Coaching Park Rats on Rails: The Daily Grind


Chuck Roberts


Grinding rails is a fun intermediate move for your terrain park students who are chomping at the bit to learn new freestyle hits. The basic grind is performed by mounting a rail and skidding with the skis tips and tails perpendicular to the direction of travel. Mastering a cool rail grind puts a freestyle skier right in there in the hierarchy of the top park rats in the terrain park.  The basic rail grind serves as a platform for a host of more advanced moves such as the change up (Reference 1), and 360 off.  Skills learned from riding boxes and jumping will help your student get a grip on riding rails. There is a degree of apprehension when a skier tries a rail for the first time and rightly so. Adjusting to the behavior of skis skidding on metal is foreign to the muscle memory of most of your students. In order to reduce apprehension and set up your class for success, the classic theory of stepping stone progressions is applicable.



Figure 1 is a view of the basic grind in a sequential format. During the approach (the A in ATML - approach, take-off, maneuver, landing) the skier adjusts speed using a breaking wedge and lines up with the feature as if intending to straddle the rail (Figure 1A). Focus is on the end of the feature. Knees are flexed and feet about shoulder width apart. At the ramp, preparation for the take-off is made by rotating the upper body in the direction of rotation chosen by the skier. At take-off (the T in ATML) the skis are rotated sequentially (what will become the trailing ski rotates first), perpendicular to the direction of travel while the skier attains air (Figure 1B).  It is not necessary, nor desirable, to get big air at take off. Just enough air is needed to mount the rail, as too much air results in a jarring landing which could cause difficulties in the maneuver phase. When contact is made with the rail, the original body rotation is checked with upper body counter-rotation and a slight semi A-frame stance on the feature (Figure 1C). The skier grinds (M in ATML) on the ski surface under the boot. A slight “Daffy” is appropriate to grip narrow rails and prevent movement off the rail (Figure 1D). Near the end of the feature, the skier unweights, and the stored energy from the lower body twist aligns the skis with the direction of travel (Figure 1E), facilitating the landing (Figure 1F).






1A                                  1B                             1C


1D                                  1E                               1F

Figure 1



Figure 2    


Since the skis interact with a long piece of steel in a manner unlike riding on boxes, some technical aspects of equipment may influence the outcome of your class or coaching session:

Figure 2 shows a typical adjustable (for and aft) binding set-up for freestyle twin-tip skis. Bindings are set back for all mountain skiing. The bindings are set to an intermediate position for jumping and halfpipe freestyle moves and set forward for rail moves such as the rail grind, which is the subject matter of this article. Positioning boots over the center of the skis reduces the resistance to rotation (rotational inertia) of the skis, making it easier to mount a rail, and is the preferred binding location for rail hits. Many freestyle skiers also bevel the edges of their skis (Figure 3) just under the boot area. This tends to aid in grinding and reduces the chance of engaging an edge on the rail. Some skiers prefer a 6 degree bevel, some simply chamfer (round off) the edge to a preferred radius and others do nothing to the skis. It should be noted that there is no hard and fast rule as to what equipment to use and how it should be prepared. The equipment configurations in Figures 2 through 3 are guides to setting up equipment that may help your students achieve an awesome rail grind. As always, a ski helmet is highly recommended for rail moves.                                                            



Figure 3





At the introduction of your class, a workout, without skis, on a small practice feature (References 2 & 3) is helpful. In Figure 4A, we see the semi A-frame stance where the lead leg is angulated slightly with the leading edge higher than the trailing edge of the lead foot. This reduces the chance of the lead edge engaging on the feature, as well as reduces the body rotation when the perpendicular position on the feature is achieved. Have your students run and jump (without skis) onto the rail into the position shown in Figure 4A.  It should be noted that the jump should be minimal, just enough to lift the body onto a rail. The leading foot is more heavily weighted than the trailing foot. Figure 4B shows positioning on a rail with the leading edge of the leading ski raised. Center of mass should be between the feet with more weight toward the leading foot. Lateral location of the skier’s center of mass should be right over the rail with the rail typically under the arch of the foot. The skier in Figure 4B is preparing to dismount and is counter-rotating the upper body. His hips are reasonably aligned with the feet, which aids in keeping the skis perpendicular to the rail. Many rail skiers also have the shoulders aligned with the feet, but the head is always looking at the end of the feature. Rotating the upper body, such that the hips face the end of the feature, often results in the skier falling off the rail as the skis attempt to realign with the upper body.   The skier in Figure 4B may look like he is slightly back, but he does have weight on the leading ski. Remember that the photo is dynamic and that he is resisting the grind drag force on the front ski.



4A                                  4B        

Figure 4                            


Figure 4


Figure 4C shows another common position used primarily when a spin is expected on the rail, but is also used for a grind by some skiers who can cancel body rotation using the upper body only.   Left or right foot forward is a preference left up to the skier often based on a feeling of comfort. Many freestyle skiers prefer having their dominant leg forward, but either way is acceptable.



Next, put on the skis and try the move on a small practice feature as shown in Figure 5. Have the student approach in line with the feature, looking at the end of the feature (Figure 5A). The take-off is achieved with a slight hop to free the skis from the snow and counter-rotation to place the skis perpendicular to the direction of travel (Figures 5B and 5C). Make sure the hop is slight, as it is preferable to pop up onto the rail rather than come down hard on the rail. Check for sequential rotation of skis with the trailing ski rotating first to avoid crossing the front ski over the rear ski when mounting the rail.

