Freestyle Terminology

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Freestyle terminology stems from the language of skateboarders, which was coined as the sport rose to prominence in the 1970’s. While there are inherent differences between riding forwards on two skis or sideways on one snowboard, skiing has taken a lot of the freestyle terms from its newer brother. So before you can understand freestyle skiing terminology, a bit of an investigation into snowboarding is needed.

A sideways frame of mind

All board sports (skateboarding, surfing, wakeboarding and snowboarding) require the rider to stand and travel sideways, and depending on your natural preference, you ride with either your left foot forward (Regular) or right foot forward (Goofy). And once you start on this sideways life, you become either a regular-footer or a goofy-footer.

As there are two ways to ride ‘forwards’, the edges of the board are not denoted as left and right, but as the frontside and backside so that regular and goofy footers can communicate on the same wavelength.

When you take a beginner snowboard lesson you might be told about the toeside (the front edge of the board where you toes rest) and the heelside (the back edge of the board where your heels sit), but the best way to think of these two sides is as the frontside and backside. All snowboard tricks, either in the air, on a rail, or flat-land (on the snow) are described as being either frontside or backside.

If there are two ways to ride ‘forwards’, it stands to reason that there are two ways to go ‘backwards’ (with either your left or right foot in front) depending on if you are regular or goofy. As a result of this, riding the opposite way to what you like to ride is not called ‘backwards’, but switch or fakie. Therefore, a snowboarder riding switchstance or fakie is travelling opposite to their preferred direction of travel, in effect, ‘backwards’.

Skiing has followed this lead, and you will commonly find that a skier travelling ‘backwards’ (on twin-tip skis) is described as skiing switch (although in my opinion, as there is no confusion brought about by the two sideways stances, it should just be called skiing backwards).

Getting some air time

Back in the 70’s, Tony Alva was the first skateboarder to get ‘air’ by launching out the top of a dry concrete swimming pool, and as the board was loose under his feet he found he had to pull the board up to his feet to be able to keep it there and to land safely. You may have seen photos of his famous Frontside Air where he flies out of a Californian swimming pool and grabs the ‘frontside’ (ie the ‘toeside’) of his skateboard between his feet.

From that day onwards, every time skaters ‘caught some air’ they not only ‘grabbed’ the board to steady themselves, but also did so to add style and flair. And from then on, making sure you get a ‘grab’ while in the air has been an important part of all board sports.

Skateboarders later took the ‘grabs’ they had perfected in the swimming pools to the streets and to straight-air jumps. Once snowboarding arrived on the scene, the early skaters who crossed over naturally grabbed the board whenever performing a trick, like jumping off rocks and small cliffs, even though it was not necessary to hold the board onto the feet. Not only does ‘grabbing’ look more stylish, it steadies the rider in the air by making him or her more compact and balanced.

So now, grabs are an essential part of snowboarding, and there are only a couple of tricks (like wildcats, shifties and monkey-style backside 180s) that are considered cool without having to grab the board.

There are innumerable names for grabs, depending on when and how you grab, either off a straight jump, or in the halfpipe, and whether performed ‘frontside’ or ‘backside’, and where you grab on either the frontside or backside of the board, all of which stem directly from skateboarding terminology... it just gets all too technical!

And to make matters worse, you might be able to grab the board in the air, but certain grabs are considered to be very uncool (like tindies, tailfishes and nutes) and you may even be laughed at for doing them.

As new-school freestyle skiers started to emulate the style of snowboarders, they too began to grab their skis and even took the names of some grabs (eg mute grab) and applied them to their own discipline. And so much the same as snowboarding (although probably not to the same degree) tricks performed by skiers where they don’t grab are not as respected by the freestyle community as grabbed airs are.

  • For a more comprehensive rundown on the various grabs take a look at the Snowboard Glossary.

