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A Senior Moment by Ed Kane
It is well documented in skiing and snowboarding literature that balance is an important element of skiing and riding skills that we try to improve as we work with our students. In my mind, the importance is clearly indicated by the fact that the Skills Venn diagram that depicts the relationship of each skill is surrounded by the circle that represents Balancing Movements. When we are younger we tend not to notice the fact that, as the day goes along, we tend to feel a bit tired.
However, as we age, this becomes more noticeable and we tend to go out only in the morning and retire to the hot tub in the afternoon rather than trying to achieve the “vertical feet skied goal” that we used to be able to accomplish. Over the years, I have found that it is still possible to ski 20,000+ vertical feet in the day, stay on the mountain until the lifts close and not need the hot tub to relax my stressed muscles at the end of the day so I can really enjoy the mountain environment the next day. The secret is that as we age, we become cleverer in what we do to compensate for deterioration in our former stamina and capabilities. In my own case, I have found that honing my balancing movement skills has led to much more enjoyment on the mountain.
So really, why are improved balancing movements important to our ultimate enjoyment? Bottom line is that when we support our weight using our skeletal structure we fatigue much more slowly. On the other hand when we have to use both the skeleton and our muscles to maintain balance the latter fatigue, burn more calories and create lots of lactic acid all of which leaves us feeling uncomfortable both during our day on the hill and afterwards. To avoid stressing our muscles we must develop the ability to use efficient balancing movements both statically and dynamically while moving down the hill. Less stress on the muscles during each run results in more runs and vertical feet each day.
There are many ways to improve our balancing movement skills. One of the most popular in the sports community is to engage in a regular Yoga regimen. The easiest way to start is to enroll in a class and get some coaching before going off on your own. However, that usually takes a commitment of time which a lot of us don’t have considering our busy lives. There are some alternatives however that we can integrate into our daily activities with a minimum of additional time commitment.
Here are some ideas:
There are three relatively simple exercises and Yoga poses that are quite helpful and easy to do. I generally do them in the morning prior before putting on my shoes. Figure 1 is the Tree pose, Figure 2 is Single Leg Extension, a variation of the Warrior pose that is designed to increase leg strength as well as balance, and Figure 3 is Standing Knee pose.
Special thanks to Candi McIvor and Nanci Peterson-Vivian on their impromptu demonstrations of these poses “on-snow” at Ullr Ski School.[connections_list id=90 template_name=”div_staff_bio”]
by Tyler Barnes photos by Matt Aimonetti (link to Matt’s website)
If you’re like me you get the typical question from beginners and intermediate students, “What do I do with these things?” as they hold their poles awkwardly. Entry level and even seasoned instructors might tend to answer with “You plant your pole, then turn around it” or “They’re used for timing and balance” or “The pole swing draws you into the turn.” These answers are sometimes followed by a series of leading nods of reassurance by the instructor.
The first answer, if acted upon throughout your skiing career is “cause for concern.” The second answer is true but requires a full explanation, not just the instructor’s confident tone and encouraging nodding to impart the true meaning. And the third answer, while I admit is true, many instructors do not completely understand the mechanics of the statement or how to implement its meaning.
The next time you are faced with this question, or secretly ask the question to yourself (it’s OK, I ask myself these questions all the time), here’s the inside scoop. Recall Kate Morrell’s popular alpine tip “Get a Grip to Rip” in the Winter 2009 Issue of the NW Snowsports Instructor; her emphasis was on holding the pole firmly on the grip.
I have three truths in pole use that build upon and help clarify things:
Now if you are paying close attention to these truths about pole use I am professing you might already find some holes depending on turn shape, breaking versus gliding, deep powder or bumps. Indeed I agree, however if you apply these truths on groomed snow during a series of gliding turns where speed control is maintained by turn shape, these “truths” would stand up to Perry Mason’s scrutiny.
