Thursday, October 25, 2012

What do ski instructors know about stress?


Cool posters up in the Kids' Section at Sports Basement
As the snow starts flying in Tahoe (24 inches at Northstar's Summit on Monday) I'm prepping for our Ask a Ski Instructor event at the Sports Basement Presidio on November 10th from 10AM to 2PM.

We're going to be helping skiers and parents evaluate gear, plan their kids' first experience on the slopes, learn what's new in Tahoe, and answering any questions they might have.

We'll also be doing short presentations about specific topics, which should lead to good Q & A.

If you'd like to help us plan for how many ski and snowboard instructors we should bring down, please do sign up on the facebook event page.  The Sports Basement will be giving a 10% discount to folks who attend and want to shop for anything while they're there.

In case you can't make it, here's an advice article I wrote last year about one of my favorite topics....

How to enjoy a low-stress ski trip and create life-long skiers.

I started skiing at age 5 after my parents bought a cabin in Vermont.  We spent every winter weekend skiing until I moved west. Yet in spite of the 3,000 miles between us, we still gather once a year for a family ski trip. Now that I’m an instructor in Tahoe, my passion is helping other families create mountain memories and ski vacation traditions of their own.

When a family heads to Tahoe for their children’s first ski weekend, expectations can run super-high! Heads are stuffed with thoughts of rosy cheeks, roaring fireplaces, hot chocolate and perhaps some alone time for Mom and Dad as the kids enjoy a day at ski school.  Video cameras are packed to capture Mary or Michael’s first snowplow turns and how darling they look on those little skis clad in their helmets and goggles.  

Families making their second journey may have memories of a different nature.  The first trip may have felt like an expedition up Mt. Everest, complete with a treacherous journey from parking lot, a difficult schlep of equipment with Mom and Dad playing Sherpa, and the smaller team members breaking down in tears several times due to lost mittens and cold fingers, or an overcrowded lesson or simply a high-stress vibe coming off of a harried mom or dad. A phone call from ski school saying "please come pick up Johnny or Janie, we can't get them to stop crying" may have put the stress level on steroids and killed any alone time for Mom and Dad.

So,the experiences in the resort village, the rental shop and at a ski school can be really great or painful depending on a lot of factors.  But what helps most is what you know in advance.

So how can you minimize the stress and maximize the fun if you’re new to skiing or the resort? 
First, tap your network for insider tips.Select your resort, your lodging, your ski instructor and even your departure time and route based on recommendations from those who’ve already blazed the trail.

Make getting to and dressing for the slopes easy on your kids:


  • Eliminate a hike through the parking lot or the wait for a shuttle bus. 
  • Use the courtesy drop off to deposit kids, skis, boards and one parent. 
  • If you do walk and have your own ski boots, don’t don them in the parking lot. Wear warm and comfortable snowboots and utilize the resort’s lockers to store them during the day. 
  • If you’re arranging a private lesson, leverage your instructor’s focus on customer service. Instructors love making every process easier for clients. I regularly meet clients at the courtesy drop off, ready to be their Sherpa, resort tour guide, rental equipment advisor, and escort through what can be a busy village. 
  • Kids taking group lessons? At Northstar, all equipment is provided. Leave hats and that second pair of socks at home.  The hat won’t fit under the provided helmet, and the second sock layer causes blisters and can cut off circulation, creating very cold feet. 
  • Are you planning multiple ski weekends? Visit the Sports Basement and do a season long rental or take advantage of their Ski Buy Back program to save 50% on new gear.
  • Put your child’s name on everything they’ll wear, especially goggles and helmets. 
  • Think like a kid!  Kids love stickers, and bright, unique ones which include their name do wonders.  If my helmet looks cool, I’m more likely to be willing to wear that heavy thing.  If my name’s on it, I’m less likely to lose it, and it will definitely improve my connection to my instructor if he or she always can remember (or read) my name when speaking to me.