5A                                  5B                                    5C



5D                        5E

Figure 5


Observe the grind, making sure the student’s boots are over the rail (Figure 5D). For the landing, the student hops to unweight, and the lower body unwinds to align the skis with the feature (Figure 5E). Check for the boot positioned over the rail, the hips aligned with the feet and a slight hop for landing. The hips remain aligned with the feet throughout the sequence.




6A                                  6B                             6C



6D                             6E                              6F

Figure 6


Now that you are satisfied with the skill demonstrated on the practice feature, it is time to move on to the next stepping stone, a small, relatively wide rail in the park. This will be the first time that your class will actually be using the ramp to get air and mount the rail. A combination of extension and lift from the ramp is appropriate to get on the rail. Figure 6 is an example of a student performing this task. Figure 6A shows adequate flexion in preparation for the take-off or pop. In Figure 6B, the skier could use a little more rotary preparation for the take-off, as evidenced in Figure 6C where the skier did not quite mount the rail with the skis perpendicular to the direction of travel. This is a crooked grind (skis not perpendicular to the direction of travel) which works on a wide rail, but can cause difficulties on narrow rails. Despite these deficiencies, the skier does grind the whole rail and lands with the skis aligned with the direction of travel. His hips are aligned with the feet and the head is focusing on the end of the rail.

There is a slight fear factor when launching onto a rail for the first time. Emphasize weight toward the leading foot, since leaning toward the rear can force the skis forward and cause a possible fall. Practicing over the ramp without mounting the rail gives a feeling of the lift expected from the lip, lessening the uncertainty when attempting to mount the rail.  As always, the body should project forward slightly at the pop from the ramp to avoid landing back and having the skis slide out from under the skier. Remember to emphasize approaching at a nominal speed, since mounting at a slow speed may result in a stall or a roll off the rail.


Finally, take the class to a typical narrow rail (2x6” tube) as shown in Figure 7. The skier approaches with sufficient flexion, feet apart and center of mass facing the end of the rail (Figure 7A) preparing for the pop at the lip. Upper body rotation is shown in Figure 7B prior to the lip. At the take-off, the twist energy is released, and the skis turn perpendicular to the direction of travel. The student has landed on the rail (Figure 7C) with upper body counter-rotation to cancel the spin as well as a slight semi A-frame stance. It should be noted that the skis are in a slight “Daffy” position with the leading ski


7A                                  7B                               7C

7D                                  7E                                 7F

Figure 7

tip angled upward, while the trailing ski tip is angled downward. This helps steady the skier on narrow rails and reduces the chance of sliding off before the exit. Figures 7D through F show an appropriate grind and good landing. In Figure 8, the red arrows show the slight “Daffy” position with the leading tip up and the trailing ski tip down. This forms an inverted V (dotted green line) which tends to keep the skier on course, especially for long rails.

Figure 8


The gripping technique shown in Figure 8 can be practiced statically on a small feature before trying it on a larger feature. This gripping technique comes in handy on narrow rails.







9B                                  9C

Figure 9

Figure 9 depicts typical difficulties experienced by beginning freestyle rail skiers that can be addressed by movement analysis and correction by the instructor or coach. In Figure 9A the skier has mounted the rail with insufficient ski rotation and is performing a crooked grind, which has caused him to slide off the feature.  Review the exercises with counter-rotation statically and well as dynamically over the practice rail. Emphasize that the skis should be perpendicular to the rail. Make sure the student approaches with the center of mass facing the end of the rail. If alignment is off, an early, unintended departure from the rail is likely. In Figure 9B, the skier has achieved the perpendicular position of the skis but is sliding off the rail. This is typically a result of improper line up and not focusing on the end of the feature. Practice line up with the rail with center of mass (belly button) pointing toward the end of the rail. Speed may need to be increased if the skier is traveling slowly on the rail. Figure 9C shows insufficient preparation for rotating the skis 90 degrees to the direction of travel. Work on jumping to the 90 degree position statically and over a small mogul. Make sure the pop is just enough to mount the rail. Some students are intent on making a huge jump but forget to rotate in preparation for the maneuver.




The following is a check-list for your rail grind lesson plan:


1.      With boots only, practice rotary movement by jumping (small jumps) onto a small practice rail and grind with the boot soles.

2.      With boots only, practice the semi A-frame stance.

3.      With skis on, hop onto a small practice rail with the skis 90 degrees to the rail and hop off the end with the skis parallel to the rail.

4.      In the terrain park, practice over a small wide rail, perform movement analysis and provide feedback.

5.      In the park, practice on an intermediate narrow rail, perform movement analysis and provide feedback. Introduce the gripping method of holding onto a rail.

6.      Repeat the practice several times to anchor muscle memory and gain confidence.


Enjoy the grind.



1. “From the Jibbers Pocket,” 32 Degrees, Spring 2010, p14f.

2.  Roberts, C., “A Moveable Feat: Terrain Park Features Go Mobile”, The Pro Rider, Winter 2005, p46f.

3.  Roberts, C., “Unwrap the Mysteries in Flat Box Progressions,” The Professional Skier, Winter 2006, p36f.