Back to Basics

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Ode to an old friend, Pianta Su

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.

30 thoughts on “Back to Basics”

  1. You are right Edie …….I remember the ‘stabalizing’ pole plant as a necessary ,defensive technique for skiing the ungroomed steeps of SV back in the ’70’s, ’80’s, and early ’90’s. In fact it was a non-negotiable behavior: before I would take anyone,skiing on KT (other than the Saddle) Cornice II Headwall.. Today… not only has ski design changed but so has skiable terrain at our resorts. Everything is groomed and thanks to risk management, terrain requiring a stabalizing blocking pole plant is CLOSED off with roping … never to be skied again because of fear of litigation. None the less, the execution of the ” when where and why” of the use of the pole plant is a great indicator of skill understanding, execution nad results.. All attention, these days, seems to be placed on balance, steering and edging. Diversity is a good thing, After all those ski pole aren’t carried for cosmetic purposes, or sliding over the flats. Thanks for your thoughts and commitment.

    • Thanks for commenting Kathy! You have been there in the trenches beating the pole plant drum, so it’s great to hear your take. And yeah, KT without a pole plant ain’t pretty! Hope you are well and having a great winter. Edie

      • It’s funny, it just dawned on me that back around 1979 my dad had a condo at Purgatory, I was at the beginning of my ski instructing/coaching career and we went to see Ruedi at his beautiful place north of Durango. My dad bought me some skis from him. I believe they were Spaulding Squadra Course. Still haven’t located that autographed book, too bad!

  2. Awesome article Edie!

    I literally withheld both of the kids Ipod Touch’s last year for a week, for not planting their poles! (I am such a mean mom!)

    You are spot on with the pole plant as being the golden ticket in skiing. Keeps you balanced, keeps your timing, keeps your turns flowing, and keeps you from killing yourself….

    Now, from one ripping ski mom to another….. How in the hell do I get my own kids to listen to me on this one??

    • Ha! Make them listen to your friend instead. Or, if you’re a truly mean mom make them race you down something REALLY hairy, but without poles.

        • I coach at a club program down in CT. We recently did a SkillsQuest assessment weekend with the rcers in our program. I’ll tell you what motivated – Swedish Fish! I work with the U10s and their eyes would have blurred at USSA’s 1-10 scoring matrix (though us coaches used it for filling out the score cards). What the kids did understand is setting a baseline score, and then trying top it. No improvement – no fishies. Some improvement – 1 fishy. Lots of improvement – 2 fishies. These little guys hiked over and over again, just for another shot at a fishy!

          Though it does feel a little like feeding time at the Aquarium, I have found that the “0-1-2 Fishy” system work for everything – including pole plants!

          • I think you are doing a great job with the kids. The skills drill work great but one thing needs to be added is proper demonstration from coaches so that the kids understand what they need to do. Also some more feedback from coaches on what the kids can do to fix things they are doing wrong. Other than that keep on skiing. Thanks.

          • You are so right! That’s the next step, and I think one thing in process is a really good video demonstration so kids and coaches can see the skills done correctly and know the goal. Then you have to deploy good demonstrators to coach the coaches where needed. It’s not going to happen overnight, but prioritizing good fundamentals—and getting people to believe they really matter—is a start.

          • Yes! Bribery will indeed get you everywhere. I’d be willing to bet that more than a few great ski racers were at one point motivated by candy and hot cocoa breaks.

  3. Been working fundamentals for years and still have parents who think the athletes should only be running gates, it’s a tough sale but it’s in the athletes best interest. Gonna post this in the training center.

    • Awesome! Spread the word. Lots of times it takes more discipline NOT to run gates than to set a course and have everyone make laps. Good luck!

  4. Pianta Su is still a classic! Thanks for clarifying and justifying a great reason for using skills quest. One thing that always remains the same is that the physics in skiing don’t change. The great new equipment and grooming makes using it easier and more fun, yet we always have to re-attach and re-center ourselves between turns – so that we can have all that fun again! And there it is, the fabulous pole plant! What’s not to love?

  5. Thanks, Edie! Perfect timing for my U14 — who thinks I ski like a dork ’cause I fuss about this pole planting thing. I just pulled out my dusty old copy of Pianta Su and left it by the cookie jar.

    • Viva La pianta! Or something like that. It was my U-14 who was watching the Kitz DH and said, “Check it out—pole plant!” They are so not the stuff of dorks.

  6. Edie:
    You may remember me, we coached together at the J4 fundamentals camp two years ago at Sunday River.
    With my u14’s I can not stress this enough. They all know how to ski on one ski both right and left, with poles and without. Pole plants both single and double! And the apex drill – everyones favorite.
    We just did a Skills Quest evaluation yesterday and I must say, the USSA Eastern Drills are much more comprehensive.
    I pressed the evaluator from Park City about why they choose what they did for the Skills Quest drills and really didn’t get a great answer. I also informed him that we work on the Canadian Skills too. I think I lost him there!
    We both finally agreed that skills are an important foundation to any great skier.
    The kids had a blast at the skills quest competition – lots of laughs and they did get very competitive.

    Have a great remainder of the season, hopefully we will run into each other at Finals.

    Coach Ted – Mount Peter

    • Of course I remember you! Thanks for your comments. It is great to hear how other programs are using the drills, and especially cool to hear they are working. Hope to see you in March and that we are all buried in snow between now and then.

  7. Well said Edi! … I recently found my copy of Pianta Su in the back of my Vail storage unit … I almost threw it away but flipped through it and put it back in the box. I know there is still relevance but I kept it out of nostalgia!

    • Thanks Chip! And keep that book. Maybe swix, Leki, etc will make a commemorative edition as a little reminder, but for now they’re collectors items.

  8. Take another look at Hirscher’s brilliant second run at Kitz, a young star that you don’t often see using it, but on that day, on that terrain he used the single and the double when needed.

    • Great call. Pole plants seem especially vital while negotiating euro farmland and other natural terrain where it still exists. And I don’t buy that it’s only a pole “tap” now. You have to at least know how to plant it like you mean it, for when that instant arises. Thanks for the comment!

  9. Hi Edie! Stumbled across this trying to find drills to get my little Zoe Mighty Mite out of her power wedge. Saw your dad out still ripping it up a few days ago. HOpe you are well!

    • Nice to hear from you Jeff and good luck with the power wedge. It all works out sooner than you can imagine! Happy New Year and enjoy that snow.

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