My first day on skis after fifteen years was awkward, to say the least. There’s something extra uncomfortable about flailing around in the snow as an adult that I don’t remember feeling when I first learned to ski as a five-year-old.
I remember hearing someone laugh from the lift as I struggled to get my skis pointed downhill, and wondering briefly if I’d be able to get back into skiing at all after such a long hiatus.
Fortunately, my ski skills returned, and after a season on snow, I was able to pick up about where I left off. However, the difficulty and embarrassment of those first few weeks of learning to ski again stick with me.
Learning to ski as an adult presents some challenges that just aren’t present when your parents drop you off for ski school at five years old.
To help you get through your starting days on skis, I’ll touch on a few of the challenges you might run up against as an adult, and give some advice for how to work through these troubles.
- Implicit vs. explicit learning. Have you ever asked someone who’s been skiing since they were an infant how to ski? It might be difficult for them to explain. Why? Because they’ve been doing it for so long that it’s like walking. For them, skiing is not a complex series of movements involving very specific technique, it’s just a thing that they do. The implicitly know how to ski.For an adults who are just learning, the complexity and technique of skiing can be overwhelming, because they have to learn these things explicitly. Taking ski lessons is important, and will help you excel, but sometimes things don’t stick, no matter how many times the instructor explains it.
To help with this, find a skiing partner who’s also new, or talk to other people in your class, if you take a group class. When I teach English to non-native speakers, I often let the students explain grammar structures and vocabulary to each other.
This not only allows the students to practice expressing their ideas, but the students are quite frequently better at explaining these things than I am. Why? Because they just learned it. I don’t remember what it’s like to struggle with understanding something like “used to” because I learned it when I was three. But they know exactly how to help someone understand the most difficult parts of the concept.
It’s the same with skiing. Your fellow beginners will often be the best at explaining how to get over a particular hump because they just got over that particular obstacle and remember exactly what they did. By talking to each other about how you’ve improved, you’ll also reinforce the knowledge in your own mind so you retain it better.
- Embarrassment and self-consciousness. As we grow older, we also grow more aware of how people perceive us, and develop a concern for the image we’re projecting. A child will still be embarrassed if he falls down in front of his friends, but he feels less judged for falling down. Children are supposed to fall down. A forty-four year-old with a career and a 401K, or even a twenty-six year-old with her first job out of college, has a bit more dignity at stake than a five year old.This can make learning to ski daunting for adults because it’s embarrassing to be flopping around in the snow while people ride the lift overhead. Familiarizing yourself with being in your ski boots and on skis before you get out on the snow can help, but also remember that veteran skiers are used to seeing novice skiers struggle, and are often more interested in helping than laughing.
Any long-time skier knows that everybody was a beginner once, and they know that everybody looks a little silly when they’re learning, and they understand. Also, passionate skiers are happy to see new people learning to appreciate the sport they love. For every loud mouth that guffaws from the lift, there are several who are happy you’re making the effort. You just don’t notice them because they’ll let you learn in peace.
- More fear. If there’s something that maybe everybody can agree on, it’s that children can be fearless. This is great for learning new things like riding a bike, or skiing. As adults, we’re less fearless. We’re aware of how bad injuries can hurt, and as if that weren’t bad enough, how much they can cost. That’s why we buy insurance, and wear helmets, and sometimes make good decisions.However, this can make skiing progression very slow. To improve, you need to challenge yourself, but from the top of the hill, challenge looks very scary. It’s important to help manage this fear by taking challenge in increments.
Break your improvement down into manageable pieces that you’re comfortable with. For example, making short-radius turns is an incredibly important skill in skiing, but it’s a lot to take in all at once.
Try breaking down the movement into it’s individual parts and working on one at a time in easy terrain, then putting them together in an area where you’re comfortable, and finally applying the skill in more challenging conditions. There are some very good resources with exercises and techniques for working on the specific parts of certain skills.
The Ski School by Elate Media YouTube channel is a great series of instructional videos that cover almost all aspects of skiing.
- You have less time as an adult. This one is difficult to get around, and I totally understand. It’s tough to get a lot of ski days in with work, and family, and other hobbies. Then there’s so much to learn about skiing. One ski day every two weeks hardly seems like enough to master the skill.However, if you’re setting goals for yourself, and taking some time to familiarize yourself with your gear before heading out to the ski hill, you’ll maximize the return on your time investment and feel more satisfied with your time on the snow.
Adding workouts to your exercise routine that build skiing coordination and the strength needed to really push your skis around will help keep you from getting too fatigued while you’re practicing. Here’s a good writeup on some ski-friendly workouts.
Also, a day or two before you head out to the mountain, put your boots on and do some flatland familiarization. Practice moving around with your boots on, and most importantly, practice leaning into the front of your boots to remind yourself how that good, forward ski stance feels.
A few extra minutes between ski days can help keep the skills you’ve developed fresh in your mind.
- Money constraints. This one is universal to just about any activity, but skiing can be an especially cash-intensive sport. There are a lot of deals and specials that can help offset the cost of skiing, but unfortunately there’s no real secret here.What you can do is get the most out of your time on the mountain by developing fundamental skills as much as possible before you get to the mountain, focusing your efforts once you’re on the slopes, getting good coaching, and, when it comes time to buy your own gear, spend your money on the things that will benefit you the most (most valuable piece of gear: boots).
Whether you’re aspiring to be a hardcore shredder, or just want to be able to cruise with your kids on the weekends, drop a comment below and let us know how you overcome the challenges of learning to ski as an adult.
Note: I am not affiliated with the Ski School by Elate Media channel, or with Outside Magazine. These are just resources that I used when I was learning to ski again.