Saturday, July 2, 2011

How to improve each and every ski season

I like using the weakest link principle to plan for improvement. In our time-crunched society, focusing attention on the weakest link (or greatest limitation) provides the biggest gains in overall performance. That's simple enough.

Although it could satisfy the ego to spend time working in areas in which we are already strong, this does little to improve our performance in the long-term. In fact, as our weaker areas become weaker, we create a bigger and bigger imbalance, and injuries and dissatisfaction are likely to result. Stroking the ego = downward spiral in long-term performance and health.

I recently reviewed some video movement analysis of skiers I've worked with to identify their weakest links and areas of improvement. I tried to consider overall fitness, health, and conditioning. I saw a wide range of performance and I speculated on the potential for these skiers given their current approach to fitness and their sport. I was able to separate the pack into three groups:
  • Lower quality movement and underpowered. With this group, I am referring to general ability to move in life as well as sport. The skiers in this group were nearing the upper limit of their possible skill level. Watching the videos in slow-motion, it was fairly obvious that they were limited by their strength, stability, and posture. These underpowered and less-stable athletes need work to move better and get stronger to give themselves a buffer zone to attempt more advanced movement patterns. In general, their mobility was good, but stability was not, which held them back in skill acquisition and increased their chance for injuries resulting from poor biomechanics. The gains that were made in the season were likely due to a larger knowledge base, increased proprioceptive ability, and increased general awareness of what they were actually doing (good and bad) on snow. Or, in other words, they modified their technique and gained some knowledge. This will help all skiers in the short term, but much more needs to be done to continue to progress, to maintain health, and to stay injury-free. The problem is that this group is now skiing at a faster, more confident level, but is definitely at their peak power. If a skier in this group encounters unexpected challenging terrain or conditions, they do not have the reserve for dynamic recovery. Skiers in this group are at a greater risk for injury and have little reserve to develop further in their skiing with their current state of fitness.
  • Psychomotor improvement. A few of the skiers had acquired and progressed significantly through the season. This group displayed one of the reasons - they had experimented successfully with movement patterns on easier terrain, and then they integrated these new movement patterns in successively harder and harder terrain. They were able to ski with some regularity and came into the season with a buffer zone with some stability, mobility, and quality movement. Having no large discrepancies between different elements, they were able to get stronger while learning how to move better. This was the successful psychomotor approach - which was helpful in addressing some of the weaker links (understanding ideal movements, which led to confidence and belief in one's self). Since these areas are no longer weak links, we can expect continued focus in these areas alone to produce lesser and lesser results as time progresses. A skier can't just know how to ski and continue to get stronger and fitter with technique modification alone. The skiers in this group are approaching a plateau in their development. There are obviously some other pieces to the puzzle which will greatly increase their potential as athletes.
  • Balanced and thorough preparation. In the second group that saw significant progression, the biggest underlying cause for success was excellent preparation. For the skiers who had come into the ski season with good mobility, stability, and improved strength, there was a large buffer zone to control the new skills we were introducing and enhancing. The weakest link was much more sport-specific than the other groups. This is where most skiers think they need to focus (and most of them are wrong) to have the biggest gains. Even most of the snowsports instruction culture focuses on this and reinforces this. Professional ski instruction is generally based on technique modification, and most skiers think that this should be their primary focus (and they are wrong). The skiers in this group are training like athletes, and they are able to focus and improve like athletes. If other skiers want to make the biggest gains, they need to prepare like this group. Logically, I anticipate continued success in the development of these skiers. We are nowhere near their potential. The sky is the limit with these athletes. They are using a systematic approach to: 1. Increase their ability to move correctly and understand/feel movement (a well-rounded functional training approach has provided these athletes with an ability to speak the language of movement - an athlete can not acquire more successful movement patterns without appropriate flexibility and body control); and 2. Improve their general athleticism by preparing for the ski season with conditioning that has improved their kinetic linking ability and gives them a reserve of power. Objective assessment and proper preparation by addressing weak links in the off-season should provide these skiers with notable improvement each and every upcoming season.
In summary, from my videos, I was able to see different levels of success. Some successes relied more on cognitive abilities, since the skiers were underpowered, lacked integrated body control, and/or had less understanding of how to ski. Some successes were more holistic, since the skiers had prepared more optimally, focusing on addressing weakest links in simpler movement (much less complex than skiing), and learning how to move well prior to the start of the season.

To look at skier development holistically, it's also important to consider overpowered and less-mobile athletes. Living in Jackson for years let me observe one subset of the skier population: randonee or big-mountain skiers - who were generally very overpowered athletes. These athletes had power to waste, but their relentless pursuit of their sport and poorly designed conditioning programs placed a rigid cap on their potential ski ability. And some of these professional athletes with reputations as being incredibly strong were not very resilient or durable. They could power through the mountains but walked with a limp and/or brace, and always seemed to tweak one thing or another. Some of their movement patterns showed similarities to kids who hadn't developed complete fine motor skills. The difference is that young kids are not yet capable of understanding the movements, while these randonee / big-mountain skiers have put the blinders on and are failing at basic movement patterns that they used to possess. By the way, the terms used to describe kids movement patterns are ideal and real. As an adult, you don't want to have an instructor evaluating your movement patterns with the term real (essentially meaning: incapable of complete mastery due to physiological and psychomotor factors) versus ideal. And you definitely don't want to spend so many hours overtraining when it may actually predispose you to injury.

The take-away message: From my observations, it is quite obvious that there are only a select few skiers who are well-prepared to focus on sport-specific, technique modification on the hill as their primary means of improving at skiing. There are very few among us who don't have glaring weak links. The vast majority of skiers should assess their strengths and weaknesses objectively, and prepare for the season ahead of time. Always address your weakest links first. Make sure that you have appropriate stability, mobility, and posture. Understand how to move in a general athletic sense, and train with high-quality movement. Ensure that you have sufficient strength and power to learn more advanced skills rather than using compensation with poor biomechanics.

The first step is asking these questions:
  • Are you being held back in your skiing?
  • Do you feel like your development is at a plateau?
  • What are your weakest links?
  • OK. What are your actual weakest links?
  • Are you working on them?
If you can honestly answer these questions, preferably in the pre-season, then you are on your way to improvement each and every ski season.


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