Core Principles – Beginners

Beginner Exercises and Introduction to Core Principles

Most errors in ski teaching are made with respect to teaching beginners. Perhaps the most difficult and important part of ski teaching is making sure that beginners develop technically correctly and free from fear and danger. If a beginner is exposed from the start to incorrect core principles then this can become an insurmountable problem for life. The main issue here is not concerning bad teachers but the bad teaching doctrine in which they are universally trained. 

Practically everything in standard ski teaching is about conformism and consensus – not about science or even common sense. There is no intellectual rigour or accuracy in the subject as it is taught by national training bodies which then share their consensus on an international forum. If there is a contributing underlying non-political cause behind this ongoing issue then it lies in the fact that skiing is very challenging both emotionally and perceptually and so demands a very counter-intuitive approach. Not everybody is tuned into their own counter-intuitive abilities so the prospect of a “consensus” in this department is practically nil.

There are three overriding core principles in skiing: Dynamics, Centre and Skating


The interplay between those core principles generates an inexhaustible universe of possibilities to explore. In nature when we have three or more objects interacting there is can be a form of “organised chaos” from which we see creativity originate. For example – in simple mechanics the powerful Newtonian laws work perfectly for two objects colliding or interacting through gravity but are unable to cope with three objects. The least obvious core principle is that of “centre” – but ultimately it is the most important and powerful.

Good teaching permits all levels of skier to work and develop together on core principles. Slow core exercises repeated over and over cultivate ever increasing awareness. A beginner can do exactly the same exercise as a pro and yet each will be working on a completely different level – the only difference is that the pro will be learning faster. Awareness, feeling, perception, understanding, coordination, selective muscle relaxation, skill and focus are just some of the qualities being cultivated.

Core Principle No 1 – Dynamics

The beginner must be made aware of the basic principle of dynamics right from the start. This means they must be aware that skiing is all about accelerations of the body. They must be led directly and consciously into the special universe that clear understanding of this phenomenon creates. The physics name for this phenomenon is “dynamics” and this itself is the essence of the dynamic act we call “skiing”.
One Ski – Moving the Body
After the new skier is given a brief explanation of the equipment (bindings, brakes, ski design and boots) then when sure the boots are buckled up correctly one ski is put on, preferably using the person’s dominant leg (right handed usually means right foot). Initially they would walk/slide on completely flat snow in a straight line – turning and coming back to the start.

Core Principle No 2 – Centre

After a few moments they can be made to move in a circle as in exercise one above. The circle should always have the free foot to the inside of the arc. Although this is a very standard exercise and in common use the correct emphasis is not common. The skier, while getting used to the equipment and sliding a little should be immediately made aware of the centre of mass, to focus on this centre of mass and how it is being moved. This is the correct emphasis. To simplify things at this stage we can talk about a point between the navel and the pelvis and just in front of the spine as representing our centre of mass – and simplifying even further we can refer to this as our centre. In physics (mechanics) the centre of mass is a way of simplifying entire objects down to a single point which can be given numbers representing mass, acceleration, energy etc. and then used to calculate certain physical behaviours.

The skier is asked to be aware of the location of the centre of mass and to drive this point in towards the centre of the stepped turn. Each step is a displacement of the centre of mass and that should be the skier’s main focus. Meanwhile the inside edge of the outside ski is used to step from so as to actively displace the centre of mass. The skis have to be lifted and displaced cleanly inwards and in sequence for each step. The ski boot provides the lateral support to stop the ski just flattening and the ski just slipping away sideways.  Here the beginner is learning in a very safe manner how the equipment works and for what purpose. 

Good skiers displace their centre of mass inwards.
Poor skiers displace their skis outwards. 

Already at this stage the inside edge of the foot can be related to the inside edge of the ski. 

There is no “turning” or “twisting” action of the foot. Inside the ski boot the foot needs to be placed on its edge. 

Holding the foot on its edge can also already be related to use of the adductor muscles.

Adductor muscles are the muscles on the inside of the upper legs – used for “squeezing” the legs together. Use of adductors is especially important if the skier has some trouble with getting the ski on edge.

Alignment of the ski equipment should already have been checked – the sole of the boot being at 90° to the hip joint when the femur and tibia are straightened out at the knee. (This takes some expertise to judge correctly and most shops and boot fitters do it incorrectly with the skier standing and flexing – and confusing several issues together including their often desperate attempt to sell anti-pronation foot beds etc.)

