The 2004 Snow Pro Jam
The 2004 PSIA-E Snow Pro Jam was held at Killington, Vermont on December 13-17. The one knock on this great event is that there usually is not a whole lot of snow. True to form there weren't a whole lot of trails open. But we had fresh natural snow and cold temps for man made snow through the week. The snow conditions were very mostly soft packed powder. Over 400 ski instructors were there to learn how to teach better and ski better. There were also some 20 snowboard instructors and some free heelers too! This is the largest ski instructor training event in the country. If you want to know why, then read on!
Rusty got to Killington on Sunday morning to warm his legs up. It was a good choice. Although some folks said the snow was great on Sunday, Rusty found it to be scraped off and had to work hard to get his skis to turn like they are supposed to. While he was nosing around, Rusty found an engineering map of Killington's Bear mountain freestyle "expansion". They are supposed to have a new 18 foot high super pipe and dedicated rail and boardercross runs in addition to regular terrain park areas. Too bad they weren't open yet. Rusty recommends that you do not bring your new gear to these early season events because there are too many trails named "thin cover". At lunch, Rusty scoped out the new food court style restaurant in the Snowshed lodge. Rusty highly recommends the Asian food section.
Early registration on Sunday happened at the usual 7PM time, although this year there seemed to be some confusion caused by many participants not getting the usual acknowledgement and theme announcement snail mails. Registration was fast and efficient and boring. We did not get a goody bag like we did last year.
On Monday morning, we packed the main room in the Snowshed lodge. Announcements started promptly at 9 and we were quickly on our way to join our groups.
There were a good 50-60 people interested in doing level 3 skiing certification exam preparation, so we were split up by how many stops we'd like to take per run. Thanks to his warm up day, Rusty signed up for the "NO STOPPING" group. Our clinic leader was Brian Whatley from Stratton, VT. Brian has a reputation for having the best eye on the PSIA-E examiner squad. The other members of our group were:
For introductions, we buddied up and exchanged our "claim to fame" and our most embarrassing moment. Rusty's claim to fame is "computer video analysis" and his most embarrassing moment was when his temporary bridge (i.e. his front teeth) came flying out his mouth in the middle of a lesson.
Our group must have been really strong skiers, because Brian's first "instructive" remark was a common observation that a common problem for skiers today is that they roll their ankles to get the ski on edge and lock them (what Rusty calls "park and ride") versus skiing the length of the ski. Brian went out of his way to emphasize, "but not you". Usually the examiners look at the group in the warm up run and have enough "stuff" to last the week before the run is over. It took Brian a few warm up runs before he decided that the "core" was going to be our theme for the week.
We started with a push pull exercise. We buddied up facing our partner on a very slightly inclined surface, then the uphill partner skied to the downhill one so that the uphill skiers skis were in between the down hill skier skis. As the uphill skier approached, the buddies would lock hands and the uphill skier would push the downhill skier away, the the downhill skier would pull the uphill skier along. The objective was to push me/pull you down the slope. This part was easy. Going back up hill was not. When we made a race out of it, some people actually cheated (no names mentioned - Rusty). The objective was to feel the movements in the core and in the ankles. Sometimes the core drives the skis, sometimes the skis drive the core.
When we hit some bumps for what was for many their first on snow day of the year, Brian gave us a pass, critique wise. Not that our bump skiing was going to pass level 3, just that we were so (cough) rusty, that critique at that point would not matter. Brian did say that what examiners were looking for was attitude and flow (i.e. smoothness). He also commented that a narrow stance in the bumps was ok. He preferred to see stance width adapt to the situation.
After lunch we did a few runs without poles. Although it did not seem to bother most of the group, Rusty found this exercise hard to adapt to (meaning - he needs to do more of this at home in order to get better). As much as many skiers often skip the pole touch and seem to get by ok, it's amazing how much the pole touch is part of high energy skiing as evidenced by when you take the poles away. We talked about the role of the pole touch as an anchor point used to stabilize the upper body as the lower body initiates the new turn. Brian told us that one adaptation was to use a little more upper body counter. But the main point of this exercise was to focus on the role of the core in maintaining balance. Skiing with no poles certainly helps you to focus on moving your core through your turns. We finished this section off with holding the poles in the middle doing some bumps and short radius turns.
