Nothing scares me more than watching a young child barreling down a hill in a massive power wedge (aka ‘snowplow’), legs wobbling against the pressure he is withstanding. In this situation he is going as slow as he can, which is not slow by any reasonable definition, and is completely in the hands of the snow gods, who have their work cut out for them on most weekends and vacation weeks. It is only through miraculous intervention that slopes are not littered with mangled little skiers.
Too often, children are taught, either directly or by observation, that ‘french fries are for moving and pizza is to stop.’ The practice is encouraged by the fairly flat beginner terrain on which they learn. Once they develop balance, most adventurous children will take the whole slope in one direct slide and stop at the bottom in a power wedge.
However, for children as well as adults skiing is about a series of turns. The turns control speed, not, as is commonly thought, by slowing us down (although this is how it feels and is true when we are learning) but by maintaining a fairly constant velocity.
The most common request I have gotten from parents when they hire me to hone their children’s skills is to have them slow down.The conundrum is that almost every one of those children, when we discuss what we would do, love going fast. Happily, accommodating both desires simply means learning to ski well.
Nothing feels faster than whipping around the belly of a turn. There is a simple explanation of that feeling in Newtonian physics. A body in motion tends to stay in motion in the direction in which it is moving. It takes energy to change the direction of motion. The way I explain it to adults and older kids works best if i can draw an arc in the snow, so, please visualize an arc (part of a circle). At any moment you are standing on one point on that arc, and, should gravity disappear, you would fly into space on a straight line. Luckily, gravity holds and your ski moves you to a different point on the arc. When this happens, it is the same as when you make a quick turn in the car. Your body continues to move in the original path, and you feel a lot of force as your body tries to go one way while it is being hauled into a different path.
This happens all the way around the arc: your body wants to keep on its path, the ski changes the direction. It all happens so quickly that we are aware only of the force that is hauling us into incredibly small changes in direction. The nice part of this for the beginning skier, and the reason I explain it to many taking lessons in the green zone, is that those changes in direction against the force that wants to continue in a straight line require energy. There is a teeny energy loss at each of those infinitely tiny changes, and that equates to a loss of speed. Eventually, when we get to the bottom of the arc, as the skis begin to go across the hill to point in the opposite direction from which we began the turn, gravity becomes our bff. Continuing to turn the skis up the hill we are going against the direct pull of gravity down the hill, and we will slow and, eventually, stop. (I understand the realities of forces and gravity, but this explanation is both true enough and simple enough to understand. This is skiing, not physics.)
I never explain this to younger children. Why something works does not matter. They just want to move. Fast. So, we ski.
I will not take anyone regardless of age up the lifts unless they can make turns consistently. I am also a believer in learning to ski in a wedge, because it provides a wider base and a wide base provides stability. I do not insist on skiing in a wedge until I see how someone, again regardless of age, moves. There are children and adults who cannot hold their legs in a wedge, and there are others who are ‘skaters’ and need their feet moving independently. Neither of these groups make good progress if forced to be in a wedge. We are bipeds.
Still, a wedge is a very stable position, allowing the change in direction to happen more easily. A wedge stop is handy coming into lift lines and anywhere a beginner must quickly decelerate.
Once we can turn to a stop, I will proceed to higher terrain. If you are turning to a stop, your skis will naturally be parallel at the end. It takes a long time to get this across to kids who have been skiing for awhile, because they were always taught to pizza at the end. But, if we are simply skiing along and not stopping at the end, the skis will align at some point in the turn, especially with children because they are not constantly thinking and trying to do something they were told as adults do. Children move and what happens happens. What happens as they turn is that their bodies stay aligned down the hill if they are following a skier who is making appropriately spaced turns. With the body properly aligned, the legs are able to move into a parallel position because they are connected at the pelvis and that is what bodies are supposed to do.
We go as fast as is safe. I usually use short beginner skis when teaching kids, so that my turn radius is closer to theirs. As you ride the lifts watch children following adults. Most often you will see their skis come around and finish a very nice turn and be ready to make the next, but their leader will be continuing across the hill because her turn is longer and often has a traverse. Because the adult is trying to keep the speed down, she is requiring the child to go much further across the hill than his turn requires. This is one of the things that teach children that you ski in french fries and slow or stop in pizza.
My turns come sooner, but I go through a fairly long arc making them. When I get to the end of that arc I am set up to make the next turn. My body is in the right position and my speed is comfortable. It is the same for the little body following me.
My favorite thing to do is use the architecture of the slope. I go up and down the rises and bumps, not simply down the hill. This provides a swoopy, continuously exciting journey. My follower is required to straighten his leg against the pressure that builds up as he progresses against the arc coming off a tiny hill on the slope. It is fast. It is fun. He skis beautifully in either a wedge christie (pizza into the corner, french fries somewhere along the way) or completely parallel. Occasionally, I will ski way up the hill to a stop, requiring him to do the same. At those points his skis will almost always be parallel. I will point that out, often asking, ‘Where’s the pizza?’ and suggesting we don’t need it!
But, the body never forgets where it put the pizza. A great portion of our body is concerned with preserving the heart, liver and lungs. Even our precious brain that we think (might be a hint why right there) is so important can be sacrificed. We cannot survive without those other three. So a great portion of our body does not want us to fall and smash those vital organs.
Our body reacts to perceived dangers. It will make a pizza without the consent and often even the knowledge of our brain. If it thinks we are going too fast or getting into something dangerous, it will pizza. Happens to us all.
It is easier to ski in french fries, because that occurs due to the functionally correct positioning. We truly do not have to think about it, simply do it. Very hard for adults, natural for children. So, if a child who has properly learned to ski in french fries reverts to pizza, it is a result of his body sensing danger. His body is not comfortable at the speed or the pitch or some other condition.
Children should ski at the speed of french fries. This year I developed that term to explain to a 7-year-old I was teaching. She was the youngest in the family/friends group who was spending a weekend at the mountain. As the little kid, she had always needed to keep up. She was able to understand that she could control how she went. If she started to do a pizza, she was going too fast. She could slow down a little bit and ski in french fries. Or she could ski in pizza to keep up and not worry about how her skis looked. The choice, however, was up to her. Very powerful knowledge for the youngest! (Obviously, I did not go into the body/danger bit.)
Having told her this magical solution, which pleased her tremendously,and heard myself saying it,* I repeated it to her parents. She was going to pay attention, but they should, also. Their goal had been for her to ski in french fries more of the time.
If you ski with your children, this is an important thing to note. To begin with they should be able to ski in french fries at least at the end of their turns. They should be able to turn to a stop in french fries. If they are constantly in a pizza, they are not getting their bodies aligned correctly. They are skiing defensively. A good young skier is either in a wedge christie or parallel turn. If he is skiing entirely in a wedge, then you should consider whether he is being allowed to turn when he is ready, or if he is required to follow a path that gets his body out of a good position to the slope. If he is following you, alter your path.
If your child can ski parallel, but reverts to a wedge, then he is being overskied. Either he is forced to go too fast, or the terrain is too difficult. There is no problem with skiing above ability for a short time, but it should not be consistently.
Teach your children well! Enjoy these days they are following you, for soon they will be in the lead, and then they will be leaving you far behind. But, know that they will always come back, and, if you are lucky like me, they will be bringing grandchildren for you to teach to ski!
*This is the way my brain works. My solutions are often somewhere other than the conscious part of my brain that used to consider itself primary. I often understand something after I hear myself say it. Oversharing.