Last winter I skied with two women in their early 40s who had a lot in common. Being moms of tweenage kids ranging from 9 to 13, they both described themselves as the managers of their skiing families. They skied every weekend from Thanksgiving to Easter in the East, and spent every spring vacation out West. Both women had professional lives, so with the incessant juggling between family and career, me-time was scarce.
They each attended my Fear Workshop at Windham Mountain and during our orientation, separately confessed that they'd grown sick of skiing, and “the whole world around skiing as well,” from the uncertain weather to the schlepp every Friday and Sunday.
Unfortunately for our industry, the malaise of these two moms is common. Parents get so busy managing their kids' welfare and progress, they lose the opportunity to develop their own relationship to the sport. Once they start threatening to spend their money going to the beach, we've pretty much lost them.
Skiing and snowboarding families are our industry's bread and butter, so it's to our great loss if the decision-makers, moms especially, grow disenchanted. And it's a double shame since the sports we offer are inherently family-friendly. With their infinite latitude for skill, risk, and thrill, they can accommodate almost everyone. My mother made some of her best turns at 82; my dad skied after a brain injury. Every grandparent wants to ski or ride with their grandchildren as soon as they're out of diapers. This is a rare gift our sports give!
But skiing and riding also take a great amount of effort and expense on the part of the parents, so we must figure out how to keep them. Let's look deeper into the stories of these two women, who after years of investing in their kids' skiing were ready to quit. In their tales we can discover how to keep people like them happily, passionately involved with our mountains. And us.
Jen’s Tale: Adventure Tops Form
Of the two, Jen's story was easier to understand. She was a pretty skier who didn't like to challenge herself, so over the years her comfort zone had never been stretched beyond blue terrain. Occasionally she'd go with a friend down an easy black run, but only if it was groomed and not too icy. Her kids, both in junior programs, flew by her with their perfunctory hellos.
Billy, her husband, a dear man, skied with his buddies all over the mountain, using an app to measure the day’s total vertical and fastest speeds. For Christmas, Billy had given Jen the Fear Workshop, because, he said, she'd lost her love for skiing. But she admitted to me, it was a love she wanted to feel more than she actually did. I was like a therapist in a divorce case: Jen vs. Skiing.
What Jen did not need was to ski “better,” or to take part in another program geared toward developing skills, or as she said, “improving her form.” Her skiing was just fine, but she had never seen herself as a skier able to explore a mountain. She had always felt excluded from the club.
Jen didn't relate to her husband's competitive drive to get in one more run to beat his or his friend's vertical record. She didn't relate to the magazine images of teenagers jumping off cliffs or dropping into couloirs. And she rolled her eyes at what she called the “happy holy-family photos.” Her kids skied by her, not with her.
Technically, her many ski lessons had served her well. But the technique she took away from those lessons didn't help her feel any more included. What she called “good form” was a series of technical hoops she felt she had to jump through before she could belong to the club and be “one of us.”
A Change of Mindset
For Jen to fall back in love with skiing, she needed to perceive it as an experience she could partake in rather than a performance she had to do. The performance mindset, so important in our Monday to Friday work lives, invokes a polarity: success as opposed to failure, right as opposed to wrong, win vs. lose, good vs. bad.
In contrast, an experience suggests a one-of-a-kind event, a singularity. The words play, exploration, adventure, sensation, and emotion do not trigger a string of oppositions in the mind. Rather than evoking competition, experience evokes a connection, an engagement with the mountain. And, unless you race or compete, skiing has no net, no score, no win-or-lose, as my son used to say. Skiing is between you and the mountain.
Jen actually wanted an adventure, a small “do-able” thrill. This was supposed to be her recreation, her play, after all. But she couldn't switch out of her Monday through Friday performance mindset. Skiing became just another demand with that same old, “am-I-good-enough?” thinking.
Teach with a Ski and Terrain Focus
So, we focused on what her skis were doing above all else. She grinned, “My skis? Where are they?” In that joke was a sad reality: she had been so focused on how her body was positioned, she'd never truly felt the frictionless freedom of her skis sliding over the snow. Though it seems very simple, the more you can do with your skis wherever and whenever you want, the more choice sensations you can have, and the more of the mountain you can ski. Simple. But it changed her focus entirely.
As we helped her expand her repertoire to include tracking, sideslipping, stepping, skating, and so forth, she was able to fearlessly attempt challenging terrain that she'd never skied before. Each small ski trick she learned was like a dear friend, there to help her out tactically when she wanted to try something new. She had options. Now Jen could start exploring the mountain. The words discover or play became more than just marketing clichés. Skiing went from right and wrong to a “do-able” adventure.
