Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Eva, Andy–The Storm

Northwesterly Winds

Yesterday’s weather and snow conditions had been close to prefect – but nature has a way of balancing everything out. Today was one of those rare events where everything eventually gets blown into submission by powerful Northwesterly  winds. People trying to learn something about skiing were more likely to end up learning about their current limitations – which although perhaps not flattering is not necessarily a bad thing.

Yesterday Andy responded very well to the coaching but Eva appeared to be confused and subdued. Today they switched roles and Eva stepped up a whole level while Andy found himself more or less tied in knots. Not wanting to leave Andy lost and broken I morphed my half day into a whole one to have a serious go at trying to untie the knots and point Andy in the right direction. Fortunately I had the time available because I’d have felt horrible being obliged to abandon him buried beneath an avalanche of broken ski technique and confusion.

Survival “Warm Up”

From the top of the Solaise we headed straight into the wind for a “warm up”. Rigid outside (of the turn) legs and calf muscles jammed on the back of ski boots provided me with my main visual recollections of that warm up. We simply didn’t have the terrain and conditions to revise yesterday’s work and instead it was “survival” that mattered and making the most of the situation. Regardless of conditions or training exercises there comes a moment where the mental control of tension has to be worked on directly and this seemed as good a time as any.

Bullet Proof Stance

When skiing in unpredictable snow which rapidly changes between deep powder to hidden bumps and then ice, it’s important to have a bullet proof stance on your skis. That is completely incompatible with rigidity, tension and being caught back in the boots. Tension is self defeating and tends to lead to a vicious circle where more tension is produced. The rigid outside leg causes the foot to be left behind during the turn and  the centre of mass to be too far forward – so the terrain and snow tend to pitch the skier forwards – which is then compensated for by leaning backwards defensively against the ski boots – all escalating the tension. To overcome this the best way is to adopt a flexed stance, bending significantly at the knees and hips. We removed the skis and facing downhill adopted a seated position as if on an imaginary chair. When sitting on a real chair facing down a steep hill you would struggle to avoid sliding off it – the resultant force at your feet might be on you toes or even further forwards. By sitting lower you can bring the resultant force back towards the front of the heel. When sliding downhill in skiing you wouldn’t normally need this position to keep the resultant force at this point of the foot, but if you were suddenly slowed by deep snow or a bump or aggressive deceleration from the skis turning you, then this lower position stops the resultant force from shifting forwards (and you from head planting). This low flexed position gets the centre of mass behind the feet (relative to the perpendicular) without creating any tension such as is experienced when leaning against the back of the boots. The skier should constantly feel the shin touching the front of the boot – but not for support – only for feedback. I’d earlier explained that the point in front of the heel where we try to keep the pressure comes from “Chi Running” – and it is also the point to aim for contact with the ground in a running stride. Most common wisdom about barefoot running is to land on the balls of the feet – but everyone I know who does this gets calf problems. Skiing on the balls of the feet also loads up the calves excessively.

Observing and Feedback

We tried this stance skiing but initially there wasn’t much flexing happening. I asked Eva and Andy to watch each other and they could each see that neither was really flexing the legs – though to each it probably felt like there was a lot of flexion. Eva had a tendency to drop her hands low and bend forward at the hips/waist instead of finding the seated position.

I explained that it might be necessary to stand up towards the end of the turn to avoid being caught too far back as this seated position wouldn’t be suitable for going across the hill – though in direct fall line skiing where the body barely travels across the hill that wouldn’t be an issue.


Attempting to create even more flexion and relaxation I explained how the muscles fight each other and how we need to make a conscious effort to relax and aim for selective muscle use. Using the arm we did a few arm curls with the arm relaxed and then tried to do them with all the muscles tensed – where it becomes impossible to bend the arm. Andy understood immediately but Eva didn’t quite get it and relaxed her triceps automatically to permit the bending. Yesterday we had already worked on technique to avoid pushing the leg out during the turn and to pull inwards instead – so now we were adding a conscious relaxation and avoidance of “bracing” by selective muscle use. All physical skills are limited by unnecessary muscular tension, but most of the time people are not aware of this tension. It’s not just a question of trying to relax – it’s about perceiving the tension.

