Once you get your mind off what you are trying to do, the learning comes naturally!
Skiing the bumps, as most people call mogul skiing these days, is an exciting challenge for an intermediate skier on his way to the expert level. The concentration and balance required to ski the bumps well make this a difficult transition, and many try it, only to give it up. After a while, they resign themselves to being permanent intermediate-level skiers. It almost happened to my friend Diana.
She had spent some time trying the bumps, and had even been coached by her husband, who was an unusually fine bump skier. He had shown her how to keep her body facing down the fall line, and how to bend her knees and hips to absorb the bumps, all to no avail. Whenever Diana pointed her skis down the hill, she stiffened up and went out of control. She had almost decided that the bumps were just not her cup of tea. I had talked to her before about my approach to learning to ski, but she had never wanted to try it. I seemed to roundabout for her. Like almost everyone else, she just wanted to be able to do it.
Then one day, near the end of 1982-83 ski season, I was skiing down a moderately difficult bump trail, when Dianna happened to ride by on the lift overhead. She shouted down at me and asked if I would show her some bump skiing. I told her to meet me at the top of the bump field in a half hour.
Standing at the edge of the bumps, Dianna told me that she had spent many an hour trying to imitate her husbands style; when she pointed her skis down the fall line, the bumps started coming so fast that she lost control. The first trick, I told her, is to start off slowly. Then I asked Dianna to begin by skiing across the bumps instead of straight down, so that she was moving only four or five miles per hour. At this speed, the bumps are not so hard to manage.
Even so, at first Diana didn't do so well. She had been trying without success for so long that she didn't believe that she could learn. When Diana reached the edge of the trail, I asked her to stop and do a kick turn while standing still. I didn't want her to crash into a mogul trying to do a regular turn.
When Diana had turned around, I asked her to ski across the hill again, moving as slowly as she could. I had her repeat this routine of stopping, turning, and skiing slowly across the trail, over and over again, for about 20 minutes. At the end of that time, Diana suddenly realized that she wasn't going to fall, and she loosened up a little.
Then I asked her to keep skiing across the hill, but to bend her knees and hips each time she went over a bump. Moving at such a slow speed, she was able to do this without much trouble. I watched as she bent her knees and hips at the top of each bump, and straightened them out in the troughs between the bumps. It didn't take Diana too long to figure out that this was what accomplished bump skiers do- but much faster. Moving slowly like this, she was able to feel the rhythm of the bumps for the first time.
Next I asked Diana to reverse the motion of her knees and hips so that she bent them in the troughs and straightened them on top of the bumps. Although this is the wrong way to ski the bumps, Diana soon found that by practicing this way for a little while, and comparing the feeling of the two ways, the right way suddenly became easier.
Then I asked her to stand still on top of a bump, with her skis facing straight across the hill. In this position, only the center of the skis are on the snow, and the tips and tails are in the air. I asked her to close her eyes and slowly move forward until the tips of the skis touched the next mogul, and to open her eyes and stop as soon as she felt the tip touch.
I had her repeat this until she became so absorbed in the sensation of the ski tip touching the mogul that she forgot to be afraid. I could see her body begin to loosen up and start to move easily form one bump to the next. The less she thought about skiing, and the more she just felt what she was doing, the faster she improved.
I spent about an hour with Diana in the bumps that day, and I hardly ever spoke about technique, or the right way to ski. Instead, I just had her move slowly and easily, and feel how her knees and hips bent, and how the pressure changed on the bottoms of her feet as she went from the top of one mogul through the trough to the next one.
As I watched Diana I thought back to when I began to learn how to ski the bumps. At first, I spent a lot of time trying to imitate my friends who were good bump skiers, and I spent a lot of time stiffening my knees and going out of control, just like Diana had been doing for the past few years.
One day, however, I decided to slow down, quit trying, and just feel what I was doing. It took me quite a while to discover that whenever I saw a bump coming toward me, I would hold my breath, clench my jaw, and stiffen my neck and spine. With my upper body still like this, my knees and hips couldn't move either, so I didn't stand a chance.
Looking back, I was amazed that I had been tightening up all of the muscles in my body and yet hadn't felt what I was doing. I wondered how I could miss something that obvious for so long.
I didn't fully understand until I began to teach some other skiers. They had all their attention focused on trying to ski in a certain way, and they were not paying attention to what they were doing. In the bumps, many of them were sure that they were bending their knees, when in fact they were moving the knee around, but keeping the joint fixed.
At the end of the hour, Diana and I were near the bottom of the hill, where the bumps are easy, and I took off for the lift and yelled at her to come on. She went through the last few bumps without much trouble and joined me for the ride back up.
I asked her what she thought. "It was a revelation," she said. "Now I can see why I wasn't learning before. I wasn't feeling what was happening in my knees and hips, or the bottoms of my feet."
That, I told her, was exactly right. Once you get your mind off what you are trying to do, the learning comes naturally.
At the top of the lift, I headed back toward the base lodge. Diana said that she would see me a little later. I watched as she headed off toward the bumps, a big smile on her face.
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