What do you say to a visually impaired ski racer?
Visually impaired ski racers are classified by the International Paralympic Committee according to their level of sight impairment. The following is how Alice Luetchford guides James Luetchford, a B2 visually impaired ski racer (the middle level of disability) in their Slalom and Giant Slalom Para Alpine ski races for Great Britain.
James and I started ski racing together in November 2016. I ski in front of James, leading him down the race course both verbally and with him following my bright yellow bib. When we first started racing together, our coach told us that visually impaired ski racers are notoriously secretive about the words they use as they don’t want to give their competitors an advantage. Indeed, when trying to search for information about potential guide words myself last summer, I struggled to find any information online. We don’t believe this philosophy. We would rather share what we’re currently using to support our friends and competitors on the race circuit, and to also give ideas and inspiration to newer athletes.
The words we use together have changed numerous times in the past couple of years, and what works for us may not work for other athletes. What might work at one point in our career can cease to generate the desired effect, and as we get faster and improve technically, we may need to bring in additional commands. This is what we use at the moment — we hope it’s useful!
We talk to each other using FreedConn Intercom bluetooth radio headsets. Operating to about 400 metres, these headsets make the difference between James skiing cautiously and him charging behind me. They give us both confidence to attack the race course and ski our hearts out. On the (very rare) occasion they fail, we usually stop skiing as it can be too dangerous to continue.
Words are extremely powerful. I need to be able to say a word quickly that will be heard clearly over the sound of skis scraping on ice, wind on the radio or just general heavy breathing from James! Single syllable words are preferable but not always possible. Sometimes words sound too similar to each other so we have to find alternatives to eliminate the risk of confusion in the race; other times words prompt a behaviour which can be the opposite of what is intended. For example, I used to say ‘forward’ to James to tell him to get more forward in his stance if we were going to go down a steeper pitch, hit a bump or ski over a patch of ice. Over time he’s learned to associate this with something difficult coming towards him, so he’s instinctively started sitting backwards when he hears ‘forward’: the complete opposite of what we want! We’ve stopped using that word… Ultimately we want command words that are easy to say, clear to hear and ones which instinctively prompt the behaviour we’re after.
The differences in voices between the sexes also complicates our communication. When I snapped my Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL) and tore my Medial Collateral Ligament (MCL) in my knee in 2017, I couldn’t race for a season. James worked with another guide, Ross Patterson and discovered that even a change in voice from male to female when I returned to guiding required different commands. James had found it easier to hear a male voice meaning Ross could say nearly anything to him, whereas mine was too similar to the sound of our skis carving into the ice. We’ve had to adjust our words again so that James can still hear me clearly no matter what the terrain is that we’re skiing over.
For slalom, we both have to ski more dynamically as the gates are the closest together out of all the different types of alpine ski racing. Darting around each gate, accuracy is just as important as speed because if James straddles any gate, he is automatically disqualified. I ski ‘classic’ around the gates (not cross-blocking nor hitting them) so that they don’t wobble. If I do wobble them, it can disorientate James — or give him a hit to the head. Neither is desirable! James will normally try to ‘cross-block’ (hit the gate with his hand) to try and ski a straighter and faster line only if his racing line is set up properly and it’s not going to negatively impact his skiing technique. If he stretches to cross-block when he’s not set up correctly, his torso can twist in such a way that it slows him down more than if he skied classic. It’s all a balancing act!
3, 2, 1, PUSH!!!
I count down the moment until James should go. I start pushing out from beside the start gate on ‘1’, and James launches himself out of the start gate on ‘Push’. Depending on the terrain and how steep the start is, I might go fractionally before or after I say ‘1’; I need to get ahead enough of James so that he can charge out of the gate without worrying he’s going to run into the back of me, but not so far ahead that he loses sight of me and loses confidence or stops entirely. Each start is an opportunity to gain a vital second or two against opponents so starting well is extremely important.
The most frequent of commands for slalom, I tell James when I’m pole planting for each turn. The pole plant is the start of the turn and when I’m getting my body into a position to turn round the gate. By the times James has heard and mentally processed my command, he will be at the point where he himself needs to start the turn — by pole planting.
I used to say ‘right’ and ‘left’ to tell James which direction to turn. We quickly realised that this just didn’t work: it was just too easy to mix the two up! We’ve also tried using ‘turn’ instead, but found that ‘plant’ was more informative about what James needed to actually do. And previous attempts to use a numbering system (‘1’, ‘2’ and ‘3’ for the size of the turns) just wasn’t intuitive enough for either of us.
