Monday, December 20, 2010


I had a mostly great weekend teaching skiing. One thing probably stopped it from being perfect and I'll discuss that below.

There had been a decent amount of snow at the mountain during the week and more trails were open than a week ago. However, the natural snow trails were a little bit thin and the snow was of variable quality. It was nice to have new trails to spread out the crowds, but I knew the skiing conditions would be challenging.

After a couple warm-up runs on Saturday morning, we had a quick meeting. I found out that I'd be getting a new girl in my group, and I was happy about this. I enjoy getting to know the students well and skiing with them for multiple years in a row. But, this had been my first season ever where I'd gotten no new students. I thought that adding a new girl would be a nice change for the entire group.

It turned out that the new girl already knew one of the other girls in my group. All of the girls welcomed the new girl and we had a great morning. Because I had a girl that I'd never met before, we started on very easy terrain. The new girl had less experience than my other skiers, but she was athletic and had a great attitude. By mid-afternoon, I had the entire group on intermediate to low level expert terrain. The new girl was the last one down one particular run, and when she finished, she asked me why she was the slowest skier in the group. I had every other girl talk about how long they'd been skiing. I told the new girl that she was doing amazingly well given that everyone else had been skiing for much longer than her. She seemed happy with that explanation. And, the new girl wasn't a beginner. She is new to a ski school program and a lot of her skiing has been on a smaller mountain, but she has skied a lot.

At the end of the day, I felt it had been a great success. Sunday, I would try to build on that success.

I typically structure our ski day in a way that allows me to teach something and then let the group work with what I've taught. We start skiing at 9:30. We take a warm-up run and then on the second run, I do some teaching. We practice whatever it is that I'm teaching for our second and third runs. From the end of the third run until lunchtime, I use moderate terrain that allows the girls to use whatever I've taught. After lunch, we usually spend some time on more challenging terrain, mostly for the girls to have fun, but also so I can see what happen to their technique on tougher terrain. I give individual guidance to the girls in the second half of the day, but rarely do any formal teaching. A huge amount of skiing is really just practice, and if the girls had to listen to me all day long rather than skiing, I'd have a rebellion on my hands.

Yesterday at lunch, I was trying to think of appropriate challenging terrain for the afternoon. The new girl had handled everything just fine so far. Some of the other girls wanted to ski a double-black diamond bump run, but I knew this was inappropriate terrain for my new student. Safety comes first at all times.

I finally decided to use the easier part of a single-black diamond trail for our challenge. I expected some ice and moguls, but nothing much more difficult than what we'd done already. So, we headed to the summit, headed down an easy intermediate trail, and then took a side trail to the more challenging terrain. As soon as the new girl saw the trail, she expressed her concern that it was too steep. I told her it was no steeper than other terrain we had skied already, but it was a longer trail. My son mentioned to me later that this trail does have a unique feature compared to other trails we had been skiing. It is completely straight and you can look down the steep hill for a long way. I think my son was correct that the view was intimidating to my new student. We started skiing and found the terrain to be challenging. We had soft snow moguls separated by large patches of slick ice. The ice was intimidating to the new girl. It was intimidating to two other students as well, including my own daughter.

I stayed with the new girl, but it was clear she was scared. And, the more scared she got, the more her skills regressed. This in turn caused her to have less control. Which scared her more. You get the point. About halfway down the trail, she told me she couldn't do it. She wanted to take off her skis and walk down. Sometimes, this is a good exit strategy, but not with icy trails. Skis are much better than ski boots on icy terrain.

I must admit that I've never had a student have a meltdown like that. I felt terrible. After almost 30 minutes, we finished the trail. On the lower part of the trail, the pitch decreased, and I was glad to see my student relax and make some nice turns. When the group was finally all back together, I apologized to everyone. I had put a student into a scary situation and it had affected the entire group.

We skied a little bit more, took a break for some hot chocolate, and then spent some time just playing in the snow to wrap up the day.

I've continued to think about my decision-making. In hindsight, it's easy to say I made the wrong decision. Yet, in some respects, I think I'd make the same decision again. The snow conditions were worse than I'd expected. And, I hadn't skied that trail in the past week. So, I made a decision based on incomplete information. Yet, the conditions were well within the abilities of the entire group. Most of the group enjoyed the trail and I had numerous requests to ski it again. We didn't do that. Perhaps I should have spent more time with the girl, waiting until I knew her better before I challenged her like that. Perhaps I would have found a clue that she would become mentally unraveled by the terrain. But, the terrain was not that big a jump from other trails we'd skied. The view was certainly different though.

A few years ago, I was coaching the daughter of a good friend who has also been a mentor to me as a ski instructor. My group that day asked to ski a tougher trail than I'd planned. The request was unanimous, and my friend's daughter got hurt. It was a minor injury but a scary situation. Near the end of that season, my friend asked me about my decision-making that day. He asked what I would do if the same thing happened again. I told him that in hindsight, I would, of course, make a different decision. But, I told him that without knowing that hindsight, I'd make the same choice. I felt it had been an appropriate decision. He told me that he was glad I felt I'd made the correct decision.

The first word of the motto of the Professional Ski Instructors of America is "Safety". I take that very seriously. Yet, sometimes, things don't go the way I expect. And every time this happens, I get to think about my decision-making. And hopefully, I learn from these situations and become a better ski instructor. But, sometimes I wonder. If something doesn't go well, and later, I still think my decision was appropriate, there seems to be some sort of cognitive dissonance. Skiing is certainly a sport with risks, but my job is to reduce risk, not increase it.

I guess I'll be replaying yesterday in my mind for a long time.

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