EpicSki › Performance Articles › Fear And Skiing

Fear And Skiing

There's no question that fear gets in the way of learning. Scientists tell us that fear shuts down entire sections of the brain that carry on learning processes. Even too much stress will hinder learning. On the other hand, if you're relaxed and having fun, learning comes easily. This article offers expert guidance from resident pros at EpicSki on how to manage (and appreciate) fear so that we can advance to the next level as skiers.


Table of Contents

  1. What's Good About Fear
  2. The Comfort Zone
  3. Ski Instructors' Tactics for Dealing with Fear
  4. Establishing Trust is Key to Overcoming Fear
  5. Always Have an Out
  6. Resources






What's Good About Fear

Fear keeps us alive! Finding the right balance with pushing your limit and still having a bit of fear is the key. If all we want is the sense of thrill without any chance of being hurt (or even killed) we would all be at Disney World waiting in lines to ride the attractions. One of the thrills about skiing is that any run, green to extreme, could be our last. We have to be in control or risk death. Sure, a person can get butterflies and goose bumps on an amusement park ride, but the outcome is predictable. 

Recognize that fear as a positive and healthy thing. Know that fear is the unconscious mind's message that you do not have the skills to deal with the danger involved. It's the conscious mind's job to understand the danger and the skills required to manage the danger and to recognize that those skills have been acquired. The ability to move forward is then a function of practicing the necessary skills until they are overlearned--to the point that you feel you could do it in your sleep.

The Comfort Zone

The learning curve on letting go of control and fear is vastly different for different people. Skiing requires a level of confidence in your abilites that is rather unique. You start with trying to master complete control, and then progress to a point where you let go knowing that you can gain it back when needed. The in-between "letting go" part is where a lot of the fun comes. You eventually end up at a point where you can be sailing down the mountain in a more or less relaxed state with little dabs of control here and there when needed, which requires the confidence (gained from experience) that although you may not be in complete control at the moment, you can regain it sufficiently at any time to avoid harming yourself. 

Stepping outside your comfort zone in order to apply skills you have already acquired is one thing, stepping outside the comfort zone in order to acquire such skills is self-defeating. The key is to acquire new skills within your comfort zone and to challenge and anchor the new skills in the type of terrain for which you needed the new skills. The trick is to ratchet up the terrain challenge progressively so you can focus on skiing it properly and not on how afraid you feel about skiing it. The terrain is perfect if you look back up after skiing it with amazement and pride at having just skied it; it's probably not appropriate if just looking at it makes you want to throw up. Only you can say how you feel. The point is, when skills and confidence grow in tandem, you can't help but advance as a skier. None of this is to suggest that the process is easy. None of it works without first gaining confidence (i.e., you trust your judgment). Mistakes can and will be made. Trust that you will learn from experience and not make the same mistake twice.

Ski Instructors' Tactics for Dealing with Fear

  • Start by recognizing when fear exists and determining its cause.
  • "Ignore" the fear. Sometimes we see fear in our students that they don't want to recognize in themselves. If you ask them they will say they are not afraid. Telling them what they are doing because of fear will lose them. So we visibly and audibly ignore the fear while working on the issue stealthily.
  • Chip away at the fear. One basic tactic of the level 1 lesson is that we present a series of tasks where we start with something simple (e.g. walking in ski boots) and add one tiny new element (e.g. walking with one ski on) at a time. A straight run of 100 feet becomes more doable when it starts at 5 feet, then goes to 10, 15, 30, 45, etc. Afraid of falling? Fall on purpose into soft snow on a steep uphill pitch (e.g. the side of a lift mound).
  • If fear of being judged is the problem, ski less-traveled runs until you get that other people are just not that into you--they're way more concerned with how they're doing. 
  • Reverse psychology. Tell yourself that you can't have or don't want it and that that's okay or not a problem.
  • Distract yourself. There are lots of potential distrations: whistling while you're skiing, counting, listening to the snow, watching someone else, focusing on a particular aspect of your performance. etc.
  • Terrain selection. Some students develop a speed limit on easy terrain that limits their progression. Although they are not "fully ready" for harder/steeper terrain - I take them there (and go slow) so that they will feel the increased forces involved. Then I take them back to the easier terrain where they have to recreate the same force with more speed. You can cure a lot of ills simply by changing a skier from going straight down the slope to using a diagonal path to decrease effective slope pitch. There are tons of ways to manage terrain even within the confines of a single trail.
  • Showing your students (partner, children, friends) that you have confidence in them is probably the most effective psychological tool an instructor (partner, parent, friend) can deploy in combating fear. 
  • Slow down if you get scared. Going a few MPH slower whether driving or skiing gives so much more reaction time, and your toes won't hurt as bad from curling under.
  • Sometimes the exact same techniques that you already know are appropriate but must be done more athletically and more exaggerated on steep slopes and in natural conditions than on groomed flat terrain.
  • Instructors and coaches can learn more about fear firsthand by becoming a beginner at something. It won't take long to experience the same issues and fears that your students deal with, which will increase your empathy and ability to relate.


