If you have been thinking about learning to ski or snowboard, or starting off your children with skiing or snowboarding, January 2011 is your date with destiny. January is National Learn A Snow Sport Month and many participating ski area and resorts all over the nation offer great deals on learn to ski programs during this coldest of months.
Adults can usually figure out if they want to learn to ski or snowboard on their own (unless of course the “Impress the Boy/Girlfriend/Spouse” factor is in play. To which I can only say, “tread lightly”). But for many families, whether or not to start the kids riding comes down to a few basic questions. Is my child old enough? What do I look for in a ski school? Can I teach my kids myself?
The answers to these questions will vary based on the temperament of your child, where you live, and how much money you really want to invest in this sport of a lifetime. While National Learn A Snow Sport Month may offer some great deals to get you started, the reality is, as Warren Miller has so famously said, “The family that skis together, goes broke together.” But its a good broke and the time we skiing families spend together on skis is priceless.
How Old Should My Kid Be: According to Annie Breckheimer, an instructor at Vail with 18 years of experience, the appropriate age is “not a number, but an attitude.” If your child is excited and ready to learn-to-ski, capitalize on this enthusiasm. Recognize however, that your young child will likely not have a lot of stamina or a super-long attention span. How fast they learn and progress is not as important as making sure they are having fun and enjoying the skiing. Parents often want their little ones to progress quickly so that they can get on with “skiing as a family.” While skiing as a family is a great goal, pushing children too hard, too fast is not good and can lead kids to develop bad habits and become tentative, frightened skiers.
How To Find A Ski School and the Right Instructor: For the most part, ski schools across the United States are similar. Almost all, if not all, have instructors who are certified by the Professional Ski Instructors Of America (PSIA). Most instructors have been through a highly-competitive, rigorous training program and are professionals. They know what they are doing and generally, while they won’t tell you this, they don’t need parents around adding their two cents during the lesson. Sign your kid up and sign yourself up too, or go take some runs on your own.
For any children, but especially teens, Kate Belknap-Bruchak, the Snow Sport Director at Powderhorn Resort suggests group lessons designed for their age group. “It is really important that these kids get to hang out and ride with their peers. That is their motivator. Even though parents may want to focus on skill advancement alone, these kids will progress much more rapidly if they are skiing with friends and motivated by competition with these friends.”
Good instructors can handle any size group successfully. What is important is that the parents and kids not get hung-up on the chronological age of the child, but rather let the group be divided by ability. If this means that a timid 12 year-old ends up in a group with some 8 or 9 year-olds, that’s okay. What is important is that the ability levels and the speed of the students match up, according to Annie Breckheimer. “Good instructors will divide the classes up appropriately so that the students not only learn from the instructors, but also from each other.”
Also recognize that if you ski only one or two weeks per year, your child will have grown over the summer. Sometimes kids come back in the Winter with totally new bodies that they have to get used to. A good instructor will start them in one group and as they get more comfortable, can usually reassign your child to a different group. It is all about placing like-skills with like-skills and good instructors will move kids around.
No matter what your child’s age, look for a ski instructor who is experienced teaching kids, is personable, fun and can teach “on the fly.” The last thing you want with kids is a teacher that stands around and explains the technical nuances of skiing or snowboarding. Kids need to keep moving.
How Many Lessons Should I Buy: How many can you afford? Kind of a smart-alecky answer I know, but ski instructors are better than we parents are at teaching our children.
If you think you do want to teach your own children, Kate Belknap-Bruchak suggests starting with an initial private lesson to find out if the child enjoys skiing or snowboarding. The private lesson will give you the most bang for the buck, without signing up for a series of lessons. If the lesson experience is positive, you may then want to sign your child up for additional group lessons or a learn-to-ski series.
Or, if you If you feel competent (and patient!) enough to teach your kids after they’ve learned some basics from a pro, go for it. Just remember: Your child’s ability does not reflect upon your ability. Let children progress at their own rate and don’t ever use a leash, no matter how tempting. Both Annie and Kate agree that leashes lead to an unbalanced stance and cause more trouble then they are worth.
If you are traveling destination skiers, say coming to Vail, Powderhorn (or anywhere else) for a week each winter, and you want to put your kids in ski school, Annie Breckheimer suggests prepping the kids by making sure they know that they will be spending part of their vacation in ski school and that most of the family time will come when the skiing is over. If the kids know that they will be in ski school and separated from their parents for part of several days, they will be used to this idea before they arrive and generally much, much happier about it.
For optimal results, plan on a few days of ski school, with a couple of days of family skiing. Parents will want to see how their little ones have progressed and the little ones will want to show off their new-found skills.
For families that return to the same resort year-after-year, strike up a relationship with a good instructor. If you have found someone with whom your child, or maybe your entire family, really clicks, request that instructor when you come again next year…and the next.
How Can I Thank A Great Instructor: This is something a professional instructor won’t tell you, but all instructors appreciate and deserve tips. They love to ski, they love to teach, but they aren’t volunteers and they aren’t teaching because they love your child. If your child has had a positive experience or if the instructor has shown exceptional patience, skill or fortitude in the face of a difficult situation (read group lesson for any age of kid), tip and tip well. Just my opinion, but I think its a good one.
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