Understanding Fear – ALC how to ski series – apprehension, stress, worry

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Understanding Fear – ALC how to ski series – apprehension, stress, worry

Chapter 9. Understanding Fear part 1

Understanding Fear, dealing, coping while skiing or Telemarking

I’m not going to do a Paul McKenna here, just give you some ideas I’ve seen and found worked with nervous clients over the years on understanding fear and working toward overcoming it.

What is fear, fear of what? It may not be that extreme – we could say there are differing levels of apprehension, worry, stress – people have many things that they may fret about:

  • Injury (apprehension; about it happening or protecting an old one)
  • Looking foolish, worry about doing it wrong
  • Unrelated stress that impacts on what they’re doing without their conscious knowledge (the kids, Mum and Dad, problems at work, I’m hungry/cold, uncomfortable) or just got out of bed the wrong side

You may have others. These all have an effect on your lesson, learning, performance and mood. We’ll just call it fear for this chapter.

Fear of any level can create tension and this interferes with performance; by inhibiting movement, experimentation and creativity, so it has to be overcome to progress. You could call it confusion too.

A Walk in the Park?

In everyday activities, walking for example, you learnt to walk a long time ago unless you’re 2 years old. When we walk we generally use shoes with rubber soles/heels (unless barefoot and I can’t comment on stiletto heels, honest) so there is friction created through the interaction between the walking surface and the material, even our skin. This friction is felt as sensations through our nerves in our feet and bodies and then sent to our brains (proprioception). In this situation we have got used to these sensations and our brains processing them, usually sub-consciously. Therefore we may take this complicated procedure for granted but if we use leather soles or it rains or snows and the pavement gets slippery we can become made much more aware of the lack of friction!! We must’ve all had that whey-hey/whoa moment!?

Understanding fear Me attempting to vault the fence and failing miserably.

When you slide on snow especially your first time, your brain is confused because of the lack of or different sensation of friction. It’s like all the “normal day” feedback has disappeared. This could easily create confusion or fear and just having this knowledge could make a difference.

Knowledge is Power, if you, the client, haven’t got all the relevant facts and information, then how can you perform or change your performance? Knowledge may help re-calibrate the size of the fear by rationalising the risk. A true risk assessment (See later) isn’t a yes or no to the proposed task; it is a summary of the knowledge of the solutions and methods that will reduce the risk.

For fun guess, how steep in degrees is a general black run? Answer at the end of this chapter.

Fight or Flight. Most people don’t understand that the reactions that human beings have to being scared or excited are very similar. Some people known generally as adrenaline junkies learn to love this feeling, others stay fearful of this experience. Whether their fear is real or imagined doesn’t matter, if it creates a fearful reaction, the person will feel apprehensive at the very least or stricken with panic.

DSC_0150 Babs skiing Compare nervous and relaxed

Skiing or Telemarking are exhilarating sports, that’s why a lot of us love them. We ALL have a fear threshold, it just depends where or what triggers it to go into the danger zone;

  • steep icy bumps
  • off-piste black run
  • riding a chair-lift
  • nursery slope

You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry!

It will also depend on your response to this trigger. Dr Bruce Banner, would turn green (into The Incredible Hulk) if angry but he may probably turn green skiing down a red run too, if this excited or frightened him as the physiological responses might be similar!

So how does this help? Knowing that we all have these feelings that CAN affect us and that it is our reaction to the situation that makes it positive or negative and that it can be overcome will surely help. Understanding this is the first step to conquering or at least controlling or replacing fear.

The second part of the puzzle is twofold, finding a new tactic or better technique, either to cope with the fear or to deal with the perceived lack of ability. What comes first, overcoming the fear or a new method? I’m not sure as they help each other.

Change your perception

Control the controllables, you can’t influence things that are out of your control, for example:

  • Weather and snow conditions
  • Other people’s actions (crowded slope)
  • Lift breakdowns
  • Your friends expectations

Although not your perception, your friends and loved one’s opinion and advice of what is a good run for you can cause problems and is to some extent out of your control.

Note you can do some things to reduce these problems like timing to miss the busy periods with crowds (See Risk assessment later in part 2). Going on holiday out of the high season/busy times like half term for instance or skiing when everyone else goes to lunch.

You can influence the things in your control:

  • Where you are standing (Balancing)
  • Your direction, where you are going (turning/steering)
  • Where you are facing/looking (focus, including inward-what you’re thinking about and internal dialogue)
  • The steepness of the slope (terrain choice)
  • How you practice, whether you are challenged or over challenged

Most nervous skiers have what is known as a narrow focus, this means they will focus on what they can’t do and perceived concequences (negative). They may also be very inward looking, looking down (See Why Snowplough?) at the front of their skis, holding their arms up and close into their bodies (foetal position) for protection.

Instead of focusing on what you can’t do or how bad you believe you are at this, use positive thinking. This isn’t going to work in a second nor will it work if you only pay lip service to it, as doubt in ability and internal dialogue will transfer into poor performance because it is a self fulfilling prophecy;

  • “I’m no good at this”
  • “I’m gonna fall because I have bad balance and have never been good at sports”
  • “I fell last time I tried this”

Take small achievable steps at first, it’ll be no good saying “I’ll be ok down this black run as long as I think positively” that would be unwise. Instead of thinking that you’re really poor at controlling your descent down the nursery slope for whatever reason, try to focus on the positives:

  • “I stayed upright all the way”
  • “I managed to change direction”
  • “I used a much smaller plough”
  • “I looked where I was going this time”
  • “I only fell once this time”

Focus on the successes; no matter how small you may think they are, instead of the failures, no matter how negative or big you may believe they are. The failures still exist but you don’t want them at the front of your mind when starting the next descent. This is how most sports superstars behave. Just taking and practicing these small steps and allowing them to grow into a real belief in your true ability rather than your perceived inability, will change your performance. Positive thinking and perfect, dedicated practice and patience will pay dividends in time.

