What the Heck is Handle Control?

Most slalom skiers have heard the term “handle control” thrown around, but there is frequent misunderstanding, or sometimes a complete lack of understanding, about what handle control really is and why it is important. I will attempt to explain my views on handle control and why I believe it is the single most important aspect of short line slalom skiing.

Let’s start with some basics: I define handle control as keeping the handle in close to the body and maintaining a solid ‘connection’ between the handle and your center of mass at all times. Try to visualize a short piece of steel cable tied to your navel on one end and the handle on the other. What makes this connection so critical is that it determines how efficiently you take the pull from the rope and turn it into speed.

Next, its important to understand the evolution of slalom theory over the last 20 years. It used to be accepted that the purpose of the preturn was to slow down before making the turn. For a whole host of reasons, slalom theory has evolved over the years where it is more important to maintain speed into and out of the turn. This really shows up as the rope gets short and it becomes more difficult to advance on the boat as you approach the buoy. Keeping the handle in close and maintaining handle control in the preturn is critical to advance on the boat at 38 and 39. I believe this is the single biggest factor separating the 39 off skiers from the 35 and 38 off skiers.

Handle control through the wakes yields power and speed to the next buoy. Off side lean - Handle control worthy of a Big Dawg

Most decent slalom skiers can keep the handle in close through the wakes, but start to lose control between the wakes and full extension in the preturn. Letting the handle out in the preturn causes the skier to lose speed, which in turn means less width, frequently causing the upper body to break forward and the ski to stop at the completion of the turn.

Elbows close to body are key to keeping the pull going to the center of mass. Also note the slight angulation between upper and lower body. Darn near as good as it gets – you can almost see that steel cable between the navel and handle.

Why is it important? There are several reasons that keeping the handle close is important:

1) As the handle comes away early, the upper body will break forward slightly and the outside shoulder gets pulled in, putting you out of optimum body position and frequently making the ski go flat.

Just barely on the turning edge, but the arms are out - resulting in the rope pulling on the shoulders rather than the center of mass. Note the outside shoulder getting pulled toward the boat. Arms out in the preturn - that steel cable has turned into a bungee cord.

2) When you release the handle, the amount of 'control' you maintain is reduced. Some skiers even get into what could be described as a 'free fall' state when they reach. Holding the handle in close longer, allows your reach to be shorter in time, which reduces the amount of time you are in a 'reduced control' state.

3) Most importantly, keeping the handle in close maintains tension on the rope, which means the boat is still pulling on you. Without getting into F=ma, when there is tension on the rope between the second wake and buoy, you won't be slowing down as much as if you let the handle out and reduce tension on the rope, i.e. you will carry more speed. More speed means more width on the boat.

Handle Control means maintaining a solid ‘connection’ between the handle and your center of mass. Visualize a steel cable between your navel and handle.

Ok, so how do you maintain handle control in the preturn?

There is a plethora of techniques that skiers use and most all of them have the same goal. Among the better keys are:

1. Squeeze both elbows close to the body during the edge change

2. Keep the outside elbow (right going into 1/3/5) close to the body and maintain pressure on that outside arm as long as possible

3. Push the trailing hip (left going into 1/3/5) toward shore

4. Do a sideways crunch – going into 1/3/5, bring right shoulder closer to right hip

5. Consciously pull the handle in and up (bicep intensive) – be very careful to keep the upper body up and not break forward

6. Do an ‘arm tuck’, forcing the inside arm (left going into 1/3/5) in close to the body

An astute reader will note that these are all different descriptions for the same motion.

But what about the edge change?

Ah, yes, the all important edge change. Many skiers try to focus on getting a “good edge change”, almost always neglecting proper body position. It is more important to think of the edge change as a result of proper body position and handle control, rather than an action in itself. In other words, if you execute proper handle control, the edge change will happen automatically.

Trying to keep handle close, but the boat is winning. Note outside shoulder being pulled in and body very straight (not angulated). Not bad, but pull coming from shoulders

The result:

Ok, so now you have successfully maintained the handle close to your body, achieved adequate width, the ski is well onto its turning edge, and you are finally ready to start the reach. There are several very important things you can do now, that you would not have been able to do had you let the handle out earlier:

1. The reach can be smooth, going out and back in at the same speed.

2. The upper body will be up and counter-rotated

3. Speed will be maintained into and out of the turn

4. The hookup will be smooth with body position ready to lean

You can still see that steel cable between the navel and handle. Even at full extension, the control and connection are still there

* Photos courtesy of Schnitz.

** The pictures shown here are all of very good skiers. Some pictures show excellent technique and body position, while others show subtle mistakes. It is the point where the mistakes catch up with us that determine the score.