Friday, February 26, 2010

When ski teaching shifted from mountain to mind

The skier within


Four decades ago, skiing was ripe for a change in the way the sport was learned. Arcane technical terms cluttered ski teaching. Instructors customarily shouted detailed directions at students about placement of knees, ankles, arms and hips—unaware of new discoveries about how the mind works and how people learn.

Neurologists had discovered the brain's left hemisphere to be verbally oriented and computer-like, its right side taken up with spatial, nonverbal input. And the new knowledge about how people think sent shock waves through skiing.

Jean-Claude Killy, it was revealed, had used a form of yoga to help win the 1967 World Cup and his triple gold at the 1968 Olympics. Switzerland's national ski team won seven medals at the 1972 Sapporo Winter Games after employing a Jungian psychotherapist. In the previous 10 years, Swiss racers hadn't won a single medal.

Then the shock wave hit recreational skiing. Sportswriter, car racer and expert skier Denise McCluggage, who'd studied Zen and taken courses at the Esalen Institute at Big Sur, Calif., attracted national attention with her concept of "Centered Skiing." She urged skiers to control their skis, not intellectually from the head, but viscerally from the body's physical center, at a point just below navel.

At just about the same time, in 1975, Tim Gallwey, the best-selling author of "The Inner Game of Tennis," arrived on the ski scene. Gallwey had concluded that the greatest enemy of learning the tennis backhand or serving the ball was a mind cluttered with verbal commands and artificial performance goals. Similarly, he said, the enemy of ski learning was technique. Instead, skiers should learn to focus silently on mental images of how they want to ski and of how a perfect turn feels. He co-authored a best-selling book, "Inner Skiing."


The nation's ski schools mostly welcomed the influence of Gallwey. Colorado's Copper Mountain started a dryland program enabling students to feel the motions of skiing before they even put on skis. An outpouring of workshops and books, such as "Ski With Yog," appeared. "The Hidden Skier" touted the notion that hidden within each of us is a talent—an individual style of skiing. In "Skiing from the Head Down," two psychologists presented skiing as a total mind and body experience.

It wasn't long before skeptics began to raise doubts about an excessively nonverbal approach to ski teaching. Students wondered why "I'm paying all this money, and the instructor isn't telling me anything."

Skiing does, after all, involve technical questions that have to be answered, such as how performance is affected by gouged running surfaces and poorly fitting boots. A Zen-like silence doesn't address a student's need for disciplined formal technique to avoid serious injury. Unlike a stationary tennis player or golfer, skiing risks falling that can even be fatal.

The Inner Game schools eventually disappeared, as ski schools turned to the challenges of teaching people to snowboard and to carve turns on shaped skis. But the once-popular psychological approach serves as an enduring reminder to instructors that their official certification is only the beginning of competence in teaching people to ski.

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