December 2004   

a balanced stance
the secret behind all the other secrets of expert skiing

I've been teaching and coaching skiing for a long time. Long enough anyway that often perceptive and curious students ask me about "the way things were," — about how skiing, teaching skiing, and understanding this crazy sport of ours have changed over time. I love it when my ski students ask me, point blank: "Lito, what have you learned during the last ten years? How has your image of skiing well changed?"

Not such an easy question to answer, but a good one. It's true that my intensive ski-week program in Aspen has been a kind of testing lab, where I could try out different teaching ideas and observe the results, while following the progress of a very diverse, but very motivated group of more than 50 strong intermediate skiers every week. Here's the short version of what I think I've learned, what I think this great experience showed me.

More than anything else, I now believe the key element in expert skiing is the skier's stance. I've learned that if you can stand (and balance) like an expert, then you can start to move like an expert, and that means you will ride and guide your skis like an expert. But it all starts with your stance. Starts and stops with the way you stand. Nothing else is as important.

Okay, just how do expet skiers stand? At the risk of oversimplifying a little, I'd say: tall and relaxed — neither rigidly tall, nor limply relaxed, but definitely not hunkered down, not crouched down or bent over, not bent forward at the waist with their rear end sticking out. Remember your mother telling you to stand up straight, with good posture — she was right. Relaxation is even trickier. Because when people feel that their balance is threatened they tend to tense up. And that compromises their balance even more. It's a vicious circle that leads to tense jerky ski descents rather than a real sense of flowing down the slope. Relaxation and balance, dynamic balance, are closely related. Because on skis you don't just find your balance and push off. You are actually rebalancing yourself, subtly, all the time, as the slope changes and as your speed changes. And of course, the slope and speed are always changing, throughout the course of every turn.

In short, balance in skiing is an active verb. Again at the risk of oversimplifying, I often tell my students that in modern skiing, we ski with our feet but we balance with our hands. Take a second look at the illustration above. I'm cruising through a lazy turn. Where are my hands? Away from my hips, spread somewhat to the side and also slightly forward. But not frozen in any special position. My hands and poles float beside me when I ski; and with subtle, virtually unconcious movements of my hands I am continually adjusting my balance.

Your hands are like magnets. Move them slightly forward and they pull your hips (your center of gravity) forward. Drop your hands back, behind your hips, and you will find your weight moving back on your skis, and your feet inevitably starting to slide out from underneath you. So play with your hands, find a home-base position to carry them and from that home base position, use your hands to stay balanced — much as a tightrope walker, or a kid balancing on a fence, uses their hands (spread and ahead) to balance with.

What else helps you adopt an expert's stance? How about your feet? You want them to stay comfortably beneath your hips (your center of gravity) neither ahead nor behind nor spread in an unnaturally wide stance. If your feet are too far apart it takes a big effort to shift weight from ski to ski. Small subtle movements always carry the day. Experts know they are standing just right when they feel solidly supported along the whole length of their foot (in a turn that will naturally be the dominant, outside foot) with weight evenly distributed from the ball of the foot to the heel.

You should feel totally solid, and able to shift your weight from foot to foot, so that you can stand, unshakably and perfectly balanced, on either foot. This in turn brings up the last and maybe most critical part of the expert's stance: your boot alignment. The sole of your boot needs to provide a perfectly stable base for your foot, for your whole leg, for your weight, as you move through each turn. For almost all skiers this means visiting a boot alignment specialist, like my friend, Jim Lindsay, at Aspen Highlands (see the RESOURCES page) and having your boots customized to your particular shape, and your indivdual natural stance, with custom footbeds and a host of other adjustments that are simply too tricky for the average ski shop employee to even understand much less perform. A one-hour session with a skilled boot-alignment specialist will do more for your stance — and hence your skiing — than I could accomplish in three days of private lessons with you. Modern boot alignment is not cheap but it is the best investment you can make in your skiing future. If you can't stand in easy comfortable balance on one foot, one boot, one ski, you will be fighting every turn.

If you master the expert's stance, everything else will be twice as easy. Standing like an expert is the first step to skiing like an expert.

 December 2004  
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© Lito Tejada-Flores unless otherwise credited.