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The Skier Within: Ski Instructors Change Techniques

The Skier Within: Ski Instructors Change Techniques

When ski instruction went from formal technique to pop psychology.
By John Fry
posted: 09/26/2008

More than three decades ago, skiing was ripe for a change in the way the sport was taught. Amid a new wave of research in psychology and neurology that supported a holistic approach to how people learn, ski instructors were still shouting orders to tense skiers about the placement of their knees and shoulders.

Jean-Claude Killy, it was revealed, had used a form of yoga to help win the 1967 overall World Cup title and his triple gold at the 1968 Olympics in Grenoble, France. Switzerland’s national ski team won seven medals at the 1972 Sapporo Winter Games after employing a Jungian psychotherapist.

Sportswriter and expert skier Denise McCluggage, who’d studied Zen Buddhism, attracted national attention with her concept of Centered Skiing. She urged skiers to control their skis not intellectually from the head, but viscerally from the body’s physical center—a point located just below the navel.

At about the same time, in 1975, Tim Gallwey, the best-selling author of The Inner Game of Tennis, burst onto the ski scene. Skiers, he said, should learn to focus on mental images of how they wanted to ski down a slope and on how a perfect turn should feel. He went on to co-author the best-selling book Inner Skiing.

The nation’s ski schools mostly welcomed the Gallwey influence. Colorado’s Copper Mountain started a dryland program instructing students to feel the motions of skiing before they even put on skis. A rush of workshops and books, such as Ski With Yoga, appeared. The Hidden Skier claimed a latent talent and unique style of skiing lay within each of us. In Skiing from the Head Down, two psychologists
presented skiing as a total mind and body experience.

It wasn’t long before doubts were raised about overemphasizing the inner approach to instruction. Skiing does, after all, involve a technical activity: sliding down snowy slopes
at high speeds. A Zen-like inner peace doesn’t address a student’s need to make it down the slopes in one piece.

By the mid-1980s, the Inner Game schools had mostly disappeared. While racers continued to work on the cerebral aspects of skiing, the ski-instruction establishment largely returned to focusing on execution and technique. Nevertheless, the mental approach of the ’70s has left the sport with an enduring legacy: a reminder to instructors that technical expertise is only the beginning of successfully teaching people how to ski.

John Fry is the author of “The Story of Modern Skiing,” published in 2006 by University Press of New England.

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