The pole tip touches the snow in a very specific area called the “touch zone” which depends on your intended turn outcome like a medium radius, gliding short radius or breaking turn. But where is this precise area? Let’s define it.
While standing in your skis on the snow on flat terrain, visually approximate the distance from the toe of your ski boot to the tip of you ski. Now, from the toe of your ski boot, draw a line perpendicular to the ski this same distance – let’s call this Length A (See figure A). Next scribe an arc from the ski tip to this perpendicular line with an equal radius to Length A. If you were to continue this arc you would scribe a complete circle. Next bisect this quarter circle into 2 equal parts: the green area in Figure A is The Touch Zone; The red area is The No Touch Zone.
Now that we have some precise zones defined with some appropriate names, let’s start using them. In medium and short radius turns the pole touch occurs in the touch zone. In medium and long radius turn the pole touch happens in the no touch zone. Wait a second, the name of this zone is “the no touch zone” so if you think you might want to touch the pole in the no touch zone, don’t do it. Swinging the pole into the “no touch zone” is OK, but only if you swing your pole as described in Truth #3. In medium to long radius turns, the pole swing is still very important as it facilitates movement into the future, however the pole touch in these turn sizes can potentially disrupt flow, so it’s optional.
In medium radius turns, constrained to the 1-1/2 to 3 packer widths (as described in the PSIA-NW Certification Guide), the pole touch would ideally occur in the touch zone, but closer to the boundary with the no touch zone. In gliding short radius turns, 3/4 to 1 packer widths the pole touch would typically occur more in the middle of the touch zone while in short braking turns, in 1/2 to 3/4 packer widths, the pole touch would occur furthest from the no touch zone boundary.
There will be variations in the distance away from the skis’ edges while staying within the touch zone depending on the steepness of the terrain and the type of turn being made.
Now that you know where to touch the pole, getting there is the next step. Maintain a consistent distance of the pole tip off the snow surface during the swing as you target the touch zone. If the relationship of the pole tip to the snow surface varies greatly during the swing, this could be a visual indicator of a variety of causes like whole-body inclination late in the turn or there is an involuntary upper body rotation caused by the pole touch target and the mechanics of the arm and upper body with respect to the pole swing itself.
Maintaining a consistent relationship of the pole tip to the snow surface during the swing will require the CM to move in the intended direction of travel earlier in the turn, facilitating both progressive de-edging and de-angulation movements. However, in order to achieve these effective movements, you also have to employ Truth #3.
OK, in reality the tip can, and sometimes does, pass the grip in a gliding turn, but this should only be a slight amount and is relative to the line of action. It sounds better to say “at all times” so the statement sounds strong and emphatic.
For an effective pole swing to facilitate movement of your CM in the intended direction of travel requires just that: movement of the CM. As Kate mentioned, swinging the pole tip out in front or down the hill may or may not help movement. However, if you grip the pole firmly and keep the pole grip ahead of the tip as you swing, while targeting the touch zone you will feel your CM moving. The key to success in Truth #3 is to focus on constant and continuous movement of both pole grips and tips.
Side note: In a braking turn the pole plant is intended to help stabilize the CM, so the tip can and typically does come forward of the grip, then the grip passes the tip as the edges are released and the CM moves into the turn.
Referring to my Visual Cues to Effective Skiing Pocket Guide and/or the PSIA-NW Certification Guide there are three cues that jump right out:
Let’s look a few skiers. In Example 1 you can see relative to the three truths the pole swing is targeting into the no touch zone, the pole tip is well ahead of the pole grip and the pole tip has likely been swung to its highest point and will be lowered to the snow to make the pole touch. Referencing the Visual Cues you will observe the outside half of the body is leading, and the inside elbow is back symptomatic of undesirable upper body rotation with the CM “back and inside.”
In Example 2 skier, the pole swing target is closer to ideal but the pole tip is well ahead of the pole grip with essentially no movement of the CM in the intended direction of travel at this moment.
