Tora and Mel

Tora and Mel each had a few hours experience of snowploughing at an indoor slope in the UK. The goal was to impart the basics of the correct mechanics of skiing in only a couple of sessions so that they could continue to work on them and progress on their own. Those mechanics involved accelerating the Centre of Mass in the correct way to control a turn and standing strongly on one leg to permit this.

View from the Solaise (Thu 13th morn)

Morning One
Exercise one: herring bone step
Diverging skis, feeling the inside of the feet against the boots and pulling inwards with the legs to get the skis on edge.
Walking uphill maintaining the divergence to prevent any backward slipping.
Exercise two: learning to skate
Neither Tora nor Mel were skaters so they had to be rapidly taught the basics of skating. On level terrain I had Tora diverge her skis and put her poles aside. I stood in front of her holding my poles across in front of my body and asked her to grab the poles and push me along. She had to lean forwards and seek purchase with the ski and feet edges to push me. This is the basis of the skating action. Repeating the same action without me in front causes a slight “falling” forwards and an acceleration – thus skating. Both Tora and Mel succeeded at this straight away – but with Mel feeling this more effectively. Tora didn’t manage to slide forwards when skating but Mel did.
Exercise three: skating around in a gentle turn
Displacing the body (Centre of Mass) CM in the desired direction of the turn by stepping it in that direction. Both managed this effectively on very gentle terrain as an alternative way to change direction compared to snowplough. I pointed out that this is how people actually turn on cross country skis or even on ice skates when they want to keep their speed up. (except they might cross their legs with the ice skates). 
It was made clear at this early stage that control of speed should come from a change of direction – by using the so called “line” – instead of a breaking action as found in a snowplough. Any turn when finished properly by turning up the hill far enough will bring the skier to a complete stop.
Exercise four: traversing with diverging skis
Staying on the two top edges and using the top ski as a brake. We traversed down from the top of the beginner’s slope – which is actually quite steep. I pointed out that to avoid the steepness we effectively cut the slope up by traversing across instead of skiing down the steep parts. Both Tora and Mel did a great job of crossing while maintaining diverging skis – using the top ski as a brake and with both skis on their top edges. I demonstrated that if the top ski was placed into a snowplough it would be pointing downhill directly and could simply not be of any use during a traverse – plus it could cause the skier to shoot off downhill if it received any weight.

Exercise five: turning on the spot by diverging the skis uphill.
While standing still on the hill it was sometimes necessary to turn around. To avoid making a snowplough facing downhill to get around I suggested the opposite, to diverge the skis facing the body uphill whilst making small steps to get the skis around eventually and face across the hill in the opposite direction.
Exercise six: skating turns on a moderate gradient with small accelerations
This basically was just a natural progression of all that had gone before but requiring that each skier handled the small accelerations caused by the gradient and moved a little more responsively with the legs. Unfortunately this was as far as we got because both Tora and Mel started to reach their limits here after doing extremely well up to this point. We should really have spent more time to get to this stage and to allow the body to adapt to accelerations and sliding a little better – but our objective was to try to get there in only two lessons. We didn’t really get any further than this due to extensive individual feedback and assistance being required. Mel’s body was over-reacting reflexively to accelerations so she was in need of more time to adapt. This was particularly evident when she tried to turn to the left and found herself just sitting down or freezing up and falling over backwards. I explained how the body over-reacts to try to keep itself vertical when we are not used to sliding. Gradually Mel got on top of this. She was much happier with this approach to skiing than with the snowplough.  

Tora reacted differently and her problem was that she started to confuse the coordination of the skate with the snowplough. Instead of stepping inwards through a turn with the skis diverging she began to step outwards (CM) with the skis converging (despite always making one correct step at the initiation of each turn) Despite Tora’s great progress at the beginning she ended up feeling confused and the impulse to “plough” began to take over her body each time there was an acceleration. I explained that this  difficulty was  due to a combination of issues that complicate learning. First of all she had already been trained to “push out” into a plough and had the muscle memory. Secondly this was a “defensive” position so it conferred a false but definite sense of security. Thirdly this pushing out also conferred a “twisting” of the feet and in particular the outside ski – in the direction that it needed to eventually go – giving another false sense of security. Fourthly it acted as a brake – and crutch – perhaps not really assisting but more inhibiting progress. Fifthly, this muscle coordination was the exact opposite to that really required for skiing – which – as in skating – was the “pulling inwards” with the adductor muscles.

