Telegraph Ski and Snowboard Magazine
Ski technique: improving your balance
A performance course that makes use of a new training aid designed to improve balance is helping clients reassess the way they ski. But it’s harder than it looks
It’s only 10.30am, but after a quick drink on the terrace of Le Chalet de Charamillon mountain restaurant in the Le Tour area of Chamonix, I’m already unsteady on my feet. I begin swaying from side to side and then lurch violently forwards, having to use a chair for support. While my fellow skiers attempt to hold me upright, customers on a nearby table have stopped sipping their espressos and are eyeing me nervously. Using every ounce of concentration I have, and trying to ignore the increasing number of people gawping at me, I focus ahead, take a few deep breaths and attempt to steady myself… Rather than a tale of drunken excess, though, this embarrassing cabaret is all part of the British Alpine Ski and Snowboard School’s (BASS) masterplan to transform my technique, on a three-day Piste Performance course.
It’s the first morning of the course, which is aimed at confident intermediates looking to progress to more varied terrain and, after a couple of warm-up runs on the Ecuries red in dazzling spring sunshine with instructor Dee Angella, we’ve retired to the Charamillon for a drink. An Orangina, for the record. There to greet our group – comprised of father and daughter Martin and Claire, couple Andy and Jolanda, plus myself – is BASS director Shona Tate, who has brought along a new off-slope training aid, the SkiA Sweetspot Ski Trainer.
Designed to show you how to balance correctly for more athletic, controlled skiing, the device consists of two footplates with a balance block clipped under each. A notch on the footplates is lined up with your boots’ index mark (found midway along the boot). Once you’ve put on your boots and strapped on the footplates, you’re ready to go. There are four different sized balance blocks – green (beginner), blue (intermediate), red (advanced) and black (expert) – which get progressively narrower, and so more challenging to balance on.
Two at a time, and assisted by Shona and Dee, we each strap on a set of the Trainers, starting on the “easy” green block. But it’s anything but easy. The makers of the Trainer claim the balance “sweetspot” is close to the middle of the arches, rather than under the toes or balls of your feet. Using the device, this quickly becomes apparent. With Shona standing in front of me and a chair placed to the side for support, I adopt my normal skiing posture… and immediately get over-friendly with Shona. The reason, a thankfully unflustered Shona tells me, is that I’m leaning too far forward in my boots and need to take up a more neutral stance, with my weight evenly balanced.
Shona advises me to align my hips, knees and shoulders over my feet, put my hands out in front, and activate my core muscles. By doing this, I’m soon able to find my centre of balance. To make life harder, though, Shona asks me to slowly flex up and down to see if I can maintain my centre of balance, gently tilt from side to side to replicate edging movements and, finally, try rotating the feet – which helps you pivot accurately and effectively.
A brief spell using the narrower blue blocks proves largely unsuccessful, before we rehearse the same movements without the Trainers on, to help our brain memorise where the sweetspot is. We then try to feel for the balance point with a couple of descents of the Châtelet red, during which I feel more centred and in control of my skis. Job done? Far from it.
Dee then proceeds to pick apart our individual techniques. “You’re a lemon,” she remarks, as I complete a series of turns. Thankfully, she’s referring to turn shapes rather than taken an instant dislike to me. Apparently, instead of making full, rounded turns in the shape of an orange, I’m chopping the arc short, more in the shape of a lemon. To remedy this she asks me to let the skis run down the fall line for longer before pressuring the turning ski.
Balance is the central theme of the course, and as well as working with the Trainers – which were invented by Dr Martin Breach and developed in conjunction with BASS founder and director Hugh Monney – we also practise on-slope exercises. These include lifting the inside ski and counting to three when traversing across the hill and “swords” – extending the arms out and trying to keep both pole tips on the snow through the turn.
Late on during the first day, on the mellow Arve blue run, Dee spots that I’m rotating my feet too much again – lemon turns. “If you hear me shouting it will be because of you!” she calls out, in threatening Scottish tones. I don’t need telling again.
Further critique and exercises follow on the second day, again in Le Tour. Eagle-eyed Dee identifies that my uphill ski is dropping too close to the downhill ski at the end of the turn. A drill she suggests is putting my fists between my knees, this forces me to go lower, pressure both skis and ensure separation between them, so that I’m balanced through the whole of the turn. Initially, having the skis further apart feels unnatural, but it’s not long before I feel the uphill ski gripping for longer through the turn.
Using the Trainer off the slopes should help improve technique on them
Post lunch, our group spends another stint on the Trainers at the Charamillon and we again draw intrigued looks from the baguette-munching punters. This time we begin on the blue blocks, and the chair proves a useful crutch again. While I’m finding the exercises tough, others in the group seem to have a natural balance. Jolanda, in particular, has progressed relatively seamlessly to the red blocks.
You don’t have to be on a course to use the Trainers, though. They’re available for anyone to buy, and makers SkiA recommends that you practise using them at home prior to your trip to the slopes, and then again in between time spent skiing in resort to refresh your balancing skills.
The final day, this time in the Grands Montets ski area above Argentière, provides the perfect opportunity to test our new-found balance skills, with heavy snow falling and, for a while, limited visibility. After a quick session on the Trainers outside the Plan Joran restaurant, with thankfully fewer customers viewing our antics, we explore some off-piste terrain to the side of the Bochard red run, which starts at the top of the Bochard gondola at 2765m. On each pitch, we have to inform Dee what we’re attempting to work on, based on the advice we’ve been given over the past three days. Then, afterwards, we have to explain what we felt and how, if at all, it felt different.
In the chopped-up off-piste conditions I try to remember to make more rounded “orange” turns, but I battle rather than flow down the slope. However, on the closing run of the day, the lengthy Pierre à Ric red run back to base in Argentière, in improving visibility, I feel all the advice and balance exercises begin to come together. As the snow conditions change from powder to heavy spring slush the lower we descend, I’m able to adapt quickly and flow more fluidly from turn to turn. Finding the balance sweetspot means I’m more in control of my skis and able to execute a variety of turn shapes to suit the terrain.
The SkiA Sweetspot Ski Trainer costs £45 a pair. Visit skia.com for info.
BASS (britishskischool.com) runs three (£320) and five-day (£495) Piste Performance courses throughout the season in Chamonix. Maximum six per group. Similar BASS courses run in Megève and Morzine.