Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Bananagrams, skiing and balance

Lately I’ve been mildly discouraged by my cross-country skiing. Why am I not getting better? After all, I ski a lot for the two months I spend in CA. I’m not talking about fitness. Unlike some of the other sports I do, xc skiing is heavily-reliant on technique. The better your technique, the more efficiently you can ski, which equals skiing further and faster, with less effort and so on. So once again I’m taking some ski clinics, hoping to unearth what the barriers to improvement are for me.

Preliminary digging has unearthed the realization that one of the big ones, maybe the biggest key to unlocking any kind of step change in my skiing, is also one of my hobby horse topics here—balance. Or rather, lack thereof. On dry land, as it were, my balance is decent—I once stood on one leg for three minutes in aid of a friend’s daughter’s school project (and this in the middle of a convivial dinner). But on snow…on skis…while moving…well, let’s just say it’s a very different picture.

So I’m doing drills—all sorts of permutations of skiing on one ski (there are more than you would think), plus at the end of every workout I throw down my poles and try to lift each foot up and unclip my ski at knee level or so, instead of bending over and unclipping, with my feet solidly on the ground. Oh yes, people have wondered what I’m doing, and the only consolation is that if they try my unclipping drill with me, they mostly discover that it’s more perilous than it looks.

But I digress (and will further, of course)…are you familiar with Bananagrams? Sort of like Scrabble on speed, each player picks 21 letters and begins building their own scrabble-like web of words. Each time any player uses all their letters, all the players have to pick up another letter and integrate it into their word-web; and so on, until all the letters are used up. One of the keys to playing the game is the willingness to de-construct all your lovely, hard-won words and re-build from scratch. If you get too attached to what you’ve already done, you will find it difficult to excel in the game. Just so, if we become too attached to how we do something (for example, skiing), then we block our progress to the next level.

So I’m trying to think of my ski clinics in Bananagrams terms.

Our ski instructor tells us that balance is teachable. Yippee for that mercy. The downside is that generally things will get worse before they get better (uh huh, that old saw again). To construct a better technique, I first have to de-construct my current, flawed technique and build up from the basics—starting with my balance, that is. Instead of relying on my poles, or my ability to speed up my tempo to accommodate for imbalance (something I can sort of do because of my fitness level, but which is really just a crutch to avoid real improvement), I need to slow down my cadence and allow for the possibility of falling over.

Why?—because in the long run, the better my balance, the easier pretty much everything will be in xc skiing. And, as my instructor points out, the more balanced we are, the more prepared we are for all the things that throw us off balance. Is your brain tick-tick-ticking like mine over that last statement? Sounds familiar indeed. The basic principles of balance apply everywhere in life, and I really mean everywhere—from our physical pursuits, to our careers, to our relationships, to our self-efficacy…you name it. And here’s a cool thing—if we practice balance, in any of those areas, our practice will pay off across the board. As we begin to “feel” balance in our bodies, so it translates to our psyches and vice-versa.

Of this we can be certain—we will be thrown off balance, on our skis, as by life. The more we practice this learnable skill…I don’t need to spell out the rest.

Frustrating, yes. But also exhilarating; because the beauty of something that’s teachable, is that it’s learnable (okay—that was stating the obvious). There have been a few moments, nothing more than a hair’s breadth of an instant, when I’ve felt the balance I’m working toward. Each time it’s happened, I’ve spontaneously cried out with surprise. To feel yourself learning something new, now that is glorious.