Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Paul 2

Paul has worked on his skiing for two seasons in Chamonix since last visiting Tignes and has obviously made a lot of progress. His skiing is strong in difficult conditions and his dynamics, timing and pivoting skills have all moved up a level. More importantly he has been able to able to switch from a previously “goal oriented” learning to a “process oriented” development.  This switch can only be made when you have the right (counter intuitive) fundamentals to work with. It means that skiing becomes similar to a martial art in that open-ended improvement comes through many layers of self discovery – making the development process itself an attractive and key reason for practicing.


Paradigm Shift

The previous time we skied I had to work one by one through the core principles: Dynamics, Skating and Pivoting. Teaching the core principles is pretty much a straightforward job of communicating a new paradigm. All skiers (who don’t abandon) almost exclusively fall into one of two categories; they are either brainwashed by ski “education” into skiing Muppets or are naturally selected from racing. In either case they have no successful paradigm for “process oriented” and lifelong development. Paul only had one session but was able to make the necessary paradigm shift.


Today the first requirement from me was to observe. Paul was aware that he had improved but was also aware of meeting limitations and the need for feedback and direction. Knowing that I didn’t have to plough through all the basics I just needed to observe to identify his strong points and main weaknesses and then decide what to focus on to move forwards most effectively. The job would be to give feedback and direction rather than to revise the core model from scratch.

Basically, Paul had moved forward on all the core principles:

  1. Paul’s main strong point was his basic timing and pressure cycle from skating.
  2. This was followed by his improved pivoting skills (including angulation/anticipation).
  3. Dynamics were also more positive and deliberate.

The list of relevant things to work on gradually grew as more issues became apparent when working in detail:

  1. Initially I’d spotted that the timing pattern was very limited and wasn’t being adapted to terrain or circumstances.
  2. Pole use was sometimes partially interfering with the timing.
  3. There were some problems with dynamics, especially on the left side through the second half of the turn.
  4. Dynamics were not as solid as they should be.
  5. There was a persistent tendency to lift the inside leg.
  6. There was a constant “knee tuck” and problem with the stance (feet being held close through an incorrect mechanism).
  7. The “knee tuck” was contributing to the posture being pulled out of alignment.
  8. Angulation was blocked at the hips and leading to tension and inappropriate compensation – bending the spine sideways.
  9. Carving skills were completely absent – the whole paradigm being affected – and the above issues making exercises very difficult to achieve.

Within each of the listed issues there was a range of work to be done. Time was limited so Paul’s goals had to be to become as aware as possible of all of this and what to specifically work on for each issue and how they all affect each other. Some of those issues are a legacy from the Muppet theatre and some are just due to the need for further information. They are all however still only a stage in setting the basics on the right track.


When deciding to work on timing I mentioned that in bumps we have to “compress” and absorb – but that this is very similar to “leg retraction” used in race carving. Paul hadn’t yet shown me his carving so with the possibility of using carving to develop the timing I asked to see his current level. To my surprise there was no carving happening. The carving paradigm had completely escaped Paul. This is something I’ve seen frequently in older generation skiers and it’s very persistent and intriguing. Paul had no resistance to learning – he just couldn’t see it. I’d love to know what it is that literally blinds people to this – because it is a form of perceptual blindness. Part of my job is removing perceptual barriers – unlike MI6 and the CIA who’s job appears to be to create them! (Perhaps I could learn from their infamous Monarch Mind Control program how this all works!) Anyway I filmed Paul demonstrating his MI6 version of carving – for posterity…


(The second part of the short video is Paul working at controlling his “inside leg” to eliminate the knee tuck – following issues with carving exercises and other relevant connected issues with posture and angulation)

Compression Turns

Eventually, later on during the session we were able to directly address the timing issue. I specifically wanted to take a look at compression turns. We had looked at this before so Paul was already familiar and we didn’t lose time here. The exercise is artificial in that it is really “leg retraction” carried out on the flat. The important aspect here was the range of motion in the legs. Pivoting (uphill edges), pole use and anticipation were technical details which had nonetheless to be correct. When beginning from a static position the pole needs to be planted (behind the feet) before the turn (Paul tended to hold the tip suspended in the air). Weight needs to go on the pole – taking it off the skis. (When actively compressed this compression also serves as a pressure reduction and the pole is slightly later!) The legs need to bend to at least 90° at both the hips and knees. Hip rotation needs to be avoided when leaning on the pole – the pivot being controlled by a direct motion of the centre of mass downhill between the ski pole and the ski tips – then a pulling inwards of the ski tips – though this is more just a taught set of adductor muscles rather than a harsh pulling. The turn is completed with a full leg extension combined with anticipation (facing downhill) of the upper body (In reality the following first part of the compression is the turn completion). In bumps this extension fills the trough beneath the bump while the compression is on the shoulder/top of the bumps. (Most people forget to extend and end up too compressed after a few bumps) Whereas tight pivots on the flat require fairly restrained dynamics, pivots in bumps require strong dynamics – the profile of the bump facilitating the pivot because the ski tips and tails are airborne during the end and start of a pivot. The swing of the skis inwards along with the compression is very easy and natural –following the centre of mass. Small or widely spaced bumps are not conducive to compression, but bigger bumps and proper bump lines do require compression – with the legs being just appropriately relaxed and compressed by the bump instead of retracted.

