Monday, 17 September 2007

The Importance of Play

This summer I have been working on high ropes courses as an instructor, whilst waiting for the winter to come back. There are places on the courses where people with shorter arms or legs need to swing a hanging element (a platform or a trapeze) in order to reach the next one. One thing I have noticed is that many children simply do not know how to swing - they pull on the ropes and flail their legs but never make the rhythmical movements needed to go a little further with each swing. It seems as if they have never learnt to use a simple playground swing.

When children play on swings and climbing frames - or climb trees, do cartwheels or kick a ball about - they learn a variety of movement skills that are invaluable in later life. Such activities give one an intuitive understanding of the mechanics of movement. Without this it takes Newton's equations for motion and gravity to predict the result of a given action. Suddenly a simple swing becomes a complicated problem - as illustrated by the inability of an apparently intelligent child to swing a platform suspended from ropes. If children lose the opportunity for physical play it affects not only their health, but also their kinaesthetic awareness and a part of their problem solving ability.

So, how is this relevant to winter sports? Well it is all too easy when skiing or snowboarding to focus on improving technique, or doing it the right way, to the exclusion of all else. For example, when making a snowplough turn you may try to follow a sequence: apply weight to both skis equally; start to stand up, stretching the legs; look where you want to go; steer the skis towards the fall line; feel for pressure building up under the outside ski; flex down keeping the pressure on the outside ski; continue to steer the skis and finish the turn across the slope (always keeping the shoulders and hips square to the skis, the knees apart and the ski tails pushed out into a wedge shape). This is all well and good, and will lead you to making a good solid snowplough turn, but as you progress you can become robotic and inflexible in your skiing if you only ever do things the 'right' way.

Good skiers are usually playful skiers - they mix up the turns they do, they try new things and most importantly they have fun with their skiing. Training for technique is important of course, but it is also important for your development to try things out and see what happens. For example, have a free run and see how many ways you can make the skis turn. Look for interesting terrain - bumps and jumps. On easy slopes try something different, always challenge yourself. In this way you will develop your skiing intuition as to what will happen when you use a particular movement. Above all though - keep it fun.

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