I recently re-watched a video featuring John Gillies – coach of the Canadian demo team – talking about natural stance and balance in skiing. I often use the same approach when I am teaching and was surprised at how similar our explanations are – almost identical! It is an approach worthy of a blog article.
We often talk about stance as though it were a position, which sounds very static. When skiing, we need to be in constant motion to deal with the forces that we encounter.
In skiing, the forces acting on us are constantly changing in magnitude and direction. We must therefore be in constant motion to deal with these forces in a way that maintains strength and functionality. Every movement we make should help us to maintain strength and functionality. Movements that weaken us should be discarded.
Steering the ski creates a centripetal force that acts to make us change direction. In order to remain balanced we must incline our centre of mass into the turn, creating a situation where our inside leg is shorter than the outside leg. We can re-create this by standing on a slope. A steeper slope is better is it will exaggerate the effect. You can also try this at home, standing with one foot elevated on a chair (preferably wearing ski boots). Now let your body relax so there is minimal tension in your muscles/joints. Also try to feel minimal pressure against the cuffs of your ski boots.
You should notice a few things. Firstly, your downhill leg will be longer than your uphill leg. Because your uphill leg is shorter, your uphill ski will be ahead of your downhill ski. You should also notice that your hips are turned slightly down the hill – natural separation. If you try to turn your hips so they are facing the same direction as your skis, you should feel some tension in the hip joints – the downhill hip will feel over-extended while the uphill hip will feel over-bent. Relaxing the hips should allow them to return to facing slightly down the hill. You may also notice a slight bend at the hip – your upper body should be bent slightly forward of vertical. Finally, you should notice that the majority of your weight is support by the downhill leg. This is the same stance we should be in to maintain strength and functionality (including balance) in a turn.
So why does the body do this? Why would our body naturally favour our downhill leg? My explanation is that it is because the downhill leg is longer and stronger. Try supporting your weight on a straight leg versus a leg bent with the thigh parallel to the ground. The body naturally creates separation and angulation (bending) at the hip in order to favour the longer, stronger leg, resulting in a strong stance.
The key to achieving this stance in skiing is turning the legs. Hockey stops provide a good way to understand this. A hockey stop involves skiing straight down the fall line, then turning the skis 90 degrees to skid to a stop, as if you were going to spray somebody with snow. First, do a hockey stop by turning the shoulders first (it helps if you exaggerate this). Freeze your body’s position when you stop moving. You should notice that the hips are facing the same direction as the skis (or maybe even uphill of the skis). As a result, you should notice more weight on the uphill (short) leg – not a strong stance!
Now, try another hockey stop, this time turning the legs. This should put you in the same, strong stance as when you were standing on a slope.
Diagonal sideslips are a good exercise to bring this natural stance into your skiing. Stand on a slope then flatten both skis and point them slightly downhill to start slipping diagonally across the fall line. This gives you time to ensure that you are relaxed and in a naturally strong stance, with natural separation, a slight bend at the hip and your balance on the downhill leg. When you get to the edge, turn around and go back the other way.
Once you get the hang of this, try to link the sideslips as smoothly as possible using only those movements that are absolutely necessary, with a focus on turning the legs. Through the turn, try to be aware of the inside leg shortening and the outside leg lengthening. You should also notice that the inside ski moves ahead of the outside ski, the hips end up facing slightly down the hill (on the other side now) and your weight shifts from the old downhill ski to the new downhill ski. Slowly shorten the duration of the diagonal sideslips until you are making smooth, linked turns.
Interested in skiing with me?
If you are interested in joining me for some on-snow coaching and you are able to make it to Idre Fjäll in Sweden, you can book a session with me through the Idre Fjäll Ski School. Just be sure to ask for James Nunn!
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