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Are You Getting Bad Advice?

Are You Getting Bad Advice?

Instruction
posted: 12/31/1999

(SKIING Magazine by Cindy Hirschfeld)--Years ago, I promised my friend Maryclare I would teach her how to ski. We headed up to a small resort in the Catskills where I confidently led her down the bunny slope in a wedge (then known as a snowplow). The problem was, I was telling her to turn right, and she kept turning left. Finally, she made a turn to the right. Her secret? "I did exactly the opposite of what you told me," she said, somewhat accusingly.

It's a classic situation. Friends shouldn't teach friends how to ski. Most of us ski by instinct; we know what to do, but it's hard to say what that is exactly, or why we do it -- especially if we're trying to explain it to someone else. Or we may pass on something we've been told before without realizing that it's not a one-size-fits-all solution. As a result, an awful lot of bad ski advice gets tossed around. Perhaps you've been on the receiving end of some.

I collected the following bits of bad advice from my own experience as a ski instructor in Aspen and from my superstar colleagues in Colorado. Not all this bad advice is bad all the time. Some old standbys have simply become outdated by shaped skis and modern boots. And others are problematic if you overgeneralize them, trying to apply one concept to all situations.

Once you learn to recognize bad advice when you hear it, you may be able to pass on just the right advice to actually help someone else someday -- and prove yourself to be a real friend.

1. Lift up your inside ski, like the racers do.
Make that, like the racers used to do. Before the advent of shaped skis, independent leg action, or actively lifting the inside ski, was the fastest way to ski. Racers would "step" into their turns to get a tighter line down a slalom or GS course, overcoming the limitations of the turning radii of straighter skis. Modern skis, however, deliver those tight turns by simply being edged.

While most of us won't experience the same forces as World Cup racers, we too can adapt our technique to the new skis, whether we're heading into the trees, trying to establish a personal-best NASTAR time, or just ripping it up on the groomed. "If you're on one foot, you don't have as much balance," notes Jill Sickels Matlock, a member of the PSIA Alpine demo team and an instructor at Crested Butte (as well as a past champ of the U.S. Extreme Skiing Championships). "It may seem easier to turn the inside ski if it's in the air, but with two skis on the snow, you'll be much more stable." (A caveat: Lifting -- and tipping -- the inside ski is a valid part of certain contemporary drills that help you roll your skis onto their edges and slice a clean turn; we're talking instead about picking up the inside ski just for the sake of doing something with it.)

The key is to develop your ability to simultaneously steer and edge your inside ski. Try this exercise on very flat terrain: Stand on one ski at a time (holding the other one off the ground) and make turns in both directions. You'll find that making the turn when the stance leg is uphill is tricky. But when you're able to do it, you'll truly be able to steer both skis throughout the turn. "Once you master this steering both skis throughout the turn, your skiing jumps up a notch," promises Sickels Matlock. "It's amazing."

Lifting the inside ski is a good thing to do periodically to see how well you balance on the outside foot, because we still predominantly ski on the outside ski. But otherwise, keep the inside ski on the snow to help you maintain balance.

2. Always face your upper body directly down the fall line.
Weems Westfeldt, director of the Ski and Snowboard Schools of Aspen, calls this the "great myth" of ski technique. It's a holdover from the days when traditional skis required skiers to do some kind of windup and release to get their skis to turn. The increased sidecuts of today's skis makes them much more responsive, so you don't have to apply such radil turning forces. Instead, face more in the direction of travel (i.e. diagonally down the hill), with your hips only slightly countered downhill. Your body position will thus be less rigid, and you'll be able to provide input to your skis more effectively. Note that there are some times when you will want to face more downhill; for example, if you're making supershort turns on steep terrain -- in which case, your direction of travel is pretty much down the fall line.

3. Push your heels out to start your turn.
One day last season, a couple stopped within earshot of me on a run. "Are you pushing your heels out?" the guy asked his partner. The woman made a few turns, gamely flicking out her heels to start each one, and yelled back, "Yup!" The man then followed her, doing the same thing, and I watched the happy heel-thrusters ski off.

Heel-pushing is a lot more work than necessary. Pushing your heels out forces your skis to move sideways, rather than forward along an arc as they're designed to do. "Pushing your heels makes a parallel change of aim, but it doesn't make a turn," explains Westfeldt. "And it doesn't engage the engineering of the ski -- instead, it overpowers it."

