Ski drills don’t teach a skier, they test a skier.

I apologise that it’s been awhile since my last post. Other commitments get in the way and some things get neglected as a result. Regardless, I’m writing today about one of my pet peeves that I’ve been noticing recently: ski drills. Let me start by saying that I’m not totally against all drills. There is a time and place for them but too often drills are misunderstood and therefore misused. As a legend of an instructor at Falls Creek puts it;
 
“We’re not here to teach remedial drills. We’re here to teach skiing”
Tony Wright
 
As instructors, our primary duty is to facilitate the learning of this very fun sport of skiing. So if we’ve correctly identified the skill that a skier needs to work on to improve their skiing, maybe we should start by just telling them exactly that. Instead of jumping straight into a drill to work on that skill, give the skier a chance to register what they weren’t doing or performing enough of and they may actually self-correct. Maybe accurate feedback was all they needed. After all, skiers can’t see themselves skiing so they can’t really be sure of what they are doing and what they aren’t  More importantly, even if they watched a video of themselves, they would not have a trained eye to spot the technical deficiencies in their own skiing. Ski instructors aren’t just good skiers, they are trained professionals that are able to spot the weaknesses in someone’s skiing and know how to fix it.
 
A string of students attempting a drill
 
So here’s the scene; an instructor is performing a drill perfectly down a slope. Think of the classic exercise of poles as a window where you keep it still and in front.  And right behind him or her follows a string of students performing the same drill… not-so-perfectly. Great look isn’t it. Have you ever wondered why so few people do drills after the lesson? Because most of the time it makes them look and feel stupid. And that’s because it’s really easy to perform a drill as described by an instructor yet not achieve the purpose of the drill. I’ll explain how this is.
 
Every drill works on at least one skill in skiing. Some drills can even work on multiple skills in skiing. The purpose of the ‘windows’ drill is to check if the legs are twisting the skis and not the upper body. So a simple instruction for that drill would sound something like, “Keep the poles in front of you and try to have the same view as you’re skiing”. Yet there are several ways for me to achieve that very instruction and not turn my legs during the turn. Firstly, I could turn using my hips. Both my poles would still remain in front as I swung my hips around each turn. Or I could even turn with my shoulders and just have my head and arms facing down the hill. Awkward as hell but hey I’m doing the drill I was instructed so it must be right. Yet the next thing I hear is the instructor screaming, “You’re not doing it right!”. What are you talking about? I did exactly as you instructed, learnt nothing and even looked ridiculous coming down the hill. Great way to spend time and money on a mountain, I’m thinking.
 
A drill is great to reveal someone’s flaw in their skiing or to refine a learnt skill to a higher level. It is rarely useful for learning a skill. As mentioned before, the windows drill is great to check if the legs are twisting. It is almost useless to learn how to twist our skis using our legs. Besides, any drill whose objective is the legs but instructs the upper body and arms is inherently flawed. If you’re working on the legs, focus on the legs, not the bloody arms. You should be taking their poles away so they can focus on their legs, not asking them to do some dance down the slope with their poles instead.
 
Drills reveal flaws but aren’t great for learning how to correct them.
 
But let’s say you’ve told a skier what they need to do and they still don’t really know how to do what it is you’ve described. That’s when an instructor might introduce in detail what it is they have to do. It still doesn’t mean that you go straight into a drill. Drills are too often used by instructors because they don’t know how to articulate a movement, misdiagnose a skier or just get plain lazy. They should be describing and demonstrating the actual movement while stationary and of course have the skier try it out as well. Key markers they should be feeling if they are doing the movement correctly should be clearly indicated. Then let them have a go at it at a slow pace, either in a traverse or at a snowplough speed. Watch and see if they have understood the movement and correct for any common errors.
 
An instructor’s job is to identify a skier’s primary weaknesses, show them how to correct it, ensure they’ve grasped the movement and then let the skier gradually build the intensity, range and accuracy of the movement. The last part is built on the repetition and mileage of a developed awareness for the new movement. Don’t expect them to successfully perform the movement consistently by the end of the lesson. Mastery takes time. It can even sometimes take a whole season to truly ingrain and make a movement autonomous. But when one understands a movement and can perform it to a basic level, drills can then become an interesting form of challenge to enhance that skill while providing a self-checking mechanism. And that’s when you see an instructor performing a drill down a slope, followed by a string of students that can do it almost perfectly. 
When a skier understands  and is able to perform the basics of a movement, drills are a great way to challenge and build up the accuracy and range of the movement.

When a skier understands and is able to perform the basics of a movement, drills are a great way to challenge and build up the accuracy and range of the movement.


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One thought on “Ski drills don’t teach a skier, they test a skier.

  1. Thanks Jason! It is good to see some action on your blog again. Looking back at the couple of sessions you instructed me at Falls last year, one of the biggest differences to previous instruction was that I always felt I came away from lessons with something I understood and could experiment to resolve or practice if I had got it right. Mostly that came from 30 second chats, and mostly deliverred immediately after skiing down on a drill to where you had set up to watch the conga-line of our class and report on what each of us needed to work on most.

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