A Conversation about Ski Teaching

My Dinner

remembered by
Lito Tejada-Flores
(with Harald Harb)

from the Summer 1999 issue


IT'S SNOWING. On the other side of the restaurant’s dark windows we can just make out thick snowflakes, or the ghosts of snowflakes, on the last few meters of their downward journey. Invisibly, imperceptibly, piling up in the Colorado night. Preparing one of those born-again snow-spangled Rocky Mountain mornings when the world is fresh, and white, and anything is possible. Our waiter has just cleared away our soup bowls, an aftertaste of seafood and Pernod lingers. The tablecloth is red, the night young, the conversation just warming up.

“So how do you think it happened?” I ask Harald, “How did ski instruction get into the ineffective state it’s in today?” Harald pauses, takes a sip of wine, gives his answer some serious thought.… It’s a serious question.

Of course, this is where most of our fellow ski pros, at Aspen, or almost any other mountain, would interrupt us, completely outraged. I can imagine their response: “Whadayamean? Ineffective? Ski teaching’s in great shape today. We’re modern, hip, progressive, we’re evolving, we’re up-to-date, we’ve got new skis, we’re educators now, not merely ski instructors, we’re leading the way.…”

Harald and I disagree. We both feel that official American ski teaching is on the wrong path. Too many ski teachers are letting their students down, building as many bad habits as good ones, producing terminal intermediates rather than liberated experts. And we’ve come to this conclusion independently, from differing points of view, and from radically different skiing backgrounds.

Harald Harb grew up skiing in a skiing family. His dad was a pioneer ski teacher in Austria; Harald was a one of the few slalom racers on the downhill-oriented Canadian national team and a long-time racing coach (one of Tommy Moe’s first coaches at Alyeska). He even became a card-carrying member of the ski teaching establishment when he tried out for, and gained a spot on the PSIA national demo team. (PSIA, by the way, stands for Professional Ski Instructors of America, our national ski teachers’ organization). And most recently, Harald has turned his creative energies to the task of fine-tuning a skier’s stance, adjusting foot/boot/leg alignment to ski and snow by creating innovative Performance Centers, first at Winter Park, then at Aspen.

I came to skiing late, through mountaineering, missed the racing experience altogether, but spent over 20 years as a full-time ski teacher, becoming more and more suspicious of official ski teaching methodology as I learned to let my students teach me what worked for them and what didn’t, trying to break out of the mold of conventional thinking about skiing and teaching, always setting myself the same high goal: to produce genuine expert skiers, skiers that skied as well as I did, or better.

Tonight we’ve decided to compare notes: to figure out exactly what it is that troubles us in the current American ski teaching system and why? Over a good bottle of wine, of course...

“Maybe a big part of the problem is this crazy three-skills concept,” Harald suggests, “you know, that famous diagram of three overlapping circles, pressure, edging and rotary, the Holy Trinity of American ski teaching….”

I nod in agreement. “It certainly isn’t the gospel it’s made out to be, just one way of talking about skiing among many, and not a very effective way at that. Breaking skiing down into rotary, edging and pressure movements isn’t false per se, but what practical insights does it offer? I think it’s an anti-intuitive way of thinking about skiing that keeps our students in the dark, and doesn’t offer them a clear, easy-to-grasp overview of skiing movements as as a whole. The three-skills metaphor substitutes murky concepts for clearly described, clearly felt actions.”

