - you are off the "tricycle" and now on a "bicycle" - a different sport.

Turn radius - Exploring Dynamics.
Until now Eilidh had been controlling her speed though braking. When skiing properly using the CM then speed control comes though the choice of skiing "line". Any single turn if continued back uphill, will bring the skier to a complete stop. There is no need for any direct braking. Perhaps this is another example of things "happening to you" - of indirect control. Good skiers control their line. Normally the choice of line is best developed though using a race course where the gates as set to strict and intelligent rules developed over generations of experience. In France to set a proper race course you need an official license specifically for that purpose, because there is nothing left to chance.
To be able to chose your line you need at least some basic idea of how to alter turn radius. The main key to turn radius is once again found in dynamics. Increasing dynamics will directly decrease turn radius - though this must also respect edge control. Our turns were still based on pivoting and Eilidh had not yet stumbled upon the alternative - carving - which can add complications at this stage of development when it is not intended. An increase in dynamics means an increase in "power". The body must be accelerate more sharply into the new turn.
When the slope becomes steeper then a greater amplitude of dynamics is needed due to the increased angle of the slope. In the case of steepness it's the Dynamic Range that needs to be increased.

What is the Center of Mass?
The CM is an abstract concept from Newtonian physics. With a flexible body the CM does not remain in one place but it moves around relative to the body depending on what shape is being made. Normally the CM in an upright person is found somewhere between the pelvis and the belly button, inside the body. When a high jumper goes over the bar the jumper folds the body so that CM actually passes below the bar. This is the reason why jumpers are not allowed to "roll" forward over the bar because it makes it too easy. The CM poses interesting questions about body intelligence. 
When drawing with a pencil we become acutely aware of the location of the tip of the pencil - it literally feels as if it part of us. It's actually impossible to tell where the boundary of the intelligence of the body is. Our senses extend to the tip of the pencil or perhaps to the paper - or perhaps further to the object we are observing and drawing. The atoms in our fingers are all inert effectively "dead" items in their own right. The only thing that makes our finger atoms different is how they are organised - but then we are now extending this organisation though drawing - so where is the boundary? Athletes are effectively drawing with their CM.

Short Radius - Pre-empting
Eilidh was already at a stage where she could begin to experiment with short turns. The word "anticipation" is use a lot in skiing, but I find it to be generally inappropriate. "Pre-empting" is probably a more accurate description. Towards the end of a turn the ski is trying to bring you up. This tendency can be directly exploited to great effect. Instead of holding the body down into the existing turn to complete it, the opposite is required. Just as the new turn is starting to build up pressure the skier immediately abandons it and lets the ski kick him up and out of the turn and into another one in the opposite direction - followed by the same again. This causes lots of partial turns to be rapidly linked together and speed control comes now not from the line but from the sheer number of turns being made. Eilidh only had one attempt at this towards the end of the session but it worked perfectly until she picked up a bit too much speed. It takes some experience to learn to control speed with short radius turns.


Jon's Hip Awareness
Indoors we looked at the issue of posture and hip flexibility. Jon has spent periods of time working on body mechanics through various recognised methods. His work in this area has clearly given him a much greater than average awareness of his posture and he is considerably more capable and aware in this area than the majority of people - even professionals. Once Jon was shown how to recognise and feel what it is like to stand properly on one hip joint and for the upper body to be able to pivot freely around this joint - then he had no difficulty in identifying and reproducing the correct stance. Eilidh pointed out that this stance probably involves a stacking up of the bones so as to support the upper body over the head of the femur, instead of relying on muscles. This is probably correct. "Bone stacking" is commonly referred to in skiing but interestingly not with reference to the hips - which is quite strange. This is probably the most relevant and important "bone stacking" that happens. One way to develop this correct stance is to work on skating, because the hips need to be used in this manner when skating - but we didn't have the time available for that. Jon was shown how to set his lower back posture, by tilting his pelvis appropriately for his own back to obtain "neutral pelvis" then to contract his lower abdomen and perineum to strengthen the posture, then to "lock" this pelvic/upper body relationship, then unlock the hips to tilt forwards only from the hips. Once there is a forward tilt and relaxation of the muscles in the hip joint, then just by standing up on one leg the hip moves underneath the body - stacking up the bones directly. The unweighted hip moves slightly upwards because the entire upper body tilts to the side to bring the CM over the support foot. This posture gives the correct stance for the body to be able to respond and act reflexively.