Instead of heel-pushing to begin the turn, focus on rolling your ankles to tip your skis onto their corresponding uphill edges. Then apply more pressure to the outside ski by pressing on the ball of your foot while relaxing your inside leg. These movements engage the sidecut of your skis, so your skis will easily turn through an arc rather than skidding sideways.

4. Get low and dig your edges in.
Some skiers believe that in order to slice through a turn, they need to push their ski edges into the snow as hard as they can. It's the right idea -- you want to pressure your skis to optimally engage their sidecut -- but hunkering down is the wrong means of doing so, says Charlie MacArthur, Snowmass ski instructor and PSIA Alpine demo team member. Due to the mysteries of biomechanics, while you flex, you're actually unweighting your skis rather than pressuring them -- until the moment that you hit bottom. Think about what happens when you jump in place: To create the pressure that will actually propel you off the ground, you have to extend your legs.

So extend your legs during the first part of your turn (you'll already be slightly flexed as you exit your old turn). This will enable you to pressure your skis. Then, after you cross the fall line, you can absorb the pressure that builds up during the turn by flexing. The amount that you'll want to flex will be dictated by the terrain you're on; for example, on groomed terrain, only a slight flex is needed. In the bumps, however, you'll need to flex more deeply to maintain good ski-to-snow contact.

5. Lean back in powder.
This is one of the most enduring pieces of bad advice. Leaning back puts an awful lot of unnecessary stress on your thighs. Plus, "you're not using the whole ski when you're leaning back," points out MacArthur. Instead of sitting back, stand over the middle of your foot and your ski and bring your quads, hamstrings, and glutes all into play.

So, how do you keep your tips from diving, sending you keister over tea-kettle into a foot of fresh? MacArthur suggests practicing flexing and extending while in a neutral position (i.e., neither forward nor back). Start out on a relatively flat, groomed slope, without making any turns, then graduate to a low-angle run and incorporate some nice, easy turns while staying centered over your skis. Then when you hit the deep stuff, establish a rhythm in which your skis are moving down the slope as well as across, which will help you control your speed and manage your skis to avoid the dreaded tip dive. And if you really do need to raise your ski tips, do so by lifting your toes and the ball of your foot. That way you can pressure the back of your skis without moving your whole center of gravity back.

6. Plant your pole and turn around it.
Seems like an innocuous piece of advice, doesn't it? But approaching pole plants in this way can be problematic. If you plant your pole, then turn, you'll end up skiing past the pole. The result? You'll be sitting back on your skis and leaning up the hill, exactly the opposite of the direction in which you want to be moving.

To break the habit, says Aspen instructor Rick Vetromile, make your pole plant -- just a touch, really -- in the first 10 to 20 percent of your turn, after you change your edges but before you cross the fall line. In this exercise, "the pole plant tells you the initiation of your turn is finished and to keep your momentum going," notes Vetromile, "and it helps you direct your mass forward," which sets you up for your next turn. Remember, the edge change starts the turn, not the pole plant.

Vetromile also recommends gripping the pole with your whole hand and letting the pole swing come from your wrist, rather than releasing with the bottom half of the hand. This way, the pole movement won't drag your upper body into odd and uncompromising positions. In addition, rather than holding your poles straight up and down, cock your wrists slightly to the side, which will also eliminate unnecessary upper-body movement.

"The pole is such a little thing, but learning to use it correctly is probably the single most effective thing you can do to your skiing," says Vetromile.

7. Twist your feet to turn.
Leave Twister where it belongs, in the 1960s. The notion of twisting comes out of what we ski instructors call "rotary skills," steering movements that help us make a change in direction. But especially with shaped skis, it's easy to provide mechanical overkill if you're making twisting movements with your feet.

To realize that you can make a turn without twisting, let yourself experience the feel of a pure carve. One way to do this is by making railroad tracks -- two parallel, carved tracks in the snow. "This exercise lets you immediately feel what your skis can do without having to twist them," says MacArthur. Plus, it's fun. Start traversing across an easy slope; then, initiating the movement with your uphill ski, roll or tip both skis onto their corresponding edges and hang on for the ride. You should leave two carved arcs in your wake if you've done it correctly. The higher you tip your skis on edge, the tighter your turn radius will be.

