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The Inertia

People often assume that because I teach surfing that the closest equivalent winter activity for me is snowboarding. I do concede some similarities between the two, like carving edge to edge on a snowboard and pumping down the face of a wave on a surfboard. But I feel like surfing and skiing share fundamental principles that apply to both the mindset and mechanics that make them far more similar to each other than the common surfing/snowboarding connection.

That principle is ignoring what your body tells you is safe and in return, doing something totally counterintuitive. One of the most basic fundamentals of skiing is applying pressure forward, over the front of your skis, as you fly down the mountain. As we gain speed, our natural instinct is typically to lean back as a way of maintaining control and managing speed. The reality, however, is that leaning back actually gives us less control by creating less contact between the skis and the surface of the snow. If we fight this very understandable but utterly useless urge and force ourselves to lean forward we actually have more control over our body. It’s a battle that wages on through any stage of your skiing career. Having taught people who have never skied and experiencing it myself at higher speeds, the struggle between what feels safe and what is actually going to give you more control remains difficult to put into practice, even if you do understand the concept at work.

We experience this same connection in surfing, although the experienced surfer can grow to make the counterintuitive adjustments more of a reflex over time. When we catch a wave there is a crucial moment just before getting to our feet and flying down the face that lasts just a split second. When we paddle into a wave our body has to have enough weight applied toward the front of the board for the wave’s force to take over and begin pushing us. If we are too far back on the board, you’ll simply never catch a wave. It’s one of the most basic adjustments a beginning surfer will be told in lineups all over the world until it becomes a habit. The following process of catching that wave and moving to our feet is met with a free-falling sensation, which can again be a bit unnerving. Just like the less-seasoned skier, the unfamiliar surfer’s instinct is to put all of their weight back and resist nosediving. In fact, it’s in this moment of free fall that we have to pull together all of our composure and jump to our feet, ignoring that urge to simply lean back.

This link between an unnatural movement with a positive outcome drew me to both sports and I would postulate it is also the reason so many people choose to do sports with similar challenges. They can be frustrating beyond words but on those rare occasions where everything falls into place they bring an incredible sense of achievement.

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Both surfing and skiing also require you to think about your upper and lower body separately, just in slightly different ways. To be able to ski moguls well, you have to rotate your hips quickly, pivoting the skis and placing yourself in between each mogul. In order to rotate the hips at such a rate, your upper body stays facing forward while your hips move left and right. If your body was to follow your skis rather than face downhill, it would be impossible to rotate your hips and feet at such a rate. Watch the best mogul skiers in the world and you’ll see their lower body movement is very quick while their upper body, from the hips to the head, will hardly move. In a similar manner, the most basic and fluid turns on a wave requires the same approach. The lower body must shift the weight to the back of the board to engage the fins (then the rails) and allow the board to pivot. To aid this pivoting movement, as the nose of the board lifts out of the water, it is important to have your leading hand on the outside (heel) rail of the board, while your trailing arm follows the direction your board is going to travel. This movement adds to the effect of swinging the board towards the breaking part of the wave. They’re two similar approaches to controlling the equipment for each sport with slightly different mechanics, each requiring quite intricate and challenging coordination of the upper and lower body.

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