Applying Correct posture in skiing.
Now Jon had worked hard on developing his pivoting skills, including control of rotation at the hips, we could directly exploit this further. The best way to develop hip awareness is to execute short radius pivots in the fall line but with both legs acting independently. For this exercise you do not have an upper and lower leg. Both feet remain below the body (relative to the slope) and at the same level on the hill. The feet need to be kept apart and each leg rotates independently - isolating each hip joint. Because this doesn't involve one leg coming right around below the other on the slope it makes it much easier to control hip rotation and to separate and develop awareness of control and flexibility at the hips. Jon was able to do this exercise without difficulty until the slope became too steep - where more practise would be necessary.

Pole support and turn organisation.
To help Jon on the steeper slopes I pointed out that he was not managing to get any support from his poles. The poles not only offer support but also give feedback to let you know that the body is in the right place. Jon immediately corrected for this. With the body in the right place for the short pivoted turns it now became important on the steep slopes to realise that there is a strong push up required from the outside (normally "lower") leg on the turn. This ski is meant to bring up the skier, but to control such a short pivot and control the momentum of the CM in such a short turn a strong active muscular input is required. This muscular input feels like a strong skate up towards the end of the turn. This action is not visible to the untrained eye despite it being powerful.

We took the new posture directly into a rutted end-of-day slalom course and despite the difficulty of trying to apply it in such conditions there was a marked automatic change in Jon's angulation. Previously in the slalom Jon had no angulation. Now there was angulation - and once again it was "happening to him" it was not something he was trying to do. There was still way too much rotation and not enough inclination but Jon needed to see that on the video to understand this. 

Loading up the ski.
Jon's final exercise of the day involved learning to feel what it is really like to use the hips to help the body get into a turn. Not only is there bone stacking involved but there is initially a total release of the muscular support. The aim is to get the CM down and into the turn as efficiently as possible so any any muscular resistance is simply going to interfere. Years of pushing skis outwards - starting from the snowplough - makes such relaxation virtually impossible for most skiers. The bone stacking is aiming towards selective muscle use as opposed to "resistance" where too many muscles are engaged and working against each other (especially when pushing outwards) - but now we have to go further and when organising the posture we have to be able to completely let go - with the body momentarily in free-fall and then take over with just the necessary muscle use - pulling inwards. To give Jon the right feeling I stood behind him and caught him when he dropped. We had to do this a few times until he dropped without falling backwards and understood the movement.
The most pronounced effect of dropping into the turn this way is that is clearly permits a strong build up of pressure on the outside ski deeper and longer into the turn. This of course is an essential component of "closed" turns in slalom. In "open" slalom turns where the turn does not have to be finished so far around the maximum pressure moves further up towards the apex of the turn and thus the skier is not slowed down. 
Jon tried this "loading up" by dropping in at the hips - in short carved turns to maximise the feedback and support. His success was highlighted by the fact that the dynamics conferred him the right timing - down and up - and a sense of rhythm that had up until now completely eluded him. Once again it "happened to him" because it was right - this is seen in the final part of the video clip above.

Both Eilidh and Jon are excellent students and were able to work together despite being at  very different levels in skiing. I explained to Eilidh during the first session that with teaching something that is so fundamentally complex as skiing it's like each person is a jigsaw puzzle. The final image is always the same (ideal end result) but with each person the parts of the jigsaw are always cut out differently - and so assembled differently. This can be due to many different factors including morphology, experience, aptitudes, strengths, weaknesses, emotions and above all previous exposure to coaching, practice and information. Standard ski instruction is so fundamentally flawed that the predictable outcome for many people is total confusion and effective paralysis or injury on the mountain. The degree people are affected by this issue depends almost proportionally on their intelligence - the more intelligent they are the worse the problem becomes - because they execute the nonsense instruction very accurately. Eilidh had previously been caught in this trap - like many other skiers I meet. Her progress over only two days - with the correct information - was excellent - as could have been expected. I started out by stating that the solution to Eilidh's problem would be simple but involve a shift in awareness. It was simple in the sense that all she had to do was stand on one leg - but she had to become much more aware to be able to do it.

