Reflections on Learning to Ski - 8 Core Principles for Learning a Completely New Skill

Reflections on the process of going from never having touched skis to being reasonably comfortable on all but at few of the most complicated runs over the course of 10 lessons.

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I spend the majority of my time coaching others on aspects of the construction business that I’ve been refining for decades. While I am learning every day, it has been a very long time since I’ve put myself in the position of learning something completely new.

That has now changed, as over the last couple of weeks of 2019, I learned to ski. Before this, I had only been on a snowboard once when I was 25 and had never skied. I had never even heard of terms like “Fall Line,” and when I was introduced to it, I thought the term referenced the literal path I took after my numerous falls and tumbles down the hill without my skis.  :)

The last couple of weeks have been a great opportunity to reflect on what it takes to both teach and learn effectively, especially when the student is so incredibly new at something. Below are my reflections on the process of going from never having touched skis to being reasonably comfortable on all but a few of the most complicated runs over the course of 10 lessons. 

These reflections can be summarized into eight core principles:

  1. Have a clear goal.
  2. Find a good coach.
  3. Plan an aggressive but achievable rhythm.
  4. Be a great student.
  5. Become a great trainer and coach.
  6. Don’t overlook the details.
  7. Supportive cultures accelerate progress.
  8. Don’t mistake competency with mastery.

Each of these core principles is further explained in six sections:

  1. The Core Principles Expanded
  2. My Learning to Ski Stories
  3. Application to Business, Construction, and Life
  4. Quotes for Inspiration and Reflection
  5. Tools, Exercises, and Reflection Questions
  6. Learning More - Books, Articles, Videos, and Other Resources

