SKIING IS MORE THAN A PARALLEL TURN
There is a magic in skiing when all is going well that transcends anything I have experienced in other sports. As I soar down a mountainside letting my body find its own balance in turn after turn, my mind as clear as the cold air against my face, my heart feels as warm as the sun, and I attain a level of experience which compels me to return to the snow for more and more of the same.
But too often this magic turns to misery. Apprehensive thoughts intrude and I lose natural rhythm, repeat old mistakes, and fall needlessly. I pick myself up cold, wet, and discouraged, wondering if skiing is worth the trouble after all. Will I ever get off the seemingly endless plateau in my progress and ski the way I’d like to? Will I ever soar again? Something tells me not to count on it, but another voice urges me to try.
The purpose of Inner Skiing is to increase the magic of skiing and decrease the misery—to bypass the frustrations that inhibit its joy and freedom, and to learn how to reach that state of mind in which we not only appreciate the sport but perform at our best. The premise of this approach is that primarily it is neither external conditions nor lack of technical expertise that prevents us from experiencing skiing at its best, but the doubts, fears, and thoughts within our own heads. The Inner Skier comes to recognize that his greatest challenge, and consequently his greatest possibilities, lies in overcoming the self-imposed mental limitations that prevent the full expression of his physical potential.
The fears and doubts in the mind are automatically transferred to the body in the form of tension, rigidity, and awkwardness, preventing us not only from moving fluidly, but also from seeing the terrain clearly. Inner Skiing aims to develop the skills necessary to recognize and overcome these inner obstacles. Using this approach, the skier learns the art of relaxed concentration and to trust his body’s potential to learn and perform. He discovers that the secret to success in skiing lies in not trying too hard, and that his best teacher is his own experience. He develops a true sense of self-confidence that allows him to view falls and mistakes as learning opportunities rather than reasons for anger and frustration.
The Inner Game approach is hardly new. It is similar to the natural way that, as children, we learned to walk, talk, or throw a ball. It uses the unconscious, rather than the deliberately self-conscious, mind. This process doesn’t have to be learned; we already know it. All that is needed is to unlearn the habits and concepts that interfere with our natural learning ability, and to trust the innate intelligence of our bodies.
The principles of the Inner Game approach to learning and to maximum performance are basically the same for most sports and other activities, but each sport presents its own unique inner and outer challenges. Tennis requires sustained visual concentration during long periods of physical exertion. Distance running offers special opportunities to overcome boredom and develop endurance. Golf demands the subtlest kind of mental concentration and kinesthetic control. Team sports teach us cooperation and how to sacrifice individual egos for the benefit of the team. The remainder of this chapter concerns the often-neglected opportunities offered by the special nature of skiing to learn some things more universally applicable than how to make a parallel turn. The parallel turn is not difficult once we rediscover how to learn.
LETTING GO OF WHAT YOU THINK YOU KNOW
Remember how strange and awkward it felt the first time you stepped into ski boots and strapped those long boards onto your feet? Remember how frightened and out of control you felt when you tried to move?
Most sports have one characteristic in common. Whether it is baseball, basketball, tennis, golf, hiking, climbing, or boxing, the way we move on the earth is by walking or running. Even as beginners ignorant of the rudiments of these sports, we at least know how to move. But in skiing we must slide rather than walk or run, and so we relate to the ground and move on it in an entirely different way. When we first stand on a pair of skis we lose that feeling of having a firm foothold on solid ground. A slight shift of weight can cause us to lose our balance and fall.
Thus, in skiing we must confront a basic fear: loss of the familiar.
This feeling of uncertainty is similar to the first time we put our feet on the pedals of a bicycle, pushed off the wall of an ice-skating rink or tried to stay afloat in water. Just as in these other activities, learning to ski requires first being willing to let go of one known sense of control in order to gain another. In trying to do so, few of us escape a sense of panic. Learning to swim, we flail around in the water desperately trying to stay afloat. In skiing we hold our bodies rigid, hoping to prevent ourselves from falling. But our struggle to maintain control in a new medium usually interferes with more than it helps the effort to achieve that goal. Fighting the new element prevents us from adapting to it.
Our situation as a beginning skier is similar to being in a room when the lights go out. In pitch-blackness our eyes—the primary means for gathering information about our world—are useless; we are literally in the dark. If we panic and grope blindly for the light, inevitably we will bump into objects and damage them or ourselves. On the other hand, if we allow our eyes to adjust to the dark, shapes will start to emerge and we will again feel secure. Similarly, in trying to ski, if we don’t panic and fight the experience of sliding, our bodies soon grow accustomed to this new form of locomotion and we gain a sense of confidence.
Not having his basic references for moving his body, the frightened beginning skier tries to cling to his old and familiar ways. When trying to slow down or stop, his first reaction is to lean back and dig in his heels, just as he would when walking or running. In trying to prevent himself from falling down, he leans uphill. But in skiing, the laws of movement are different, and leaning back only makes you go faster, while leaning uphill causes the skis to slide out from under you. To the beginner, this reaction of his skis is as confusing as if he had stepped on the brakes of his car, only to find it accelerating. He panics even more and leans back still further in a desperate attempt to stop, which causes him to increase speed, lose balance, and fall.
I will always remember my first time on skis. I rode a rope tow to the top of a small hill, positioned myself in a basic snowplow as I had seen other beginners do, and pushed off. As soon as I began moving I became petrified at not knowing how to stop or slow down. My body, bent almost in half, was stiff with fear; I felt that if I relaxed one tightened muscle I would crash to the ground. In effect, I was a sliding statue. At first, whenever I began going too fast or reached the bottom, I would fall backward, the only way I knew to stop. After a few runs, when I began to descend less slowly, the falls became more spectacular. Looking for a less painful way to stop, I tried unsuccessfully to stab my poles into the snow in front of me. My frustration only made me more determined to try still harder, biting my tongue and tensing my jaw. But the more I tried, the tighter I became, and the more I fell.
Finally I said to myself, The hell with it. I’m going to stop fighting the hill and just ski. If I fall, I fall. I can’t do any worse than I’m doing now. With this I felt a little more relaxed, and though it was scary to just let myself slide down, and though I still felt out of control, I didn’t fall as frequently. After a few more runs, I started feeling my skis and noticing what happened when I leaned to one side or the other, or backward and forward. Gradually, by going with this new sliding motion, I began to gain a little control. Though I knew I wasn’t turning properly, I was soon able to get where I wanted and to stop without falling. I was going to learn to ski after all!
Like anything else, learning to ski is a process of discovery that comes primarily from the experience itself. As we let go of our preconceived notions about how to move, we feel what it is like to slide on the snow. Without straining, our body learns from its experience, just as it did when learning to swim or ride a bike. By not resisting this new experience as we negotiate a slope we can learn far more than simply a new form of locomotion; we learn how to deal with the unexpected wherever we encounter it. We discover that we can adapt to strange or different experiences only when we are willing to let go of our dependence on old concepts.
Copyright © 2010 by W. Timothy Gallwey and Robert Kriegel. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.