By Dan Balkin
Some words, phrases and questions just stick with me – my response is instantaneous and I never have to hear them twice. Some examples are: Honey, time for dinner; What brand of single malt scotch can I pour for you; Would you like another Christmas cookie; Powder.
I must admit, however, that the long summer hibernation between ski seasons is sometimes problematic for me. I always say I am going to write my skiing epiphanies down from the previous season – but I never do. I usually feel like I am floundering around the first few weeks of the winter to return to a point where the skiing sensations and feelings I had captured the season before return.
That said, I recently was thumbing through the latest edition of Ski Magazine, which ran a feature article about ski instruction. There are dozens of really nifty tips from instructors far and wide, but the only instructor with an entire page devoted to his pearls of wisdom was Mike Rogan. Mike who?
If you do not run in instructor circles, Mike Rogan is not a household name. Mike is the captain of the PSIA Instructor Demo Team. Translation: When it comes to ski instruction – and expert skiing – he is the crème de la crème.
You might pause and say – “OK – but are these men and women – and Mike Rogan in particular – really in the league of Ted Ligety, Lindsay Vaughn or Bode Miller? Not in ski racing – no one will dispute that.
But if you believe that expert skiing consists of being able to ski steep icy moguls, windblown crud and any other challenging terrain and conditions a mountain can throw at you with perfect form and grace – you have found your models. To put it in perspective, D-Team members – especially the captains – have been asked to work with U.S. Ski Team athletes as coaches. Some of our U.S. Ski team downhillers completed a PSIA on snow skills seminar last year and were very impressed by what they learned.
So what did Mike say was his favorite ski tip? It was simple: don’t make ski turns with your upper body. He said that rotating your upper body to make a ski turn will generally serve only one purpose – to throw you out of balance. Conversely, he said that your lower body is connected closer with your skis, and we should concentrate on turning our lower body while skiing.
When I saw this tip I smiled. I can’t compare my skiing skills to those of Mike Rogan – but last year I wrote an article with the exact same tip. Hence this article’s title: A Twice-Told Tale. I reckoned that if Mike Rogan cited this as his favorite ski tip, it was worth repeating.
In terms of skiing, your lower body is everything from the ball joints in your hip sockets to the bottom of your feet. The ball joints in your hips must be able to rotate (in the direction you are turning) along with your legs and feet to make high-level ski turns. By contrast, your upper body consists of your hips, torso, shoulders, head and arms. Try this at home to feel the sensation: twist your legs and feet simultaneously in both directions without moving your upper body (hips or shoulders). By turning your lower body without turning your upper body, you are experiencing one of the hallmarks of advanced skiing “UPPER and LOWER BODY SEPARATION.”
If you are reading this in the Gin Mill right now – go for it anyway. The guy at the corner of the bar with the big bushy beard and the T-Shirt that reads Farm/Eat/Sleep/Repeat – is a friend of mine. He will actually nod in approval at your dry-land ski training.
The Problem: To paraphrase Clinton’s 1992 election motto: “It’s the pole plant, stupid.” Watch from the chair lift and let the scales fall from your eyes. Many – indeed most – skiers lose their upper and lower body separation when they plant their ski pole. If you carefully observe, you will note that most skiers rotate their right arm up the hill just before they plant their right ski pole, and vice-versa to the left. Even many advanced skiers fall into this trap – and I always have to really concentrate early in the season not to do it. In fact, I was doing it the first few days of the season until the greatest instructor I know, Ward Wilson, gently pointed out the error of my ways.
The Solution: Quite simply, don’t let your downhill hand rotate/wander uphill just before you plant your ski pole. Did you ever see the exercise where instructors or coaches have their students grab the center of their ski poles and then hold them up vertically directly in front of them? The ski trainers then have the students turn their legs without turning their hands or hips. Think about it – in this exercise, the hands and hips are always orientated in the same direction – DOWN the hill.
Essentially, this is what Mike Rogan is driving at. We can, and should and, indeed, must turn our skis without turning our upper body if we want to stay in balance. Anything less may cause the earth to wobble on its axis with unforeseen consequences. Fortunately for humankind, however, apres ski restores the celestial balance. So don’t despair – there is an antidote even if it takes us awhile to get that pesky pole plant under control.