Learning involves awareness of both intentional and unintentional movements. The difficulty experienced by Tora was due to awareness and perception. We effectively need to “learn how to learn” when it comes to something somewhat challenging such as skiing. Part of this process involves kinaesthetic awareness – awareness of the body and its movements – making those movements conscious.Tora had no idea that she was moving in the way opposite to that which she intended – she simply couldn’t perceive this at this early stage. Even with direct feedback from me that issue could not be changed. This caused Tora a great deal of frustration and concern that she would not succeed with this approach and she decided to abandon for the following day. In contrast Mel was really inspired by her own achievements and felt much better than when constrained by the snowplough.

Avalanche flag on the Solaise indicating risk 3 to 4 on a scale of 5 for off-piste.

Morning Two

Despite Tora’s misgivings I persuaded her to continue with the second day and guaranteed her a result – being prepared to adapt the teaching methods accordingly, though maintaining the correct basis of dynamics with complete integrity.

Exercise seven: feet rolling
Morning number two started with a gentle descent on a very shallow gradient. We exploited this slope to work on something new. I asked both skiers to roll their feet to the left so that one foot would be on its inside edge and the other on its outside. From this position the CM would also mover slightly left and the skis would be placed slightly on their left edges. With a little forward motion the skis would gently turn them to the left. The same applies of course with rolling to the right. Both skiers managed almost perfect parallel turns down the hill without even realising that they were doing it. Val d’Isère unfortunately has almost no gradient like this for beginners to practise on and several hours of doing this alone would be ideal at this stage.

Exercise eight: snowplough with CM towards the inside of the turn
With Tora being much more at ease with the snowplough at this stage I decided to make use of the plough in a more intelligent and constructive manner than it is usually taught. Ideally it should be taught much more systematically than I did here and quite a few corners were cut to speed things up, but that did not have a direct consequence in this case – at least for Tora.

Facing across the hill in a plough the weight is naturally on the downhill leg. The aim here is that the weight remains on whichever leg is downhill. During the turn whichever leg is downhill at the start will be uphill at the end – the change taking place as the skis cross the fall-line with the skier facing downhill. Making sure the weight is always on the downhill ski ensures that there is always a brake! The plough is a braking manoeuvre – nothing else and this should always be respected. This means that at the start of the turn the weight is NOT placed on the “outside” ski – which would require an inappropriate motion of the CM towards the outside of the turn. I asked again that the feet be rolled slightly in the direction of the upcoming turn (downhill) – moving the CM slightly downhill – away from the outside ski, over the lower ski and towards the centre of the turn. The lower ski was used like a brake and with a slight pushing of the ski tip downhill it was able to feed the skier into the turn without any acceleration. The CM was now moving in the correct direction – towards the turn centre. When the skis crossed the fall-line the weight would naturally come onto the outside ski and it would complete the turn due to the feet still being rolled into the turn and the body still being held in towards the turn centre. In fact it was the geometry of the mountain that brought about the change in which ski was being weighted. Here it is important to distinguish between what the skier is doing and what “happens to” the skier – “cause and effect”. The skier moves towards the inside of the turn, which slightly flattens the inside (dowwnhill) ski and causes a controlled drift into a turn with the weight on that ski. The mountain geometry causes a change in pressure from one ski to another.
It was emphasised that is was extremely important to adjust for the geometry of the mountain as the skis passed the fall line. The ski is trying to bring the skier up and effectively out of a turn and so during the turn completion – when ski edge angle increases due to coming across the hill – a greater effort has to be made to move the body down and in towards the centre of the turn. The comparison was thus made with “traditional” snowplough where the skier is told to stand directly “hanging out” over the “outside ski” and the ridiculousness of this was made apparent.

Failure to move far enough towards the turn centre contributes to the skier getting the inside ski “caught” on its inside edge (especially the tail) during the second half of the turn.

Exercise nine: stepping inwards in a plough
While in the plough and with the CM over the inside ski I asked the skiers to make small steps with the inside ski while turning, just slightly stepping it in towards the turn centre. This slightly resembles skating, but simply removes the support of the inside ski allowing the skier to fall a little more to the inside of the turn.

