In my last skiing blog I talked about catastrophe theory, and how it can help us understand how anxiety can impact our skiing (or any other activity for that matter). This week I want to move on slightly and discuss how we can ski in a group that includes mixed levels of confidence and ability without conflict, or at least without skiing based conflicts (keeping the peace while you decide whether to go with Dahu, Carrefour, or the picnic room for lunch is a subject for another blog).
The first mistake that many groups make is assuming that the best, or most experienced, skier will be best at leading the group. Unfortunately this is quite often the root of the issues that we touched upon last week. The truth is that somebody being a skilled and experienced skier does not necessarily mean that they are best placed to lead other people who are more nervous or less experienced. Something that I have seen a lot when helping people to train towards their ski instructor qualifications is that it takes most people a lot of time, and teaching experience, to build up a good understanding of how to use the mountain best so that you can help each individual develop. As this is an issue for people who are focused on being ski instructors how much more is it going to be an issue for people whose focus is going for a social ski with friends (obviously there are exceptions to this, and some people who have no ski instructing experience can still show a fantastic understanding of how to use the mountain, but these people are quite rare in my experience).
What a lot of people do not understand is that even if you choose the best slope on the mountain there will be different lines, and ways of using the terrain, to make it easier or harder, and unless you start to look at the mountain with this in mind it can be quite risky to try and lead a nervous or less experienced skier. Obviously unless you have a lot of local knowledge even finding the most suitable piste can be tricky, and the piste maps are of limited help. The fact is that piste maps can be confusing at the best of times, but even if you can read them perfectly the information that they give you is limited to a subjective grading out of 3 (blue, red, or black as I am not including itineraries in this). This does not tell you how different pistes change based on the weather, how each piste copes with more or less snow, or how certain pistes will be busier at certain times in the day. This is all important information that would make it easier to make well informed judgements. All of this is before we get to the fact that the colour based system of grading pistes is quite limited, and it can be very unhelpful to get too focused on what colour a piste is. Within one colour grade there can be a wide range of levels of challenge if you are an inexperienced, or anxious skier. In fact in Verbier there are sections of black piste that I would happily take nervous skiers down before I would take them down certain lines on some blue runs.
All this does make things very difficult for somebody who does not know the resort, or who does not have the experience of leading and helping nervous skiers, and the danger is that, as we have mentioned, their well intentioned choices can leave the anxious skier feeling terrified, and in some cases this fear can actually lead to them giving up skiing permanently as skiing just becomes horribly stressful and not fun.
To create an environment where a mixed group can ski together in harmony the focus of every decision should be the least confident, or the least experienced, member of the group. If other people are not happy skiing on terrain that works for those less confident members of the group then the group should split. In my experience it just does not work well if those people who are getting bored start to put pressure on those with less confidence to ski on something harder so that the better skiers can have more fun. The best skiers in these groups have to take enjoyment from the social aspect of the skiing, and they should not have any aspirations of doing anything that will challenge them technically. One way of catering for everybody is to find an area of the mountain where there are pistes of different levels in close proximity, so that everybody can do their own thing, while staying in an area where everybody is together. This is a different approach to the main focus of this blog, but it can work well.
Something else to consider is that most of us feel more safe and secure, and less anxious, when we have more control over our situation (remember that fear I mentioned in my previous blog about giving up your job to start an experimental dance troupe). In this case I am not just talking about being in control of your skis, but also the idea of being in control of where you ski, and how fast you ski. In real terms this means that if you want to avoid catastrophe when you go for your social ski it would be best if the person at the front, and choosing the route, was the most anxious skier. This will help keep the focus on the better or more confident skiers to compromise their skiing aspirations, and take some of the pressure off the anxious skier. Simply put the more agency the anxious skier has in the situation the more likely they will be to feel confident and secure. This is a tricky one as most nervous skiers, when they are faced with skiing in a group of more confident skiers, will try and disappear and hide at the back, but as we have explained that is not the best place for them. This is somewhere where an instructor can really help with the group dynamic, as the more confident skiers can get on with what they want to do without having to worry about the less confident skier, and the less confident skier can get the help and support that they need without having to worry about being a burden on their companions. With a ski instructor around there is no need for the less confident skier to take any responsibility, but they should be able to relax and trust that the group is being led with their best interests at heart.
