Practicing with the right intentions

I learned how to ski when I was young. On winter trips to Lake Tahoe, my parents paid for lessons for my siblings to learn our pizzas and french fries. At the time, I never felt proficient or confident in my abilities to coordinate my body on the slopes.

My intention was generally: Don’t fall.

Fast forward to my 30’s, where my wife and I took a trip with friends to Steamboat.

On our first few runs, I felt good about getting down without freaking out too much, but my quads were starting to burn. I was breathing heavy, and it was just the start of the day. I felt like I was fighting something, and my experience with kungfu was telling me that what I was doing was wrong. Physical activities are supposed to be strenuous, but this did not seem like something I could sustain all day.

I was still holding on to my old practice: avoidance of falling–letting my fear of falling be in control. I often leaned back, which gave me less control, which lead to more fear avoidance, which made me work my muscles even harder to try to not fall. I just wanted to get to the bottom of the hill without getting hurt. It wasn’t a lot of fun.

What was I really practicing each time I went down the hill?

  • Avoiding fear
  • Stressing my quads
  • Leaning back while skiing and generally bad skiing form
  • Guilt of spending so much time/money on something I was not enjoying
  • Shame of being so unskilled at something other people enjoyed and did well
  • Anticipation of après-ski

I did not have a real path to improving my skiing ability. I was not growing. I didn’t know what I was doing.

We decided to take lessons from an instructor. He had the mantra:

I’m not going to teach you how to ski:
I’m going to teach you how to be a skier.

Ah, a ski nerd! OK, he wasn’t a nerd in the sense you would think in terms of someone with glasses on. He was actually more of a cowboy, but he was someone who cherished skiing and the practice of learning how to be a skilled skier.

Generally, I needed to work on:

  • Leaning forward, avoiding leaning back (or as our instructor liked to tell us, “Bow to the valley!”)
  • Keep the head up, facing the direction you want to go

I started focusing on these specific things in my technique. Both of them were difficult, especially since I’d built up a bad habit of both leaning back and looking down since my youth.

My new intention became: Develop good form and technique.

The more I focused and practiced, the more I felt confident in my ability. The more I felt confident in my skiing ability, the more I was able to enjoy skiing. Getting to the bottom of the hill felt like an accomplishment rather than a relief that it was over.

My practice was no longer based on the avoidance of fear. Sure, it still pops up here and there, but it isn’t the main focus of what and how I was moving and coordinating my body.

Same outcome, different intentions

The ultimate goal was to get to the bottom of the hill, but the practice and focus along the way now was different. My previous practice was reinforcing my fears and anxieties. My new practice was now grounded in understanding and growth. I was now enjoying the process of learning along the way.

And between the two, there’s a world of a difference: one is a world of fear and anxiety and the other is a world of hope and excitement. Falls are no longer failures: falls are opportunities for learning.