Compression Turns

To exaggerate the flexion I introduced compression turns with a turn initiation from a downsink and flexion of the hips and knees all the way to 90° or more. The pole has to be used strongly to support the body falling into the turn from a static position and the pole has to be planted between the heels and the tail of the ski downhill of the body – to support and prevent the body from falling backwards in the extreme seated position across the hill. This also involves pivoting skills so it’s not easy to learn – but it was just being used as another way to encourage a good range of leg movement. The compression turn is completed by standing up before another downsink and poleplant going into the next turn. This is the movement pattern experienced when skiing bumps in the fall line – where there is an actual “compression” from the bumps and then an extension of the legs forwards and down into the trough below the bump. Deep powder fall line skiing has a very similar effect.


While working on stance I reminded Eva and Andy to try to use dynamics. The down/up timing we were using was still linked to skating so there was no need to mention that – but it’s easy to forget dynamics when thinking about other things. Both had their arms and ski poles all over the place but I didn’t feel that we could start to address any of the issues of arm carriage and pole use at this stage. All we were looking for was for flexion of the legs permitting the feet and knees to stay a little bit further ahead of the body. One other benefit of this stance is that when hitting a bump it permits the knees to be forced up in front of the body to absorb the shock – all by reflex. The key in fact for tricky conditions and poor visibility is to get the body to function in a way where reflexes can deal with almost anything and combine this with good dynamics – which also generates stability.

Feet Forwards

After a break and change of skiing sector to La Daille we continued the technical work with “feet forwards” movements being introduced. Recovering from a thorough blasting from the Northwesterly wind going over the Bellevarde plateau – where Eva showed the beginning signs of frostbite on her face – we had hot drinks and started the exercises indoors. Using one heel as a support and pivot point the other leg was swung forwards with the inside edge of the boot on the floor – scribing an arc is it went forwards. I demonstrated how the hip musn’t follow the foot by also swinging around and that it had to be held in tightly with good postural support so that the leg really rotated in it’s socket more than the torso or pelvis being turned. Although I’d demonstrated “upper / lower body separation” with the options for different ways of the spine twisting – clockwise or anticlockwise – I had to avoid this for use on the slopes because like the arm carriage and pole use it was just to much detail for the moment. I explained that this forward pushing had to happen in every turn from the start to the end. It is the main way – when combined with dynamics – to control the turn radius. Pushing harder tightens the turn – but the feet don’t actually change position relative to the body – so rather than causing you to end up on the back of the boots the rapidly tightening turn keeps you correctly centred in the boots (just touching the shin). With a bit of correction Eva was able to control her hips from swinging around in the turn. Until now she had been using a fair amount of both hip and upper body rotation – which would sometimes cause her to rotate at the end of her turns. Now she could begin to fight back and control that.


First attempts at this didn’t appear too successful, but at some point Eva grasped the overall idea and it all started to work for her. This is quite a common way for things to happen. People think that they are trying too many different things and want to just focus on one or two for much longer. With skiing being “holistic” that doesn’t necessarily work well. When something is holistic it means that it can function okay even with certain parts missing or broken. This is both a curse and a blessing. It allows people to ski with many errors but it also allows them to isolate parts to work on without worrying about the rest. Ultimately the interaction of those parts produces an outcome (or whole) that is greater (and different) than the sum of the parts. It can be almost impossible to tell which parts need to be worked on for the "whole” to jump up to another level – so it’s best to do the rounds and work on all of the fundamentals for a little while and keep moving on. Suddenly things just fall into place.

Skiing Flu

While this happened for Eva the opposite happened to Andy who found himself confused and unstable. What was happening here was the equivalent to the body dealing with the flu. To kill the flu virus the body develops a fever. It’s a great mistake to take something like Ibuprofen to calm the fever because that only sustains the illness and makes it worse. Andy’s fever showed up here as a mixture of confusion and frustration. This should have been time up for the lesson, but I didn’t want to leave Andy with skiing flu on his birthday so decided that we should continue, moving to the last remaining open ski lift, the Rogony, back in the Solaise sector.

