Tips from a Ski Instructor

A couple years ago I took a ski instructing course and earned my Alpine Level I certification. I'm a modest person, but I was very proud of my achievement. I went from being a twice a year skier who skied on his heels and could usually make it down an intermediate groomed run to an advanced skier actively seeking out powder, crud, trees, and bumps, things that would have scared the shit out of me only a couple years before. Best of all I got to teach people who were in the same position that I was how to get out of it and avoid all the mistakes I made. All of the bad habits skiers have like stepping their inside ski, starting a turn with their shoulders, and skiing on their heels are things I used to do, too.

That's not to say this all happened overnight. I spent 160 days on the snow last year, slightly less the year before, and slightly less the year before that. I'm very lucky to have had the opportunity to spend that much time skiing and to have had a great mentor to teach me. Most of the words on this page come from things he told me. But, unlike most of the other great skiers you see on the slopes, I was never raised from the age of two to ski nor did I spend my school-age years racing. I genuinely believe that, with mileage and practice, anyone can be a great skier. I tell my students that I'm living proof. I'm probably one of the most non-athletic people there are and I've sucked at every sport I've tried, except for skiing.

I also like to remind my students that skiing is only about having fun. It's not a competition or something to get better at for the sake of getting better. No one has to do it, no one gets paid (much) to do it. I had fun (mostly, there were plenty of scary moments) when I was bad, and I have fun as a good skier (there still are scary moments, but they are becoming less frequent).

Alright, I'll quit preaching about the virtues of skiing. Here's a rundown of some of the most common problems that I encounter with lower-intermediate level students (making parallel turns, but not well). Hopefully it will help you if you're not able to afford a lesson from an instructor (grad student = no money for lessons) or your instructor and you don't click (it happens).

Fear and Moving Your Weight into the New Turn

Fear is the number one problem, and it's quite understandable. I found a lot of skiing scary as shit when I wasn't skiing on a perfectly groomed run. Fear results in a whole range of bad habits and inefficient skiing developing. Remember, skiing well is about making efficient turns. When I ski I expend the minimum amount of energy necessary to get where I want to go. That's not to say I'm lazy and never have any fun because it's too much work, but that I'm not making inefficient movements in my turns.

This is worth repeating. Skiing well is about getting the maximum return from the energy you put in. Many of the bad habits that inexperienced skiers have are inefficient, but they work. Starting your turn with your shoulders works, I used to do it. But, it requires a lot of energy and throws you off balance so you have to spend more energy recovering to make your next turn. I like to tell my students that there are many ways to get down the mountain, what I am trying to teach them is the easiest way.

Back to the subject of fear. Let's imagine ourselves on the hill for a moment. We're making moderate parallel turns at an easy speed on a nice groomer. We have just completed one turn and are ready to initiate the next. What happens next?

  • Some people will traverse across the whole hill looking for the ideal spot to turn. I used to do that. Guilty.

  • Some of the above will end up stopping because they couldn't find the ideal place to turn and are going to run into the trees. Guilty.

  • Some people will throw their shoulders into the next turn because they want to get through the fall line as quickly as possible. Guilty.

  • Some people will make a really big turn and get going faster than they wanted because they don't know how to make a slow speed turn on steep terrain. Guilty.

  • Some people will try to turn and crash because the snow doesn't cooperate because it's powder, crud, or something other than groomed. Guilty.

So, what should be happening when we start our turn? Some ski instructors will tell you that you need to roll the downhill (inside) ski onto the new (downhill) edge to start the turn. Yes, this is correct, but I think it's a poor way of explaining what really needs to happen and what many fearful skiers don't do.

You need to move your center of mass (for men, this is your belly button, for ladies, your hips, but the difference really doesn't matter) into the new turn. The way I describe this to my students is that I move my hips up, over my skis and down the hill to start my new turn. My hips trace out a C as they move up, over my skis, and back down again. I also tell my students this is scary as shit if you've never done it. It was scary as shit for me, too. You essentially have to lean out over the “abyss” and trust in me that you're not going to have a horrible crash. I'll start them on easy terrain with little pitch to get used to the idea but the only way I ever got over my fear on steeper terrain was to say “fuck it” and do it.

Oh, by the way, you have to move back down again as you finish your turn in order to be able to move up again…

Here are some symptoms that you aren't moving your weight into the new turn.

  • You have to step your inside ski because it won't come around (THIS is the biggest one).

  • You start your turn by rotating your shoulders down the hill.

  • You have trouble skiing on anything but the nicest of groomers (this is a symptom for a host of other problems as well).

As a ski instructor I was taught that if I saw you stepping your inside ski to talk about initiating the turn with your inside ski. My problem with this approach is that not initiating the turn with your inside ski is in my mind merely a symptom of not moving your center of mass into the new turn. I would be correcting a symptom and not treating the root problem. Case in point being my students, but also myself.