Next we did some partner skiing. We focused on looking for and skiing parallel skis and parallel edges throughout the turn. This is a cool test for seeing if there are "issues". One issue that Brian talked about was too much lead between the skis. He explained that lead between the skis reduces lateral stability. Brian asked us where we thought our center of mass was. Most of us chose our waist, but Tyler pointed out that our hips are below the waist. Then Bryan added with ski boots on, our COM was even lower. When we're moving, Bryan wanted us to think about keeping our COM vertically over a foot length diameter sized small circle between our feet as opposed to keeping the COM over one foot. (editors note - for dynamic turns the lateral position of the COM will move outside of the feet)
For the final couple of runs, we went back into relax mode. Brian chatted about how the old method of skiing (i.e. straight skis) involved focusing on movement of the tails of the skis, while more modern technique focuses on moving the tips and keeping the tips moving through the turn. This seemed pretty obvious when you think about snowplow turns, stem christies and wedel. But most people don't focus on their tips when they ski today. Having this as a focus and using it as a diagnostic tool provides a different perspective that would we would explore more throughout the rest of the week.
Although Brian said that he was available each morning at 8AM for off hill follow up and indoor discussions on tuning, etc., Rusty is not a morning person and was not able to get up early enough to take advantage of this.
On Monday afternoon, Katie Fry and Michael Rogan (he had hair this year!) presented an indoor discussion about skiing concepts. This is the first pass of the new demo team training focus. Although some might see this as a new "methodology" under development, at this point it looks like good stuff to think about. Michael started covering the points in the handout which are pretty self explanatory. One note mentioned is that the term "apex" was intended to refer to the point in the turn where forces are greatest. We also saw some cool slides of some world cup skiing that demonstrated how a strong core could help recover from some wild movements and win races. Katie talked about level (to the pitch) shoulders, that are not exactly level but close. Next we looked at some pictures of Deb Armstrong with 3 lines on them for the axis of the legs, the hips and the shoulders and we discussed the relationships between the lines. It was cool when the picture was rotated so that Deb was standing straight up instead of a normal view. There's an optical illusion thing going here that clouds our diagnostic abilities.
On Monday night, Arleta Cosby held her annual Whitetail party at the Woods. We had about 35 people show up for cocktails/dinner including the 20 in Arleta's condo group and other present and former Whitetail people. The food and drink were great thanks to Arleta's tireless efforts. Note: if you want to get the good dirt on your clinic leader, invite other examiners over for free drinks until they spill the beans.
On Tuesday, our clinic leader started experiencing multiple personality disorder. (insert long pause for effect here). Evidently Brian thought we needed to learn who was on PSIA-E staff because he was changing name tags on his uniform 2 or 3 times per run. The disease provided a few laughs while it ran through the staff for a couple of days. Brian followed up a stunning Lani Tapley impersonation (holding your poles below the grips and scrunching down to Lani size while you ski) with a demonstration of kayak turns (holding your poles in one long stick with the grips overlapped, sitting on your heels, paddling kayak style with your held together poles, then dragging one end in the snow to initiate a turn).
We started our day practicing for the video. The first task was synchronized lane changes. The person on the left starts about 10 feet away and ahead of the other skier. The first turn is towards each other. Four medium short turns are followed by one long lane change switch sides turn (i.e. the lane change), followed by 4 more short turns and so on. Things to look out for in this exercise are a traverse for the lane change (it should be a long turn), constant speed and rhythm, "playfulness", or a short chop turn (instead of a rounded turn) for the first turn after the lane change. Brian mentioned that he likes this exercise as an exam task because the focus on the task forces the candidates to let their "natural" movements take over.
Before lunch, Brian talked about extending on the new edge of the uphill ski before the fall line and flexing below. This is a variation about thinking about long leg short leg for the edge release for turn initiation. Although it seemed like an out of place filler comment at the time, this became one of Rusty's foci for the week in the form of keeping the long leg longer through the turn (versus letting it collapse) (also kind of a "functional tension" application - see Vic Gerdin's article in The Professional Skier). It also provided an interesting, almost but not quite, opposite perspective from one of Chris Kastner's comments on Wednesday.
During lunch we had a discussion of that started with women's boot fitting issues (e.g. how heel lifts cause women to sit back more) and ended up about how ski brakes influenced ski design. When brakes were introduced, the heel area on the skis was lifted up to accommodate the brakes. Only recently, after the introduction of skis with integrated bindings that include lifters, has ski been made almost flat underneath the boot. Brian reports that some racers are now even going negative. He likes the Marker system with only 2mm of lift.