8. To be a good skier, you have to ski with your feet really close together.
Unless you're Jonny Moseley and you spend all day zipper-lining the bumps, you'll be a more versatile skier if you let a little light show through between your legs. "A lot of people come to class thinking they have to ski with their feet glued together," says Sickels Matlock. "But for basic skiing around the mountain, a more athletic wider stance is better." Think of the position you'd assume when getting ready to throw a basketball toward the hoop from several yards away: Your legs are about hip-width apart, knees and ankles slightly flexed. Adopting a similar stance on your skis gives you more stability; it also gives you more maneuvering room to tip your skis onto edge to begin your turns. "It's hard to get both skis on edge if you're fighting your balance," says Sickels Matlock.

There is another school of thought on stance width, advocated by SKIING contributor Harald Harb, inventor of the Primary Movements Teaching System. He believes that indiscriminately adopting a wide stance creates static balance but not necessarily dynamic balance (balance in motion). A narrower stance, Harb says, allows you to shift your weight more easily from foot to foot and to make an early weight transfer to the downhill (or outside) ski. Rather than recommend a standard stance, Harb encourages his students to go with the one that works best for them -- which is rarely feet glued together, however.

The key is realizing that your stance width will vary, dee and turn around it.
Seems like an innocuous piece of advice, doesn't it? But approaching pole plants in this way can be problematic. If you plant your pole, then turn, you'll end up skiing past the pole. The result? You'll be sitting back on your skis and leaning up the hill, exactly the opposite of the direction in which you want to be moving.

To break the habit, says Aspen instructor Rick Vetromile, make your pole plant -- just a touch, really -- in the first 10 to 20 percent of your turn, after you change your edges but before you cross the fall line. In this exercise, "the pole plant tells you the initiation of your turn is finished and to keep your momentum going," notes Vetromile, "and it helps you direct your mass forward," which sets you up for your next turn. Remember, the edge change starts the turn, not the pole plant.

Vetromile also recommends gripping the pole with your whole hand and letting the pole swing come from your wrist, rather than releasing with the bottom half of the hand. This way, the pole movement won't drag your upper body into odd and uncompromising positions. In addition, rather than holding your poles straight up and down, cock your wrists slightly to the side, which will also eliminate unnecessary upper-body movement.

"The pole is such a little thing, but learning to use it correctly is probably the single most effective thing you can do to your skiing," says Vetromile.

7. Twist your feet to turn.
Leave Twister where it belongs, in the 1960s. The notion of twisting comes out of what we ski instructors call "rotary skills," steering movements that help us make a change in direction. But especially with shaped skis, it's easy to provide mechanical overkill if you're making twisting movements with your feet.

To realize that you can make a turn without twisting, let yourself experience the feel of a pure carve. One way to do this is by making railroad tracks -- two parallel, carved tracks in the snow. "This exercise lets you immediately feel what your skis can do without having to twist them," says MacArthur. Plus, it's fun. Start traversing across an easy slope; then, initiating the movement with your uphill ski, roll or tip both skis onto their corresponding edges and hang on for the ride. You should leave two carved arcs in your wake if you've done it correctly. The higher you tip your skis on edge, the tighter your turn radius will be.

8. To be a good skier, you have to ski with your feet really close together.
Unless you're Jonny Moseley and you spend all day zipper-lining the bumps, you'll be a more versatile skier if you let a little light show through between your legs. "A lot of people come to class thinking they have to ski with their feet glued together," says Sickels Matlock. "But for basic skiing around the mountain, a more athletic wider stance is better." Think of the position you'd assume when getting ready to throw a basketball toward the hoop from several yards away: Your legs are about hip-width apart, knees and ankles slightly flexed. Adopting a similar stance on your skis gives you more stability; it also gives you more maneuvering room to tip your skis onto edge to begin your turns. "It's hard to get both skis on edge if you're fighting your balance," says Sickels Matlock.

There is another school of thought on stance width, advocated by SKIING contributor Harald Harb, inventor of the Primary Movements Teaching System. He believes that indiscriminately adopting a wide stance creates static balance but not necessarily dynamic balance (balance in motion). A narrower stance, Harb says, allows you to shift your weight more easily from foot to foot and to make an early weight transfer to the downhill (or outside) ski. Rather than recommend a standard stance, Harb encourages his students to go with the one that works best for them -- which is rarely feet glued together, however.

