SB instruction at Sugarloaf/USA; a few notions
(I put this together a few years ago ((2009)) to clarify a few important points for those not so well versed in the particulars.)
The Goal: Provide a quality learning experience; leading to further involvement in snowsports.
Means: Create and/or enhance mobility on a snowboard.
Achieve this in a manner that reduces the overall risk of injury, while providing the client(s) insight into, and enjoyment of the activity.
Produce consistent, replicable results with an approach that favors a sound understanding of cause and effect, as concerns objects in motion, integrated with the known ‘behavioral’ tendencies of the human body.
Use this knowledge to either remove or reduce known obstacles to mobility inherent to the design of the equipment and the geometric relationship formed between the client and said equipment.
Given the vast number of variables involved in snowboarding, particularly with regard to the needs/ desires of the guest, and the myriad biomechanical considerations specific to each, it would be foolish to develop a teaching methodology specific to a particular ‘type’ of rider. (Despite market trends, many recreational riders will spend little time in the half-pipe or terrain park.) The logical thing to do is to understand how the equipment functions, how the body functions, and how they may best operate together as a system, to better create the desired outcome, as determined by the guest and their present snowboarding ability.
Depending on the client, and their ultimate goal as a snowsport athlete, a coach should be able to move them closer to their goal while informing them of the challenges ahead.
Different boards are good for different jobs, and the same can be said of various boot/binding, stance angles/widths. No one setup will serve best for all purposes. Each choice will involve compromise in some area.
To pretend otherwise is foolish.
Snowboarding is a relatively new sport, without much of a history. Therefore, the tendency to develop a teaching methodology based on snowboarding as it is, rather than how it might be, is a waste of time.
It is rather discouraging to look around and see any number of guests foiled in their attempts to improve their lot, due largely to poor equipment configuration.
But then, how would they know any better than to do what they are told by the loudest and most persistent voices in the industry?
Slight change of topic…Learning To Ride.
Begin with the assumption that if a rider did not ‘lose their balance’ they would not fall, and thus their opportunity for injury would diminish. Now assume that balance is a process that is determined by the ability to know where you are in space, where your base of support is relative to your center of mass, and your ability to manipulate one relative to the other as needed. It stands to reason then, that if the ability to ‘balance’ is optimized, injuries should be reduced, and the outcome of a snowboard lesson should be fairly predictable.
Obviously, mistakes in movement will transpire. An understanding of the mechanics involved should prevent many of those mistakes.
The following is a discussion of balance facilitation through manipulation of adjustable parameters.
Variables affecting the learn to ride process
Lift speed, exit ramp height, exit ramp pitch
Forefoot flexibility compensation
Not controlled (The guest)
Nota Bene: if the controlled variables are accounted for, then athletic ability should not play much of a role for the initial snowboarding experience. In other words, if you can stand on two feet and walk, you are capable of riding at the most basic level.
Pitch should be fairly shallow, but not too shallow. If memory serves, the ideal pitch varies between 0 and around 14 degrees. It has been awhile since I measured our learning area, so I might be off by a few degrees on the upper end. You want a flat area to start, and then you need a consistent incline for the more serious work. If the pitch is too flat, it is actually easier to snag an edge, (as the edge not immediately engaged is fairly close to the snow), and such a fall is potentially damaging.
If the pitch is appropriate, the rider, set up properly, should be able to execute a slow, controlled sideslip by simply relaxing the lower extremities slightly. If the angle of incidence between board and snow is ‘correct’, there will be just enough engagement, and a fair amount of clearance between the disengaged edge and the snow, which will provide a reasonable margin for error without an edge catch. If the rider does slack off the edge too much, the increase in speed will provide the indicator of a mistake long before the opposing edge hits the snow, thus, there will be a tactile indicator of error.
Falling on a dead flat surface is likely the most dangerous thing a guest can do on a snowboard, short of colliding with an object heavier than they are. When the surface is flat, there is really no opportunity to dissipate the impact of a fall, whereas on a slope, some of the impact is ‘disrupted’ if you will, by the angle of contact on the downhill side, and by the shorter distance to impact on the uphill side, coupled with a ‘slower’ fall. Obviously, this is an oversimplification, but the logic should be clear.
Adults stand a greater chance of injury than do children simply because they are A) taller, and B) have greater mass, thus the ‘force’ of impact will be higher. A similar situation occurs when an adult begins to spin, or rotate around an axis. This is just one reason why teaching J turns, or edge to edge movements before side slipping/gliding across the fall line is a poor idea.
