Summer 2002   
soft skiing
down hard slopes
part one


  They’re having so much fun, you’ve just got to stop and watch: a group of instructors skiing together early in the morning before their first lesson. Fresh snow, ice crystals suspended in midair, and what skiers! what turns! Outrageous arcs, slippery S-curves, backlit plumes of snow like a scene from a Warren Miller film. What a sight. And you know enough to know just how good these off-duty ski pros really are. You watch them with educated eyes; after all, you have become an expert-level skier yourself, although these skiers have years more experience than you do. And then it dawns on you, there are experts and then there are experts. All these skiers are impressive but two or three are really dazzling; their skiing is a cut above. And you start to wonder: Why? And how?

You’ve just become aware of the difference between good and very good skiers, between the skilled and the superskilled. The difference is real; you can see it easily, but it’s hard to put into words. And now that you think about it, it’s not just a question of reaching instructor-level skiing. There are many levels of expert skiing. Some very skilled advanced skiers seem to do everything right, but … They make great carved turns, they ski the steepest, meanest slopes with great control but even so, their skiing doesn’t appear effortless and playful. It’s almost as though they are still working at skiing well. It hasn’t become 100 percent natural or inevitable. I’m going to try to explain this difference and see if I can’t help you make that transition into this higher level of subtle, stunning, and seemingly effortless ski performance.

First, let me quickly add that I applaud each and every skier who moves from the ranks of plateaued and frustrated intermediates into the polished parallel world of carved turns and fall-line skiing, into the new world of expert ski technique. Totally brilliant peak performance on skis is not such an important life goal that you need to feel disappointed because there are still skiers who are more comfortable, more dashing on their skis than you are. There always will be. There are skiers I’ve admired for years, knowing full well that I’ll never be able even to come close to their consummate ease of performance. No big deal. But I still find it fascinating to study differences in skiing performance at high technical levels and to try to understand, communicate, and share what it is that makes certain skiers so special.
This phenomenon, the remarkable and seemingly effortless skiing of a small minority of professional skiers, is very noticeable in ski schools across the country. By the time they have passed all their exams and qualified for all the possible certifications available, ski pros are more than merely competent, more than just marginally skillful. Nonetheless, some of them merely ski well while others ski beautifully. It’s like the difference between a talented student who has learned to speak French in school and a native French speaker. Where does this extra dimension of ease, fluency, and fluid motion come from? I’ve wrestled with this problem for years, and I confess I haven’t yet succeeded in distilling and bottling this extra dimension of ease on skis into a magic potion that I can hand my students and say: Here, drink. But I do think I’m zeroing in on some of the reasons for this performance gap and what to do about it.

The answer has a lot to do with relaxation—in situations where relaxation is not the obvious response. And I’m also convinced that this next level of refined expert performance is a real possibility for almost anyone, although differences in sheer talent will always be there to haunt us. Let’s start our quest for this kind of peak performance in a roundabout way by first getting rid of one of the most persistent myths about skiing performance.

Say Goodbye to the
Myth of Aggressive Skiing

As long as I have been teaching skiing, I’ve listened to other instructors telling their students that if they wanted to ski better, especially on harder slopes, they had to ski more aggressively. Don’t hesitate; just be more aggressive. Attack the slope. Ski aggressively. Such advice absolutely floors me. I’m not buying it. And it never really works. Indeed, I hope to convince you that trying to be more aggressive on skis is generally counterproductive. It will probably make you ski worse. Yes, of course, I know that’s an overgeneralization. I’m the first to confess there are a few skiing situations, notably during the intense short struggles of high-level Alpine racing, where an aggressive attitude pays off. But not for most skiers most of the time. And certainly not in a learning situation.

I suppose these well-meaning instructors who talk about skiing aggressively are trying to exhort their students not to be timid, not to shrink back from the hill but to move forward to meet the mountain. A worthy goal. (Although I also believe that simply cheering skiers on is never enough. It’s clearly more important to train our feet to ski well than to hype ourselves up into a state of false bravado.) Let’s look more closely at this confusion about skiing aggressively, starting with words and ending with action on snow.

In my lexicon, the opposite of timid is not exactly aggressive; it’s confident. There’s a big difference. The word aggressive implies struggle and tension, forcing something to happen, pushing harder. And in many situations—for example, in challenging bumps and steeps—we have already seen that powerful, sudden, aggressive movements on skis tend to create too much muscular tension, which in turn can make the edges of our skis catch and “rail in” so that we actually lose control over our skis rather than increasing it.

In fact, for many ambitious and athletic skiers, an aggressive attitude toward skiing, toward one’s skis, toward the mountain, seems almost natural. Yet I have to tell you, it almost never works. Because an aggressive attitude leads to a sort of overacting—movements that are too violent, too sudden, too strong, and tend to interfere with the smooth sliding of our skis over the snow. So I want to suggest a different ideal, a different image of what an expert skier’s attitude and posture and style of movement should be—one of relaxed confidence. A state in which you can work with the mountain rather than attacking it.

Working with the mountain means adapting your movements to fit the terrain. And it also means making every move, every turn, every run as efficiently as possible—skiing with the least amount of energy. Letting your skis go. Letting turns happen and forces build progressively rather than forcing them all at once. Skiing, as I noted in Chapter 1, is a sport of borrowed forces. Gravity is the engine propelling us down white mountainsides. We are not strong enough to move this fast. Gravity pulling us and the friction of skis against snow, snow against skis, pushing back, is what produces these exciting carved turns, these heart-pounding runs. We couldn’t do it on our own. And we don’t need to contribute much muscular force. The role of the expert skier is to coordinate and direct these amazing external forces. Calm and collected, smiling wildly, but not moving wildly, we can observe the action down at the snow level. And enjoy it. And control it. But the more in sync you are with your skis, with the snow, with winter, the less there is to feel aggressive about. Or toward. "Ski more aggressively" is about the most pointless advice one can give an aspiring skier. Let’s move beyond this foolish myth once and for all.

This short piece is excerpted from Chapter Nine of my recent book, Breakthrough on the New Skis. I plan to pursue this idea in several more issues of my web site. Stay tuned.

 Summer 2002  
photo sequence above:
skiing by relaxation, skiing softer; where does aggressiveness fit into this picture?
as filmed by Edgar Boyles
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© Lito Tejada-Flores unless otherwise credited.