Spinning like a top

As a result of the two sideways-stances, when a snowboarder spins horizontally (either on the ground or in the air) the direction of the spin is not denoted as clockwise or anti clockwise, but called frontside or backside. A frontside spin is where the rider first shows his or her ‘front’ as they spin, so it is an anti-clockwise direction of spin for a regular-footer, and a clockwise direction of spin for a goofy-footer.

Conversely, a backside spin is where the rider shows his or her ‘back’ first as they spin ie clockwise for a regular-footer and anti-clockwise for a goofy-footer. With spinning backside or frontside, neither is necessarily more difficult than the other; it just depends on personal preference and ‘feel’.

How much the rider spins (in the air or while sliding on snow or a rail) is measured in degrees ie a half rotation is a 180 Air, a full rotation is a 360 Air, a one-and-a-half rotation spin is a 540 Air, two rotations is a 720 Air and so on. A skier or boarder who is able to spin in an axis more perpendicular to the horizon like a Corkscrew, yet still land cleanly, is said to be able to perform corked spins, and earns high respect from his or her peers.

In snowboarding the degree of spin in the air is teamed with the direction of rotation, so that a Backside 180 is half-rotation in a clockwise direction for regular-footers, or an anti-clockwise direction for goofy-footers. Similarly, a Frontside 360 is a full rotation spinning anti-clockwise for regulars and clockwise for goofies.

So, when you read a caption to a single frame of trick shown in a snowboard magazine, with a little deduction you can work out exactly what the snowboarder did. Often a trick name is shortened, so that a Front 3 denotes a Frontside 360 and a Back 9 means a backside 900, etcetera.

Continuing this theme, any spin in the air where the rider launches riding opposite to their preferred stance is a switch spin or rotation. Therefore you have switch frontside and switch backside spins.

But, stemming from the legendary skateboarder, Steve Caballero, a switch frontside spin is normally called a Cab Spin (as in a Caballerial). So a Cab 540 is a switch frontside 540, meaning a regular footer rides in right foot forward (ie switch or fakie) and spins clockwise (ie frontside – showing their front as they leave the jump), spins one and a half times in the air and lands regular with their left foot forward.

Any switch rotation spun backside is still always called a switch backside spin, and is generally thought to be harder to perform than a Cab Spin. However, lately the best pro snowboarders have started to do cab spins which are initiated Off Toes (ie putting pressure on the frontside of the board as they launch), instead of sliding Off Heels, and this is regarded as being the most difficult type of switch spin to do.

Skiers have taken the skate terminology and dispensed with the old names like Helis and Double Helis, preferring to use 360’s and 720’s. In skiing, when a skier spins in the air they have a Natural and an Unnatural way that they like to rotate, depending on their personal preference, but unlike snowboarding this distinction is not captioned in skiing media.

Skiers might talk about how they like to spin their natural way (which is either clockwise or anti-clockwise depending on personal preference) more than their unnatural way but this is not highlighted when a trick is captioned in a magazine.

Getting upside down

For skiers and snowboarders who like to get upside down and flip, their tricks are denoted as either backflips (where he/she flips backwards) and frontflips (where he/she flips forwards over the toes/nose of the board).

Whilst straight flips over the front or back are pretty impressive to watch, they don’t hold a whole lot of respect in snowboarding circles because they are regarded as gymnastic-like tricks without much style or personal expression – if you have grown up learning gymnastics, a flip on a board almost becomes your Safety trick (ie the trick that is easiest for you to perform) because you are so used to flipping.

Furthermore, such flips are regarded as being a bit too similar to the jumps performed by the Olympic skiers that freestylers are trying to shy away from. However, adding a grab to a flip gives it a bit more style and brings flips closer to skateboarding-cool.

A snowboarder performing a backflip without grabbing the board is often said to be doing a wildcat. Double backflips and Double frontflips (where the rider pulls two complete flips), whilst gymnastic, always manage to get a crowd of spectators roaring and applauding wildly.

