Water Ski Confusion…

Water Ski Confusion… Article By Seth Stisher


Let me start off by saying, I love waterskiing! There, I said it. At one time or another, I have considered it my favorite sport, my hobby, my fitness outlet, my addiction, my job, my passion, my career, and probably a host of other things. While it has been and still is most of those things, the truth is, it is my life! I am and will be a lifelong waterskier. No quitting because I start losing my skills or giving it up because my body aches, or getting bored with it. I truly love it.

Along with that, comes the people in the sport. By and large they are all great. As a group, I consider us a friendlier than average group of people. Of course, there are jerks out there like there are in any walk of life and there are those great people that are often misunderstood as jerks. There are know-it-alls, waterski geeks, guys who won’t stop asking fin questions despite their own shortcomings, and much much more. But I would say the great people I have met worldwide all help make the sport as great as it is.

What does this have to do with the article title? Well, maybe nothing, but it is a great explanation for the tone of my article if at any point it comes across as pompass, offensive, aggressive, opinionated, or any other term that describes the person I try not to be (although certainly I know at times I can be each of these things).

So, without further adieu, I will step up onto my soap box and throw my thoughts at you:

My Two Cents on some of the Confusion

As a coach and skier, I have heard a limitless number of ways to describe the latest and greatest trends, tips, techniques, methods, and concepts in the waterski world as I am sure most of you have as well. I have occasionally thrown my two cents into discussions on message boards and at times I feel like I stand on my soap box a bit too much when coaching. So consider this article (should you choose to read past this point) my therapy and a way to get all of this out of my system.

Countered when off the handle-Nate Smith

There are so many theories on what is right and what is wrong as far as the correct way to slalom ski. I’m sure this same thing occurs in any sport. I even remember reading articles in Golf Digest (when I thought I might stand a chance of being a decent golfer on the side) where the tips in one article seemed to contradict the tips in another article of the magazine. I can only assume it’s a universal problem.

Let me give you an example in waterskiing. 10 years ago, one of the biggest buzz words was “Trailing Arm”. Now, because of a few articles and videos and the ability for tips and instruction to pass from one skier to the next so rapidly, people argue when you mention the concept of trailing arm pressure.

Another example is the concept of the crossover with other sports. The most notable of these is snow-skiing. People constantly ask, “Is it the same?” or make statements of how they believe the two are very different. The answer (in my humble opinion) is that there is not a cut and dry answer. There are phases of skiing where our movements are based around the basic physics of athletic movement and where we are merely a dead weight swinging on a pendulum. Certainly is not identical to snow skiing or any other sport, but we can use analogies to other sports and activities to explain certain elements of waterskiing.

Aligned with rope in the cut-Terry Winter

So, what is the truth? The answer in most cases is that there is no single truth. In the example above, both can be effective and valuable depending on what you currently do, what phase of the slalom course you are referring to, etc. There are many other examples of this type of confusing and conflicting information. The broad answer is that coaching and tips are really SKIER-SPECIFIC. But then that still leaves most people wondering how to approach their own skiing when they can’t take a sabbatical to a waterski school or have a coach stop by. Below I have a quick and basic guide to how I believe slalom skiing works. These aren’t specific tips, yet a general idea of the physics at work so you can perhaps attempt to put the tips into the overall picture and make some assessments yourself about your next step with your skiing.

Simple Insight Into Our Sport

These things we know to be true regarding slalom course skiing:

• We must at least “act” as athletes when we ride our ski

• We accumulate buoys/points when the ski rounds a buoy

• The boat travels a constant speed on a predetermined straight path

• We round buoys on opposite sides of the boat in succession

• The rope has a fixed length on each pass

• The boat is the guiding force that allows us to build the momentum to swing back and forth/side to side

If you disagree with any of these “truths”, please stop reading and consider me a coach that you would never want to work with.

