Twenty instructors from across the country met in West Yellowstone this fall to agree on the essentials of good skiing. Although this could have been a daunting task, two coaches from the US Ski Team who joined us helped by sharing the current USSA skiing model of body position, timing and power. Although good skiing can be described in many ways, we found that organizing our descriptions into these essential concepts worked well.
Getting the group to agree on the basic skiing model was easy after this explanation: Once you can maintain good body position as you move on skis, then you can work on your timing. When you can combine good body position with proper timing, then you can apply power.
In other words, it all starts with body position, which we defined as keeping the core moving forward and always in front of the foot or base of support as when moving from ski to ski. In fact, maintaining this basic body position, which can also be defined as falling forward from the ankles, actually helps move your core forward since gravity pulls you both forward and to the earth if you skióas if you were leaning into the wind. Once you have this falling forward position wired, then you can work on the details of timing and power application.
After the meeting, I stayed to coach for the Yellowstone Ski Festival clinics and was able to watch a great variety of instructors and coaches as they worked with their groups. Although everyone focused on slightly different details, "get your hips over your foot, keep your core forward or stay over your feet" was part of every coachís admonitions to their charges.
Working with my own group, I quickly realized that admonishing skiers to get their hips up wasnít enough. They needed to know how to get their hips up over their feet and how to stay there. Here are some tips that seemed to help.
Chest out and shoulders back may be what your mother taught you, but that is not how you want to stand on your skis. Instead of mimicking a Marine, go for the teenage slouch or a gorilla stance: hips under your torso and your shoulders and upper back cupped around your sternum.
Assume this position by first imagining you have a tail (photo 1) and then tucking it between your legs (photo 2). Tucking your tail should engage your core while softening and flexing your knees and ankles. If not, activate your deep core muscles by pulling your belly button toward your spine or performing a kegel exercise with your pelvic floor muscles. Then, get some bounce in your knees and ankles by jumping up and trying to land as softly as possible. When you can land on an imaginary layer of eggs without breaking them, youíve got it.
Straight Ankles and Fear
With your back and shoulders rounded, a firm core, knees and ankles soft and flexible, youíre almost there. Now, the trick is to tilt this body position into motion by falling forward from the ankles. To illustrate this for students, I fall forward into the snow and onto my chest and face when the snow is softóthat is the level of commitment needed to put gravity to work for you. Learning to ski as if you were leaning into a stiff wind is more of a mental challenge than a physical one, so expect to be a little intimidated by this at first. Strive for more forward lean than you have now. As your speed and your confidence increases, you will be able to ski with more lean.
To move forward instead of falling on your face, shuffle a foot and ski forward to catch your falling core. If you are classic skiing, your basic "I donít want to do that" teenage shuffle will do. If you are skating, rotate your feet and skis into a skating position by turning your legs out from the hip (photo 3). Then, as you fall forward from the ankles, shuffle forward one turned out foot and ski and then the other to catch yourself.
When you land with a flexed ankle and a firm core (photo 4), the forward movement of your core will translate into forward movement of the ski. Landing with a straight ankle (photo 5) puts the brakes on any forward motion available from your falling core. However, simply bending your ankle wonít help (photo 6) if you hang back and remain between your skis. To move your hips and core over and in front of your foot, lean forward from the ankle (photo 7).
Donít skip over this very basic of technique, and donít be disappointed if this takes more time and effort than you think it should. You are working to overcome a basic survival instinct: When the brain and body sense that the head is about to be bashed, the extremities straighten and stiffen in an all out effort to keep the head and highly-valued brain from hitting the ground. This causes a "pull up" reflex when your skis or your feet feel like they are sliding out from under you. It throws your hips behind you and redirects the impending fall onto the more amply padded butt.
Give yourself enough time and practice to develop the ability to balance over one foot and one ski at a time and the confidence that the next ski will arrive beneath your falling forward core in time to catch you. When you can trust and you commit to that next ski, it will reward you with instant glide. Then you can work on your timing and begin to push yourself from ski to ski instead of simply falling forward in the stride or to the side in skating. If you skip this basic of body position, you are destined to be one of many powerful (and ultimately exhausted) skiers who brake their forward momentum every time they skate or stride onto a straight ankle.
In classic skiing, your rear ski will lift off the snow when you maintain your forward falling lean as you move from ski to ski. If it doesnít, you may be trying too hard by over-striding. Start with small shuffles from foot to foot with flexed ankles and slowly increase your forward lean. As you do, notice how your speed picks up, increasing the ground covered with each shuffle. This is the path to a longer stride length. Attempting to increase your stride length by pushing your foot out in front of you is not.
If you are unwilling to trust the next ski to catch you as you fall forward from the ankles while skating, you are probably stuck in the middle. A telltale sign of this affliction is a sideways tilt of the shoulders and a sideways bow at the knee and waist. To combat this problem, start in the basic skating position and push your hips sideways and over one foot and then the other as you continue to fall forward from the ankles. With your weight supported by only one foot at a time, your skis will magically move forward if you maintain your forward-from-the-ankles body position.
Poles can be a major corrupter of a good body position when skiers use them for balance or try to push too hard with them without really knowing what to do. Less confident skiers often hold their poles out in front like canes and ski around looking like boxers or folks picking up litter. By the time they do start to push on them, their early "boxing" habit with hands high and way out in front pushes their butts back over their heels every time they go for a pole plant.
Develop good arm and torso movements before using your poles; your poling can help create and maintain a good body position. Start by bringing your elbows up and out in front of you with your forearms vertical and your hands shoulder width apart. With your tail tucked (see above under body position), press your elbows forward from this position. With a firm core, you should feel a stretch in your torso as you press forward with your elbows. On a slight downhill, you should even be able to get your skis to scoot forward if you give each forward elbow press a little extra "pop."
Now press your elbows forward as you skate (photo 10) and stride (photo 11) onto each ski. After you have spent some dedicated time making this movement your own, your poling will help move your core up and keep it up over your foot as you move from ski to ski. To add poles, think of swinging your elbows from your shoulders in arcs that extend equally behind and in front of your torso. Aiming your elbows toward the sky at the end of your backswing helps to balance the arc. To plant your poles, bring your hand and forearm up as your elbow passes your hips and plant your basket beside or slightly in front of your feet. Keep your poling effort light at first to avoid the all too common poling induced squat at the end of the poling motion.
Thatís it. Just remember: Get it up and keep it up!