Flips where the skier or boarder gets inverted, but Off Axis (ie flipping not directly over their toes or back, but flipping diagonally over a shoulder) earn extremely high respect from the freestyle community, and have names such as Rodeo Flip, Misty Flip, Underflip, 90-roll (only in snowboarding), Lincoln Loop (for skiers only), and in a halfpipe, McTwist, Crippler, Haakon Flip and Rodeo Flip.

  • For a more comprehensive rundown on the various grabs take a look at the Snowboard Glossary.

Pipe dreams

The first attempt at a snow halfpipe was created by a bunch of Tahoe City snowboarders in 1978, and now all serious freestyle resorts should have a decent halfpipe. The airs performed in a halfpipe are just like the original skateboarding airs done in swimming pools, and as such the terminology was applied directly... until snowboarders started creating their own insane tricks that couldn’t be performed without being attached to the board.

To understand the basics of halfpipe terminology, you have to think of the two walls of the halfpipe as the frontside and backside, not the left and right. The Frontside Wall is the wall to your front imagining you just rode straight down the centre of the pipe (the right wall for regular-footers ands the left wall for goofy-footers) and the Backside Wall is the wall facing your backside (the left wall for regulars and right for goofies).

Basically any air or rotation on the frontside wall is a Frontside Air (if you go up and come down riding the regular way – just like Tony Alva did) or a Frontside Spin (if you rotate more than half), and vice versa for the backside wall.

A strange legacy of skateboarding terminology is that a rotation off a straight-air jump that would have you landing regularly (ie a 360, 720 or 1080) actually has you landing switch in the pipe due to the vertically up-and-down nature of the halfpipe. Therefore, if you land a Frontside 360 in the pipe you will ride up the frontside wall (with weight on your toes) spin what is just over half a rotation in a frontside direction and land riding switch.

Generally, backside rotations are considered harder to perform than frontside spins in the pipe. The ultimate degree of difficulty is being able to link frontside and backside tricks back-to-back, and so 2002 Olympic Gold Medallist Ross Powers achieved his goal of landing back-to-back 10s in the pipe at the 2004 US Open (ie a Frontside 1080, followed directly by a Backside 1080).

Cab spins (ie switch frontside spins) in the pipe are actually done on your backside wall (because as you are riding in switch it effectively becomes a frontside wall). Cab halfpipe tricks are not much harder to do than regular frontside tricks because you are still riding and launching the trick off you toes, but just doing so switch.

The next degree of difficulty in pipe riding is being able to do switch backside spins in the pipe (which are actually executed on your frontside wall), and American youngster Louie Vito won the 2005 Fructis/Burton Australian Open Halfpipe Competition at Perisher Blue with a switch backside 540 in the pipe amongst his array of tricks.

Grinding Metal

Riding rails and other solid objects, also called jibbing, first originated around 1990 in a famous snowboard movie Totally Board and has resurfaced in the latest snowboarding movies, where city street rails and features are ridden, as a legitimate alternative to riding resorts. And taking the lead of snowboarders, and seeing all the rails and boxes set up in resorts’ terrain parks, freestyle skiers instantly took to this new discipline and started to produce dominant jibbers in their own right.

As rail sliding comes directly from skateboarding, the skate terminology was directly applied to the snow. And just like grab terminology, all the different names and forms of rail sliding are very technical and depend on how you approach the rail, how you get onto the rail, how you ride it and any extra style you add to the slide.

The first and easiest type of snowboarding rail sliding to perform is a 50-50, where you ride directly at a rail, slide onto or ollie (ie jump) onto it straight, with the rail lying longways and parallel underneath your board and you continue to slide straight along the rail with the rail directly under the arches of both your feet. A boardslide is different to a 50-50 in that the board lies directly across the rail (ie perpendicular or 90 degrees to it) and you slide effectively ‘sideways’ to the normal direction of snowboarding.