After an early lunch we did video. In the bumps we did, there were some tricky slick spots. Brian urged us to match our skis to the terrain contour, use high spots to turn, keep the pivot point underneath our feet and not to rush the top of the turn. Feedback for Ed was to move up and forward versus just up. Feedback for Mike was to get the inside leg more active. Brian noted that if you go too slow in the bumps, that you lose momentum and that other things then need to happen to get the skis to turn.
We did a one legged exercise where we were supposed to change feet going across the fall line onto our old outside leg before the edge change to make it the new inside leg. We all were making the edge change first (initiating the turn off the new outside leg). These were close to, but definitely not white pass turns. When doing this exercise, we were urged to watch the plane of the lifted ski for fore aft balance clues and to keep our torsos upright versus hunching over. The torso needs to be balanced over the pelvis instead of being inclined. Brian noted that lower level skiers tend to lean on the uphill pole when doing this exercise.
Brian snuck in a general exam tip for visual learners. Look at the demo, then look away. Watching other exam takers can lock in wrong movement patterns or "drown out" the right ones. Focus on how you want to do the task and forget what the rest of the candidates are doing.
After reviewing the video, we went over to the Poma lift and did laps. If we wanted feedback, we could stop and visit Brian (who parked himself in the middle of the trail), otherwise the focus was self coaching with the material we had already gotten.
We finished up the on snow portion of the day with box turns. You start going downhill for 2-5 seconds, then make a half turn to come out of the fall line, then another half turn to go back into the fall line where you go straight again. The two half turns make a horizontal line for the box while the fall line sections make the vertical lines for the box. This means that only 3 sides of the box are drawn by the skis into the snow. This exercise really makes you focus on turn initiation moves. We did a walking exercise where you walk down the mountain, then turn in order to get a better feel for what "natural" moves happen to turn. The answer was the move should start with the feet and then the whole body should follow. Brian noted that beginners tend to naturally stem to start their turns.
Brian then snuck in a practice tip to make the most of your mountain when you practice and when you teach. Don't waste terrain. Work the terrain into your lesson plan so that of flows. When you are practicing, choose terrain and conditions that make runs harder so that you are better prepared for challenging exam conditions.
After 4, we headed to the bar to go over some of Brian's handouts (skiing - what really matters, kid's movement patterns and skill drills). After reviewing the handouts, we had a roundtable discussion for random thoughts. Regarding the use of feedback, Brian noted that we can't just say good - we need to also say why. There was an observation about "ski culture" that all of us can always get better but that we generally prefer to learn versus being taught. Do some team building at the beginning of your teaching/coaching sessions. A big part of teaching is managing the energy level in the group. You can't have your group trying to focus hard all the time. You need to build up and let down throughout the session. Brian put his general theory of coaching out to the group: There are 5 basic areas for sports improvement:
At 7, most of us gathered at the Outlook for dinner. We had a great time kicking back and sharing stories and even met a few extra faces from other groups.
On Wednesday, Brian shared his big secret with us. Ski with all your weight on one foot, but keep your other foot on the snow. When you get tired, shift to the other foot. Do this exercise for all slopes (including bumps). For this exercise, Brian says "You gotta move". It was not that big of a secret because other groups at Pro Jam did this exercise also. It seemed to work well for our group, but was evidently not as much of a breakthrough exercise for pros who were not close to level 3. It definitely was the best exercise of the week for improving Rusty's skiing.
The highlight run of the week was a run that Rusty thinks was named Pipe Dream (far skiers right off the Superstar Quad, looooong run out cat track past Snowshed back to the lift. It was bumped up boot deep crud. We did a couple laps before Brian had to duck out early to set up the race course. The group split up for a few free runs before lunch and the optional afternoon sessions.
On Wednesday afternoon, Pro Jammers had a wide array of optional sessions to choose from. First off, there were 90 slots available to ski with one of 9 Demo Team members. Other optional sessions included: terrain park, black diamonds (guided by a local), women only, video, cruisin', exam drills, getting a lot of vertical, intro to telemarking, racing, kids, and a series of indoor sessions: boot fitting (Greg Hoffman), a clinic on how Carl Jung's psychological types can help understand student preferences and improve teaching effectiveness (Larry Robinson - Brian said this guy is good), ski specific fitness training, and ski tuning from Reliable Racing.
