SkiA and the central nervous system

We breath, we walk and we ski – but how do we do it all?

Robert Stewart and Hugh Monney

I’m not a scientist, but I’ve always been fascinated by the way our bodies adapt physically to perform actions that are not controlled by our conscious mind.

Skiing in powder requires excellent motor skills - Credit - Alasdair Monney

Whether that’s performing a sport, playing music or the basic everyday things that are required to simply exist, such as breathing.

Clearly we are pre-programmed to breathe, to control the beating of our heart, to process light through our eyes, but as we develop as human beings, more complex actions that require a learning process develop, starting with sitting up, crawling and then walking.

One foot in front of the other, balance, wait a second I’m tipping, better compensate for that, hang on there’s a slope…..

Maybe we can just about process that information in real time, but then we start to run, ride a bike, play the piano and perhaps take up the sport of skiing. We all know that our brains don’t command us to make each micro movement, we all understand there’s something else going on here.

As a ski instructor, you know that however good you are at communicating the mechanics of the sport, it’s just not possible for someone who’s skied for twenty days to leap ahead and ski like you – even if they are an Olympic gymnast. Sure, they will have advantages, an understanding of movement, of how their bodies work and will have exceptional balance, but the subtle nuances that are required to perform the perfect turn on skis can only come with repetition, and more repetition.

Of course, thFine tuning balance with the SkiA Ski Trainer - Credit - BASSat repetitive movement and practice of it must be done in the correct way otherwise we end up with movements that are essentially wrong, or at least inefficient. That’s where an instructor or coach comes in. On the face of it, hitting a tennis ball looks easy, as does skiing down a slope, but if your actions are just 1% away from where they should be, the outcome can be disastrous. But we are not robots either, so we cannot simply draw an image of a skier and mould everyone into that shape – we are constantly moving out of balance, always adjusting our position and these adjustments happen on a microbiological level.

Something happens to our cells within our central nervous system (CNS) as we perform a task and these cells become programmed to remember a certain movement, connecting with parts of the brain, mostly the cerebellum and diencephalon that can process the information way before our conscious memory kicks in. The spinal cord carries this information to and from the brain and then it’s distributed through the network of other nerves throughout the body. The CNS fires impulses in a fraction of a second, based upon years of experience when it comes to staying upright and remaining in balance and you can train the CNS to perform in the same way for any task.

If you took a skier and a swimmer and asked them to perform vertical jumps, the skier would most probably perform better even if the swimmer had stronger leg muscles. This is because a skier is programed to use their muscles in a way that involves extremely quick movements in the leg under pressure – your legs just know how to jump, they are programmed to do it.

Another function of the CNS is to help protect you when you fall. In that split second, you activate your autonomic nervous system resulting in the fight-or-flight response, flooding your brain with norepinephrine, dopamine and cortisol, instantly heightening your senses and strengthening your muscles to deal with an impact. Clever, whoever thought of that one must have been a skier.

Hugh Monney has been working in this area for many years. He is a former research scientist who became a ski teacher and founded the BASS network of snowsport schools in the French Alps. I asked Hugh what he thought was the best way to train the central nervous system for skiers so they can develop muscle memory quickly and Skiing in perfect balance - Credit - BASSefficiently and most importantly, in the correct way, and this is what he said: “While there’s a lot going on when people develop their skiing skills, we structure the training so that it is fun and engaging. We do a lot of skiing and people just improve.

There is a lot of research and structure behind the way we do that, though. Our training provides the opportunity for the central nervous system to make changes. One fantastic quality of the central nervous system is that it’s responsive.  It changes all the time. All we need to do is provide it with a challenge, with an opportunity to adjust and it will take care of the rest.

The central nervous system does include the conscious mind, of course. That’s where our work begins. Our training methods for skiers start with developing a clear understanding. It could be an aspect of technical content, or a movement pattern, or a tactical application, or clarity of intention, etc. This can be complex because existing ideas can obstruct the new concept. Existing patterns of information established in a person’s cerebral cortex get in the way. So it’s important for us to understand that we are actually helping the individual to change the way the brain stores information.

At the subconscious level, this involves the brain reorganizing some of its internal structures. So there is quite a lot of biological rewiring involved, even in this part of the process. Once we are through that part of the process, we begin the phase of training the person’s body to coordinate the new content. That’s a different ballgame.

The person begins by making the movements consciously. This leads to clumsy, mechanical attempts. But that’s okay because it gives the body the opportunity to begin to get a feeling for the new intention. After a suitable number of attempts, the body begins to get a feeling for the coordination. It can start to take on some of the management of the process autonomously.

It’s worth taking a moment to think about that. It is a type of a reprogramming process. The central nervous system, at the autonomous level, takes on board responsibility for a new coordination that it has become aware of.

During this part of our training, we make sure that our skiers become tuned into their performances. They learn to monitor the accuracy of each action as they apply it and allow it to adjust itself on the move. This is a very sophisticated ability. It depends upon the central nervous system adjusting its internal wiring.

The training that we do in this phase allows our skiers to develop accuracy, consistency and resilience. And the ability to adjust the performance on the move, all of which make for a much more skillful performance.

Getting to that point involves conscious and subconscious reorganization of the central nervous system. Its ability to coordinate the neuromuscular system develops. This is tied in with developments in perceptual ability and predictive skills.

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There is, indeed, a lot going on. Fortunately, it just feels like fun!

One fantastic way for skiers to train this ability, when they are not on the snow, is provided by the SkiA Ski Trainer. I was doing some balance work with a group of skiers on one of my clinics many years ago. We were working with centered balance as the foundation for athletic movement. After the session, one of my clients, Dr Martin Breach, had a discussion with me. He had ideas to develop a tool that would fit onto ski boots, to train this ability. Martin and I had discussions over an extended period of time. After several iterations, he came up with a great design. Then we trialed it in BASS Morzine, one of our BASS ski schools.

The SkiA Ski Trainer engages and activates the central nervous system. It provides a balancing challenge under the ideal part of the ski boot.  It’s difficult to get this training in any other way. People can make more progress with this in a few short sessions on the trainer than they do over several years on their skis.

The results are spectacular”.Ski Racer Emily Sarsfield training on the SkiA Ski Trainer - Credit - Ross Woodhall

The SkiA Ski Trainer is now endorsed by ski teacher training organisations and race training operations, across the globe.