Exercise ten: standing up
Tora was tending to twist her body into the turn and thus cause her body to fall towards the outside of the turn and get her inside ski caught up. To prevent the twisting we worked on “standing strongly”. I stood uphill from tora and asked her to use her shoulder to push against me as if she was trying to push as hard as possible against a wall. The pressure would then go hard against one of her legs. If pushing to the left it would be the right leg. I pointed out that when turning to the left this is what she should feel on that leg – it had to be very strong. Tora understood that straight away and it gave her a good stance and stopped the CM from swingling outwards during the turn and stopped the inside ski from catching.

I also pointed out here that asking someone to “balance” on a ski would cause them to move the CM over the ski. Balance on the left leg means “move the CM to the left”. We have to do the direct opposite to ski – and the “wall” to push against is eventually replaced by accelerations (Force and Acceleration of Mass are interchangeable in physics)

Exercise eleven: increasing dynamics
Once Tora was standing correctly the next exercise was to increase those accelerations. Basically the the plough was narrowed and the skiers were asked to move more actively towards the centre of the new turns. The analogy of a bicycle was used to reinforce the mental picture of moving from side to side of the direction of travel and the skis responding like a bike – cutting under the new trajectory to bring the person back up (thus generating a turn).
Tora managed to experience this correctly but by this time Mel, who hated the ploughs was suffering dramatically with a metatarsal arch problem cutting circulation to her toes. She had no hope of being able to achieve anything and it was very disappointing for her (and for me!).

Exercise twelve: proactive dynamics
I explained that dynamics was not a “reactive” or “passive” phenomenon. What dynamics meant was that you had to actually try to make yourself fall over to one side or another with a powerful action. This means that you don’t wait until there is feedback or support from the ski. It’s a real mental shift and totally counter intuitive. Ski instructors literally “believe” in balance and balancing but it is a complete mistake. They are even examined on their “balance” professionally by other fools who are even more qualified in their stupidity. We have to get over this nonsense and see that the correct goals are different and elsewhere. The skier’s job is to “fall over” and the ski’s job is to “bring the skier back up”. The interaction between the two makes a turn.
We only had a few minutes to work on this so not surprisingly it was a step too far for Tora who didn’t manage to move her body when travelling faster. Surprisingly, despite her agony Mel did manage it quite well.


Tora will build up to Proactive Dynamics using the plough – with the CM always active in the right direction. Mel will probably get there better though skating if she can handle the accelerations. Tora was clearly at an acceptable level that would allow her to progress more on her own and with the correct mechanics. Mel would need to sort out the foot problem and then have a bit of extra coaching to catch up.

Mel’s Catch Up!
Mel managed to successfully work her way through the commercial labyrinth of shops and services and find someone who understood her foot problem and provided a metatarsal arch support. When that was taken care off she called me up and I offered to give her a booster session the following morning. Tora was apparently happy now to continue on her own as was originally planned.

Exercise thirteen: snowplough on the outside edges of the feet
Mel had seriously struggled with the snowplough two days earlier but with her foot pain issues it was impossible to resolve much – this also being compounded by the dramatic differences between her and Tora in terms of technique requirements. Keeping in mind her struggle with the plough I decided to use my standard approach to teaching the plough and attempt to eliminate the problems rather than just abandon the plough altogether. For this reason I asked Mel to stand on the outside edges of her feet, with the knees pointing slightly outwards and the adductor muscles completely relaxed. The width of the plough itself combined with the rigid (laterally stiff) boot running up the leg – would contrive to keep the skis both on their inside edges despite standing on the outside edges of the feet. We began by straight running down the steeper part of the slope to test this out and sure enough Mel was able to do this – controlling her speed by changing the width of the plough and she felt much more comfortable.

Exercise fourteen: turning with the little toe
Standing on the outside edges of the feet I demonstrated that all that was required to make a turn was a subtle turning of the (inside) foot – led by the little toe. This is not a “twisting” as such it’s more of a push towards the inside of the turn – feeding the ski into the turn. This corresponds to an earlier exercise that we did feeding ourselves into a turn using the lower (inside) ski as a brake. All that was required to turn in either direction was this guidance from the little toe. This works because the subtle action flattens the ski very slightly and allows it to slip into a turn.

Exercise fifteen: little toe and inside of the heel of the other foot
With both feet on their outside edges (the feet not the skis – the skis are on their inside edges – inside in this case relative to the body not the turn) there is not much grip with the outside ski of the turn. To correct for this lack of grip the foot on the outside ski has to be taken gently off its outside edge and rolled slightly inwards – especially on the inside of the heel. This means that if turning to the right, the little toe of the right foot pushes to the right and the right foot is on it’s outside edge, but the left foot now rolls onto the inside of its heel.
Mel reported that she had more control – which was the objective of the exercise. I also wanted her to become aware that both feet were doing different things at the same time.