In Example 3, you can see that the pole grips are ahead of the tips, the pole swing will likely be in the touch zone, and the inside half of the body is leading the outside with the hands and elbows ahead of the torso.
The key to successfully implementing “the truths” one must also stabilize the torso through muscular tension and awareness. Gripping the pole firmly while actively engaging muscles in the hand, fore arm and biceps, is a good start. Continue this muscle activation through the upper torso connecting both arms across the pectoral muscles in your upper chest, and the Erector Spinae muscle group, which is on either side of your spine in your upper back. Without this muscle chain activated the tendency is to see the pole swing isolated to the arm and/or promotes upper body rotation. When these muscles are activated you will feel a bit “stiff” at first, but just like novice skiers feel tense on day-one, you will begin to understand how much muscle tension is functional the more you activate these muscles.
The ability to swing the pole into the touch zone, while implementing truths 2 & 3, requires movement of the lower body to reach the touch zone. You must combine ankle dorsiflexion, knee extension with complementary hip extension, or flexion, dependent on desired turn outcomes, as to allow your torso (and CM) to move forward, so in turn, you can touch the pole in the touch zone. Yes, that’s right! You use coordinated movements of the ankles, knees and hip joints to touch your pole, not your arms! Who would have thought?
Timing of the coordinated movements to maintain “the truths” is also critical, which I have specifically excluded. If you implement these truths while linking turns, the timing nearly takes care of itself, primarily because the pole swing and touch are an integral part of linking turns, not just the punctuation of a single turn.
Successfully implementing the truths requires concentration, practice and discipline. These are old concepts, heard time and time again, packaged a little differently in the Touch Zone. And remember if it doesn’t feel weird you’re not doing it! For more information also check out ”Look to the Poles for a Change of Direction” in the Winter 2006 Issue of The Professional Skier by Harvey and Fry to further anchor some of these concepts.
Can you teach an old dog new tricks? I sure hope so! I am amazed how much I still have to learn and how fortunate I am to be surrounded by the talented group of individuals that make up the PSIA-NW Technical Team.
The Team gets together at various times of the year for training and workshop sessions. We just wrapped up our midwinter training at Stevens Pass on January 6th. Yes, I did say midwinter. For the Team, early season training starts in October, when we met indoors at Mission Ridge October 9th – 11th, 2009 to get ready for the upcoming season. Our midwinter training, typically the first Monday and Tuesday in January, is on snow and focused towards the teaching, technical and skiing goals of the team for the division, and themselves.
For the past two years the on snow training has immediately followed the new Immersion Event and the guest coaches from that program have been able to stay and work with the team during this training session. This year we were fortunate to have Michael Rogan of the PSIA National Team with us.
What are the long term technical and skiing goals of the team? There are three: balance, balance and, oh yeah, balance! Balance at the beginning of the turn, balance at the middle of the turn and balance at the end of the turn, then “rinse and repeat.” There are actually a few more goals but they all center around the concept of balance (and stance) as it relates to “good skiing.”
What did we work on at Stevens Pass? Our specific topic for the two days was to explore the similarities, and more importantly the differences, of situational stance (and balance). Kate Morrell and I spent many hours on the phone and face-to-face discussing the tendencies of different skiing situations, the people who excel in those situations and the preferences they have towards their stance. We surmised from our experiences talking with people over the years that if you ask someone what a good functional stance is, they would most likely imagine where they prefer to ski and the turns they prefer to make, and naturally come up with an answer based on these preferences, their skiing background and their individual skiing strengths.
As a team we have gone through the exercise of defining a good stance. We found we had to make compromises during the defining process related to the way to make statements that fit the majority of skiing situations. At this last training, we were out to find the differences between skiing situations therefore being able to be more specific about what works and is more efficient.