I used to step my inside ski. Initially, my instructors told me to initiate a turn with the inside ski and we worked on some exercises to teach me that. It improved my skiing somewhat but then the wisest instructor at the hill told me about moving my center of mass into the new turn. That was what unlocked Pandora's box. If you start your turns by moving your weight up and over your skis then the inside ski starts the turn automatically. It just happens.

Let's talk terminology for a second. The turn I have just described is called a “Cross Over” turn. By moving up and over the skis you are “crossing over” them, hence the name. The moving up part is also called several things by different people. I've seen it referred to as up-unweighting, popping (a more forceful up-unweighting), and rebounding off your skis (generally in conjunction with a pop). Vertical Motion is a catch-all phrase used to describe the whole act of moving up over your skis and back down into the new turn.

Now let's discuss vertical motion. The use of vertical motion is integral to being an advanced skier. It's incredibly useful (and fun!). Your skis become more “alive” once you start loading and unloading them. So, in our cross over turn we move up and over the skis and then back down into the new turn. I haven't talked at all about the moving down part. When I moved down I'm flexing my ankles, my knees, and my hips. Not once do my shins come off the fronts of my boots or does my weight move off of the arch of the foot! More on that later. If I want to make a quick turn my up and down motion is quick. I forcefully sink down into the turn and then quickly move up and over my skis. If done correctly your skis will be loaded like a spring and when you release the pressure and move up they will help propel you. It's a great feeling!

A lot of instructors will tell you that the key to controlling speed is turn shape. Once again, this is correct, but not the whole truth. If you really want to slow down try making a quick and forceful downward motion to finish your turn. I'll let the results speak for themselves :). Note that if you do this and your weight is not centered over the arch of your foot your skis will slide out from you. If you're too far back, the tails will slide out. Too far forward, the tips.

As an aside, many instructors like to teach hockey stops to teach both the usefulness of a quick downward motion and keeping your weight centered. They're a great diagnostic tool that you can use to see if you're keeping your weight centered or not, but I don't like to use them because in my mind they don't teach you to keep your weight centered while skiing.


Poorly fitting boots are a huge hindrance to any skier (beginner or advanced). If you were to take my boots away from me and put me in rentals I have no doubts that my skiing would suffer massively.

Here are some symptoms of a poorly fitting boot.

  • You can move your feet side to side.

  • Your heel lifts off the sole.

  • You can move your shin back and forth.

  • Your feet get cold.

  • You have to wear multiple socks or very thick socks to fit into the boot well.

To condense the above list down into one sentence, if you can move your feet in the boots then they don't fit well. Sometimes the problem can be corrected with gluing trail maps or window insulation foam to the appropriate parts of the liner, but if it's really bad, it's time to look into getting new boots.

Your first investment as a skier should be to get a pair of boots custom fitted by a skilled bootfitter with custom footbeds. Skiing is about making precise and accurate movements with your feet. You can't do that if your feet are rolling around in your boot like a loose tin can in a car.


Did I get my message across? The first step in getting a good pair of boots is to find a skilled bootfitter. Ask your instructor or a ski patroller. Ask your fellow skiers (be wary with this one). Don't trust any one individual's opinion. Sites like maintain a list of good bootfitters sorted by area. You can also ask on the forum. If you hear the same name coming up over and over then chances are they're pretty good.

Call ahead and make an appointment. Getting boots custom fit is usually at least a half-day affair. Bring the socks you normally ski in. The bootfitter will ask about your skiing and what kind of boot you are looking for. DO NOT GET A COMFORTABLE BOOT. Comfortable boots equal bad skiing. Initially, the boot should feel uncomfortable but after a few days of skiing they will begin to pack out and feel better. What you want is a boot to make your skiing better. If you bought the boot that was comfortable in the shop by now it will be loose and you'll be back to square one.

That's not to say the boot should be painful (though some racers will put up with the pain for a good fit on the hill). It should be tight, but not painful. Ask your bootfitter lots of questions and make sure you mention your concerns to him/her. You'll want to develop a relationship with them as this is probably not the last time you will be seeing them. It took me several return trips for adjustments before the boots was completely satisfied with the boots I had purchased. The price you pay for the boots should include the fitting and adjustments. Custom footbeds will cost extra but are worth their weight in gold.

On the subject of cost, I was able to get a pair of boots custom fit with custom footbeds for  $700. I saved money by going to the shop in early fall and purchasing last year's model. I'm cheap out of necessity, but the price was worth the difference they made in my skiing. If you go during the ski season, the price will probably be higher, but you will have more selection as well.

Let's move on to how to wear the boot.

