Teacher's Pest

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Teacher's Pest

It was one of those epic days at a certain Western ski resort. Sunny skies, fresh powder and plenty of challenging steeps to test an expert's mettle. Bobby Murphy, now Telluride's Ski School director, was visiting the resort not as an instructor, but as a student, hoping to learn more about tackling tough terrain in a weekend extreme-skiing clinic.

The class arrived at the top of its first pitch, a gut-wrenching drop into rock-studded trees. This, the head instructor told them, would be the ski-off. By watching how each skier handled terrain this difficult, he'd know how to split the group by ability. Immediately, one skier stepped forward to go first. Without a trace of hesitation, he pushed off the cornice, the others in the group nodding in appreciation at his confidence. But ego is no substitute for ability, and while his instructor looked on in disbelief, the would-be extreme skier crashed in spectacular fashion before he'd completed two turns.

"He pitched over and fell headfirst, and he basically did a pinball down the first part of the headwall," says Murphy, who remembers feeling a combination of horror and worry. "Ping! Ping! Ping! Just bouncing off the trees and the ledges. Thank God all he did was blow out his knee. That guy didn't have the skill to be up there."Murphy's cautionary tale underscores the cardinal rule for getting the most out of your ski lesson: Be honest with your instructor about your ability.

There's no question a good lesson can make you a better skier, no matter how good you already are. But the manner in which you approach the experience makes all the difference. Take the following advice to heart before heading out for your next lesson, so you don't end up the butt of ski-school locker room lore.[NEXT "Check your ego at the base"]

Check your ego at the baseMurphy's story isn't unique. We all like to think we're pretty good skiers, but hubris can be a source of trouble. "That guy in the story didn't have the ability, but pretended he did," says Murphy. "Thank goodness it turned out OK—if you consider a blown knee OK."

And when it comes to pride, all the stereotypes apply, says Lexi Wauters, a 22-year veteran instructor and senior staff trainer at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort in Wyoming. "Unfortunately, it pretty much holds true that the guys tend to overestimate their ability and the women tend to underestimate it," she says. "The best idea is to just be honest. You're not heading out to a lesson to impress anyone; you're heading out there to learn ways to enjoy your ski experience more."

How can a skier be honest in a sport where, as one pro puts it, "We have two types: beginners and liars"? First, there's the issue of ability level. "When we ask what level people are, they think we're asking, 'How many times have you skied?'" says Bruce MacDonald, senior vice president of sports services at Wachusett Mountain, Mass. "We're not. There's an old saying: A bowling ball can go down a hill straight. What's important is your skill level."

And then there's the matter not of how well you ski, but of where you ski. "Out West, things can be different," says Murphy. "You can be a skier who skis a groomed black-diamond like a pro, and then you add 12 inches of powder and you're an intermediate. Or the blacks you always ski on one mountain might not be the same as the blacks on another."

MacDonald suggests thinking hard about what comes easily—and not so easily—to you before you take your lesson. If bumps scare you, let the instructor know. If it's a powder day and powder has always given you problems, speak up. It's about getting better, not about proving anything, says Wauters.

"The irony is, the person with the least ego in any given lesson is the instructor," she says. "You've just got to realize that the opportunities to look ridiculous on skis are ample. The less ego and the more self-deprecating humor you can have, the better off you are going to be. That's key to a gd lesson."

So is timing. Todd Casey, a veteran Copper Mountain, Colo., instructor, has one pet peeve in particular: when skiers take lessons at the end of a vacation, rather than the beginning. "They say they wanted to enjoy their vacation first, when a lesson at the start could have helped," he says. "Consider this: We instructors know the mountain inside and out. Use us. We can show you where to ski and how to ski the mountain. What a bummer to find that out on the last day."[NEXT "Equipped for success"]

Equipped for success

When it comes to the equipment that shows up for lessons, MacDonald has seen it all: two left boots, borrowed skis that only an expert could handle and, especially, the long, straight boards of yester-year. There's a certain type of skier out there who wears his straight skis like a badge of honor, even though they're only holding him back. Make an honest assessment of your gear before signing on for lessons. With slopeside demo programs and quality rentals available just about everywhere, there's no reason to settle for obsolete skis or ill-fitting boots.

"To be a part of the contemporary way of skiing, you need the new equipment,'" MacDonald says. "We don't need to look like Stein Eriksen any longer. We're all more relaxed and patient. The old way was to twist, jam and muscle everything. And while you might think that's the way to ski, if you allow yourself to be patient with the new equipment and the new way, you're going to have a breakthrough."

Telluride's Murphy agrees: "If your equipment came from a garage sale, it's a pretty safe call to say you need to rent some new stuff," he says. "It starts with safety. It's so important that your bindings meet today's standards. You could be putting yourself at risk with hand-me-downs. But it goes farther, too. There is so much more you can learn and do on the new equipment."

