Better Skiing Starts with Your Feet
John Clendenin, hailed as the greatest instructor in the U.S., has some unexpected advice for skiers: forget style, practice a four-word mantra, and get to know your feet
Sitting behind my desk at Outside headquarters in Santa Fe, there is a view of the Sangre De Cristo Mountains and our local resort, Ski Santa Fe. One morning last winter, while I was contemplating the year’s generous snowfall, a colleague walked in and handed me an article from Forbes.com: “Is John Clendenin the Best Ski Instructor in the U.S.?”
I was intrigued. Clendenin, I learned, has developed a unique teaching method to help students master deep snow, steep bumps, tight glades—all the challenging terrain, in other words, that skiers are confronted with outside of a resort’s tame groomers. A former freestyle world champion and the author of Four Words for Great Skiing, the instructor, who is based in Aspen, Colorado, runs camps and clinics all over the world, hosting 15 to 20 skiers at a time. “You’re going to ski on a level you’ve never skied before,” Clendenin told his students in the Forbes story. “All conditions, all terrain, no problem.”
Now that sounded pretty good. As a lifelong skier—I’ve been at it for over 50 years—I’m comfortable in powder, bumps, and steeps, but I’m always looking for ways to get better. I immediately recruited two old friends and signed up for Clendenin’s next clinic in Park City, Utah.
For three days, I soaked up the Clendenin Method, learned his quirky mantras, and got reacquainted with my feet (they’re at the core of his teaching philosophy). By the end, I was officially a Clendenin convert. I’m still struggling with some of his concepts, but the veteran teacher is used to first-time students struggling to unlearn their standard approaches to tough terrain. “You have to let go of old habits to adopt new ones,” he tells me.
A few months later, I caught up with my new guru—J.C., as I’ve come to know him—about his skiing background, the pinnacle of freestyle skiing in the seventies, and the secrets behind his unusual methods.
Larry Burke: When and how did you decide skiing was going to be your profession?
John Clendenin: I joke when I get asked that question. I tell people that when I was 12, the only thing I wanted to do was ski and golf. Then I went through puberty and got waylaid for about 40 years, but now I’m back to just skiing and golf. Some may think I’m living the dream, because this year I got my 40-year Professional Ski Instructor Association (PSIA) pin and my 25-year Professional Golf Association Class A card.
When did you first think of the Clendenin Method as a business?
When I got hired by the Aspen Ski Company with 1,500 other instructors, I knew I needed a niche. My experience as a golf pro actually helped, because in golf, there are lots of guys with their own methods, like Butch Harmon, David Leadbetter, and Hank Haney. In skiing there were virtually none. As a former world freestyle champion, [I thought], Why not Mogul Skiing for Adults? I started camps and brought in a couple former champions—Wayne Wong and Scott Brooksbank—and called it Camp with the Champs. After a few name changes and about 4,000 coaching experiences, the Clendenin Method evolved.
What is the most important differentiating factor between the Clendenin Method and the approach other coaches or instructors use with their clients?
We don’t teach clients—we teach feet! If you understand the kinetic chain in skiing, you realize that the body naturally aligns itself to the feet in order to maintain balance. Here is a simple test: sit, with your knees bent, so your thighs are parallel to the ground. Move your knees sideways back and forth, with your feet flat to the ground. Now, in the same position, try to tip your feet on edge without moving your knees. You can’t. Do the same drill standing up. You will fall over if you don’t let the body bend in response to the feet going on edge. That’s the kinetic chain.
It kills me when I hear ski instructors teach body positions, because this negates the kinetic chain. These instructions force the feet to find the body, not vice versa.
It seems like good technical skiing is an important part of your mission. How important is style in the finished product of a Clendenin client? You want your clients to look good, right?
Most ugly skiers have put style in front of technique. Great technique always produces a beautiful style. Now we have the all-important question: What is great technique? I love watching great skiers like Jean-Claude Killy and Ingemar Stenmark. They all have great, elegant technique, and that technique is what the Clendenin Method is all about. It really disappoints me to see so many instructors teaching people to ski with a wide stance and their bodies hunched over like Quasimodo.
Is there a conflict between the style you teach and the style taught today by most PSIA instructors?
PSIA training tilts toward racing technique, highlighting high-speed carved turns and zipper-line bump skiing. Not that this approach is wrong or bad, it’s just that this emphasis doesn’t fit for CM clients. Our clients want to feel safe and look good skiing more of the mountain, off-piste and in the moguls. Racing techniques are not their focus. High-edge angles and accelerated turns do not work well in the moguls. You can see this emphasis in younger skiers who bash straight down, slamming and thumping between bumps. Eventually, these skiers grow up and have to quit because of sore knees and backs. I’ve used up all my thumps, so I coach a much softer method of bump skiing. With speed controlled and turn shape managed, you can dance with gravity.
You won two freestyle world championships. What do you feel gave you an edge?
None of my fellow competitors had my intense early technical training nor the experience of skiing on a simulator. My Northwood prep school race ski team beat the St. Lawrence, Middlebury, and Dartmouth college ski teams. Several of my teammates made the U.S. Olympic Ski Team. While finishing college in L.A., I taught skiing on an indoor ski simulator. Together, my technical background from Northwood and the finite sense of my edges from the ski simulator gave me the skills to kick ass. I went on and won more cars [at competitions] than anyone.
