Assess, Ask and Instruct your Instructor.
Skiing has several essential truths. Sliding downhill is preferable to slogging uphill. That’s why we have chairlifts and gondolas. And the better skier you are, the more fun skiing is. That’s why we have ski schools. If you’re on the outside looking in – either a beginner looking to start, or a skier hoping to improve – the best thing you can do is take a lesson.
Instruction has a long, celebrated tradition in ski circles. Moving from “pizza wedge” turns to “French fries,” and progressing from beginner to intermediate to advanced terrain, is among the great rites of passage in the sport. Accelerating that process is not only the goal of most skiers, but also of ski schools.
“I hear stories all the time about people who were taught by girlfriends, boyfriends, relatives, friends, etcetera, and it seems like in a lot of cases only the tough ones survived,” said Terrence “T-bar” Barbour, the Ski & Ride director at Sugarbush Resort in Vermont. “Skiing and riding have come a long way. We’re so much clearer on the best way to teach someone to ski or ride, and the technology on our feet helps make learning easier.”
Skiing’s instructional traditions started hundreds of years ago, in Norway. According to the Professional Ski Instructors of America (PSIA), ski instruction was adopted as part of the training regimen for the Norwegian military in the early 1700s. The Norwegians produced the first skiing handbook in 1733, and established the first “ski school” in 1813.
The snowball really got rolling after Norway’s Sondre Nordheim performed first telemark turn in 1868. Austria’s Mathias Zdarsky, considered the “Father of Alpine Skiing,” founded one of the first organized ski schools, introducing thousands to the sport in the 1890s and early 1900s. Countryman Hannes Schneider is probably most responsible for skiing’s phenomenal growth in North America. He developed the Arlberg technique, which dominated into the 1930s, and founded his ski school in 1910-11 before nurturing the sport in Japan and the United States.
“Providing lessons at a resort in the United States began as a guest service,” said Katie Ertl, managing director for the Ski & Snowboard Schools at Aspen/Snowmass in Colorado. “The idea was that if we could teach everyone to ski, they would continue to come back the next day. Teaching in the U.S. came over from Austria, France and Switzerland in the late 1930s, and after 30 years of that influence, the American Teaching System came into play in 1961 with the start of PSIA.”
Part of the reason why lessons were so important decades ago was that skiing came with considerable risk. The equipment and trail conditions were far more unpredictable, and injuries were far more commonplace.
“Guests were drawn toward lessons to help navigate the challenges and dangers of the day,” said Peter Weber, snowsports director at Waterville Valley in New Hampshire. “Today, with modern snowmaking, grooming and equipment, people can become operational quicker. They can slide around most of the mountain, in most conditions, and have a blast.
“However, that doesn’t mean they’re expert skiers or riders, or they’re experiencing the efficiency of movements and mastery of all conditions that really good technique can provide,” he said. “Better technique also makes skiing physically easier, so people can ski or ride longer and stay safer within their abilities.”
The PSIA’s original American Ski Technique morphed into the American Teaching Method before finally evolving into what is currently known as the American Teaching System. Through it all, the PSIA has produced hundreds of instructors – Johnny Appleskis – who delight in preaching the Alpine bible from coast to coast.
“Since the very beginning, the teaching industry has come from a desire to spread the love of the sport,” said Bill “Wild Bill” Krause, who has worked as an instructor at Alpine Valley in southeast Michigan to Park City and Solitude in Utah. “That desire was, for a long time, clouded by an image of ski instructors that was less-than-welcoming. The uber-polished Euro ski instructor image can be a little intimidating, but that stereotype is far from the norm.
“Today we really focus on what the client wants to get out of their lesson, as well as their needs from technical standpoint,” said Krause. “The biggest focus is one of safety. In a sport with risks like those associated with skiing it is very important that new skiers and riders understand the basics of keeping everyone safe.”
Given the number of injuries suffered every year on the slopes, no one will doubt the importance of safety. You want to be in good hands. But there are myriad additional reasons to get aboard the ski school train.
Those reasons, said Ertl, include helping students gain skills faster than they ever imagined, helping them ski more economically (extending their time on the slopes), helping guests get the most out of a ski vacation, providing a social environment allowing guests to meet more people, and helping them feel like a local in a mountain environment.
