A guest post by Verbier-based independent ski instructor Sandy M.
How to let go of fear and learn to love skiing.
Waking up today the view out of the window has changed; suddenly we have more snow on the peaks, turning things white where yesterday so much was auburn and russet. As always at this time of year the snow will come and go a few times until it settles in for the winter, but we are definitely into that time of year when thoughts turn to winter, and so I would like to honour that with a skiing focused blog.
There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to ski instruction.
The fact is that over my years as a ski instructor I have learnt to appreciate how individually focused ski lessons should be. I think that a mistake a lot of inexperienced ski instructors make is that they try and teach everybody to ski in a fairly set way. The fact is that they have been taught a progression of techniques that they need to use to get a beginner to the point where they can explore the mountain, and they end up seeing that progression as set in stone, a one size fits all approach, and what they don’t appreciate or understand is how to adapt everything (techniques, communication, speed of progression or even type of progression etc.) to the individual depending upon their needs.
One of the factors that I have found to have a huge impact on how people can progress, and how you need to teach them, is fear. As an instructor you obviously need to treat somebody with too much fear very differently to somebody with the correct amount, and then it is different again for somebody who does not possess a safe amount of fear. I feel very fortunate that before I started ski instructing I had studied sports psychology as part of my degree so I had a fairly good understanding of the implications of fear from very early on, but even then I have certainly learnt a lot over the last 18 years as I have tried to help people develop.
Fear in skiing is a huge blockage to enjoyment or progress, and I would argue that for a lot of people working on the psychological side of their skiing is vital before working on technique can be productive. The fact is that there are a number of physiological consequences to fear that we have probably all experienced at some point. One of these consequences that is very significant here is that when we get scared we freeze and tense up, and our legs feel like jelly. The consequence of this is that we cannot move freely, fluidly and positively, which are all qualities that we want in our movements when we do something fairly fast moving and dynamic like skiing.
If I give technical advice to somebody who is in this psychological and physiological state the chances are that they will find it very difficult to make the adaptations necessary to make the most of the new technique; they are just in survival mode, and their minds are so focused on just getting down that any new information is just ignored. In cases like this the first focus should be to help address their psychological anxiety so that they can relax physically and actually focus on new information.
How to process fear.
I hear a lot of arguments that we now live in a world that is too safe, and has removed too much risk from daily life. I think that it is possible to argue either way on this point, but something that I see a lot is that people are not very well adapted at processing risk or rationalising their fear. Whether this is something that has changed over the years I do not know, but it clearly has implications for all aspects of our lives including skiing.
In order to process fear we should first assess whether that fear is of something that poses a real threat or not. A good example from normal life would be the fear of leaving your job to start that expressive dance troupe that you have always dreamed of being a part of. A move like this may have implications that you want to avoid (struggling financially, a loss of status etc.), but in reality it does not pose any actual threat to our physical safety. If you compare that to how little fear somebody feels when they climb into their car, which is far more physically dangerous, we start to see how maybe the focus of our fear is not always that well placed. This is obviously exacerbated by being outside our normal environment and having to process potential dangers that we are not used to.
An almost comical example of this comes from about 15 years ago when I was working in the UK doing different development work with groups of young people. I remember very clearly working with a group of children from Hackney. They were only about 13 years old, but already they were boasting about friends being arrested for possession of weapons and drugs. This bravado disappeared when we walked along a very wide and flat countryside path. The path had a gentle grass bank next to it, of the kind that children would normally roll down for fun, but these children found it really stressful. The fact was that they were so used to walking on flat pavements that something even slightly uneven, and with a slight slope next to it, was perceived as dangerous. In their minds the slope next to us had been transformed from something you could comfortably walk down, into a steep cliff-face.
This might seem like an extreme example, but it is not dissimilar from the skier who panics on the narrow track because they are worried that they are going to ski off the edge despite the fact that they are in complete control, they are on the opposite side of the path, and there is also just a gentle slope over the edge, and not the certain death that they have created in their heads. I completely empathise with how stressful a new environment can be, but when we create fictitious dangers to worry about it does make it very hard for us to relax and enjoy our skiing.
When we are faced with fear and anxiety in skiing I think that it is always good to slow down and actually rationally consider what we are scared of, and whether it is something that poses a real threat to our safety or not.
The fact is that unless you are skiing with people who are pushing you into doing things that are genuinely too hard for you (I will focus on this in a future blog) you should not be in a situation that is actually dangerous. As such it should be possible to rationalise and control most of your fear.
There is a lot that can be done on the mountain, and it is something that an experienced and suitable ski instructor can really help with, but there are also things that you can do before your ski trip that can help. I think that if you do struggle with anxiety when you ski it would be worth taking some time to go through some mental rehearsal exercises and also to practice some relaxation techniques that you could use on the mountain. These kind of things can easily be googled, and it is then a case of finding what works best for you. If you would like something more advanced I have seen hypnotherapy work very well for some people, and you always have the option of finding a sports psychologist who could give you some more professional help.
Ultimately skiing is meant to be an enjoyable activity, but if we are very scared and anxious it will reduce or destroy our enjoyment of the sport. Making sure that we get the help and support we need to reduce the stress, and increase the enjoyment just makes sense, and will ensure that we look forward to our next skiing experience with excitement and joy and not trepidation.
In my next skiing blog I will write a bit more about how to cope when you are being pushed too hard by those around you.
If you recognise yourself in any of this, and would like any advice, or you have any questions, please do get in touch and I will do what I can to help.
Originally hailing from the UK, Sandy very experienced, knowledgeable and patient ski-instructor now based in Verbier.