What was the freestyle ski circuit like back in the seventies when you were champ?
[In 1971,] Aspen staged the first freestyle mogul contest on the planet. The event brought 100 competitors and a couple thousand spectators. Four years later, freestyle had thousands of competitors, TV coverage on ABC, and thousands of dollars in prize money—not to mention ten times more spectators than any event in U.S. skiing history.
So imagine this: over 5,000 people on top of Park City, lining the famous Thaynes mogul run. Everyone in the crowd at that 1974 Beconta Cup world mogul championship had to buy a lift ticket. Sun Valley was our next event. Picture a steady stream of over a thousand vans and trucks full of contraband and wild women pouring into town. It was like a moving tailgate party! This was the beginning of a very interesting phenomenon. The free spirit of the seventies began to shake the conservative world of skiing. And I was in the middle of it! I was world champ, and luckily, I survived.
Was overcoming fear a factor in winning?
I overcame fear, but it had nothing to do with skiing. The year before freestyle took hold, I was a hang glider. I flew many ski mountains: Copper, Vail, Steamboat. My last flight was down Gunbarrel at Heavenly Valley. My outfit was a bright red overall suit from the Barnum and Bailey Circus. I flew only on calm spring evenings, and hundreds would come to watch. I was told the last flight looked great from the ground: The crowd saw me bomb down the moguls, holding my hang glider just off the snow, before shooting into the air, and then diving down and almost crashing into the ground, then shooting straight up again. Then I landed. It was a gentle landing, but everyone could see I was in shock.
What really happened was not good. First, a tailwind created a terrifying takeoff, causing me to carry the glider a hundred yards down waist-deep moguls before bursting into the air. Then, from over 500 feet off the ground, an air draft dropped me out of the sky. I was crashing to my death when my kite suddenly caught fresh air and soared straight up again. I landed with what appeared to be a watermelon drooping in my pants. The crowd scattered as I ran to the bathroom. So my point: not much has scared me after that. Freestyle was a piece of cake. When I share this story with clients, it usually helps with their fear issues.
What do your clients typically consider the most difficult part of learning the Clendenin Method?
Learning to trust their feet. We do hand-eye activities all the time. We wake up, go to the bathroom, brush our teeth, drink coffee—all require conscious hand-eye coordination. We rarely do anything conscious with our feet. So the challenge for our program is to establish foot-eye awareness. This is why we always start with our simple Keys to the Kingdom, designed to connect the mind with the feet. When people experience this foot-eye revelation, our program becomes a revelation, too.
You have a great way of describing getting rid of bad habits: “Old habits want to protect their turf from the new habits you want to acquire”—or something like that.
Most of my recent study has been on how people learn and how to deal with bad habits. I had a few bad teaching habits myself. When I started 20 years ago, I was screaming instructions, thinking no one was listening. Then I learned that habits are like little demons, and they have a life of their own. They tell their host, “Don’t listen to this creep and get confused—we already have a move that works.” So I screamed and yelled, thinking I had to kill their habits. I was the high priest with the silver sword. Not many clients were happy with my teaching style.
Then I learned about the Alexander Technique [developed by acting teacher Frederick Matthias Alexander in the 1800s]—a guy who specialized in curing habits. He taught coaches to simply take people out of the environment that created the habit and give them a step-by-step procedure to replace it. Rather than work backward to get rid of the old, move forward with the new! This revelation changed my approach, and now we have consistent results—and a mellower John. Now I’m positive, not negative, and the business has grown.
You also endorse the use of mantras throughout your teaching. If you had to leave your clients with just one, what would it be?
Mantras work wonders. Hearing clients ski down a run while repeating their mantra is music to my ears. The Clendenin Method is based on four words: “drift center,” then “touch tip.” As campers progress, each word takes on more meaning. Just learning the four words improves most campers. Together, they are all you need to know.
As skiers advance, we have more specific mantras for every phase of the Clendenin Method. The best mantra depends on the level of a client. For example, you, Lorenzo, are an advanced CM skier learning to embrace the Epiphany Pad—the little-toe edge of the foot—as a new functional habit for your bump skiing. So a simple but accurate mantra that works for you is: “Touch heel, touch heel.” We can only use this mantra if you are already doing a number of things correctly, like parallel turns with a tight unit. On your level in bumps, we don’t have time for a mantra with more words. This two-word mantra worked great for you.
Campers are not in our program long before they learn that the fastest way to great skiing is to ski slow on groomed terrain and practice the basic Keys to the Kingdom. We tell them, “If you can’t do it here, you’re sure as hell not going to do it up there.” With respect to gravity, our best skiers warm up slow with this mantra: “Touch to the love and squeeze.” You have to take a camp to know what that means.
How many camps do you envision establishing, and what would be your locations of choice?
Ski teaching is a billion-dollar business, and I only want one-tenth of it. In the U.S., the Clendenin Method is like a boutique shop in the big PSIA mall. We currently do camps in Aspen, Steamboat, Beaver Creek, and Park City. We are looking at other franchise possibilities. Europe allows multiple ski schools in all major resorts. We’ve already held camps in a couple famous resorts like Val d’Isère and Courchevel. The potential for CM is limitless—I only wish I had figured this out 20 years ago!
Lawrence J. Burke is the owner and founder of Outside. For more information on upcoming Clendenin Method clinics, visit clendeninmethod.com.