Ode to an old friend, Pianta Su
If you go to enough junior ski races this year, there is a good chance you will run in to “skills assessments,” also known, at the national level, as “Skills Quest.” Whatever they are called, these on-hill evaluations attach a value to the fundamental skills upon which all good (and ultimately great) skiing is based. Essentially kids are scored on their ability to execute certain drills that, when done properly, require proper balance, timing, turn shape and control throughout a turn.
Over the past three years I have seen these assessments done using three straightforward tasks–the pole plant, the apex turn and one-ski skiing. Other drills may be similarly revealing, but considering the attention span of small people hopped up on cocoa who aspire to go 60 mph on skis, the more concise the better.
Coaches give the kids feedback, and the scores are used to create a side competition to the actual timed competition. At the U-14 level and older high scores help kids advance to future competitions, and at all ages lower scores indicate technical issues the athlete needs to address.
I often get asked by parents and kids if I think these fundamentals assessments are a good thing, and the short answer is an enthusiastic, “Yes!” As in, yes they matter, yes they are good, yes please try them! But come on, we all know short answers aren’t my thing. So, here is the long answer, in the form of a little story. It’ll all come around in the end. I promise.
Once upon a time, we all had to learn some basic skills before we even thought about carving a turn. We did so with the help of instructors, who relentlessly hammered into our muscle memory the humble pole plant. For my husband, that instructor was Sigi Ploberger, a diminuative Austrian ski instructor with a commanding voice, who followed her charges, reminding them to “Tak!…Tak!…Tak!…” with metronomic regularity after each turn. For me, and for other western skiers I suspect, the most formative instruction came from slopes like Squaw’s West Face, and Jackson’s Tower 3, where you either planted your pole on every turn, or ended up in a heap at the bottom of the run.
Either way the message was clear to all skiers: Your pole plant is your best friend. It is the key to timing the release from one turn and initiation of the next; it restores proper fore-aft balance before each turn; it positions you solidly over the downhill ski (your second best friend); it commits your body to the fall-line, helps you adjust instantly to terrain changes, provides a pivot point in tight spots, prevents rotation, etc, etc etc…Basically, whatever trouble you get into, the pole plant’s got your back. Skiers of all ages accepted this, and if we needed any reassurance we looked no further than our bookshelves (remember those?) and the cover of “Pianta Su” with its frame-by-frame sequence of Gustavo Thoeni’s perfectly choreographed plant.
As time went on, skiing got easier. Fancy groomers and summer grading tamed the terrain so most runs resembled inclined ballrooms of uniform surface. Then came shaped skis, pretty little things that made carving easy and fun, especially on these manicured trails. Carving was suddenly as easy as leaning whatever direction you wanted to go, standing against the ski, and enjoying the ride. These new friends became the life of the party, letting new skiers skip right to the prize, without the drudgery of learning and rehearsing something so mundane as the pole plant. Why bother finding the front of the boot, figuring out how to use your ankles or pledging allegiance to your outside ski when these little vixens would show you a good time without all that effort?
But if it seems too good to be true…Yep, eventually the truth came out. Anyone can make pretty turns on a well groomed even pitch, but what are you going to do when you’re cresting a knoll onto a steep pitch, when you hit an ice patch and lose your balance, when your skis lose snow contact in a rough spot? These fancy new fun-loving friends will get you up to speed all right, but what happens when you have to get back in control…immediately? Who’s your buddy then?
That’s right. Your pole plant. The coaches of “modern technique” who say the pole plant is passé need to watch the Wengen slalom. And those who say it is irrelevant in speed events need to take a closer look at the Hahnenkamm downhill. Real men—real big, fast men—plant their poles mach schnell when necessary. No single skill remedies as many weaknesses and crises, no matter what time of day you call. That’s why a simple pole plant drill says a lot about your skiing future.
The same goes for the apex turn drill, which uses evenly spaced brush-gates to dictate turn shape. Bombing around a manicured mountain at top speed all day long will not make you a better skier. Learning to control your turn shape—initiating with the ankles, committing to both inside edges (but pinky swearing to unconditionally love your outside ski more), then modulating pressure and edge angle throughout the turn—will.
Finally, one-ski skiing ties all the skills together. Sturdier boots and more forgiving skis have made balance less exacting, but the ability to initiate a turn through front-of-boot pressure and by rolling each ankle either direction, is the gatekeeper to a higher level of skiing. Add a pole plant and you’re golden.
Three drills: Pole plant, apex and one ski. Master them, pass GO, collect $200, because you have a base on which to layer each further level of strength and technique. What you really need at this point is buy-in from the kids. The most direct route, of course, is for kids to directly participate in skills evaluations as part of an official event, with scores and a winner. A less instant, but effective option is to let the top kids come home from these events and competitions, and start practicing their drills. When the other kids want in, be coy but encouraging “Oh, ok, I guess you can try it… if you think you’re ready.” Ba-da-bing! Instant buy-in.
So the skiers all woke up after the big party with their new fancy friends, and one by one they realized that they could never really be happy without including their old friends—the pole plant, the outside ski, the ankles and the front of the boot. And they lived happily ever after.