Rusty chose to ski with Chris Kastner, a member of the PSIA National Demo Team from Crystal Mountain, Washington. It was the coldest day of the week and we had a large group of 13 people, so Chris thought he'd take it easy on us by heading over to Ram's Head for a couple of runs on the easiest part of the mountain. Which also happened to be the coldest part of the mountain because the chair headed straight into the wind. Being frozen stiff and on the flat trails, Chris astutely noticed that we were not using very high edge angles. He urged us to play with using low versus high edge angles in our turns. Next he asked us to to concentrate on getting a flat ski during the turn initiation so that some of us (cough) could stop stepping off the outside ski during turn initiation. Chris noted that this exercise was also good for people who picked up the inside ski during their turns. We paired up and worked on watching stance width. Chris said that stepping usually comes up with stance width changes during the turn.
Chris then talked about a trick to rotate the knees outward to get skis to be more parallel. We checked our "natural" stance when standing. For most of us, our feet are "splayed" out. As we worked our way onto more challenging terrain, Chris asked us to try to feel the inside 1/2 of out leg muscles, especially on the inside leg when turning. This helped us develop a stronger inside 1/2 during our turns. Finally onto some steep icy bumps, Chris noticed some of us were skidding on the slick spots. Instead of getting the skis sideways to brake in between bumps, he said to turn into the sides of the bumps to get into the softer snow. By keeping the momentum going along the length of the skis we get less skidding and more control over speed and direction.
On Thursday night, a few of us went to the Grist Mill to listen to the Icy Nuts. This is a bunch of Killington instructors who do cover tunes with the lyrics altered for snow sports enthusiasts. They've got a new CD out. Rusty has a copy. It's a hoot.
We were back with Brian on Thursday morning. He figured after 3 days of high performance skiing, he'd throw us a curve ball with some wedge christies. Boy did we stink. We tried using the 1 foot secret to get those turns a little shaped up before trying again with "normal" christies. He also encouraged us to "ski em" instead of "demoing them".
This was so painful we moved on to playing cat and mouse for a couple of runs. Brian said he was looking for "playfulness" in the turns. The trick to cat and mouse as a leader is to really be creative in mixing in different kinds of turns, rhythms and speeds. The trick to following is to stay close, but not so close as to compromise safety and watch the whole body of the leader to check for clues as to what is coming next.
We returned to the bumps on Superstar headwall. Our group's weakest link was bump skiing, so Brian gave us the secret: keep moving with the ski (just like Chris had said on Wednesday - jeez - can't anybody keep a secret?). Brian talked about moving the body away from the feet instead of pushing the feet away from the body.
After lunch we did some more wedge christies in a circle ski. Brian explained that when we do our demos, we do them too slow. Watch the guests. They ski christies pretty fast. Brian did a series of loops starting with two normal christies matching above the fall line, then a stem christy with a step, then a short radius stem, then a regular christy with matching after the fall line (and no use of poles). When you're a leader in a circle ski, the trick is to duck in and out of order stopping to provide feedback to different people. As a participant, you can provide quick feedback to other group members as they pass by as well as compare and contrast the different styles. Brian also tasked the group with identifying and passing on the style of turn to be emulated. We also talked about plain old wedge turns. The tips do not have to together. We should adapt our stance to the terrain, the conditions and our intent. We need to remember to move both tips, not just the tip of the outside ski.
Although we did not ski it, Brian hinted that this was an exam exercise. Try transitioning from wedge turns to parallel turns in a smooth transition, noting the similarities of positions and movement of the core. On the gondola ride up we asked Brian to explain the PMTS phantom move. Brian's explanation: "It's the walking movement, just tipping both feet" just made Rusty even more confused than Harald's mysterious advertising claims. The link above (scroll down to see the "Phantom" definition) describes the Phantom move in the most detail that Rusty has ever seen, but this description just sounds like good turn mechanics that we all know and love.
All those low end turns had our non-stop group itching to blow off some steam. The snow on Cascades was shhhhweet, so we started doing laps. Brian offered up that one cause of stepping in the bumps was a pole plant to close to the ski tips. This causes a blocking effect that prevents turning action and forces the stepping action to occur instead. The solution is to get the skis turning more across the hill and planting the pole touch farther down the fall line. We used pivot slips in the bumps to allow us to practice this move. Brian explained the concept of "shmearing" turns in the bumps. This is a less slowed down version of what Rusty calls the "old man's way to ski bumps". But Brian also emphasized the need to keep your hands in front of you.
