A feature article, To Bend a Ski, and an editorial, Old Dogs, New Gear, New Tricks, in the January 2016 issue of Ski Magazine made a shocking admission. In spite of the continued development of carving ski technology and millions of views of videos on how to make the pure carved turn, a group of PSIA instructors estimated that only one in ten skiers (10%) actually carves their turns.
Judging by my observations on the slopes of Whistler-Blackcomb, I believe 10% is wildly optimistic. I rarely see a skier who can actually carve a turn let alone carve a turn that is even close to the turns carved by Ligety, Shiffrin, Vonn or other world class racers. In my estimation, the caliber of skier has actually declined since the Carving Revolution arrived in the mid ’90s. The question is why? I believe that the origins of what is becoming increasingly evident as an unprecedented failure to carve, lies not so much in carving ski technology but in a failure of the ski teaching and coaching communities to appreciate, understand and especially teach the use of what I call the Carve Button. The Button in this case being an area about the size of a large button (3 cm) under the ball of the outside foot of a turn that a skier pushes and holds (applies pressure to) to initiate and maintain a carve.
At one time, applying pressure to the ball of the outside foot was an integral part of the ski technique narrative. When Elan introduced the pre-production SCX parabolic or shape ski to a select group of US ski instructors in the spring of 1993 and later to the consumer for 1993-94 ski season, the importance of starting turns by pressuring the ball of the outside foot held a prominent place in the ski technique narrative.
By 1996, virtually every ski maker was offering shape skis prompting Snow Country magazine to trumpet in its Summer issue, “the Revolution is for real“. Even Popular Mechanics chimed in with an article called “Shaped Skis” in their December issue.
With the promise that even terminal intermediates could now buy a carved turn, it seemed as if the long awaited revolution had indeed finally arrived. But two years later, when Ron LeMaster published The Skier’s Edge, he didn’t seem to be buying it, at least not yet. Said LeMaster, “At least once every decade, some technical ski expert announces that a revolution has occurred in the sport”. He went on to state that the revolution is either due to some drastic change in equipment or someone (usually the expert) has conceived of some new method of skiing that makes pretty much everything else skiers knew, obsolete.
In response to the revolution, legions of skiers who have been seeking a magic answer to their skiing problems, subscribe to the new technical juggernaut in the hope that they will finally become the skiers they always wished they were. LeMaster said that he makes no such claims, and that he believes “that the most sound elements of ski technique have been around for decades and decades, and what has changed is the frequency with which those techniques are expressed in the skiing of the sport’s best practitioner’s.”
In the two University of Ottawa studies of foot pressures of elite ski instructors done in 1998, the researchers noted:
It has become quite common for instructors and coaches to ask their pupils to feel pressure under certain parts of their feet in order to ski better. It has also been a trend in skiing to inform students to initiate turns through the application of pressure in the forefoot area and to progressively “roll” from the front to the back of their feet.
From a ski technique standpoint, it was clear when analysing the data that as the skiers made their way through the turns, there was more pressure applied with the foot that was towards the outside of the curve, while during the transition between turns, both feet were loaded equally. This finding is in complete accordance with the principles being taught in ski schools.
A point that all the skis that the subjects used had in common is that the skis were all sharp side-cut skis (also called shaped skis).
ANALYSIS OF THE DISTRIBUTION OF PRESSURE UNDER THE FEET OF ELITE ALPINE SKI INSTRUCTORS: Dany Lafontaine, Mario Lamontagne, Daniel Dupuis & Binta Diallo,Laboratory for Research on the Biomechanics of Hockey, University of Ottawa, Canada: Proceedings of the XVI International Symposium on Biomechanics in Sports (1998), Konstanz, Germany, p.485
LeMaster seemed to agree with the findings of the University of Ottawa researchers. In The Skier’s Edge (also published in 1998), he states that for years he has taught skiers and coached racers with simple cues like Start the turn (with pressure) on the ball of the foot and Press your shin against the tongue of your boot.
If anything, the awareness of the importance of applying pressure to specific areas of the foot and especially applying pressure to the ball of the foot to initiate a turn, was growing in lock-step with the acceptance and growth of the shape ski. Yet, sometime after 1998, the ball of the foot, as a prime area of importance, vanished from the narrative of ski technique and the heel assumed the prime and apparently only area of pressure.
Meantime, the human lower limbs, as one the most complex anatomical structure known to man, started to become regarded as the equivalent of a 2 x4 which which to tip carving skis on edge and apply force to the skis. As the ‘leg as a lever’ and the ‘boot shaft as a handle’ mentality gathered momentum, ski boots got higher, straighter and tighter fitting, especially the shafts where high leverage buckles and dual cinch power straps were added to better secure the lever to the handle.
I can only speculate on the reasons behind what I regard as a tectonic shift in the wrong direction. But I believe the University of Ottawa studies provide some clues.
A factor that was not controlled during data collection was the equipment worn by the subjects. The skiers wore different boots, and used different skis, although two of them had the same brand and model of skis and boots. It still has yet to be determined if that factor had any effect on the results. Another equipment variation which may have affected in-boot measurements, is that some subjects (n=5) wore custom designed footbeds, while the other did not. As was stated for the skis and boots, it has yet to be determined if this piece of equipment affected results or not.
My read is all of the above. The ability of skier and especially a racer to apply high pressure to the head of the first metataral of the outside foot of a turn requires a ski boot that is precisely set up and closed to the same settings for every new use. The set up process can take many days with tweaking ongoing for weeks. Elite racers are sensitive to net ramp angles of the ski boot/binding combination to 0.1 degree.
Ensuring that a skier at any level has the boot set up necessary to enable the use of the Carve Button can be a labour intensive process requiring a structured approach and especially a structured analytical process with which to identity and properly correct any issues that arise. If the shaft of a boot is within a wide tolerance in terms of forward lean, virtually every skier can cinch a boot tightly about their leg and apply pressure to the ski with their heel. The KIS principle as in, Keep It Simple, provides a plausible explanation for the departure of pressure under the ball of the foot as a mechanism for initiating and maintaining a carve turn from the narrative ion ski technique. The problem is that people in general tend to assume that when an issue is not in a narrative it is not important. In such situations, there is no incentive to appreciate, let alone expend time and energy acquiring knowledge of an issue. In the case of pressure under the ball of the foot, this has been to the detriment of skiing and the primary cause of the Failure to Carve.