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Ski Instruction and Overcoming Fear

post #1 of 14
Thread Starter 

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.





INTRODUCTION.  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-demurrely

                                      Looking away - 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 studnet 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 thread is intended 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.

post #2 of 14

Good stuff Pete!


One of my empathy tricks is overstating. Sometime I will use the mach speed scale like, ok - we're going to do this next section at Mach 1. That sounds like it's going to be wayyyyy tooo fast, but Mach 1 is 50% of the max comfortable speed, but about double the super cautious speed for that skier. I want to make it clear that the goal is to get comfortable with increased speed, but that I am sensitive to and aware of the student's different perspective of speed. I want the student to get the sense that their idea of way too dangerous is more than twice what I'm calling way too dangerous. Somehow picking a ridiculously fast number gets the message across that it's only going to seem fast, but it'a not going to be scary fast. So when we go to Mach two, we're talking about doubling the speed on the scale (because that's what it seems like), but the real increase is only about 30-50% over Mach 1 and still doable on the "before the lesson" scale.. I want to set the situation up so that I'm the one complaining about going too fast. In 99% of the cases, it's about control instead of speed. If we can increase control, the definition of what is a comfortable speed naturally increases. If we can make speed "nothing to worry about" because of relabeling comfortable speed to be excessive, we can make increasing speed something that is doable. That let's us teach means of increasing control (e.g. through edge angle and turning uphill). As control increases we can gradually turn up the Mach level and break through pre lesson speed limits and the general fear of skiing too fast.


I wish I could take the above paragraph and condense it down to two sentences of generality, but I'm offering it up as an example of what Pete is talking about, but done slightly differently. But the interesting thing to me is that what I've written above is a poor reflection of what really goes on when I'm teaching this way because it's so hard to put this stuff into words. Pete's done it very well in his intro post. Thank's Pete!

post #3 of 14
Thread Starter 

Rusty,  good method.  I have always learned through feeling and experience that Trust is the most important element.  If the person trusts you, your judgement and your sincerity then really good things can follow.  I certainly agree on how hard it is to put this into words.  The whole of dealing with another's fear is almost instinctive if you have some background and a little education and training in the basic principles, beyond that it is almost all Feel.

post #4 of 14

Yeah, the funny thing about sincerity is that you should not need to fake it. I've found that trust is pretty easy to earn as long as you ask for things that are easy to see as doable.


This past season I rescued a lady out of a beginner lesson where she was "this close" to quitting. She clearly wasn't getting the straight run thing and she had hit her limit for hiking the 3 feet of vertical for the next practice run.  Fortunately we got a new magic carpet last season and I was able to take her up that. Mind you that she was in no way shape or form ready to ski down any of our beginner runs by any standard definition of her ability. And her fear was totally justified in my book. But off the top of our carpet is a cut through trail between our beginner runs that works as a perfect long flat traverse when combined with the trail it cuts into. We could go 2-3 feet, take one uphill step and stop, then go 5-6 feet and step to a stop. Then we could go 2-3 feet and tip the skis and go another 2-3 feet to an uphill stop. And so on. After each stop we had a couple of minutes rest, had a laugh or two and then we'd screw up our courage for the next go. By the time I pulled out the 100 mph gag, she could see I was only asking her to go 15 feet instead of 10. By flattening our 7 degree slopes to 3 degrees via traversing, keeping the top speed under 3 mph and turning a 30 second run into a 45 minute run I was able to find her comfort zone and let her have fun. Still I was shocked at the end when she said she loved skiing and definitely was coming back. This listening, empathy, trust stuff really does work. But it's only the extra stuff you add to your normal teaching duties for people where fear is not an issue,

post #5 of 14


post #6 of 14
Thread Starter 

Think that many good ski instructors do this and really aren't aware of the  Listening/empathy/Trust bond they are doing.  Development of  these abilitiies and sincerity while knowing of these 3 elements could only enhance the process for both the student and the teacher.


Oftentimes awareness is learned only through experience.  Epic really is an exception to this rule and presents some very interesting      


post #7 of 14

Hey Pete, 


Good thread. 


You've basically talked to establishing trust. Agreed that you need trust for any effective teaching relationship. Once you have trust though, how would you conquer a fear? 


Fear can stem from a lack of control. However, I see plenty of skiers who have sufficient technique to complete a run, but have a mental freakout (for whatever reason) and suddenly switch technique to backsteat inside leg steered turns--exactly the opposite of what would help the skier. 


Granted, you can (presumably) sideslip down with this skier to get out of the immediate situation, but I'd be curious to hear more on how to enable these skiers to overcome their fear on terrain they have sufficient skill to master.

post #8 of 14

Hey Pete! Good thread going. As you know, we've been working on some senior programs for the past 5 years or so. Fear is even more of a big deal as people get older, and must be dealt with both realistically, accurately and with good humor.


From your background, you give really good advice.


Elissa Slanger has an article on "Senior Skiers anddthe Fear Factor" that is good. You can find it on the website: www.seniorsnowsports.org. Go to the Western Division materials and you'll find it there.