Establishing Trust is Key to Overcoming Fear

Establishing TRUST is an integral part of gaining the confidence of a fearful student. Oftentimes it should be the first goal.
Ignoring, chipping away, distractions, terrain selection, showing confidence, slowing down and becoming a beginner at something will all work - Sometimes.  Learning that the person has Fear is obviously very important - At the Beginning of the Class.  The most opportune time to learn about their Fear is when you lst meet.  This can be inside at the ski school or outside.  Take a few minutes to talk with (not at) your student.The most obvious and very prevalent disclosure can the this. 

Question. What brings you here today?
Answer.    I just want to get better so I can keep up with my .............................!
Q.  How much have you skied?
A.  Not much I can never keep up, it is very frustrating.......last time I got up on a Blue and freaked out.....................

If an instructor will listen he or she will hear some very familiar key words;  freaked out, too fast, too steep, too icy, too many fast skiers, too many boarders, etc.

What should an instructor do when he/she realizes that the student is fearful of our sport.  Some ignore these manifestations and just get out there and proceed.  Sometimes this works and sometimes it doesn't.  Ever feel that you LOST a person and that person will never return to the sport?  There is in all probability a large percentage of middle age wives, friends, relatives out there that try it once and never return.

Here are some Tactics that have worked:

Get the student to Trust you, if they trust that you will not get them hurt; frozen, left alone, on terrain over their heads etc.  If you can garner this trust you will be on your way to achieving your goal.  Trust can be learned by the instructor lst talking with the student and not at them, being a good listener and having a 2 way conversation  Empathy (sincere understanding) will start this process.  Exchange some of their aspirations for the day  and then (looking them right in the eye) sincerely tell them; "we are a team and will work together, lets stop often during the next hour and talk to each other about what is happening, I will not take you on a hill that is too steep, we will work together to see that you enjoy your day  and ..............................."

Sometimes an instructor can address reluctance with the word Fear and sometimes it is better just to set lower goals.  Be a good active LISTENER and you will see when it is best to address Fear directly or from around the corner.

If (myself as an instructor) identifies that Fear is controlling this person from enjoying skiing and it is consuming them and their future on the snow.  I have, put my arm around them, looked them in the eye and stated:

I am here to help you, we are now a Team and will work together, you can trust me.  I will not take you anywhere that is dangerous. I want you to have a nice day and will do everything I can to help you.  But, on your half you are on this team too and have to be open with me on what you want, like and dislike.  Lets work together.

This will obviously be very hard to do with groups of over 3 persons and will be most effective during private lessons.  As an explanation (disclaimer) the information is general in nature and will not work ALL the time on ALL people.  Human behavior characteristics and their  infinite number of variables would preclude any declaration that this will work 100% all the time.


Always Have an Out

Even Masters ski racers experience a lot of fear. These guys are out there trying to go faster yet still have basic fears that get in the way of their success. First of all, understanding what can happen that will cause a fall and how to avoid it is imperative. Another important safety precaution is to always have an escape route planned out. Sometimes that escape route means straight-lining a section that has turns and actually going faster than in the race course. The key is believing that it will save them from a painful crash and maybe even a season-ending injury. Knowing how to avoid the falls is obvious, enforcing it as a safety measure helps. When "sticking to a line" is leading to a pile-up, the racer needs to make the right choice and ski off the course. Walking away is more important than not finishing.

'An out' can help with lots of things. In sky diving, there is no 'out'; you jump, you soar, you open your chute, you land. If you are learning bumps, going down a slope that is has a groomed section beside the bumps provides an out. Ditto for trees: don't go deep in them, stay near the edge so you can get to the slope. More often than not the out isn't utilized, but it removes the fear of having to ski 1,000 vertical feet doing something challenging for you when you believe you're only good for 500 or even 50 vert.

This article was excerpted from the thread "Does Fear Hinder Progression" on EpicSki.


Mermer Blakeslee's book, In the Yikes Zone - a Conversation with Fear, is one of the best books on fear, and not just in skiing. Mermer is a great writer and the concepts she presents are wide ranging. 


There are no comments yet
EpicSki › Performance Articles › Fear And Skiing