A Pro's Notebook: Why Lessons Don't Work



from the February 1999 issue


A Ski Pro's Notebook
Why Ski Lessons
Don't Work...

and what to do about it

I’m going to let the cat out of the bag. No one I know is satisfied, really satisfied, with their own skiing. Instructors certainly aren’t. Ski instructors are obsessive about “working on their skiing,” trying to improve, to polish and hone their skiing skills which often are highly polished to begin with. I’m no different. So if you aren’t completely satisfied with your skiing ability–and most skiers aren’t–at least, you’re not alone. In fact, you’re in good company. But you can do something about it, you really can ski a lot closer to your ideal image, or self-image, of motion down a mountain.

Begin with this simple idea: skiing - not idealized perfected skiing, but the way you and I really ski - is a habit. When we head down a slope, we are neither thinking about ski technique, nor selecting a certain technique from our bag of tricks and then applying it. We are simply reacting, by habit, to the snow in front of us. Where we turn may be a conscious choice, but how we turn is not.

We formed our skiing habits the way all physical habits are formed, by repetition - repeating a pattern of movement over and over, until finally, our bodies seem to continue repeating these movement patterns on their own, without any conscious direction on our part. So the problem of learning to ski better, is not really one of gaining a better understanding of skiing. Rather, it is a matter of overcoming old and deeply ingrained habits. In fact, we probably can’t change our habits at all, what we can do is to replace them with newer, stronger, more effective habits. This is not only a big job, it’s a slow one.

Mark Twain said it perfectly: “Habit is habit, and not to be thrown out the window by any man; it must be coaxed downstairs, slowly, one step at a time.” I believe that to change a skiing habit, takes more time than most skiers or ski instructors realize. This is the main reason why single ski lessons (whether one hour, or one day, whether private or group lessons) generally don’t work That’s right: most ski lessons don’t work. Even when the instructor is motivated and skilled, even when the student is motivated and enthusiastic.

True, something happens. The instructor demonstrates and explains new movements, and provides his or her students with practice patterns that are designed to help. But there just isn’t enough time - enough time to replace old habits by building new ones. So at the end of a single lesson, most skiers find that they are still skiing exactly the way the did at the start of that lesson. Sound familiar? I thought so....

How much time, how much practice, how many repetitions, does it take to build solid new habits on skis? In my experience it takes a minimum of three days of focused practice and repetition to turn new movement patterns into solid skiing habits. In general, it takes a week.

Does this mean it is pointless to take a single ski lesson? No. But I believe that a single ski lesson should only be the starting point in a longer more sustained campaign to change your skiing habits. This is a controversial opinion. Most ski instructors, most ski-school directors, will disagree. For me, the principle “product” that modern ski schools are selling, the single lesson, resembles the myriad diet plans and books and nutritional supplements sold to the American public, which all sound great in theory, but which never seem to result in permanent weight loss. Of course, ski instructors are far more sincere than those who peddle quick weight-loss schemes. Most ski pros really do care about their students’ progress. Yet they seldom have time to do the job right.

How did this happen? The "ski week" has all but disappeared. Instead, the average ski lesson has grown shorter and shorter over the years. You’ve seen the signs at your local area: “Want to master moguls? Sign up for our afternoon bump clinic.” Alas, an afternoon isn’t long enough to master anything.

I'm convinced that most intermediates really can become expert skiers. You can do it, even if you’ve skied the same way for years and years. But the way to change your skiing is by radically changing your approach to ski learning - from simply taking a lesson every now and then, to organizing a focused campaign to build new skiing habits. There’s that word again - campaign. I don’t want to stretch the military metaphor out of shape, but here’s what I recommend:

First, figure out where you’re going and what you need to practice: what precisely are the new skiing habits you want to build? For this step, you can’t do better than enlist the help of a perceptive, talented instructor. And yes, do take a lesson, a private lesson - knowing full well that this lesson is not going to be a magic wand that will either fix or permanently change your skiing, but rather a session of exploration and diagnosis. In one session, your ski pro should be able to come up with a recipe, a prescription,: listing and explaining the new movement patters you need.

Do you need to change your stance? Do you need to shift weight faster? Are your starting your turns with too much effort, making them short and choppy, over-pivoted and excessively skidded? Do you need to stay in the arc of each turn longer, to give your skis time to do their thing? What I’m talking about is an inventory of your skiing habits, what’s there and what’s missing. Let me repeat, while a whole day’s lesson isn't long enough to change ingrained skiing habits; a one hour private lesson with the right instructor should be long enough to come up with an accurate understanding of your skiing habits and needs, past, present and future.

Then you have a choice. The easiest thing to do is to commit yourself to a week of lessons with the same pro. A cost-effective approach is to share a week of private lessons with several skiing friends who ski about the same way you do. A skilled pro can easily give each member of a small group a totally personalized program of instruction. And there are still ski schools, though not many, that do offer five-day programs with their top pros.

Maybe “program” is a better word than “campaign.” Because what I’m suggesting is that you devote five straight days to the process of making new skiing patterns into new habits. You’ll find there are no short cuts.

The other approach is to do it yourself, to organize your own practice program to build new skiing habits. Spend each morning focusing on new skiing movements, then, relaxi with some playful unfocused skiing in the afternoon as you start to get tired. And only check in with your ski pro from time to time, to see if you are still on the right track. Either way - whether a week of intense guided practice with a pro, or a focused week of practice skiing on your own - the time commitment is critical.

Remember the last good ski lesson you took? Remember how for a while a lot of things made sense? But how the very next weekend, you realized that it didn’t “take,” that you were still skiing the same old way? Now you know why. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad skier, or a bad learner, much less that there isn’t an expert skier inside you. It means that the task is harder - or, actually, longer - than you imagined. Give yourself five days in a row and you can change your skiing habits permanently. It’s worth it. Life is too short not to become an expert skier.    A Pro's Notebook: Why Lessons Don't Work
© Lito Tejada-Flores
In his
SKI PRO'S NOTEBOOK series, Lito plans to explore, demystify and explain the WHY of modern expert skiing. Not just what to do, but why certain patterns, certain techniques, even certain ideas, are so important....