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Well they're not really and they certainly don't need to be but sometimes it can seem like this! You ski along like a dream on a beautifully groomed piste and then, suddenly out of nowhere there are bumps (ice, a steep section - whatever your nemesis may be!)... What do you do?
Ski lessons are not just the reserve of beginners and kids, they are for everyone. I know what you’re thinking - she’s a ski instructor of course she would say that! But really let’s face it, World Cup skiers, i.e. world class athletes in the trade, go out and train, they have coaches who put them through their paces and they tweak their technique and tactics to improve and are always striving to be better. We can probably all admit they are rather better down the slopes than us, and yet they still strive for improvement. So why do us mere mortals stop having lessons?
OK, not a completely fair comparison! After all it is their job and there is the element of competition to consider. I understand that you are on holiday, that you maybe only have one week a year on the slopes, that you are happy & comfortable in your skiing zone. But let’s look at the facts - ski lessons can help you, in numerous ways, to get so much more out of your day/week/season…
For beginners I would suggest that lessons are non-negotiable. Get your ski career off to the best possible start by learning the basics properly - this will stand you in very good stead for your future skiing, making things so much more enjoyable. You will certainly learn faster in proper lessons than trying to teach yourself and with a good basic grounding the progression that follows will be much easier to achieve. A good plan would also be to have a taster lesson or two at a UK indoor slope to get you started - it is also a good way to see if skiing is for your before forking out for what can be quite an expensive holiday.
I would also suggest kids get lessons, whatever their level - I do for my kids as I find that they just don't want to listen to Mummy! And then the skiing that we do together is actually fun!
But, as I said above, lessons are not just for beginners and kids. Read on to find out why you should take lessons whatever your level...
This is generally what people think of first when considering ski lessons. When I ask what a client wants to get out of their session with me, a common response is “to look more stylish” or “to improve my technique”. This is multi-faceted. I believe that to improve your technique you need to understand the “whys” and “hows” of skiing. Only if you fully understand what you are doing and why you are doing it will you make long lasting improvements. If you just follow the instructor around and smile & nod at everything they say you might struggle to replicate your progress when skiing alone - even if you do everything you have been taught. You need to make sure you are not just following a set of instructions by rote, but actually applying them to a given situation and feeling what is happening under your skis/feet/legs. Make sure you ask questions if you need clarification - we are here to help.
Hone your technique. Better technique, and a better understanding of that technique, will result in a more efficient use of energy resources which will lessen muscle fatigue and soreness at the end of the day. Understand your equipment and how to work with, rather than against, it. If you haven’t had a lesson since the days of long, straight skis then you are seriously missing a trick as things have most certainly moved on, in a good way. Not only will you get more out of your day, you will also still have the energy for that après drink, maybe even some dancing on the tables! And still be raring to go the following morning. And let’s not forget that fatigue can contribute to injury, so if you are less tired then you will also be less likely to make avoidable errors which may result in injury.
Learn new techniques. Skiing is not a “one size fits all” sport. You need to tweak your actions/reactions and constantly adapt to the changing terrain. I’m not sure who first said that “skiing is a series of linked recoveries” but it is very true. You are on a pair of slippery planks on a slippery surface with gravity helping you on your way! And you are expected to keep your balance, and remain on your feet, the entire time! There are lots of different ways to ski, each one matching a different goal - smooth groomed pistes, deep powder bowls, bumps fields or patches of ice. You may not go out looking for these things but rest assured you will find them! Even a green run can become a mogul field if there has been a lot of snow and there are enough people around. Having the skills & knowledge to deal with all eventualities will give you the confidence to tackle things head on. Better technique, and a box of tricks you can whip out when needed, will make skiing a joy not a chore & you will feel more confident all over the slopes.
By having regular lessons you will maintain good habits, rather than developing bad ones! Skiing is counterintuitive: maintaining pressure on the outside ski (left to turn right and right to turn left), looking & leaning down the hill (when you will naturally want to turn the other way), keeping weight forward in the boot (when all you want to do is step on the heels to stop). You need to override every survival instinct in your body to do things the “right” way and for that reason it is helpful to have someone giving the correct advice and reassuring you that it is, in fact, the best way to do things (even if your brain is screaming NO!).
A good instructor will help you with your technique, for sure, but let’s not forget about the psychological side of skiing too. Looking down a steep/busy/bumpy/icy piste or dealing with bad visibility can be daunting for anyone. It may even be a piste that you are familiar with and have skied a thousand times - but with a change in the conditions it takes on a whole new dimension. This can make our heads play havoc with our descent and all sorts of crazy things will start to happen under our feet! Tactics are just as important as technique. Take those little hints & tips from your instructor on board. Looking ahead, planning, keeping to the side… Add another layer to your toolbox that can be whipped out at any time to stop the panic setting in.
If your confidence has taken a bash a good instructor can help piece it back together again. Technique & tactics are important for this. But in addition to this instructors will, generally, have a wealth of experience behind them. Take things at your own pace rather than bombing around with friends. It may seem like a good idea to ski with your group of family/friends, and if they are better skiers than you you may think that it will help you improve. However, skiing with better skiers all day can really dent your confidence as you play “keepy uppy”, worrying about holding everyone up and skiing too fast on slopes too steep for your ability. This can result in very defensive (and even dangerous) skiing - think back seat and braking snowploughs. To really improve you need to work on new ideas on gentle slopes to try things out within your comfort zone and get a feeling for the movements before moving them onto more challenging terrain. I often hear people say that they don’t 100% trust their partner, friend, etc. not to take them somewhere totally unsuitable - this puts people on the back foot from the start, always ready to throw their toys out of the pram as it were! An instructor is there for you, to help you ski the best you can not to ski where they want to go on a given day. Clients will, normally, put their trust in the instructor to take them to suitable runs and happily follow on - and it is so much easier to follow someone who is skiing at your pace and making smooth, round turns. Following like this takes one element of decision making, as well as some fear, out of the day and helps build confidence back up.
