“A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimensions.”
~ Oliver Wendell Holmes (Jr)
As it happens, having just returned from a 3 week holiday in France (which was mostly a skiing holiday) I want to share with you a major personal breakthrough as it relates to my attempts to learn snowboarding.
The reason this story is worth sharing is that the method, insights and the breakthrough itself relate very strongly to lots of things I’ve learned (about learning) over the past few years and to lots of things I’ve written about (or that have been written about by others) here on this site.
Every year around February we go on a skiing holiday, to the same place in the South of France and I spend a week skiing with friends, a week skiing with the family and then some time visiting my in-laws before returning home. You may think that’s a long holiday and a lot of skiing, but when you’re keen on skiing and you’ve been waiting all year for it (not to mention you’re ill for a few of the days and the weather takes a few more off you), it still doesn’t feel like much time and it’s over in a crack.
I got off to a very slow start skiing due to a pretty bad accident on my first ever skiing trip which literally limited my skiing trip to the very first day and the rest of the week in bed – and a few more accidents after that.
I now consider myself a good skier though I am still very careful and don’t tend to take many risks or try much which is out of my comfort zone.
A few of my friends snowboard, one of whom changed mainly due to a knee (cruciate ligament) injury which meant skiing would be more dangerous for him and he’s stuck with snowboarding ever since. After watching my friends and others snowboard and seeing the difference it offers, I bought myself a snowboard some years ago and thought it would be a good thing to have as I was coming out there every year to ski anyway, if I had my own board I could slowly learn snowboarding too just to have more options and ultimately more fun.
Difficulties Learning To Snowboard
I think the difficulties learning to snowboard come from a number of factors, learning quite late is probably less of a factor than my worry about getting injured given my experience when I learned to ski and some early falls when trying to teach myself snowboarding. It probably doesn’t help that so far I’ve mostly tried to tag this learning onto the end of my skiing week up until now.
Essentially because of these difficulties I was starting to develop some pretty strong limiting beliefs about snowboarding:
- I’m getting too old to start all over again.
- I’m going to hurt myself again with some bad falls – possibly quite seriously (and it’s not worth the risk).
- I’m in a catch-22 situation – there’s more chance of catching an edge and being thrown/falling on the flatter nursery pistes, but I’m not ready to go on a lift on one of the steeper pistes in case it’s too long and I get stuck/out of my depth (like I did when I started skiing).
1. Just a Crappy Excuse…
I’ll just say (write) very quickly that given the limited time we have skiing every year (we look forward to this holiday all year and always wish we had more time when it comes time to leave) the question of why I really want to learn to snowboard when it takes time away from skiing always comes up – and having eventually reached a good level in skiing, why would I want to start all over again falling all over the place and risking injury – at my age. Well the answer is that my age isn’t all that much of a barrier really this is just a crappy excuse – and also I love learning new things so why not try something new?
2. Getting on My Toes
The worst fall you can have in my view is when you are on your toe-edge (facing into the mountain) and catch the back edge, therefore being thrown backwards and landing on your back – or worse your head or your neck – and that’s happened to me, twice.
As a result of this I have been a big baby when it comes to getting on my toe edge and pretty much stayed within the comfort of making my way down the nursery slope on the back edge (doing this from side to side is known as ‘falling leaf’).
So the first thing I needed to do was to destroy this fear by taking my time, and getting on with it, finding the right areas of the piste and spending a lot more time getting on my toe edge until I got more comfortable with it.
Fortunately the resort where we go has a really tremendous nursery area, mostly flat but with a few contained steep bits so I could practice in plenty of different conditions and at different speeds – i.e. I could experiment and learn from trying different things in a safe environment.
A few years ago after a skiing accident, when my friends were exploring all of the different pistes in the resort, I stuck to the same piste and repeated that piste about 14 times, concentrating on my technique. This was much more enjoyable than you’d imagine. By limiting the variables (primarily in this case the terrain), I got to focus much more on the actual act of skiing and how many different ways there were to come down that single piste.
The exact same thing was true for my experience of sticking to the nursery piste to practice and re-practice getting on my toes more. I not only learned that but also built my comfort on a snowboard significantly, increasing my understanding of the feelings and habits I’d need to develop in order to get better at it.
Like skiing, a golf swing, driving a car or riding a bike – at first snowboarding has movements which feel counter-intuitive (at least to me) so it’s no surprise that this can lead to confusion, falls and accidents, but by taking it slowly and paying attention, like all things, these feelings and techniques which seem quite alien at first will become second nature and form as habits.
3. My Main Goal: My First ‘Proper’ Piste
It’s really the third of the above limiting beliefs that was the most damaging conclusion when it came to making progress so I decided to challenge that belief.
I instead concluded that, after a little practice – with some care, focus, energy, the right weather and timing (e.g. starting in the early morning rather than the afternoon after skiing) I could probably make it down a full blue piste – the worst case would be a few falls and if it got to bad I would just have to pick up my board and walk down the piste in my snowboarding boots (much easier than in ski shoes in any case).
To be clear, the ingredients I needed to silence the doubting voices in my head were as follows:
- Care – there was no need to be in a hurry, starting at the beginning of the day I was going to get myself on the chair lift to the top of 2 blue pistes (that’s just where the lift goes, impossible to do only 1) and take my time, if things went too fast, I’d just stop, have a breather and start again.
