04 The Skills Concept



The Skills Concept and what it means to you as a snowboarder.

Many years ago the Professional Ski Instructors of America, or PSIA (the ‘governing body’ of ski instruction in America) devised the skills concept. This is part of an effort to bring about a standardization of ski instruction, through an identification and explanation of the movements which make skiing possible.  The ‘skills concept’ itself is the label foisted upon the four essential skills, comprised of movements, which allow us to turn a ski and thus control our descent down a snow-covered slope.


The four movement skills of skiing/ snowboarding are as follows:

Balancing movements2;  movements which enable us to improve or maintain our balance.

Edging movements; movements with which we put the snowboard on edge and with which we adjust the degree to which the board is put on edge.

Pressuring movements;  movements with which we apply pressure to the board, or with which we release the pressure that results from the dynamics of a turn.

Rotary movements;  movements of the body around an axis either to affect a turn, or as a result of the dynamics of a turn.


Since a snowboard is essentially a fat ski, we can apply the skills concept as we learn how to manipulate the snowboard to our own selfish ends.  However, as we may soon discover, there are a few differences between learning to ski and learning to snowboard.  The most obvious is the fact that both of the feet are attached to the same sliding device.  This precludes, to great extent, the degree to which we can guide a turn through independent leg movements.  We cannot execute the basic gliding wedge or wedge turn, with which we might slowly make our way down the hill.  This also means that we cannot twist our legs independently of each other and by doing so effect a turn as a result of that movement3.


If a skier were to bolt a pair of equal length two by fours to the soles of his boots, and point them down the hill, he could steer himself through a basic turn by twisting his feet in the direction he wished to go.  (This is assuming of course that the snow is packed, and that the leading edge of the two by fours have been beveled to slide easier).  This guidance of the boards is one example of the rotary movement skill, whereby the feet are turned through a twisting of each leg around a common axis, in each case terminating in the hip joint.


You can guide a snowboard through a turn through a blending of the skills, but with both legs on the same sliding surface, it is not possible to effect a turn in the same manner as you can on skis.  In snowboarding, the rotary movement skill is exemplified as the separation of upper and lower body, to the extent that torsional energy is developed in the torso of the body.  This energy can then be released, depending on the size and shape of the turn, to affect the turn and lend stability to the rider.


The overtly obvious possibilities of teaching/learning rotation and counterrotation should be avoided, as they tend to have a destabilizing effect on the rider.  The resulting movement is akin to the tail wagging the dog.  It is possible, however, to touch upon upper/lower body separation within the context of edge and pressuring movements, without becoming complex, confusing, or generally inflicting malaise upon the rider.


While the PSIA includes the ‘falling leaf’* manuever as one of the developmental stages of snowboarding, it is possible to take the same type of maneuver and refine it to provide a tangible sense of upper/lower body separation.  In an upcoming section of this manual, there is a step in which the beginning rider employs a yawing or see-saw motion of the board while sideslipping.  The task is accomplished by maintaining a consistent edge angle relative to the snow, and by shifting the emphasis of pressure from front foot to rear foot.  The upper body remains quiet relative to the direction of travel, while the board moves under the stable torso. The board changes orientation slightly while maintaining edge grip, a property which proves useful throughout the levels of skill development.


To make the learning process easier and less confusing, this manual will attempt to break down the skills individually, so that they may be practiced in an isolated manner, and then blended back together to facilitate smooth, efficient riding.  There is a definite sequence in which one should learn how to snowboard, to ensure success and avoid injury.  To that end, the skills will be presented in a similar sequence.


*The Falling Leaf involves balancing on a given edge, and sideslipping through a traverse.  When you have gone as far as you want in one direction, you sideslip back across the hill, still on the same edge.**


Where to stand4  Like up, for instance.