Ironically, up-to-date skis can cause trouble in the ego-check department. Since skiers on deeper sidecuts can learn more quickly, instructors sometimes struggle to accurately gauge their ability and decide which level they belong to. "In the old days, we knew who we had and where they had been," MacDonald says. But today it's easy to overestimate a novice. "There's so much to learn about a mountain as far as safety goes, and you have to be careful not to judge just because someone can turn the new equipment."

On top of that, instruction is now geared toward contemporary sidecuts and lengths. Take a learner and toss them on overlong skis, and the lessons just won't make sense. At Cranmore Mountain, N.H., the ski school has taken on this issue in an aggressive way. "Anyone who even shows up in the old stuff, we just give them a voucher and send them to the rental shop for a free demo," says Karen Dolan, director of the ski school there.

"Usually it's a case of skis they borrowed from a friend; the old ones the friend dug out of a closet."

Then there are those skiers who are just plain confused, like the one who showed up at Copper Mountain wearing shoes inside his overlarge ski boots so they'd fit. "We try to remember that this is new to people," says Casey. "They're out of their element." For that reason, he advises new skiers to ask, ask, ask. "There is no such thing as a stupid question."

And then there's the more obvious equipment: apparel. Dressing appropriately may seem like common sense to experienced skiers, but poor decisions can ruin a lesson. "We've had a man here in a teal woman's overcoat and jeans," MacDonald recalls. "We've had a silver one-piece fire suit, old army gear, a sweatshirt and sweatpants, you name it. And without gear that keeps you warm and dry and that you can move in, a lesson isn't worth much."

Ben Wilcox, General Manager at Cranmore, remembers one couple who showed up at the ski school desk raring to go, ready to head out for their first lesson. "The problem was this: They were in cowboy boots, designer jeans and tiny leather jackets. And they thought that was fine." Wilcox's solution? "We directed them to the tubing park."[NEXT "Find the right instructor/program match"]

Find the right instructor/program match

Jackson Hole's Wauters recalls this classic scenario: "I'm riding up the beginner lift, and there's a woman under the lift skiing—OK, stem-christying, and barely that—and she's talking out loud to herself. She's saying, 'I can't stand the snow. I'm going to fall. I hate this.' Everyone can hear her. Behind her I see a guy egging her on. Clearly he's trying to teach her. She showed up for lessons later that day with the guy nowhere in sight. She was much happier."

Yes, love may be blind, but it isn't deaf, particularly when it comes to learning to ski. At any level, pros advise, don't expect to be able to learn from a loved one. For starters, Wauters says, they're not trained instructors. But more important: "With all the emotion there, it becomes personal. It's a disaster waiting to happen."

So how do you find the right teacher? The first step is figuring out what kind of lesson appeals to you. "Look at the products the resort offers," says Wauters.

"Some people are great in group lessons—they like the camaraderie and seeing the mountain with a group and learning as a team. Others have very specific goals in mind, like learning bumps or looking for a breakthrough. They may like private lessons more. But the great thing out there now are the specialty camps, where you can get a real feel for what kind of instructor you are going to have based on the description of the program."Skiers should be blunt, say the pros. If you want a female or male instructor, speak up. If you know you are a slower learner who likes to pick over the details, let the ski school desk know. And if you absolutely do not like a certain type, let them know that as well. It's all about matchmaking.

But remember, even if you've found a good match, change is always good. "Even with PSIA training and technique, every pro puts their own personal spin on it," says MacDonald. "I think you find, at a higher level, each new instructor brings something new to the sport and helps you round it out."

And unlike stockbrokers, ski instructors don't take it personally when you try another instructor. They understand your need to move on.[NEXT "Be a blank slate"]

Be a blank slate

At Cranmore Mountain, Dolan can spot trouble the moment it walks up to the ski-school desk. "Usually, it's a guy who says something like, 'I raced in high school and I'm really good.' He hasn't skied in 10 years, but he knows everything. He's like, 'I can ski anything. Just give me a pair of 200s.'"

Dolan says guys like that are among the most difficult to rein in at a lesson. That's why the best thing you can bring to a lesson is an open mind and a willingness to listen. This can be particularly tough for more advanced skiers, instructors say. Learn to trust your pro and let them lead, whether it's choosing where you'll ski that day or deciding what you need to work on.

"When I go skiing, I don't go straight to the steepest trails," says Murphy. "I work the basics first. You need to remember that it's a lesson. If your instructor takes you to a groomed blue to work on technique, it's only going to help you once you get up to the steep stuff. Trust it. Look at the U.S. Ski Team and what they are doing to get to the success they are having now. They are really breaking it down in training. That kind of approach works."

Wauters concurs. "Most instructors are pretty good at figuring out where you're at and what type of learner you are," she says. "Let them have input."