The safest path is one on which the board glides on it’s long axis. The most hazardous path involves moving the board across the snow on it’s short axis. The less the novice either spins or slips, the better.
The J-turn introduces rotational inertia before the novice is in a ‘position’ to deal with it, and as such is not appropriate for entry level riders.
Fall line should be consistent; I.E, no side-hill.
Contour should be even, unless there are channels graded to provide “default” movement options.
Lift speed should be adjustable for the first few exits. This is one really good reason why you should establish favorable rapport with your lift operators.
Exit ramp should appear to be flat, and wide, as viewed from the perspective of the guest. Consider the use of optical illusion? Exit area should be free of obstructions.
Distance from chair surface to deck of exit should be of a height such that the average adult should be able to stand starting with their hips at or slightly above their knees, but not below.
Boots should be sized snugly, as though a hockey skate, soccer shoe, or other performance footwear. Rule of thumb has been one size smaller than street shoe, though this is subject to interpretation. Foot should be measured to determine actual size. Do not rely on verbal sizing.
Boots should be laced snugly, like a firm but not annoying handshake. Longest toe can touch the front of the boot, but should not be ‘doubled’
The rear boot should be laced down one set of speed hooks. (This will allow for slightly more articulation at that joint, prior to engaging the toeside edge. A smoother heelside/toeside transition will result. A boot that is sized too large will not support the foot, nor will that boot accurately transmit the movements necessary to manipulate the board.
Board should be sized based on rider weight, and foot size*. The secondary consideration is leg length, as a light rider with long legs will need a longer board, just as a heavy rider with short legs will require a shorter board. Perhaps it would be worth producing a few short/stiff boards?
Base condition Efforts should be made to maintain the base and edges of the board, such that the base does not dry out and erode next to the edges, and that the base will glide on wet or sticky snow. Edges do not need to be razor sharp, but should be relatively free of dents or burrs.
Board width is a function of foot size, whereas a rider with smaller feet will require a narrower board, and vice versa with big feet. If the board is wider than appropriate, it will require more effort on the part of the rider to engage either edge. As effort increases, accuracy decreases, and a loss of accuracy will generally affect balance.
Binding angle Bindings should have some angular bias towards the nose of the board, with the rear binding set no lower than zero. There are several reasons for this:
Given that we walk around with our feet pointing in the direction we wish to go, forward angle provides a non-visual indicator of direction, and thus orientation in space. Mixing a forward angle on the front foot with a negative angle on the back foot is a good way to provide spatial confusion, and a tendency to look down at the feet, which will serve to upset the balancing process, given that balance is affected when the head is not level, and the sense of speed is affected by line of sight.
While ambulating, we remain upright partly through medial lateral articulations of the ankle joint. This process is hardwired, and we have been practicing these movements ever since we learned to walk. Even slight forward angle begins to activate this intuitive use of the lower extremities as a means of remaining ‘in balance’. At lower binding angles, the balancing process must become ‘learned’, which by nature, is then slower, and less accurate, which predisposes the rider to mistakes.
The difference in angle between the front foot and rear foot will be a function of the mobility of each forefoot: greater mobility will require greater splay and so forth.
The angle of the front foot should be such that the ball of the foot and the heel are more or less as close to the edge of the board as is feasible, to maximize leverage (while maintaining some forward angle). The ball of the foot and the heel are the load bearing parts of the foot; therefore, inputs to the board will be transmitted through these structures. With an improvement in mechanical advantage, the rider will use a lighter touch in tilting the board, which will lead to greater dexterity and improved balance. With too much angle on the front binding, the board will have the mechanical advantage over the foot, and the rider will have to use larger, stronger body parts to control the board. This will compromise reaction time and complicate movements from one edge of the board to the other.
Ultimately, binding angles will be determined by personal anatomical preference, as well as the performance characteristics required of the board. The learning rider has no basis for comparison, however, and will not have any understanding of what compromises are involved in a given ‘type’ of stance. Do not handicap a learning rider with a stance that is not appropriate for the task at hand.
Binding offset Always offset to the toeside. Engagement of the toeside edge tends to involve more muscular effort than the heelside. By employing appropriate offset, fatigue in the feet and lower legs can be drastically reduced while on the toe side edge, which affects to the positive the tendency to catch the heelside edge. Often, what you gain on one edge, you will lose on the other. This is another way of saying that if the heelside edge engages too quickly, there is a good chance the toeside edge will be a struggle.
