Austrian Ski School had its principles for better or worst.

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Perhaps The Underlying Question Is: “What Do You Want Your Skiing To Be?”.  

There is no right or wrong answer.

If you want your skiing to be about maximizing bar time, that’s fine. I’m happy with that.  If you want it be “covering as many miles, or ticking off trails, in a day as possible”, that’s fine, too.  If it’s checking your wearable gadget to see your maximum speed that day, so be it.   If it’s “having a laugh”, who could complain?

But none of those is concerned with developing skill.   The replies to the recent Question For You on How Did You Learn suggested that a considerable percentage of skiers did not commit to any structured long term learning process, instead choosing to get out there and “do it” perhaps with a few intermittent lessons, perhaps in the belief that skill is developed by learning a few “secret” tips.  It isn’t.  But I can live with that, it’s your skiing after all.

The tacit belief is that practice makes perfect. It doesn’t.  Any expert observation of a skiing piste with plenty of skiers on it, confirms that: though it fully supports paragraph two, above.

The reason is that practice does not make perfect: practice makes permanent.  Only perfect practice makes perfect. SeniorsSkiing contributor Pat McCloskey made that crystal clear with his video of Kristoffersen proving the point. The racer has a deep understanding of his subject and spends hours perfectly practicing his technique, to become more skillful at executing it. Practice is a process of habituation; the psychologists call it an “associative” phase of learning.

Skill is the learned ability to bring about pre-determined outcomes with maximum certainty, often with minimum effort. Accurately throwing an American football to a wide receiver is not a skill; watch me try it! It is a technique at which you can either be skillful or useless.  Guess which I am? Answers on a postcard to …..

And so to my main point: respondents made reference to all sorts of unfortunate mis-understandings which will perforce have constrained the respondents’ skill development. They may not care too much about skill development, but there was a sense of slight frustration. The sort of feeling that, “You know, I was hoping to improve on this year’s trip, but I came back at the end of the week no better than last year. Still, it was fun”.  A trace of disappointment.

Some examples of incorrect perceptions from those responses (please, I’m not picking on anybody!)  –

  • “Shifting your weight”: No, please no! I see this being taught today! Was that forward/back, or side to side?  Shifting your weight laterally will reduce the tilt on the ski.  It will obtain less resistance and may slip.
  • “Rotating the ski” (to ‘do’ a turn): It depends, but usually it’s better not to. It will work, sort of.  But what it is doing is commencing the new arc with a skid.  It’s better to end with a skid.
  • “Steering with the inside ski”: Don’t tell Kristoffersen that, it’ll kill him. Quite possibly the writer didn’t mean this. For stability, the snow resistance (steering force) needs to be obtained with the outside ski rather than a “leaning-in” toward the arc’s centre. Pressurizing the inside ski is destabilizing.
  • “Counter rotation”: An ancient and thoroughly mistaken and mistaken Austrian idea from the 40s and 50s that grew from faulty observation. (Which, incidentally grew from “watching and copying”!) My comments about this concept deserve a more extensive discussion. Basically the idea started as a misconception of what Austrian racers were doing and became a branded, “national” ski technique. More on this at another time.

Further reference made by a number of respondents was to “styles” of skiing. This is treacherous terrain. There is only ever one correct solution to a problem of physics. The idea of skiing “styles” is a marketing one, not a technical one. The skiing nations needed to try to differentiate what they were selling, from what the others were selling, and pretend it is (was) in some way superior.

Avalement was the French answer.

So, you got a “French style” of skiing, involving feet clamped together, swish the tails about by waggling your bum, keep your elbows near your torso and flick them “stylishly” behind you after your pole plant. Or the “Austrian style” involving clamped feet, skis across the mountain, and arms and torso twisted to face down the mountain. The “Italian style” involved (don’t know if it still does) a weird kind of extra bobbing up and down, immediately prior to any attempted direction change.  They all get you down the mountain, but not as well as you might.

Stein had ankles welded together and that famous Comma Position.

Mine is not a criticism of SeniorsSkiing respondents, they may well get from their skiing everything they want, and I hope they do. But all that (what I call) “instructor speak”, and potted short-cuts will not develop your skill as a skier – there are few short cuts to anywhere worth going.  My job was/is as a sports coach specializing in skill development, and in particular in recreational skiers.  I care about it.

11 Comments

  1. Avatar Roger Skugrud says:

    I enjoyed this article tremendously! As a 73 year old that grew up skiing in Minnesota., I found reminiscing of the quote-unquote styles of skiing extremely enjoyable. I started using the Surplus World War II wooden skis with bear trap bindings and hiking to the top of our local Hills. I devoured all the hints and instructions from the ski magazines. From the stem Christie, to modern techniques, I have skied them all and enjoy them while I was skiing. Developments in ski equipment has allowed changes in styles and made skiing much more enjoyable. One of my best breakthrough, came from about Harald harb approach. Putting the skis on edge and making carved turns down the hill is like being in heaven.

    • Roger
      I’m so pleased it brought you some enjoyment – especially in this ‘winter of discontent”. Thank you for saying so.
      Boy, I wish I was young again like you!
      Kind regards
      Bob T

  2. Avatar Dave Chambers says:

    Hey Bob I really liked your article. So true, so true. And yet I have never had a real ski lesson. Plenty of advice, but no structured ski class. But then no one taught me how to walk or run either; well not in a structured way, a formal lesson.
    I ski like Stein feet together always. European we call it. Its an old technique. This is not a criticism of your story. All are valid points and very well written BTW. Why do I ski like this when there is clearly a modern way that fits with the equipment now. Well I also have a pair of sunglasses from the 70’s I still wear, which may be some explanation.

