By Kirsty Hole, 2008.
When looking at the skiing learning curve of the general public, there is a leveling-off that occurs in terms of skill development. This plateau happens in and around level four. People usually move through the beginner levels one to three quite steadily but then get stuck as a basic parallel skier, often for a long time, if not for the rest of their skiing days. There are many reasons for this skill development plateau, some of which include fitness, amount of time on skis, length of time between skiing, the difficulty in changing ingrained movement patterns, and fear. These reasons for the plateau are discussed below. Following that there is an overview of the movements that these perpetual level four skiers often exhibit, and a look at the changes in movement required to improve. Finally, here is an outline of what we as instructors can do in our lessons to help these skiers step up off the plateau.
Reasons for the Plateau
The long-lasting level four skier is often a person with a low level of general fitness. People will sit at their desk jobs all year and then expect their bodies to cope with the onslaught of a week’s skiing holiday. Not only do they expect to pick up right where they left off last season, but they want to improve as well. After muscle fatigue sets in there is very little chance of a skier changing their movements, let alone creating new habits.
The majority of holiday makers will stay at a ski resort for about a week. The first couple of days are usually taken up with getting over the wobbles of skiing again, and dealing with tired legs that aren’t yet comfortable in a bent position. The following couple of days are where confidence starts to build again and the skier feels more like they did last season. Then in the last couple of days the skier is ready psychologically and physically to try something more challenging, but the holiday is at its end.
This annual whirlwind experience is not very conducive to improvement on the slopes. If the skier did this weeks’ holiday every month over the winter there would be noticeable development in the skier’s skills, simply because of the time spent on snow, and the short gaps in between the periods of skiing. When people ski for a week and then have 12 months off before the next ski holiday it is very difficult to improve. Imagine practicing playing the guitar for one week, putting it away and then picking it up a year later expecting not to be rusty – almost impossible!
Whether a person only skis one week per season, or a couple of weekends here and there, it’s very difficult to break old habits or movement patterns. When a skier is out of their comfort zone their brain automatically uses the movements that are the most well known to them, regardless of whether they are efficient or not. New motor skills or movements, whether they are big or small, have to be repeated thousands of times before the neuromuscular system can memorize them. This process is called neuromuscular facilitation or muscle memory. In order for a skier to change their movements they need to ski on the same slope, concentrating on the same movements, over and over and over again. This does not usually constitute a very fun holiday!
One of the biggest psychological reasons why many people plateau as a basic parallel skier is fear. Putting aside how fit a person is, how much skiing they actually do, and their brain’s ability to learn new motor skills, fear trumps all. People find their comfort zone and are very reluctant to break out of it, whether it be going faster, trying steeper slopes, or simply the possibility of falling over.
Technical Description of a skier on the Plateau
The level four skier who is having difficulty progressing usually has a poor basic position. The skier will look like they are sitting back, with overly bent knees and open ankles. The upper-body will be hunched forward from the hips, to try and keep the body balanced.
The turn shape is usually in a zigzag fashion, with the skier moving down the slope in a narrow corridor on easy terrain, and using big zigzag traverses when it gets steeper.
In the control phase of the zigzag the skis are relatively flat on the snow so there is a lot of skidding. This happens because the skier’s centre of gravity is back and inside the turn, so a lot of their weight is on the uphill ski, making it difficult for the edges to grip. The skier’s shoulders are also rotated back up the hill in an effort to get the skis to turn more.
In the transition phase where zig meets zag, the skis change direction very quickly. This happens because of a big upper-body rotational movement. This rotation makes the skis pivot, often from a point behind the heel binding, because the skier is sitting back. From this awkward position it is almost impossible to actively steer the skis with the feet and legs. So, the only way to gain some kind of directional control is for the skier to transfer their weight from one foot to the other very quickly, pushing hard against their downhill ski to try and get the edge to grip.
The skier often looks like their down hill leg is locked straight and they are bracing, or pushing against their downhill ski. Their whole body moves through the turn as one object, with no steering separation from the hip socket, and there is little or no vertical movement. These factors combine to give the skier a very stiff or robotic appearance. The skier moves like this because it’s the best way they know to slow themselves down. If they use their shoulders to turn their skis away from the fall line as fast as possible, and then push hard on their down hill ski, they feel some semblance of control.
It is important to realize this description is very generalised. Not every level four skier is going to exhibit all of these faults, but will probably exhibit some of them in varying degrees of intensity.
Changes in Movement Patterns
The two biggest hurdles for most level four skiers to jump are 1) the fear of initiating the turn by moving the centre of gravity forward and inside the new turn, and 2) the inability to turn the legs separately from the upper-body. However, these movements are out of reach if the skier doesn’t have a centered stance and doesn’t ski with a round turn shape.
The easiest thing to spot when analysing a skier is faults in their stance, so that is where many instructors begin their lessons. However it is very difficult to focus on staying centered when you feel out of control, so it is more helpful to start with rounding out the turn shape using consistent leg steering, and then move on to stance.
The skier then needs to be able to balance on the outside ski sooner in the turn, without then bracing against it in the control phase. This is where attention to specific feelings in the feet and legs are very helpful, to help aid the changes in the timing of the movements in the transition. It is important that the skier can feel weight changes from foot to foot, along the length of the foot, and differing amounts of pressure on the shin against the boot cuff. It is helpful for both instructor and student to realize that timing of movements in the transition have a direct affect on how the skis react in the control phase.
A slight increase in speed and the introduction of vertical movement to control pressure are helpful at this point. It is easier to move the centre of gravity forward and into the new turn when going a bit faster because there are more forces pushing back against the ski, making it easier to feel the platform building under the ski. Then the idea of rotational separation or turning the legs more than the upper-body can be introduced. This creates powerful steering and the ability to keep the body strongly stacked while balancing laterally on the outside ski.
Role of the Instructor
As instructors, our goal is of course to give an informative, easy to understand, fun lesson, where the clients are able to notice their improvement and feel they have reached their goals. The problem with the plateau-ed level four skier is that they often have many things that need attending to (as described above), so it can be very tempting to throw everything at the skier to try and fix all their issues in one go. All this tends to do is turn their brain to mush, and give them no idea which way they should be moving. So at this level, less is definitely more.
Beyond the specific structure of the lesson, it is very important for an instructor to know that at this level, progress is slow and changes are very difficult for the students to make, so not to expect drastic differences. It is almost more important to just help the student understand what movements they are making and how they need to change them, rather than actually seeing the changes physically. If the skier understands what changes they need to make and why, they can then go and practice by themselves and gain muscle memory for the new motor skill.
If we look at the skiing learning curve of the general public there is a trend where the curve flattens out. At about level four the skill development of the skier tends to plateau. By understanding all the physical, psychological and technical reasons why this leveling off happens, we as instructors are able to give students the skills to help them help themselves ski to the next level.