Tuesday, September 17, 2019
Written by John Atkinson
Every parent who loves to ski or ride faces an important question: What’s the best way to get your children to love the sport as much as you do? Skiing and riding are true family activities, with young kids to grandparents—even great-grandparents—able to play together. You want your kids to follow your lead and love being in nature, sliding on snow, playing with gravity, and wandering the mountains. But nurturing a lifelong love for skiing and riding can be challenging. As a coach, I’ve helped hundreds of kids learn to ski over the years, but I appreciated the challenge in a new way when it came time for my wife, Hannah, and me to teach our two daughters. Here are a few tips.
We got both of our kids on skis for the first time before they turned two. However, the principles below apply regardless of what age you start your kids.
Make sure your children are familiar with the idea of skiing before you have them actually try it. We brought our daughters to the mountain from the time they were born (actually, before), so the idea of people sliding on skis and boards was already ingrained in them.
Start your kids inside on a carpeted surface and have them walk or scoot with skis or board on, teaching them the first moves in a warm, safe place. U.S. Ski and Ride Hall of Famer John Egan duct-taped soft slip-on boots to a pair of little kids’ plastic skis and left them in the toy bin. His boys would put them on and scoot around the house or yard whenever they wanted. The next step is to use a flat part of your yard for towing and gentle sliding.
Make the move to the mountain gradually and pick the first few days carefully in terms of temperature and snow. Choosing when and where to ski and ride based on conditions should be an integral part of any adventure planning, but it is even more important when you’re headed out with kids.
Take it slowly at first. In the beginning, our daughters’ milestones were measured by their first Village Chair ride and mastering Pushover. But we’ve skied a lot with them since then, averaging twenty to twenty-five days a year, and the 2018–19 season was monumental for the girls, now five and seven. Both of them ticked off some big lines, including several runs in Slide Brook and classic trails like Lift Line, FIS, Stein’s, and Rumble. We waited for comfortable temps and soft powder or confidence-inspiring corn to tackle these challenges.
Everybody has heard, “Kids learn to ski and ride easily, because they don’t have any fear.” This can be easily disproven by watching reluctant new learners riding on the Welcome Mat or a parent dragging an underprepared kid down Waterfall.
The myth persists, though, and can be a dangerous mind-set for parents. Coach Marijke Niles, a Sugarbush kids’ favorite, agrees. “Children get anxious more often than adults think. Teaching is about understanding what goes on inside [their heads] and making skiing and riding easier for body and mind. Celebrate the small steps,” she says.
One of Egan’s methods to help kids overcome their fear is to remind them how skiing is similar to movements they’re already comfortable with. “[You] already know how to walk, run, and jump,” he tells them. “Skiing and riding are just extensions of these common athletic movements. Skis [and boards] are the coolest sneakers you’ll ever have on your feet.”
As our girls have gotten more proficient, my own fear factor has shifted from being worried about what they are doing to being worried about what the people around us are doing. Hannah and I tend to stick very close behind them and fend off incoming traffic. This also puts us in a good spot to help pick them up after a tumble.
Making sure kids are having fun is second only to safety. The kids are ultimately in charge. If they are not having fun, figure out why and change things up—or be okay with being done for the day.
First and foremost, keep your kids well fueled. We carry “trail treats,” while some family friends of ours often hide food along the trail for the kids to find, like a treasure hunt. Healthy snacks are great, but occasional sweeter rewards are okay, as well. The power of hot chocolate is real; it can celebrate a great run or mend a fall.
Skiing and riding adventures are great times to incorporate other learning. Coach Marijke adds, “Share life lessons. Appreciate being with nature. Skiing and riding are also about seeing the clouds, the miracle of snowflakes, the pleasure of speed, the wind across your face, the beauty of the mountains.”
Patience is essential to creating fun, too. Forget about ripping long fast runs for a while. Learn to appreciate the slower pace and mellower terrain. Pushing children onto trails they are not ready for because you want to ski or ride them is tempting, but often produces negative results.
Award-winning Sugarbush coach MA Raymond has another tip to help get kids moving and motivated on skis and boards. “I like to give them images [so] that they can imagine what it looks or feels like. I ask them to pretend they are spreading soft cream cheese around the edge of a bagel, feeling the skis or board making soft [curving] shapes.”
Speaking of imagining, try to feel how hard it is for a young child to walk around with very short legs that don’t work quite right yet. Now imagine how good it will feel for them to be able to glide for miles down a mountain on beautiful trails. A case in point is my daughter Nathalie’s response when I asked her about her favorite part of skiing. She just repeated “Down!” over and over. For DeeDee Boyle-Lubin, the daughter of Sugarbush Wall of Famer Darian Boyle (see page 24), the answer—“the French fries!”—had more to do with post-run treats. The salty crunchies in the lodge have definitely worked their magic on generations of Sugarbush kids.
While my daughters’ love of skiing and riding (and eating) is clearly developing nicely, the work is not done. Every day on the mountain together is another opportunity to fall in love more deeply.
Even if you’re an expert, or a trained coach, getting lessons for your kids is highly recommended. The parent/child dynamic can sometimes get in the way of learning, and most kids learn quickly when skiing and riding with others their own age.