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The Tao of Skiing
By Rick Medrick

Do you want to learn to ski or improve your skills and confidence before the winter ends?

One traditional and still valid answer is to get expert instruction from a professional. Another more contemporary answer is to look within and tap into resources that are already within your reach.

Heralded by such best-selling books as George Leonard's The Ultimate Athlete and Tim Gallway's The Inner Game of Tennis, the most exciting and revolutionary approach to learning a new skill these days is the advice and actual instruction on how to calm your mind. tune in to your senses. and let your body take over. The body learns how to and is able to perform certain actions without deliberate effort, once the mind releases control and suspends critical judgement. permitting action to flow on its own. The mind then becomes the observer instead of the director, and your body-with almost a self of its own-is able to perform at a level well above your previous experience or expectations.

This is one of the basic messages of Gallway's approach to tennis that is being translated into the language and teaching methods of numerous other sports. Having their roots in Eastern Forms of meditation and martial art forms such as T'ai Chi Ch'uan and Aikido, such approaches are based upon fundamentals of awareness and movement that have been familiar to accomplished athletes ever since Sports were inaugurated. Before that, hunters and warriors experienced similar effects and heightened performance while caught up in the excitement of the chase or a battle. Even the amateur athlete experiences those moments when her shots mysteriously land exactly where she plans. Or when the skier ceases to experience his efforts as a struggle and begins to link his turns together effortlessly and realizes the sudden exhilaration of flowing and floating gracefully down the slope.

According to the "Inner Game" approach, these ecstasies are available to each of us with proper preparation and guidance. The first step in this process is to remove the learning of a sport such as skiing from the realm of critical judgement and comparison with others. In practical terms, this means focusing your attention only on what you and your body are doing. The next step is to develop patterns of movement that enable your body to explore the range of movement required by a particular activity. Then, with good modeling of a particular movement, most people can soon learn to emulate that movement and put it into practice in more and more proficient ways.

Translated, into learning to ski, these steps entail approaching skiing as a fun activity which is beneficial to a healthy mind in a healthy body. Much of the scare of a new activity has to do with either self-expectations or those of others. My experience is that when people approach an activity like skiing with an open mind, ready to experience whatever occurs-instead of with predetermined visions of what it may be like-then learning awkward or unfamiliar movements is both more natural and less traumatic. When a novice is willing to perceive learning a new skill as a gradual and progressive activity, and lets go of the need to perform up to internal standards, then enhanced performance and satisfaction are virtually inevitable. One doesn't learn to ski or play tennis in one session, but one can learn the fundamentals of an activity and establish the space in which to learn comfortably and effectively.

One approach to doing this is a process known simply as "tuning in to your senses." This means expanding your awareness of how your body feels and behaves. both in place and when you are moving. Each of us possesses a physical center deep within our bodies from which total body movements originate. You may be more familiar with this if I call it a "balance point." When you are in balance, you feel stable and safe; when you are off balance, your movements tend to be awkward and you seem forever on the verge of falling.

By tuning in to this balance point and seeking to remain "centered" while moving, one learns how to walk, run, dance, and ski. The primary difference between skiing and these other activities is that you must move around, often at increasing speeds, with "feet" that are long, stiff, and hard to maneuver. And you must learn how to move these "feet," or skis, while you are in motion, trying to maintain your balance, and facing gentle hills that suddenly seem precipitous.

Once reduced to these fundamentals. however, it is possible, through progressive exercises and modeling of movement to learn the basics of controlling speed, changing direction, and stopping. The more advanced techniques of skiing-parallel, moguls, powder skiing, racing, and freestyle - are variations of these basic skills, an evolution from more basic movements to more complex. And, while lessons are obviously a great aid in making this transition, many skiers have learned to ski by observing and then imitating the movements of others until their own form is established. This is experimental learning at its most basic level. After all. how did we each learn to walk, skip, jump, or dance?

As most beginners have experienced, the process of learning a new skill is not usually so simple. Learning to "center" oneself and becoming aware of it is an ability that most of us have lost touch with in our complex and hectic lives. Yet each of us is continually engaged in the process of "losing our balance" and needing to strive to regain it in the stress of daily living. Each of us has the capacity to become more aware of this process and translate it into our physical activities. In fact, disciplines such as Yoga, T'ai Chi. and Aikido believe that physical centering can be a way of centering oneself in other areas of our lives. Recall, for example, the satisfaction and relaxed sense of self that you may have experienced after a good day on the slopes, a hot night on the dance floor, a swift game on the courts. Consider the similarity after a successful social encounter, completing an important sale, finishing an effective day at work.

The notion that we each have within us an "inner skier" waiting to be unleashed is a powerful one. The challenge becomes how to contact and free this "self" to find its own mode of expression. This is what the process of personal centering is all about. To uncover the centered skier we must uncover the centered self, and there is much in our learning and in our society that inhibits this process. Chief among these is our inability to separate ourselves from our immediate situation and put the realities of our lives in perspective. Hence, in both new and familiar situations, old voices and messages well up from our unconscious and dictate what we must do, as well as define our limits. To free ourselves from such static requires deliberate commitment and a willingness to become once more a learner, free of inhibition and restraint.