Already the skier should feel the basic principle of actively moving the centre of mass to make a change of direction. This is where the correct basic skills are established and initial problems (equipment or coordination) are sorted out. Patience is required as awareness takes time to develop. The more time that is spent getting all of this seeminlgy boring coordination correct the more rapidly the goal of enjoyable, competent skiing will be attained.
Core Principle No 3 – Skating

All basic actions in skiing can be related to dynamics, centre or skating. 
Basic skills should be constructed from actions which involve the skis diverging and/or stepping.

Two Skis – Moving the Centre of Mass


Remaining on flat snow the same exercise – stepping in circles – is repeated with two skis on. Here the beginner learns to diverge the skis. This divergence is how the skis naturally relate to skating.

Prior to this exercise – when two skis are put on for the very first time – it is probably best to  do some “star” turns first. The start turns are just a way of sequentially stepping the skis around in small increments while the skier remains on the same spot. The goal here is to get a feeling for the physical boundaries of the skis and boots – specifically so that they aren’t crossed over at the tips or tails.

Skating on the flat.

Some people simply have no experience of skating so they need to be taught how to skate. Teaching skating is very simple. The skier simply diverges the ski tips very wide bringing the tails almost together. The instructor stands in front – with skis on but held close together and between the diverged tips of the student’s skis. A ski pole is held across the front of his body in two hands. The skier is then asked to grab the pole in the middle and push the instructor backwards. To make this happen the skier has to fall forwards and apply pressure. The inclination forwards pulls the diverged skis both onto their inside edges. Grip is required from the edges and a push from the legs so it helps if the feet are both rolled onto their inside edges (and adductor muscles engaged in both legs) to prevent the skis from flattening and skidding outwards. 
The key focus here is to ensure that the ski grips and the centre of mass is displaced. Once the instructor starts to move backwards the skier will accelerate due to the continued pressure, forward inclination and continued pushing with the legs. The sliding forwards will feel safe due to the support in front and so the sensations of skating/sliding and propulsion will be experienced. 
The final stage is for the skier to just hold onto the pole but without the instructor there – imagining that the instructor is there and going through all the same motions – pushing the imaginary instructor ahead. This time there is a natural acceleration and skating as a result. 
The sensation of both feet being held on their inside edges and of pushing the centre of mass with the legs are fundamental to skiing. Awareness of this should be the focus of the exercise – not the fact of “skating” itself.

Terminology is now important.

“Inside Ski” refers to the ski toward the inside of any turn.
“Outside Ski” refers to the ski towards the outside of the turn.
“Uphill (or “top” or “upper”) Ski” refers to the ski furthest up the hill.
“Downhill (or “bottom” or “lower”) Ski” refers to the ski furthest down the hill.
“Inside Edge” refers to the edge of the ski towards the inside of the foot.
“Outside Edge” refers to the edge of the ski towards the outside of the foot.
“Uphill or “top” or “upper”) Edges” refers to the edges of the skis uphill when skis are parallel across the hill.
“Downhill Edges (or “bottom” or “lower”)” refers to the edges of the skis downhill when the skis are parallel across the hill.
When actually turning it’s always best to refer to the inside or outside ski because what begins as the uphill ski finishes the turn as the downhill ski and so using the inappropriate terminology can be confusing.
When stepping around in a turn (still on the flat here) it’s only really important to be aware of the inside edge of the outside ski – and correspondingly, the inside edge of that foot. This aspect of the feet should be a focus here – with the main objective of moving the centre of mass.

Feet Awareness – reflexes

The feet are our contact with the surface of the Earth and our main source of feedback. Each foot has 26 bones and together the feet have over a quarter of all the bones in the body. Postural muscles and reflexes are automatically and unconsciously controlled via pressure sensors in the feet. Awareness of the feet is necessary for good skiing development. 

This isn’t just a question of feeling pressure or weight through the feet, it’s about how to use the muscles in the feet and to keep the feet intelligently active. 