First, the only thing that goes in your boot is your sock. Nothing else. No pants, no inside liner from your snowpants thingy, only your sock. Clear?

Second, let's discuss buckles. Starting from your toe, the first buckle is only there to keep out the snow. Keep it tight enough so that it doesn't come loose on the hill, but no tighter. The second buckle is the most important. This is the buckle that is over your instep. It should be tight and your foot should feel snug. The third and fourth buckles over your shin are important too. Keep them tight, but they are not as critical as the second buckle. They should be tight enough so that you can't wiggle your shin back and forth. However, sometimes your shin will still be able to wiggle however tight you make these buckles. This is where the power strap comes in (if you're unlucky enough not to have one and you experience shin wigglieness, you can usually purchase an aftermarket one from a ski shop). Tighten that sucker down until you can't wiggle your shin anymore. Make sure that it is tightening your liner and is not wrapping over your shell, or it won't do any good.


Most ski instructors are trained to drill the proper stance into your head so well that if you were to only remember one thing from your lesson, how to stand would be it. However, there is some misinformation still floating around out there that I, and undoubtedly others, have fallen victim to.

It concerns what part of your foot you should be putting your weight on. Back in the old days, the conventional wisdom was that you should stand on the balls of your feet. These were the days of leather boots and wooden skis, where if you didn't pressure the balls of your feet for all you were worth you were never going to get your skis to do anything you wanted them to.

Today, however, we have plastic boots, modern bindings, and shaped skis. Unfortunately, the advice of pressuring the balls of your feet persists, but is wrong. With modern skis, you need to be weighting the arches of your feet. Your weight should be centered and spread evenly across your whole foot (including the heel). You still need to keep your shins in contact with the tongue of your boot, but if you're only putting weight on the front portion of your foot and none on the rear, you are too far forward and not using the whole ski.

Pressuring the balls of your feet works, and if you're on your heels it will help you get off of them. But, it's inefficient. You're only using the front half of your ski and thus only half its potential. Also, trying to do wedge turns and wedge christies at any speed other than painfully slow is near impossible if you're on the balls of your feet (I speak from experience). As a skier, you may start your turn on the balls of your feet (but you really shouldn't, except in exceptional circumstances) but you should always finish on your arches. If you finish on the balls of your feet you're only using half of the ski. You have all of this ski area under foot and at the tail that you're not using to aid in your turn.

To review, the proper stance for skiing is, starting from your feet:

  • Weight on the arches of your feet.

  • Shins against the front of the boot.

  • Skis a hip width apart. If you ski modern skis with your feet locked together and you're not old then this marks you as someone who thinks they're a good skier but isn't. Don't be that person.

  • Knees bent enough so that they are over your toes.

  • Hips over the center of your feet.

  • Hands out in front of you like you were holding a tray table, shoulder's width apart.

  • Head up, not staring at your skis (though I admit, it's fun and I'm a bit of a skiing narcissist: I love to watch my skis cut through the snow). Look where you're going.

Upper/Lower Body Separation

The theme of this section is going to be skiing is done from your waist down (most of it). The mark of a true expert skier is a stable upper body regardless of what is happening in the feet, legs, and hips. I like to think that if you were really good you could balance a glass of water on your shoulders (anyone do this while learning to play piano?) while skiing some really gnarly crud or bumps. For us mere mortals, here are the basic rules of upper/lower body separation. We do not turn with our shoulders, nor do we lean into the turn. Here's why.

As I mentioned above, starting the turn with your shoulders is inefficient (it's hard work, really) and unbalances you. It also only works on groomed runs. If you turn with your shoulders skiing powder or ungroomed snow is going to be a wild ride because your skis will refuse to turn. As you ski, concentrate on keeping your shoulders facing down the run. Ski instructors refer to this skill as anticipation, among other things. An exercise I like to do is to grasp my poles in front of me, like I was holding a chin-up bar that was at chest height, and concentrate on keeping them facing down the hill and level. This is a popular exercise with ski racers, so you might have seen someone else doing it before. A more difficult version is to make two thumbs up with your hands and then balance the poles behind your thumbs.

Now, you don't always ski with your shoulders facing straight down the hill. For short radius turns, your shoulders should always face down the hill. Medium radius, more in the direction of travel. Long radius, completely in the direction of travel.

When I say leaning into the turn I mean not keeping your upper body straight (perpendicular to the ground). Leaning into the turn is bad because if you hit a patch of ice or the terrain changes and you weren't expecting it you'll probably fall over. Leaning into the turn is easier, I'll do it if I'm really lazy, but it's easier to crash. Ideally, your upper body should stay straight up and down all of the time while skiing. However, if you get really far out on edge this isn't always possible, but I do my best. Not leaning into the turn is called angulation. If you're doing it right and you really crank your skis high up on edge you'll feel a “pinch” on the outside side of your hips.

