‘Stop staring at your skis!’ and other pointers for avoiding on-slope slipups
December 31, 2013
From the skiers with their eyes firmly locked on the tips of their skis and the ground immediately in front of them, to the kid powering down the hill with his skis stuck in a wedge position — but seemingly skiing as if he were an Olympic downhill racer — the slopes have it all this time of year.
Whether it's sitting on a chairlift or cruising down a slope, as a former instructor, there's a part of me that's always engaged in a little observational movement analysis and often itching to yell out a pointer or two or give a quick tutorial when I see skiers who looks like they aren't having nearly as much fun out there as they should be. Once a teacher always a teacher, I guess.
With that in mind, here's a handful of the more common and easily correctable mistakes seen out on the hill.
Staring at your tips: This might be a little more common in a beginner skier, but even after 27 years on skis I still catch myself doing it from time to time when I'm in a clinic or just out focusing on a particular skill. People have a tendency — especially when first starting out — to look at their skis to see what they're doing and how they're responding. You don't look at your bike tire when you're out for a ride or your gas pedal when cruising down the highway, so why stare at your skis? It's potentially just as dangerous on skis as it would be on a bike or in a car, not to mention that out on a ski slope there's plenty more interesting things to look at than the snow directly in front of you. Keeping your head up is not only safer but will also lead to a better stance and more fluid movement. Seeing what's around you can also ease the nerves. Focus on feeling what your legs and skis are doing, not watching them do it. They'll do what you tell them to do whether you are looking or not, trust me.
The Franken-skier: Skiing with a rigid stance is common among intermediate skiers and those who may have rushed into terrain that's above their skill level. The big danger is that if your joints are close to a locked position, you'll be more prone to injury and a potential ligament tear in a fall. Skiing starts with an athletic stance. Much like a basketball player playing defense, or a volleyball player ready to counter a serve, a skier should always have the knees loose and slightly flexed, ready to absorb terrain. Proper form means flexing or absorbing turns, then extending when coming out of them. If you ever see an Olympic mogul skier, you'll notice his or her core stays in essentially the same position while the legs and hips do all the work. Skiers should perfect their skills on terrain where they're comfortable before rushing to something more advanced. A seasoned instructor once told me, "You can teach any skill on the bunny hill."
The backseat driver: Another common intermediate flaw is the tendency to ski almost as if seated. We call that being in the "backseat." That position can also make a skier more prone to injury, and it takes away control of the skis. Proper form means having flex in your legs but also being over top of your skis, not leaning back. Think of the body in a gentle "S" shape directly above your feet. Another good way to focus on proper stance is to pretend you have a $50 bill between your shin and your boot. You want to keep that bill there, so you always want a little pressure on the front of your boots.
Shoulder steering: Turning with the shoulders instead of with the hips and ankles is perhaps the most common mistake in an intermediate skier. Skis and the lower body should do the turning, not the upper body. Again, imagine a Olympic mogul skier; the core is always facing down hill while the legs and skis do the turning. Unless you're traversing a slope, the core should always be facing downhill. Think of it like taking a picture of a valley. You always want what you're taking a picture of to be in the frame. As instructors, we sometimes will have students simulate that by holding up their poles and keeping the valley "framed" by them. Another tendency is to lean into turns. When turning, more weight should be on the outside, or downhill, ski. So much so that you should almost be able to lift the inside ski while turning. It might be counterintuitive but it sure works a lot better.
The power wedge: Call it a snowplow, call it a pizza slice, a triangle — call it what you want, just don't use it all the time. Going back to the example of the kid flying downhill with his skis in a wedge. The natural progression is to make smaller and smaller wedges until eventually you are making parallel turns. Skiing is all about balance, applying different pressure to each ski and using the edges. The fastest way to do that is to remember to straighten your skis to parallel after ever turn. Completing the turn is also important. Beginners often forget that turning all the way across a hill will slow them down much faster than facing downslope. Intermediates often cut their turns short instead of completing a full turn. Last, the edges of your skis are what should eventually be doing the turning. Think about getting up on the edges as you a turn; you'll turn more efficiently.
Falling is a good thing: My dad always used to do everything he could to try to stay upright on skis. That policy led to cracked ribs courtesy of a ski pole, knee injuries and even a gash thanks to a sharp ski edge. When you feel yourself losing your balance, it's often best to just go with the fall. Your skis may pop off and you may lose your poles, but if your tuck and roll with it, your knees, legs and other parts are more likely to stay in one piece.
Overthinking is overwhelming: Should you find that more than one of the above skills apply to your own skiing, it's important not to overthink. That's perhaps the biggest flaw in my golf game: getting lost in overanalysis. It's the same with skiing. One skill at a time is always the best approach. Focus attention on a particular skill for a run, not all skills at once. But perhaps more than anything, even expert can gain something from a lesson. My mom once told me she learned more in an hourlong private lesson than she had in 20 years of skiing on her own.
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