Teaching Kids to Ski with the Tom Sawyer Method

A successful child ski lesson has at least three components: safety, fun and skills acquisition. In that order. When a parent entrusts us with a child, they have a reasonable expectation that we will take reasonable safety precautions. There are dangers inherent in skiing, of course, but we still place a first priority on safety. But then fun has to be second for two reasons:

  • Fun is the point of skiing. Setting aside sponsored pros, the only reason to get better at skiing is to have more fun.
  • Skills acquisition happens best when kids have fun. They're natural learners and imitators. In the right setting, kids will absorb new skills at a rate that will put us older folks to shame. But put them in an environment that is scary, boring, and unpleasant and they'll hardly learn at all. Even worse, they'll never want to do it again, so any skills acquired will be useless.

But at the same time, parents hire a pro because they want accelerate their daughter's progress. So the key is to make skills acquisition as fun as possible.

My ideal kids lesson is one that from my point of view involves tons of intensive drills, but from the student's perspective just involves a bunch of skiing around and having fun and playing games. I might report to the parents that we worked on skating skills. The child might report that we played tag.

Tom Sawyer to the Rescue

But not everything can be designed as a game. This is where Tom Sawyer, my first childhood hero, comes to the rescue. Most people know the episode from Tom Sawyer where Tom has to whitewash a fence. As other kids come by, Tom convinces them that it isn't an onerous task that he has to do, but a pleasure and privilege. They should be so lucky to be allowed to whitewash a fence. Before long, Tom is sitting by the way, watching the other kids gladly do his work.

When it comes to skiing, kids often want to just keep bombing down an easy slope where they've gotten comfortable. Our challenge is to make the process of getting the skills to tackle steeper terrain more fun than bombing the the beginner chair yet again.

There are a few keys there:

  • Framing: whitewashing is something you get to do.
  • Choice: the happy whitewashing kids decide to do it, they aren't forced to.

Giving Kids Choices

This is the obvious one and all it requires is flexibility from the instructor. Since most instructors strive to do this anyway, there's no need to go into detail. Given two roughly equivalent trails, let the kids decide which one to take. Always have a handful of reserve options — exercises, terrain, tasks that will let you work on the weak points you want to target, but will give them some freedom.

So in essence, you choose the skill set to work on, but the kids choose the method or some other aspect of the scenario. For instance, we probably all play Red Light, Green Light in beginner child lessons. It's pretty simple to get beyond red/stop and green/go by letting the kids add new tasks. "What do we do on purple light?" Red, green, yellow, purple, blue, pink, brown, orange — try to involve as many students as possible in designing any lesson.

You've set up the conditions, and it doesn't really matter much from a skills acquisition point of view whether the pink light is to hop, lift one foot, touch the knees, touch the skis, make faces at the instructor or what. You still get to call out as many reds as you want and every other task is getting them comfortable. But it's now their game that you helped design. It's not your game anymore.

Adding in even small elements of choice like that will get kids more engaged and more willing to let you make some decisions by fiat. In general, we humans are wired to reciprocate favors (see Robert Cialdini's book Influence). That means that simply by letting kids make the choices you don't care about (no safety concerns, for example), you've created a reciprocal relationship. Now they'll be more open to your requests: "Let's play follow the leader!" Their increased sense of control will also make them more relaxed and more invested in the lesson.

I also think it's great for their development in general to have their suggestions taken seriously by a teacher. Sometimes that is the most important part of the whole lesson.

Framing A Ski Drill

More important than giving choices, is framing the options. If the options are framed well, then the issue of choice becomes moot. Like Tom Sawyer, when you frame it well, people will want to do what you want them to do (within limits obviously). Here are a couple of examples.

Secret Knowledge.

I love to get people of all ages to learn to stop and turn while doing a backwards wedge. It's a great way to troubleshoot a variety of stance issues and with an adult, I might start out by just asking them to do this and explaining why. With kids, I take a more Tom Sawyer approach:

    • "So, does your dad know how to ski backwards?" (or mother or older brother). If it's a ski family, this one is a charmer. It works whether or not dad can ski backwards, but usually he can't or the child doesn't know. In the latter case, you follow up with "I could show you how and you can teach him when we're done." This is like letting the child in on a secret that even his dad doesn't know.
    • "Have you ever seen someone ski backwards?" (assuming she hasn't just seen you ski backwards). Again, this is sort of a secret knowledge approach. You're offering to teach her how to do something that, as far as she knows, kids can't normally do. It's a powerful motivator.

The Power of Names.

Names are powerful things. Let's imagine you have a student who's coming along and ready to bump things up a notch. You want her to feel a solid edge grab. In some cases this has been as simple for me as saying "Hey Susie" to catch her attention, and the putting my index finger to my knee, pushing in until the ski comes on edge and the shape takes over.

Sometimes it takes a bit more guidance. With an adult I might preview the outcome: want to feel more secure on ice? Or I might just start with a set of physical movements.

With kids, though, I want them to feel not merely that they're learning something useful, but that we're doing something cool. So I'll start with a simple question: "Want to learn how to do ______ turns?" You can fill in the blank with "carved" turns, but that is utterly meaningless to a kid. Why would they possibly care? I always fill in the blank with "racer". Most kids are excited about learning "racer turns".

All of this might sound pretty basic to an experienced instructor, but it's worth really working this in lessons with the younger skiers. I had a second lesson once with five year-old (five and half actually as he insisted). He had been given the choice of skiing or tubing. He told his parents he would ski if he could get a lesson with me, but not if it was with his other instructor or with no lesson at all. I found it odd, because the other guy was an excellent instructor. So I asked the Jake why he felt that way.

"He was bossy," was the reply.
"Well I'm bossy too."
"No you're not."
"I made you do racer turns yesterday."
"But I wanted to do racer turns" he said.
"Ah, but I wanted you to do racer turns too."

He gave me a perplexed look as if to say "You're being stupid, that doesn't matter." And that's the point — that doesn't matter.

As long as Jake thinks whitewashing the fence is a great way to spend a few hours, it makes no difference what Tom wants.