Air Pivots - Jump Turns and Short Swings

Not being sure how to cure Andy’s flu I decided to try short swings. Before introducing him to the torture of short swings I excused myself by explaining that as a trainee instructor I would frequently start the day with sets of anything from between 4 to 6 hundred non-stop – allowing the body to find efficiency naturally through going beyond exhaustion. The key here is to do the first half of the pivot in the air. Yesterday I’d explained that the pivot works with just a swing effect from the adductor muscles to aid the centre of mass pulling the ski into the turn because there is no resistance from the inside edge of the ski which is not in contact with the snow until the ski points straight downhill. This can be taken to the extreme by getting both skis off the ground completely. Coordination is quite tricky for many people because the legs have to be coordinated to move simultaneously even though they each feel very different things. The jump is mainly made from the lower leg and it can direct the body anywhere from back up the hill to off downhill into the perpendicular or even further. We practised small jumps uphill to help with the coordination. Andy tended to retract his heels when jumping instead of extending and getting his body mass up high. I corrected this and got him to extend and then flex on landing – which is much softer on the legs. This also improves awareness of moving the centre of mass. Eva was the one who really picked up on short swings and she did impressively well. Andy’s flu seemed to worsen at this stage. When done tightly and in rhythm with no hesitation those turns are called short swings. If there is a one off turn or a hesitation between them they are generally jump turns – used to get out of trouble in deep crud or breakable crust or on a narrow couloir.

I modified the jump to integrate it into the exit from a round medium radius turn, using the combined power of the ski’s uplift and the legs to spring up out of each turn and change edges in mid air with only a very slight swing of the ski mainly caused by the centre of mass moving downhill. Eva was on a roll now but Andy’s fever was raging and he was starting to throw the toys out of the pram with his own frustration at himself.

With Eva doing well it was time to get to the root of Andy’s confusion.

Reset Button - Simplifying and Skating

Watching Andy I could see that he was getting things back to front and sometimes he would stand on the correct leg for several turns then on the wrong one. He would push off from the lower leg for a few turns and then switch back to pushing up with the uphill leg. He would skate for a while then switch to stemming. His timing would flip between down/up and up/down. It was real confusion soup with his body taking over and doing the opposite of his intentions at every possible opportunity. Basically this is a process of becoming aware of old inappropriate skills that had already become automatic and unconscious and how they are also driven by the emotions. Normal ski teaching is extremely lazy and criminally stupid. People are taught to stand on two feet and to “balance” – where skiing is fundamentally a one leg action (there are special exceptions) and uses applied disequilibrium. They are taught to stem out into a snowplough using completely wrong muscle coordination – when they should be pulling inwards. They are taught to go up to start a turn and down at the end – try that one on a bike! They are taught to lean the body to the right to place weight on the right leg – when it’s acceleration to the left that is required. They are taught to begin all turns on the inside edges – and that is not how pivoting and fall line skiing – at least 50% of all skiing - work at all. They are taught to go with their defensive instincts and not to work counter to them. This makes the instructor look good and dumps the problems on the student.

They are not taught to skate and they are not taught dynamics so they cannot develop the appropriate skills to move on to higher levels.

For Andy all this old baggage was landing on top of him as he was trying to develop the correct counterintuitive skills. It was time to hit the reset button. I asked Andy to just stand on his uphill ski – not just on the leg but strongly supporting himself at the hip joint and making sure that throughout the turn that he remained on that hip joint no matter what happened. Most people get defensive and although they may be on one leg they fall off the hip as the body looks for the other leg for security. If you are not a skater (or have not worked on this skill since starting skiing)  then it’s quite hard to stay properly on one leg/hip for any length of time – and a turn takes time. I wanted Andy to just get on that leg and move his body both downhill (lateral to the skis) and slightly forwards to move perpendicular to the hill as the skis turned downhill. The other (inside) ski can be held very slightly above the ground or padded up and down to give feedback and stability through the rest of the turn. I wanted him to feel the simplicity of it. This is when it came clear to him that his tendency was to always to want to go for that uphill ski stem as he had been taught to do for years. The idea that the centre of mass displaces and not the ski was still profoundly alien to him. He managed to feel this simplicity and to become aware of his trained and emotionally supported impulses that were getting in the way. At this point I considered the fever to have broken – which was just as well because it was now 5pm and the lifts had just closed.

Andy had a clear enough picture by the end that he will know what to work on for a while to bring about the changes that he wants. Cross country “skating” skiing will definitely be a great help and any skating that can be added. Eva had done a generous amount of skating as a child which is why she connected with the correct movement patterns. Andy had never skated.

I did warn Andy that when I coach couples it’s always the woman who “gets it” and shoots ahead leaving her partner behind. The more macho guys can get really upset about it! Women seem to be more in tune with their bodies and “listen” with all of their senses. Men tend to use their strength to try to overcome everything. Good skiing is very counterintuitive so it requires a strong internal dialogue with the body – a lot of awareness. That’s why it’s great.

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