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.

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