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Improve Your Teaching: Deciding What to Work On

In a previous article, I wrote about how you should structure your students’ practice so that they learn most quickly. The article discussed the difference between what to work on and how to work on it, then focused on the how. This article presents several methods you can use to determine what your students need to work on.

When you first watch a skier, it’s easy to be overwhelmed with information, and to be uncertain about where to begin. You might see that the skier steps from one foot to the other, extends the outside leg at transition, rotates and leans with the upper body, drops the inside hand after each pole plant, and tends to skid through the turn. That presents many options on where to begin and what to work on, and you need to decide what’s most relevant, and what you should ignore at first. On the other hand, you might watch a skier and see the skis tipping from one side to the other, a fairly steady upper body, and good carving through the turns. This might make you think, “Hmm… what should I work on?” These are two extremes, with the first example supplying too many options, and the second example supplying not enough information.

Too Many Options

Let’s deal first with the “Too Many Options” scenario. The fundamental question that you should ask when you watch any skier is, “What is making the skis go back and forth in turns?” We know that the most efficient (requiring least energy) and most effective (you get what you want) method for making linked turns on skis is to use the primary movements. This means that you should be watching the tipping activities of the feet, flexing and extending of the legs, and fore/aft movements of the feet (either the feet moving forward and rearward relative to the torso, or tilting the skis tip up or tip down). We also know that we can describe linked ski turns in terms of release, transfer, and engagement. Release is how the skier gets off of, or lets go of, the edges from one turn; transfer is how the skier shifts balance from one stance ski to the other; and engagement is how the skier makes the stance ski bite into the snow.

For a skier to get the most work out of his/her skis, and use the least effort to do so, requires the correct combination of primary movements to create the release, transfer, and engagement. So, this is what you should focus on when you are faced with the “Too Many Options” skier.

First, watch the release. The release is the beginning of the new turn. If it is done well, it sets up the skier for success with the rest of the turn; if it is done poorly, then the rest of the turn will suffer. Thus, we should deal with it first. Watch to see what the skier does to get off the old edges. If it is any movement other than flexing (bending) the old stance leg and tipping that ski toward its little-toe or outside edge, or if those are not the very first movements performed, then you have determined what to work on: flexing the downhill leg, and tipping that ski. Go back to the article in the last newsletter issue to see how to practice these movements.

Once the skier can perform a release using flexing and tipping of the downhill ski, watch for the transfer of balance from the old stance ski to the new. Ideally, the transfer should occur through the flexion of the old stance leg. If it occurs through any other movement (extending new stance leg, lifting arms, etc.), then you’ll know what to work on. If the skier transfers balance early in the turn, then abruptly replaces the inside ski onto the snow, then you’ll need to work on balance on the stance ski. Once the skier can transfer balance to the new stance ski by flexing the old stance leg, and can then maintain balance on the stance ski throughout the arc of the turn, then you’re ready to look at the engagement.

Engagement should be performed through the tipping actions of the old stance/new free ski. The new stance ski should roll on edge without twisting, without the tail pushing or flaring out to the side, and without the entire ski being moved out of its current track. Once it has rolled on edge, it should continue to roll to higher edges angles through the continued tipping of the free foot and through the flexion of the free leg. It should stay on track, with no twisting or displacement. Again, if this is not the picture that your skier presents, then you know which primary movements to work on.

Once you have worked on the primary movements through release, transfer, and engagement, you have established the basis for how the skier makes the skis go back and forth through the turns – our original fundamental question. Only when the skier can perform these movements with some consistency should you look at the rest of the picture. You can then decide to add secondary movements that would be beneficial (pole plant, countering, counterbalancing, etc.), or that might be needed to counteract the skier’s habitual movements.

Not Enough Information

Next, we’ll deal with the “Not Enough Information” scenario – the skier who looked pretty good, and left you wondering what to work on. If this skier looks like s/he is using the primary movements as described in the previous scenario, then you are off to a good start for your lesson. Since the skier is looking so good to you, it’s very likely that you have that skier within his/her comfort zone: familiar terrain, rhythm, turn size, etc. If you want to determine the weakest link in this skier’s armor, you’ll need to push him/her beyond that familiarity zone; only then will the weakness(es) be revealed to you. This doesn’t mean that you push the skier immediately into terrain that’s way too difficult; the skier will likely lose trust in you, and there’s a good chance that the performance diminishes so much that you are suddenly faced with the “Too Many Options” scenario from above. Instead, you need to provide a challenge that is reasonable for the skier’s capabilities, that is consistent with their reasons for taking lessons, and that will allow you to focus on their use of the primary movements to perform the release, transfer, and engagement.

One option is to present a tactical challenge. Let’s say that your skier is making mid-size turns on groomed intermediate terrain, but aspires to skiing bumps. A tactical challenge would be to define a corridor that is narrower than the skier’s current turn size, and have the skier make linked turns within that corridor. This narrower turn size is more consistent with mogul skiing, and it will force the skier into a quicker rhythm. This often reveals either a lack of speed control (insufficient tipping and flexing with free leg), or a different set of movements being used to create the quicker turn transition. If so, what to work on is revealed to you.

Other examples of tactical challenges include…
• Making a certain number of turns over a given distance. Aim for more turns than the skier would normally make if you are trying to achieve shorter turns; aim for fewer turns if you are trying to stretch the skier’s speed limit.
• Making a “funnel” – a series of turns where the size gets smaller and tighter with each subsequent turn, without increasing speed. This requires the skier to perform their movements at a quicker and quicker pace without losing the degree of completion of each turn.
• A “speed funnel” – a series of turns that starts out fast, then becomes slower and slower with each subsequent turn, without the skis skidding. This requires that the skier be able to tighten their turn radius with more tipping and flexing of the inside leg.
• Skiing from a moderate pitch onto a steeper slope without changing turn size, rhythm, or speed. The steeper pitch requires higher tipping angles, more flexing of the inside leg, and more flexing of the stance leg to release.

Another option with the “Not Enough Information” skier is to present a defined task, and have them perform it. This task could be to make a single turn with the inside ski lifted throughout the turn. You’ll gain a lot of information about the skier’s balance through this exercise.

Other examples of tasks include…
• A garland keeping both skis on the snow through releasing and re-engagement.
• A static release, either one-footed or two. Once you eliminate momentum, you’ll often see a whole different set of movements being used.
• Make a single turn until the skis arc uphill to a stop.

In any of these tactical and task challenges, your goal is to push the skier outside of his/her habitual performance zone. Specifically watch how the skier performs the release, transfer, and engagement, and make sure that the primary movements are being used. You’ll then see whether any of their movements are insufficient to perform the task, or whether they change movement patterns, and then you’ll know what to work on.