And be patient. "You have to realize it takes a long time, particularly with experienced skiers, for changes to happen," says Wauters. "I know, for me, it sometimes takes more than a season to really own a new skill. So be patient. Give yourself a break. Eventually, what you're learning becomes just a part of ackets. And they thought that was fine." Wilcox's solution? "We directed them to the tubing park."[NEXT "Find the right instructor/program match"]

Find the right instructor/program match

Jackson Hole's Wauters recalls this classic scenario: "I'm riding up the beginner lift, and there's a woman under the lift skiing—OK, stem-christying, and barely that—and she's talking out loud to herself. She's saying, 'I can't stand the snow. I'm going to fall. I hate this.' Everyone can hear her. Behind her I see a guy egging her on. Clearly he's trying to teach her. She showed up for lessons later that day with the guy nowhere in sight. She was much happier."

Yes, love may be blind, but it isn't deaf, particularly when it comes to learning to ski. At any level, pros advise, don't expect to be able to learn from a loved one. For starters, Wauters says, they're not trained instructors. But more important: "With all the emotion there, it becomes personal. It's a disaster waiting to happen."

So how do you find the right teacher? The first step is figuring out what kind of lesson appeals to you. "Look at the products the resort offers," says Wauters.

"Some people are great in group lessons—they like the camaraderie and seeing the mountain with a group and learning as a team. Others have very specific goals in mind, like learning bumps or looking for a breakthrough. They may like private lessons more. But the great thing out there now are the specialty camps, where you can get a real feel for what kind of instructor you are going to have based on the description of the program."Skiers should be blunt, say the pros. If you want a female or male instructor, speak up. If you know you are a slower learner who likes to pick over the details, let the ski school desk know. And if you absolutely do not like a certain type, let them know that as well. It's all about matchmaking.

But remember, even if you've found a good match, change is always good. "Even with PSIA training and technique, every pro puts their own personal spin on it," says MacDonald. "I think you find, at a higher level, each new instructor brings something new to the sport and helps you round it out."

And unlike stockbrokers, ski instructors don't take it personally when you try another instructor. They understand your need to move on.[NEXT "Be a blank slate"]

Be a blank slate

At Cranmore Mountain, Dolan can spot trouble the moment it walks up to the ski-school desk. "Usually, it's a guy who says something like, 'I raced in high school and I'm really good.' He hasn't skied in 10 years, but he knows everything. He's like, 'I can ski anything. Just give me a pair of 200s.'"

Dolan says guys like that are among the most difficult to rein in at a lesson. That's why the best thing you can bring to a lesson is an open mind and a willingness to listen. This can be particularly tough for more advanced skiers, instructors say. Learn to trust your pro and let them lead, whether it's choosing where you'll ski that day or deciding what you need to work on.

"When I go skiing, I don't go straight to the steepest trails," says Murphy. "I work the basics first. You need to remember that it's a lesson. If your instructor takes you to a groomed blue to work on technique, it's only going to help you once you get up to the steep stuff. Trust it. Look at the U.S. Ski Team and what they are doing to get to the success they are having now. They are really breaking it down in training. That kind of approach works."

Wauters concurs. "Most instructors are pretty good at figuring out where you're at and what type of learner you are," she says. "Let them have input."

And be patient. "You have to realize it takes a long time, particularly with experienced skiers, for changes to happen," says Wauters. "I know, for me, it sometimes takes more than a season to really own a new skill. So be patient. Give yourself a break. Eventually, what you're learning becomes just a part of what you do out there."

And if you think your ski lesson is fodder for instructor locker room lore, fret not. Even if you feel silly about a mistake or gaffe, there's someone out there topping you. Consider a tale MacDonald loves to tell.

"We had four foreigners here—with an interpreter—who wanted to learn to ski. So I took them up on the beginner slope to start to work on technique, and through the interpreter, they said, 'We vant to go fast!' I explained they had to learn first. They pointed at the lift and said, 'We vant to ride the lift!' I explained that they should learn how to go down the hill first. They weren't liking that at all. Then a patroller goes by with someone in a toboggan, and what do they say? You've got it: 'We vant to ride the sled!'"

November 2005 of what you do out there."

And if you think your ski lesson is fodder for instructor locker room lore, fret not. Even if you feel silly about a mistake or gaffe, there's someone out there topping you. Consider a tale MacDonald loves to tell.

"We had four foreigners here—with an interpreter—who wanted to learn to ski. So I took them up on the beginner slope to start to work on technique, and through the interpreter, they said, 'We vant to go fast!' I explained they had to learn first. They pointed at the lift and said, 'We vant to ride the lift!' I explained that they should learn how to go down the hill first. They weren't liking that at all. Then a patroller goes by with someone in a toboggan, and what do they say? You've got it: 'We vant to ride the sled!'"

November 2005

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