Last month, we discussed the importance of fundamentals in skill development. At GroundSwell Athletics, we teach fundamental development both in skiing and in business. This week, I am focusing on balance in skiing. If you look at the best ski racers in the world at any point in history, the one common denominator is balance.
I reached out to a handful of successful World Cup coaches and athletes to find out how they think about balance. I received feedback from Ted Ligety, Dave Chodounsky, Johnathan Nordbotten, Megan McJames, and Phil McNichol. I am incredibly grateful for their thoughtful responses and want to share with you some of my questions and their answers.
Is balance important?
Top-15 World Cup skiers Dave Chodounsky and Jonathan Nordbotten think so:
Dave Chodounsky: “Balance is everything with skiing. I think the entire concept of skiing is based on balance … If you're not balanced and lined up, you fall.”
Jonathan Nordbotten: “Yes, from an early age we are trying to get in a good balance, we have something called middle balance. You stand on the middle of your foot. We are trying to learn how it feels and what to search for.”
Phil McNichol: “Balance is the foundation to great skiing - success in ski racing does not happen if your skiing skill is not strong.”
How do World Cup athletes develop balance?
I received very consistent feedback on this question: Ski in ALL conditions.
Megan McJames: “Besides developing basic fundamentals, I think that the best way to develop good balance is to FREESKI all types of snow conditions, terrain and visibility. The more comfortable you can get in varying conditions, the easier it will be to maintain balance on the race slope.”
Nordbotten: “I think it mostly comes from feeling and a lot of volume of skiing. You need to experience how it feels to stay in a good balance, and to experience it you need to ski a lot. We also try to free ski a lot, not just skiing in gates, during the preseason and during the season.”
Chodounsky: “Hours and hours of skiing is the best to train your body to balance on skis. For me, I think the biggest development for my balance was skiing off piste in moguls, powder, crust, whatever, when I was young. I learned how to ski in every snow and position my body to stay balanced.”
McNichol: “More volume on skiing exercises which demand balance. Too often coaches perform some of this work then move on to gate training or other training activities without pushing for the execution required to make balance a habit.”
Ted Ligety: “Balance is a skill based on that specific activity, yes it helps to train it in the gym and through other activities but ski balance is achieved through skiing and challenging your balance skiing … Not always skiing gates, ski the whole mountain. Straight line moguls, ski with one ski.”
In my experience, both as an athlete and a coach, ski racers in the U.S. do not have enough of a focus on free-skiing. I see a lot of coaches and athletes that are too focused on training in gates and skiing on groomers. When I was growing up, I skied everything: moguls, glades, ice, crud, everything. My coaches told me I skied too much and that the Austrians only took 4 high-quality training runs a day. I was told that I was ingraining bad habits by skiing so much. I thought otherwise. Although there is a time when high intensity and low volume makes sense, it needs to be balanced with higher volume in varied conditions.
The only way to develop balance and the ability to execute on additional fundamental technical and tactical skills is to have a ton of volume skiing in all kinds of conditions. Otherwise, our athletes will be more prone to injury and we will have a difficult time producing world-class ski racers. Although there will be some great athletes and great performances, we will never be able to develop athletes who can consistently compete with the best in the world.