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Split Decision

23 January, 2011 (21:17) | Work

A ski class at Eldora. Taken from here.

“So how’d they do?” Jake’s mother asks me.

I smile. It conveys my pride more than anything I could, but I try to put it into words anyway.

“They were fantastic. They were rock stars. We played on the chairlift all day. They worked on skidded turns and side slipping. I can’t tell you how well they did. If I hadn’t promised Mason’s mom we wouldn’t go on EZ, I probably would’ve taken them over there midway through the lesson.”

She beams at the report. It’s all true, and very little of it my doing. I’m simply the guide, and the progress they made in my absence, both in the week I missed and outside of class, is immense.

It’s classes like this one that renew my faith in the job.

But it isn’t all roses.

“I do need to warn you,” I continue, my voice filled with sudden gravitas, “I’m a little concerned about next week.”

“Oh?” she queries.

“We were missing two boys this week, and I don’t know where exactly they are. While Jake and Mason are good to go on the bigger hill, we may need to take a step back for the other boys.”

“Right,” she says. It’s a matter of fact acknowledgment, but I can hear the slight disappointment in her voice.

“I’d consider bumping them up to Matt’s Green class, but there’s no room. He’s already got six kids.”

“I understand.”

“We’ll figure out something,” I assure her, my smile returning.

The hardest part of being a ski instructor is dealing with a split.

They say you can only go as fast as your slowest kid. That’s not quite the truth. You can go faster, but it’s a really bad idea and would make the job that much harder.

Every time a kid falls, it’s my job to run back up the hill and make sure they’re ok. If I’m leading a group, that might mean climbing 50 feet up a steep slope or, if I’m unlucky, 300 yards. Either way, I get a work out picking my kids up when they can’t get themselves up.

Going too fast often means overterraining my kids. They may be turning great on a bunny slope, but that slight increase in pitch to a green could be the difference between confidently stopping and flying off the trail into a tree. A little overterrained and a child might have some sense knocked into them, but it’s a fine line to walk and not something I’m willing to do without serious consideration. When I have a kid that’s cocky and overconfident, but still a solid skier, I’ll push those boundaries. If the kid isn’t ready, though, I’m putting her at risk.

At Eldora, we have five levels:

  • RED – If a student has never skied before, or simply don’t have the most basic skills, she’s a Red skier or snowboarder. Red skiers are expected to learn how to walk in their skies and boots, perform basic glides, and begin to develop a wedge. With Red skiers, everyone is a known quantity. Splits don’t happen until around lunch at the earliest, and if a student really excels, it’s usually easy to bump them up.
  • YELLOW – Yellow is possibly our widest level and is arguably the toughest to teach. If a student can put on her skies, walk in them, and has begun to wedge, she’s a yellow. Yellow is our transition to turning, where that wedge is shored up, turns are introduced, surface lifts such as the magic carpet are mastered, and the chair lift is introduced. If a student cannot turn and stop, cannot ride a lift without assistance, and cannot walk reasonably in their skies, they should not graduated from yellow. Yellows often have the biggest splits, as some students can barely wedge and others just need to master the chairlift before they’re ready.
  • GREEN – Green skiers can turn and stop with a wedge, can ride the chairlift without help, and have a good athletic stance. With a Green class, I should be able to get right on a chairlift and spend the day working towards parallel turns. Green skiers are expected to learn how to deal with differing terrain, how to hockey stop and sideslip, how to turn parallel and skid their turns. At the very end of Green, students should be introduced to poles. Green is, for the most part, a long progression. For kids, it could take years of practice before they’re parallel. For anyone, it’s hard to give up the wedge. Until a student can do mostly parallel turns comfortably on an easier blue run, they should not graduate from Green.
  • BLUE – The intermediate hump in skiing is smack dab in the middle of Blue. By the time a student is in Blue, they can ski parallel for the most part, and simply need practice and patience from here on. Blue is primarily a tutoring session. Students will master poles, learn moguls and tree skiing, be taught switch, ground 360s, and other neat tricks. Blue skiers can begin to learn the terrain park and may learn tasks like 1-ski skiing. For smaller kids, Blue is about as high as one can expect to go.
  • BLACK – I have never taught a Black class. Many of the skills in Black are things I myself am working on: skiing switch parallel, dealing with differing conditions at consistent speed, fine tuning form, advanced moguls and trees, terrain park and tricks, and perfection of pole usage. To teach a Black class, instructors are often teaching the same skills they’re practicing and the difference between a high Blue skier and a Black skier can be only a matter of confidence.

I hear a lot of complaints from instructors, and, until recently, I haven’t joined in.

The most common complaint is that a kid doesn’t belong in this class and should’ve gone with a lower class. Getting a kid who’s in the wrong class can take an hour out of the day. Not only does an instructor need to get the kid down the mountain, she also often needs to return the kid to the lodge or transport him to the other class. Sometimes, bumping a kid down means dropping him further than he needs to go. Today, I had a Green class and one of my students could not turn to save himself. I wanted to drop him to a Yellow class, but the highest yellow class wasn’t even working on turning yet. This is a conundrum: Do I drop him, guaranteeing that he doesn’t meet his potential today? Do I keep him and work with him, meaning the rest of the class suffers for it? Do I keep him and barely work with him, putting him in danger keeping up with the class?

Other common complaints:

  • The kids won’t listen – with 6 and under this is almost expected, and learning how to gain a child’s attention is paramount; with older kids it’s simply aggravating. A kid who doesn’t listen will often go missing by getting on a lift without the group, making a wrong turn, or getting wrapped up in their own little world.
  • The parents won’t stop hovering – this can lead to performance anxiety in the student or it can lead to the class being interrupted by a parent wanting more attention for their kid; occasionally, this leads to a very helpful parent, but that’s a rarity.
  • The kid won’t talk to me – in regards to needs and/or injuries, children can’t always verbalize. When a kid is doing the dance–and you will learn to recognize exactly what dance that is–a bathroom break must happen. When a kid falls down, they may not be able to explain what hurts. Worst of all, when a kid isn’t having a good day, there’s sometimes nothing that I can do to figure it out.
  • The kid lied – this comes back to belonging in a class. When a kid tells you they’ve ridden the lift a thousand times, and later you find out they’ve never done it without daddy lifting them up and putting them in the seat, it can feel like a total cop out. Kids want to succeed. If dad says he’ll ski with them if they make Blue, they may do everything in their power to argue their way into Blue, even if they don’t belong. Even worse is the kid who does argue his way into a Blue class before the day begins when they’re a Yellow at best.

Instructors spend a large portion of every morning talking to the kids, checking on their ability levels, and moving them around from class to class. There’s no perfect solution and splits happen.

In the case of the Yellow mixed into my Greens, I skied closely with him until lunch, trying to catch him up to the class. He worked hard and had a lot of success, but was still far behind where he needed to be. Luckily, our weekends are staffed with Junior Instructors, and one could be spared to come assist me. With his help, mainly being a guide to my little one, we kept the class together and made major progress with all of them. It was a very rewarding day.

I wish it could go that smoothly every time, but for every solution that works perfectly, there are twice as many classes where kids simply aren’t given the attention they need and deserve because I spend the day catching a student up.

On Friday, my Eldorables will be back. Jake and Mason will be joined by Calder and Will, rounding out my fearsome foursome of Yellow skiers going on Green. We’ll start the day on the larger magic carpet, taking a couple runs and working on turning. If Will and Calder do well, we’ll be right back on the lift, working on skidded turns and traverses.

If they don’t, however, I’ll be left with a split the size of the grand canyon and an impossible bridge to build.