This season I went to New Zealand to train for the CSIA Level 4 with renown trainers Jonathan Ballou J.F. Beaulieu and Rilly McGlashan through a company called Rookie Academy. It was my first time traveling to the southern hemisphere and skiing the opposite season. Why travel 13,000km for ski training you might ask. Well part of it is the callibre of trainers I had the opportunity to work with, part of it was the experience of skiing in New Zealand and a whole lot of it had to do with my complete inability to cope psychologically with six months off snow.
Mother nature kindly delivered a bomber storm the week before my arrival and that snow stayed perfect for the duration of my three week training course. This was incredibly fortunate because just a couple weeks prior the mountains in New Zealand were bare. I trained at Treble Cone mountain just outside Wanaka, a little shredders paradise with views so stunning you become convinced you have died and gone to heaven.
My first week of training was with Jonathan Ballou from Aspen Snowmass who is kind of a big deal in the Ski Instructing world. This is partially due to his impressive resume which includes PSIA Alpine Team, PSIA L3 Examiner, PSIA Alpine Committee Chair, PSIA Children’s Examiner, NZSIA L3 Examiner and NZSIA Ski Division Committee (Education Coordinator). Additionally Jonathan happens to be one of the most talented teachers I have ever trained with.
Prior to attending Rookie Academy I had watched a lot of promotional video of Jonathan along with JF & Reilly. My thoughts when watching video of Jonathan were, ‘man this guy can lay it over… ho-le-shit!’ Jonathan has been a ski instructor since age 14. I got to meet his absolutely adorable dad, professor Dave, on this trip. Dave was formerly a university professor of molecular bioscience and still wears his university name tag on his ski jacket.
One really cute thing Dave said that he and Jonathan started skiing the same year but Jonathan got a lot better at it. Dave was pretty darn good also especially when you take into account he had to make a massive comeback after a mountain biking injury that left him paralyzed in hospital for two weeks. That story, Dave told me, on the terrifying bus ride down from Treble Cone. It was a small sample of the grit and tenacity that runs in that family.
Jonathan has dedicated his entire life to not just mastering the sport of skiing but to understanding the underlying physics, biomechanics and even the neuroscience behind learning how to master skiing. This gives him a depth of knowledge that is unprecedented in the industry. This is how he was able to help me dramatically improve my skiing in a very short period of time.
A lot of trainers I have worked with dismiss anatomy kinesiology education as excessive for the purposes of teaching skiing. Having formal training in these subjects from my college dance program and yoga teacher trainings I have always disagreed with this sentiment but was very much alone in my opinion. Meeting Jonathan validated the potential of using science in ski teaching. His communication about how to move wasn’t just clear, it was exact and measured out in pace with student comprehension, of which he had a very impressive read.
Once I experienced the target outcome of powerful, carved, high performance turns, I suddenly understood a couple metaphors other trainers have been using to try to convey how they wanted me to move. I shared these insights with Jonathan and he was brutally honest about how much he dislikes metaphors as a means to communicate about movement. His reason being they are simply not specific enough to avoid being misconstrued. Actually, I am exaggerating that point a little bit for dramatic effect. I would ask the reader to entertain my flamboyance to the end of this post and then read Jonathan's clarifying remarks below.
The truth is a metaphor, by definition, is something that is ‘like’ the sensation or concept you are trying to convey. Like may be ball park similar but it is not the same as the target sensation or concept therefore metaphor can only get you so close to the goal, the rest you need to figuring out on your own through trial and error experimentation. Needless to say trainers employing a metaphor based loose guiding approach are likely not going to get results faster than the student has time to experiment, begging the question, ‘who is doing the training?’ Metaphors are also widely open to misinterpretation and as such can quickly become a liability rather than a tool when teaching.
A metaphor that has trapped me in a maladaptive movement pattern for a long time is the peddling a bicycle metaphor when referring to the use of the lower joints in advanced / expert parallel turns. The metaphor suggests that the outside leg extends at the same time the inside leg flexes. I learned from Jonathan this is not exactly true. The inside leg needs to start flexing first, just a fraction of a second earlier than the outside leg extending. It sounds like a difference so subtle as to be inconsequential but it is anything but. If flexing the inside leg leads, weight shifts to the outside ski in a way that promotes rock solid balance. The outside leg then extends as a result of the ski traveling on an arc and the muscles of that leg engage just enough to resist the forces acting on the skis and skier. The result is seemingly effortless power & performance.
If you try to do what the bicycle metaphor suggests you should do, i.e. flex the inside leg and extend the outside leg at the same time, you will push your outside foot (BOS) away from your centre (COM) and your weight will fall on the inside ski. This hopeless misalignment will forever prevent you from achieving cleanly aligned high performance carved turns because you will be out of balance relying on the skis side cut to catch your falling mass at the bottom of each turn. At speed the pressure resulting from this will be too much to manage. It will feel effortful and extra movements will be required to tighten up the radius of the turn like rolling the lower joints or rotating the pelvis.
One of the very first things Jonathan said to me was that good skiing is incredibly simple and yet very very difficult to do. He was totally right. It is difficult to do because we have a lot of preconceived notions deeply engrained old patterns that need to be abandoned in favour of new ideas and movement patterns. Jonathan taught us in one of our evening lectures that movement patterns are never lost. The old adage, like riding a bike - you never really forget, illustrates this point well. We don’t loose old movement patterns, we simply choose to abandon them in favour of new more efficient movement patterns which over time will become automatic. However, if we are tired, scared or out of our depth we can slip back into old habits very easily.
Because new movements are very difficult to pattern Jonathan did not just say, flex the inside leg. Over the course of four training days he rolled out a very systematic and detailed progression of small movements from the ground up that lead to developing what he called strong inside half. It was the how to details of flexing the inside leg to create balance on the outside ski. A strong inside half gave me a tantalizing sample of what the skiing I admire so much in my trainers feels like.
I am going to close with a metaphor but I hope I have made crystal clear why the metaphor is going to be inadequate. For a more in-depth understanding of the sensation I will attempt to communicate about through metaphor you need to train with Jonathan and experience it for yourself. Suffice it to say, a strong inside half was like trading the dodgy handling and sluggish acceleration of a Ford Festiva for a supercharged V8 Mercedes Benz SLR McLaren. I had been handed the keys but still needed to learn how to drive it. For that JF enters the story during week two.
Clarifying comments from Jonathan:
Hey, This is great, and thank you very much for the kind words. If I can make one suggestion, I would stay away from some of the absolutes in the post. I agree with everything there, however not in absolute form. Sometimes we do flex and extend our legs in opposition at the same time, and sometimes we may extend our new outside legs before the flexing the old one. These are not "go to" movements or absolute truths. More often what you have very accurately described is what we would like to do. Regarding metaphors, I do not absolutely dislike them. They have their place. As you say, when used well, they help a student get a little closer to what something may feel like. "may feel like is the operative term. We can not express exact feelings as that feelings, and how we visualize movements for that matter, are unique to each person. I can tell you what I feel or how I visualize, but that may have little, or no meaning to you. Megaphones and analogies are fine, so long as they are used to support more accurate, but simple, descriptions as needed. I hope that helps. The article is great as written, please feel free to disregard my suggestions if you wish.
Christine Davidson is a Ski Instructor, Yoga Teacher and Peak Performance Coach on a mission to make humans awesome!