In this situation, either you can apply a geometric mechanical fix, resolving the problem immediately, or you can try to ‘coach’ the rider around a problem you can fix with a screwdriver. Work smarter, not harder.
Obviously, overhang of either boot toe or heel will be a problem when the terrain becomes steeper, and/or the rider develops enough skill to tilt the board enough to create boot snow contact. Beginning riders will not be up on edge enough to ‘boot out’, so a little boot overhang is not a problem.
Binding setback Bindings should be set back, or biased towards the tail, even on a directional board. This will reduce the tendency of the board to spin out on a heelside traverse/turn, which decreases the chance of catching an edge on the heelside/toeside transition. On the heelside edge/turn, most of the rider’s weight will default to the front heel. Similarly, on the toeside edge, most of the weight will default to the ball of the rear foot. (This is one reason why a non-directional board /binding configuration can complicate the learning process). A board responds primarily to tilt and pressure application. On a slight edge angle, such as would be used by a novice, the board will tend to skid on the heelside, and ‘rail out’ on the toeside. Proper setback will make the board much more stable on the heelside, which will set the rider up for success on the toeside. It is easier to move towards the tip of a ‘railing’ edge, than it is to move towards the back of an edge that is already skidding, so if you have to bias to either tip or tail, you are better off with setback.
Stance width Set such that the rider can stand on a flat (carpeted) surface, hips facing the direction of the front foot, evenly weighted on both feet, with no extraneous muscle tension. With the hips facing the angle of the front foot, it will be easier for the rider to ‘move’ their center of mass across the board, which is helpful for balance at slow speed. At the same time, at least half of their skeletal alignment is closer to that used while walking, which should improve spatial awareness and coordination.
Forward lean (of highbacks) When the rider, standing on the carpeted surface as described above, rocks from balls of both feet to both heels, contact should be felt evenly at the backs of each leg, at the same time contact is felt under each heel. The highback is not to be used as a lever, per se, rather, it is a means by which the articulations of the ankle joint can maintain control over the tilt of the board. Too much forward lean encourages excessive flexion of the knees. This will fatigue the quadriceps and make for a jerky, abrupt engagement of the heelside edge. Too little forward lean will cause the rider to tip over to the heelside unless they bend forward at the waist, and may lead to delay in toeside engagement, as the end of the lever (the knee) is biased away from the toeside edge.
Forefoot flexibility Generally shows up on snow, though the practiced eye will often pick this up from gait. Usually a collapse of the forefoot to the medial side, forefoot instability makes one-footed tasks difficult, such as skating and unloading from the lift. Often this can be resolved temporarily with a rolled up trail map stuffed under the first met head of the offending foot.
The overall goal in addressing these variables is to allow the rider to stand with the minimum of muscle tension, meanwhile not providing any sort of unintentional and dissonant input to the board. When all setup variables have been accounted for, balance will be improved. With improved balance, the rider will have greater control over the board. Greater control will, in turn, reduce the incidence of injury while boosting confidence.
Now that we have that stuff out of the way…
First DO NO HARM. This is a two-part requirement. The first part refers to physical injury. An injured participant is much less likely to participate further.
The second part refers to expediency: Avoid teaching movements that will interfere with success at a later date, when the rider has developed greater overall proficiency.
Two examples of things not to do…
1. Learning to turn by pointing or otherwise rotating any part of the upper body in the intended direction of travel (other than the head independent of the shoulders). Rotation requires an anchorage to initiate, and a similar anchorage to conclude. Given the vagaries of the snow surface, this is not a good idea, as secure footing is not always available. Rotation of the upper body will hinder development further down the road, as the rider will need to abandon rotation in favor of better, more universal movement options.
2. Twisting the board on its long axis. If you accept that the angle of incidence between the snow and board has a direct bearing on the radius of a given turn, then it follows that if the leading end of the board is at a different angle relative to the snow than the trailing end, then you have a board that is, in effect, trying to make two different sized turns with the same edge. This has a direct effect on edge grip and thus stability. If you use torsional distortion as a workaround for a stance that is too wide, you will impose a ceiling on further development for that rider. It is in your best interest to ensure that the board runs ‘even keel’ to provide greater stability and more predictable performance.
Simultaneous movement of both feet in the same direction is simpler in execution than making sequential movements of the feet in opposing directions. Simultaneous movement implies that there is no time differential either. The simpler the movement, the more suitable for accelerated rates of delivery. Which is to say, if you have to do something quickly, over and over, your outcome will be improved if the movement is simplified in all ways possible.