In between laps on Cascade, a gentleman asked us if we could help him out by telling Sean Smith (an ex member of the demo team) that he was an a**hole. Okay, he might have been a little rude to be called a gentleman. But he certainly had us confused because Sean was not even at Killington during the event. O well, it must be nice to be so loved by your fans, eh Sean?
Thursday night was banquet night. Whitetail instructors scored for the second year in a row when Janet and Terry Farrell won the Benji award for Level 1 instructors. Terry says it's because he keeps meticulous microscopic clinic notes. Janet says it's because they keep taking Pro Jam clinics year after year without ever improving (editors note - it's not true - they just have not gotten to Level 2 YET).
On Friday morning, we started with Pain In The Ass turns (i.e. short radius turns over a long radius turn path). Brian said that he was watching for hops in the turns, speed control, too much traversing and or not enough time in the fall line. He said we did well. He was too kind.
So we moved on to a skate progression. He cautioned in bold letters: you need to have extremely good balance or don't try this exercise! You also need to be extremely careful about traffic coming down the trail. We started off by skating on a traverse across the trail. The tricky part about this was to actually skate off the uphill ski. You need to be on the inside edge of both skis as you traverse/skate across the hill. Obviously you get up a good head of steam very quickly and it's real easy to get tripped up. But it's not easy to get the move right. The core has to move inside the skis and forward. It's real easy to cheat with your uphill ski. Once we got that somewhere close to correct, we tried to skates and then a turn. Brian wanted us to lift the inside heel during the turn and to move the center of mass/core into the new turn with a skating move. We need to be careful to "launch" off the outside edge of the inside ski instead of the inside edge of the outside ski. Brian also asked us to keep our movement between the tips of the skis and to use a long leg for more explosive power. This is a good exercise for introducing diverging skis in the turns.
During lunch we talked about White Pass turns. Brian noted how ridiculous the exercise was. It was introduced as a racing move used for "fallaway" gates. Here the move is intended to only be used for one turn. Yet we practice this for turn after turn after turn. The definition for White Pass turns seems to be in the eye of the beholder. Brian described it as a turn initiated from the downhill leg where the edge change happens on the downhill foot and the body mass is released in the shortest possible route. Somewhere in the fall line zone, the new outside ski is engaged and the inside ski is lifted so that the downhill leg is on snow to initiate the next turn. The lifted ski can be off snow or just grazing the snow surface, but the ski lightens as a result of the rapid movement of the center of mass as opposed to because of lifting move. After all that Brian accepted an alternate definition of one foot skiing, skiing on the inside ski. That led to a discussion about the old racing technique of lifting the inside ski. Brian noted that with the new shaped skis that the lifting of the inside ski is now biomechanically bad. The extra ground contact provide better control and more accurate turns. As usual on Friday, we lost 1/2 our group by lunch time.
After lunch we practiced a variation of White Pass turns on Snowshed. Rusty found this one to be complete mess with the head thing. It sounds simple enough. Start in the fall line standing on your left leg. Turn left. When you're going across the fall line, stand on the uphill edge of your right foot only. Then change edges to turn right. After a lot of practice, following Brian and some comical attempts at synchro skiing this exercise, Brian said we had had enough and it was time to move on to the steeps. Alas, Rusty had to hit the road to get to Whitetail for a 13 hour long opening day double shift on Saturday.
The beauty of Pro Jam is that you can get in a group that is skiing just how you want to ski and focused on exactly what you want to focus on. Although there is not a huge amount of terrain to choose from relative to what's on the map, there's always enough terrain open to get the job done whatever your level is. Despite the caution on thin cover, Rusty managed to get through the week without getting any additional base damage on his rock skis. For Brian's strong group of 10 people definitely planning on taking the level 3 skiing exam this year, he expected only 3 would pass. Nonetheless, over the week we all improved a lot. We all got crystal clear identification of things to work on and how to make them better. In between, we also got some great teaching tips. No matter who you ski with, it's fantastic to ski with an examiner all week and even better to get to ski with a demo team member free for an afternoon.
Rusty extends his thanks to his fellow group members for making it such a hugely successful week. Rusty hopes to show his thanks to Brian by having a shiny new pin next season.