    • Bruce
      I take your point. I still listen to the “wireless”, (not quite sure yet what a “radio” is) and in particular “The BBC Home Service” – which was originally the alternative to the “Empire Service”, and later “The Light Programme” ! I am not inclined to call them “Radio 4” and “Radio 1” etc.
      As for skiing – ski how you like, new materials and new understandings have not only made skiing relatively easy, but have opened up more effective ways to ski, in more types of conditions.
      Thanks for you nice comments.

    • Dave
      Sorry Dave, I called you Bruce! Apologies.
      You mentioned “walking”. That’s rather different – we are programmed to walk, we don’t need to learn it, though we do need to practice to get better at it. In fact you would have to tie a human child down to STOP them walking. It’s an instinct. Skiing isn’t.

    • Ditto, and 70’s gloves and k2 poles without straps

  3. I believe the length of skis had a great influence on how I initially learned to ski. When I started in the 50’s my skis were measured by stretching you arm up and having the tips of the skis touch your wrist. Therefore i was taught to stem crhistie. Finally when I witnessed youngsters skiing past me and executing quick turns with shorter skis I switched to keeping the skis together a la Stein Eriksen.. For my grand kids I paid for professional lessons and then had them practice by counting the number of turns they could do on the bunny slope. They are all back country skiers now!!!

    • Bruce
      The way ski lengths have changed, both up and down, caused us great amusement in Chamonix – supposed home of the “hard men” – in the tele-cabins.
      When your “hardness” was gauged by longer skis, you’d see folk standing the cabin sneakily putting their ski tails on top of their boots, and visibly shrinking themselves.
      When “short” became the new hardness signature, they changed to standing as tall as they could, and having their skis resting on the floor, and preferably at an angle!
      It has always seemed to me that the best way to select a ski that suits YOU is to try lots of them, take no notice of the numbers on them, and pick the pair that gave you the most confidence.
      As for “quick” turns, shorter skis are inherently easier to pivot, a lot of sidecut offers the possibility of arcs of shorter radius: the trade-off is that longitudinally they will be less stable. You may find them a bit twitchy in the off-piste.
      Thanks for your observations. Bonne Ski !
      Bob T

  4. So great to hear people reference Stein. It was said he could get in front of a camera with his hair combed before it clicked. Ever see him front flip over the outdoor deck in Aspen every day at noon? I have read that he was the first flipper and bear in mind the gear! Three golds in the 1953 Olympics. He was something. I “followed” him on a run off Seattle Ridge at Sun Valley in the 80’s. He was with a group whom he quickly out distanced. I kept far enough back so as not to be intrusive. The “bubble butt” and “coma shape” quickly gave way to skill that was impressive. I had to quit watching as he worked bumps. His thighs were thick as my waist. I needed to pay attention to my turns to avoid a real disaster. He had to have been in his 60’s. I was in my 30’s and completely out-classed by orders of magnitude. BTW I started 63 years ago at age four. RIP Stein.

  5. Avatar Victor Smith says:

    My love for skiing started around 1960-61 with one midweek night lesson for consecutive 5 weeks, depending on the snow. This learn to ski program was sponsored by the Ligonier Valley Library in Ligonier PA. We skied at Laurel Mountain Ski Area under the lights.

    I was 10 at the time and most likely just made it over the minimum age requirement. I can not begin to adequately describe the excitement and thrill it was to be included in this program. We were all taught by tall handsome Austrians who we could barely understand let alone follow their demonstrations or so called technique.

    After two seasons I made it to the Stem Christie and that was that for ski instruction. I thought, who needs more instruction, I can ski, I can ride all the lifts and I’m having a ball. I’m good to go. Or so I thought.

    After many many seasons of struggling I started to following the best of the best down the slopes at Laurel Mt., almost always without their knowledge. I eventually became an “good” skier. I took lots of people on ski trips out west and went on many ski outings in the northeast with groups of friends.

    All the time friends are asking me how do do this or can you help me with that. Of course I had know idea how to help and could barely explain what I was doing.

    My my personal skiing breakthrough came a bit late in my life about 50 something, when I was asked to be a Laurel Mt Ski Instructor. There I learned how to teach the basics. I you take teaching first time skiers seriously you cant just be able to look good skiing like I did. You must know to ski, how to explain it clearly in simply terms and of course you must be able to demonstrate correctly.

    Once I had that ability my upper end skiing improved greatly. I no longer instruct but when my ski buddy, who was also an instructor, and I ski together the talk up the lift isn’t about much else but all the different “techniques” involved in becoming a very good skier.

    To close and add my two cents to the how to ski discussion, There is no one style to skiing. It is a blend of your knowledge, instruction, experience and your ability to apply all that that entails to the condition of what ever slope you are fortunate enough to be going down.

  6. I learned to ski in the 60s in an every Saturday lesson and free ski program at Kelly Canyon, Idaho. Long skis, tie up boots, stem Christies! I somehow picked up a bunny hop in my turn, took me a few lessons on shorter skis to get rid of that. I always loved skiing, but the first time I tried the Elan parabolic (1990?) I was in heaven! Love that easy carve!

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