Exercise sixteen: pushing the foot forwards
Now that more grip was established the next thing to add was was a push forwards of the outside ski in the turn – the one gripping with the heel on its inside edge.  Mel reported that she was turning more rapidly – which is the correct effect of the push forwards – which is a mechanism for altering turn radius. The push forwards makes the turn active instead of passively waiting for things to happen – it pushes the ski across the trajectory of the skier and thus makes the uplifting effect of the ski – hence the turning – more active. Mel also remarked that this push forwards of the foot created a down/up motion. This hadn’t been mentioned by me so it was excellent that she spotted it and confirmation for me that she was doing it correctly.

Exercise seventeen: push forwards with up/down motion
Making use of Mel’s observation on the down/up motion we incorporated it directly as the aim of the next exercise. The point was the the pushing forwards from the start of the turn would cause the skier to sink down slightly, enabling the body to stay better down and in towards the centre of the turn, then the turn would be completed with a natural standing up – bringing the body up and out of the turn ready to commence the next one. This is actually part of a skating action and timing and is very natural – but not everyone catches on to it as easily as Mel did.
I explained that the timing of the “down/up” motion of the legs corresponds with the body tilting over “down” into a turn and “up” back out of the turn – like a motorbike. This timing links the dynamics of a turn with skating or just basic use of the legs.

Exercise eighteen: narrowing the plough and adding speed
When the gradient was a bit lower we started to reduce the braking effect of the plough and keep the same actions of the legs in a narrower plough at higher speed – thus allowing dynamics to creep back into the equation. I pointed out to Mel that the feet would now start to feel like they were both simply being rolled in one direction – left to go left – and right to go right  – exactly like an exercise we had attempted a few days previously.

Exercise nineteen: heel rolling and ankle support
Indoors for a break, we removed the boots to look at the feet and how to best use them in ski boots. First of all we established the effects of standing on the whole foot and collapsing at the ankle – which is very weak. I pointed out that a boot can hide this weakness by supporting the leg – but that it is not meant to do this – it is a mistake if it is used for support – the skier must always stand up. Placing the weight on the heels and bending at the hips and knees causes the ankle to go strong and the anterior tibialis to (muscle on the outside of the shin) to tense up. This strong ankle is desirable in skiing. In addition, when standing on the heels the ankle can be rocked – left and right and the feet can go from edge to edge. It’s easy to see how this relates to the skis. Mel then tried this “foot rocking” with the weight over the whole of the feet and found that it didn’t work – only the knees moved around. Standing on the heels is a great solution for Mel particularly with her metatarsal issues at the moment. This does not put the body weight too far back because it is not the same as leaning on the back of the ski boots.

Exercise twenty: recreating the arches of the foot
I showed Mel how to generate and correct the natural arches of the foot by activating the dormant muscles in the feet (there are 38 of them!) For most of my own skiing I generate those arches and hold the muscles strongly so that I’m supported up on the ball of my foot (not squashing down on it) – but this requires years of training of the feet muscles and was only to demonstrate the issues to Mel and to show her that a podiatric support for the foot is only an aid and not a solution.

Exercise twenty one: pivoting from the top ski
Mel had an attempt at pivoting from the top ski but I didn’t really think this would work at such short notice. It was worth a try though. I did want Mel to understand that a turn does not always need to start on the inside edge of a ski as in a snowplough – there are other options.

Exercise twenty two: parallel running with slight dynamics
Now that Mel’s basic support from the feet legs and dynamics was in place it was time to attempt to add a bit more acceleration and to run with the skis parallel. This worked fine until it became a bit steeper and faster and beyond Mel’s current speed tolerance threshold.

Exercise twenty three: parallel running with proactive dynamics
I pointed out that the real issue now was that Mel had to take more of a chance with the dynamics and “try to fall over” to the side. This meant being more proactive with it instead of tentatively waiting for feedback. It’s a leap of faith to some extent when you have no experience. I explained that this would actually generate MORE stability not less. In a nutshell – it worked.

Mel has a true feel for natural movement and has a lot of potential. I hope that she can continue to have the opportunity to develop along those lines.

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