In snowboarding the same concepts of frontside and backside apply as with the pipe. So, a frontside boardslide is typically where you are riding with the rail facing you and parallel to your frontside (ie you approach the rail frontside), you ollie up onto the rail turning the board 90 degrees in the air, landing perpendicular to the rail with it directly in between your bindings and you slide along the rail, having to look over your forward shoulder because the board is effectively sliding along the rail in backwards sideways direction.

Yeah, it sounds confusing, so take a look at some of the photos.

Hence, a backside boardslide is where you approach the rail with on your backside, you ollie up and in a backside direction, also turning the board 90 degrees, landing on the rail in between your bindings, sliding along ‘sideways’ and in a forwards direction with your whole body facing the direction you are sliding.

But besides approaching rails from the frontside or backside, the terms are also used to describe when a rail is set up and you can just ride onto it without having to ollie from one side or the other. A frontside boardslide that you can just ride straight onto has the same body and riding position as the previously described frontside boardslide where you approach the rail from the frontside.

Another way to think of it is that with a frontside boardslide more contact with the rail is made with the frontside (ie toeside) of the board as you slide because if you put pressure on the backside (heelside) of the board you would catch an edge and most likely smash your back on the rail.

Hence a backside boardslide where you are just able to ride onto the rail to start the slide has riding the rail facing completely ‘forwards]], with the backside of the board having the greatest contact with the rail. But wait, it gets even more complicated than this…

The third type of snowboarding rail slide is a lipslide. With a boardslide you traditionally approach the rail from one side, ollie, and throw the nose of your board over the rail to get the requisite sideways slide. But with a lipslide you ollie and throw the tail of the board over the rail, but end up with basically the same sideways 90-degrees-slide as a boardslide.

A frontside lipslide is where you approach the rail with it on your frontside, you ollie, turn 90 degrees (in a frontside-spin direction) to throw the tail over the rail, land with the rail sideways in between your bindings and ride facing forwards.

The confusing part is that the ‘sliding’ part of a frontside lipslide is just the same as, and looks just like a backside boardslide – the difference comes in how you approach and ollie onto the rail. A backside lipslide is where you approach the rail with it on your backside, ollie, throw the tail of the board across the rail (like a ‘backside spin’), land 90 degrees to the rail and slide down looking over your shoulder.

Hence backside lipslide looks very similar to a frontside boardslide once you are sliding on the rail.

A difficult and well-respected part of rail riding is where there is a decent sized jump before the rail and a large gap (of at least a metre or so) where you must launch off the jump, fly through the air and land on the rail. Hence, a gap-to-frontside boardslide is where you ollie or launch off a jump with rail on you frontside, turn 90 degrees in the air, place your nose over the board and slide down on your frontside, looking over your front shoulder to see where you are going.

Also, where there is a flat-down rail or down-flat-down rail and you launch over and clear the first half of the rail to land on the last downward slanting section of the rail, it too is called a gap-to-frontside boardslide.

If you are a skier, you can thankfully disregard pretty much all this last section – due to the nature of skis, it is only possibly to slide a rail sideways on the skis with the rail directly underneath the arches of your feet. And this is just called a rail slide, no matter which way you approach the rail or which way you spin or slide onto it... how refreshing!

But, skiing, like snowboarding, combines the degrees of rotation a rider spins in the air before landing onto the rail (or when exiting the end of the rail). So a 270 onto a rail involves a three-quarters of a full-rotation in the air to land on the rail sideways. And so for snowboarders you can have a backside 450-to-frontside boardslide where you spin 450 degrees (one and a quarter full-rotations) in a backside direction in the air before landing on the rail and sliding the rest of it on your frontside.

And then you if you have all this mastered you can start to think about adding style to how you slide a rail, and pull nose slides, tail slides, 5-0’s, smith grinds, nose presses and tail presses.

And so now you know some of the lingo, you can tell your mates how you stomped a cab 270 gap-to-frontside boardslide... that’s if you’re good enough of course!


See also: