Great discussion starter, Yd!
Is it EASIER to become an all-mountain skier by learning a defensive, braking technique? Wow--there's lots to that question, depending on how you interpret it, as CGeib has pointed out!
First, for those who have joined these forums more recently, we've had many discussions in the past about "offensive vs. defensive" skiing. The difference may not be intuitive, and it may not be what you think it is. Most importantly, it's critical to understand that offensive
is not the same as aggressive,
and defensive is not the same as "timid." Offensive does not necessarily mean fast,
and defensive does not necessarily mean slow. Offensive does not equate to "expert," and defensive does not mean "unskilled." Beginning skiers can learn offensive movements and tactics from the start. And many of the most aggressive, high-risk-taking "extreme mountain" skiers ski with mostly defensive technique. You can get "good" (skilled) at both. But I maintain that the BEST skiers, in ANY situation, can ski either way when they need or choose to, but that they are heavily biased toward OFFENSIVE "GO!" movements and tactics.
What DO the terms "offensive" and "defensive" mean, then (at least in the context of skiing)? Ironically, they both refer to ways of controlling speed. You can either try to STOP GOING downhill, or you can try to GO uphill--both will slow you down, but clearly "stop going this way" is a very defensive thought, while "go that way" is offensive. "Stop going" causes us to hit the brake pedal. "Go" means the accelerator, or the steering wheel. Even stopping can come from a "go as fast as you can" thought--if you go UPHILL.
Two skiers can reach the bottom in the exact same time, while one skis a very straight line with the brakes on (lots of skidding) and the other skis a series of very complete turns--perhaps even curving back uphill with each one. The first (defensive) skier scrubs off speed by using his edges primarily as scrapers, increasing resistance (reducing glide). The second (offensive) skier maximizes glide, using the edges to hold the line and shape turns as desired. The first skier skis a faster line, with the brakes on ("the fast line slow"), while the second skier skis a slower line, gliding with as little braking as possible (the "slow line fast"). The offensive skier's skis go the direction they're pointed; the defensive skier's skis go sideways. The defensive skier uses braking movements to control speed directly. The offensive skier uses purer turning (direction-changing) movements to control speed indirectly--or more accurately, he uses turns to AVOID THE NEED for speed control. The defensive skier controls speed; the offensive skier controls line. And both reach the bottom at the same time.
Hence my favorite line: Good skiing means skiing a slow enough line as fast as you can (when you can).
The best skiers--at any skill level--are offensive when they can be, defensive when they have to be (or choose to be). They control speed with direction,
rather than friction
(when they can). They turn to control LINE (to "go that way") rather then to control SPEED ("stop going this way"), and they ski a line that minimizes the need to control speed.
But that isn't what Ydnar's question was, is it? He didn't ask which way was "better"--he asked which way was "easier." As CGeib suggests, offensive technique is almost always easier on the body (less demanding and punishing) than defensive, all else being equal. But offensive technique takes considerably more skill, again all else being equal, so it is hardly easier or quicker to learn.
For an athletic, energetic skier, I would have to admit that the QUICKEST way to learn to ski the steep and deep with some degree of control, is to learn to brake really well. Defensive skiing, while athletically demanding, is technically very easy (and offensive skiing is the opposite). Braking is the quickest route to the steeps, but it's also a SURE route to the dreaded "intermediate plateau." It's a quick route, but it's a dead end--a shortcut to ultimate mediocrity.
Technically, it isn't very difficult to learn to throw the skis sideways into a skid, especially for a strong athlete. Parallel braking moves, usually coming from the upper body, are perhaps the most instinctual tendencies of athletic men learning to ski--and they can get "good" at them quite quickly!
But brakes have their limits. And those limits become more obvious (and painful) as speed rises and conditions deteriorate. Ironically, the faster you go, the more dangerous it becomes to hit the brakes! And making skis skid sideways in deep, heavy crud is difficult at best; CONTROLLING them once you GET them sideways is virtually impossible.
One of the beautiful challenges of skiing comes from the fact that skis work very well as both direction control tools and brakes--BUT NOT AT THE SAME TIME. The movements are as contradictory and incompatible as the "go/stop" thoughts that produce them. The more a ski goes the direction it's pointed, the better it holds its line and helps control direction, but the less it brakes. And the more a ski skids sideways, the better it brakes, but the more it sacrifices control of line. Pure TURNING and pure BRAKING exist on opposite ends of the spectrum of skiing movements--and skier intents. Few skiers even understand the difference, and most "turns" are hopeless mish-mashes of contradictory movements lost in the gray area, controlling neither speed nor direction with much efficiency or effectiveness. But experts are acutely aware of the difference, and they are able to apply movements intentionally across the entire spectrum as needed, and as they desire.
Just as the quickest way to learn to ski "extreme" terrain is to focus on braking, the surest way to become a defensive, terminally mediocre skier is to rush to more difficult terrain too quickly! Europeans, who tend to appreciate good ski technique more than most Americans, have a general rule for learning to ski: "Keep it fast and flat."
Especially for children, who may aspire to become the next Hermann Maier or Bode Miller, they would rather have them ski flatter terrain, focusing on gliding and going faster, then steeper terrain, focusing on going slower. The reason is obvious: that's good ski technique! Ultimately, good technique will allow you ski ANYTHING, with a degree of efficiency, control, confidence, safety, and speed that the defensive hacks can only envy.
While I agree with Arcmeister that it's easier to teach a good carver to skid than a gross skidder to carve, and I strongly believe that beginners' first turns should be offensive, the reality is that the best instructors teach SKILLS--not TURNS. Those skills, even from the start, allow skiers to explore the entire spectrum of skiing movements--and to be aware of it. The difference is really not so much one of technique learned, but of TACTICS. INTENT DICTATES TECHNIQUE.
The ideal solution is to teach the skills of versatile skiing, while encouraging the offensive INTENT that defines experts!
So yes--defensive braking is the quickest (easiest?) route to the steeps, without a doubt. But but you have to sell your soul! Skidded "turns" are the quickest way to gain "control" downhill, but perhaps the American Heritage Dictionary puts it better: "SKIDDING: on a downward path to ruin, failure, or depravity."
Next: what is the difference between offensive and defensive skiing, TECHNICALLY--how do you do it?
Bob Barnes[ August 26, 2003, 12:24 PM: Message edited by: Bob Barnes/Colorado ]