“Last week,” Harald continues, “someone asked for my opinion about a PSIA technical paper on the biomechanics of skiing he had written. I was trying to be as diplomatic and polite as possible, but I had to tell him: ‘I can’t relate to your paper because the terminology you’re using is foreign to me; I just don’t use rotary, edging and pressure as my basis for understanding skiing.’” “Neither do I, Harald, but the trouble is that PSIA does. In fact, they don’t seem to have any other tools for looking at skiing. You know, maybe one way to renew American ski instruction would be to challenge instructors to try to express what they directly observe about skiing, without ever once using those three words: rotary, pressure, or edging. It would be an eye-opener.…”

“I know you’ve heard it, Lito, the instructor who greets his class: ‘Okay, gang, today we’re going to work on rotary…or on pressuring.’ Now what does that mean?…”

“Sounds like new math, or Ebonics. I can’t believe this three-skill notion helps anyone, student or instructor, achieve an accurate mental picture of skiing. It’s a kind of hermetic code, for insiders only. The student is thinking ‘I just want to improve my turns.’ And when those turns don’t improve dramatically, we get one more ski-school drop out. You know, Harald, ski instruction isn’t really doing as well as it ought to. Everyone takes a couple of lessons to start, and then it’s like a pyramid, fewer and fewer students at each level–but the upper levels should be the most exciting. If you eliminate very expensive private lessons from the equation, I don’t think the ski-school business picture is so rosy.”

Harald goes one step farther. “Sure, Lito, if ski schools had a program that produced expert skiers, they’d be packed. But official ski instruction today isn’t merely confusing, it’s counter-productive, it creates skiing problems and hangups. Even though these three ‘so-called’ skills are supposed to be blended subtly, in more-or-less equal measure, it doesn’t happen that way. PSIA has wound up placing far too much emphasis on rotary movements, on twisting or steering the skis. Stuff like: ‘guide the skis to an edge.’ Too often those three ‘skills’ work like this: Once you’ve overtwisted your skis to start a turn, you have to apply lots of edging to slow down the skid, and then, skidding on edge across the fall line, you have to absorb the shock at the bottom of the turn. I call it: skid, grab and slam.! Not a pretty picture.”

Our dinner plates, on the other hand, are a pretty picture indeed. A delicate aroma of wild mushrooms silences our talk. For a few moments, we dedicate ourselves to eating, not skiing. But the unfinished subject of American ski teaching is still with us. Neither Harald nor I have ever been able to look at ski teaching as just a job. It’s a passion, a calling.

I take up the thread. “Harald, we’ve been talking about the way one set of terms, one paradigm, can confuse the whole ski-teaching scene, but aren’t there other problems with official ski teaching that go way back? I mean, for me, there’s always been a split, or contradiction, or dichotomy between the way talented instructors actually skied, and the movements and maneuvers they teach to their students. Do you agree?”

“Totally. When I was on the demo team in Japan for the Interski, one of the ideas that kept surfacing in discussions with other instructors was this notion of Kruckenhauser’s and Hopplicher’s that the real importance of teaching a wedge christy was that it would force people to come back to ski school to someday learn to ski parallel”

“But, Harald,” I protest, “that’s really old-fashioned thinking.”

He shakes his head. “I think ideas like that should be exposed…cleansed. It’s kind of the ‘keeper-of-the-flame’ syndrome, forcing people to come back to the temple again and again, so that the priests can dribble out the truth.”

Curiosity overcomes me. “Harald, I’ve got to ask you, while you were on the demo team you must have tried to explain your vision of skiing to your colleagues. What was their reaction?”

“Lito, that’s why I’m not there any more. They don’t want to hear it. And I didn't want to talk about hips, about rotation, or any of that body-position stuff, I only wanted to talk about what goes on at the surface of the snow. But when I was part of the demo team, I tended to break things down into more steps because that’s the way they think. Actually, you can boil it all down to one thing... “

“What’s that?”

“I’d say all you really have to do is get off your old stance foot. Everything else flows from that. That’s all you have to do! When I ski that’s all I really think about, getting off the old foot. I don’t need to think of engaging the new outside ski, because it just happens.”

I’m delighted at this elegant simplification. “It’s good to hear you say this, Harald, because we’ve never talked about this aspect of skiing before, but I agree. That’s why, in my own teaching, I try to postpone any discussion of edging for quite a while. Initially it tends to take care of itself, if the move from the old foot onto the new foot is done well. I just put edging aside for a while. Then, later, our students can become very subtle with edging.”

