Chipping Away at Technique, One Cue at a Time

Audrey ManganAugust 23, 2012
2012 U.S. Nationals
Noah Hoffman (Ski & Snowboard Club Vail/U.S. Ski Team) attacking a climb at U.S. Nationals this January. Photo: Flying Point Road.

Noah Hoffman has been all over the world this summer in search of snow, and in less than a week the U.S. Ski Team member will be jetting off again to find more. This time he’s headed to the Southern Hemisphere along with teammate Kris Freeman to train at the Snow Farm, New Zealand’s premier cross-country ski field and, until this year, a regular U.S. training destination.

It won’t be the first time this summer that the pair has embarked on an independent trip on top of the regular USST camp schedule; they both flew to Norway in June to spend time on Sognefjell. But between Sognefjell, the Snow Farm and earlier camps throughout the U.S. and Europe, Hoffman will have trained on actual skis this offseason more than any other in his career.

This intensified quest for groomed trails is part of a specific plan to improve on what Hoffman currently considers to be a significant weakness of his: technique. And there’s no better place to fine-tune it than on actual snow.

“You can do a little [technique] on rollerskis but it’s much more realistic on snow,” Hoffman said on the phone from his current base in Park City, Utah. “I’ve struggled with the transition between rollerskis and snow before, and I feel like it’s really important for me to learn to ski on snow because that’s where the races are held and technique has always been one of my biggest weaknesses.”

Hoffman following Canadian Devon Kershaw early in the Oslo World Cup 50 k last season. Photo: Fischer/Nordic Focus.

In fact, Hoffman believes that any success he’s had came in spite of not being the most efficient skier out there. Pure fitness worked for him until a point, but less-than-perfect technical ability eventually got in the way of further progress.

“It’s almost astounding how bad my technique is, and how I haven’t been able to make much progress with this before,” Hoffman said.

As a junior skier rising through the national ranks, he didn’t see the specifics of things like pole placement as a priority. “I kept finding that the harder I worked the faster I skied. But that doesn’t work forever; eventually you start getting tired and over trained. I was lucky in that I was able to handle a lot of training and each year work harder and ski faster, so I never saw the need to really address other aspects of skiing.

“But that stopped working, especially in 2009 when I had a really bad season.”

The summer afterwards was when Hoffman hired Zach Caldwell specifically to be his technique coach, and ever since they have adopted a unique plan to gradually fix Hoffman’s weaknesses. Caldwell assigns Hoffman an intensive three-day block of time about once a month to go away and work on some aspect of his technique. After, they revisit those cues at various intervals down the road and measure progress.

“Zach and I have a unique relationship; I don’t know of anyone who works on technique the same way I do,” Hoffman said. “But it’s worked really well for me… My classic skiing really took off the first year we started working together. Skate has been a longer process but I think we’re making some good gains right now.”

In order to ingrain small tweaks into his muscle memory, Hoffman has learned that he responds best to specific cues. Attempting to imitate other skiers didn’t stick, and so Caldwell and Hoffman devised ways to get the latter to set an edge or reach his arms in certain ways using analogies and imagery cues. Cues range from the simple — ‘stand up’ — to more complicated.

For example: the skateboard cue.

“Imagine a skateboard out in front of you with a stack of weights on it,” Hoffman explains. “A rope is attached to the skateboard, which is attached to your hand. When I’m poling in a classic striding motion I imagine myself pulling the skateboard to me, getting it moving as fast as I can without letting the weights drop off the skateboard. It has to be a smooth motion, but you’re accelerating through it and you’re pushing hard.

“We came up with that the first summer and that’s stuck with me; it’s been a great cue. I don’t know what kind of learner that makes me, but it’s worked really well for me.”

In the skate technique, other prompts include the [Maurice] Manificat cue for V2 and the [Petter] Northug cue — the Norwegian’s V2 alternate is “really good for springing off the foot and getting slingshotted down the track.”

And so when Hoffman steps onto the winding trails at the Snow Farm, ‘skateboard cue’ will be on his mind. He is looking forward to training at a venue free of distraction; with food, lodging and training all under one roof, he and Freeman aren’t even renting a car.

“Once again we’re someplace that is not very conducive to doing much but eating, sleeping and skiing,” Hoffman said. “It’ll be a good opportunity to be focused and work on what I need to work on without any distractions. Kris is one of the best in the world at doing that, so he’s a good person to go down there with.”

Setting out to improve technique is one thing, but Hoffman’s ultimate goal in doing so is to be the best skier in the world in five more years.

“A top 10 or top 15 would be a great success for me [at 2014 Sochi Olympics]. I’m looking to be a regular top-10 skier on the World Cup by that time,” Hoffman said. “But I’m looking at winning a gold medal in 2018. That’s my goal. I want to be winning World Cups by that time; I want to be winning world championships in Lahti in 2017.”

Audrey Mangan

Audrey Mangan (@audreymangan) is an Associate Editor at FasterSkier and lives in Colorado. She learned to love skiing at home in Western New York.

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