Skiing/Alpine Balancing Skills 3
Alpine Stance and Balancing
It’s just leaning forward and keeping your hands forward, isn’t it?
Not really, there’s more to it!
In this section I have addressed questions that I have been asked by pupils and that may be on your mind too but remember it’s not a scientific treatise!
Note: I don’t want to go into physics too deeply here and discuss the ins and outs of the true terminology of the forces happening when we ski. Many lay-people may not have heard of angular momentum or centripetal force but will understand the centrifugal effect that this force is generally known as. Some will be put off by long or scientific words or statements, others may argue that using incorrect names for things is not good but as I’ve said many times I use words that my clients use and as long as they understand or even get a vague picture…I’m happy.
But I should also qualify weight/pressure as the difference between them can be confusing. I have used them both interchangeably in lessons and here to describe the same thing because these are the words my clients use and understand. If a client wants to use a scientifically incorrect word I don’t want to spend their time correcting this and giving them a science lesson unless they want one.
To qualify in simple terms, you weigh what you weigh due to the amount of material (mass) you are made up of and this remains relatively constant due to gravity’s effect on your mass. Distributing your weight/where you are standing along the length or between the skis can influence what then will happen to your direction and how the ski interacts with the snow. This will also affect where the pressures and forces created are felt on the feet and within the boot and the direction of the forces (see How we turn).
When sliding on snow in skiing we create momentum; there are other internal and external forces that happen during turns. These are created by us and by the planet when we change direction or slow down. We feel these forces as differences in pressure on the soles of our feet and on the shins of our legs and sometimes, if large, through the whole body. They are something you manage and deal with on the move (balancing). During a turn your weight will remain the same but you may feel more pressure is created and in simple terms this could be said that you have become heavier…. but you haven’t.
Don’t sweat the small stuff, use whatever words or terms work for you and allow you to engage and understand to the level of your interest but if interested there’s plenty of science and physics to study in the world of skiing/Telemarking.
Stacked, what is this?
This is a way of talking about having our bodies in the strongest shape for a given moment and this will be changing all the time.
Imagine stacking crates or boxes in a static situation i.e. on a flat storeroom floor, one directly and squarely on top of the other is the obvious way to provide the success of having them not topple over. However, if the floor isn’t flat and level, or if the surface is going to move i.e. on the back of a truck then this will not work, unless you strap them down. For every individual situation a different solution or way of stacking the crates is needed to deal with the unforeseen forces that may or will happen.
This is why one position in skiing will not work in each and every situation; luckily we are not crates or boxes and are able to constantly change our stance, body shape on the go (balancing). When skiing what will be effective and efficient at one point in a turn will not work or be appropriate even a nano-second or two later. We cannot stay in the strongest shape at all times and will have to compromise between stronger and weaker shapes to be able to turn. (more to come on this in Pressure/How we Turn).
The timing of when we are stronger or weaker is crucial as the forces that act upon us make skiing/Telemarking a load sport like weightlifting. During a fast turn, a racer can experience 3 or more “G” or gravities; in other words they may be feeling forces and exerting forces 3 times their real “weight” (the centrifugal effect creating an increase in pressures and forces felt). Therefore being in a weaker stance at the time of most force/pressure may not be a good thing, other than doing this helps us change direction. The times of the weaker shapes may happen during the lighter phases of changes of direction called cross-over/cross-under or known as transitions.
Good skiers might be said to be shape-makers or move into expected shapes or hold positions (actors). Great skiers are pro-active (reactors) and are constantly flowing; moving-making micro-adjustments-either in anticipation or reaction in ALL planes of balancing.
What are the benefits of “finding centre”?
Many fold, some of the most common that clients tell me are:
- “My feet don’t hurt anymore”
- “My shins/legs/calves/thighs don’t feel under stress anymore”
- “I can rely on it in any weather”
- “The skis seem to turn a lot easier”
- “I can feel for it all the time and the feedback is immediate”
Why is this?
- You’re standing on or near the centre of the ski, not driving it from the rear seat or the bonnet. (See Driving in Relating to Other Sports/Activities)
- You’re using skeletal alignment, skilful balancing and good biomechanics and not relying on being held up with muscular or joint stress or the boot/binding/skis length, connected strengths support
- You’re moving efficiently- constant movement will allow some muscles to relax while others work
- Your feet will be able to relax-clenched feet mean clenched legs (See Stress and Strain later)
There may be others that you’ll find for yourself.
How can I tell if I’m balancing well?
There are many different ideas that hopefully have helped you in this chapter but to help further we need to add a few things that I like to think add up to a Happy Stance. There are many facets to this and will include other questions to get the full picture. How to notice a Happy Stance will include the following in no particular order:
- No stress and strain on joints, muscles or equipment
- Consistent calm hands and arms
- Consistent width of stance (no widening/narrowing or ploughing/stemming by mistake)
Arms flailing around even at slow speeds and or when balancing on one ski and skis widening and narrowing are a “give away sign” of weaker balancing skills. Work on calming everything down and being more accurate, lots of help and advice in any of the Drills.