Harald is still thinking about his demo team experience. “I remember my first practice session with the team. We were supposed to be doing a sort of open-stance christy, so I just stood on my skis and rode them around in a nice clean arc. No, no, they told me, try again. More twisting with both legs, more skidding. I was surprised, but I did it, and everybody said: ‘Great, great, that’s it, that’s what we want to show.’ So I said: ‘Oh, you mean, you want me to ski like a dork?’ I don’t think they ever forgave me for that. I still don’t believe it’s necessary for novice skiers to make hopelessly awkward, skidded turns, but that’s what they wanted.”

“Of course it isn’t necessary,” I agree, “but maybe it’s inevitable. If you stress a strong twisting, steering action, especially with both legs, that’s exactly what you get–it’s our dreaded rotary movement again. And conditioning new skiers to ski in a wide, open stance only reinforces that pattern. ”

Harald warms to the subject. He’s been mulling over the same cause-and-effect scenario for some time. “Lito, that wide stance is another big bugaboo. Riding one ski doesn’t work with your feet this far apart.…” (He spreads his two hands over what’s left of our venison dinner, moving them in a wide curve.) “They have to be right here.” (His two hands close together above his plate, tilting in unison as they carve imaginary arcs in the air). “Spreading the skis actually encourages skiers to overpower their skis by twisting both legs. So whenever I talk to skiers about tipping their free foot over onto its little-toe side, I stress that you want to bring that foot right in, until it touches the other boot.…”

Excited, I try to summarize his point. “So the wide stance isn’t really a separate problem, is it, Harald? it’s just another aspect of that same problem we’ve been talking about, the excessive rotary movement that keeps most skiers from carving good modern turns. Seems to me that a wide stance and excessive pivoting and twisting go hand in hand–to mix a metaphor. But over the years, the notion of a wide or open stance, has become almost a religion in official ski teaching circles. Something nobody dares to question. In fact, I think a whole generation of ski writers and commentators and gurus have made a false interpretation of how far apart top racers’ feet are. If you are skiing at 30 miles per hour, or faster, your body will be tilted way in, to the inside of your turn. So naturally, you’ll pull the light foot up, out of the way, so it doesn’t hang up on the snow. People see this and say: Look, there’s Stenmark, or Tomba, with his feet way apart. But in terms of lateral spread from the center-line of the body–that is to say, measured perpendicular to the body’s main axis–well actually, they’re really still skiing in a narrow stance. Right?”

“Of course.”

Of course, it’s still snowing. Of course, we want dessert. Of course we’ll finish this bottle of Merlot.…

I steer our talk in a slightly different direction, just to get Harald’s take on one of my pet ideas. “Having watched my relation to my skis change over time, Harald, I have this sense that, for me, turning is the enemy. I mean physically turning. You just can’t give in to the temptation of helping your skis to turn by twisting your feet. You’ve got to learn to let your skis turn on their own.”

Harald replies with a great story. “In my teaching and coaching, I talk a lot about the ‘stance foot’ and the ‘free foot.’ When I talk about changing feet–getting off the old stance foot–I say to people: See if you can make this movement without turning your feet. The objective is not to turn, but to let your skis turn for you–don’t you go turning them. Don’t try to do anything with your new stance foot. Instead use your free foot to create the needed angles. With the new skis it’s a no-brainer. It’s so easy, it’s ridiculous. But in the old days it was another story. Like when my father was learning how to ski, he had these wooden 220s, with a little knob on the end. I’ve got a photo of my father when he was 14 years old at this Hannes Schneider thing in St. Anton; he’s making a parallel turn wearing these great knickers.… Well, in those days you had to do this…” Harald jumps up and leans across the table in a passable version of vorlage, then swings his torso in a major arc., “…to turn those things. And it’s almost as though the foundation of official ski teaching is still somehow based on using those kinds of skis. That’s our heritage. And even in the 60s and 70s–which wasn’t so long ago–you really had to do a lot of work with your body to turn your skis.”