Jon has developed excellent body awareness and is very quick to transfer this to skiing when provided with the appropriate information and opportunity. He lacks some confidence in his ability but really has no need to - excellent progress once again in a short period of time.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Jon, Duncan

I asked Jon what he wanted the objective of our group session to be and he stated that although he was skiing strongly and fast he found himself tiring much more rapidly than his friends and couldn’t understand why. Once again I knew the reason for this without seeing his friends skiing but promised to address this issue directly during the session. In fact this set the common theme for a session involving three completely different skiers.

Duncan’s skiing was a typical “ski school” product with 5 or 6 years experience. He was a relatively strong skier but trained in ineffective movement patterns.

Jon and Duncan working on edge awareness, dynamics and timing.

Exercise one: Short Radius Turns
I set off and did 50 short radius turns over a very short distance. The others had the objective of trying to match this. Jon managed 25, and Duncan 15. So why did I do this?

The key to very short tight turns and control of speed in direct fall line skiing depends on awareness of the edges of the skis and how they are being used. Both skiers had already demonstrated on a very short run a limited awareness of the use of their edges. Jon was solidly on the inside edge of his outside ski from the beginning of the turn but was not aware of any alternatives. Duncan was not intentionally using any aspect of edge control at the start of the turn - that is - he was not on the inside edge, but he was not aware of this. The reason for Jon's tiredness is simply that his being constantly on the inside edge of his ski meant that he was always generating strong forces through his carving skis - whether carving properly or not and this was wearing his legs down very rapidly. Duncan was not generating forces to the same extent but was not aware of this either. His skiing was lacking direction (in every sense of the word) but Jon's choices were limited too in a different way. It was no surprise to me that nobody could get close to matching my number of short turns - which could have been tightened up much more had I felt inclined that way at the time!

To execute the short turns this way it is necessary to initiate the turn from the top edge of the uphill ski - with the ski pivoting into the turn and only changing edge in the fall line. To achieve this it is necessary to keep the feet below the CM (Center of Mass) on the mountain. I showed how, relative to the perpendicular to the hill, that just standing vertically on the skis meant that the feet were further down the mountain than the CM. This places both skis on their top edges. Both or either skis can be allowed to easily pivot into the turn from this position. This is the reason why most fall line skiers ski with their feet together (think mogul racing). When you are in a steep couloir you want your feet to remain always below you - so this is also how you would want to start your turn there. It works in deep powder and makes skiing crud or crust off piste relatively effortless. This is also precisely what Jon needs to master to eliminate his tiredness problem. Predictably Duncan couldn't do this consciously or where required - such as in tight short turns - despite the fact that his "more effortless" skiing was due to an element of this being exploited all the time unconsciously and naturally. Both skiers needed to become much more aware of what they were doing. A skier's level is defined by his awareness.

Exercise two: pivoting on the top ski
We worked on pivoting on the uphill ski, letting the foot roll down onto the inside edge but relying on the placement of the foot below the body and the shaft of the ski boot to keep the ski on the uphill edge. The rolling onto the inside edge of the foot should also cause the adductor muscles to contract on the inside of the uphill leg. Normally I have to tell people to contract those muscles but this is one exercise where it actually "happens to you".

Exercise three: blocking with the pole and pulling with the adductors
During the pivoting I asked both skers to block with the downhill pole slightly behind the centreline of the feet and to pull the tip of the ski downhill slightly using the adductor muscles of the leg. This is not the same as "twisting". To show that this is not the same I tested both skiers by asking them to raise the uphill ski off the ground and pull the tip against my ski pole planted in the ground to block it from moving. Both to some extent ended up pushing outwards with their heel instead of pulling inwards. I adjusted both so that they could feel the correct muscular action and the heel then tended to come inwards instead.

