Psychoadaptation in skiing

As a ski instructor, my greatest joy comes when I see an absolute beginner complete a straight run down a gentle grade in our learning area. At my home mountain, we start our beginner lessons by having our students make straight runs. A straight run is a brief run without turning, and with the skis parallel pointing straight downhill. We instructors complete the straight runs first to demonstrate the correct stance and to assure our students that they will come to a complete stop without crashing into some obstacle.
A straight run is the first of a series of tasks we have students complete before we take them to the magic carpet (moving walkway but for skis) and our perfect slope. Students vary in their ability to progress, though. At times this variation is due to physical limitations. However, for most of my students, the biggest problem I have noticed is fear.
Fear is a major barrier to learning to ski well. I recently concluded that one cannot learn to ski until one knows how to ski. This is a play on the saying that one cannot make money unless one has money. The latter means that to enrich oneself financially, one must have money to invest. With respect to skiing, this means that one cannot truly begin to master the sport until one can ski freely, free of fear that is.
Mastering fear is a long and slow process. Perhaps the main provoker of fear is steepness. Some people are extremely afraid of steeps. A second is terrain, including trees and moguls. A third is snow conditions, varying from icy to slushy. To master these different situations requires exposure and a change in how one conceives of the self as a skier; psychological adaptation or psychoadaptation.
Psychoadaptation in skiing requires a change in how conceives of the self with respect to the fear-provoking factors. With respect to steepness, as one progresses from relatively flat terrain to higher levels of steepness, one must manage one’s psycho-physiologic response to steeps. While the danger of hurting oneself is real, what differentiates a skier who can dive into the steeps freely from one who wedges herself down is confidence in one’s technique and the belief that one can control the self, including one’s skis.
In skiing, one’s skis become a part of the self. Imagine being able to remove a part of your Self at any time you need and put it back on as necessary. Perhaps this is why I feel so strongly about how people handle their skis. For instance, one of the first lessons I teach is how to carry one’s skis. Indeed, it hurts me in a seemingly personal fashion, when I see people holding their skis upside down, tips on the ground. Skiing has become a part of who I am, so damaging equipment is like hurting me personally.
I treat myself well, because I care for myself. Therefore, I treat my skis and skiing with respect because the skis and the sport have become a part of my self. Moving up the steepness ladder required me to become comfortable with skis and technique. This required me experiencing a great deal of disequilibrium. I started skiing seriously seven years ago. At the time, I was afraid of the easiest green trails. My son, however, a fourth grader at the time, would dive headlong into increasingly harder terrain. To keep him motivated about skiing, I decided that I would not allow him to witness my fears. So, if he ever showed any fear of terrain, I’d do the run first even when I was seriously scared. Thus, I had to dive into steeper terrain so that he could dive into steeper terrain. I experienced tremendous disequilibrium indeed. However, I didn’t want him to see it, so I suppressed it.
Interestingly, with time, my son has become an outstanding skier. As such, he is now pushing me to ski steeper terrain everywhere we go. Now, I have very little fear of steepness. It is this lack of fear of terrain and speed, which comes with steepness, that has allowed me to start learning to ski for real.
Learning to ski requires knowing how to ski. Once my beginners make their straight runs, I have them learn to turn. Some manage this task well, whereas others fail completely. Those who fail keep going straight, unable to comprehend what it means to manage one’s skis. The reason for this in my view is a failure to maintain the appropriate stance. The reason for failing to maintain stance is inability to trust one’s Self on skis. When skiers feel comfortable, their shins are tight against the tongue of their boots with ankles flexed, their hips are forward with femurs vertical, their arms are in front of their torsos, and eyes forward. Afraid skiers sit back on their skis and lack control.
Sitting back on one’s skis is what differentiates the good skier from the not so good skier. I fall in the latter class. Despite being a good teacher for beginners, once I get on steeper slopes or am skiing in conditions I haven’t mastered yet, I experience tremendous disequilibrium which precludes my ability to dive into the slope. This has been my biggest task for this year. I’m working hard on mastering position. The results are starting to come in. First, whenever I am not skiing steeps, I go to a mild trail and work on my stance. I work hard to push my pelvis forward. I work on skiing on my outside ski during turns, lifting the rear of my inside ski off the snow. I work on not overly rotating my upper body. This I am hoping will translate to better positioning on steeps and slushy snow.
I also train to race. Sometimes ski racing is easy, when the terrain is gentle, and the snow is nice. More often, though, the terrain is steep and there are ruts that to me look like Everest. Those conditions frighten me. Frankly I prefer icy conditions on steeper race slopes than slush. Consequently, when those conditions occur, I tend to sit back on my skis which throws of entirely my ability to control my skis well especially during turns. This year, thanks to my motivation and lots of helpers, I have started to master skiing into the slope on steeps using the appropriate stance; it’s a long and slow process.
