To Cross-Block or Not To Cross-Block?

by Greg Gurshman

(Author's Note): This article was written in 1996 and published in "Professional Skier" magazine. It is not a secret that Slalom technique has changed dramatically over the last five years. The new short skis with big sidecut allowed racers to ski faster and carve cleaner while courses have become more technical. The horizontal offset of the gates has noticeably increased, making slalom turns rounder and more complete. This required a higher degree of lateral balance and a larger amount of inclination. At the same time new skis allowed to use the simultaneous footwork not only while carving but during the transition phase as well. Down-unweighting and cross-under movements are now parts of racers technical arsenal in slalom. The up and down movements and countering are almost non-existent, the saggital (fore/aft) split between the skis has decreased greatly. In many ways Slalom technique has moved closer to GS. Modern slalom turn is often referred to as a "mini GS turn".

But despite all the changes that Slalom technique is undergoing now, many fundamentals are staying the same and some of the principles of teaching those have not radically changed. One of such fundamentals is the gate clearing technique. Understanding of this technique and the correct approach to teaching it still play an important part (if not the most crucial one) in juniors slalom training.

That is why I have decided to place this "old" article with some small additions in the COACHING section

Cross-block is not always the best tactic for junior racers.

During the past decade, many ski racers and coaches have pondered this question of gate-clearing strategy. Which technique is faster, the cross-block (i.e., clearing the gate with the outside arm) or the inside clear (i.e., clearing the gate with the inside arm)? When each technique is more efficient? At what age should junior racers be introduced to the cross-block technique? What are the consequences of introducing it prematurely?

There are no direct answers to these and many related questions. However, I will attempt to clarify this controversial subject and help coaches and athletes find the right answers for their particular circumstances. I will also recommend universal criteria that should help coaches in the decision-making process.

A Look At Gate Clearing

By 1989 most of the top technical skiers in the world had adopted the cross-block technique. However, there were a few exceptions. One was Marc Girardelli, who was still using conventional inside-arm clearing.

Many people were surprised that he won the slalom at the 1989 World Alpine Ski Championships by a fairly big margin. His victory made coaches and athletes realize that there is more to fast slalom skiing than a particular method of clearing gates. Girardelli demonstrated excellent footwork, perfect timing, and an aggressive line as well as other technical elements that made him ski faster than the others.

At about the same time, Herman Nagler, who had coached the best slalom skier ever - Ingemar Stenmark - commented on the cross-block technique in junior ski racing in an interview on European television. "Slalom skiing at the junior level is on its way to a great disaster because junior racers concentrate only on hitting slalom poles and getting them out of the way. They don't learn how to use their feet properly," Nagler said.

Ski racing at any level is about speed. What exactly generates the most speed, however, has been somewhat unclear. In general, I believe in a very basic approach to ski racing. I study a racer's speed in the course as a result of the interaction between only two key components: (1) the line of descent and (2) the carving action of skis.

One may wonder how a racer's speed depends on these components. The answer is simple: The racer who can carve turns most cleanly while holding the tightest line throughout the course will have the most speed. Therefore, all the technical elements of ski racing, including gate-clearing techniques, should be geared toward the line of descent and carving.

The Cross-Block In Use

Let's consider two illustrations of different ski racers (see above). Photo 1 (on the left) depicts a World Cup slalom skier, while Photo 2 (on the right) shows a top junior racer. We'll look at whether the two key components are present in these pictures and how each racer applies them.

Photo 1.

Photo 2.

The World Cup skier has a very tight line at the gate and both skis carve fairly cleanly. The skis are bent, and there is a minimal spray of snow.

At first glance, the junior racer might seem to be skiing similarly. A closer look at this picture, however, tells a different story. This racer doesn't have as tight a line in approaching the gate as the racer in Photo 1. (In itself, this is not a problem. Most juniors are not physically strong enough to ski as tight a line as World Cup skiers.) The junior racer doesn't put enough pressure on the outside ski. The outside ski isn't bent very much, and the inside ski is weighted more than it should be. A much bigger snow spray comes from under the inside ski. As a result, the carve of the World Cup racer has been replaced by a quick drift, or aggressive slide, through the snow.

The racer who goes too straight and "quick slides" through the gates might be pretty fast for the moment but will suffer from not having developed the basics of a carved turn. Our job as coaches is to correct this kind of skiing before it becomes too ingrained.

Sometimes it's difficult to distinguish a quick slide from a clean carve. A very fine line distinguishes these two forms of ski behavior. That's why photo and/or video equipment is especially helpful when coaching young athletes.

The ability to carve should be developed by first skiing a line that is more round. Once a racer can successfully carve turns in this line, he or she should gradually work on tightening the line, without sacrificing the carving action of the ski. (Of course, even at the World Cup level, a clean carve does not always happen, but it should be the ultimate goal of any athlete and coach.)

