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.

No comments:

Post a Comment