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Of Liberty-bodices and Learning

Last season a woman emailed me about skiing off-piste and such. It set me to thinking, as I chain-sawed my way through a recently fallen oak, preparing fuel wood for the year after next, and prior to sewing myself into my liberty-bodice for the winter.

The import of her missive was that she has not been getting from her skiing that to which she feels entitled. She may well be right.

And what is it, you may ask, to which she is entitled? Enjoyment and a feeling of self-fulfilment, that’s what. And what is denying her that? A lack of progress at the kind of skiing she aspires to.

My enquirer reports that she is not making progress, and here’s the rub; this is despite (she said) the fact that she has been skiing with much better skiers than herself, some of whom are instructors or aspirant instructors, and who keep taking her off-piste, to places in which she feels uncomfortable. They maintain that this will give her plenty of opportunity to develop her skiing.

Those who know me, will be unsurprising that I sat casting my hands into the air and being grumpy. What she will get good at is her reactions to the overly-challenging circumstances. She will NOT get good at improving.

Anxiety kills learning

The experience of this lady exemplifies perfectly a depressingly common misconception that in order to get better at some aspect of a ‘risk’ sport that you are currently no good at and are fearful of, (or anything else actually, never mind sport) - the thing to do is to repeatedly immerse yourself in the fear that you feel, by going into the terrain that you have already proved you can’t handle yet. Such fun!

This is just plain silly. The tacit idea underlying this approach is that it will constitute a kind of aversion therapy and you will get used to the terrain and the conditions, and by repeatedly wallowing about in it, will somehow get good at it. Well you will, it just depends on what you mean by “it”.

What you are actually doing is to increasingly embed your feelings of fear, apprehension, anxiety, lack of self confidence, lack of self belief, and feelings of inadequacy when comparing yourself with others. This latter activity is best avoided anyway, because no matter how good you get, there’s always someone better. If you're the fastest gun in the West, watch out, because there'll be a faster one coming round the corner some time soon.

John Shedden, myself, and coaches from a host of other sports have established beyond any possibility of contradiction that you will not learn to perform better while afraid or anxious; which anxiety need be no more than just that you “feel bad about holding up the others”. You are not responsible for the quality of their day. They are.

How do you know learning is occurring?

Learning cannot be observed, all we can do is to deduce that it has occurred by observing a permanent(ish) change in behaviour. Change is never easy; in circumstances that over-face you, it is impossible; all you will do is to embed your existing behaviours (in this instance, the skiing movements you make, and have proved don’t work too well) ever more intractably.

The “macho” idea of the gung-ho merchants - and it is frighteningly common - is that so long as you keep chucking yourself down something horribly steep, or deep, or bumpy, or long, or unpredictable, you are bound to get good at it aren’t you? No, you are not. You will simply get more and more anxious, and have less and less fun.

If you want to get good at skiing moguls, go find a small one – the very lowest one on the bump slope. Learn how to ski that. Then find two small ones and learn how to ski them. And so on. Do not find the longest, largest, steepest, scariest mogul field and keep falling down it; what you will get good at, is falling down it.

Be gentle with yourself, don’t expect the learning process to be quick; if it were easy and you could learn it quickly you would probably be disappointed anyway, and go and take up bee-keeping. Your peers probably did not find it easy either, and even if they did it doesn’t make them any better than you; for sure there’ll be something you find easy to learn and they don’t.

The whole point of the courses I run, on or off-piste, is to make it acceptable for you to embrace the idea of learning by just a small increment at a time, not moving on until you are skilful at each stage.

For example, the best place to learn to be skilful with the techniques you need off-piste is, believe it or not, on piste. Learn them there, and only then take them into a bit of off-piste, near the piste, to check out if you've got them yet; then back to the piste for to practice them and embed, in safety.

If all you do is “try” hard stuff all the time, and find either no progress or not much, remember Homer Simpson’s wise observation “ Hmmm trying - the first step on the road to failure”!

So to really begin improving your skiing, cast off the liberty-bodice of anxiety and trying too hard, and embrace the diaphanous nightie of one easy step at a time.

Hah!- we laugh in the face of winter, and put snowballs down the underpants of fear.

Good luck – take it easy.

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