The exercise I talked about above for keeping your shoulders facing down the hill also works for keeping your upper body straight. If you're holding out your arms in front of you and you tip to one side you'll see it in the poles. I like to do this exercise if I sense my skiing is suffering, it's a real obvious indicator of upper body issues. I've been told by a few ski instructors that they don't like this exercise because it's easy to cheat at (so they use the harder version), but my thinking is that you're only doing it for your own good, cheating at it makes no sense. Then you're just wasting your time and money (if you paid for a lesson).

Exercises I Like to Use on my Students (muhahahaha)

Remember that exercises are just that, exercises. They're working one part of the big picture of skiing. Don't get too worked up if you can't do one of them (I still won't do one ski skiing, it's too scary for me), don't focus on them too much, and remember to ski when you're working on them.

To be continued…

Good versus Bad Instructors and Group Lessons

Conquering your fears is a hard thing to do in a group lesson if you're any bit self-conscious (like me). Because of that once you pass out of the beginner stage I highly recommend private lessons. I know that they're unbelievably expensive at some ski areas. But, here are the reasons that I recommend them.

  • At a high level everyone skis differently. What works for one person may not work for you and what the person next to you is struggling on is probably not the same as what you're having problems on. It's hard to work with people individually when you're in a group, so taking a group lesson when you're at an intermediate level of skiing probably won't help you that much. Usually, the ability levels tend to be all over the board as well, making it even harder on the instructor to try and help everyone. The instructor will probably spend his time teaching generic exercises and the like. If you're lucky, he might pull you aside to offer you some individual tips but this isn't guaranteed.

  • Trying new things is hard in a group of strangers, if you're like me. In a private it's just you and the instructor. You get to spend time on what you want to work on, in private.

Finally, to get the maximum benefit out of a private you need three things. First, you and the instructor must get along. Second, you must have confidence in what your instructor is telling you and trust what he/she says. Finally, you must be willing to try new things (you'd think most people would because they're paying a small fortune for the privilege of learning individually, but you'd be surprised). A good instructor will push you a little, but not too far. He'll let you work at your own pace. You should never be terrified. Being a little scared is ok: to learn we need to get out of our comfort zones. But being terrified is not.

Here's an example of a good versus bad instructor. I wanted to start bump skiing, but I wasn't confident enough to ski in the bumps yet with the bump runs that we had at our ski area. All of this I relayed to both instructors. The bad instructor had me ski down a blue run and after watching me, declared that I was good enough to ski bumps and that was where we were going. We got to the top of one the steep bump runs and he skied about halfway down and told me to follow. I was terrified. After some time I tentatively made it down to him. I didn't fall, but I was scared the whole way down. That was the last lesson I had with that instructor.

I told the good instructor the same thing. We were able to work on skills that I would need in the bumps on runs that I was comfortable on, and I learned a lot. After several lessons I told him I was ready to try the bumps and I had a great time. Yes, I was still a little apprehensive but I decided that I was ready for the bumps. He let me work at my own pace. A good instructor will always be able to find things for you to work on on terrain that you are comfortable with. He will never decide for you that you are ready for the next level.

As a rule, I never ask students if they want to move up to more challenging terrain. If they do, they will always tell me. If I think they're ready, up we go. If not, I tell them what I think they need to work on before we move up and why. Then we work on it. It's as simple as that. Of course, what they do on their own time is their business but you're not responsible for them then. But, I never decide for my students that they're moving up. I think even asking them is too much. I know that when they're ready, they'll let me know. Note that none of this works in a group, where the instructor has to cater to the needs of everyone and not a single individual. Hence, part of my bias against group lessons.


Here's my little spiel on why you should want to wear a helmet.

First, the non-safety benefits of wearing a helmet. They're comfortable and they're warm. No longer do you have just a piece of fabric to block the wind, now your head gets to bask inside the warmth of an insulated, sealed plastic container! A minor benefit is that you can clip your goggles on so if you take a nasty fall then it's one less item to collect from your yard sale.

Alright, now the safety benefits. In addition to the protection that I would get if I were to crash while skiing, my helmet has saved me from what could have been some potentially really nasty whacks to the head from….lifts! I can't tell you how happy I was to hear the loud *crack* as the 300 lb chair hit my helmet instead of my head. And again, on another occasion, I was treated to yet another resounding *crack* when the liftie failed to stop the T-bar and it nailed the back of my head square on. I'm pretty sure that, with the chair lift incident, had I not been wearing a helmet I would have been knocked out cold. With the T-bar I would have been treated to a nasty concussion. In both cases I came out unscathed thanks to my helmet.

Well, and I know this doesn't apply to most people, but my helmet has also protected my head from the flailing arms and poles of my students. So, a third benefit