There were no bumps available but we used a long ridge at the side of the piste to substitute the bumps.  The ridge was also used to highlight the difference between “compressing to absorb” and “jumping to leap from the bump” – opposite extremes. Paul clearly understood the compression but had a tendency to “step” again instead of jump. This is probably because of not linking the jump well to dynamics! Two of the jumps however were better timed and coordinated. Good “turn exit” dynamics keeps everything symmetrical and provides a good launch – the turn transition (edge change) taking place in the air.

When skiing bumpy terrain this full range of timing adaptability must be available (Including everything in between). Compression is also used in very deep snow when skiing in the fall line. When done right you feel the compression “happening to you” instead of being contrived. This now needs to be practised in bumps. If done correctly, with good dynamics, it is not stressful on the body – the dynamics, timing and pivoting combination vastly smoothing out the shock.

There is nearly always a small amount of compression blended into the end of any turn by a versatile skier.  Normally the turns are a blend – with a “checking” action (pivot) followed by a slight compression or retraction to exit the turn – which would be very quickly followed with a pole plant (pivot) from the dynamics of moving the centre of mass into a new turn.

Leg Retraction

When carving is developed then the timing of leg retraction becomes a very powerful tool as no force is being dissipated through skidding. In this case the retraction is a way of negating  the forces from the skis for moving the centre of mass instead of negating forces from the terrain. Very powerful legs are required for this in a race course – which is one of the reasons why top racers need legs like tree trunks. The strength is actually required for the turn initiation – as in this case a powerful extension is used to drive the centre of mass downhill by extending from completely flexed legs – sometimes using the power in both legs (if feet are close together ) – or one single leg in a wider stance.

Pole Use

The pole is only planted for pivoting. This is partly for support and partly to cue to positioning of the upper body and facilitate dynamics. One important thing is that the pole is NOT planted by either the arm or the body sinking down. Any tendency to do this is a legacy from the Muppet show and has to be eliminated because it throws off good timing. The pivoting “pole plant” is caused either by terrain (bumps) or a combination of dynamics and angulation/anticipation.

Skating timing requires a “pole touch” when the body is up high. It just marks the beginning of the entry into the next turn when the body falls over beyond perpendicular when crossing the slope. 

If there is a jump used (jump turns) then the pole can be planted early – the jump should be considered the previous turn “release” or “exit” – aided by an early pole plant – the pole continuing to support the start of the new turn and its dynamics. This early “jumping” pole plant is only a feature of extreme braking and deliberately getting the skis airborne for a pivot.

Even when linking short swings rhythmically the pole plant would tend to come just after the turn release – a bit like putting your hand on a railing to jump over a fence that you only reach after the start of the jump.

On normal terrain Paul’s pole use was fine – being a “pole touch”. In the bumpy terrain it was confused – but that’s probably just due to not absorbing the bumps anyway. I still think I saw a few Muppet moments – reaching with the arm and the pole -  so I’m mentioning this just in case!


I reminded Paul about the illusion of “centrifugal” force – which is bolstered by fictional mathematics which do not directly describe reality (think “economics” experts and regular unpredicted financial crashes). We have to work to increase the inwards “centripetal” force – which is how a ski works. This effect becomes amplified in the second part of the turn when gravity is against us. People are probably used to “resisting” gravity and when their vision of centrifugal force is added then they tense up and push outwards. Everything about skiing is a “pulling inwards”. There is no compromise here without serious loss of efficiency.

I could see Paul sometimes partially pushing outwards – which was described by him as “pushing downwards” in an effort to increase pressure. This needs to be achieved instead by pushing “upwards” against the centre of mass or by trying to move the centre of mass. If you focus on that centre of mass the outcome tends to be different. When you focus on moving the centre of mass inwards – even by stomping on the foot - the pressure will be there. The second part of the turn needs a dramatic increase in effort inwards – or gravity combined with the centripetal force of the ski will overwhelm you. In Paul’s case I could see the knee and hip being pulled upwards, out of the turn far too soon. Awareness of how much you need to fight this needs to be developed and trained for. Slalom is largely about dealing with this issue – but in a relatively unconscious manner – as it is commonly simply related to being late or early into and out of turns. Slalom changes perception however because there is no loose subjectivity involved. You learn that if you are thinking about moving then it’s already too late!

