ski instruction
autumn 2007
the educated foot
I’d like to start this season, or should I say this pre-season, with one of my favorite stories from a lifetime of ski teaching. Probably apocryphal, but more pertinent nowadays than ever. As I heard it, it goes like this.

A European ski journalist was interviewing Guy Perillat, a star of the French ski team in the sixties, after Perillat won a major international Giant Slalom. (Do you remember who Guy Perillat was? Most skiers don't. But if it hadn't been for Jean Claude Killy, Guy Perillat would have been the best skier in the world. As it turned out, he was merely the second best, for a very long time.)

The journalist asked Perillat to explain his amazing success. What's the difference, he asked, between so many good skiers and a great skier? After a moment's thought, Perillat replied: "I think to be a great skier, you have to have an educated foot." That simple answer was at least 20 years ahead of its time. In those days, the mid sixties, skiers and especially ski instructors were throwing their bodies around, rotating, counter-rotating, but nobody was thinking or talking about skier's feet.

Today we have learned a little, at least we think we have. A skier's foot — hopefully well cradled in a well fitted, well aligned boot — is the crucial link between skier and mountain. That's where the action is in modern skiing, for better or worse. For better if the skier's foot is really educated, sensitive to subtle variations in pressure and edging, able to feel the mountain sliding by literally underfoot, able to send the smallest and subtlest signals to the ski through the sole of the boot. Or conversely, in the case of an inexperienced skier, trapped in a strange new contraption called a ski boot, an insensitive foot can lead to exaggerated nonfunctional movements, to a continual loss of balance, to a total lack of subtlety and grace on the slopes.

Guy Perillat was 100% correct. To ski well you need an educated foot. But how can you, me, any of us, educate our feet in this particular skier's sense? And more to the point, how can we educate our feet, right now, a couple of months before the ski season really gets underway?

Start by paying more attention than normal to the pressure across the soles of your feet. When you are just standing around, in the checkout line in a market, for example, or at the sink rinsing some dishes... Which foot are you actually standing on? more, less, or equally? 50-50, 60-40, 70-30? Rock forward onto the balls of your feet as you reach for a door handle, or settle back onto your heels when someone hands you a package. But really feel it. Feel the small changes in pressure underfoot. Build this sensitivity long before you ever need it on the slopes.

Here's another exercise that I discovered recently by accident, riding the Sky Link train from one terminal to the next at the Dallas airport. But you can do it on a bus, on a subway, or a train. On any moving conveyance, in fact, where you can stand upright. Stand, legs a bit apart, facing perpendicular to the movement of the train or bus, and wait. As the train accelerates from a stop, feel your weight naturally build on the rear foot. As the train or bus brakes to a stop, feel how your weight is thrown forward onto the front foot. Don't resist this natural effect of motion, just tune in to it. The more you can feel, with and through your feet, the closer you will come to Guy Perillat's ideal when your put on skis this winter.

illustration above: skier's feet from a larger color photograph by Burnham Arndt.


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