The tendency however is the exact opposite. People clamp on their ski boots – often foam pressure injected and with thick supportive anti-pronation footbeds – and then utterly forget about the feet, except when feeling pain. Boots must be comfortable, externally rigid and supportive with a strong shell but the foot must be able to move enough to change shape and adapt inside the boot. Overall the foot shouldn’t displace inside the boot but the joints must be free to articulate.
Initially, the important thing is to aim for pressure towards the front of the heel – directly below the ankle joint. This is another “centre” that the skier should always try to work from and return to. The beginner needs to try to roll the foot onto its inside edge, so as to grip with the inside edge of the ski while stepping around in the turns. The foot is actually “rolled” over right below the ankle joint by using another joint named the “sub taler” joint. Muscular tension in the foot is required here because the inside edge of the ski, depending on its width – may be further inwards than the edge of the foot. In a more natural situation – say with tennis shoes on a court – the supporting foot would actually roll the other way as it remained flat on the ground with the body moving inwards towards the turn. What’s actually happening here is that the rigid shaft of the ski boot running up the lower leg provides “lateral” support and so the ski doesn’t remain flat on the ground. To work with this the foot needs to appreciate that it is now against a tilted surface and that by rolling inwards it can avoid being levered off its inside edge completely. With ice skates or in-line skates – or even roller skates – this axis of rotation is directly beneath the centre of the foot so conscious use of the edge of the foot is not required there. In contrast each ski has two edges – both displaced towards the actual edges of the feet. Later on we will explore the consequences of this and how they have a dramatic effect of ski design as well as skiing technique.
Many beginners (and intermediates) have a great deal of difficulty stepping or skating due to either badly aligned equipment or through having no awareness of the processes described here.  When they fail to grip with the edge of the ski they are usually not even aware of the fact. This is probably due to having learned to ski in a snowplough and never having felt or experienced the sensation of a solid grip. (At higher levels some people also confuse the idea of “carving” and despite extensive skidding they believe that they are actually gripping – when they are not.)
Individual morphology, ski equipment and past experience must be respected and correctly managed at this stage to ensure progress.
Ski poles should be used all the time for support and stabilty and even to push with for propulsion so as to gain the experience of sliding. Children however are often better off without ski poles. Children being much lighter do not have the rapid acceleration and instability issues that adults naturally encounter.

Stopping

People are often very concerned about stopping even before getting onto a slope for the first time. It’s important to prevent beginners from using the ski poles for stopping – or they will almost certainly impale themselves on the poles or fall over due to the skis being deflected by a pole stuck in the ground. The legs and skis are used for all stopping purposes however this requires some explanation.

The beginner needs to know that all stopping is achieved through turning. Any single turn can lead to a complete stop. Understanding this clearly will help to prevent defensive actions arising spontaneously – though it may be almost impossible to prevent snowplough in somebody who has the misforture of already being exposed to snowplough based defensive skiing.

At this stage snowplough is best 100% avoided and the student should learn only to use ski poles behind the feet for the purpose of pushing – or placed in the snow to the side for stability when stepping.

Stepping Uphill – Non Flattening Skis

Often at this stage side stepping up and downhill is the next skill to master. 

There are two ways to step uphill – either with the skis diverging (as in skating) and facing uphill. This leads to the “herringbone” step – named so due to the trail left on the ground resembling the bones of a herring. This is good practice for using the inside edges of both the feet at the same time and feeling the skis grip. The herringbone step is only practical on gentle slopes and it helps to encourage a wider divergence of the ski tips, greater range of movement and an independence of the legs.

When the slope is slightly steeper or we also need to step downhill then side-stepping is required with the skis held parallel to each other across the hill.

When encountered with a slope many people find it difficult to orient the skis across the hill to prevent them from sliding off – either forwards or backwards. The problem is that they are unable to recognise the direction of the slope. Imagining a ball rolling down the hill can help to reorient things correctly. The skis are always trying to flatten – in fact it’s their main job to do this – but we will look at that later on. The skier’s job here – through the use of coordination and ski boots – is to keep the skis on their uphill edges. The feet can both be rolled onto their uphill edges using the muscles both below and above the ankles – and by keeping the skis relatively close together. (Placing the uphill ski too far uphill will oblige it to be placed on its downhill edge.)
The uphill foot can roll over right onto its outside edge if strong edge grip is required. Simply, the skis should be prevented from flattening and attention should be brought to this. The skier’s main goal here is not to step up and down the hill but to learn that coordination and equipment design all add up to prevent the skis from flattening unintentionally. This is another aspect of the two fundamental principles of skiing.
It’s the skier’s job to edge and the skis job to flatten. Otherwise put…  
It’s the skier’s job to fall over and the ski’s job to lift up (by flattening).

Straight Running – Accelerations

Once the skier can step uphill a little then it’s time to allow the skis to slide. This for most people will be the first time they experience gravity induced accelerations from sliding and the body will react to this – so it is a very important stage of development requiring considerable patience to prevent defensiveness from creeping in.

The “Bullfighter” turn is taught so that after stepping uphill the skier can point the skis downhill in security before moving off. To do this – with skis across the hill – the skier turns the shoulders to face downhill and points both ski poles straight downhill – one either side of the body. The poles are held in the hands with the ends against the palms and the arms are held out straight from the shoulders with the pole making a continuous straight line from the shoulder to the ground. The skis can now be safely stepped arround. Just before sliding off the poles should be allowed to slip back into proper hold of the hand grips. Forget about using straps – personally I never used straps. (The only time I’d even consider using straps is when skiing very steep moguls)