But there are many types of ski instructors, and ski schools. That begs the question, “How do you find the right ski instructor?”
Start with a frank, unflinching assessment of your own abilities. This is similar to renting equipment. To get the gear that’s right for you, providing accurate information is crucial. The same holds for finding the right instructor.
“Just be honest about any concerns and your previous experience,” said Krause. “If you’re nervous, let them know. I see a lot of requests for a ‘patient instructor.’ That shouldn’t be something you need to ask for; that’s a basic skill we all have. Voice your concerns, ask questions, and make sure you’re understanding what your instructor is communicating.
“Sometimes we need to restate things several times, in a few different ways, before someone can master a skill, drill, idea, or tactic,” he said. “We would far rather you ask questions until you understand than keeping them to yourself and getting frustrated. We’ve got all day and won’t move on until you’re ready.”
Ertl suggests the following checklist for skiers before signing up for a lesson:
1. Am I athletic, and do I pick things up quickly? Or am I conservative? Do I want to know all the details before I try?
2. What are my goals for each lesson? Stopping, turning, having fun?
3. Always know that you can let the instructor know if you’d like to go faster or slower. They’ll make certain that you’re with the right guest.
“We are focusing on experiential learning and a growth mindset,” she said. “Both help create a learning environment that helps anyone feel and learn with more ease and a greater retention.”
Next up, consider whether you’d prefer a group or a private lesson. There are good reasons for each.
“Rarely do I recommend a private for a new skier,” said Barbour. “If there are special physical or psychological issues, a private could be a great idea. Most first-timer lesson have a comfortable coach/student ratio.
“Group lessons are a great option for those who like having the support and camaraderie that can happen in a group,” he said. “The focus is generally geared to something that would be beneficial to the whole group. A good instructor will then individualize that focus for each person as best they can.”
Plus, if you’re comparing options at the same resort, group lessons will almost always be less expensive. Most instructors also agree that group lessons are a great option for “visual learners,” since they provide students the opportunity to watch their classmates. However, for individualized attention, it’s hard to beat a private lesson.
“I recommend privates for people really looking for a big change in their skills,” said Barbour. “One-hour privates are useful for getting a pointer that will help you with the conditions of the day, or help you with your new skis, or give you a pointer for handling special situations like ice, bumps, powder, steeps.
“Two-hour privates are the best deal, and a better option if you’re really looking for a breakthrough in your skiing,” he said. “And this can be focused on any area you would like to improve on, things like long turns, short turns, bumps, steeps, trees, ice, powder, crud, racing, and freestyle.”
Need another great reason to connect with a ski instructor? Remember, no one else knows the mountains as well as these folks. My brother Sean and I were once staying at Snowbird, Utah, and decided to take a quick detour up the Little Cottonwood Canyon to Alta. We knew so little about this area that I had to be reminded that snowboards weren’t allowed. But we had heard whispers about the legendary chutes of Catherine’s Area off the Supreme lift, and our instructor was more than happy to play “tour guide.”
“This is a huge benefit, not only on the slopes, but most of our pros know a great deal about other activities, such as great restaurants and night spots,” said Ertl. “Adventure and experience are a wonderful part of the mountain environment.
“All of our instructors love what they do and want to share it, so I encourage everyone to take just one lesson, or guided day with a pro,” she said. “It’ll be worth your while, and you may make a few new friends. We want you to feel like a local, like you belong here with everyone else.”
The one mantra that most instructors readily reject is “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” That’s because skiing is such a great lifetime sport, with endless challenges. I’m a firm believer that you’re never too old to learn, especially after having my left hip replaced last March (after a “last hurrah week” in Utah’s Wasatch Mountains).
“Better skiing and riding is a lifelong journey,” said Barbour. “With the right attitude and good coaching, you can continue to improve no matter your age, or how long you’ve been doing it.
“All of the world’s best skiers have coaches,” he said. “Bode (Miller), Michaela (Shiffrin), Lara Gut, Lindsey Vonn all get coaching on an almost daily basis. Every sport has practice time to get better. Skiers should look at lessons as ‘practice time’ to better themselves and open up all areas of the mountain playground.”