Have you been to ski school lately or is it too hard to remember that far back? Maybe you’re there now, mom and dad dropping you off in the mornings since realizing how challenging it can be to teach their own children. Or, perhaps you’ve just booked a lesson with a pro this weekend in order to get some quality learning time on the slopes from anyone but your significant other.
The learning curve for new skiers has softened over the decades with improvements in equipment materials and construction, but much of what you’ll find in ski schools these days remains the same.
“At its core, skiing is a sport of dynamic balance in motion, and in many ways the fundamental principles by which we slide on snow have not changed a lot over the years,” says David Yeagle, general manager of the Stowe Ski & Snowboard School. “Our focus as instructors is on helping you find what skills will get you to where you want to be. Whether that is new terrain, taking on that beer league race or just gaining more confidence, this will mean modifying or adding skills to those you already bring with you.”
Yeagle and his pro teaching colleagues at Vail’s Northeastern resorts shared some of their expert insights on the new-school art and science of teaching skiing. Joining Yeagle with their unique perspectives below are Maureen Drummey, senior manager of the Mount Snow Ski & Ride School; Doug Daniels, Skier Services manager at Mount Sunapee; and Chris Saylor, general manager of the Ski & Ride School at Okemo Mountain Resort.
Too much, too soon?
Drummey: Often times, parents see that their kids can turn and stop on the learning hill, so they take them to a blue or a black. Can they get down? Probably, but this is what can cause bad habits like “forever pizza wedge” and “sitting back.” Way too many people use their practice time — out of lesson time — on terrain that is too difficult or too steep, causing bad habits to appear. If they stay on gentle terrain until the skills are mastered and they are comfortable, we would not have as much of a problem.
Value some old habits …
Yeagle: Our unique set of habits and movement patterns make up the baseline of what we bring to skiing, and if those are what help you stay safe and have fun while sliding, go for it! Everyone is different and has a unique set of needs.
Drummey: There are some “old-style habits” out there but the guests are comfortable doing them. If you take them away, it is taking away their abilities, causing an inability. If we can GIVE the guest a new technique — or an efficient way to do a movement — to focus on, we’ve added to their ability. So, GIVE instead of take away.
Transform others …
Drummey: The most common “bad habits” we see are that balance is back, causing the skier to push their skis sideways to turn them. If their balance was more “centered,” they could utilize the front shape of the ski and carve a turn, letting the ski do more of the work instead of the skier.
Saylor: One of the common threads we see in people’s skiing is initiating their turns with the upper body. This often looks like a twisting movement. Another bad habit is hurrying through the turn. Believe me, I get it people want to spend as little time as possible facing straight down the hill. By slowing our foot speed through the turn, it allows the skis to remain in snow contact and gives us better control.
Daniels: The habit I find myself trying to break when updating technique is a narrow stance where the student is trying to achieve a more traditional “look.” When I can get a student to open their stance and use their legs to turn the skis more efficiently, this starts to reduce other bad habits like using a lot of upper-body rotation to turn the skis or a lot of hip rotation. Opening the stance and using the legs helps to keep the upper body quiet and relaxed.
Find your stance
Daniels: Just like building a house, the foundation that the skier is standing on is what makes or breaks the rest of the technique. Often, poor stance ends up forcing the technique to be a reaction or adjustment. A stance that is too narrow or too far back will almost always result in the skier needing to add upper-body twist to get the skis to go where the skier wants them to go. By focusing on a centered stance, the skier can better control the skis by using the legs as they are supposed to work. Add a slightly more open stance and the balance and “look” become much more modern.
A great way to get a quick feel for where your stance should be is to stand on the snow in your ski boots and to hop up and down a few times and then try to “stick the landing” by hopping up and landing solidly on both feet, bending the ankles, knees and hips as you land. Try to land solid and in balance and take note of the width between your feet and how much the joints of your legs flex to allow you to land in balance. This is a good indicator of what your stance width should be and a great starting point for how much flex you should have in your legs.
Yeagle: In a more modern teaching context, we focus on having our feet slightly farther apart and under our hips. This can allow us to turn more from our feet and legs separate from our upper body, which opens up a world of possibility for dynamic skiing, racing, bumps, powder and steeps — to name a few. This seemingly simple move of turning your legs more than your upper body can make a real difference across your skiing. Try this at home: Stand with your back to a wall and turn your feet in parallel each direction. How far do they turn before your hips come off the wall? You might be surprised!
Saylor: Become more comfortable standing on your equipment. The goal in skiing is to take your equipment for a ride, not the other way around. This starts all the way down on the flats for new students and all the way through to skiing bumps. Finding the comfort and ease to work with your equipment vs. fighting to stop or turn.
Put balance in motion
Yeagle: At every level of the sport, skiing is all about balance in motion. The skills we develop help us to support and maintain that balance while we turn and move through terrain. Without this foundation, we will find everything else more difficult — and sometimes impossible. So, be it a beginner lesson or an advanced clinic, I find it important to start here. Where are we on our skis? Are we balancing foot to foot? Are we balanced fore and aft? For a first-time skier, as we start moving can we maintain this balance? As we learn to turn, can we start to balance over the outside ski? The question: “Am I in balance throughout my turn?” can tell you a lot about what is working and what is not.
Drummey: We use a building block approach. The new skier has ownership with a skill before adding a new skill. Teach them to turn one way before the next. Once they can make a turn in each direction, teach them to link two turns, then three turns, then four turns. Once they are comfortable linking turns on the mellow sloped hill, you can add “active steering” of the inside ski to show matching of the skis — wedge-christie. As they get mileage and confidence, this turns into an open-parallel turn — skis are parallel like the number “11.” Then we can focus on different size/shaped turns and add some tipping of the skis, which allows the skier to learn how to use their edges, which will lead into carving.
Drummey: I use the phrase “turn your 10 toes” while having the skier look at me and I am pointing which way. This way they are looking up and down the hill at me and only thinking of pointing their toes in the direction I am pointing. Or I may draw a turn in the snow and have them follow the line between their ski tips, then add another turn, and so on. Visual cues and physically demonstrating do amazing things, while verbal phrases are less effective. Phrases should be short and sweet only after a good demo.
Saylor: I like to instill the thought that our feet and body move through the turn at constant speed. It can be a slow tempo or a fast tempo. From a ski racer to a bump skier, it’s keeping how we move through the turn consistent.
Yeagle: I like to think about how we move our joints while skiing as “moving like an accordion.” As we flex or extend, get taller or shorter through our turns, or absorb bumps, we want to move our ankles, knees and hips together like an accordion. By moving proportionally through all our joints, we can control where our weight moves through the turns and any terrain.
Daniels: For beginning parallel, I use “hips to the tips.” This refines to “uphill hip moves towards the downhill ski tip” — using the lengthening of one leg and the shortening of the other at the turn to flatten the skis and release the edges. For a new skier just entering parallel skiing, this movement pattern really helps with turn entry and smooths things out from turn to turn. For wedge turners, I use “flex your leg in the direction you want to go.” Often times a new skier will press or straighten and lock the leg on the outside of the turn and end up with way too much edge angle, essentially locking up skis for getting into the next turn. Softening the leg — or flexing — the right leg to go right and then the left leg to go left promotes the flattening of the ski and moves the skier’s weight toward the next turn instead of getting locked up.