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Stance and Functional Tension

Or, Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes

by Mike Hancock, USSA Certified Coach

I’m going to start this article with a great big obvious statement:

Skiing is a dynamic sport

I can already see your eyes glaze over with boredom. We all know this, at least at a conceptual level. Yet how many of us stiffen up when we ski, trying to get into the “right position” so we can “make” our skis turn. We try to consciously do too many things at once, and end up with something that falls short of our expectations. Throw some plastic poles in front of us and it only gets worse. I’m surprised more of us don’t end up in the B netting, but when you ski rigid you can only go so fast.
The key is to use just enough muscle tension to get the job done while remaining loose enough to react to changing conditions. Functional tension, if you will. You aren’t going to get there focusing on 10 things at once. You’ll just end up sequentially locking down contrived poses while you struggle to “fix” whatever else is on your laundry list of technical errors. Instead, focus on one (or two, if you’re really good) key points each run and hammer those points home before you move on to other pressing matters.
Unlike a lot of coaches, I tend to teach top-down instead of ground up. While obviously what happens where the skis meet the snow is the real goal, what happens between your ears directly impacts how you drive your skis. So, in my backwards fashion, here are a few focal points you can use to tune up your skiing:
Head and eyes: We’ve all heard coaches and instructors tell us to look ahead, but often I see skiers with their heads down, looking up with only their eyes. That severely limits their peripheral vision, their ability to quickly change focus, and creates unnecessary tension in the neck. Instead, lift your chin and allow your eyes to stay in a more neutral and relaxed position. I’ll often pick a fixed object (or series of fixed objects) down the slope and keep my eyes on them as I make sweeping turns down the hill. I allow my peripheral vision and memory to take care of the terrain ahead of me, since once it’s underfoot it’s already too late to react to.
Eyes are critical to developing a go-there attitude. Have you ever noticed that if you look to the side of the road while driving, your car will often drift that direction? The body wants to go where the eyes are pointing, and if your eyes are looking down at the snow right in front of you, that’s about as far as your body feels like it needs to go. It may even decide that it’s in the way, and move backwards so your view of your ski tips won’t be obstructed. Focus forward and your body will want to move forward.
Shoulders and Arms: Another common bit of instruction is to get your arms up. Up is relative, and what you often get is stiff, “Frankenstein” arms, which lock up the upper body and prevent it from enhancing balance. Instead, I like to imagine I’m standing in a swimming pool and then I allow my arms to naturally “float” up in front of me. Ideally, my elbows will have an easy, natural bend, and if my chin is up my hands are clearly visible in the bottom of my goggle lenses. 
My mantra is “keep your elbows in front of your bellybutton”. First off, saying bellybutton is just fun. Try it. It makes me giggle. Secondly, focusing on moving your elbows forward naturally moves your hands forwards without reaching and locking the elbows. You just have more flexibility to react.
As we move into the top of the turn and our skis start to move out from under our body, we usually start to incline towards the inside and move more weight onto our inside ski. Generally this develops into what is commonly referred to as a “banked turn”, and on a firm course will usually result in your skis sliding sideways (sometimes taking you with them). To counteract that, level your shoulders to redistribute weight to the outside ski as you flow into the apex of the turn. You will find that you can adjust the weight distribution between the skis by making this simple lateral move, and with experience you can adjust for speed and varying snow conditions. Some people find lifting and extending the inside hand helps to level the shoulders. Keep them loose, keep them level.
Hips: It’s all in the hips. One of my favorite USSA Juniors coaches spends a lot of time working with his athletes on hip position, and for good reason. You can’t effectively bend the front of your skis if your hips are behind your heelpieces. As Lolly Moss used to say to me, “keep your bellybutton in front of your boots”. As I get older and my waistline expands, this gets easier and easier, but the advice still is valid. Move your hips forward and into the turn and I’m at least 63% sure your skis will follow.
Knees: I use a lot less outside knee angulation than I did years ago, although sometimes I still cheat a bit from time to time. It isn’t the strongest way to stack your bones, but sometimes I feel the need. However, driving the inside knee forward and into the turn (sounds like a common theme, doesn’t it?) is a focal point that works for many people trying to break the “A frame” stance and develop a more active role for the inside ski. Don’t get me wrong, the outside ski is still the dominant stance ski, but having the inside tracking neatly alongside it makes for a smoother turn transition and gives you another edge to fall back on if the outside ski loses grip. You paid for four edges, so you might as well use them.
Ankles and toes: If you’re forward, you will feel pressure on the tongues of your boots. To get this pressure, some people like to flex the ankles or lift the toes into the top of the boots. Either way, make sure your hips are forward. Hips to the rear + flexed ankles = sitting down.
Finally, a great focal point to keep the hips forward and pressure on the front of your boots is to pull the inside foot back. If your inside ski tip is too far ahead of your outside ski tip, your hips will naturally move back, you will lose pressure on the boot tongues, your weight will be primarily on the inside ski, and your outside ski will track off on it’s own path. You decide where the skis should go, so pull that foot back and get back in the driver’s seat.
There’s no perfect way to ski, and no hard and fast rules about what works and what doesn’t. Bode is a prime example of this. What might be right for you may not be right for some. It takes different strokes… Wait… That was a bad ‘80s flashback. What I’m trying to say is that there are certain fundamentals that will help you ski cleaner and with less effort, which will lead to faster times on the race course. Once these fundamentals are fully integrated into your skiing, you can experiment with technical and tactical tweaks to squeeze the extra tenths out of the course that often mean the difference between a medal and a “better luck next time”.
Ski fast and have fun.