Before they can start teaching the techniques, ski instructors need to learn all they can about their students. I can often get a good read on my students' psychological state from their speech, posture, and the way they move. Putting on skis for the first time or after a long break is a scary experience for everyone (except small children!), and I use this insight to help my students to overcome their fears. A good rapport can even lead to lasting friendship.
The fear of falling is the first obstacle standing between novice skiers and the beauty of the landscape, the snow, and a whole world of adventure. One of the most common mistakes a ski instructor can make is barking commands, completely ignoring their students' psychological state.
Over the years, I have picked up a few tips and tricks: keep talking, ask questions, and take a genuine interest in the person in front of you. I want to build a relationship based on trust to help my students overcome their anxiety, from vertigo sufferers to people with joint problems, as well as nervous novices.
In skiing, there is one golden rule: if you don't want to fall, you have to learn how to stop!
Skiing also brings together people from many different walks of life, giving swimmers and sailors a different perspective on the natural world and even the psychology of sport itself.
Giving ski lessons to complete beginners, children who only just learnt to walk, or—hardest of all—adults who are bogged down by fear, requires a lot of patience and a relaxed environment where they can share their anxieties.
I prefer a less formal teaching style to create a laid-back mood, offering lessons in English, French and Italian.
At the beginning, when you are young and newly graduated, you think you know everything.
Ah, the naivety of youth!
You know your didactics and pedagogy inside out, you've read every book on skiing, you understand the physical forces that influence how the skier moves...
But now what?
When you are actually out on the slopes, it is experience that makes all the difference. As I have grown and changed over the years, my lessons have evolved with me.
The most important thing I have gained, other than a few grey hairs, is an understanding of how to structure a ski lesson.
The day before every ski lesson, I send my clients a text or email with the colour of my jacket/hat and a specific meeting point to help them find me, e.g. under the large LED screen in front of the ski lift.
In the morning, I introduce myself and get started with the ski lesson.
In skiing and my everyday work, I always strive to be extremely punctual. If I have an appointment at 9 am, I will be sure to arrive 15 minutes early. I can't stand the thought of leaving a student waiting, and the mountain is a risky place: chairlift breakdowns, ski lift queues, diversions that force you to take a longer route... Plus the early bird has time for a good cup of coffee!
The coffee in France is not the best (sorry Morzine!), but I can point you towards a couple of good places.
This particular morning, I had my coffee and was in position at 8:45
am, ready to meet Steven.
This 4-hour lesson was our first meeting: from his emails I knew he was English, 51 years old, and terrified of skiing.
The clock struck 9 with no sign of Steven. I waited a few more minutes and then called him on the phone.
As it transpired, he hadn't realised quite how long it would take to rent his skis, boots and helmet. Boots can make or break your skiing experience. If you choose the wrong size, you'll be dying to take them off all day long!
When Steven let me know he was halfway up the cable car, I reminded him of our meeting spot.
A figure approached in a blue jacket and grey trousers: Steven!
With a big smile, I reached out a hand to introduce myself.
After a few minutes of back and forth, I decided to hold my tongue and let Steven do the talking.
His voice confirmed what I had deduced from his posture: Steven was petrified. He was struggling to move in unfastened boots, clutching his skis and poles in both hands, and sporting an open jacket in -7°C weather. From the gap between his boots and trousers to his purple face and wide eyes, Steven looked completely out of his depth.
But I was ready.
Years ago, I would have started the ski lesson by making him put on his skis, but now I know better.
I could sense the wall of fear between me and Steven, and his anxiety about skiing was growing by the second.
This was my moment to instil a sense of calm. I put his skis and poles on the ground, reminded him to do up his jacket and put on a warm hat, and helped him do up his boots.
This caught him off guard, and he began to open up about his previous skiing experience, revealing that his last lesson at a ski school was a total fiasco.
I waited and listened.
The first few minutes of a conversation can help you figure out what direction to take your lesson. I already had a fairly clear picture of Steven from how he held himself, and his words filled in all the blanks: he had not been skiing for about 10 years, he was a semi-beginner, he was in Morzine with a small group of friends, he was on an incentive trip, he loved the sea, and he worked in real estate.
We talked about everything, from family to passions, and, last but not least, property. It turned out we shared an interest in real estate, which I have been pursuing in the Principality of Monaco and Italy.
Throughout our conversation, we managed to avoid the elephant in the room: skiing!
Steven began to feel at ease, I asked for some property advice, he complimented my English pronunciation, I told him about my work, we talked about his family and the impact of Brexit on England. Little did he know, the ski lesson was already underway.
With two pairs of skis on our shoulders and two pairs of poles, we headed towards the Viking beginners' area in Morzine, around 30 metres away. It is a pleasant climb on fresh, soft snow, but can be very challenging on packed and icy snow. On that particular day, the conditions were perfect: cold, sun high in the sky, not many other people, and views of the entire Morzine area.
Steven made the climb effortlessly, keeping up a good pace like a true sportsman. He had played rugby for 20 years, and it showed in his build and form.
By the time we made it to the beginners' area, Steven was enjoying himself and telling funny stories about his recent business trip.
It was still only 9:15 am, but it felt like we had known each other for a lifetime. We spoke the same language, we were talking about real estate, and he had stopped stressing about skiing. When you can break through that wall and make a human connection, you know it's going to be a good day for a ski lesson.
I took control of the conversation and briefly went over the equipment: how to put on the skis and how to actually move in them. Steven calmly put on his skis and we headed towards Morzine's very own magic carpet.