Dana’s Tale: Learning Beats Knowing
Dana's issue was more complicated. An ex-racer who grew up on straight skis, she skied fast, and could get down just about anything. So she never took a lesson. Skiing became her time spent between dropping the kids off and picking them up for lunch. In fact, she admitted she enjoyed riding the chairlift up and talking as much, or maybe more, than skiing down.
As she got older, she challenged herself less and less in the bumps, trees, and icy steeps. She came to the Fear Workshop not because she was scared, but because she wanted to break out of her boredom and feel some thrill again. But, she added, “I don't want to kill myself.” She was already a self-identified skier, but her desire needed to be rekindled.
Even though Dana was a “good skier,” her experience of skiing had grown as stagnant as Jen's. She hadn't expanded her repertoire to tackle new terrain, and she hadn't felt a new internal sensation from her skis in years. The top-down teaching she'd experienced as a kid reinforced for her an endpoint in learning. As an adult, she already “knew” how to ski—she didn't have to bother with learning.
Unfortunately, this is all too common among self-described experts. Confirmed by the current paradigm of our culture, they value the smug comfort of knowing over the vulnerable risk inherent in learning. This makes them miss one of the main gifts skiing offers: its infinite continuum of learning, its never-ending capability to provide new-ness.
Switching Dana to a ski and terrain focus made her feel like a teenager again. She hadn't been that excited about skiing since her racing days. The mountain opened up to her. She wasn't learning new skills like Jen had—how to step, track, slip, or skate—she was mostly refining those skills, learning how and where to apply them in difficult terrain and variable conditions.
In short order, Dana had fallen back in love with skiing. Her renewed vows to the sport not only spurred her to buy a new pair of skis, but she and her husband (who hadn't grown up skiing) also signed a contract on a ski house. They were all in.
Adventure Creates the Experience
Many programs and camps have focused for years on a ski-and-terrain orientation. The steep and deep camps and all the backcountry treks are fine examples. And they have their place, for sure. But they're usually for experts and often presented with a hefty dose of machismo. We need programs and camps that reframe skiing as a mountain experience for our novice and intermediate skiers, too, as well as expert women like Dana who are either put off or somewhat intimidated by overt bouts of testosterone.
Terrain parks are wonderful, but they're usually artificial, kid-dominated, and isolated from the mountain at large. What we need more of are bridges or gateways into the hill's natural terrain, especially at novice and intermediate levels—low-angle gullies, easy-to-ski glades, machine-made bumps on blue terrain. I call it “beginners' off-piste.”
That's what triggers the a-ha moments for our students. They understand then why it was important to take that time and effort to learn to step, to refine a sideslip. We have a motto: “Get the most thrill from the least skill.” They're learning to think like a skier: I ski so I can experience the mountain's inherent beauty.
This takes a boatload of support from resort management. Sometimes a keen eye, a bit of imagination, a little clearing, and a readable sign is all it takes to create an adventure. But occasionally, the investment can be significant, as architects and bulldozers may need to be brought in to design, sculpt, and maintain the landscape.
Many resorts have seen the light. Vail's Blue Sky Basin is an intermediate paradise. Snowbird, a famously steep mountain, has devoted Baby Thunder to novice-level adventure. Killington created an easy-to-ski glade called Squeeze Play that extends for nearly a half mile. If all new skiers experienced early-on this kind of access to skiing's beauty and the thrills the hill can offer, our retention levels would spike.
The beauty experienced in skiing is an old-fashioned value. The advertising posters shown in Skiing History from the 30s into the 60s display a sensuality and aesthetic that serves as a balance to the harsh weather, the extreme acts of daring, the mountain's wildness. Coming from Europe, ours was a sexy sport.
Trail design was an art form. In the East, trails snaked along the contours of the mountain with each little dip, swoop, and knoll expressed. Old trees serving sometimes as guides, sometimes as meeting points. And then what happened? To make grooming and snowmaking cheaper and more convenient, we cut the trees, created tipped-up football fields and called them trails, though it was hard to tell one from another.
It is time, now, if we want to thrive again as an industry, to prioritize in our budgets the values of beauty and adventure, alongside safety and convenience. A memorable, breathtaking experience can make all the hassle and expense that skiing and riding demand worthwhile. Satisfaction eliminates exhaustion; thrill rejuvenates. It is the beauty of our sports that seduces our guests into becoming skiers and riders.
One of the first rules of tourism is to offer something different from what the tourists are leaving. The experience we offer should be a psychological, emotional, and physical reprieve from their Monday through Friday performance demands. We should tap into the most valuable gift of snowsports: their infinite continuum of learning, their unending capacity for new-ness. None of us will ever fully get our sport. As one of my students said, “I've learned again how to learn. And how to play.”