Top 7 mistakes made by beginner skiers and snowboarders — and how to fix them
December 22, 2016
For ski and snowboard newbies, Kim Casey knows a good day on the slopes doesn't start with the latest and greatest equipment, or even a discounted lift ticket. It starts with a hearty breakfast.
"Whether you're from Denver or the Front Range or out of state, you need a good breakfast — not a donut," said Casey, general manager for the Copper Ski and Ride School and a veteran ski instructor with 23 years on her resume. "You need protein and carbs and hydration because you are spending so much energy with new movements and new muscles."
Over the past two decades, Casey has taught thousands of brand-new skiers and snowboarders the basics they need to get started on the slopes, and breakfast is just the beginning. There's more to enjoying winter sports than proper technique, she says, and something as seemingly small as a poor breakfast or frozen gloves can spell the difference between a newfound love and lifelong hatred.
Before taking to the slopes this holiday, we asked Casey and other local instructors for tips and tricks for anyone to use on skis or a board. The question was simple enough: What are the top mistakes beginners make, and how can they fix them before it's too late?
Mistake No. 1 | Showing up unprepared
A good breakfast is smart for anyone — didn't your mother teach you that? — but it makes a world of difference on the slopes. Remember, Casey says, skiing and snowboarding are dynamic sports. A full breakfast gives you the energy needed to stay warm and stoked for three or more hours in sub-freezing temperatures. Don't underestimate Mother Nature — she can be cold and indifferent around here.
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After you're fed, give your outfit a once-over. You don't need the most expensive gear on the market, but you do need waterproof gloves, jacket and pants at the minimum.
Casey also tells clients to avoid tucking their pants, long underwear and other layers into their boots. That leads to a poor fit, which in turn leads to poor feeling and control on the snow.
Mistake No. 2 | Heading straight to the blues
Everyone wants to be good, and everyone wants to be good now. It's just human nature. But experts warn against getting in over your head before you've learned the basics. It's better to begin on a mellow green run and master the essentials — even if the run is flat and crowded and filled with other beginners.
"We refer to this as 'over-terrained,' and it not only leads to bad habits, but it can be an unsafe situation for the beginner skier," said Greg Willis, director of the Keystone Ski and Ride School. "This situation is common when guests allow family, friends and significant others to simply bring them to the top of the mountain and say 'go.'"
In other words, don't let peer pressure ruin your day. Understand your ability level and set clear goals, like, "Today I'll make it down the entire run without falling before moving to the next run." Willis and Casey also suggest studying a trail map at breakfast or over lunch before heading into uncharted territory. Again, think of skiing as any other outdoor sport and be prepared. It's an alpine jungle out there.
Mistake No. 3 | Leaning back when things get scary
Skiing is an unnatural sport: the gear is constricting, the terrain is intimidating and the weather is all over the place. In terms of technique, one of the toughest sensations for beginners to master is proper body position, and it begins with your butt.
Many newbies do just fine on relatively flat ground, Willis said, but as soon as they move to steep terrain, all that training goes out the window.
"It's due to a natural reaction of fighting gravity and the fear of traveling downhill, and often occurs without proper instruction or finding themselves in 'over-terrained' situations," Willis said.
The solution: focus on your form, not your fear. Stand tall over your skis with active legs to carve and maneuver. This body position also prevents exhaustion and injury.
Mistake No. 4 | Standing on your back foot
This is the snowboard equivalent of leaning back on skis — it just doesn't work. Casey relates it to a rear-wheel drive car on snow or ice: When your weight and power is uneven, you lose the ability to steer and control the board.
At Keystone, Willis says his instructors remedy this with four steps: tilt, twist, pivot, pressure. Rather than steer with your back foot like a rudder, instead tilt slightly into the turn, twist your head and shoulders the direction you want to go, pivot your entire skeleton around the board in that direction, and finally apply pressure to the correct edge. It takes practice, but it makes a world of difference.
Mistake No. 5 | Relying on the 'braking wedge'
"If you French fry when you wanna pizza, you're gonna have a bad time." The infamous words of Thumper on "South Park" are a paradigm as old as time — and ready for an update. A pizza stop, or braking wedge, is good for beginner skiers who need to stop rapidly in an emergency. But relying on it teaches bad habits, and for some people, it's exhausting, Willis said.
"By learning proper and efficient movements from the start, skiers will save a ton of energy, which will allow for more time on the mountain," Willis said.
Mistake No. 6 | Looking downhill — and downhill only
Snowboarding isn't just about your legs and arms and core. Vision tells your body and board where to go, but remember: down isn't the only direction on the mountain.
"When beginner snowboarders start turning, they tend want to look downhill, (or) down the fall-line, as this is the misconception of where they are going," Willis said. "This directs their weight downhill and leads to flattening the snowboard at the wrong time… catching the downhill edge."
Since your board follows your vision, begin linking turns by looking from right to left, sweeping your head through the turns from one side to the other. Sometimes your chest is downhill, other times it's your back, but your eyes are always watching where you want to go.
Mistake No. 7 | Ditching out on a professional lesson
Say what you want about lessons — yes, they can be expensive, and yes, they aren't always custom-made for individual clients — but the pros all agree: It's the best way for anyone to learn a winter sport.
"There is so much to learn when it comes to snowboarding," Willis said, noting the same goes for skiing. "People may think that once you can get down the hill, they've mastered snowboarding. In order to avoid picking up bad habits that will be difficult to change later, we can't stress enough the importance of beginning with a lesson immediately."
And lessons are getting better. In the past few years, the industry's two education organizations, Professional Ski Instructors Association and American Association of Snowboard Instructors, have revamped their curriculum to focus more on individual goals, rather than sweeping benchmarks for all students. The lesson programs at all local ski areas have followed suit, and it's now making for a better experience from start to finish.
"There is a reason our instructors teach what they teach and in the order they teach it," Willis said. "The progressions and stepping stones used will provide skiers with the confidence it takes to be safe and, ultimately, have fun on the hill."
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