‘Plant’ is the simplest and most helpful command for James. He doesn’t need to know which direction to turn, because it’s always the opposite direction to the previous turn. Before we start any course, we’ll discuss the first turn so that he knows whether he’s starting with a left foot or right foot turn. The rest just follow.
Up Up — Quick Quick Quick
Slalom courses have gates which are set vertically, named a ‘hairpin’; ‘verticali’; ‘flush’ or ‘royal flush’ depending on their length. For these gates, James needs to stand up more and be prepared to quickly shimmy through the combination (of gates). I’ll tell James ‘up up’ the gate before to warn him that the combination is coming and to stand more upright, and then ‘quick — quick — quick’ as we ski through the gates for as long as it lasts.
Long Soon — Follow Follow Follow
Another type of combination, the delay / banana / undergate is a gate which requires the racer to do a longer, sweeping turn. While they can be easier to ski, there is a higher risk that James can cut a corner and hit a gate. Therefore, it’s vital that James follows my line exactly around the gate. I’ll warn him that the gate is coming up by saying ‘long soon’ the gate before, then ‘follow — follow — follow’ until we’re safely around it.
What James feeds back
During slalom, the turns are happening so quickly that there’s hardly any time for James to feed back on how he’s skiing. He’ll normally say ‘yep’ if he’s happy with the speed of my skiing; ‘fast’ or ‘go’ if he needs me to speed up; ‘ease off’ if he needs me to slow down fractionally or ‘slow’ if he needs to slow me down more (and I usually glance backwards at this point too to see how far behind he is). If James touches me when skiing, he’s disqualified. If we’re more than two gates apart, not only is James disqualified again but he’s also going to be skiing horribly badly because he won’t know where he’s going! Reacting quickly to keep our distance consistently close together can make all the difference between a good race time and a not-so-good race time.
STOP STOP STOP!
And if it comes to it, either of us can stay ‘STOP STOP STOP!’ which means that we both slam on the brakes immediately. This might be because I’ve fallen over (which does occasionally happen despite my best efforts not to); because James has fallen over — although normally I’ll hear a shriek or scream and a thud first!; or because there’s something dangerous happening which means we have to stop. Sometimes non-racing skiers enter the race course which is extremely dangerous; we often don’t see them until the last minute if the race course is undulating and they don’t realise just how fast we can travel. Or how heavy we are! While it happens infrequently, this is one of my worst nightmares and something I actively avoid. In fact, we’ve stopped training in locations where this happens more often as it’s just too much for my nerves…
It’s also worth mentioning that for any command word as important as ‘STOP’, I’ll repeat the word as many times as needed until James has safely stopped. We can’t risk him not stopping if he doesn’t hear it the first time. Additionally the tone of my voice can also convey importance and urgency to James. If someone’s skied directly into my path then I’m going to stop James as fast as I possibly (and safely) can!
Giant Slalom is skied slightly differently. The gates are further apart, and the turns are wider. We travel faster, and because James doesn’t hit the gates in the same way, I can ski the line that I want James to ski; I don’t need to ski any wider as I have to in slalom. Personally, I love Giant Slalom because there’s more time to process what’s happening and to communicate with each other. I think I’m persuading James that he likes it too…
As we’ve skied Giant Slalom more and more, we’ve noticed that James does not want too much information given to him, unlike some other athletes we race against. Some visually impaired racers want their guides to tell them the type of terrain they’re skiing over and more nuanced detail about what they should be doing down the course. This is overwhelming for James. He asks instead that I just tell him how to get down the course, where he’s going to need to be particularly strong on one foot or the other, and to leave him mental space instead to focus on his skiing technique. The command words I do use in Giant Slalom are:
The start of each turn is very important in Giant Slalom. To go our fastest, we don’t want to start turning until we hit the rise line. It is at this point that I will then put my ski on its edge and start the turn around the gate; releasing my skis once I’ve passed the gate — closely — and have set my direction up for the next gate. I say ‘edge’ to James as I start to put my ski on its edge; by the time he’s heard it and processed it, it should be the right time for him to edge his ski too.
