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A Starter on the Slopes - and What You Can Learn From It!

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I have the pleasure of writing this post in a beautiful town called ‘La Rosiere’, a fantastic ski resort nestled high up in the French Alps.

I’m here with my two good friends Ryan and Pete, celebrating Ryan’s 30th birthday, all of us rookies on the slopes, with a day each of prior practice one way or another.

In the build up to our trip, I opted to not take any indoor snowboarding lessons, partly because I have been too busy to take a day out, and partly due to thinking I wouldn’t need any (hindsight is a wonderful thing!)

Pete on the other hand, invested in a few lessons prior to arrival, mastering the basics. Ryan is one of those annoying friends that are just good at every sport, very natural.

I think it’s fair to say that when it came to snowboarding this week, I would be your classic case of ‘all the gear but no idea.’

  • Wristguards – Check
  • Knee braces – Check
  • Two way radio’s – Check
  • Go pro camera – Check

So off I went on the slopes with Ryan and Pete, naïve to the struggles I was about to face. Falling over was inevitable, and plenty of that occurred as I tried to figure out exactly what I was supposed to do. Within a short period of time I had become pretty adept at staying upright, starting and stopping and moving to the LEFT.

But here lies the problem, I couldn’t move or turn to the right. Not at all. I had no clue how to transfer my weight, and to be honest didn’t have the courage to try. Here’s where the excusesstarted, blaming my natural knee alignment, position of my feet in the bindings, even the board!

The only way I could move to the left was to keep my body forwards so the board wasn’t facing the correct direction. Nevertheless we decided it was time to go up the chair lift and give it a bash.

I became pretty good at getting down the slopes without falling over excessively, but the problem isI was doing it all wrong! I wasn’t snowboarding properly, I had adapted a style which was safe but not technically correct. There was no future progression at all with this poor technique. I was inawe of all the boarders performing slalom turns, drifting the back edge out, and all I could do was ‘feather’ myself down the slope facing one direction.

I had developed a bad habit, and couldn’t feel how I would ever be able to turn my board sideways on to the slopes.

Ryan and Pete were already rather proficient, so in conjunction with feeling a little deflated about my lack of technique, I now felt like I was falling behind. But it gets worse. Ryan and Pete both wanted to help, and in came the ‘feedback frenzy’. I was bombarded with coaching points (all valid I’m sure) but there were far too many things to think about, none in harmony with another or consistent in the approach.

Frustration + lack of self esteem + feedback frenzy = A very unhappy Nick

There was only one thing left to do. Take a lesson from a professional. So off I went to the ski school to book in a 90 minute session with Yann.

That was the best 60 Euros I could have spent, and I only wish I had done it sooner, particularly when I know the importance of mastering basics prior to learning skills!

Yann was a professional coach, and immediately put me at ease. He built rapport before the session by asking questions to get to know me and my level of experience.

After a short 5 minute ride up the chair lift, Yann had me perform numerous drills and progressions, following a short discussion on some basic mechanics (position of centre of mass, body posture etc.)

For each drill/progression, he first explained WHAT I would be doing and HOW, then showed me a couple of demonstrations, before asking me to perform it.

We repeated this process several times, occasionally changing the drills but often keeping them the same. Yann continued to remind me of the technical points, showing me demonstrations and continually asking that I understood. He did this over and over again. Repetition was key. You see, Yann understands the importance of excellent communication and ensuring his student is clear on instructions.

In short, I finished my 90 minute session with Yann competent enough to turn both ways, 180o and 360oIt’s amazing what the right guidance can do.

The last few days has reinforced some key coaching tips for me:

  1. Who you take advice from matters; you can’t discount expertise. Are you seeking advice from professionals who have the industry experience to take you to where you need and want to be?
  2. Sometimes taking one step backwards will allow you to take many steps forwards.Are you stuck with your athletes? Would you benefit from breaking a skill down before building it back up?
  3. It is far easier, faster and safer to master basics first, prior to performing skills. Skipping key stages will result in bad habits and inconsistent performance.
  4. ‘The greatest problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place.’ Do your athletes have clarity on exactly what you are asking of them? Do they know what it is supposed to look like? Feel like? Are you asking them questions to test their understanding and reinforce learning?
  5. Confident kids perform better! Are your athletes frustrated or showing a lack of self-esteem? What can be done to alleviate this?