There is a common misconception about learning to snowboard regarding the proper place to put one’s weight.  Years ago, when snowboards looked like small surfboards, were constructed of wood, and featured aluminum fins in the rear, it was helpful to put all of your weight on the front foot in order to turn.  A turn was made by kicking the rear foot from side to side, swinging the tail of the board to change its direction.  As snowboard design began to draw upon ski technology for configuration and construction, it was no longer necessary to force a board to turn; what is now required is a balanced stance and a pressured edge.


The optimum stance involves a relaxed upper body, with moderately flexed knees and ankles.  This allows the rider to bring the knees together, enhancing the ability to balance5.  This triangulated orientation of the lower extremities can be compared in function to a ski boot, with a heel, arch, and toe.  In a long radius turn on a ski, the toe of the boot is pressured at the turn initiation, with pressure shifting gradually backward towards the heel as the turn progresses and reaches completion.  This cycle is applied to the snowboard and repeated ad infinitum until the snowboarder fatigues and calls it a day.


On a quality snowboard, particularly those designed for racing, the turn begins with pressure on the front foot, moving rearward to stabilize edge contact/grip as the turn is executed6.  Some riders maintain that they are turning entirely off the tail of the board, without ever weighting the front.  In reality, modern boards have become so responsive that it takes very little front end input to initiate a turn.  The perception follows then, that all work is done with the rear foot.  In keeping with a balanced, versatile stance, you should emphasize a more equal weighting of the feet, with slight movements fore and aft.


Balancing A neverending saga

Balancing as a skill is an ongoing process which surrounds your development of the other three skills.  As you learn how to put your board on edge, you must also learn how to balance in this new position in which your base of support has become laterally narrower.  As you become more adept at applying pressure to the tip and tail of the board, you must adapt to the tendencies of the board to move fore and aft under the body.  As your upper and lower body separation becomes more effective, you must learn how to use this aspect of your riding to its best advantage.  In general, as the other three skills are presented and discussed, bear in mind that the means by which you balance may be affected.


Snowboarding is continuous movement and adaptation, which forms both its challenge and its charm.  Snowboarding as an enjoyable undertaking is impossible without the maintenance of balance.  Of course, you could stand up for a few seconds twitching around like a frog being pithed, but you will quickly find yourself absorbing snow and wondering who pushed you over.  One of the key points of snowboarding is moving smoothly from one position of balancing to another7.  The transitions in between are what cause frustration for the uninformed.  The ability to balance seems to come naturally to some people, while for others it is a chore.  Either way, this ability is improved the longer it can be maintained.  For this reason, you are encouraged to stand up for as long as possible.  No matter how much you teeter and totter, remind yourself that you will be doing yourself immense good by struggling to stay upright, rather than giving up and sitting down.  This is especially important when attempting simple tasks with only one foot buckled in.  The tendency of course, is to put the free foot on the snow at the first sign of ‘trouble’.  This trouble, however, might simply be motion in an unfamiliar context.  This is motion to which you must eventually adapt. Therefore, hang on to whatever semblance of balance you might still have, and build on it.  If you are not in balance, then your ability to control a snowboard is severely limited.


Correct stance Let the board do the work


“…Because Charlie don’t surf.”

–Robert Duvall Apocalypse Now


As far as I am concerned, it is far more important that you have the necessary skill development to hold a traverse than it is for you to turn.  A majority of the snowboarders I see from day to day can ‘turn’ just fine, but they have great difficulty in maintaining their intended direction of travel.  They are easily identified as those who twitch their way down the fall line, periodically pointing the nose of their board in different directions; proceeding in only one.


In order for a you to maintain direction, you must first maintain the edge angle of the board on a variety of snow conditions.  This basic task is easily accomplished in powder or soft snow, but may be quite difficult on hardpack or ice.  In order for you to hold a given edge angle, you must be standing in a balanced, flexible stance.  This is where the controversy arises.