I think back to the great black-and-white ski films of Arnold Fank and Luis Trenker. “In its infancy, skiing involved a lot of going straight down mountains. I’ll bet your dad made a lot of long traverses and schusses in the Austrian Alps. But today, skiing is primarily the art of going down the mountain in graceful arcs. So it’s natural to think: turning equals skiing. Yet, real turning is something that takes place between the ski and the snow. It’s not something that takes place between skiers and their skis.
Harald smiles. “That is definitely not the way the majority of the skiing public understands turning. I think official ski teaching has never truly embraced or conveyed the message that skiing is not about you turning the skis. It’s the ski that does the turning.”

“Perhaps we can say that modern skiing is really about standing on the ski in a way that lets the ski turn as it was designed to.”

“Lito, that’s a succinct statement about what the official teaching system is not delivering. “

“So how are we going to change this state of affairs, Harald?”

“I’m not really sure, Lito. It’s like…if your dogma controls your karma, you’re in real trouble. And PSIA’s dogmas are very entrenched. I know, from experience. I finally just had to do my own thing. Like you.”

Harald is talking about my decision to give up full-time ski teaching and focus my maverick teaching efforts through my books, articles and videos. And I know that he is finishing work on an innovative and totally independent ski teaching manual focused on what he calls Primary Movement Teaching Methodology. I think both of us have little faith that the ski teaching establishment can change direction. I pursue these thoughts:

“That may be the only solution, Harald–an end-run around official ski teaching. A number of alternative ski-teaching programs are starting to take hold here and there, with growing success. Perhaps they’ll have a subversive effect. But not unless they offer a program that works significantly better than the official PSIA approach, a program that actually produces expert skiers–for the first time. The trick will be to scrap old concepts and terminology and start fresh, start somewhere else. And I think we both agree the future of ski teaching starts with the feet. Feet first. Feeling the feet, making small movements and adjustments with the feet inside the boots, from the very first day on skis. In fact, it doesn’t just start there–we have to keep the focus on the feet throughout the skier’s whole development.”

Harald smiles and nods in agreement. He sings a sotto voce chorus of “foot bone connected to the ski bone...” I can’t resist adding:

“At some level your foot is the ski and the ski becomes the foot.. And that awareness becomes more and more sophisticated at higher levels. So hopefully, in the future, effective instruction will emphasize a sequence of integrated skiing movements that, in order of relative importance, begins at the snow level and works up. The higher up the body you go the more skiers’ apparent movements are really just compensations and reactions to the basic movements down below.…”

Harald has the last word, and it’s succinct.

“That’s what I refer to as the kinetic chain. When we begin skiing movements in the foot, we can control them better because the muscles around the foot are small and precise. And there’s more sensation and feedback in the foot than higher up in the leg. I agree, that’s got to be the future of ski instruction. And you know, Lito, American instructors are so motivated, so sincere, they’re dying to get better– which really means: to get better results. But right now, they’re stuck with a certification system that blocks their creativity. If they had a simpler teaching approach based on fundamental movements, rather than abstractions, I think we’d see a skiing renaissance.”

“I’ll drink to that, “ I say, raising my glass. But it’s empty. So is the bottle. And yes, it’s still snowing outside. Harald and I look around and realize we’re the last diners in the restaurant. Our waiter brings the check with a big grin on his face. We realize he is planning on a powder morning too.
A Conversation about Ski Teaching
© Lito Tejada-Flores, summer 1999

Lito has temporarily interrupted his SKI PRO'S NOTEBOOK series, to present this provocative conversation with one of the most influential ski coaches in the West.

The views of ski instruction that Lito and Harald discuss over dinner are definitely more controversial than mainstream, but perhaps they can help to stimulate a new dialog about future directions for American ski teaching.......