Based on these truths, there are several things we must accomplish in our skiing. Some of these things include:

1. Stand on our skis in a way that limits the amount of drag on the ski so as not to waste energy

2. Find a way to athletically create a direction change on our skis

3. Accomplish this number two concept in a way that doesn’t create so much pressure that our bodies can not maintain the pressure

4. Allow the pressure created by the direction change created in task number 2 to carry us in that direction based on the pull of the boat (if you stay balanced on the ski, the ski designer has accomplished this step for you in most cases)

5. Find an effective way to move out of this pressurized position without losing the speed and direction you worked so intelligently to create

6. Repeat the above steps

That’s not so complicated is it? Well, some of you may think so, so let me say it a different way:

Stand balanced on the ski and shift your body mass in the direction you want to go so that the ski begins to turn. Then stand in a position that allows you to HARNESS (not fight) the pull of the boat so that it’s force creates acceleration in the direction your ski is pointed. Allow this force and acceleration to swing you from one side of the boat to the other, while you carefully coax the ski into changing directions at the peak of each swing.

Of course that sounds kind of simplified I guess, but that really is it. The confusion comes when you try to create hard and fast rules for what makes these things work most effectively. Here are a few principles that I think may open your eyes.

Body Orientation (countered, closed, or face the tip of the ski?:

While off the handle (from the beginning of the reach to the finish of the turn), this term should make sense relative to athletics and making an athletic direction change. In athletics, direction change (while maintaining speed) is accomplished by slightly countering away from the desired direction of travel such that the athlete’s body mass maintains pressure on the inside of the turn and therefore doesn’t create force in the wrong direction.

Trailing Arm Pressure yet skiing through lead arm-Chris Parrish

While on the handle (swinging behind the boat), by aligning the spine of the athlete with the force acting on it (the boat), the athlete is best using his or her structural strength to harness the energy of the boat and most effectively transfer that energy to his or her ski.

The catch is that there are two moments where these two phases overlap. As you finish the turn and as your transition out into your glide, it is very easy to get confused on where your body should face. The simple answer as you finish the turn is that as long as you don’t over-rotate your body through the turn, you will ski back into a position that is both “countered” relative to the ski and the turn, and also aligned with the pull coming form the pylon of the boat. Through the transition, I believe a good rule of thumb is that you can follow the attitude of the ski. By this I mean that as long the ski is still on the cutting edge, you will continue to face the pylon, but as the ski starts to move out into the glide and therefore onto the turning edge, you will begin to counter away from the turning edge of the ski very progressively to prepare for the next turn.

Arm Pressure

Much like the body orientation, pressure on each arm changes throughout the course. In its simplest form, it follows the same basic principles as body orientation. As you hook up to the handle at the finish of the turn, you will have more pressure on your leading arm, but as you approach the center of the wakes and, in essence, get closer to being directly behind the direction of the force from the boat, you will add more and more pressure to the trailing arm, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that you will be giving up any pressure on your leading arm. The net force on you from the boat (based on the direction your ski is pointed versus the direction the boat is heading) increases as you approach the center of the boat. The addition of pressure on the trailing arms is how you can resist the boat without getting into a position you can’t move out of. This also helps you keep your body aligned with the pylon/force that’s towing you.

Now, as you cross the centerline, it is important to keep pressure on the trailing arm so that the lower body can effectively swing through to allow the skier to cast/swing out past the buoy line on an early efficient path. This is also where there is a lot of confusion because there is much current buzz that suggests that you should be heavy on the leading arm during the transition. The leading arm can not give up pressure through the transition or the skier will automatically get pulled down course. In order to continue outbound, the skier must attempt to continue to ski out against the leading arm which is where the concept of leading arm pressure comes from. This still can’t be interpreted as maintaining a lean on the leading arm. There is a transfer of pressure even through the transition such that when the outside arm (previously referred to as leading arm) is released from the handle, there is no sudden loss of connection with the boat.

Honestly, I could go on and on, but I think this is a good start to get you thinking. Please let me know if you have any questions or thoughts on all of this. You can email me anytime.

–Seth Stisher