Interestingly, this is the first time in a LONG time that I have received any coaching, and therefore received feedback, instruction and advice on something technical.

Are you receiving coaching at all?

Being on the RECEIVING end of coaching, instead of the PROVIDER is a very different experience and puts a lot of perspective on our role as coaches. I would thoroughly recommend that anybody who is not receiving coaching should give it a whirl. Even just a quick lesson in a basic sport. Reflect from the experience, what did you like about the instructor? What didn’t you like? What could have been done to improve your understanding?

Suddenly, rapport building, communication and encouragement becomes far more significant to you, just like it is significant to your athletes each and every day.

I’m about to head out on the slopes for day 3, optimistic that I can retain my learning from my session with Yann yesterday. I have several drills and progressions that I can now perform to ‘recap’ on the basics and am sure it will be a great day!

Who you take advice from matters. Respect the importance of basics.

Happy Easter!


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Comments (5)

Good post Nick which brings us all back to reality. I think that it is a really good move for all coaches to learn a new skill from a zero start point every so often. Your key coaching tips summarise what we should all be doing.
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Really enjoyed reading that Nick. Thanks for sharing!
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Potentially slightly off topic but I have always been intrigued by the approach taken by Ski Instructors in coaching. What you have described there is absolutely textbook, but usually what you see on the slopes is that they demonstrate and everyone else simply copies by following their tracks.

This generally goes against what we preach in England, but it seems that this method really works (Otherwise surely they wouldn't use it?). Would be interested in hearing any opinions on this :)
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The idea of going back to basics works at all levels. I recently held a video clinic for (relative) beginners at bowls. They were able to look at, and self-criticise, their own deliveries and consequent problems (with a little prodding). Sitting in on the session was a recently qualified coach, who wanted to learn how to conduct the session. A few days later, he came up to me and said that, as a result, he had taken his own game back to basics and had finally sorted a delivery problem he had been having trouble with!

However, I will confess to having done an experiment with this particular group of beginners. They signed up for 5 sessions of coaching, to culminate in a "match" with other club members. For the first two sessions, they were given NO coaching (difficult for some of the coaches to cope with!) So, as far as possible, NO basics were mentioned.

The only information given was an explanation of the bias on a bowl, as this is something that is not terribly obvious to a novice. They were then set a series of different novelty games and left to their own devices to score as many points as possible. (OK, so the exercises were designed to cover different aspects of the game, but they weren't to know that ...) By moving the focus from an obsession with stance, grip on bowl, etc, and focussing purely on getting a score, the effect was remarkable. Instead of seizing up in a panic about where their feet were, and was their hand right?, etc, the majority relaxed and enjoyed the challenge! So, we had virtually no mention of the basics until session 3, by which time the group was quite happy to be "encouraged" to think about the fundamentals. The coaching team were impressed and surprised by the results, and we will be repeating this approach with the next group.

I realise that this approach may not transfer easily to other sports, but too much information too soon can result in overload!
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Great post, great comments. Roman, on yours, my children have just had a week's skiing tuition with 2 brilliant instructors. They have been skiing a few times before so are fairly proficient, but have always had large group lessons with 10+ kids. This time the friends we went with organised small group lessons, so all three of my boys were in groups of only 3 for their lessons. Result - they improved more than any other year. The question is how much is that down to the instructor, how much is it down to numbers and more individual attention, and how much is it down to their increased commitment/engagement/enthusiasm to improve? Interestingly the instructors were experienced, lovely, interested in the kids and seemed to go above and beyond. They earnt the children's respect very quickly. Like you have experienced, large group lessons for my kids have previously involved lots of following down the slopes, but this time round it appeared there was a lot more breaking things down, instant feedback, adapting from set drills, etc, alongside the usual demonstrating then following.
We all know from a coaching perspective that one on one/small groups can achieve more than large group sessions in terms of individual improvement, but the smaller the group, the more important the personalities are, and the more difficult it can be to keep it fun. Luckily for my boys, this was achieved this week!
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