3 Lessons Skiing Taught Me About Learning

Posted on July 4, 2012 by


Beginning of the Story

I learned how to ski as an adult.  I had been a couple times in my teens but it was sporadic and I wasn’t physically or mentally prepared to really learn the sport.  In my early twenties my roommate and best friend Pete agreed to teach me how to ski.

I still clearly remember our first day together.  After renting my gear and strapping myself into my boots I awkwardly walked outside.

“Should we start on the bunny hill?” I asked.

He just nodded his head no and said “follow me.”

Before I knew it I was at the top of the mountain and we were descending a Green Circle (easy) run.  Other than the fact that I didn’t know how to stop I managed to get all the way down without any major mishaps.

Next we took the lift back up to the top and Pete took me down a Blue Square (medium) run.  I didn’t feel confident enough to just ski down it straight so I zig-zagged back and forth trying to keep my speed under control.  I fell a couple times but was able to get to the bottom.

I was feeling pretty good about myself now but realized I had reached my limit.

“Lets do another Blue run,” I yelled to Pete and then fell in line behind him as he lead the way.

Then Things Got Ugly

Next thing I know I am on the steepest, bumpiest and most narrow run I had ever seen.  The bumps made it almost impossible for me to zig-zag back and forth to control my speed and the narrow width made it hard to stay out of the way of other skiers.  The idea of skiing straight down seemed like a death-wish.

I was stuck.  I was scared.  I was angry.

I turned to Pete and raised my arms in frustration.

“What level run is this?!” I asked angrily.

“Black Diamond (expert)” he replied.  “Just take it one turn at a time,” he said before skiing quickly down a couple hundred feet and stopping to watch me.

I stood there for a couple minutes.  I was angry Pete had put me in this position and I was scared that I was going to hurt myself.  I considered taking off my skis and hiking down the slope but decided to try skiing down first.

I went agonizingly slow.  Sometimes I would only make it a couple feet before I would fall over and slide a distance down the slope.  Other times I would somehow piece together a turn or two before crashing and I would be that much closer to being off the run.  I didn’t make it down gracefully but I made it down.

You can be certain that I stopped following Pete blindly after that experience.  The next time we got off the lift I paid much closer attention to where we were going and I made sure that we stuck to the Blue runs for the rest of the day.

A funny thing had happened though.  After the harrowing experience on the Black  run the Blue run seemed downright easy.  I hadn’t gotten any better as a skier in my first 3 runs, but my perspective on what I could accomplish had shifted.  After having survived the Black I knew that I could definitely handle the Blue.

We are all afraid of what we haven’t experienced.  Sometimes you need to push yourself into an uncomfortable place so you realize that you can handle it.

Lesson 1: Push past your comfort zone in order to make progress.

Pete and I continued to ski together that day and the next couple days.  As I got more comfortable on my skis I started taking more risks, allowing my speed to build before I would try to slow down, make more aggressive turns.

As a result I was crashing a lot.  It seemed like almost every turn would result in me crashing.  I was running over my poles or crossing my skis.  Sometimes I would see another skier and I would just sit back and fall because I didn’t know how to stop.

Pete would ski down to me after I fell and watch as I struggled to get back on my skis.

“I am doing horrible” I told him.  “Do you have any tips?”

“You are doing great,” he said.  “If you aren’t falling, you aren’t learning.”

Pete is a man of few words, but that was exactly what I needed to hear right then.  What a great perspective.  For the rest of the day I treated each crash as an opportunity to learn something.  I tried to understand what had gone wrong and how I could have done it better the next time.

It is easy to get frustrated when you are learning a new skill.  It is usually a series of failures as you continue to test boundaries.  The truth is that the only way to learn is to push yourself to failure.

Lesson 2: Every failure is an opportunity to learn something.

Pete continued to push me to follow him on steeper and more difficult runs.

I developed a bad habit of turning up the mountain as soon as I felt like I was gaining too much speed.  Basically, every time my speed felt out of control I would take whatever energy I had left and make a hard turn.  This would leave me facing up the mountain and I would start sliding backwards until I crashed.

“What am I doing wrong?” I asked Pete.

“You keep turning up the mountain and then falling backwards and crashing.”

“I know,”  I replied back frustratingly.  “I am afraid that I am going to fly down the mountain out of control.”

“Next time, turn down the mountain.  If you are going to fall, you should at least fall forward,” he replied like a Zen monk.

With that he sped down the mountain a couple hundred feet and waited for me to make my way down.

I psyched myself up to give his advice a shot.  I started descending and felt my speed building.  One, two, three turns and I was about to put on the brakes and turn up the mountain.  I fought my instincts and forced myself to make one more turn down the mountain.

A funny thing happened.  My skis carved into the hill and my momentum carried me around the turn gracefully and slowed my speed at the same time.  I was so shocked by the result that I forgot the lesson I just learned and promptly turned up the mountain and tumbled backwards over my skis…

The lesson wasn’t forgotten though.

When you are hitting a wall in your development you are often right on the cusp of a breakthrough.  It is tempting to avoid facing the issue.  We back up, start over, try a different route.  Sometimes you just need to push through it and the answer you are seeking will be revealed.

Lesson 3: Push through your failures to reach the next level.

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Posted in: Learning, Practice