What exactly is the ideal beginning stance?  Some individuals believe the correct stance is one in which you stand like a surfer, hips and shoulders square to the toes.  It has been my experience that this stance is invalid once you have learned to sideslip.  When you begin to traverse extensively, this stance quickly becomes a hindrance to further learning.  Standing sideways on a board, you have increased the number and degree of movement of the joints necessary to maintain balance.  In order for the ‘surfer’ to stay balanced while moving, (through a flexion of joints), he must move heavy parts of his body off either side of the board.


Initially, this may not pose a problem, as the demands of balance are not too great in a relatively static pose (i.e, side slipping).  As the board begins to move, you wish to exert some directional control, you must not only balance, but balance more over one edge than the other, in addition to balancing fore and aft.  As the board moves out of the fall line, it is necessary for you to  adapt your stance and balance to accomodate the shifting ‘pull’ of gravity, and the effort required to alter the path of your momentum.


With purposeful movements come many complications and challenges.  One must also consider the immediate change in surface conditions.  While you sideslip, you generally travel over the same area of snow, with a predictable contour.  Once you begin to traverse, you must deal with continuously variable contours and snow conditions.  Not every ski area has perfectly flat packed powder conditions, and so we should expect that it will be necessary to adapt to our new and changing environment.


If you are in the ‘surfer’ stance and encounter a small but abrupt bump or depression in the snow, you must try to absorb this variant as well as maintain your edge.  Your only option is to flex your joints, thereby rearranging your tenuous stance, and your balance.  As you flex and move your major body parts off to the sides of the board, you will invariably be moving from a position of balance to a position of imbalance, a situation best avoided.  Even though your movements indicate a growing ability to balance yourself, most of the movements used to initiate a turn at this point are unnecessary and stand as an obstacle to good movement patterns.


Physically speaking, it is not very easy to quickly and accurately move your knees and shoulders one way, and your hips in the opposite direction.  It is even more difficult to execute this type of maneuver at right angles to your direction of travel.  Imagine if you will, trying to stand sideways atop a rickety sawhorse arranged longwise in the back of a small pickup truck, traveling a bumpy, winding dirt road, wearing blinders which obscure the upcoming road from your vision.


This scenario approximates the ‘surfer’ stance; okay in the driveway, but lousy in motion.  The tenuous relationship between front and rear foot weighting becomes all the more difficult once the turns become more dynamic.  The ‘surfer’ stance limits the ability to move weight smoothly from the front foot to the rear foot, a movement necessary to finish a turn without skidding uncontrollably.


As an alternative to the ‘surfer’ mode, I would suggest a stance more akin to that of a slalom water skiier:  Hips and shoulders turned in the direction of travel, knees drawn loosely together, joints flexed, upcoming terrain viewed head on, rather than peripherally.  The chief argument against this stance is that it is somewhat ‘unnatural’ to be ‘twisted’ sideways, that this is a position that is not immediately comfortable, and has no direct comparison to daily life7a.


I would like to point out that with a little bit of flexion in the joints, this position is hardly difficult to achieve and maintain, and that if you don’t feel immediately comfortable with such a stance, it should be made clear that you are undertaking a new physically demanding activity, and not watching t.v. from the comfort of your favorite reclining chair.  The advantages of this stance are so plentiful and obvious that it seems a small tradeoff to spend some time getting used to it.


I would prefer that you be frustrated initially with this stance, rather than have difficulty breaking a bad habit which resulted from adapting to a poor stance.  If you can adapt yourself to the correct ‘uncomfortable’ stance, dealing with terrain variations and demands of edge angle become a matter of minor knee and ankle flex, rather than a gross realignment of the entire body.  Bumps can be absorbed more easily, as the balance and absorbtion mechanism takes place in line with, rather than at right angles to, the initial disturbance.


Another advantage of the forward stance is that it reduces the typical snowboarder ‘blind spot’ on the heelside turn.  With improved vision, you can worry less about what you might blindly hit, and concentrate on what you need to do to execute your next turn.  Another hidden benefit is a difficulty in pivoting the board, due to reduced leverage with the knees held together8.  If you can’t pivot your way into a turn, you just might figure out a better way to turn.  To summarize, it is preferable to introduce a balanced stance as soon as feasible, generally about the point that spontaneous traverses begin to take place.

