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EpicSki › Performance Articles › Teaching Fearful Students

Teaching Fearful Students

Bill's coworkers kept prodding him to "come up to the mountains with us and learn to ski".  He considered this option to his sometimes dull/inside life in the winter.  Thinking to himself, he was really afraid of being injured and losing time at work, he wasn't a real jock and was a little hesitant about displaying this to his friends at work.  Easier and cheaper to read a good book this weekend.


Mary really wanted to go try this skiing with her friends but  she kept hearing stories about;  Jack who blew out his knee  last season and spent 8 months rehabbing and Beth who fell hard and hurt her shoulder.  Mary heard a lot of stories about injuries, the cold, high winds, ice and those really high chair lifts. 


Obviously an entire book could be written about the Marys and Bills of this world who wanted to but just never got up on the hill to try skiing.   Money is usually the first excuse and although not outwardly expressed,  fear of the unknown can also be a big rationalization for why a person doesn't ski.




Ski instructors teach the Mary and Bills of the world quite often.   The fears that new skiers bring to the mountains are variable.  Human emotions contain an infinite number of variables.  All experienced skiers and certainly ski instructors are at least partly responsible to help ensure that these new skiers enjoy themselves and return to the mountains with good expectations.


To help explain this thread let me introduce myself.  Long time skier, raced for years, was Level I ski instructor for 5 years. Former/retired police officer in Sacramento, California.   Hostage and Crisis Negotiator for 20yrs.  Negotiations at over 200 incidents.   The incidents ranged from a 14yr old suicide person on top of a hotel to a hostage situation with a shotgun duct taped to the victims throat.  Negotiations from the shortest  7 minutes to  the longest 9 hours.  My background is mentioned to help explain the fact that almost 90 % of these negotiations dealt in some way with fear. 


As a ski instructor I kept running into "fearful" students some who were almost frozen with their fears of skiing and were only on the hill because of a feeling of obligation to a relative or friend.   Realizing that this was almost a common problem, to differing degrees, a method or plan was developed to deal effectively with fear. 


Many people here on Epic have much more training, education and experience than I.  This thread is presented to maybe offer a little different insight into Fear and methods that can sucessfully be used to counter this emotion.  It should be noted that the material is presently in a general nature and both you and I know there are always exceptions.  These methods have been used in private classes, usually with one person but occassionally with up to 3 similar students.




                                    1. Not Quickly - No Magic Quick Fix

                                    2. Not by the numbers or  abcdef etc.

                                    3. Not by repetition

                                    4. Not with words


First a ski instructor has to realize that a persons fears will not be overcome immediately with some magic bag of tricks. Using an  academic matrix of "fixing by the numbers" may touch upon  some items but it is foolish to assign a fix to someone you hardly know.  Repetition of skills is obviously a proven way to teach but is not always appropriate when handling a persons emotions.  Words alone never solved anything.


Why the person is fearful should not be a ski instructors main focus.  You are not going to psychologically profile this person and you are probably not qualified to do this anyway and what ski  instructor would have time to do this.  Don't worry about why but do the following:




Listening is so much more than just hearing  words.

  • Voice inflection-tone-quietly-loudly-authority-demurely
  • Looking away vs. looking you in the eye
  • What said and How said
  • Why said
  • Voice and delivery changes with topic changes (speed, steeps, powder etc.)


Remember it is impossible to LISTEN when you are Talking.  Many people have a hard time being patient and effectively listening especially if they know more than the person who is attempting to speak.  Another key to good listening skills is to ask yourself, did I understand what was just said,  if you understood and realize this fact then you are listening effectively. Like a good Turn be patient and let it happen.




A simple but accurate definition would be  SINCERE UNDERSTANDING.  Not sympathy, not a flippant ok but a real sincere understanding of the persons feelings. 


" I can't stand up,  I am falling....., bulletproof ice,  way too steep,   way too fast,  how do I stop,  careening into a tree, boy do I look stupid,  I will never be able to ski with my ........ , can't do that-will get hurt."


   We have all been there at one time and have to realize that 10mph on a Green run to some new skiers is like racing down the Birds of Prey to them.  They are way out of their element and fear will take over overriding any sinctilating instruction you have given.  Probably the most common new skier fears are of speed and steepness.  Any good instructor knows this and will adapt his/her class accordingly.


  Instructors also should watch for the person who maybe for the lst time since early childhood don't have good control of themselves and where they are going.  A student that is not having a good time, is maybe rather quiet and very hesitant may be experiencing this LACK OF CONTROL fear that they don't even recognize.  A lack of control over myself fear is very common in new skiers, should be recognized as such and dealt with accordingly.  More time on the flats, walking etc., usually will help.  The main point is to recognize this aspect of fear.


                                     If you don't understand Empathy you will never have empathy.



                                    Therefore, you will flounder without direction in relating to

                                      the person with fear.




Ok, now I am a ski instructor who is teaching a lot of lst Timer and returning Beginner Level skiers and I know how to listen and have sincere understanding - SO WHAT - how is this going to help anyone overcome their fears especially any deep seated fears whether real or imagined ?


The key here is to establish trust.  All new skiers have heard the story about;  Jack who took his wife or girlfriend up to the top of Hellcat Run and told her to ski and that he would meet her at lunch when she got down.  Bill was taken to the top of an easy run that anyone can ski and he looked down a hill that looked like the Eiger with bumps.  Almost all new skiers have these stories in their mind when they encounter their lst day on skis.


RECOMMENDATION.   In the ski school area while alone and away from others sit down and talk to your new student. Commence ,as many of you already do with privates and semi-privates to get their goals and desires for the lessson.  First timers or real beginners and some returning skiers won't really have specific goals.  Some will say; just want to ski again, want to keep up with .............., want to ski a blue, just want to learn to ski so can go with ..................., always want to ski but didn't have the nerve or money.


After listening to their goals etc. start off maybe with this or a derivation thereof:


  • Looking them right in the eye, as close and personal as their body language will permit.
  • Tell them you are a Team and by working together that their goals will be met etc.
  • Tell them that you will not take them anywhere over their ability and that their safety is your responsibiliity and that they can trust you.
  • That we a team and will work together and learn ...........................................
  • Tell them that since you are a team that they need to speak up and ask questions and voice concerns over what is going right and or should be repeated etc.


If your student trusts you before you even step onto the snow a sucessful beginning has ocurred.  Remember to treat this private of semi private lessson as a partnership with a lot of give and take. Opening lines of communication will in addition to building trust will also give you some insight into any fears of the student.  Use good listening skills and empathy and you both are on your way to developing some real rapport and consequently progress.




This article is valid when teaching some First Timers, some Beginners and some Returning Skiers but is not limited to just those categories.   Also it is not being said that all new skiers are fearful.  However some of these skiers are fearful and recognizing this fear and having a working method of  overcoming these fears will go a long way in ensuring that they are not one of those ONE DAY SKIERS.


Good Listening Skills - Empathy and establishing and using TRUST will go a long way in making you and your student better skiers and stewards of our sport and life style.


By Pete No. Idaho


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EpicSki › Performance Articles › Teaching Fearful Students