By Jake Bright
Are you a NASTAR, masters, or junior racer eager for more speed? Feel like you’ve hit a plateau in your giant slalom (GS) skiing? Advanced video training could be the answer. In my own quest for faster times, I set out to explore how video analysis could help my GS skiing and others. As for my race experience, I am a young professional who got into racing five years ago from a free skiing background. I’ve made progress in NASTAR and area leagues, with a NASTAR handicap teetering between .09 and .15 and my first top 5 league finish this season. I’ve still been struggling for more consistency and looking for a breakthrough before participating in ASRA Nationals on the East Coast and USSA Masters Championships and NASTAR Nationals in Colorado.
Before jumping into a video training program, I wanted to review the fundamentals of GS ski technique and how the world’s best racers use video. I could not have found a better source than US Alpine GS coach Mike Day, hot off of Ted Ligety’s World Championship GS gold medal win. “GS is a discipline that we go to as the core event of ski racing,” Mike said. “When we are talking GS fundamentals we go from the ground up: your feet and your stance, keeping a solid athletic stance and maintenance of stance (not going back and forth between too narrow and too wide).” He continued, “From there, Ankle flexion is key, keeping the hips and shoulders on a fairly level plane, and trying not to get too rotated in either direction, countered or classic rotation.” Mike elaborated on the often discussed GS topic: hand position. “When it comes to hands you want fairly calm hands. Like any athletic sport, the closer the hands stay to your body, generally the less balance you are going to have. You need to balance hand position in relation to aerodynamics and ankle flexion. There’s not really one set hand position, but it’s clearly away from your body in a good athletic position. With GS your hands should be moving throughout the turn with constant flow.”
Mike’s suggestion to budding racers is to keep it simple: know the basics and continue to focus on them. “lf you watch Ted Ligety, by results he’s the best GS skier in the world. If you analyze Ted’s recent video, even at his level, he’s still just doing the basic stuff exceptionally well.”
I asked Mike how the US Alpine Ski Team uses video to reach these GS fundamentals, “There’s generally not a training or race run that goes by that’s not on video. We take it very seriously. There are multiple cameras on the hill…[and] …we rely heavily on video…using it to analyze everything.”
Loaded with Mike’s input and searching for video training options in the area, I came upon Bill Gucker’s new To The Max Video program at Hunter Mountain. Bill’s a former racer who’s been coaching since the decade I was born. He began developing his video analysis regimen when an injury temporarily sidelined him to running the local NASTAR finish house, “I was bored and people wanted to get faster so I started giving tips over the mic. Then I started bringing people into the house to talk. Then I started using a video camera to help people better see what I was explaining.”
Bill has developed his program significantly since his first crude camcorder. He has a video lab right off of Hunter’s NASTAR and training run, with feeds from digital cameras on the hill. Bill uses training software that has multiple slow motion features, compares skiers side by side, and can instantly pull files of more advanced racers for parallel review. He can highlight a skier’s line and turn angles with bright red or blue lines and create playback of a skier shadowed over their past runs or others. This allows comparison of lines, technique, and tactics to see where a racer pulled ahead or lost speed and why. Bill stresses his program’s uniqueness in offering on the hill analysis at any time during a training day: “A typical coach works with a skier on the hill or does video analysis at the end of the day. I can work with a racer on the hill, pull them into the house at any time to add all the video capabilities, then go back to the course to apply it, return to video, and repeat. This is much more effective than just trying to explain on the hill or doing video analysis before you go home. If I can get a skier to see it, understand it, and feel it, that’s going to bring about more rapid and lasting improvement.”
Two skiers from area race leagues, Andy and Jim, came out with me to see what improvement a day running Bill’s program could bring. All of us would be considered advanced league racers, Jim and Andy generally running a second or two faster than me in GS and Andy frequently winning races. After inspection and skiing the course (Bill set it with more offset than normal for our purposes), he pulls us into his booth for review. From his laptop station wired to a flat screen he digs into his virtual ski coach tool box to break down, analyze, and offer suggestions. Bill pulls up clips of each of our runs, creates side by side views, overlays, runs slow motion, and freezes frames to compare body position and edge angles. He also pulls up comparison video of former US Ski Team member and NASTAR pacesetter A.J. Kitt. I am reminded of the first time I saw my skiing on video at Mt. Hood race camp. It was strange; kind of like a hearing your own voice on a recording. In skiing, just as in life, there is generally a gap between how we perceive ourselves and how we really are, which quickly becomes apparent on video.
Photo: Jim, Andy, Author, and Bill
As we watch our runs, Bill reiterates the GS fundamentals relayed by Mike Day. He quickly finds the strengths and flaws in our skiing, providing verbal and visual pointers on how to correct the flaws on succeeding runs. For Andy, it’s the subtle upward drift of an outside arm through his turn leading to decreased edge pressure on the outside ski. Jim has a hand dropping down and driving without the outside hand. I am starting with good form, but getting pushed back as pitch and speed increase, loosing ankle flexion, and dumping momentum on the hill.
“Don’t feel bad, up to the best in the World Cup, all skiers have issues,” Bill jokes and sends us back out. Communicating by walkie-talkie, he has us run the course continuously, watching from the house and calling us back in once he sees what he needs. After a couple more cycles, our initial issues abate and new challenges arise. After getting our hands in better position, Bill works video clips to illustrate common problems racers develop at advanced levels. “Once we get the body position forward, upper level racers have a tendency to lock and load, thinking they’ve found the perfect position…and freezing it through the turn.” He continues, “Skiing is anything but static. As we get faster, the skis are constantly trying to catch up, shoot in front of us, and throw us in the back seat. To get faster you need to create better angles and you can’t create better angles with your body momentum falling backward.” Bill emphasizes, “A good racer has to keep driving with smooth, continuous forward movement from turn to turn.”
As we work through runs and video sessions distinct improvements emerge on screen. Evaluating video of earlier and later runs side by side in slow motion, one can clearly see where each of us was losing speed, momentum and edge pressure, compared to skis pressurizing under good form and accelerating in clean arcs. By the end of the day, Andy, Jim, and my times are consistently a second or more faster on a much deteriorated course. Comparing our times to the registered NASTAR times, we skied the top three fastest runs of the day and dropped our individual handicaps from a range of 2 – 12 to around 0 – 7. One must factor in greater familiarity with the course, but the videos of earlier vs. later show unmistakable progress in our skiing. For me, I am seeing and feeling a lot more parity to the GS fundamentals Mike Day described to me on the phone.
Bill concludes by discussing the next level of video analysis: applying the improved technique to better race tactics. I realize this will have to wait for another day and another session. Still, that’s the allure of our sport – no matter how much we progress, there are always new levels of ability to reach. Advanced video analysis can undoubtedly get us to those levels faster.
Side by side
Side by side
Jake Bright is a young professional and freelance writer in New York City. He trains for NASTAR and masters racing at Hunter Mountain and Copper Mountain