The Man Who Taught Us Modern Skiing
Georges Joubert studied world-class skiers and translated their winning techniques
into lessons that recreational skiers could learn
By Ron LeMaster
Georges Joubert, a giant in the world of ski coaching and instruction, passed away on November 1, 2010. From the late 1950s through the late 1970s he analyzed and described, in print and pictures, the significant movements of skiing being developed by the best competitive skiers in the world, and how the rest of us could learn to make them ourselves. It is fair to say that no single person has had a greater impact on our understanding of how modern skiing works, and how it can be taught.
Joubert was a professor of physical education and the president of the Grenoble University club when Jean Vuarnet joined its skiing program in the mid-1950s. Vuarnet was eighteen years old, and had done little skiing before then. After four years of training under Joubert, he was the French national champion in slalom, giant slalom and downhill, and in 1960 won the Olympic gold medal in downhill at Squaw Valley. Joubert went on to train many top-level racers, including world championship and World Cup winning skiers Patrick Russel and Perrine Pelen, and did an ill-fated stint as head coach of the French Ski Team. Although it is commonly thought that Joubert unilaterally fired the leading members of the French men’s World Cup team in 1973, that action was the majority decision of a panel of five, one of whom was Joubert, who cast a dissenting vote and later characterized the panel’s decision as a “gross error.” Yet, over the following decades, he accepted responsibility and suffered the ensuing criticism without complaint.
Ski politics aside, it is Joubert’s work in teaching the rest of us to ski that leaves the greatest mark on our sport, through the coaches and teachers he trained and a series of landmark books unmatched in their depth and durability.
In the late 1950s the skiing world was captivated by a new system of skiing put forth by the Austrian Association of Professional Ski Teachers. Their 1958 book, The New Official Austrian Ski System—From Walking to Wedel, translated to English and brought to the United States by Roland Palmedo, introduced skiers everywhere to a new and distinctive style of skiing that quickly became the model for recreational skiing. The look was unmistakable: feet and legs pinned together, torso turned dramatically toward the outside of the turn in the “reverse shoulder” posture, and the entire body curved in the so-called “comma position.”
Ski technique and instruction at this time was intensely nationalistic. The Austrian, Swiss, French and others sought to differentiate themselves by suggesting that their way of turning a pair of skis was qualitatively different, and implicitly superior, to that of the others. Joubert and Vuarnet stepped into the fray in 1957 with their own book, Ski ABC —Technique Moderne, and took a much different stance. They considered these national differentiations articficial, and presented a compelling argument against them: They simply demonstrated, largely through photographs, that the best ski racers from the various alpine nations all used the same essential techniques. One couldn’t tell from their skiing who was Austrian, Swiss, French or American. There were no contortions or affectations in their stances. They simply looked athletic, natural and, above all, effective. Moreover, Joubert and Vuarnet argued that, because the techniques those racers had developed provided the most security and control in the most challenging of skiing situations, the techniques must be at their root the best techniques for all skiers.
Joubert called this universal technique of the best skiers the “Modern Technique,” and presented it to the skiing world in a series of landmark books that were unique in several ways.
• They explicitly emphasized function over form.
• They were based on a sports science approach.
• They each had two main parts.
o One was tutorial in nature. It was written as if the author were speaking directly to the reader, instructing him or her to make each particular maneuver: its purpose, what it would feel like if it were done correctly, what common errors the reader migh make and how to correct them. The writing had a purposeful, cut-to-the-chase tone note found in other such works.o The second was technical, describing the techniques of skiing in physiological and biomechanical terms. It was written for instructors, coaches, and skiers with a technical bent.
As ski equipment went through a rapid evolution in the 1960s and 1970s, Joubert identified the key movement patterns that exploited the improved capabilities of the skis and boots. Aluminum skis, followed by fiberglass skis and then plastic boots, made it possible for skiers to hold progressively tighter turns, and skiers had to deal with greater and greater forces. The need to unweight the skis when initiating a turn was reduced, and the focus shifted toward keeping the skis in contact with the snow. These trends led the best competitors to develop maneuvers Joubert named the serpent turn, jet turn, reploiment and avalement. In the United States, the movements were often misrepresented as exotic, flamboyant techniques with more emphasis on style than function. While many people think those techniques faded away with end of the Jet-Stix era, they are still alive, well and, if anything, more widely used today than they were then.
How to Ski the New French Way was the first of Joubert’s books to have a major impact on teaching and coaching in the United States. It led Curt Chase, then the director of the Aspen Ski School, to visit Joubert in France, where Chase saw the depth, soundness and coherence of the program that had been developed at the Grenoble University Club. The experience left him determined to modernize the Aspen Ski School’s teaching system closely along the same lines, the result being that Aspen took the vanguard in ski teaching in this country. Its influence, and that of Joubert’s next book and masterpiece of self instruction, Teach Yourself to Ski, which Chase and fellow Aspenite Roby Albouy published in this country, did much to set the foundation of modern ski instruction and coaching in this country on Joubert’s work.
Although you don’t often hear the name of Georges Joubert mentioned these days, everywhere you look on the hill you see his imprint: from a skier turning his skis with his legs underneath a quiet, stable upper body (dubbed braquage by Joubert, a term still used today by instructors, and that literally means turning), to an expert mogul skier actively flexing and extending as he skis through large bumps (using avalement, which translates to “swallowing”), to someone flashing by in a racing tuck (a position Joubert developed with Vuarnet, and named l’ouef—“the egg”—that helped Vuarnet win the 1960 Olympic downhill).
Joubert’s passion was not just to advance the high end of ski technique and so develop champions. He had the much broader purpose of making skiing enjoyable to the largest audience possible. His work has helped ski coaches and instructors around the world teach millions of people of all skill and talent levels not only to ski, but to ski to their individual potentials.
Acknowledgements: The author would like to thank Curt Chase, Olle Larsson, Peter Looram and Sim Thomas for their help with this article.