Friday, October 1, 2010

Backwards Slalom

OK, so I have a secret to tell you. If you're a skater, and you're still practicing your basics, and you're doing well but you know you're not as advanced as you will eventually be, then this secret is for you:

Skating backwards is not harder than skating forwards. In fact, it's rather easier.

Well, under ordinary circumstances, anyhow. Once you get the hang of it, skating backwards should feel like a dream. Of course, any kind of skating, once you get the hang of it, feels like a dream --like a smooth, buttery dream-- but backwards skating, more than forwards skating, will have a surreal level of ease and smoothness. This is worth practicing for, people.

The reason why it's physically easier to skate backwards than forwards is because of the way our feet are attached to our legs, that is, our ankles. Skating forwards puts pressure on the front part of your lower leg, that is, your shin. It's harder to get enough bend in your knees because there's resistance there. Skating backwards, this resistance does not happen for a few reasons.

But in order to get to the backwards bit, let's first describe skating forwards:

FEET: When skating traveling forwards, we are putting slightly more weight on the back part of our feet/skates. Not too much, of course, but, in general, there is a bit more weight towards the back than towards the front.

KNEES: We travel along with lovely bent knees, so much so that the knee is over the foot. No? You're not doing that? OK, go practice! But wait, finish reading first. And don't get shin splints. Take it slow if you're just starting out. I promise, one day it will feel natural to be bent so much at the knee and not anywhere else.

HIPS: Facing squarely forwards. Also, of course, we have our hips in a relatively neutral position, definitely pushed forwards for most slalom maneuvers but we NEVER let our tail bones slip out from under us a.k.a. we do not stick out our butts. Ideally for skating forwards, off-cones, our hips are neutral and as a result, we skate with nice, straight backs.

BACK: Straight, as I just mentioned. :)

SHOULDERS/ARMS: Shoulders and arms should be relaxed, but I'm not going to yell at you if you need to stabilize yourself with your arms a bit while you're learning basic slalom, but arms should NEVER come above the shoulders. This wrecks the center of gravity, which is already raised up off the ground more than what we are used to as a result of being on skates. At most, arms should be held slightly forward of the shoulders and low, as though they are resting on a table in front of you. Perhaps you can imagine yourself as a roasted peanut salesman at a baseball game with your hands resting on the merchandise--that's about the most I want you to do with your arms, okay? But definitely not out too far to the sides, because that is going to pull your shoulders out of whack and you've got enough to deal with trying to learn good basic skating skills.

Also, by the way, I just made up that peanut salesman image, so I hope it helps. :)

Anyway when you get into certain moves your arms will swing naturally, and this is to be encouraged, because it looks natural, it helps you direct your momentum, and it will help you generate energy. But if you're just thinking about your form as you travel forwards through the cones or skating off-cones, then do not think about this too hard. As you begin to slalom more, you will feel when swinging happens when it is appropriate, and you will also feel when it is not appropriate. It will feel "off" or like you are working too hard, or doing something redundant with your upper body. The thing you should try hardest to do with your upper body is RELAX. And yes, this can be learned. I take yoga lessons and this serves as my proof!

NECK: Not normally an issue that I've come across, but if you tend to be tense here, well, then, relax. :)

HEAD: Now, this is important. It's also very simple. Look where you are going. Always, always, always. Unless you are having a laugh like we've done in Cone Crazy slalom sessions and tried going as far as we can down the line of cones in criss-cross, nelson, snake, one foot, whatever, with our eyes closed. It's quite funny, because everyone tends to list to one side of the cones and end up slaloming quite crooked off into space, and that person THINKS they are doing brilliantly, not knocking any cones, when really the cones are just somewhere else entirely. Or they lose the correct spacing after a few cones and proceed to kick them everywhere. :)

Of course we are all experienced skaters doing these sorts of silly things in a perfectly flat, smooth polished sports hall, so there is no danger of getting thrown off by a nasty crack or killer pebble or anything. I wouldn't recommend that you head out to the local park and practice eyes-closed slalom, for example. Not unless your skater friends are willing to watch out for you, and even then it's not incredibly smart.

