_Ski Instruction, A New Paradigm
from the Spring 2000 issue



Ski Instruction:

A New Paradigm

About the only thing I know that rivals a powder morning is sharing a powder morning with someone else—someone you’ve taught to ski, someone you’ve initiated into the mysteries and pleasures, the ultimate ease of expert skiing—in untracked snow or pack, on steeps or flats, at high speeds or slow. You watch your students flying down the mountain, a broad grin spread across cold faces, you remember awkwardness, hesitation, frustration...all gone now. You have given this skier, these skiers, the keys to the kingdom. They belong here now, just as you do: their tracks on this powder morning seem a kind of ultimate graduation exercise. This is what ski teaching is all about, ski teaching at its best. This sort of satisfaction has kept me involved with ski instruction for almost 30 years. But I know it doesn’t always work out this way....

You know exactly what I’m talking about. Not all instructors care, or, if they do, know how to translate their concern into real, rapid, lasting student progress. Not all lessons, even the most expensive private lessons, really work, really change the way people ski. But when it does work, ski instruction—that joint venture, that collaboration between teacher and learner—is just as much of a peak experience as a great ski run, or a perfect powder morning.

Over the years I’ve often asked myself: how can we make it better? Make it work all the time? How can ski lessons, for everyone, at all ski areas, come closer to that peak experience that I know is possible? I think I may have an answer.

What ski instruction needs, more than anything else is competition. Real competition.

Ski resorts compete for your vacation choice, for your vacation dollars. But ski schools don’t compete with each other, for excellence, for results, for students, for your lesson dollars. An economics professor would call the American ski school a protected monopoly, there’s only one at each area, and even from area to area almost all ski schools follow the same approach to ski teaching under the banner of the PSIA (Professional Ski Instructors of America), one ski teaching organization, indivisible, under blue mountain skies, forever and ever, amen.... Why? Or more to the point why don’t we have competing ski schools, competing methods and approaches to teaching skiing? Especially since we know that in virtually every other area of life, competition results in increased value and improved performance?...
Let’s say that you’re spending a week’s vacation at Snowflake Peak and you decide it’s finally time to work on your mogul skiing. You find the ski school desk and sign up for a lesso,—you pays your money and you don’t get your choice. But what if there were three or four separate ski schools at the resort. You might do a little comparison shopping before signing up for that lesson ,ask some locals for a recommendation, read some different brochures, see which flavor of instruction struck a chord with your personality, your needs, your ambitions. You might discover that one ski school specializes only in week-long courses; they promise major breakthroughs but demand a major commitment of your time. Another ski school believes so strongly in shaped skis that they ask you to check your own skis and try theirs for the day. Another ski school, you learn, specializes in teaching youngsters and teenagers and the pros look pretty young themselves. Still another promises an accelerated learning method, and you notice that they offer a money-back guarantee. Interesting.... Perhaps it takes you a little longer to book that lesson. But I’m guessing that you would get more out of it.

Historically, today’s lack of ski-school competition makes sense. Usually one ski company puts up all the capital and taken all the risk to develop a ski area on public land. And while skiing may be glamourous, ski areas are hardly a get rich quick investment. To help protect this risky investment in public recreation facilities, the Forest Service has generally granted the resort operator the the exclusive right to a number of concessions, including ski lessons at their area. Fair enough. But the law of unintended consequences is always at work. Despite the best efforts of PSIA and its regional divisions, ski instruction in such isolated and protected local markets has stagnated. Yes, there is a little competition between instructors to win and keep private lesson clients—here reputation and individual skill and creativity do count. But since no ski school faces direct competition on its own hill, there is little or no pressure to deliver a better, more effective lesson.

If there were two ski schools in direct competition with each other at your favorite ski area, it wouldn’t take long for one of them to break ranks with the official business-as-usual approach to ski instruction and try to come up with a better lesson. And when they succeeded, to gain the maximum competitive advantage by trumpeting their successes. It’s hard to imagine that mediocre, ineffective ski instruction would long survive in such an environment. Nor would the local ski-lift company have to give up the lesson revenue that helps justify the expensive investment in modern ski-resort infrastructure. Separate and competing ski schools could co-exist under the financial and legal umbrella of the parent ski company, by the simple expedient of licensing ski schools as concessions with a fair fee structure that would return some of the profit to the ski company while leaving enough with individual ski schools to spur them on to become more successful. Such a system would introduce the currently missing element of entrepreneurial ambition into modern ski teaching. It would place a premium on successful innovation and experimentation. It would lead to far better ski teaching than we now see at most ski areas.

Wait a minute. It this really necessary? Is ski teaching really ?mediocre? and ?ineffective? as I seem to be claiming. Certainly that’s not the way the skiing press talks about instruction. We always read about the latest thing, the latest ?advance? in instruction, six new ways to carve a perfect turn, etc., etc. Magazine Pages are filled with color photo montages of the super stars of the ski-instruction world making brilliant turns (with detailed captions explaining that moving your center of mass laterally between figure c and figure d is the key that will unlock the awesome power of your new shaped skis). But contrast this media image with your own experience or that of your skiing friends. Have ski lessons really changed your ingrained skiing habits? A lot? A little? At all? (I’m reminded of magazines at the supermarket checkout stand that always tout new diets to shed unwanted pounds, while year by year Americans get heavier.) Despite a lot of goodwill, and some wonderfully talented, motivated and creative individual instructors, scattered here and there across our winter resort landscape, something is not working as well as it should in modern ski instruction. No one claims that skier numbers are growing (if not for snowboarders, total resort numbers would be shrinking). And why is that? No expert skier ever drops out of this sport of ours. The pleasure, the excitement, the freedom of skiing really well is too intense. I can only surmise that not enough beginners ever get there. Too often ski schools succeed only in offering their students the skills to cope and survive, rather than dance down mountains. I have an idea that real competition between ski schools might change that state of affairs. What do you think? _Ski Instruction, A New Paradigm
© Lito Tejada-Flores

Spring snow in New Zealand
photo © Linde Waidhofer