“The most successful people at anything in life have failed many times” The difference is that failing didn’t stop them carrying on and trying again!

Most but not all nervous skiers are low end. The reasons for their fears maybe they had bad experience as beginners that stayed with them, such as:

  • A poor lesson
  • Were over challenged by the instructor, friend or loved one
  • Icy snow, bad weather

Don’t panic! Easier said than done but; when we panic we may think of 30 things we SHOULD do but do none of them. The main problem is normally brought on by the lack of control we feel and the perceived inability to do something about it. Simplify the task – go to an easier slope.

Technique and Tactics to Help

We need to create some friction/feedback between the edges (feet) and the brain, to get used to this new slippery world and calm the brain down.

Controlling Direction will Control Speed

Knowing that turn shape, creating grip without much effort and controlling direction by building up steering skills is the real key to speed control and not strength or size of snowplough (See Why we Snowplough), will help give them new hope in their ability. “Wow, I just thought it was me as all my friends seem to be able to stop/control their speed that way” “Now I’m not expecting to stop with the plough I’m not panicking any more”. It seems unfair to me that the only people that stopping in a snowplough works for all the time is, youngsters and people that can already ski. Nervous people when using all their strength to stop using a snowplough only get frustrated that it’s not working and how uncomfortable it is (unless on very well chosen terrain).


Another way to translate positive thinking into action is to look where you want to go and at something friendly on the slope. If you look at the person, patch of ice or tree in your way on the descent you’ll probably hit it. So look for nice snow and gaps, across the hill or even slightly up the hill  during the end of a turn and use the terrain constructively. Looking down at your skis will not help at all, and looking down the hill may increase the fear factor, whereas looking across the hill might relieve it.

Lesser confident skiers will always see the problems in front and all around them, so learning to look for any positives that do exist will help. For example a nervous pupil will see all the small children and other people on the slope about them (problems), whereas more confident students will see and look for the gaps between (solutions)!


What about teaching them to carve? You bet ya! Carving isn’t just for high level skiers. If knowledge is power, then making them aware of the fact that the ski turns on its own and is a tool for making curves, is surely crucial! The very thing that is making them feel out of control is that they have little to no knowledge or grip. So use of shallow carved traverses to prove that if the ski is even slightly on edge and is being pressured by balancing on it goes in a curve that resists the pull down the hill. Hence slowing down by good technique and using your “noodle” allows the terrain to slow you down (Intelligence).

I find this works very well, as the most important part of the turn for a nervous person is the end, known as the “control phase” when they are no longer going downhill. All turns have at least 3 phases, just like a good book, beginning, middle and end. For the apprehensive these are:

  • “Ok here we go” (indecisive initiation)
  • “Whooa, not liking this bit” (speed increase due to gravity/the hill)
  • “Phew, made it”! (control at last and lots will hang on to this part making the next turn harder too)

A good effective turn could be said to be comprised of 1, 2 and 3! Many try to rush the turn and do away with the middle bit; 1 followed as quickly as possible by 3! Twisting or zigzagging, which is a coping strategy but not a good one as it uses more energy/effort. It will get you through part 2 quickly but you have a price to pay.

  • You’ve over-twisted and may have used your shoulders and or upper body, so could be in a poor twisted stance which will affect your Balancing, it may also affect any edge value you have

Let the shape you’re drawing give you control, be round, smooth and gentle. (See How we Turn) I realise this is also easier said than done, you need to choose the terrain wisely and increase the steepness intelligently.

Some statements or questions that may help:

“Is skiing is a series of linked controlled manoeuvres down a hill?” Not really; at its simplest or highest form, beginner or expert, it is a series of linked recoveries. A good skier is a good recover-er of what they’ve lost or deliberately given away. In the middle ground there are skiers who might feel in control all the time, they’re not wrong they are just staying in their comfort zone.

“I must stay in control all the time”, of course a great goal to have for the nervous person and totally understandable but we are human and we all do and will make mistakes. If focusing on control all the time, when you do eventually lose it, even briefly as you know you will, you’ll panic, so give yourself permission to lose it. Build trust in your own ability until you’re giving it away on purpose.

“So what can you focus on for constructive results?” Control what is controllable:

The first thing to do is choose the terrain carefully, wide, not too steep and away from crowds if possible. Work on your balancing skills, as the closer to the 0xo/Sweetspot you are the easier and more effective it will be to learn to steer. Skis go faster downhill so spend more time going across the slope, stay calm (easier said than done) and keep going in one direction until you slow down. Don’t change direction until you:

  • Are happy with the speed you are travelling at
  • Run out of space/someone or something gets in your way and your plan has to change

Remember to use the shape you are drawing in the snow and the direction you’re going to control your speed.

In part 2 we’ll continue but look at strategies, the colours of Fear, redesign the piste-map, risk assessment and perceptions and the answer to the question in part 1.


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