Two weeks ago I had the most wonderful week. As I’m spending at least 7 weeks skiing this sabbatical, I wanted to kick off my skiing a strong note. So I went hunting for a performance camp that I could go to, somewhere that I could focus on improving my own skiing for a week, and I found the perfect one. Element ski school in Verbier, Switzerland run women’s camps with a cast of female coaches. You ski 5 hours a day in small groups of 3 or 4, working on ski technique, biomechanics and a bit of sports psychology. The first two days were pretty heavy on the drills and getting the fundamentals of our skiing sorted, with the following three more about exploring different runs, terrains and conditions.
There’s something so luxurious about taking a week for yourself, focusing on improving at something that you really love, with a group of kick-ass women, with expert coaching, that I find so energising. I also love the soft focus of waking up, concentrating on working on my skiing, having a chilled evening and doing it all over again each day. I was also in the company of my longtime friend Lindsay, we trained as ski instructors together in Canada many moons ago, so it was great to spend time with her again. Life felt so simple for a week!
My goal for the week was to push myself out of my comfort zone, do more off-piste and variable condition skiing (which I don’t do a lot of when I’m on my own and is my nemesis), aiming to get to the point where I enjoy skiing in those conditions, hoping a bit of peer pressure and group camaraderie would do the trick. I also just love learning. I don’t think it matters how much experience you’ve got, you can always improve.
I had a lot of fun. I think I laughed more in 5 days than I have in a very long time. Whether it was one of us getting a face full of snow after taking a bit of a tumble (usually me), hearing the whoops of joy as someone did a great run or encouraging each other down the slopes with shouts of “send it!” or “channel your inner tiger!”.
I spent quite a bit of time observing how I learn and how I react to different things. The first thing that really struck me was my learning style, I really noticed how much I am a kinetic learner. I need to be able to feel what I trying to aim for to be able to really get it and reproduce the skiing. I’m also a fairly visual learner, so demos were useful. Verbal instructions for me when I’m doing something for the first time can be pretty useless (as my personal trainer Ali will contest to!) but are good for minor corrections.
The mental game is also interesting, I can get very self-critical and into a negative spiral in my head. I got so frustrated on the day that we were mainly in variable snow, I just didn’t enjoy doing it, and I got so mad at myself that I didn’t enjoy it. It didn’t matter that everyone said that it looked good, and my technique was good, it didn’t feel how I thought it was supposed to, so in my mind was no good. A lot of tears that day.
The more I thought about the kinetic learning style the more I realised that perhaps I am expecting off-piste skiing to feel like something that it just doesn’t. I was assuming that for those that can do it well it would feel nice, smooth and in control, but when I started asking my coach and others to describe how “good” felt like them, the overriding opinion was that is not how it feels ever! It’s about staying lose and reacting to the conditions. We were all joking about how it’s more about a constant state of recovery than about perfect execution of technique. You will get thrown backwards, and forwards and sideways, hit a slow bit of snow then a fast bit, a heavy bit then a fast bit, so you should just expect that.
After the tearful day 3, the morning of day 4 was spent on piste doing carving in the morning, which is definitely what I’m best at so I built up my confidence, and then in the afternoon we did some pistes that are called itineraries, a marked run, but that is not groomed or patrolled. All off-piste, mostly powdery and through the trees. I took up the offer from the instructor to follow in her tracks, and turns out that was exactly the trick, it meant I had to surrender control of the line, not worry about where to turn, trust that she was picking us a good line, and then just focus on breathing, staying loose and trying to keep up! Turns out I’m perfectly capable of skiing those conditions well if I just let go a bit, and give it some welly. Pretty good lesson for me in life I think not just on the snow!
The thing I love about learning and doing anything really is that you exhibit the same behaviours often. So whether it’s how I am when I’m skiing or how I am in a pressured environment at work, the behaviours and habits I have are often the same. The on piste skiing that I enjoy the most is fast, with lots of forces acting on me and the skis and with high edge angles but actually, it’s quite precise, measured and controlled, you know what to expect a bit more. Off-piste skiing is none of those things, it’s messy, unpredictable and all about reacting to unknowns and perhaps why I find it so uncomfortable. By nature, I am a diligent person, that likes to know what’s going to happen when. I’m all about the details and the quality of what I’m doing with quite a high degree of control over a situation. What makes me most uncomfortable? Highly ambiguous environments, with elements that I can’t control, that pop up along the way, and an ever-changing landscape. See some parallels?! I think I’m starting to! So perhaps the more I work on loving off-piste skiing, the more I will become ok with those every changing ambiguous environments I encounter at work.
For a while now I’ve been thinking about running some sort of leadership coaching and skiing academy, where people can observe themselves and their behaviour whilst doing two quite different activities to see if they can learn more about themselves, just like I have done over the last week. I reckon I might be onto something if my experience is anything to go by!