Thursday, May 20, 2010

Laura Learns to Ski

By Laura Van Arendonk Baugh

It is said, and rightly so, that instructors should continue to learn unfamiliar things so that they stay empathetic with their struggling students.  This week, I learned to ski.

I had been skiing before.  My first experience with the sport was in college, when my roommate and I (both ski-virgins) were taken to the slopes by our respective boyfriends, both experienced skiers.  To be specific, my boyfriend grew up at 8,000 ft and started working Ski Patrol as a teen.  This wasn't exactly a good starting match.

Jamie and I signed up for a lesson while the boys went off on their own.  We found that we were the only members of the ski class over the age of 8, and our male instructor was apparently greatly intimidated by having two females of his age in his group.  He coped by pretending we didn't exist, speaking only to the children, ignoring our questions, and never making eye contact with us.  Jamie and I finally reconciled ourselves to eavesdropping on his directions to the kids and copying them ourselves.  When our hour or two was up, we met the guys and went to apply what we'd learned.

It was disaster for me.  I tumbled down the hill time and time again, knocking myself hard in the head.  (This was before ski helmets were as popular as now.)  Once, Jon followed me down the slope and watched me splat across the hill.  As I blearily reoriented, Jon sped up and hockey-stopped inches from my face, spraying snow over me and laughing.

Yeah.  I did not learn much that trip.

I went skiing once or twice more, with Jon's family of avid skiers (I did marry the guy despite the ski incident), but I never really progressed beyond managing to stay upright on the bunny hill.  This year, however, Jon's parents decided that their Christmas gift to their kids would be a ski trip, and so off we went to the slopes.
Jon's parents are nice people, but we don't always speak the same language.  "You make a pizza pie," his father (another former Ski Patrolman) explained, "and then your left ski is cheese and your right ski is pepperoni, and you keep saying cheese and pepperoni as you go downhill."  Uh huh.  I had a sneaking suspicion that I could scream "cheese and pepperoni!" repeatedly and ineffectively as I bounced head over heels, scattering skis and gloves and goggles to the winds.

But I had a plan.  Last year I went ice skating for the first time, with a former figure skater friend who gave me instruction.  As she explained what I needed to do, I translated her words into TAGpoints in my head, verified them with her, and then tried to apply them.  The result was that I learned in a few skating sessions far more than I'd expected and surprised her as well, I think -- not that I was anywhere close to accomplished!  But I was proud of what I'd learned.  I wanted to do the same on this ski trip.

So I began translating, occasionally asking Jon for clarification.  "Pizza pie" became "inner wedge" in my head (form a triangle with the skis, weight on the inner edges).  I dropped the "cheese and pepperoni" metaphor for the image of pressing one heel downhill and then the other to start gradual turns.  "Ski with your feet" became "knees over toes."

The pizza metaphor is apparently a popular one in ski instruction, because I heard it screamed every time a novice blitzed past en route to a tumble or narrow escape.  "Pizza!  Pizza!" a parent or helpful friend would shout after them.  "Don't lean forward.  Don't lean.  Turn.  Turn!  TURN!"  Me, I was chanting my personal TAGpoints consciously and constantly.  "Knees over toes, knees over toes, knees over toes!"  This kept me upright, at least, and I started making at least a bit of distance between falls.  Then my coaches determined that I'd graduated to more challenging slopes, and "take the slope out of the mountain so you don't gain so much speed" became "ski horizontal (across the slope)."  I started to stay upright on whole green runs.  And then, "Face down the mountain so they can take your picture" became "chest downhill."

I tumbled down the mountain and landed splayed and laughing.  "I get it!" I called uphill to Jon.  "This is supposed to happen!"

Jon skied down to me.  "Increased criteria means a temporary drop in performance?"

"Yep!  See, when I know why this happens and that it's even supposed to happen, it's not frustrating!"

Yeah, we've both come a long way since that first ski lesson.

We reached the bottom of the slope and got in line for the lift.  Jon's dad helpfully advised, "You want to keep the weight off your uphill ski when you turn, because that's what's slowing your turn.  You need to face downward and push harder into the boots, and just keep it tucked in.  The angulation of the ski's edge to the snow is inversely related to the cosine of the Fibonacci number sequence...."

I started to lose track.  "What does keep it tucked in mean?"

"Don't worry about it," Jon interrupted.

"Knees over toes?"

"Knees over toes."

"I want you to TAG me," I told Jon.  "Just watch me and say a short 'yes' when I've got 'chest downhill.'"  And on the next run, he skied backwards a short distance from me (a skill I'd previously found infuriating) and tagged -- or didn't -- with each turn I made.  I think that was Jon's first experience tagging.  I fell only once on that run, a blue.  Whee!!  Progress!

As the afternoon went on, I found myself starting slopes without my TAGpoints, recalling them only when I started to run too hot.  When I did need them, I alternated points as necessary.  Being right-handed, I turned better to the right, so that TAGpoint was "chest downhill."  For left turns, where I still wasn't confident in turning aggressively, I dropped to the lower criteria of "knees over toes."  Then I gradually and unconsciously faded the TAGpoints altogether.

But I didn't fade the skills.  By the end of the day, I was running blues repeatedly without falling, in decent form and good control.  I was very proud of myself; though I'm still nowhere near their skill level, I'm at least capable of having a good time now.

Laura is a certified TAGteacher and an instructor with the Karen Pryor Academy for Dog Training and Behavior.


Reprinted with permission from Laura's blog at KarenPryrorClickertraining.com

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