Stress and Strain?
Goal; no stress or strain on your body or equipment.
If you’re not centred and are leaning forward all the time your feet, calves and shins may be under strain causing at the very least discomfort. Lean back and your feet, calves and quadriceps (thighs) may be under strain and ache. If well back you may well be putting stress on the shins in a different way, leading to shin splints. This is a very painful affliction if you’ve ever had them. Stress and strain on bones, muscles and joints, isn’t good nor is tension. This may even cause pain and discomfort in the lower back too.
Note that tense, tight muscles tire quicker. You need to be aware that this can also be mistaken for or cause fear (See Dealing with Fear) or from trying too hard (See Golf in Relating to Other Sports/Activities) or from ineffectual stance and balancing movements.
Try this experiment; tighten just your fingers in one of your hands, just your fingers. Is there any tightness anywhere else?
Unless you’re very skilful at isolating muscles, you will feel tightness in at least one other place, most folk will feel tightness all the way up the arm to the shoulder. Lots of nervous and lots of not so nervous skiers, ski with their toes clenched in what I call “eagle claw” toes, trying to cling to the snow/ice by putting lots of effort into gripping with the feet. Do I have x-ray vision?
No I can just see the tension in all the joints/muscles of the leg right up to the buttocks. The ankles will be very stiff and inflexible. Just like the hand/arm experiment their clenched feet and toes are transmitting stiffness and tension all the way up the leg. Just ask yourself, “Will this tension create a free-flowing performance?” No, relax the toes/feet as much as YOU can, relaxed toes = relaxed legs and helps a relaxed stance/shape.
Tip, Choice of Terrain (forgiving pisted runs – unforgiving off-piste/powder/steeps) this is something you can control so choose well.
If you can’t relax then you might be over challenging yourself or being over challenged by your teacher. Practice everything first on what is easy terrain for YOU and then progress at your pace and steepness, if not successful you’ve may have to go back a step/simplify the task. Don’t look at this as failure, you just need more practice and maybe even flatter terrain. Take time and be honest with the feedback you’re receiving (internal and external) and try to be accurate.
You may get away with basic faults, on-piste, like hanging on the front of the boot, for a while but it will only come back to haunt you later if and when you venture off-piste or go steeper, as you’ll be carrying fundamental (balancing) errors with you.
Should I strive to have my feet close together in parallel?
Parallel is a word to admire and hate, let me explain; the width of your stance may not in itself be a goal but a skill indicator and will depend on many things.
- How accomplished your balancing and turning skills are
- How confident you are
- What speed you travel at
The meaning of parallel just means two lines that never get closer or further apart. This is why I encourage you to use a narrow plough, if at all (See Why we Snowplough for it’s true use) and intelligent use of terrain because as it will then be easier to migrate to parallel. There are many accomplished skiers that believe they are parallel but if you look closely they use a tiny wedge or their skis become wider at the start of their turns, due to sequential rather than simultaneous movements. This can be corrected with dedicated practice.
Remember, having a narrow stance may be considered as better stylistically by some but a wide track parallel is still parallel and may give you the benefit of stability unless too wide or extreme. Also a lot of modern skis are impossible to put too close together as they’ll overlap tip and tail, this desire may just be a hangover from the old days of narrow skis.
How big is the sweetspot?
It lies within the palms of your feet (transfer the idea from the palm of your hands), so it’s not as small as some might think it is! You may want to be extremely accurate and pinpoint the super sweetspot that may be very small but anywhere in the palm of your foot without relying on the shin of the boot is on it.
A slightly different approach to help with the sweetspot or if 0xo isn’t working for you is DICE 5
Imagine a dice that has landed on 5 and transfer these dots onto the soles of both feet. You should now have 2 dots on either side of the ball of your foot, 2 dots on either side of your heel and one slap bang in the middle of the fleshy, tickly part of your feet. You can always use your hands (ignoring the thumbs) to get the idea and transfer after. Use this idea in the same way as 0xo, with the dots replacing or blending with the 0xxxo!
Tip feel free to get creative, change it to a “dice 6, 7, 9” or simplify to a “dice 4, 3 or 2” and then re-visit and build it back up again later.
Once you have 0xo and Dice 5 we can become more inventive – blending the planes
- Can you feel all 5 together?
- Can you feel/be aware of any 2 together without the others? Fore/Aft and sideways?
- Can you feel/be aware of each dot separately?
As a beginner take this easy, standing still at first, rolling the foot or feet slightly from one set of dots to the other side – big toe side to little toe side dots. (There will be more for this in Edging later).
Challenges; stir the porridge – standing still and one footed at first, go clockwise and then anti clockwise around the dots (little toe dot, both; flat lateral but forward, big toe dot, add heel dot; flat fore/aft but slightly edged, one side of heel….you get the picture) along with the pressure changes that will happen on the sides of the lower leg/s (shin/calves). Then add complexity; both feet/legs in the same direction and develop until you can do it while on the move too.