Retraction becomes a tool for getting quickly out of a turn where big directional centripetal forces have been generated and when there is no time to travel across the hill at the turn exit and no possibility to extend the leg further anyway (see Ted Ligety photo below).

When Paul focused on dynamics through the whole turn he looked much more solid – which permitted me to more clearly see his angulation issues.


The undesired compulsive stepping of the inside leg is not due to a nervous twitch or bad habit – it’s usually due to a dynamics issue. While it can be a useful exercise to step to cultivate independent leg use – there is a serious limitation to this usefulness. Basically, the stepping is a sign that the end of the previous turn hasn’t been put together very well. We already covered the issue of centripetal force – and the need to increase it beyond the influence of gravity – but if this fails to happen then the mechanics of the end of the turn break down. In essence this means that the power, stability and direction of momentum of the turn completion become weak and so the stepping acts as compensation. If the organisation of the turn completion is effective then there will be generally no visible stepping. The power of the lower ski needs to be used to control the turn completion. In dynamic skiing (inside edge/racing) this means that the skier stays on that lower ski almost or partially into the next turn – right through the turn transition. When pivoting it may even mean pivoting partially into the next turn on that lower ski. In effect it doesn’t matter what ski the turn begins on because it’s all about the motion of the centre of mass – so if the centre of mass moves well (dynamics) then there is no stepping.

The same issue applies to jump turns or rhythmic short swings. The skis should move simultaneously.

We played a little with Silvain Saudan’s radical jumping from the uphill edge of the uphill ski – and it was interesting for me to see how alien Paul found this. Likewise Gareth had found it equally outside of his grasp initially – so this will be a valuable aspect for Paul to develop – especially as it actually appears to be the single most secure method to get skis around on scarily steep descents where speed control is critical. Basically when it’s so steep that you can’t get your skis near each other then stepping and stomping are not much of an option.

The jumping should preferably involve an extension that moves the centre of mass – not primarily a retraction of the heels – though sometimes for “survival” heel retraction works.  Most people who do heel retract tend to pivot around the tips of the skis whereas the most efficient pivot centre is at the feet – or just in front of them.  The swing/pivot centre can be varied but generally the most efficient “sweet spot” is preferred. The other things to consider when jumping (Short Swings) are whether to land on an edge set (no skidding)  - edge to edge - or whether to pivot and how far around to swing the skis in the air. Proper extension at take off also allows for proper flexion on landing and absorption of shock.

On steep ground you can also start to jump from the lower leg to get momentum then complete the jump from the outside edge of the uphill ski. This is similar to how the legs are also independently used in racing – where there is (frequently) an extension from the lower leg to come up out of a turn and then and extension of the upper leg to give pressure and drop down the centre of mass into the next turn – which is one good reason for a slightly wider stance (as Silvain Saudan appears to use).


We discussed the issue of a so called “pedal step turn” for tight turns on the steep.  It’s an exercise I’ve used frequently to get people to stand strongly on the outside leg and hip – sometimes asking them to try to imagine trying to stomp the ski about a foot through the hard packed snow (impossible of course). Pivoting however is how skis work in tight spots and if the snow is bad then that pivot needs to be at least partially airborne. The key to all of that is reduction of pressure – not increase. On hard snow the stomping would still work for tight dynamic turning but the pedalling shouldn’t be necessary other than to cover a weakness in dynamics or to act as a safety net in case the stomped ski doesn’t turn. In any case stomping combined with strong “turn completion” dynamics from the lower ski instead of pedalling is the best way to power through challenging snow in all but the steepest and narrowest passages.


OK. Here we go. So Paul apparently couldn’t perceive the “railing” quality of the skis that provide carving. Paul’s idea of carving appeared to be linked to his sensation of pivoting with strong pressure on the inside edge and with all of the directional effect coming from the ski. I think he considered pivoting to be different due to a perceived need to assist the swing of the ski (note that I avoid any reference to “steering”). In reality he was pivoting because pivoting most often doesn’t need any swing of the skis as the ski itself is built to drive the pivot to support the motion of the centre of mass. Only tension with the adductor muscles is usually required to ensure a tight pivot – very little actual force is ever needed.