Set everyone up for Ski School success:


  • Greet your instructor warmly, as if he or she is already a friend of the family, as this will help your child feel comfortable, especially when you take your leave a few moments later. 
  • Involve your child in the pre-lesson discussion, making the focus on their fun and adventure.
  • Call the instructor “Coach” rather than “Teacher," because who likes going to school on the weekends?
  • Make your goodbyes casual. Exiting the scene quickly will help your instructor during that first bonding conversation. If your child doesn’t notice you leaving because he’s just learned a pirate joke, the odds of separation anxiety hitting later are low. 
  • If you’re not skiing yourself, make sure you dress for the weather. 
Lastly, consider starting your children with a private lesson or two, especially if they are under 7.
In addition to the individual attention, children in privates get much more mileage under there skis and grow skills more rapidly.
Older children do better in groups than those under seven.  Whatever their age, when a child who’s had some privates migrates to groups, they join the higher level classes which normally have a smaller student to instructor ratio and are taught by the most experienced PSIA certified instructors.

Do’s and Don’ts for After the Lesson

Do: Focus on the Fun!

Before asking the instructor “How did he do?” ask your child if the skiing was fun. When you ask what the best part of the day was don’t be upset or surprised if they say “We had hot chocolate!!!” or “We built a snowman!” Your child isn’t likely to say “we played monkey-see-monkey-do to get us moving forward over our skis”; or “We played a penguin game called “Happy-Feet” to developing our independent leg action!”

Congratulations are always in order, but focusing on how your child performed can associate ski lessons with pressure. 
If your child was moved down a level from their original group, this isn’t a cause for alarm OR disappointment. The ski school’s goal in adjusting groups is to give every child a lesson that moves at the correct pace for them and to maximize your child’s safety and fun.

Do: Learn what your child learned

The best questions to ask your coach include: What skiing game did my child like most? How can our family play it together? What type of trails should we ski on? What level trail should we avoid? What should we do tomorrow?
Is there anything my child needs that will make the experience more fun?  The most common things your instructor may mention are the fit of their boots, the quantity of their clothing layers or warmer mittens.

Don’t:  Take your child away from the bunny slope and up the chairlift to take “one more run to show Mommy and Daddy what you learned!”

Why not?  Your child may be tired, and far too many injuries sustained by novice, intermediate and expert skiers occur during that final run.

Secondly, lots of skier and rider traffic funnels down to the base lodge at the end of the day, and congestion can lead to collisions.  Your child may have internalized all the safety guidelines the instructor has used to keep the group safe during the day, but that’s not something I would count on. 

When you see instructors skiing backwards in front of a line of students, it’s not entirely to assess movement patterns and provide encouragement or tips.  Skiing backwards allows the instructor to see and steer the class to avoid uphill skiers and snowboarders who may not have the control to avoid the little ones.

Lastly, some parents undo many of the skills learned during the lesson by taking the child to new and more challenging terrain. Contrary to popular belief, children don’t learn quickly simply because they are fearless, and following a parent down a steeper blue run can take all the fun out of skiing.  More times than I care to recall, the focus of the second lesson is overcoming new-found fears and defensive skiing.  Your child’s instructor has built their success and confidence by teaching movement patterns on terrain perfectly suited for that task.

How do you know if you’re on the wrong trail if you forgot to ask the instructor where to go? A stiff-legged, slow power wedge straight down the fall line is as good a clue as a tearful melt-down, and noticing the former may help avoid the latter. A PSIA video of other visual clues is available on the “This Mountain Life” blog (www.skiwithjay.com).

My goal is ending every lesson with my students totally stoked for their next opportunity to ski or ride.  If my other clients (Mom & Dad) see this from the smiles during the debrief and wind up jealous, all the better!

The author, Jay Palace, is a PSIA Level Two instructor and specializes in teaching children at the Northstar Ski & Snowboard School. He’s also the founder of Group Experiential Learning, a company which helps executives build high performance teams via active learning experiences. The hints, perspectives and ski tips shared here and on the “This Mountain Life” blog (www.skiwithjay.com) are not representations of Vail Resorts or Northstar-California.  Jay is happy to answer questions, no matter where you ski, and can be reached at 415-601-1325 or skiwithjay@gmail.com

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