Sections 2-6 will appear in future posts 

The Core Principles Expanded

  1. Have a clear goal of what you want to achieve.
    1. Make the goal S.M.A.R.T. (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant & Time Bound) through an iterative process of refinement starting with a basic concept.
    2. Clarify not only the outcomes of the goal, but also expand the ‘R’ to include the major resources, key responsibilities, and Return on Investment (ROI) expected.
    3. Though ROI is a financially based term, not all goals can or should be measured financially.
    4. Know when and whether to make adjustments to your goal, including the strategies and tactics for achieving that goal.
    5. Goal outcomes should be the least flexible with strategies, tactics, budgets, people involved, and even timelines adjusted to achieve the outcomes. Goal outcomes should only be changed if:
      1. It is determined that the goal is truly not achievable
      2. The cost of achieving the goal does not provide a viable ROI
      3. The goal is no longer the highest priority, meaning there are other goals that can utilize the same resources to provide a higher ROI.
    6. If goal outcomes must be changed, reflect heavily on whether this could have been foreseeable during the initial goal-setting process. This will tighten the planning process in the future.
  2. Find a good coach to help guide and accelerate your progress.
    1. If you think for a second that having a coach is a sign of weakness, consider that the best athletes and performers in the world have a myriad of coaches.
    2. It takes multiple training sessions for a coach and student to get comfortable with each other and the relationship becomes more valuable over time.
      1. Coaching relationships are longer term, typically measured in years. Some can last an entire career like Tim Grover and Michael Jordan. Other coaching relationships need to evolve, such as Andre Agassi changing from Brad Gilbert to Darrin Cahill after eight very successful years.
      2. A good coach will recognize when and if there is a need for change and will discuss it openly.
    3. Your coach should be at least two skill levels above your current skill, so they have proper perspective on your training and can add value over a longer period of time.
    4. There is no such thing as “The Best Coach.” Find someone that is good for you at this point in your development.
    5. An experienced coach won’t get every element of the training program 100% right. That is an unrealistic expectation. But they will learn from that failure and have another strategy, exercise, tool, or technique to try that will lead the student closer to the goal.
    6. Personality fit with your coach is a huge factor.
    7. Mutual trust is required.
      1. Often a coach will ask the student to do something that doesn’t seem to make sense, thus requiring the student to trust their judgment and intent.
      2. The coach must trust that the student’s intent is good and their communication is transparent.
    8. Everyone has quirks - it’s figuring them out over time that makes relationships fun and effective.
    9. All students learn differently and at different speeds - a good coach adjusts
      1. With 1:1 coaching, both the exercises and the pace can be adjusted to the individual for optimum results.
      2. In group training, the instruction is typically adjusted to the slowest in the group.
    10. While 1:1 coaching is significantly more expensive than group training, you must weigh out the results and total time frame against the cost.
  3. Plan an aggressive but achievable learning rhythm and stick to it.
    1. Wrap every element of your other routines around the learning and coaching rhythm to ensure you achieve the maximum results.
      1. If you are unable to do this, then you should evaluate whether this is even the right goal for you at this time.
    2. Deliberate practice isn’t fun. If training is “too fun,” then you probably aren’t pushing yourself hard enough.
    3. Progressive overload. A good coach will push you just beyond your limits with each session but not to the point of getting hurt. A good student will push themselves the same way.
    4. Cut off training sessions at the right point. All training sessions reach a point of diminishing returns. Getting too tired will allow bad habits to creep in, which will slow long-term progress or result in injury.
    5. Progress is not linear. Not all training sessions end well or result in progress. This is both normal and okay. Consistently sticking to the schedule is what will achieve results in the long-term.
      You are only competing against yourself. Be aware of, but not focused on, what others are doing. A good coach will help keep the right balance.
  4. Be a great student. You are the one with the most to gain and you are the single biggest variable in achieving the goal.
    1. No matter how good the coach, they can’t make you do anything you aren’t fully committed to doing and disciplined enough to do.
    2. Your desire to improve must be internal and deep for your own reasons. Anything externally driven won’t have the same results and it will be difficult to maintain a positive attitude throughout.
    3. Always keep your end goal and what it is worth to you at the top of your mind.
    4. While that end goal is critical, 99.9% of your daily focus must be on the journey and specifically the next few steps. Walking the path is where all the progress is made, where life is lived, and where true joy is found.
    5. Be humble and smart, keeping your confidence and competence in alignment.
      1. Being over confident will likely lead to injury, irritate your coach, alienate those around you, and slow your progress.
      2. Being too timid will have just as big of an impact on your ability to learn.
    6. Just do whatever is asked by your coach to the best of your ability with a positive attitude. This is where trust really matters.
    7. Trust that the bigger picture will emerge over time. Sometimes the “why” only becomes apparent when you gain more experience.
    8. Feedback is just information. Don’t take it as criticism.
    9. Know that you likely can’t execute on all feedback at once. A good coach knows that and will frequently repeat feedback.
    10. Sometimes the performance gap is not your understanding of the “what,” but rather the ability to execute the “how.” Make sure that you understand and clearly communicate this difference to your coach.
    11. Push your limits but don’t try to do too many new things at once.
    12. Get comfortable failing, and more importantly, recovering quickly. What seems way too fast or too much on one day will seem like slow motion a few days later.
    13. Know the difference between realistic and unrealistic fears. Getting rattled or panicking is normal, but just like anything else, can be trained away with practice.
