MY PERSPECTIVE ON HUMAN PERFORMANCE


When I started modifying ski boots in 1973, my perspective was that the problems that I was experiencing with my own skiing after switching from low-cut leather boots to the new higher, rigid plastic boots was an improper fit of the boot with my foot and leg. The paradigm back then, one that persists today, is that the optimal fit of the ski boot is achieved when the fit of the boot perfectly mirrors the shape of the user’s foot and leg. A related perception, that also persists today, is that the design of activity specific footwear is based on sound principles of science and that the footwear supports the performance of the human system.

I went forward on the basis that the conventional paradigm was both valid and based on sound principles of science. But instead of the expected improvement in performance commensurate with improvements in the application of the principles of the established paradigm, I was seeing a decrease in performance. As this continued to happen, I began to question everything I had initially accepted as factual and sound. When I did, I started heading in a new direction. A few Einstein quotes are appropriate.

We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.

Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

A man should look for what is, and not for what he thinks should be.

Starting in the fall of 1978, I began to look for what was, instead of looking for what I believed should be. One thing Einstein didn’t appear say is that human thinking seems to follow Newton’s Laws in that once a paradigm becomes accepted it tends to develop momentum that resists new thinking. Right or wrong, it seems to be human nature to stay with the familiar. This is especially true once a paradigm has acquired commercial momentum. In terms of contemporary knowledge of functional anatomy, the thinking in the footwear paradigm, even today, is by comparison, at best, stone age.

Once I stepped out of the conventional footwear paradigm it became obvious to me that, with rare exceptions, the majority of footwear today, including ski boots, is predicated on a 5,000 year old, unsophisticated, cobbler-paradigm of wrapping a sole structure over and about the foot and leg of the user. Like Henry Ford’s dictum, You can have any color you want as long it is black, the consumer today  is faced with a similar You can have any form of footwear you want as long it is based on a 5,000 year old artisan format. That a 5,000 year old footwear paradigm remains substantially unchanged in our digital age tends to foster the perception in the consumer that activity specific footwear such as sport shoes is conducive to proper biomechanical function. This premise is largely accepted without question. But in the following statement contained in the introduction to The Shoe in Sport  (published in 1987), the authors suggest, that far from being conducive to proper biomechanical function, footwear may, in fact, actually be causing problems.

“Is there really a need for shoes? The examples of athletes like Zola Budd and Abebe Bikila suggest

……. in a technologic environment the evolution of the athletic shoe parallels the decline in our organs of locomotion.

The authors go on to state,

The buyers of athletic shoes are always looking for the ‘ideal shoe’. They encounter a bewildering variety of options and are largely dependent for information on the more or less aggressive sales pitches that are directed at all athletes in all possible ways. For this reason, the ‘shoe problem’ as it exists in the various fields, will be studied (in the book) with respect to the biomechanical, medical and technical aspects of shoemaking. The findings (of the studies contained in the book) should enable the interested reader to distinguish between hucksterism  and humbug on one side and the scientifically sound improvements in the athletic shoe on the other(my emphasis added).

The reference to hucksterism rings true with some of the statements made by ski  industry tech and ski magazine writers that are so  patently absurd as to be offensive to anyone with a modicum of knowledge of functional anatomy. In 1978 when I first began to suspect this was the case, I diverged from convention and started looking in new directions. I started asking questions that no one had answers for.

When I began to conduct subjective experiments that called into question the principles on which ski boots were based, I got a clear indication that I was displeasing certain parties in the memo below received by National Team racers and forwarded to me.

NAST 79 memo

I found the memo especially interesting in view of the fact that my services had been requested by Nancy Greene Raine because National Team racers were not getting the help they needed with their boot problems.
Silence in the face of knowledge of a better way to do things only serves to perpetuate ignorance and dogma. Constructive, honest criticism, offered in the spirit of furthering a cause or effort, is the catalyst of innovation and progress. Constructive, honest criticism is also a catalyst of learning. Towards this end, my commitment has been, and continues to be, to the athlete and the realization of their true performance potential.

4 comments

  1. It’s kind of surprising that, given the number of ski boot manufacturers and given the marketplace competition, one manufacturer hasn’t grabbed on to “something different” that sets them apart. On the other hand, you don’t see “Scott” boots around anymore, and that’s what they were…different…
    All the various World Cup skiers seem to ski in different boots…presumably something to do with sponsorship and personal preference. So what do they do…just ski in off-the-shelf boots, or do they modify them they way you suggest?
    These skiers are always looking for an edge (!!) that gives them that extra 1%. If they can get it from minor modifications to their boots, why wouldn’t they?

    1. All good questions Bob. When I started modifying boots for NAST and BC Team racers in 1977 some countries had forbidden the modification of their supplier’s ski boots. The racers had to literally ski on them right out of the box. Before I got into the fray, Lange USA was possibly the only boot company that had a tech guy custom building boots for racers from a stock of parts. I am not sure where things are today. My read is that most racers assume that the various boot-fitters and boot fit companies have science behind what they are doing. If they do, I have yet to find evidence of this. I suspect that Dunning-Kruger Effect explains why racers don’t do the things I am talking about. It is a case of not knowing what one doesn’t know and having no way to discover what one doesn’t know.

      Here’s a metaphor. If you were a competitive swimmer wearing leg irons and a 50 lb weight belt you wouldn’t know the difference if all your competitors were similarly outfitted. One day a swimmer figures out that the weight belt is holding him back. He removes the weight but keeps wearing the belt. It doesn’t look any different. So no one, including you, notices. When the swimmer without the weight starts winning every race all sorts of explanations are offered. He is using PEDs. He has a new way or training. He has acquired God like status, etc. The Dunning-Kruger Effect predicts that people will offer explanations and solutions familiar to them even to the extent of rejecting superior solutions. The reason is that better thinking is outside their sphere of competence. So they have no way of recognizing something that is better.

      Returning to your question, “Do racers modify their boots the way I suggest?” The 99%, no. They probably go to a boot-fitter or a boot company tech and have the same (wrong) things done that were wrong from day one. There are a few racers who, through luck and perhaps some subjective tinkering, hit on the right combination. As I have said several times, once a skier finds the right feel in a boot they have a reference to differentiate the right boot feel from wrong boot feel. When they start winning? Coaches and experts offer the same tried and true stock explanations, “He is using PEDs. He has a new way of training. He has acquired God like status, etc.”

      It was laughable when after being written off for the season Podborski started winning DH races on the most difficult DH pistes on the World Cup circuit. At first Pod and I panicked thinking, “People will figure it out. They will start trying to get a look at his boots.” Then we calmed down and started to think rationally. “When the media asks why you are winning tell them you, 1) have faster skis than the other racers, 2) you are training more than the other racers, 3) you are luckier, 4) you have learned how to walk on water, etc”. In other words, tell people what they already believe and they will swallow it easily. It worked like a charm.

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