Friday, January 11, 2008

Stance First, Please

Ever since last April, (keep in mind that I started skiing again in February as an intermediate-ish skier) people have been trying to help me get rid of my horrible tendency to look like I have to pee while I am skiing. I “A” frame terribly. Folks have said it in all different ways: Zach had me do a drill at the Symposium where I held my poles out in front of me and had to hit them with my knees to make sure I was driving my outside knee in each turn. Rick and Josh have both told me to tip the knee, to open the knee. To lean on the knee, to drive the knee… do you sense a pattern here?

I started to get really concerned because I have a hard time standing on my knee when it is tipped. I have very loose joints, which I always hoped would be an asset in skiing, in that I might stretch something and not tear it completely apart. On the other hand, when I drive my knee, especially on my left side, I actually open my joint, and then, when I stand on it, it feels like my femur is going to slide off of the joint and just collapse. Last year it felt like if I stood on it, I would break or tear something just by standing on it.

Of course, I did NOT discuss this with anyone other than Shannon, and the two of us together decided that I’d better strengthen that knee as much as possible. I spent the summer hiking on it, and doing as much leg work as I could handle at the gym. I came back this fall, and sure enough, my legs were strong, but my knees and hips all still felt terribly unstable. When I would try to do train tracks on the flats (turns where you tip your feet and ride the side cut of the ski from edge to edge with no other body movements), I still had a complete inability to stand on my left foot. Frustrating. I was terrified of my left outside edge.

For the last week, I have been skiing without my poles, with my boots open, and my arms hugged around my body. I did about seven and a half hours of this before we came to Salt Lake, and then skied everything here without poles. The point of the exercise, as prescribed by both Michael and Josh, was to find my balance point on my own, and to remove all the junk and noise from my upper body compensation.

The problem is that no matter WHAT I did, the fact that my back was swayed would NOT allow me to stack up over my feet properly and execute all the lower body mechanics that were being asked of me. I was supremely frustrated. I decided to take this seven and a half hours and work on nothing but tucking my tail bone to get rid of the “banana stance” that Michael had remarked on when I got my boots done. “I can’t understand why you stand like that with your figure skating back ground” he said. That right there was motivation enough for me to scrub it out of existence.

I started thinking about why I stand like that, with my tail bone cocked out behind me and my hip thrust forward at the same time, and I realized several things. First, it’s the landing position in every jump. Think about what female gymnasts look like when they stick a jump and finish it for the judges… the sway back is so severe its unnatural. Same in skating. Then, why do my hips jut forward at the same time? I think, honestly, its from getting lazy in pregnancy and afterwards.

Anyhow, I posted this video

(sorry its sideways) the day that Michael said it to me, and began forcing myself to tuck my tail constantly. This was tough to do because all I really wanted to do was go out and ski the fun stuff, the whirlpools, avalanche gulch, whatever. But what I needed to do was spend a week on the groomers re-teaching myself how to stand to drill that sway back out of my muscle memory.

Two days into it, I had a massive realization while I was skiing in the shower. It started as a thought about why we finish our jumps the way we do, and evolved into the idea that it must be an innate “plumage” response. I went on line and looked at candid photos of women and men, and I realized that naturally women stand with their pelvis tipped back and a bit of a sway back, chest is generally forward.
Men tend to stand with their pelvis thrust forward, and therefore naturally have their tailbones more tucked. I wonder if this is an anthropomorphic thing, a left over mating signal? Interestingly, when I started looking at people who knew they were being photographed, it was exaggerated, and then when I got to celebrities on the red carpet, it was blatant and almost across the board.

Then I tried it with Shan and Alyssa. Here are a couple of pics of Shannon when I told her to look like a hot ski bunny.
Aside from the fact that she’s blistering hot (OW!), check out how she’s standing? That’s right, ladies and gentlemen, T&A all the way.

I started playing with this while I was skiing in my shower and realized that when I have my pelvis tipped in a sway back, all of the joints below it want to move and be unstable, my knee can move about 45 degrees, my hips want to twist and torque. When I tip my tailbone under me, everything tightens up, and it is much harder for me to be out of alignment. Try it, its bizarre. I’ve had both men and women try this, and it seems to be much more impact for women than men, although men can feel it a bit. I think this must be because men naturally stand with the tail bone tucked, the musculature and ligaments are tighter from years of standing that way and allow less movement.

