What do tree skiers, first-day beginners, and car drivers have in common?
If the blog post title didn't clue you in, it's the eyes.
I had the pleasure of exploring some new terrain recently added to a ski resort this weekend. There were no trails and no signs, just trees and snow. It's a great feeling to go through the trees, especially when there are few if any tracks ahead of you. As I was enjoying the peace and quiet exploration of the mountain, I thought about what really makes the difference between having fun in the trees, and slamming on the brakes to skid to a stop just shy of the bark each time. As they say on the East Coast, "Ski good or eat wood!"
Imagine for a moment you're driving down the Interstate. You've probably run across an accident on the side of the road before, maybe even a really bad one. You see a car flipped over, and maybe another car on fire. There will be several police cars, an ambulance or two, and maybe a firetruck. Like most people, you slow down and scan the scene, checking to see if you can see a decapitated body or maybe a limb laying in the road. And then... you hear the thump-thump-thump of the tires on the warning track, letting you know you've drifted out of your lane. Why is that?
We naturally follow our eyes. When you check your mirrors to change lanes, you also find yourself moving slightly in that direction. I use this to great effect when teaching beginners, who are often too scared to turn on their first few short runs. I'll walk backwards behind them, and move from side to side. The learning skiers will naturally turn slightly to head in the direction I'm walking, building confidence and teaching them how to turn.
So how can we apply this to skiing in the trees?
When you ski through the trees, where do you look? Are you looking at the tree in front of you, or are you looking at the gap you want to take between trees? If you're focused on the tree, you might find your turns take a little longer to complete, putting you closer to the bark than you were planning to go. This, in turn, means you have less room for your next turn, and very soon speed becomes your enemy and you start making skidded turns to slow down. It's rough and harrowing, and sucks the joy out of the forest.
Next time you dip into the trees, keep your eyes focused on where you want to be. Find the gap, and look at it as you turn toward it. Use your peripheral vision to plan ahead, but the head should focus on the turn you're making now. Once your skis are across the hill, move your eyes to the next gap. You will soon find a rhythm that keeps you turning, without the need to slam on the brakes.
Remember to never ski in the trees alone, and always wear a smile in the forest!