The key is realizing that your stance width will vary, depending on where you are and what you're trying to do. A narrower stance, for example, works well in moguls; for quick, short turns; and in soft, cut-up snow, where a too-wide stance only encourages your skis' tendency to track in separate directions. A wider stance can be appropriate for arcing long GS turns or making first tracks.

9. Just turn!
How many times have you witnessed this scene: A skier stands paralyzed with fear at the top of a way-too-steep-for-his-level run while his friend at the bottom shouts up, "Just turn!"?

"Just do it" advice falls short in situations like these. If you're stalled out or gripped at the top of a slope, rather than focusing on the turn as your goal, get yourself going by envisioning that you're steering your skis and boots through the snow. As Westfeldt puts it: "I don't turn my car; I operate the steering wheel."

Once you do start making turns, don't rush them. Our tendency on steep terrain is to get our skis out of the fall line and back across the hill as quickly as possible. We end up with something resembling a series of linked hockey stops. Count to three during each turn, which will help you draw out each one and establish a rhythm. Tackle the hill in manageable chunks; after five turns, say, stop and give yourself a break. And remember to breathe!

10. Let me teach you.
Our final bit of sage advice is to leave the coaching to someone who understands that role. Buddies, pals, and lovers usually wind up stressing their relationships. "Friends over- skiing their friends is a common scenario," says Westfeldt.

Why fork over more than the price of a lift ticket to ski with someone other than your hotshot buddies? We can't guarantee that you'll never receive a piece of bad advice in a ski lesson, but the odds are good that spending just one day with an instructor who's used to evaluating ski technique and explaining alternatives can mean the difference between really skiing with your buds and struggling to keep up.

Does it really matter whether you're using "proper" technique, as long as you're having fun? Not unless you want to get better. A coaching session will help you develop a greater range of technique, which will let you more confidently handle any sort of terrain the mountain throws at you. By learning to use your equipment to its best advantage, you'll be able to ski more efficiently, not to mention more safely. And you'll still have plenty of energy at the end of the day to hoist that après-ski beer., depending on where you are and what you're trying to do. A narrower stance, for example, works well in moguls; for quick, short turns; and in soft, cut-up snow, where a too-wide stance only encourages your skis' tendency to track in separate directions. A wider stance can be appropriate for arcing long GS turns or making first tracks.

9. Just turn!
How many times have you witnessed this scene: A skier stands paralyzed with fear at the top of a way-too-steep-for-his-level run while his friend at the bottom shouts up, "Just turn!"?

"Just do it" advice falls short in situations like these. If you're stalled out or gripped at the top of a slope, rather than focusing on the turn as your goal, get yourself going by envisioning that you're steering your skis and boots through the snow. As Westfeldt puts it: "I don't turn my car; I operate the steering wheel."

Once you do start making turns, don't rush them. Our tendency on steep terrain is to get our skis out of the fall line and back across the hill as quickly as possible. We end up with something resembling a series of linked hockey stops. Count to three during each turn, which will help you draw out each one and establish a rhythm. Tackle the hill in manageable chunks; after five turns, say, stop and give yourself a break. And remember to breathe!

10. Let me teach you.
Our final bit of sage advice is to leave the coaching to someone who understands that role. Buddies, pals, annd lovers usually wind up stressing their relationships. "Friends over- skiing their friends is a common scenario," says Westfeldt.

Why fork over more than the price of a lift ticket to ski with someone other than your hotshot buddies? We can't guarantee that you'll never receive a piece of bad advice in a ski lesson, but the odds are good that spending just one day with an instructor who's used to evaluating ski technique and explaining alternatives can mean the difference between really skiing with your buds and struggling to keep up.

Does it really matter whether you're using "proper" technique, as long as you're having fun? Not unless you want to get better. A coaching session will help you develop a greater range of technique, which will let you more confidently handle any sort of terrain the mountain throws at you. By learning to use your equipment to its best advantage, you'll be able to ski more efficiently, not to mention more safely. And you'll still have plenty of energy at the end of the day to hoist that après-ski beer.

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