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Wimbledon Clinics

Guest blog by Warren Smith: Off piste and personal

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How did you get into skiing?

It was a bit of an unusual route. As a kid, I used to spend a lot of time BMX biking, and skateboarding at a local skate park in Hemel Hempstead – my mother used to live a stone’s throw from it. When I was 13, it was knocked down and they built an artificial ski slope in its place. Well, you can imagine, all the kids in the area weren’t very happy about this. In fact, a small gang of us used to try and vandalise it! Eventually we were caught and, as punishment, we were put to work at the slope. And that was it really: I skied all day, all the time. I’ve never looked back.

What happened next?

My career was built on that dry ski slope. At the age of 16, I went overseas to a ski school in Austria, where they sponsored me to do my ski instructor exams, and my international qualifications. And that was it!

How did the ski academy come about?

We started the Warren Smith Ski Academy 18 years ago, in Verbier. I think it was born out of the frustration of seeing ski tuition being carried out, and knowing that there were flaws in the teaching technique. It sounds arrogant, and I don’t mean it to come across that way – but it really came down to watching years and years of the same mistakes being made. The general public all skied incorrectly.

What is ‘correct’ skiing?

It’s not about skiing perfectly – but all skiers try to rush to parallel ski as quickly as possible; often they’re missing the basic foundations. It means that when they go off piste, they panic because they have no functionality, no rotational skills, no symmetry. You can get away with an awful lot on the piste, but when you’re submerged in deep powder or hit a mogul field, you might not have the flexibility to cover up that mistake. It’s essentially running before you can walk.

What do we know about ski technique now that we didn’t before?

It’s been interesting seeing the development of ski technique first hand. Back in the day, people skied with their feet very close together, and their upper bodies would rotate quite a lot. I myself come from a generation of “Bend ze knees!” Nowadays, it’s a bit more dynamic; the style is more ‘open’. We can look back at that old technique, witness the new dynamics that have come through, and say, thank God!

What about ski kit?

The equipment hasn’t changed all that much in the past two decades, although I do think that technological advancements have enabled us to gain more performance from the sport. Boots are much the same, although they’re a bit more attuned to skiers than they were twenty years ago – they used to be quite stiff, now they’re much softer, more versatile. But the correct equipment definitely helps the skier.

What’s your coaching DNA?

It comes down to a three-way approach. You must address the skier’s technique, their biomechanics, and the equipment that they’re using to ensure the best, and safest, performance possible. We teach around 1000 people per year, so we see the patterns that are there. We also, however, know that we are going through a very strong curve of fixing this.

How do you assess a skier’s biomechanics?

Three simple checks can help you pinpoint potential issues when it comes to ski technique: a skier’s leg flexibility pattern, their symmetry, and their rotational (or leg steering) skills. Someone might make technically correct movements, but if any part of this axis of movement is off, it suggests that they need to free up their physiological state. Only then will they be able to do the sport correctly. It’s a very unique method.

What’s the response been?

When we show a skier the correct technique, and we explain to them why they need to turn a certain way, where they need to make the change, etc – alarm bells start to ring. The most important thing is raising awareness that a ski instructor might not always check their physiological range, or realise that they are stiff. So it’s important that skiers are aware of these things themselves. Unfortunately, most people aren’t, and that’s why so many injuries come about. I think that’s why we work so well alongside Wimbledon Clinics.

How did the partnership with Wimbledon Clinics come about?

The founder, Jonathan Bell, booked on to a course that I was taking – that was where he saw how we coached, simple as that. It’s created a genuine link between the academy and the clinic. In fact, Jonathan performed keyhole surgery on my knee just the other day – though it wasn’t a result of skiing! I’d just returned from a ski trip to Argentina, and was playing football with an 8, a 10 and an 11 year-old in the garden: I slipped accidentally and flexed the leg in a way it shouldn’t have been flexed. Very frustrating.

 Why is the Return from Injury Ski Day such a good idea?

One, skiers get access to a product that they’d normally have to travel oversea for. This is on their doorstep! It couldn’t be easier.

Two, the course is exclusive to clients of Wimbledon Clinics. People coming back from an injury are undergoing a process – whether it’s physical or psychological. We’re a highly trained staff, specifically looking at the history of the problem from the skier’s perspective: the nature of the injury, the rehab process, their individual needs when it comes to coaching. You’re getting a high level of understanding from the combined forces of a surgeon, physio and a coach – which is rare in itself.

Three, though they might not realise on the day, the majority of skiers actually improve. They come for the three-way foundation exercise and the coaching – and they leave with a brand-new remit – of technique, skill, and confidence – that they never had before their injury. This is an important part of our annual diary.

Why Verbier?

I first visited Verbier 22 years ago, because of its free ride terrain. I’m a free skiing athlete; I’ve skied for the Völkl international free ski team for the past 15 or so years – quite an unusual achievement for a Brit. We go up in the helicopter with the pilot and the cameraman, and they film me skiing and doing certain steep faces. I found myself spending more and more time in Verbier. Four years later, I opened the training academy.

Where do you spend most of your time?

For two months of the year, I’m based in Kuhtai, Austria, where I coach for Channel 4: I’m their ski technique coach on The Jump, a programme where celebrities have to conquer ski moguls, parallel skiing and the slalom. I go to Niseko, Japan in February – I run a powder ski camp there. I get back to Verbier in March, where I spend one month teaching. At the end of the season, I head to Cervinia in Italy. You can still access the glacier at that point as it’s very high – 3900 metres – so you can ski very comfortably. In May, it’s back to the UK, where we hold courses at indoor snow domes in Manchester, Castleford near Leeds, and Hemel Hempstead (where we hold The Return from Injury Ski Day with Wimbledon Clinics) – it’s a bit like the golf driving range but for snow. In the summer, we head to the glacier on the Italian side of Zermatt.

What’s been your hairiest moment on skis?

Going down a 65-degree face between Verbier and Chamonix. You take risks sometimes; often hiking off piste to some of these areas is a risk in itself – many are avalanche-prone. Sometimes I take a gamble, although I’m getting older now…

And when you’re not skiing?

I’m probably lecturing – at different gyms, like Equinox, or KX in South Kensington. It keeps the technique ticking over!

Warren Smith, professional free skier and founder of the Warren Smith Ski Academy, Verbier warrensmith-skiacademy.com