- Focus – the objective was really to learn how to snowboard and rather than just putting myself through the challenge of traversing this new terrain, the best chance to learn would be to really focus on what I was doing and in doing so try and develop the right habits and muscle memory as quickly as possible.
- Energy – previously I’d thrown the snowboard in the car and given a little snowboarding a try at the end of the day of skiing (when my energy was low and my legs tired) – primarily because I never wanted to miss any time skiing with my friends. By starting out with snowboarding before doing any skiing, I had much better energy levels and less chance of making stupid mistakes or decisions due to tiredness.
- The right weather – the conditions were pretty good – good snow and blue skies. If I was going to get stuck anywhere I didn’t want it to be in bad weather.
- Timing – by starting early morning I gave myself plenty of time and took all the pressure of getting stuck off because I knew that worst case and if it took me all day, I’d be able to get down the piste (even if that meant walking down).
Note: If this all seems really calculated, it actually wasn’t, it’s just writing it all out now that makes it seem that way. I want to be clear about the arguments I made to quash this particular limiting belief that had been holding me back because all of these arguments were there, most of them were instant or sub-conscious.
In reality my mind was made up very quickly and as soon as I decided to go up at the start of the day rather than trying to learn a bit of snowboarding at the end of the day, it seemed obvious that I could achieve this goal and didn’t have as much to be worried about as I’d perhaps previously thought.
Watching the Instructors
I’ve actually been trying to slowly learn snowboarding for a few years now, but half-heartedly, with very little time dedicated to it and at the end of the day when tired and having had a good day’s skiing.
A few years ago I booked a lesson with an instructor and simply wanted that instructor to take me up the mountain onto a ‘proper’ piste – as I didn’t have the confidence to go myself as described above. The instructor refused and instead told me I had to get the basics right first (fair enough). He stripped things back and started me again, telling me to hold out my arms and point in the direction I wanted to go. I obeyed but wasn’t really taking in what was happening as I kept falling over. In hindsight I think that one lesson (which was a 1-2-1 lesson) put me back rather than helping me in any way.
Fast-forward to the week just gone and as I taught myself and really enjoyed the experience: in the chair-lift between each run I watched others with instructors and noticed that they fell over a lot. Whether this was due to people being nervous, conscious of only having a limited amount of time to learn which they’ve paid a lot of money for, being tired (I definitely remember feeling really tired after a few falls with the instructor and it being harder and harder to follow the instructions), trying too hard or just not understanding – the fact is that they all seemed to be falling over – a lot.
With my new method I wasn’t falling – well hardly ever – and if I did, I generally felt it coming and fell very gently. If I got tired I’d stop for a coffee and then start again, but I never needed to do that because I just didn’t get tired. Instead I felt exhilarated. I recovered after each run whilst sitting on the chair lift back to the top of the slope. This is both because of the approach but also because any time pressure was removed.
The Gentle Art of Pushing Our Boundaries
Of course with both of the activities described above (focused effort on the nursery slope to learn turns and practice getting on my toe-edge more and beating the catch-22 belief by getting up onto a proper piste) what I was doing was gently pushing my boundaries.
Gently because I did so in a fantastically enjoyable way, enjoying every minute of the experience, paying attention and making small changes. I can’t stress enough how beneficial this approach was – and even though it may seem like an unnecessarily slow process, the enjoyment of the learning experience and the vast reduction in failures (in my case that would be falls) due to making small changes and paying attention meant that I would argue that progress was in fact pretty substantial in the end.
Pushing my boundaries because I overcame two annoying hurdles – and they’re just not there anymore (the toe edge thing and getting up onto proper pistes) – now I will go snowboarding next year knowing that I have already done these two things and I’m really looking forward to being able to get back onto the ‘proper’ piste and do it better next time.
I no longer feel like I can’t do it, I’m too old or that there’s a catch-22 situation holding me back. I have a number of doors that have opened for me when it comes to snowboarding as there are a number of pistes I now feel that with a similar approach (starting early in the morning) I could have a crack at. I also actually feel like being able to make my way around the entire resort and being able to do any piste (including off-piste and blacks) can’t be that far off.
Learning With My Son
Towards the end of the 2nd week I spent an afternoon with my son using the same approach.
We stuck to the nursery slopes and little by little learned turns and moving from one edge to the other first of all with my son following me and introducing one small change at a time (starting with falling leaf on the back edge, then easy turns on a slow part of the piste etc) and then with my son going first and deciding for himself how to navigate the piste, where to turn etc.
Here is a brief video clip of us at the end of that afternoon, snowboarding back down to the car park:
Final Thought: Why Does This Help You?
Are you kidding me?
Of course this helps you – and here’s why:
I believe that there’s some magic here that you can apply to anything you’re trying to achieve. The magic is in the combination of the following:
- A certain type of focus and attention to the details, enjoying the learning experience to an extent we could call it a flow experience (as in the term from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s excellent book of the same name)
- patience and letting things take the time they need to take (not longer but not rushed either)
- small changes and experimentation – to aid the learning experience and act upon the feedback you get, forming and fine-tuning the habits you need for success in the endeavor
- practice – at the end of the day whatever the goal or achievement you’re after, nothing beats practice and experience.
At the crossroads of these four things you have the magic, the solution to beat your limiting beliefs and to (gently) push your boundaries so that next time you can go even further.