Once you’ve found the Sweetspot and a general good shape you can then add and adapt a focus on the upper body to enhance the great work you’ve done “downstairs”. Remember to suit the ideas to your body’s build and drives and become a true “freeskier”.
Hand and arms placement?
Wild movements with the hands and arms are a give away to a lack of balancing skills (unhappy Stance). Try traversing across the slope on one foot, do your arms have to wave about or move weirdly? If so, then keep practicing until you can do it without the hands and arms moving at all (there will always be some minimal-micro-adjustments being made with them). The slower you do this the harder it is to achieve, so, try to achieve it at many different speeds.
Generally the arms should be out to the side and forward of the body with the hands around hip/waist height.
Everyone will have a slight difference in arm carriage; due to their build (even different racers and instructors have their own pecadillos and look different from each other). Or maybe their drives that will inform their style will be a bigger factor; look at a technically trained skier versus a “jibber” (the guys you see in the park) they look completely at odds! Who’s right? That depends who you ask. BUT….
If the feet and legs are right, in other words if the skier is feeling the sensations described and is able to adjust and adapt skilfully, then the rest of the body should follow. The feet being “right” is more important than having your arms correct. Using unusual hand placement can be a good test and show with time that although hands are important, good balancers don’t need their hands or their poles or even two feet on the ground (some skiers don’t have hands or arms or legs, ever seen the Paralympics? Awesome!).
What do I do with my hands/poles?
To test your balancing skills, ski with arms crossed in front of you, behind your back, above your head, on your head and just hanging by your sides. All the while trying to be aware and correct, if necessary, where you’re feeling the pressure in your boots whilst being centred. If successful just let your arms be slightly forward and out to the side.
Your poles are there to help you with balancing too and can be used in many different ways (See Poleplant). Try to rely on your feet again rather than your poles, it requires more skill, practice and accuracy and might take a little longer but will pay dividends in the long run.
In the past, “lean/hands forward” was all I got instructed to me in my first few ski lessons. I couldn’t understand why my hands were forward and out to the side, my eye-line was horizontal and looking forward but I didn’t feel I was balancing well at all. In fact I was trying so hard to “lean forward” I was actually leaning back: my hands and eye-line were obeying the instructions given but my feet were on the balls, my ankles were locked out and stiff, my bottom was sticking out wildly and my back was arched backwards. This is because everything we do when skiing can be compensatory or complementary.
Anything else I can do with my hands?
Let’s get a little biological, the hands and feet are made in a very similar way, in fact the bones even have similar names (as are some of the muscles in the legs and arms too; biceps in the upper arm and biceps femoris in the upper leg).
- Hands are Carpals (wrist bones), Metacarpals (main body of hand) and Phalanges (individual fingers from the knuckles)
- Feet are Tarsals (heel to mid foot), Metatarsals (main body of foot) and Phalanges (toes)
So apart from the opposing thumbs on our hands being different from our big toes and the differing lengths and densities of these bones – generally fingers are longer than toes, both are very similar. We also have a heel, ball and arch of our hand. This is why we can transfer the ideas from our hands to our feet.
A look around the slopes of almost any ski area will come up with many versions of how to ski, in these performances there will be a variety of different stances, builds and preferences. We may all have favourite idols and role models and if we just blindly copy Didier Cuche, Ted Ligety, Lindsey Vonn or Anna Fenninger, we might be quite successful, we may not. Maybe a better approach is to remember to take your own build into the equation (a very tall or wide person and a very small or petite person will not necessarily look exactly the same) but may have unseen things in common. Learning to feel and adapt the sensations with help that all good skiers use will definitely lead to success.
When you watch someone doing anything well, whether singing, playing guitar, plastering (a wall or ceiling), typing or skiing. What is it in the performance that impresses all of us? They make it look easy and they seem so relaxed! The movements are very well rehearsed and practised (See Practice in Learning Curves). Remember skiing as a concept is simple, all the ideas are simple but that doesn’t mean that it’s easy to blend them all skilfully.
One last question before we go onto another chapter, why do we love this sport?
I can only answer it from my point of view and hope it resonates with you. In this sport/activity there are no rules (See F.I.S to follow) in the normal sense of rules in other sports – no off-side, knock-on or judges watching your performance and giving you penalty marks because your technique isn’t perfect. Imagine hearing this “off you go to the sin bin for 20 minutes and think about those awful turns you just made”! This would be very demoralising.
If your technique isn’t as perfect as you want it to be; but you’re smiling, enjoying yourself and are not apprehensive or more important not crashing into or endangering someone else, then you’re skiing and obeying the bulk of the rules!
The F.I.S. safety rules are something we should all be aware of and know. Most of these are common sense and courtesy really and are there to help prevent accidents and can be found here www.fis-ski.com
Next will be Telemark Stance &Balancing where these ideas are developed and adapted to the Telemark discipline, Jose