Allowing one’s Self to improve requires a commitment to modify the Self. It requires a loosening of one’s control of the Self (not self-control). This is consistent with psychoadaptation, which requires a fluid sense of Self. Once I loosened my grip on my Self, I asked others to evaluate me. This is difficult for those whom place too much value on maintaining self-esteem. William James wrote that self-esteem is the ratio of successes to pretensions. To improve one’s self-esteem, he hypothesized, one must lower one’s pretensions in areas one cannot succeed in at the time. This means having a fluid sense of Self. For me, instead of making claims such as I am a good skier, I had to allow others to evaluate me fairly, and I had to allow myself to experience the concomitant disequilibrium, no matter how much it hurt. I had to conclude, I am not a good skier.
I have met so many great people on my skiing adventure. Teachers and fellow students, competitors, and strangers have all given me advice. For instance, to keep my body forward down the slope on steeper terrain, one fellow ski racer taught me these side slipping drills in which the torso faces down the fall line while the skis are across the hill. Flattening the skis allows for the side slipping. When I first tried this, I realized that despite my ability to ski steep terrain without much fear, I was afraid. I thought I was able to ski steeper terrain without fear, but I wasn’t. Thus, to improve the way I view my Self, I had to re-calculate that pretension. This indeed was James’s prescription for improving self-esteem; eliminate faulty pretensions and higher self-esteem will follow.
The drills have been very helpful. My fear manifested when I had a hard time flattening my skis. To do that I’d have to shift my weight over the downhill ski. I guess I was afraid of doing that; I didn’t want to be out of control. Digging my edges into the snow felt comfortable, whereas flattening my skis was frightening. I’ve been working hard on that on steeper terrain and now I am starting to side slip well. I am even moving my uphill ski forward, rotating my hip correctly to be in the correct position with my coat zipper facing downhill. Disequilibrium resulted in a need to reevaluate my self-conceptions of me as a skier. This resulted in my seeking advice from more advanced skiers and teachers; I allowed my Self to be vulnerable. I then took that advice and practiced hard and continue to practice hard. Although I don’t see myself as a good skier yet, I am feeling more confident about my ability each time I’m out on the slopes.
Allowing one’s self to progress toward higher levels requires accepting vulnerability. People don’t like to feel vulnerable. For that reason, few progress to higher levels of competence in sport, academics, their careers, interpersonal relationships, and other endeavors. Having a fluid sense of self is key to adapting to novel constraints. In psychoadaptation, there is an acknowledgement of the importance of experiencing disequilibrium by allowing for vulnerability as one approaches and adapts to novel constraints. Constraints, the rules governing adaptation, change constantly, whether one moves to a different endeavor or progresses in a current skill. For the beginner in skiing, vulnerability has been accepted to some degree. One cannot feel but vulnerable the first time one tries something new. Anyone seeking to learn something has accepted this pact with a fluid Self. However, keeping the Self fluid beyond day one is what differentiates the individual committed to success from the pretender.
In skiing, psychoadaptation occurs when one allows one’s self to be vulnerable. One can certainly challenge the Self by pushing one’s Self to steeper terrain. Lots of people do that in their first few trips. That’s not a good idea, but it keeps ski patrol busy and emergency rooms in business I suppose. A better way to challenge the Self is to make a date with vulnerability by allowing experts to manage one’s progress in a rational and well developed way. The fluid Self is the Self that has mastered vulnerability by allowing for vulnerability to be an intricate part of the Self.
My last lesson went really well. Three of my five students were progressing quickly up our beginner terrain. Two of the students had a harder time. One of the five fell quite a few times going down our banked turns. His problem was that he didn’t know how to handle speed. Each time a turn is initiated, speed increases momentarily as the skis are pointed downhill, until one completes the turn and the skis are either pointed across the hill or even slightly uphill. As expected, the moment the speed increased, his stance shifted backwards to his seat. He lost control of his skis and fell. Often when I leave such students after a lesson and return an hour or so later, they are skiing well down the terrain they believed they couldn’t handle earlier. This is a sign of adaptation. They have allowed themselves to experience the vulnerability of the fluid Self. They listened to the instructors and practiced the skills taught, and they practiced even more after that. As a result, the next time I see them they are not only skiing, but they’ve achieved a higher conception of Self; a Self that can ski. It remains to be seen what will happen next, but they are firmly on their path to becoming a skier.
Training is fun. I love training. I enjoy it as much as others enjoy skiing casually down a nicely groomed slope. Sometimes I wish I could be ignorantly progressing through life without challenging myself as most people do. Then I try for a while and hate it. I love learning and improving myself. The challenges I undertake, whether in skiing, statistics, tennis, or giving presentations, have made every moment of my life a joy to live. Yes, I have experienced much disequilibrium doing so. However, my life is all about having a fluid sense of self, allowing myself to experience vulnerability and disequilibrium. The beauty of this life is that I am starting to be able to adapt to a greater variety of situation but experiencing less disequilibrium than before. In fact, I experience the oceanic feeling quite frequently; the feeling that one has lost the boundary between the Self and the non-Self. I’ll write about that more some other time.