As a state-of-the-art ski resort, Morzine provides a conveyor belt surface lift for easier ascents.
You simply approach the magic carpet, wait for your turn, take small steps to get on board, and when the belt is holding your body weight it will carry you up the hill.
The conveyor belt is manned at the start and the end by technical staff who can help skiers get on board and stop the system if there are any issues.
When we got to the top, Steven's face clouded over and some of the
old fear and apprehension returned.
I stood in front of him, took off my goggles for better eye contact, and, like a true Italian, started talking and gesturing with my hands!
Steven was able to stand on his skis, like 95% of beginners.
That meant we could move on to the first lesson: how to stop.
I always teach the easiest and most intuitive way to slow down and stop.
We started out with me facing him so that he could hear me and hold on to my hands.
As we began to make our descent, he was a little awkward and fearful in spite of his sporty past. About halfway down the slope, I got him to stop in the snowplough position. Despite my best efforts to get him to focus on me or the valley floor, Steven could not take his eyes off the ground. Having skis strapped to your feet for the first time (or after a long break) is a scary experience!
I asked him to take a few deep breaths. He was from Manchester, so this was the perfect chance to enjoy some clean fresh air; I told him to look around and really appreciate how lucky he was to learn to ski in a place like Morzine.
I steered the conversation back to non-skiing topics and we set off again, offering tips to improve his form along the way.
It was time to actually learn how to stop: on the count of three, Steven widened his snowplough, and I could see the satisfaction on his face as he began to slow down.
At the end of the slope, Steven was a mixture of enthusiasm and fear, bombarding me with a million questions about skiing.
We made two or three more descents using the same teaching method, peppering the conversation with quick technique tips where necessary.
On our fourth attempt, Steven was caught up in a passionate
monologue, and I took my chance to stop holding his hands. The gap
between us grew: 10 cm, half a metre...
Soon Steven was skiing all on his own.
After he got over the shock, he handled the rest of the descent perfectly.
At the end of the slope, I stood back and let him shout, swear and vent his excitement. He was desperate to go back up to the top, but warned me not to let him go in the middle of the run ever again!
I reminded him that he didn't need me; he had done it all on his own. All I did was offer a few pointers on his technique.
Back at the top, we shared a meaningful nod, and he set off again completely unsupported. The techniques he was learning made his movements less stiff and more harmonious, and his speed increased steadily. The slope soon seemed far too short, so we moved on to longer green runs until the end of Steven's first ski lesson.
He wanted to keep skiing, but I encouraged him to take a break and have lunch.
I summed up everything we had done and learned in the morning and gave him some practice exercises for the afternoon.
Before I had even finished speaking, Steven asked for my availability for the rest of the week.
What's more, he wanted to introduce me to his wife!
After a week, we were all good friends.
I first met Rebecca a few years ago during carnival week in Morzine.
I remember that day well: the sun peeking through the clouds, the perfect snow, the sparkling trees in the light morning breeze.
When we met at the established meeting point, Rebecca seemed cheerful and unfazed by her upcoming ski lesson. I asked her about herself, what she did for work and her skiing level, and she answered in English. I checked her rented equipment: the weight on her bindings, the edges, the height of her poles, and finally her boots, which, once fastened, should hold the heels snugly in place.
I got all the information I needed, adjusted the lesson according to her technique and expectations, and we started skiing. We were taking chairlift after chairlift around Morzine, and Becks didn't seem to be taking in my suggestions and corrections. As soon as she put her mask on and started skiing, all of her enthusiasm faded away. She wasn't improving, and it was very frustrating.
I was a little confused, but wanted to get to the bottom of the situation.
Sitting on the chairlift, I decided to probe a little, sharing some sailing stories and offering some simple skiing advice. I didn't want to leave her worrying in silence.
But Becks turned out to be full of surprises... She took off her mask, looked me straight in the eyes, and started a new conversation in perfect Italian!
I tried to hide my surprise, and asked where her linguistic skills came from. She replied that her work sometimes took her to Italy. It had been a few years since she went to Milan, but she was still impressively fluent.
Becks kept chatting away, confiding that her previous skiing experiences were a bit of a disaster. Several ski instructors had come and gone over the years, and no-one had ever managed to make skiing fun.
I was stumped.
We were approaching the end of the chairlift, so I had about 3 minutes to find the perfect approach to help Becks overcome her past experience.
I decided a backwards snowplough was the way forwards.
The snowplough is one of the first skiing moves you learn, letting you control your speed and glide over the snow in complete safety. This position is achieved by moving the tails of the skis apart and keeping the tips close together. Your skis will form a triangle pointing towards the valley, using the edges to scrape against the snow and slow you down.
I needed Becks' full attention, so I switched into a backwards
snowplough, with the tails close together and the tips far apart to
control every movement.
In a soft yet urgent tone, I invited Rebecca to change her body position on her skis, and the results on Morzine's green runs were very encouraging.
At the end of the ski lesson, I arranged to see Becks every morning for the rest of the week.
By the middle of the week, Rebecca was relaxed and enthusiastic, and had even managed some parallel skiing on the blue slopes. She couldn't freak herself out by looking down into the valley, because I was always a few metres in front of her giving tips and recommendations (in my backwards snowplough)!
Her holiday was a success.
We met for a new batch of ski lessons in Alpes d'Huez a month later, and again the following year in Courchevel.
To this day, I still use the backwards snowplough to support my learners with my happy smiling face! The quality of Rebecca's skiing has improved so much that we have even been able to tackle the very difficult red slopes.
It's a challenge for both of us, because I am still stuck in the backwards snowplough!
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