Fixing bad habits or improving good habits: Which one makes your skiing better?

Actually, for our brains, there are no bad or good habits. They are what they are! We can’t erase our habits once they’ve been created, whether we like them or not. However we can make new habits and make those habits stronger than the habits we don’t like. That’s the only way to improve or change something in skiing or any other movement based activities. In this essay I will be talking about how we create our habits and how this process works in the brain.

The brain doesn’t recognize any habits as good or bad. Activities are just movements the brain remembers to instruct the muscle to move. When we think about moving our body, the brain sends signals between nervous system from one side to another. Once a signal is delivered, it’ll move our muscle in the way we want. Between nervous systems, the more signals to be sent, the paths get thicker so that more signals can move through easier and quicker.

It’s like a messenger’s running path in the forest. Imagine an untouched forest that a messenger wants to run through as quickly as possible to deliver a letter from one side to the other. There have been no paths created yet, so the messenger has to make the path by walking through the forest many times carefully. In the same way, when we learn a new movement, it takes time and repetition–we can’t rapidly do a movement that we have never done before. Relating this to our brains process, this is the cognitive phase.

Once a path starts to appear so that the messenger can run, but still has to think about the path’s condition–using markers of the path to run from one to another–is parallel to the associative phase we go through as we repeat and practice new movements.

Finally, the messenger gets to the point where he doesn’t need to think about what’s out there on the path; she can just run through without thinking. This is the autonomous phase.

What if that first path was actually an inefficient way to run through the forest? Once the path is created in the forest, it’s extremely difficult to reset. The messenger needs to start creating a new path from scratch. Likewise in our skiing, creating a new path is the only way to get rid of old habits. We don’t want to create an incorrect path again, so it has to be well-planned. We have to move slowly to not get off the right path because when the movements are similar, our brains naturally tend to send signals to the older and thicker path, not the path that’s just started to appear. Therefore we have to make sure that we walk through the right way every time, until it looks better than the previous one.

Making a new path, or retraining, requires a lot of effort, patience and time. We have to repeat again and again to make new habits. Once new habits are created and used a decent amount, old habits get rusty and tend to fade.  And I want everyone to remember this: when we take appropriate process, new habits can be created by people of any age.

In order to create a new habit of the correct movement, we need to address bad habits. We must remember the sensation of bad habits and good habits and try to repeat good habit until the brain memorizes the movement.

Video analysis is a good way to do this because we can see ourselves doing correct and incorrect movements and remember the sensation of both correct and incorrect movements. At this stage, correct movement feels uncomfortable or unfamiliar as the pathway from the brain to the muscles hasn’t been created yet. Incorrect movement feels more comfortable and familiar than correct movement. Sensation isn’t trustworthy at this stage. Once we find the correct sensation, it may not necessarily be a good sensation, but we have to repeat it at a slower speed in order for our muscles to remember it.

We can divide brain memory into 3 stages: short, medium and long term. Short term memory comes into play when you do same movement many times in one go. You will tend to repeat that movement when you try to do different movements with the same part of body. Therefore, we should add a movement which is already autonomous to us and to the movement we want to develop, so that the brain remembers the movement in relation to other movements. In this way it becomes part of the medium term memory of the brain. Once that becomes proficient, we can repeat that until autonomous movements become a part of long term memory.

For example, for active weight shifting from the old outside ski to the new outside ski, I tend to extend my new outside knee too much and lose connection to new outside ski. I lose the ability to use both legs actively. In an effort to fix this habit, I try to fire hamstrings in stationary exercise, then transfer this practice into skiing. I feel less extension of my new outside leg because the hamstring, in the short term, remembers to fire. This holds my leg shorter so that I can keep connection to the new outside ski. My next step will be to increase speed and repeat the same movement in higher rate. Eventually this will happen in my high-performance skiing speed. I hope…

In order to make your brain remember a new movement we always have to consciously think about what muscle we are using, how we are moving, what movement outcome we are focusing on and why,  so the brain will be aware of the correct movement. That way the brain will try to send a signal onto the right path.

In the meantime, how often do you see skiers in our lessons who have bad habits that seem almost impossible to fix? If they are keen to fix it, explain what’s happening in our brains and how we can work on it efficiently.

Find out the issue, explain what it is, introduce correct movement, and repeat the movement correctly and consciously in different situations. Fixing the body movement is not erasing; it’s creating new pathways and re-training our brains.