An important capacity of such an "inner skier" is the ability to create an inner image or visualization of the action to be performed. Each of us has the power to generate positive or negative views of our own past performance as well as future predictions of success or failure. It almost appears, at times, as if we can will ourselves to fall on "just that mogul" or lose control by virtue of our own fear of the "impossibly" steep run that we wish we had avoided.

By restructuring our thoughts, focusing on the probability of success instead of failure, on the potential for positive instead of negative performance, it is possible to write our own scripts. On the slopes, this means picturing in your mind the skier you would like to be, performing the maneuvers you intend with ease and grace. One may even, rehearse in one's mind the successful negotiation of a particular slope, including the admiration and accolades of those observing your run.

Equally important as the mental image of your intended performance is an ongoing awareness of your body's state of preparedness. Too much physical tension or muscular effort usually leads to stilted and off-balance motion. Most of us put more effort than we need into the simplest daily tasks, such as opening a door, eating, or getting dressed. "Try to hard" usually means to employ more force or energy than needed, thus overacting and over-compensating to achieve our effect, inducing early fatigue and the impression that what we are attempting is truly hard. At the other extreme, we may be so unaware of how our bodies work that the translation of thought into action is delayed at the expense of losing control and a sense of our own will.

One path to regaining control of our bodies is a systematic and progressive rediscovery of the effects of our actions. By exploring with focused awareness the direct result of shifting pressure from ski to ski, tip to tail, of differing degrees of edging, or the feeling of rotary movement in our turns, we can become aware of the effects of small shifts in body weight and inclination. This helps us to learn to feel and respond to small variations in the terrain, to yield when required, to apply more pressure or edge when needed.

Equally, since breathing affects tension (holding one's breath usually tightens one's muscles), tracking one's breathing is one way to re-educate and become responsive to one's physical needs. The goal of such awareness training is a state of "effortless doing," or wu-wei in Tai Chi practice, that is the "relaxed-alert" readiness characteristic of martial arts training. This ability to respond freely and effectively to whatever one encounters is the mark of the expert skier, as well as the person who has control of his or her life.

Many contemporary psychological and physical training approaches can contribute to the development of the "new skier." The movement towards "psychophysical re-education" which I have described somewhat above- reprogramming the body for more efficient performance-is having a profound effect on how we view ourselves and our capacities. Denise McCluggage in The Centered Skier traces a wide variety of these options. Skiing from the Head Down by Loudis and Lobitz shows how effective reinforcement can affect performance. Inner Skiing, by Gallway and Kriegel suggests how we interfere with our own performance and, through selective attention or "parking the mind," can release the inherent skier within each of us.

All these approaches and perspectives have had their effect on present ski teaching methods. The American Teaching Method (ATM), developed by the Professional Ski Instructors of America (PSIA), is the basis for instruction at most Colorado ski schools. It represents an evolutionary development from traditional skiing concepts, focusing on personalized instruction and developing individual awareness. ATM stresses the interpersonal skills of the instructor in creating a relaxed and fun learning environment as well as the diagnostic and prescriptive skills which were so long predominant.

From an instructional standpoint, this means that an instructor must be sensitive to the way in which each person moves and presents himself. For each person approaches a new situation in a distinctive manner, and our task as "teachers" is to aid our students in becoming aware of this self-presentation, to sense its effectiveness, and to uncover ways to self-correct unnecessary or dysfunctional movement.

Thus, instead of giving directions or prescribing corrective postures, one strives to create an attitude of exploration where the learner can experience the results of certain experiments and incorporate what is learned into future actions. There is no "final form" to be achieved but rather a state of awareness, flowing of movement, and an integration of body and mind in such a way that each action is balanced by what follows, and one is in harmony, alert and responsive to the snow, the slope, and other skiers.

Skiing thus becomes a kind of dance, a congruent blending or merging with one's environment as rich in its meditative and restorative capacities as the most intense ritual or dance. To transform the purely physical and mundane into the ecstatic and sublime is within reach of each of us by learning to ski as we learned to see, walk, and discover our world with the wonder of childhood.

Research in learning has shown that persons learn best in a supportive atmosphere where fun and self-discovery as well as nonjudgemental acceptance is provided. Learning to ski the "inner way" with careful guidance and support is a way to make skiing a vehicle for self-discovery as well as a form of self expression. Each skier can develop that style which expresses her personality and allows it full play within the limits of her sport. In this way, ATM, as described by Horst Abraham in Skiing Right, is in step with what is new and innovative in other educational arenas. Skiing is now concerned with developing the "whole" skier, one whose technology is sufficient and who skis from her heart. Poetry in motion can be as much a goal for a skier as a dancer. Allowing ourselves to learn in a non-critical way is one way of regaining the innocence and joy of childhood instead of that awful thing we must do to please another or to prove that we are worthy. Allowing yourself the space to explore and possibly learn to master a new skill like skiing is one way of saying, "I count" or "I'm O.K." The rewards of each success have far-reaching ramifications for the lives of most people.

RICK MEDRICK is director of Outdoor Leadership Training Seminars in Denver. He has been a PSIA certified instructor for over 30 years.




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