I knew that we would have to approach this quite radically. My solution was to carve with just one ski initially – in a semi “snowplough” supporting stance. This is radical because it distinctly requires that the outside leg be “pulled” inwards to pull the foot over onto its inside edge inside the ski boot and to pull the ski onto its inside edge. Weight has to go onto the inside ski for support and for most people this is all very alien – but it gives the best chance to overcome any mental or physical habitual straightjacket and to get a new feeling of the ski railing. Regardless of this Paul struggled with tension, hip rotation and constant washing out of the ski when gravity had to be dealt with. This of course tied in directly with his other dynamics issues.

To overcome the ingrained problems I asked Paul to face his body completely towards the inside of the turn for the entire turn and to lean over the inside ski as much as possible. Eventually this worked and allowed him to incline enough to overcome all other issues and keep the ski on edge and railing for the entire turn. By now Paul could clearly feel when the ski was washing out and also clearly identify the objective.

There was increasing evidence however of a general angulation/hip rotation/postural  issue which I was starting to see more clearly in every aspect of Paul’s skiing.

We worked on traversing with rolling the feet and skis onto their uphill edges and Paul was clearly very uncomfortable with even railing the traverses on two skis. This instability was obviously due to his long term knee tucking habit. The idea of rolling the inside (uphill) foot onto its outside edge and having any pressure on it was alien to Paul. This issue was also directly contributing to the problems with feeling the carving in general. We worked statically on turn transitions – changing edges by moving the body from one side of the skis to the other (supported by poles).

I wanted Paul to realise that the skis absolutely lock on when carving and there is no question about the role of dynamics – disequilibrium. The skis are never pushed to the side or allowed to pivot. I did mention the exception of the rubbish new ski regulations that limit carve radius and encourage pivoting at the turn initiation – a limit wonderfully overcome recently by Ted Ligety…

The second part of the video clip was when Paul worked on just moving the inside knee “outwards” (relative to the body) in his general skiing. I knew that Paul would feel that it was very strange and believe that it would probably not look right – which is why I filmed it – for direct feedback – so he could see that it actually made the legs look symmetrical and improved his stance.

From this work I realised it would be necessary to look at angulation while still focused on the carved traverses. Paul felt that the carving was very stiff and static so wondered why we would want to do it. I explained that the whole universe of racing was built on carving – and shortly afterwards we saw several race training groups of ski club children carving their way down the mountain behind trainers. All of the dynamics of skiing are taken to another level with carving and the athleticism goes stratospheric. It’s another world of skiing.

Skiing down at the end Paul managed to increase the width of his stance so that he could move better from edge to edge and his grip improvement was visible by the depth of track he left behind.

Angulation and Chi Skiing

Paul’s angulation and anticipation were needing some work so we began with classic “angulation”. The pelvis needs to be tilted upwards at the front and then the hip joints relaxed by “sitting” slightly. This combination of actions generates “neutral pelvis” quite accurately. With the whole upperbody tilted forwards – pelvis included  (all as one unit) – the body can be swung around on the one hip ball joint. Standing on the downhill leg and swinging the body downhill generates hip angulation and anticipation (of the next turn) – so that the upper body is effectively facing downhill but with no significant sideways kink of the spine. Paul had until now effectively been blocking his hip joint and kinking the spine sideways to try to increase his angulation and this is largely what made him static and stiff in his attempts to carve – and causing the ski to wash out. This incorrect stance has been partly caused by the chronic knee tuck, which was causing the pelvis to drop low on the inside and making the spine kink to compensate. This also linked up to the trouble with dynamics in turn completion – hence the stepping…

Once Paul could hold this more accurate and relaxed angulation together I made certain to point out a serious problem with it. Although this is the classic version of angulation (Upper/Lower Body Separation) it actually leads to the spine twisting at the base due to the shoulders leading the countering of the body and this causes a failure of all of the autonomous postural muscles and support and protection for the spine – which is why almost all top skiers and have back problems. The answer is to only pull back the hip on the support leg and not the shoulders. This is like winding up the body from the middle  instead of from above – giving an “Upper/Lower Body Integration”. The spine twists in the other direction at the base and causes abdominal tension and an opening between the ribs cage and pelvis. This also allows both strong angulation and a more natural anticipation. The switch from pulling one hip back to the other takes place during the turn transition and massively facilitates the turn transition – hence it facilitates dynamics. Paul clearly has to work on angulation so this is an opportunity to work on it the right way from the beginning. This “chi skiing” move is quite counterintuitive so it will take a while to incorporate. It’s best to work at it while walking, running and cycling also – so that it becomes a default movement. There is a fixed page on Chi Skiing  accessed here or at the top of the blog.

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