Exercise four: skiing on one ski
Predictably both struggled badly attempting to ski on one ski. This is because it can only be smoothly done by avoiding early contact with the inside edge of the ski.

Exercise five: pivoting on the lower ski
We worked for a short while of pivoting on the lower ski and I pointed out that either or both skis could be used. (This is actually why - if I'm forced to teach snowplough - I teach it with the weight over the downhill/lower ski and use it as a brake into the turn - instead of a weight transfer on to the outside ski. This keeps the CM always going in the appropriate direction and the skier always on an uphill edge and safe.)

This section of the two hour lesson finished with me explaining that the principle of avoiding the inside edge can be applied to general skiing on any turns. In deep snow fall line skiing this contributes to the skis slowing you down as they are constantly acting as brakes downhill of your body.

Exercise six: skating
To begin with I just checked that both could skate OK and they were fine.

Exercise seven: the wall
Brief explanation of dynamics and the "wall" exercise. I included "pulling in" with the adductors so that while they were pushing against my shoulder they could also pull in with the adductors (since we had already been using them in the previous exercises). I explained how when skiing there is no actual force felt on the shoulder because it is replaced with an angular acceleration - but the force felt on the leg and foot are the same. 
This exercise was really for the benefit of Duncan: Jon already understood dynamics.
The fall line pivoted turns still use dynamics but they never get the CM crossing below the skis on the mountain - the CM always remaining somewhere between vertical and perpendicular - but never crossing the perpendicular.
Carving/racing or even just good clean development of dynamics requires practise at completely crossing the CM over the skis - beyond perpendicular at the very start of the turn. Jon was in fact doing this all the time without realising it and Duncan was practically never doing that. This is another aspect contributing to Jon's tiredness. I was trying to get him more aware of his options in both directions. I pointed out that it is best to "follow " the skis when developing dynamics to keep it simple - instead of trying to face downhill.

Exercise eight: toppling and timing from dynamics
I explained that "timing" comes from dynamics - you drop down into a turn and come back up out. I started to deal with this because I had observed some jumping up to initiate his turns and the timing was clearly back to front. I wanted them to practise dynamics but to start to become aware of the vertical aspect of it. 

Exercise nine: skating onto the uphill ski
At this point I wanted everyone to become aware that good skiers don't displace their feet - they displace their CM instead. The best way to develop this skill is to work with skating - because it is all about gripping with the ski or skate and displacing the body. We tried the exercise of skating across the hill and stepping up onto the top ski and then toppling into the turn - but someone found that confusing. I explained that it was mainly because standing up on to the top ski physically prevented him from doing what his body wanted to do - that is to push out the top ski. This can't be done if the skier is standing on the top edge of the ski!  This would appear to be "confusing" as the body would initially react against this constraint. However to save time I suggested cutting out the skate and to just stand up on the ski and topple to initiate the turn. I pointed out that the skating at the end of one turn helps you to stand up on the other leg to start the next turn. In fact I was aiming to eventually show how even the rhythm of skating - the down / up action of the leg - compliments the vertical motion of the dynamics - and works with it.
I point out that the ski "brings you up" at the end of a turn and that this is NOT the start of the next turn. It makes no sense to come up at the start of a turn. Skating just compliments and helps the ski to bring you up - because you are pushing up.

Exercise ten: skating into skiing
In skating you use your adductor muscles - you move the body to the "inside" between the skates, you go down and up. In fact when you ski you are just skating in an arc - that's another reason why skiing is "one legged". If you push out the skis then you can't remain "one legged". I demonstrate skating off down the mountain and increasing the dynamics until the skating converts into skiing - but without any transition or change of rhythm or mechanics.

Exercise eleven: short turns
I demonstrate short turns with a clear push up from the lower leg to complete the turn and control the momentum of the CM. This is to show how this the exact opposite timing from the common jumping up to start a turn. You can jump up even with this - but it has to be perceived as taking the power from the lift up at the end of the turn.

Exercise twelve: introduction to slalom
I introduced both skiers to slalom as a means to objectively test their skiing. The point is to use the poles as a visible clue as to where to direct the CM.