4) MAINTAIN RELATIONSHIPS WITH FRIENDS & FAMILY
Leave instruction to the professionals. There are many well meaning friends & relatives out there who feel they can pass on their skiing knowledge and teach their nearest & dearest, especially if they are competent skiers. However, they have not been through years of training and do not have the background experience that professional instructors have. We have been put through our paces in our own technical skiing (ensuring that clients have a good model to emulate), technical understanding of skiing and our ability to convey this knowledge to teach others. Us instructors are used to skiing with a range of people of all levels (both skiing and confidence) and are able to adapt accordingly - terrain, delivery of information, speed etc. We will instinctively know the best slopes for you (and the best routes down them), the areas of technique you most need to change, or indeed if tactical knowledge would be more useful to you in the first instance. Friends/relatives are used to skiing around the mountain without taking a huge amount of notice of how steep, icy, busy etc a piste can be. They may, totally unwittingly, take you right outside your comfort and ability zone and crush your confidence. All in good faith BUT using a professional can certainly help maintain relationships! In addition, as I mentioned above, the instructor is there for you, to take things are your pace and they will not resent being on the nursery, green, blue etc pistes on a bluebird powder day! I would guarantee that an instructor’s patience will far outweigh that of family/friends when it comes to teaching. Rather than getting frustrated at waiting for you, or if you don’t understand/recreate a move at the drop of a hat an instructor will have the knowledge and experience to rephrase things to help you. Let your family/friends blast off their energy while you have a lesson and then come together afterwards to share some ski moments together.
5) FIND YOUR WAY AROUND
Booking an instructor can also be a good way to get the lay of the land in a new resort. Find out how things link together so you don’t get lost or stuck. Find good routes around the resort on suitable runs and you could even ask the instructor to point some out some good vs not so good runs on the piste map to help you throughout your holiday. A bit of insider knowledge goes a long way, especially in a resort like Val d'Isere where there can be a few surprises on even the easiest marked runs.
6) TRY NEW THINGS
If you are an experienced skier, happy & confident on all colours of runs, why not book an instructor to introduce you to something new - take on the challenge, it will be worth it. Bumps? Carving? Off-piste? Ski touring? All these “genres” require a specific set of tools (and in the case of off-piste & touring a specific knowledge set to keep you safe), which an instructor will be able to help you build up, as well as being able to find you the perfect slopes to make the progression. If you are going off-piste then please, please hire an instructor/guide and make sure you have all the appropriate equipment/know how to use it - safety first.
WHAT TYPE OF LESSONS TO LOOK FOR?
These are definitely the best way to make progress as the instructor can tailor sessions directly to you & your aims and focus on you alone. Or even a small group of friends/family who ski at a similar level/have similar goals.
These are, obviously, a more economical way to take lessons as costs will be shared amongst the group. Do remember, however, that in group lessons people may have different aims and the instructor needs to work to keep the whole group happy. That said, a good instructor will still be able to adapt and work with people on an individual basis, depending on your needs & wants BUT there will be less individual time per person available. Look for schools that keep maximum group numbers small.
For beginners to early intermediates the classes will focus on developing techniques to help you tackle different slopes around the resort. For solid intermediates to advanced skiers you could choose classes with a more specific focus, such as bumps, carving and off piste.
HOW MANY LESSONS WILL YOU NEED?
Well now there’s a question!
For beginners I would recommend a lesson each day of your holiday - half the day in a lesson and half the day practicing.
For early intermediates ditto, maybe with a rest day in the middle of the week. For better intermediates I would suggest 3 half day sessions.
For advanced skiers I would say it is a good idea to keep things fresh - take your first day to find your "ski legs" and then have at least one “brush up” lesson each time you come on a skiing holiday. However, do remember that it is extremely difficult for an instructor to tell you EVERYTHING there is to know about skiing, ski technique, tactics etc in one single session. That would also be far too much for you to take on in one hit. Book two or three lessons, especially if you want to learn something new. It is best to try to tackle things one at a time - practice, consolidate and then come back for more. It can, at times, be tricky to disentangle all the elements of skiing as they are, in the main, inextricably linked. Make sure you do your “homework”, i.e. go away and practice the new ideas you have been introduced to. Ski technique, like so many other things, becomes habit - you get used to doing the same things through their continuous repetition - “practice makes permanent not perfect”, you need to be practicing the right thing. The only way to change old habits is to keep practicing new ones and, in time, these new habits will be stronger than the old ones. Don’t be disheartened if this doesn’t happen over night, it will take time and you need to persevere. I promise it will be worth it!
Remember ski instructors really do want to help. We really, really want you to improve, to love skiing more and have “eureka” moments as well as having some take home ideas and techniques to practice.
Book lessons early to avoid disappointment, especially in the school holiday weeks.
For beginners ski lessons really are not optional - you will learn much faster if you take lessons making your holiday more enjoyable.
Have regular “brush up” sessions to maintain good skiing habits and stop bad habits creeping in.
Leave tuition to the professionals, however competent your friends and family are on skis.
Don’t think that speeding around with family/friends all day will help you improve, you will likely discover a range of “survival” tactics rather than good skiing technique.
Have a “guiding” session to find your way around a new resort.
If you are going off-piste please book an instructor/guide. Safety first - from avalanches and from wrong turns. You will also learn what equipment you need and how to use it.
If you want to try something new then an instructor will give you the best start.