HOWEVER, laughs aside, looking where you are going is obviously very important, in general. Looking where you are going does not mean looking where you are. In fact, "looking where you are going" can mean looking quite far down the surface --you can look at the last cone in a line of slalom cones, for example (try it, it's not easy if you're not used to it!)-- or it can mean looking six cones in front of you, or to the next cone that you know you need to catch for a maneuver you are planning. Of course I am talking in terms of cones because that is normally what I am skating with, but with regular street skating, this can mean looking several meters in front of you. And as a rule, the faster I am skating, the further I look ahead. Kinda like driving, so I can be prepared for dealing with obstacles.

So, my point is, look ahead. DON'T LOOK DOWN! Your feet are still there. They might feel funny in skates, but they are still your same feet, and you don't need to look at them. :) Looking down causes your butt to stick out and your hips to pull back, which makes your back hunched over, which straightens your knees, which puts the weight on the front part of your skates...aaaaaand then you will have a much easier time executing a lovely face-plant on the asphalt, which hurts A LOT. So don't do it. It's no good.

Now that we are skating along with lovely form and we're feeling the breeze (or burn, depending on how hard you are working), it is time to share another secret. Here it comes. OK, ready?

Skating backwards is not the opposite of skating forwards.

Wait, huh? In order to skate backwards, don't you just, uh, do the opposite of going forwards? Well, kinda. But not really. Sure, your feet travel in the opposite direction, and your feet in fact can make pretty similar maneuvers to what they do when you go forwards-- i.e. you can do all slalom backwards, then off cone stroke backwards, do backwards swizzles, backwards crossovers, and whatnot. But that's about it. When skating backwards, your feet are about the only thing that do the opposite of what they do when they go forwards.

So. Let's talk about what SHOULD happen when you are skating backwards.

This time I will begin describing from the head down because this is exactly the order you should use when beginning backwards skating, specifically backwards slalom!

HEAD/SHOULDERS: You *must* start here. The first thing that you need to do is to look where you are going. Ordinarily people find that looking over one shoulder feels more natural than looking over the other. Go for it. Look over the shoulder that feels more comfortable. When you look over your shoulder, you will find that if your shoulders remain facing squarely forwards, it will be very painful and you will strain your neck. Do not do this. It is silly. Simply open up your shoulders to the side, and then looking where you will go becomes much easier. So now you should be standing with your shoulders TO ONE SIDE and your head looking to where you will eventually be skating. This should be a relaxed position. It should be as though you are at a party standing and talking with, oh, let's say ME, and I am standing in front of you and you are directing all of your attention to me (of course!), and then another friend, let's say, oh NAOMI, is on the other side of the room behind you and then she calls your name brightly. Perhaps she is itching to regale you with an anecdote. Your ears perk up, because this anecdote is guaranteed to be interesting. You turn towards the sound, but you leave your feet in place. And VOILA! Your shoulders are open and your head is in the right place looking at Naomi and waiting for her to tell you this amazing thing, and everything else is quite relaxed because you're at a party with friends, for goodness' sakes, so there's no need to tense up.


Once again, do not look down. You are not allowed to look down. I will come and find you if you are looking down, and especially if you are looking down and attempting to gaze at the space between your feet. You cannot see where you are going this way, and once again, you are setting yourself up for a nasty fall by letting your back hunch, your hips and butt pop out, and your knees straighten. (Don't get me wrong; not all falls are nasty. I am the queen of falling! But it's the nasty ones I warn you against.)

HIPS: Here is the other keystone. Your hips, like your shoulders, open up to the side that you are looking over. When Naomi called your name at the party, one of two things probably happened with your hips and the way your weight was distributed on your legs. Firstly, you could have shifted more weight to the leg opposite of the shoulder you decided to look over, and your other foot possibly turned out some to accommodate this new hip position.  As in, if you looked over your left shoulder, your weight shifted more to your right leg as your hip opened. Also, if this happened, your right knee probably bent a little and the left one likely straightened some. Did you stand up and try it in your living room already? You had better, because I did.