      1. Know that as your heart rate gets over 120 beats per minute, your ability to learn starts to go down due to becoming hyper focused on the task at hand.
      2. Learn and practice techniques to calm your heart rate and mind when under stress.
    14. Sometimes, the best way to learn is to simply sit in your failure and struggle over and over to figure it out on your own - or not, and then debriefing with your coach afterward.
    15. Be positive at all times: good, difficult, and bad.
    16. Be intellectually honest with yourself about your effort, performance, and progress. Self reflection is huge for development.
    17. Visualize your performance over and over constantly, especially before going to sleep. Trust your subconscious to make major improvements for you.
    18. Losing focus for even a split second can cause you to fall. The ability to maintain focus more intensely and for longer periods of time is a “muscle” that can be developed just like anything else.
    19. There is no substitute for repetition under the watchful eye of someone who can help you make very small tweaks.
      1. Bad habits are easy to pick up and hard to break.
      2. Poor techniques can appear to work at lower speeds but will fail at higher speeds.
  5. Become a great trainer and coach. This is the path toward the highest levels of mastery.
    1. Not all great students can become great coaches but all great coaches are great students. They constantly challenge themselves and learn from others on their road to mastery.
    2. Ultimately, it’s the coach’s job to figure out the best path to achieve the intent of the student’s desired results.
      1. Asking the student what they want to achieve is necessary.
      2. Asking what they have done in the past and to demonstrate their current capabilities is critical.
      3. Asking them how they want to achieve their goals is great for providing insight into their thinking and personality.
    3. Feedback, like practice, should be deliberate and repetitive.
    4. Don’t bias feedback toward the positive or negative. Bias it toward what will most likely have the biggest impact on the next iteration of performance.
    5. Not all exercises work as intended. Sometimes the timing, skill level, stamina, or other factor(s) just aren’t right.
    6. Sometimes, all that’s needed is to stick with it longer. Other times, a change of direction is required.
    7. Add in new variations and challenges with each training session while never overlooking the basics.
  6. Don’t overlook the little details that improve performance. Small things have a huge impact.
    1. Nutrition dramatically changes your energy levels, memory, learning ability, healing speed, and muscle building.
      1. Everyone’s body, mind, and circumstance are different, requiring different nutritional needs.
      2. Your body, mind, and lifestyle changes over time, and so do your nutritional needs.
      3. Learn the basics of nutrition and avoid “Trending Diets.” Investing 100 hours into intense learning about nutrition will form a life-changing foundation that you can build on.
      4. Experiment on your body constantly, being both disciplined in your experiments and intellectually honest about the results.
      5. There is a difference between knowing and doing. Once you know what works well for you, it is simply a matter of doing it every day. It is far too easy to rationalize away seemingly small nutritional slips into a bad diet.
      6. Realize that nutrition makes a difference measured in decades when it comes to a vibrant quality of life.
      7. Know how to balance your “perfect nutrition” with a “perfect life” effectively. Remember that they may not always be in alignment.
    2. Fitness level matters, including cardio, strength, endurance, and flexibility.
      1. You don’t have to be in peak physical condition for most things in life, but a solid fitness level will make those things more enjoyable.
      2. The older you get, the more important it is to be deliberate about maintaining your fitness level.
      3. Mix up your training to ensure you are regularly hitting elements of cardio, strength, endurance, and flexibility.
      4. As with nutrition, develop knowledge of the basics and avoid trends.
      5. Nearly every principle above that applies to nutrition should be applied to maintaining your fitness level.
      6. You would be surprised at how much you could improve your fitness level in three hours per week with the right level of focus.
      7. Keep track of your progress. Know what others can do but remember that you are competing with yourself.
    3. Sleep is too often overlooked as a critical element of mental and physical success.
      1. Our subconscious does amazing things when we sleep, including consolidation learning, solidifying memories, helping solve problems, healing the body, and building our muscles.
      2. Everyone requires different levels and cycles of sleep for optimum performance.
      3. Our needs change as our bodies and lives change.
      4. Sleep is about quality, not just quantity.
      5. Our jobs and lives may not allow us to have the perfect sleep cycles. Figuring out the optimal integration is the key.
      6. As with nutrition and exercise, form a foundational knowledge by investing at least 50 hours of learning about sleep and meditation, followed by regular experimentation on yourself.
    4. Limit the use of alcohol and other substances that will detract from your performance.
      1. Anything besides the smallest doses will typically impair performance.
      2. Performance impacts become very noticeable when you are working near the highest limits of your abilities, which is where high-performers spend a lot more time than the average performer.
      3. Again, balance this with the vision for your “perfect life.”
  7. Supportive cultures and environments geared toward learning significantly accelerate progress.
    1. As a leader, develop a culture where everyone will stop to do the equivalent of picking up the skis or help anyone who has fallen.
    2. As a student, look for cultures that will truly accelerate your development.
    3. Supportive cultures are just plain more productive, fun, and healthy.
  8. As far as you have come, don’t mistake a foundational level of competency with mastery.
    1. Like a martial art, earning a black belt is not the end of training but rather just the beginning of the road to mastery.
    2. At this point in your development, you can finally start to hear and respond to the coach’s wisdom rather than only their specific instructions.
    3. Know that conditions will change and those changes will move you quickly from feeling comfortable to once again feeling like a novice.

More parts to this story will emerge in future posts.  

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