Technique & Training
Learning to Learn How to Ski
By Steve Hindman
Kids figure out how to stay upright and go faster by falling down a thousand times and chasing others kids. A childlike sense of curiosity and lots of time to play on skis can do the same for adults.
If you don’t want to fall down a thousand times or have the time to spend days playing on skis, find someone who knows what you need to do to reach your goals and who can help you figure how to do it. An experienced instructor or coach will save you the time and effort of trying to figure it out yourself or trying to ski like someone else.
To find a good coach or instructor, start by asking others for their recommendations. In the absence of local contacts, the easiest place to find a qualified instructor is at a PSIA (Professional Ski Instructor of America) or CANSI (Canadian Association of Nordic Ski Instructors) member ski school.
Private lessons with a good instructor are worth the extra money and are often the only way to hire a specific person. Although the hourly rate is higher, the value of the time you’ll spend together is greater. A ‘group private’ will provide many of the advantages of a private lesson, at a reduced cost, if you have a group of skiers with similar desires and abilities.
Be ready with a good job description and conduct a job interview when you find a candidate. Look for a good listener who is interested in you. They should want to know why you have sought them out and what you want to accomplish. Adults learn quicker when they’re having fun. If you’re not having fun, stop and ask why.
Where to Learn
Take a lesson at a groomed cross country ski area even if your goal is to ski in un-groomed areas. Groomed trails allow you to focus on developing skills and ski feel instead of packing a track or slogging through the deep stuff. If you have a choice, choose the area recommended by your instructor or the one with the best grooming and most varied terrain.
Time spent with a cross country instructor on the groomed beginner slopes of an alpine area will be worth years of trying to teach yourself advanced downhill skills on skinny skis. The groomed surface will allow you to develop rotary and edging skills and the lift will vastly increase the time you spend actually sliding downhill.
When to Learn
If you’ve never skied, take a lesson for your first time out. Otherwise, get your ski legs first. Once you’re comfortable again, take a lesson as early in the season as possible, so you can use what you learn. Lessons help tremendously, but there is no substitute for time on skis.
Taking a Lesson
A good instructor will craft the lesson to fit your needs and desires. You need to ask for what you want before and during the lesson. Be specific, so the instructor knows if the lessons are helping you get to where you want to go. If the instructor doesn’t seem to be listening, ask that person to state your goals and desires back to you. If your instructor only tells you what to do, ask them how to do it. If your instructor doesn’t explain why, ask more questions. If you need to see it, ask for a demonstration or inquire about seeing yourself on video. If you need to feel it, ask to move more. Ask for different ways to do the same thing, and to do the same thing in different snow conditions and terrain, so you can feel and understand things in a variety of circumstances.
Good instructors know that everyone learns differently, so they teach in a variety of ways. Some may work for you, while others may not. When something you have learned clicks, you’ll know it. Be sure to use it often until you can claim it as your own. When you are not ‘getting it,’ ask for more clarification, a different approach or simply let it go and forget about it! Some ideas or exercises work for one person and not for another. Keep in mind that the goal of a good lesson is to learn something useful about skiing and not to learn how to do a drill correctly. A willingness to feel uncomfortable, awkward and confused when you try something new or different will increase your ability to learn.
In very simple terms, people learn by watching, doing and thinking. If you find that you learn in one way to the exclusion of any other, you may be able to increase your ability to learn by trying a different way. If you typically need to know everything before you try it, try doing it first and then analyze it. If you find yourself standing back and watching all the time, jump in for a change and check out how a movement feels before watching others.
If you see, feel or understand one or two new things during your lesson, then you and the instructor are doing great. Don’t worry about the things you missed or that missed you. People often find that a confusing tip or a useless drill becomes valuable when remembered a day, a month or even several seasons later.Put what you’ve learned into practice by skiing after your lesson. Devote way less than half your time to focusing on what you’ve learned as you ‘ski-in’ your lesson. Recognize what you are doing well and cut yourself some slack. Thinking you’re no good at something has a way of becoming true if you convince yourself. Celebrate the little changes and don’t worry about the rest. Finish your ski on your favorite trail or by listening to your favorite tune. In other words, finish by just skiing without thinking about it.
Ski at least once on your own before your next lesson, since you’ll learn to ski mostly by skiing. When you feel you’re ready or need more help, sign up for your next lesson with the same instructor so you can pick up where you left off. Developing a great relationship with your mentor to get the most out the time and money you spend with them. If you do, he or she can help you open up the rich world of skiing both on and off the trails.
Teaching to Learn
I was working in a small cross country ski shop years ago when a customer came in and asked for a diagonal stride lesson. My cross country experience at that time consisted of making turns on light, cross country touring gear on the slopes of the North Cascades in Washington State near Mt. Baker. All I knew about the diagonal stride was what I had read in the shop copy of Gillette and Dostal’s book, Cross Country Skiing.
The confidence of the shop owner overcame my own trepidation and out the door I went. The lesson turned out fine, since I did know more than my student did. I learned so much that day I wanted to do it again. Since that first lesson, I’ve spent a lot of time and effort learning to coach and teach, but I still learn the most about teaching and skiing by simply heading out the door to teach and ski.