Sunday, February 27, 2011

Luke Last Day

Val d'Isease
Last day and the sun was out. This time everyone was organised to arrive on time for a good early start beating the large ski school groups to the lifts. Florence unfortunately was missing though - still sick from the dreaded Val d'Isease. Leonie now had the bug too but like Luke two days earlier seemed to be bearing up well enough to ski - though it was borderline.

Warming up with a run down an early empty piste it was straight over to the slalom before the crowds arrived. Leonie wasn't feeling up to tackling the slalom so I suggested that she remain at the bottom of the course with me to observe the others instead.  The initial briefing for the slalom was to anticipate the new turn early, that is, to come out of the existing turn earlier than appears to be necessary. Slalom teaches people that their reaction times are normally too slow. By the time someone thinks about starting a turn it is already too late - the turn should already have been started and this has to become a reflex through training. This "anticipation" really concerns the exit of the previous turn - or the "Dynamics Part 2" as I described it yesterday. I didn't spend much time explaining this because there was only a brief window of opportunity to use the course before the crowds arrived.  

After the first run I altered the briefing to work on the "Dynamics Part 1"  - the throwing of the body down and into the new turn. Most people make this move "reactively". They move a little into the new turn and wait for feedback and support under the outside ski before moving further into the turn. Moving the body into the turn is an act of falling - exactly the same as the way we fall each time we take a step when walking and it's normally an unconscious action. I have read however that walking upright is NOT natural - that if a baby is not taught to walk it never will. Perhaps this is why people never automatically discover the true range of motion necessary for skiing. Being aware of the basic requirement to fall into the turn is only the first step of learning about dynamics - a bit like a baby taking its first tottering steps. The skier then has to become aware that the dynamic range is being limited due to unconsciously waiting for feedback and support within a very brief time and amplitude (of motion) frame of reference. The initial "fall" into the turn has to be "extended". Perhaps it should be called an "extended fall". This means that the time and amplitude of the fall goes way beyond the person's normal comfort threshold. Most people think that they can play off against the feedback and support from the ski and continue to drop into the turn progressively in a controlled manner - but the turn would be over before this would happen - and that's precisely why they don't get far enough down into the turn (dynamic range) to keep a fast line in slalom. Both Luke and Ella registered their fastest times when they tried this more proactive instead of reactive approach to the dynamics. Luke's fastest time was 32'44" and Ella's was 36'55" (3 second improvement from yesterday).

Leaving the slalom we free skied (still working on dynamics) over to the Toviere to take a look at developing pivoting skills.

Mont Blanc (Italian side seen from Val d'Isère)

The Pivot
Dictionary definition:
  1. A short rod or shaft on which a related part rotates or swings. 
  2. The act of turning on or as if on a pivot.
In skiing the turn that I call a "pivot" refers to definition 2: "The act of turning as if on a pivot". The legs are the only parts that rotate (in the hip sockets) and the skis swing into the turn.
The legs should remain "independent" in that they rotate like a pair of windscreen wipers instead of coming around clamped together parallel which forces the pelvis to follow in rotation (causing a fault commonly termed "hip rotation"). The feet can still be close together but the turn will end/start with the top ski slightly ahead due to the independent action of the feet/legs and the upper body remaining stationary facing downhill. (This does not prevent a pushing forwards/skating of the outside ski)

The pivot is how fall-line skiing is done correctly. This means that the body (Centre of Mass - CM) travels directly downhill - there is no acceleration from one side to the other across the fall-line. Both skis remain always below the skier on the hill (taking the perpendicular from the snow surface upwards the CM is always further uphill than the skis).  The skis are always on their uphill edges  - with the change of edges taking place in the fall-line. Keeping the skis close together is an effective way to ensure that the skis remain on the uphill edges (but not absolutely necessary). Allowing the skis to separate can change the geometric relationship between the CM and the top ski - placing the top ski on its lower edge instead. Feet are generally kept close together in traversing, side-slipping, bump skiing and pivoting for this reason. Off piste thus allows the two skis to be used as a single flotation platform. Either or both skis can actually be used in the pivot - this being the hidden reason why people often advise that the skis should both receive weight when off-piste. The body however should always position itself on one hip joint so that it functions through a one legged stance - even with weight on two feet.

Pivoting requires a solid support from the downhill ski pole. The pole permits the CM to move downhill in a controlled manner without the skis changing edge. It's not clear whether on not the pole provides a mechanical advantage or just a mental reference for timing and physical cue for positioning the body. The support from the pole probably reduces pressure on the ski and permits an easier pivoting action.

To try to help everyone connect with the correct sensation of the "pivot" - I physically assisted them through a full pivot one by one. For this the skier has to hold on to one end the their ski pole while I hold on to the other end and pull and restrain them though the turn. The skier has to stand up on the top ski and hold the body rigid while I do all the manipulation - pulling the skier sideways downhill, slightly forwards and with a slight motion of the CM towards me (inwards). The ski just slips around inwards in a pivot. Often this is the first time the skier has ever felt a short turn without the ski either being pushed outwards or stemmed outwards onto its inside edge.  Both Leonie and Luke properly felt the pivot for the first time here. Leonie had already managed a proper pivot when skiing on one ski the previous day - but was not really aware of the mechanism.

It was made clear that although standing up on the uphill ski on the uphill edge, the foot had to roll over onto its lower edge inside the ski boot, thus the adductors and even abdominals could be used to help to pull the front of the ski inwards into the turn - all the way around. 

Luke was reflexively getting stuck in the vertical even with my support through the turn and this was very revealing. Yielding to the physical support that I was giving he eventually managed to adjust to the perpendicular and allow the ski to pivot correctly. This also permitted Luke to get a better understanding of why he was habitually getting caught backwards in his skiing in general.

Bumps Revisited
Pivoting was then taken into the lower Tommeuses bumps (alongside the last pitch down to the chairlift). When the feet are perched on the shoulder of a bump then the tips and tails of the skis are free of contact with the snow and the ski is free to swing into a sharp pivot as it drops forward downhill and side-slips down the bank of the shoulder to the end of the bump. The process is then repeated in the opposite direction. Good pole support is required at each pivot and upper body rotation must be avoided. We did not look into timing or "compression" in the bumps because this was still just an introduction level and the focus was on the pivoting and edge control only.

Short Swings
Continuing with  extending the principles of the pivot we went over to the Semanmille piste (button lift) steep section to do some short swings. The action is identical to the pivot but this time the swing of the ski begins when the ski is in the air - so while in the bumps most of the ski is in the air, with short swings all of it is in the air (both skis simultaneously and parallel).The reduction of pressure on the ski is taken to an extreme by getting it airborne and consequently a strong pressure on the ski pole is required during the jump. The jump itself is from the uphill edges of both skis and is best viewed as being the end of a previous turn (Dynamics Part 2). As in the pivot the CM moves from the vertical to somewhere close to the perpendicular but not across the perpendicular because that itself would change the ski edges and here we want the ski edges to be changed effectively by only the geometry of the slope itself (crossing the fall-line). The jump is inwards towards the ski pole and forwards between the ski tips and the ski pole. Luke managed to use the short swings to actively improve his "fore/aft" coordination and to adjust to the perpendicular better.

La Grande Motte, Tignes

Off-Piste "Dynamics Part 2"
After the short swings we moved over to the off-piste and then used greater overall dynamics for returning to skiing on the inside edges. The energy from the short swings practise was retained to enhance "Dynamics Part 2" (but without getting airborne) to compete the turns in the tricky snow and render the turn transitions smooth. 

Following the Skis or Facing Downhill?
Luke understandably was a little confused about when to face downhill or to follow the skis. At that point an ESF instructor went by giving a perfect demonstration. He went into short turns and remained facing downhill then broke off into longer turns and just followed his skis.

The basis of "Facing Downhill" lies in skating. When a skater accelerates forwards the legs and body travel outwards laterally to the left on the left leg and right on the right leg. Skiing is just an exaggeration of this but instead of the leg and body going in a straight line the trajectory closes back again in the other direction making an arc. If the upper body is permitted to rotate then the skating effect with the legs is greatly reduced. A good racer is literally trying to skate and accelerate directly down the steep and icy fall-line. The best racers know that greater speed is their friend - the single most important factor in decreasing their turn radius. Most people think that speed does the opposite! The Upper/Lower body separation also allows shapes to be made with the body permitting the CM to drop better into the turn while increasing edge angle and the power of the ski - maximising "Dynamics Part 2". The skate doesn't look like a skate because both legs are working together despite practically all the force being on only the outside ski.

In the pivot the facing downhill permits the adductors and the abdomen to be used to good effect and to Place the CM so that it literally moves in and out of the turn automatically - permitting incredibly efficient and easy quick turning. 

When less energy is required from the body and quick turning is not required or stability in tricky terrain is the most important issue then "following the skis" is best.

La Grande Sassière, Val d'Isère

Off Piste - Lateral Thinking
The morning was all about working on ski technique and everyone did extremely well. Leonie had a slight confidence crisis but that was mainly due to being drained with effects of the stomach bug. She convinced herself that she had not progressed at all simply because she had "frozen" at one point on a steep pitch. Nothing that couldn't be cured (apparently) by a large traditional Savoyard cheese fondue!
The French have no word for "skill". They have no specific word for "awareness" either. My own interpretation of "skill" refers to a learned act that is successfully integrated into the unconscious mind. Consciousness in this context is nothing more than a feedback loop that permits us to re-program the unconscious - to learn. Leonie was simply not acknowledging her skill - because it is unconscious. Admitting to being someone who likes to feel "in control" she is really saying that she likes to be "consciously" in control - but the reality is that it's our unconscious that's in control. Even learning (re-programming aside) is not conscious in itself. Learning is a non-linear process of self-organisation that "happens to us" -  a natural phenomenon of complex systems - it's how they self optimise. Edward De Bono coined the term "Lateral Thinking" to attempt to define this. The Lateral Thinking that Leonie now needed was a proper off-piste excursion and some coaxing over difficult and steep terrain where her unconscious skill could make itself clear. That's exactly what we did and she did it well.
One particular technical point appeared to help Leonie more than anything else and that was the push up from the downhill leg assisting the ski in bringing the body up out of each turn. This meant that she had no hesitation in starting each new turn, could execute the turns rapidly and so never picked up speed on the steeps.

Further Notes:
The push up or skating timing is required in the pivot. If the push is strong then it can lift the CM slightly back up the hill (controlling speed) - probably following this with a subsequent reduction of pressure on the skis assisting the start of the pivot for the next turn - like a short swing but without the skis leaving the snow. This push up is even experienced in the bumps (in bottom of the hollow) prior to following it with a complete compression (reduction of pressure) of the legs as they swallow the bump and the pivot commences.  In more dynamic (basic) racing/inside edge turns the push up doesn't move the CM back up the hill or cause any loss of pressure - it simply assists the ski in bringing the skier up and out of the existing turn (like a motorbike uses power to rise up out of a turn). With racing/inside edge turns we are looking for MORE pressure at the start of the turn being provided by dynamics - not less pressure. Advanced techniques employing "leg retraction" actually use a powerful leg extension during the dynamics at the start of the turn to create impressive pressure levels on the skis - but this takes immense leg power.

Luke proved to be open to completely changing his view of skiing and made great progress as a result. His frustration at being held back to drill things slowly was quickly replaced by the appreciation of the quality and purpose of movement that he was developing. Luke being a triathlon athlete already knows the value of internalising his focus. Five days is not long for making such sweeping changes and new realisations and perceptions were falling into place rapidly towards the end.

Ella has a great attitude towards skiing and clearly loves it. From her starting level she probably made the most progress during the week and with her relative comfort in the bumps compensating for weaknesses in other areas she probably finished up on a close overall par with Luke. Luke was still ahead in the slalom and was clearly the best off-piste (mainly due to keeping his feet closer together than the others) but the tension created by being blocked in the vertical compromised him too much in the bumps. I loved Ella's fun attitude towards her skiing and the obvious joy that she gets out of it. However Ella, when there are a dozen skiers courteously waiting for you to drag your bum out of the deep snow so that they can make their off-piste passage and you continue to lie there giggling this might justifiably irritate the Lukes of this world! Actually those two groups who waited above us were exceptionally courteous and respectful - giving us priority in the fresh snow. They were groups guided by independent professionals. If they had been ESF groups they would have ignored us completely just to try to get to the fresh snow first. I really like Ella's giggling but think that she needs to strengthen her abdominals and generally toughen up a bit physically - especially if she wants to follow her desire to take skiing more seriously as a sport. Look at women like Lindsay Vonn - amazingly tough athletes but without any loss of femininity. If anything Vonn's femininity - the suppleness and feeling with which she skis - is what makes her special.

Florence to me showed some of the best potential because she moves in a very natural way, sensing the timing and rhythm more clearly than anyone else. It was very unfortunate to fall ill and miss out on development when things were really taking off for the rest of the group. Her dedication to her academic studies is highly commendable and should never be criticised - but I hope she will not allow this to stifle her excellent physical capacities and qualities. I think that later in life that would become a great regret.

Leonie overall gets my vote for the most courageous effort and greatest achievement. Irrational fears are extremely difficult to deal with and it takes real heart to confront this without allowing it to spoil your experience and real selflessness not to let it affect others around you. I think that Leonie used her skiing to grow this week in a lot of ways and that she really made the most of it. It doesn't matter whether you are the fastest or best skier out there - what matters is that despite every obstacle or difficulty you can turn it around to your advantage and enjoy it.


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