A common mistake made by coaches and racers occurs when a young racer tries to tighten his or her line without correcting the technical errors that prevented him or her from carving turns and skiing fast in the first place.

Though these technical errors can vary for every racer, several of the most common are:

Now let's take a more thorough look at the technical elements used by the racers in Photo 1 and Photo 2. What allows the racer in Photo 1 to make an almost perfect turn? What is the racer in Photo 2 missing? The answers to these questions will bring us back to the main topic of this article: effective use of the cross-block technique.

Photo 1.

Photo 2.

The racer in Photo 1 is well balanced over the skis. Her upper body is stable, and she maintains a good alignment between her upper and lower body. In addition, her outside arm executes the cross-block right in front of the body. All these elements contribute to the proper working of the skis, resulting in a clean carve.

The junior racer in Photo 2 also uses the cross-block technique for clearing the gate, but she is missing some of the elements seen in Photo 1. For example, since she is not as close to the gate as the racer in Photo 1, she has to lean toward that gate in order to clear it with the outside arm. Because she must reach across the body with the outside arm, her upper body is in a rotated position (as opposed to the position shown in Photo 1). This upper-body rotation causes the racer to lose her balance over the outside ski and therefore forces her to apply pressure to the inside ski and lean on the inside pole in order to regain her balance. As the outside ski loses its grip on the snow, the racer drops her outside knee as she tries to regain the ski's grip. As mentioned earlier, the carved turn in this case ended up as a much slower sliding motion.

The racer in Photo 2 would have had a better chance of carving his turns if she had used the inside-arm clearing technique, which would have enabled her to avoid upper-body rotation. As is, the cross-block technique not only did not contribute to the speed of descent, but it in fact reduced speed.

This technical error often carries into GS as well. Up to the World Cup level some racers have had problems with upper-body rotation in GS as a result of having excessively used the cross-block in slalom. For example, according to her coach, Swiss star Vreni Schneider, the most successful female racer of recent years, had a hard time getting rid of the over-rotation in GS turns that carried over from her slalom skiing.

Universal Criteria

The examples of the two racers depicted here allows us to come up with a set of criteria for successfully using the cross-block technique. The following technical elements should be present for a racer to use this technique efficiently:

These basic criteria are universal. They can be applied to any ski racer, from a junior athlete to a college-level competitor to a member of a national development team. Once all the components of the criteria are met, it doesn't take long for a racer to adopt the cross-block technique and start using it efficiently.

The Inside Clear

In addition to the cross-block technique, many World Cup racers also use the inside clear. Raimund Berger, an Austrian ski racing expert, commented on the inside clear in a report for the Austrian Ski Federation: "For those who believe that there is only one technique that will be learned easily by the development skier, the answer is the inside-arm technique. This technique in its most basic form effectively protects the competitor from the poles. Here, it doesn't matter whether the skier is distanced closer or farther away from the gates. A physically weaker skier can easily clear the poles without danger."

Racers like Alberto Tomba and Juri Kosir used the inside clear in most of the combinations in the course. Using the inside clear is recommended for FIS and NORAM racers who end up skiing big ruts in the back of the pack. Based on the above criteria, their line of descent wouldn't be tight enough, and thus the cross-block wouldn't be efficient in such cases. The inside clear can also be used successfully when going through some terrain changes as well as during straight finish sections of a course.

Drills For Gate-Clearing

Any good slalom racer these days should master both the cross-block and inside clear techniques and be absolutely fluent in using them interchangeably. As coaches, of course, we should be able to offer qualified help in this area. Numerous drills exist for developing skill in switching between gate-clearing techniques. I'll share just two of the simplest ones.

The first drill is called "3 x 3 in a corridor." For this drill, about 24 to 30 gates are set in a basic corridor down the fall line. The racer is then given the task of clearing the first three gates with an outside arm, the next three with an inside arm, and so on.

The second drill, the "3 x 3 rhythm change" is a little more complicated. The drill course here consists of a succession of rhythm changes to be made after every three gates. This time the racer is asked to cross-block only the top gate of each three-gate section and inside clear the other two. Once the racer is comfortable doing this, you can change the task. For example, ask the racer to cross-block only the bottom gates of each three-gate section, or to cross-block both the top and bottom ones while inside clearing the middle gate.

These drills should be used with racers who already have strong basic skills and meet every component of the cross-block criteria.

As a working coach, I've seen junior racers from Austria, Slovenia, and Switzerland practice the inside-clear technique over and over during their training camps. In the summer of 1994 I watched Girardelli run bamboo courses, again using only the inside clear. Yet most North American junior racers at the camps at Mount Hood and in Chile concentrate only on the cross-block technique, and some of them haven't yet developed the basics necessary to use it effectively. While timing is very important in skiing, we shouldn't forget that it is equally, if not more, important in coaching