Staying Open

When the “new school of slalom” fad came out a few years back, there were some key similarities identified between snow skiing and waterskiing that few people had previously bothered to consider. Many of these were contrary to the established “proper” slalom technique, but on analysis, proved to be very valid and effective when applied to slalom.

I believe the most important, and most overlooked similarity is that the snowskier tries to keep his upper body constantly facing downhill while letting his hips and knees do all the work in turning. Similarly, the slalom skier should keep his upper body always facing squarely downcourse. The fundamental basis is stability of balance which leads to efficiency of movement – keeping the ski(s) moving instead of stopping. Applying this concept to the slalom course is equally valid – and makes several other key body alignments fall into place.

Shoulders facing downhill, eyes and shoulders level. Note how well balanced this skier looks.

Photo 1. The snowskier's upper body is still and the hips/knees are doing the work.

Keep it simple. Many skiers get to the end of the lake and start thinking “….ok, knees bent, hips up, counter-rotate in the preturn, don’t overturn, handle in, quick edge change……” Human beings under the best circumstances can only focus on 3-5 things at one time. Under stress, this gets reduced to 1-2 things at best. Keeping the shoulders facing downcourse is a single key that makes it natural for other critical motions to fall in to place:

  • Still upper body, with all the motion from the hips down

One of the most important things any athlete can do is be able to focus on a single key, rather than a laundry list of things to try to do.

  • Counter-rotation happens automatically – the ski and hips turn while the shoulders stay in the same direction.

  • Eyes and shoulders can naturally stay level

  • The turn is initiated and followed through with the hips and knees

  • The skier's weight stays more centered on the ski instead of shifting forward and back

Figure 1. “Ideal skier path” with shoulders always facing downcourse. Note the automatic counter-rotation in the pre-turn.

It doesn’t matter what label someone tries to put on a skier’s style - keeping the shoulders facing downcourse is efficient skiing position.

Photo 2. From an overhead view, this skier's shoulders would be almost perfectly square with the course.

About as square to the course as you can get.

Photo 3. Shoulders still and ready to drop the hip in.

Counter-rotation in the preturn can just as easily be described as keeping the shoulders facing downcourse.

Photo 4. Eyes and shoulders level, facing downcourse

The completion of the turn is where keeping the shoulders still has huge benefits. Turning the shoulders through the turn will typically overturn the ski and put the ski in a stopping position. Ever blow out the tail on an offside turn? Its a safe bet the shoulders turned and dropped. Ever wheelie on either side? Usually caused by the shoulders turning toward the wakes. Even without the revenge of Zero-off, the turn and stop will almost always result in overloading and the arms getting pulled out away from the body. Keeping the shoulders facing downcourse through the turn keeps the weight centered on the ski and puts the ski in an accelerating position.

Photo 5. Near perfect on-side pre-turn.

When the shoulders turn, the weight distribution on the ski shifts – either to the front or tail on the offside and usually to the tail on the onside. Both of these put the ski in a stopping position.

Photo 6. Big mistake - turning the shoulders shifts the weight to the back of the ski and puts the ski in a 'turn and stop' position. Keeping the shoulders facing downcourse puts the ski in a 'turn and accelerate' position.

Note how the right hip is driving toward the wakes.

Photo 7. Shoulders open, eyes level, and weight balanced on the ski – ready to accelerate.

So why does anyone turn the shoulders away to begin with? In the old days of carbureted 240Hp boats with 3 blade props, a strong skier could win the tug-of-war with the boat by turning and loading. Compounding this was the fact that the old skis didn't turn like they do today, so it took conscious effort and major body movement to force the ski to turn. So “turn and load” was the proven technique of the day. With today’s boats and speed controls, even the strongest skier will lose that tug-of-war. The result is arms out, breaking forward and way too much upper body motion. Also, compared to the skis of 20 years ago, most of today's skis turn by themselves with only slight input from the skier.

Perception vs reality. Its important to understand the psychology involved with this tool. In much the same way that we try to achieve a perfect 90 degree angle across course when the overhead photo shows a much different reality, the key is to feel that the shoulders are not moving and always facing downcourse, even if in reality they are turning slightly away. The important part is to begin feeling how the hips are moving - even subtle motions can have big effects.

Keeping the shoulders constantly facing downcourse is not the end goal – its a tool to keep the upper body still, the hips and knees doing the real work, and the weight balanced over the ski.

If the head/eyes tilt, there is no way to keep the shoulders level. The weight will shift to either the tip or tail resulting in the 'turn and stop' position.

Photo 8. Old habits die hard – note the left hip dropping behind.

Even at slow speeds, proper body position is important. Note how the left hip is driving toward the wakes for continuous movement out of the turn.

Photo 9. Eyes and shoulders level, weight balanced and leading with the left hip.

Visual Aids: As with most techniques, it is valuable to have visual examples of the “correct” way. Terry Winter and Wim Decree are the 2 skiers I've seen who best demonstrate shoulders always facing downcourse. I couldn't find any decent photos showing this, but there are several videos of these 2 on the web that are worth detailed study. It is also very enlightening to watch the kids – as long as some well intentioned, but misguided, adult never tells the kids to “turn your shoulders away and look across”, they naturally keep the shoulders downcourse and turn with their hips. Over the past several years, I have been truly amazed at the technique some of the up and coming kids exhibit. They keep the eyes level, counter-rotate, turn with the hips, and carry speed out of the turn worthy of the best pro-level technicians. While it can be difficult to change years of engrained habits, keeping the shoulders constantly facing downcourse is a foundation that makes the other subtleties much easier to adopt.

90% of the game being half mental is just as true in water skiing as baseball

While the body mechanics are important, the more overlooked effect is totally subconscious. We as human beings spend 99+% of our waking hours with our head/eyes pretty much level. This gets deeply engrained as “normal, stable, and comfortable”. When you tilt your head/eyes, even if the rest of your body is straight up, your brain now perceives an unstable, abnormal situation. Translated into slalom terms, when your head tilts, your subconscious perceives an unstable, out of control, and faster situation. In this situation, an athlete is much more susceptible to panic, mistakes or other undesirable thoughts. When the head/eyes are level, your brain perceives a pretty much normal situation – stable, in control, and slower - even if the rest of your body is leaning over. To summarize, keeping the shoulders open (downcourse) results in:

  • Better balance on the ski

  • Smooth acceleration out of the turn

  • A stronger leaning position that you can hold (less tendency to buckle at the wakes)

  • Easier to maintain handle control on the edge change and preturn

  • The edge change and turn will both happen with the hips and knees, not the upper body

  • Counter-rotation is automatic

  • Much easier to keep the eyes and shoulders level

As with all efforts to learn new technique, it is critical to get the correct position engrained on your easier passes. When the speed goes up and rope gets short, technique falls apart for the best of them. Don’t wait for your hardest pass to try this – practice it over and over on easy passes until it becomes natural.