Now, if this happened, this is good. Congratulations. This is how it's supposed to feel when you are skating backwards. In backwards slalom maneuvers, the weight remains somewhat more on the front leg and the back leg (leading leg) initiates movements through the cones.

The other thing that could have happened when you tried this exercise is the bad thing, the thing we did not want to happen. Unfortunately, this is a thing I see a lot. When Naomi called your name from the other side of the room, your shoulders and head might have moved beautifully, but then you might have shifted your weight to the same hip of the shoulder you were looking over. So if you were looking over your left shoulder (my natural side to look over, so you're just going to have to switch the examples if you are opposite!), your left hip would end up somewhat behind the right one, but still facing squarely forward (towards me; remember you were originally talking with me?).

If you did this weight transfer when you looked backwards, and if you try to skate this way, you will constantly be working to twist the upper half of your body to try and see where you are going as your lower body struggles valiantly against nature. You might manage to puff through a few minutes skating backwards this way, but you won't be able to progress beyond a frustratingly low level, and it will literally become a pain in the neck to see where you are going. A slalom move like back snake, for example, will be impossible, as your two feet will want to meet up and ride parallel (due to your hips) instead of having lovely, empty space between them as they travel.

So, if you have this problem when you try backwards slalom, know that your hips don't lie. Try the party exercise in your living room (or, actually, have a party! Invite me and Naomi!), and get the weight on the front foot. Then, of course, try skating with your hips and weight in this awesome, correct way. Backwards one foot will feel easy. In fact, try backwards one foot slalom before you try backwards snake (if you've got the balance for that sort of thing), and your weight will be FORCED to be in the correct spot. Then you can start to feel how your other foot is a counterbalance and is held not behind you, but slightly out to the side. When you put the foot down and start backward snaking, you will feel how the initiating foot begins to take more of the weight so you can make bigger, more dramatic and ultimately more beautiful slalom.

As for the rest:
KNEES: Still lovely, soft, and low. Never otherwise, actually, unless specified.

FEET: Still attached to your legs via the ankles (thank goodness!), but now the weight has shifted from slightly towards the back part of the feet/skates to slightly forward. You are of course constantly reacting to your environment and adjusting accordingly, but somewhere in the neighborhood of having your weight slightly forward on your feet is a good thing when going backwards.

And that's about it when it comes to form. In summary, when you are skating backwards, everything down to your legs is actually facing mostly sideways. It's lucky that we have ball joints in our hips, isn't it? That's how we get to do everything all at once --ride backwards AND see where we are going-- without any discomfort or struggle.

I hope this helps people. It would be cool if people read this and leave me a comment to let me know how you did.

For now, happy slaloms, all!
<3 Meg


  1. by George I think I got it and I'm not even having a party but if I were.. I'd clear out my living room so you, Naomi and I could skate...backwards of course.
    Your use of physical imagery is very helpful and certainly a contrast to the 'angry cat' body position I learned & teach in speed skating..
    so now it's time to STAND-UP and keep the hips square.

    I'm impressed you put so much into writing this down to the very last detail.

    Slalom on.

  2. YO THAT WAS AWESOME!!!!.....I really love skating and just recently started getting into slalom and skating backwards is something Ive always wanted to improve in especially seeing backwards slalom (EPIC!!!) thanks for the tips.

    Skating backwards just looks so freaking cool!!!

  3. This was excellent, and though I have already done some of what you describe on my own, I feel your precise descriptions and amusing images will help greatly. The level of detail is impressive and unusual in something that's usually hard to describe well. Hopefully you will one day receive an invite to that party. In the meantime, thank you!

  4. Right I cant wait to go out and try 1 foot backwards with my balance foot out to the side more - as when trying it for the first time yesterday and struggling I now know where I was going wrong - Thankyou !