In almost every sport, achieving a balanced body position is key to success. Proper balance makes learning easier, resulting in faster progress and better overall performance. This is certainly true in waterskiing, wakeboarding and barefooting. Yet typically, when someone is learning, balance is rarely discussed. Instead, the focus is just on getting up and skiing or riding. Performance may improve over time, but focusing on body position from the beginning will yield better results-and more fun.
When I'm coaching someone, whether on two skis, slalom, trick, wakeboard or barefoot, I immediately observe the athlete's body position. I look at how well the water skier or rider is standing over the bindings-or their feet. This tells me a great deal.
Slalom skiers, wakeboarders and barefooters all tend to place too much weight on the heels of their feet. To get great balance, the goal is to distribute the weight equally over your feet. The best water skiers and riders constantly hone their balance skills.
The optimal most balanced position is standing directly over the bindings, with ankles and knees slightly flexed. You should be able to drop a straight line from your shoulders to your hips to your ankles. This equalizes your weight over your foot from side to side and toe to heel. Keep your eyes on the horizon. If you look down, that is generally where you will end up.
Even if you are proficient on the water, with years of experience, it may not mean you have optimal balance. Even proficient skiers and riders have room to make subtle adjustments, which will translate to more success on the water.
You can and should do dry land practice to work on balance. Flex your ankle and knee (without squatting) and stand on one foot. Tap the free leg toes down, raise the knee to 90 degrees, or extend the free leg out behind you. Keep your core tight and your eyes straight ahead. Practice kinesthetic awareness; feel where your weight is on your feet. Yoga, Pilates and gym workouts focusing on core muscles can all be beneficial.
It's not all about the lower body either. Your upper body and the way you control the handle also affects body position and balance. We have all seen--or been--the water skier or rider who is bent at the waist with arms outstretched from the shoulders. This common error transfers your weight farther back, away from the center of your bindings. This is a weak position that will hinder progress and result in unnecessary falls.
Instead, use your arms and upper body to your advantage. Keep your back, shoulders and head vertical to the water. Arms should be relaxed with elbows slightly flexed, and the handle should be held down close to belt or waist level. When your weight is squarely balanced over your feet, the pull of the handle should be light. The line and handle should tow you along but not be supporting your body weight.
So now you are balanced over your feet and bindings. Not only are you falling less and learning faster, you are also using the design of the ski or wakeboard to its full potential. You have attained what I consider the Holy Grail to achieving success of the water, no matter which tow sport is your favorite.
The other key element to getting up on skis or a board or barefooting for the first time is to adopt the "Never Give Up" mind-set. With any endeavor in life, it pays not to give up.
In 1978 I spent the entire summer attempting the back step-off on Round Lake in northern Illinois and on Lake Delton in the Wisconsin Dells. I was sixteen. Only a few individuals in the world were back barefooting then. It was extremely difficult. Everything was done behind the boat. There were no barefoot wetsuits, no low-stretch lines and no coaching. The boat technology we see today, simply didn't exist then either.
I never saw a boom until I met Mike Seipel in 1980.
All I had to learn the back step off were a few photos of barefooters facing backwards in a Dick Pope Cypress Gardens book and watching Charlie Hoch back barefoot at Tommy Bartlett water ski show in Wisconsin Dells. Fortunately, Charlie was an excellent example for me to follow, as he had a very clean, over-his-feet body position.
No one understood boat speeds for barefooting; everyone just said "go faster". So, I did, attempting to step off backwards at 40 mph. For the people on shore, my falls were very entertaining. I would fall in spectacular fashion, flipping backwards with my arms and legs flying all over as I bounced across the surface of the lake like a skipping stone. Sometimes the step off ski would pop up and whack my shins, which were often cut up.
But I persevered and in September 1978 I made my first successful back step off to back barefoot. As Neil Armstrong had done with his "One Small Step For Man..." my single backwards step took my barefooting to an entirely new and exciting level.
Fast forward 35 years and I am still doing all the barefoot tricks forwards and backwards. I've been able to enjoy an innumerable number of memorable experiences such as barefooting the part of Tony the Tiger in a Kellogg's cereal TV commercial (with barefoot champion Charity Merriman) on Lake Powell and performing in exotic locations like Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aries, on the Seine near the heart of Paris, on picturesque but quite cold Lake Toya in northern Japan, and at the top of the world near the Arctic Circle in Pitea, Sweden. Back barefooting in front of 500,000 people in Yueyang, China was beyond a surreal experience.
Footing for an audience and for TV in Shanghai with the Rock Aqua Jays (from Rockford, IL) show ski team and in Beijing with Banana George Blair were other amazing highlights. This past July, barefooting took me to Beirut for a show that was seen on TV nationally in Lebanon.
None of this comes easy. It takes a positive (some of my friends say just plain crazy) mental attitude, ongoing physical training, the strong will to succeed and yes, simple perseverance.
I'm sure glad I persevered 35 summers ago to make my first back step off.
Zenon Bilas is a 7 times U.S. barefoot water ski champion. He has coached and performed barefoot shows throughout the US and in 16 countries. To schedule Zenon for a personalized coaching session on your ski boat anywhere in the world, contact at email@example.com or call 561.433.4554 or check out at www.facebook.com/zenonbilas.