In addition, the extent to which each end of the board can be twisted is both stance angle and foot dependent. Riders with different stance angles will not be able to twist the board with equal facility, nor will they achieve identical results in both directions with each foot.
-Introduce concepts in a logical sequence, building on prior learning.
-Use the simplest movements, involving the least complex ‘stance’.
-Teach from the end of the turn to the beginning, so that the guest always knows where they are going, as they have already been there.
-Emphasize kinesthetic learning, which is to say, the more mileage; the better. The human body learns ‘movement’ through movement, which is to say, by collection of tactile data.
-Do not ‘explain’ any more than is necessary to convey the topic at hand. Thought in motion is slow, which leads to mistakes.
-Teach movements from the ground up, rather than from the top down. The faster you move over snow, the harder it is to move large body parts, and the harder it is to move the center of mass over the base of support.
The first need of the body on a snowboard will be to provide secure footing. Unless security is provided underfoot, no further movement options will be available. Therefore, the first movement, (or skill) introduced should be edging, or learning how to engage the edge of the board with the snow. Explore the outcomes from edge on, edge off, and the variations in between.
A minor ability to edge the board will give the guest the ability to hold their position on the slope, climb or descend the slope, and glide across the slope, all from a simple upright posture. Edge manipulation combined with the ability to control glide will provide the rider with directional control.
While edge engagement provides security underfoot, weight distribution from foot to foot, commonly referred to as pressure control, will allow for adjustments to board behavior while on edge. If there is no functional edge engagement, then pressuring movements will have little to no impact, as there will be nothing to ‘push’ against.
The earliest application of ‘static’ pressure control is the ability to find the ‘sweet spot’ along the length of the board while standing on both feet. Standing in this location will provide for neutral board behavior. Moving forward or backward of this location will cause the board, with slight edge engagement, to either skid or not skid as it moves forward across the snow. The movement involved should be almost invisible, which is to say, sometimes turning one’s head in the desired direction may affect board behavior. Anything more than that indicates that there is a mismatch in rider weight, board flex, or a binding location problem.
So, from a simple, upright, two-footed posture, a beginning rider will have the ‘tools’ to safely descend a gentle slope on one edge or the other.
And this is where the learning begins.
Once the guest has developed autonomy on the board, they are able to gather information pertaining to balance on their own, as opposed to information provided for them verbally. There is a significant difference, not only with regard to relevance, but also in terms of the quality of the learning experience. For a physical activity, doing is far more engaging than listening, and doing rewards the doer with a sense of accomplishment to which accolades cannot compare.
So, once the guest can sideslip, and exercise judgment as to rate of descent and when to stop for a rest, you will find that their ability to control the board will improve dramatically just by virtue of mileage. This also makes your job easier, as you can step back a bit to observe their progress while making relevant suggestions, rather than being on stage the whole time.
Moving from sideslipping to traversing back and forth is only a matter of exploring pressure distribution, all at the same angle of edge engagement. Meanwhile, the board is moving back and forth across the hill, and the guest develops the notion that it really does not matter which way the board is traveling; they can still exert sufficient control over it, and the controlling inputs are fairly simple.
As rider accuracy improves, the board can dip closer to the fall line at the beginning and end of each traverse, which introduces both an increased and decreased rate of glide. The path across the snow also begins to resemble the last third of a skidded turn, where most ‘control’ issues manifest themselves. When a guest has confidence in the outcome of a particular task, based on prior experience, they are more likely to get the timing right on the tricky parts.
In this case, the tricky part is the transition between one edge and the other, when the board must run flat and enter the dreaded fall line. Whether or not they are aware of it, the guest is learning the turn backward from the end to the beginning, in effect sneaking up on a complete turn. If the guest is not apprehensive about letting the board glide, nor fearful when the rate of glide increases, then they will tend to be more relaxed, which improves balance while allowing the board to find it’s own way, which again will reduce the incidence of unintended edge engagements.
This approach is a little like that question about how one is to go about eating an elephant, the answer to which is “…one little bite at a time.”
OR, you can start at the perceived beginning and hope for the best…
At the outset, the rider will be at a higher energy state than the board, which is to say, they will be using a fair amount of muscle tension to provide input to and reposition the board on the snow as they move from turn to turn. This of course is in addition to any ‘nervous tension’ use to stabilize the body in an unfamiliar slippery context. As the rider gains in proficiency, this relationship will gradually invert, until the snowboard, as a loaded spring, is at a higher energy state than the rider. The rider can then use the energy stored within the board as a means of moving the board from one edge to the other, effectively rearranging the base of support relative to the center of mass.