Strong Left / Strong Right
Sometimes a race course will swing to the right or the left, or there’ll be a particularly offset (wide) gate. Giving James notice of this helps him to remain on the racing line and not be kicked off the course. I’ll tell James to give a ‘strong left’ (foot) or a ‘strong right’ (foot) to help him turn — and make — the corner. If it’s a particularly tight turn, I’ll repeat the command until I’m safely past it and into the next turn. By the time James has heard and processed the command, he’ll be past it too.
Long Soon — Follow Follow Follow
As with Slalom, there are delay gates in Giant Slalom too. We use the same command words for both; if there’s no reason to change them then we prefer to keep them the same! It’s already quite complicated guiding as it is…
What James feeds back
It’s critical that James is the right distance behind me, otherwise he’ll a) run me down which would hurt us both, or b) not turn at the right time, meaning he’ll be skiing slower. We’ve tried a multitude of ways to try and keep the distance between us consistent, but we have numerous challenges:
James’ eye condition means he can’t judge distances accurately. He’ll often feel closer than he is which a) worries him making him back off and ski more cautiously and b) make me frustrated because I won’t understand why he’s not attacking the course properly.
James is 20–25kg heavier than me. This means that he can travel faster than me on the flat parts of the pistes, whereas because I can see I can ski faster on the steeper pitches. We will naturally concertina because of our weight difference, but we need to minimise this as much as possible for faster skiing overall. If I try and monitor the distance by turning around and looking at how far behind me he is, it negatively impacts my own skiing technique which isn’t ideal as I need to remain fast in front of James. Additionally, if James doesn’t know why I’m doing it, the mere act of looking back at him or sliding slightly to decrease my speed can throw him off and make him worried there’s something difficult approaching. Which instinctively makes him slower. Self-preservation is a strong instinct!
The ideal is for James to feed back how far behind me he is, but it’s taken us two years to find a system that works for us. Relying on his depth perception isn’t accurate enough and just doesn’t work.
We’ve found instead that James can feed back not how far behind he is, but instead where he is in the turn. Instead of relying on his eyes, we’re relying on his body. This has been a huge change.
If James is closer than a quarter of a turn behind me, he’ll tell me to speed up by saying ‘Go’. If he’s needing me to speed up quickly and/or a lot, he’ll repeat it or say ‘Go’ with increased urgency in his voice. His tone of voice can convey a lot to me! If James is about a quarter of a turn behind me — which is ideal — he’ll respond with ‘Yep’. This means that the speed I’m travelling at is good for him, and I should keep it as such. Once I get more than a quarter of a turn ahead of him, James will start feeding back ‘half’. This means that I’m approximately half a turn ahead of him, and I need to ease off slightly until he catches me again. I can’t slow too much because otherwise James will ski into the back of me, so slowing just slightly is crucial here. Once he’s more than half a turn behind me, James will say ‘full’ (turn) or ‘slow’; both of these mean that I need to slow more and also visually check how far he is behind me. When I glance back, I can also gauge how fast he’s travelling to better tailor my speed in front of him. (It’s also worth noting that we cannot use ‘fast’ in Giant Slalom; over ice and with the wind in our microphones it just sounds too similar to ‘half’!)
Using this system has been a revelation for us. I trust that the commands he’s giving me are accurate. James now trusts he can slow me when he needs to. This increased trust has given James enormous confidence, meaning he fully attacks the race course. He’s started properly charging down the mountain. And I now feel that we’re ski racing.
It’s taken us a long time to find a system that works for us, made harder because we just didn’t know what we needed. Every visually impaired ski racers’ guiding needs are different and what works for one racer will probably not work for another. What’s been most helpful is using command words that are:
Easy to hear over the sound of skis on ice or wind
Quick and easy to say
Give a sense of positive action: what do I need James to do? instead of telling him what to avoid
Distinctive enough from each other so there’s no chance of mishearing. This can also depend on the speakers’ voice too so needs to be tailored to the guide and athlete
Agreed in advance so that there’s no confusion on the mountain
Repeated if important
Appropriate for where you are right now in your skiing career
Work for you both.
James and I are constantly evolving our commands and trying to find out the best ways of skiing together. We love skiing together and have found a way to ski our hearts out, safely. We’re both excited to see what happens in the future!
If you want to find out more about James and Alice, you can visit http://www.luetchfordskiracers.com or at @Luetchfordskiracers on Instagram. Alice has also written more stories about ski racing with James on Medium.