I also started thinking about what happens when you have children. A hormone called “relaxin” is secreted for the last trimester, allowing ligaments and cartilage to soften, so the pelvic girdle can open and allow the baby to pass. I remember feeling unstable, wobbly, and just loose for the month leading up to both the births, and for months afterwards. I wonder how long it takes to re-strengthen and tighten the connective tissues once they’ve been allowed to relax to that extent.

With this in mind, and the consequences of staying swaybacked spelled out clearly in front of me, I dedicated myself to getting my tailbone tucked. Interestingly, lots of people did not want me to think of it this way. Think of contracting your abs, think of pulling your belly button up, think of softening your spine, think of anything BUT tucking in your tailbone. Now, I know I am supposed to listen to my coaches, but something was telling me that this was the thing that was keeping me from stacking up, and that I would never be able to ski with the boys unless I could discipline my body into standing like a man on my skis. And the problem was that all my coaches are men, and I wasn’t sure that they could feel what I was feeling.

So I went off and followed Shannon around on the groomers with no poles and boots open tucking my tail bone until my butt was so sore… it paid off. On Monday, we skied at Snowbird. No poles, boots open, groomers. We did this in the morning, knowing that we were going to get to play in the afternoon. I was skiing in front of Shannon on the road trying to do train tracks, and she said, “Kate, lead with your knee”. I’ve heard this before, and once again, I thought, oh, yeah, I know what’s going to happen, but I’ll give it a try.

Suddenly, there was no A frame. No wedge going one way and divergence going the other way. Suddenly, my turns matched. Shannon was yelling behind me, and I was so shocked, I couldn’t believe it. I kept going, hoping it wasn’t a fluke, and leading with the knee. The pop in my skiing went away completely. The turns were, finally, the beginning of correct. I finally stopped and just tackled Shannon, I couldn’t help it, I totally started crying. This was the biggest obstacle to improving my skiing I have faced so far, and I was beginning to wonder if it was an immovable obstacle simply due to my physiology.

The issue was, I couldn’t do what I needed to to turn properly until I was stacked, and thus, more stable. My hips couldn’t dump, my knees COULDN’T wobble out, my upper body was attached to my lower in a communicative way.

I was so thrilled and high from this breakthrough that twenty minutes later when we went and skid with Rob, I was on fire. We skid Primrose, Daltons, Mineral Basin, and a chute or two, all with no poles in 13” of skid out wet crud, and I could ski! I felt like I could drive my skis, I could match turns, I didn’t need a heel push, I could get to my edges early and have a top of the turn, I could finally finally begin to do what my coaches have been asking me to do, all because my stance was corrected, all because the Bootfitter of Doom, Brent Amsbury, asked my coach what stance issues needed addressing in my boots.

The moral of the story? Get thee to Brent Amsbury Park City Pedorthics and Ski Boots NOW! 435-513-0672.

How do you apply this to your clients? Ask yourself this: if you are asking your skier to do something, and they are having a hard time executing it, look at the fact that they may not be ABLE to do it because they can’t be in balance, because their stance won’t allow them to. They may come up with some pretty convincing work-arrounds that allow them to move in and out of balance which approximate what you are asking them to do, but if it still doesn’t look right, consider their stance NOT only from an “are you forward” position, but take them out of their skis, take their jacket off, and really look at their alignment. What does it mean to have a flat back? How do you accomplish it? And if your client is a woman, take the time to talk her through learning to stand in a TRULY “athletic” stance.

This might be shocking: this weekend, Shannon, Alyssa and I all were surprised to realize that we were skiing from a weak place, as we are all fairly strong and athletic. Yet 3 or 4 degrees of tail bone tip made the difference between skiing effectively, and easily, and fighting for every turn.


Liat said...

Wow! Great video! It was funny and entertaining and totally showed the solution to the stance problem. Way to go!

a said...

thanks, liat! it was so cool to figure this out. the tail bone tuck isn't new, but i never realized how much it affects and why!!

Anonymous said...

You're totally right about the female posture. Arching the back like that is a ubiquitous signal of female sexual receptivity in mammals. It's why men like high heels so much- because they force us into that posture. It's called lordosis. I'm sorry, I'm a biologist and I can't help myself.
Learning to be a less sexy skier sounds like a pretty major breakthrough though. Congratulations!