One method that I've found really helpful is humor and distraction. When you just KNOW that the skier has the ability to do something, but it's just their mental/emotional state holding them back, I sort of sneak them into it by talking, joking or just working on something that keeps them looking nearby. - keeping them occupied. Then when we are down their "steep" part, I stop and tell them to look back. They always say something like, "Wow, and it seemed so easy!" Of course, in order to do this, you already have to have established a good level of trust with them.

post #9 of 14

Thought of one other thing that Junior Bounous used to always say when interviewing and hiring ski instructors: "I can teach them to ski, I can teach them to teach, but I can't teach them what their mother did not teach them."


A lot of what you learn from your mother is what makes you a good ski instructor - and that is especially true in developing that trusting bond with the students.

post #10 of 14
Thread Starter 


Originally Posted by Metaphor_ View Post

Hey Pete, 


Good thread. 


You've basically talked to establishing trust. Agreed that you need trust for any effective teaching relationship. Once you have trust though, how would you conquer a fear? 


Fear can stem from a lack of control. However, I see plenty of skiers who have sufficient technique to complete a run, but have a mental freakout (for whatever reason) and suddenly switch technique to backsteat inside leg steered turns--exactly the opposite of what would help the skier. 


Granted, you can (presumably) sideslip down with this skier to get out of the immediate situation, but I'd be curious to hear more on how to enable these skiers to overcome their fear on terrain they have sufficient skill to master.

Rusty's method above will work.  Cookie has also pegged part of fixing the problem.   Probably the simplist answer is to pick the right terrain.   An easy Green run with a bad side on the downhill side isn't going to work.  Maybe the best is a simple easy run that ends with an uphill runout.  If you don't move the student too fast and they still - do it as you described - then the bag  of tricks comes into play.   Singing to self eetc.  I have always found if I could ge this type of student to stop looking down at their ski's that they would loosen up quite a bit.  Looking down at your ski's is a reall problem especially for beginners and fearful beginners the worst.  Tenses them up, makes them worry about what they are doing, no prep forr whats coming etc.

post #11 of 14
Thread Starter 

Metaphor,  bag of tricks to move people forward in their skiing, there are a lot of instructors here that can help you on that subject much better than I.


The thread I started on Fear was really based on what I used when I taught.  The trust, empathy, listening part was actually learned when negotiating with all types of psychological profiles in crisis situation, some of them life or death, literally.  The paramount ingrediant in almost all of these incidents was fear and different level of paranoia.  Trust being the real proven method for breaking the fear cycle.  Although never worked with fear of snow etc., the principles were still the same.  Found that using the same principles when teaching skiing really worked just on a different level. 


Taking a person who knows they aren't going to have a good time and knows they're going to be hurt and watching and coaxing them to enjoy our sport was very self gratifying.  The real absolute plus when they came up again and looked me up or took another requested private.

post #12 of 14

Hey Pete!


Here is a little analogy I use for students who stare at their ski tips.  I ask them to imagine driving their car or riding in a car going about five miles per hour  down the road and opening the car door and looking down at the pavement.  I then ask them how fast it looks like they would be going when all they see is blurred pavement going by?  About a hundred right?  Then I say, now close the door and look down the road and you see that you are barely moving.


Now notice when you are skiing and staring at your ski tips you lose the horizon which is one of the ways we reference balance as well as you see only the snow going by your feet in a blur.  You can not see the variations in the snow or the undulations that will challenge your balance.  This is not only scary but we know how this affects our posture and balance over our skis.  I tell them to look forward and see how it helps them stand taller and more balanced over their skis and how the perception of speed is more realistic.


If they still persist in looking down I will coax them unrelentingly using "how many fingers to I have?" or "which way am I pointing?" to keep them focused forward.  This also helps them make the connection with their feet and begin to feel what is happening with their skis instead of looking to see what is going on at the numb end of their bodies. The sooner they begin thinking with their feet the better!


Hope this will be an addition to your bag o tricks!


post #13 of 14

Great idea Bud about looking down and seeing things go by fast and scary.


To learn a brand new movement with your body, it does help to look though. So for the first few times trying to make turns and moving, I don't mind if the newbies look down at their skis. They are trying to figure it all out and what it feels like.


However, once they are sliding more, instead of telling them to stop looking down (hard to do a negative), I tell them that what really helps for maintaining good balance is anticipating what you are going to ski on - the next little clump in the snow, the next rut or whatever. I start teaching terrain tactics right from the start. If you can see something and are ready for it, you will stay in balance more easily. 


So that gives them something to focus on, which also keeps them proactively involved and occupied and more in control - which means they will be less fearful of what they are doing.

post #14 of 14

Bud - awesome! In retrospect, that's what I'm seeing in one particular learner. Thanks! Interestingly enough, when things aren't working in my own skiing, I sometimes tend to stop and think "what am I doing wrong?" and analyze from the skis up, eventually reach the eyes--looking down at the snow. ha. 

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