(2) Balancing movements…

If you consider snowboarding as the act of maintaining a state of equipoise rather than as a sporting activity, you realize that edging, pressuring, and rotary movements are really the means by which we achieve this equilibrium. .  They are the means by which we rearrange our base of support under our center of mass. Thus, they are all balancing movements.  The movements of the hands and arms are best considered auxiliary balancing mechanisms.  A novice rider is bound to use the hands and arms for balance more often and in more obvious ways than a more experienced rider (one would hope).  From a coaching standpoint, movements of the upper appendages are an indication that something is not being done correctly at the ground level.  Thus, rather than forcing a rider to ride with a quiet upper body, etc, figure out why these movements are necessary within their context.  If you assign a particular activity to the hands, such as holding the seams of the pants, etc. the rider will be forced to focus on the movements of the feet rather than covering up their careless mistakes.


(3) Rotary movements…  Best resolved as the ability to rotate, not rotate, or separate the rotational activity of the body while creating a turn on a snowboard.  Anyone who insists that twisting the snowboard while rocking the knee joint sideways is a use of a rotary movement is barking up the wrong tree.  The appearance may be rotational, but the outcome is edge related.

**The falling leaf is not a simple zig-zag, in that the path should have ‘bow’ to each traversed section.

(4) not sure here (stand in the place where you live?)


(5) This allows…  Bringing the knees together doesn’t really improve one’s balance.  It just seemed like it at the time.  I think this was a classic example of confusing cause and effect.  I may have been riding with an inboard cant on the rear binding as well, something you couldn’t pay me to do now.  If my rear knee was moved inboard by the tilt of the rear binding, it would have been uncomfortable to ride with my knees apart, and moving the knees apart would have twisted the board, summarily making the board unstable.  It would appear then, that riding with the knees together would create a more balanced position.


(6) The turn begins…  If the board is set up correctly, there is no need to accentuate the pressure on the front foot at the start of a turn.  If you wish to tighten the radius of the turn or momentarily induce skidding, you would need to accentuate the pressure applied to the front of the board via the front foot.  In most circumstances, the impression of weighting the front foot is created simply because, in bending the board into an arc, the board is pushing back on your foot.  Since the front of the board bends before the rear, it follows that a rider would feel more pressure under the front foot at the beginning of a turn.  If a rider feels like they are spending most of the time on the rear foot, chances are good that their bindings are set too far toward the tip of the board.



(7) One of the key…   This sentence is kind of bogus.  The wording implies linked recoveries, which is not the intent.  When it is done well, the rider is in consistent state of dynamic equilibrium. Having spent untold hours pondering the means by which the human body remains upright.  I have reached the following conclusions (and then some): 

A most versatile posture of the human body is ‘upright and stable’.  Ideally, this condition will be met in the least muscular manner possible.  If stability is achieved at the expense of agility, that’s just the way it goes, as the former supercedes the latter.  This accounts for that feeling of knowing you need to make a movement, and yet you have to wait another second before you can.  Unless a skier/ rider, etc is actively falling, they are in a state of equilibrium, thus, they are in balance.   If you are able to rearrange your base of support under your center of mass at any moment, then you are agile in addition to being in balance.  Thus, if you are truly riding well, a state of equilibrium is a constant.


(7a) The chief argument…  If a stance is unfamiliar, that is one thing.  If a stance is contrived, introducing unnecessary muscular tension, that is another thing.  Just as we seek to remain in a state of equilibrium with the dynamics of a turn, we should remain in musculo-skeletal harmony as well.  If tension is introduced to the posture, it should be transient in nature, not constant.

(8) Another hidden…  Though it is harder to pivot or spin an alpine board,  this has more to do with the angle of the stance than the proximity of the knees to each other.  On the other hand, if the rear binding is canted inboard, that certainly doesn’t make life any easier, other than standing on the board in the living room.