Similarly when it is time to progress to more challenging terrain it should be done as a dialogue, so that the anxious skier has some control in the situation. This is similar to the ideas behind the concept of challenge by choice. There is certainly a fine balance with this, as some anxious skiers would never progress to more difficult terrain if they were given the choice, and sometimes a little encouragement is necessary, but if you push them rather than encourage them it could easily end in disaster. You are certainly walking a very fine tightrope at this point, but again having the right ski instructor can help as they should have the experience, knowledge and empathy to guide the situation with the anxious skier’s best interests at heart.
Another important factor that can have a huge impact on the success, or otherwise, of a group skiing together is how people within the group behave towards each other. You may feel like shouting helpful tips at the anxious skier will help, but the truth is that it is more likely to just add to the anxiety and psychological arousal, and will just expedite the onset of that catastrophic event that we discussed last week. Calmly showing empathy and patience and trying to help them calm down will have a much more productive impact. Similarly any show of impatience, or blame towards the anxious skier will not help the situation. Remember that anxiety may be rooted in all kinds of non-skiing related experiences and traumas, and it is vital that we show compassion and empathy. Whatever happens we cannot make somebody have confidence, enjoy skiing, or be a better skier through pressure, and being encouraging, supporting and patient will always be more helpful.
Banter is also unlikely to be helpful if somebody is anxious. Ultimately this comes down to knowing the anxious skier that you are with, and for some people it can help, but for some people it can crush them at a time when they need support. I have seen this misplaced banter happen a lot in families, and especially from children who might not be aware of the impact of making negative comments towards anxious parents (especially mothers). Often this happens when children have skied from a very young age, and are very confident, and they simply do not understand their parent’s anxiety, and they end up resorting to impatient jokes at their parent’s expense. It is worth making sure that if you ski in a group with a very anxious skier that everybody understands that they should be helping to support them, and that trying to be funny may contribute to ruining somebody’s day (this should be especially pertinent if the person whose day you are ruining is paying for your holiday).
If, despite all your best efforts and planning, somebody does lose confidence and freeze while you are skiing as a group there are a few things that you can do to hep. Firstly if you are in a large group I would suggest 1 person stays with them to help, and the rest of the group skis down to somewhere a little bit further on where they can stop and wait safely. This will just relieve some pressure, and it will avoid the anxious skier having numerous people shouting instructions to them, which as I have said can make things worse. The next step (assuming that there is no immediate safety issue) is to take a few moments to help them compose themselves a little bit and calm down. I find that just helping them to focus on slow, deep breathing can be really useful (if you are an anxious skier this is a great focus to remember for when you do find yourself in a stressful situation). It is also important to make sure that you are using a slow and calm tone of voice. The next step is to slowly and calmly take stock of the situation, and try and work out the best way of overcoming whatever issues there are. Usually this is as simple as side stepping and manoeuvring onto better snow, or a better line.
At the end of the day skiing is meant to be fun, and it is an amazing way to enjoy the mountains. Yes we want some excitement, but when that tips over to uncontrollable fear and anxiety it is no longer fun for most people. If the people you are skiing with are people you care about their enjoyment and welfare should be more important than making every run an adrenaline fuelled adventure, and if they do not mean that much to you it may be time to stop skiing in the group. Ultimately if we all treat everybody in our skiing groups with patience, empathy and compassion, what can go wrong?
Finally as I said previously in these situations skiing with an instructor can be very helpful. Having somebody there to make balanced and helpful choices takes out anxiety and frustrations that may boil up within a group where there are a number of different agendas. The fact is that the right instructor should be able to manage a mixed group very comfortably, and ensure that everybody gets something from the experience. They should also have the local knowledge so that the right people are on the right lines on the right pistes, which should help avoid any problems for anxious skiers.
Having an instructor taking responsibility means that everybody can relax and enjoy their skiing as members of the group, without the pressure of leading (or the temporary impact on relationships that it can have if they make a mistake and put somebody in a situation where they are scared). The right ski instructor can also help you make the most of your holiday through the way in which they set the atmosphere within the group, their local knowledge, their fantastic storytelling and their warm and welcoming smile. All qualities that you are sure to find with Mountain Relish (though opinions of the smile may vary).