The plan was to take two different skiing scenarios, participate in a clinic on each scenario by two different team members who excel in those scenarios and compare and contrast the clinics. Since we had Michael Rogan at our disposal we were going to use him for sure. Michael’s skiing scenario was off-piste fall-line skiing. The other clinician, Kate Morrell, was asked to lead a clinic on Giant Slalom turns on hard snow. To put it simply, both of these clinicians excel at the given skiing situation they were leading.
We spent day one with Michael where he ran us through the paces of tuning our balance so we could ski the mung, defined as 12-hour old, 14 inch, 27 degree snow, topped with 3 hours of 36 degree rain! We skied this off the top of Kehr’s Chair, previously known as Big Chief. It was now 33 degrees and misting. He had us skiing this terrain with a variety of pole-use-tasks like poles behind our back, one pole in the outside hand, one pole in the inside hand, one pole switching hands in the turn transition. He had us take one ski off and pass one pole around our body as we made turns. Did we fall? Yes. How many times? I lost count! I came to see him as Sgt. Michael Rogan, “Sir, yes Sir! May I have another #$%&-kicking exercise to show me how much I need to work on my balance, sir!”
What did I find through all these seemingly torturous activities? One: I had to stay over my feet, meaning aligning my Center of Mass (CM) with the line of action relative to my skis. Two: Make movements to attain and maintain shin contact. Three: I was most successful when my balance point averaged around the middle of my foot.
The next day the stars aligned for Kate, with clear skies and 17 degrees … and yes, to say it was firm was an understatement. If you have ever been on a clinic with Kate you’ll become well acquainted with your traversing skills. We went across the hill on both skis, uphill ski, downhill ski, back and forth, and back and forth, and back again. The results were amazing. I was able to tune-in to where Kate wanted me to balance and how to align my CM relative to my skis and understand why.
We made turns on the outside ski, “box turns” and then we traversed some more with additional coaching from Linda Cowan. Linda had us pick up our uphill ski, turn it over and across our downhill ski in front of the boot and behind the boot (just think it through, you can imagine it). What do you do after that? That’s right, traverse some more! With some garland action, balance with more weight on the downhill ski, move more balance to the uphill ski, extend into the turn then back to the downhill ski. Focus on your stance, your direction and your movements. I have never wanted to ski like a girl more, especially these two.
Kate did allow us to put the elements of the exercises into real skiing. What did I find through this day’s adventure with Kate and Linda? My balance point moved forward to be successful. A measure of success being measured as, when following Kate, she did not ski away from me like a jet (Kate) launching off an aircraft carrier (me).
What did I discover over the two days of training? One: Stance and balance are on a sliding scale relative to a given skiing situation. By adjusting and tweaking my balance and stance I have become more versatile and challenged my core beliefs and ideals so they can be broader and stronger. Two: Versatility is important; by improving my performance of the exercises these clinicians led me through I know more about the “depends” when someone give me “it depends” answer to a ski related question.
Some who have read this far may be saying, “Your findings are not breakthroughs. You didn’t need to go through two days of training to come up with those simple conclusions.” Indeed, it’s not rocket science and yes, I knew all this before, but not so well. Going through the process, especially with my teammates, has given me a much deeper understanding of situational stance/balance than simply discussing it or being told “it depends.”[ Editor’s Note: In this issue see: Teaching Through Sciencing: Guiding the Ownership of Information by Linda Cowan ].
After ten plus years of skiing (the plus being twenty-eight), I still find myself needing to enhance my balancing skills. Will it ever end? NO. But that’s OK, I have enjoyed getting better at skiing ever since my first day on skis way back when, and it keeps getting better.
If you were ever wondering if there are “magical words” or “secret moves” to becoming a better skier and teacher I hope this sheds some light on the process. The Technical Team members and coaching staff continue to develop our skiing skills, technical skills and teaching skills, so we can develop methods and means to help you develop your skills.
The two days of training with the team at Stevens Pass was invaluable, and I wish it had been a week longer. Continuing to train is an important part of growth and development. Take advantage of every opportunity.[connections_list id=6 template_name=”div_staff”]