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Build a skiing foundation with The Performance Pyramid

This is an excerpt from Total Skiing by Chris Fellows.

The Performance Pyramid

To assess movement quality, the North American Ski Training Center uses the model of a four-level performance pyramid. Here, the balanced skier’s performance is displayed in an isosceles triangle, with a base block of functional movement, a center block of fitness, and two upper blocks of ski techniques and tactics (see figure 1.1). The pyramid’s four levels represent an important cause-and-effect dynamic in skiing. The block of functional movement serves as the foundation on which the blocks of fitness, technique, and tactics are built. Although all these components are quite different, they are linked by how well the body moves and reacts under the demands of the performance environment, whether in a gym or on a ski slope. Without the integrity of the functional-movement block, the blocks for fitness, techniques, and tactics will soon break down due to fatigue or injury. This pyramid is based on concepts from Gray Cook’s Athletic Body in Balance, an excellent resource for movement and conditioning.

The bottom level of the pyramid represents patterns of functional movement, or mobility and stability. The next three levels of fitness, technique, and tactics cannot fully develop unless skiers can perform functional movements in a controlled environment. The second level represents fitness, or movement efficiency. These movements enable skiers to produce and absorb power and to generate the endurance and ability to handle challenging snow and terrain. The top two levels represent skiing technique and on-snow tactics. Skiing technique is made up of skill elements that, when solidified, create a launchpad for future maneuvers.

As technique is refined, skiers build confidence and anticipate the approaching terrain and conditions. At that moment, they can visualize tactical solutions to meet the upcoming challenges. As they grow, skiers will revisit the continuum of functional movements, moving through all the blocks and back to functional movement again. The ability to move freely from one block to another shows development. These movements provide the basis of skiing skills.

Evaluating Skill Level With the Pyramid Blocks

Often, skiers fail to improve because they focus on their strengths rather than addressing their weaknesses. Coaches and instructors are just as guilty when it comes to identifying the root cause of a fault, flaw, or error. Most identify the symptom and call it a day. As a ski instructor, I was trained to spend most of my time focusing on my students’ skills. Most exams for ski instructor certification focus on developing a skill progression that addresses a skier’s symptoms. However, in working with a wide range of abilities throughout my career, I have instead come to realize that optimal skiing performance is the result of a stable performance pyramid, or one in which a skier demonstrates strength and consistency at each level.

Assessing the Pyramid Blocks

In order to identify specific asymmetries or limitations, skiers will be assessed on each block of the performance pyramid in chapters 2 through 5. The assessments essentially provide skiers with a checklist of areas for specific improvement within the parameters of the performance pyramid.

As you age or suffer injury, simple tasks can become difficult, altering your natural movement patterns and causing your body to compensate. Unless you address these compensations before you step on the snow, they will carry over into your skiing, resulting in chronic pain or traumatic injury and affecting your performance. Screening for these asymmetries will give you insight for addressing problematic areas with corrective drills and exercises.

To better understand how the assessments relate to skiing, let’s take a look at a specific assessment of functional movement. Begin with the functional movement related to the body mechanics used in everyday tasks, such as squatting down to pick up a heavy object, twisting and turning to open or close a door, running up a flight of stairs, stepping up and over an object in your path, or getting up from the floor after lying on your back. The functional-movement assessments in chapter 2 determine that the most common movement faults in skiing become apparent when performing basic squats, single-leg squats, exercises that demonstrate rotational stability, and lateral lunges.

During these basic exercises, many people struggle to correctly move their hips, legs, core, and upper body because they fail to apply proper compensatory movement to opposing body parts. Instructors see symptoms of these mistakes all the time, particularly with students who can’t flex evenly throughout their joints. As a result, they tend to lean forward and flex their ankles or knees too much, causing them to camp out over their skis. Other skiers may not flex the joints enough, causing them to lean backward toward the tails of the skis.

When doing these basic movements, the following tests may identify trouble performing dynamic on-snow tasks. When asked to perform three consecutive squats, do your legs and knees collapse (sharply angle in or out) each time? Do your knees stay aligned while flexing? Do your feet pronate too much, rotating outward? Do you flex your spine? If you have trouble performing a single-leg balance in the lodge, you will have problems with a single-leg drill on the snow.

As Warren Witherell so memorably demonstrated, the center of knee mass must be properly aligned as you flex in your boots so that you can apply direct pressure, transferring energy down to your skis. When isolated from the variables of a ski run, this visual data gleaned from the functional-movement assessment can provide a telling snapshot of your joint movement. If you can perform functional movements smoothly and efficiently, you can incorporate those movements into skiing. On the other hand, if you reveal movement asymmetries in the lodge, you will invariably experience certain limitations on the hill.

Determining Skier Type

You can combine the results of the pyramid-block assessments to determine your skier type. These categories will be discussed further in chapter 6. Placing skiers into one of four types helps us customize drills and exercises that address total performance rather than particular technique.

Once you have determined your skier type, see part III for the full spectrum of training needs based on your unique profile. These chapters address the needs and compensations identified in the performance assessments of the pyramid blocks and provide clear programs for building up areas of weakness and maintaining strengths. In the end, the groundwork laid in this approach clarifies three important concepts for your development.

First, it identifies your skier type and, therefore, your specific needs. For example, are you inflexible, requiring mobility work, or are you weak in your core, requiring strengthening in that area? Are you a combination of both? Although in good general shape, are you a first-time skier or a seasoned pro who needs to get back into shape since raising kids? Gaps in your pyramid are nothing to be ashamed of, but ignoring problem areas will only keep you stuck where you are.

Second, this approach shows that compensating movements can alter the normal reflexive response of muscles needed for proper skiing. The assessments will identify movement patterns affected by poor posture, muscle imbalance, poor mobility, faulty motor programming, and altered nerve responses due to injury or tightness. Finally, you will become aware of how body parts are associated with one another. You will also learn which joints and muscles are most susceptible to injury by identifying problems in related groups. For example, continually injuring your knee indicates a problem with the surrounding joints of the hip and ankle.

Once you have gone through all the assessments and are armed with this valuable information, it’s time to ski. Allow sufficient time to relax and enjoy the mountain, but watch how you adapt your movement when faced with challenging terrain. By attempting terrain appropriate for your ability level, you can apply tactics and make the connections between technical movements, both on and off the snow. At the end of the day, the solution to any weaknesses you’ve identified—along with the next step in your development—should be very clear.

The system described in this book can help you measure the physical barriers that may be blocking you from achieving your potential. It offers complete and concise information for incorporating the drills, exercises, and equipment adjustments into your own training program. This book will give you the knowledge to completely analyze your overall setup so you don’t end up overlooking the most important piece of equipment of all, your body.

Read more about Total Skiing.

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