Dismantling unconscious biases in snowsports teaching and learning

Gaining a deeper sense of ourselves and our story, and by increasing our awareness and understanding of the existence of biases - which we ALL have - we can begin to dismantle these unconscious biases leading to better decisions, and better emotional intelligence, both as snowsport instructors/coaches and as learners.


Diversity and inclusion have never been more important for our industry and tackling biases that occur in the teaching and learning of snowsports is one of the best ways to overcome our prejudices thereby cultivating more inclusive, open and positive learning climates that are primed for success.


In this blog I will look at some of the unconscious biases that exist and that are very relevant to the teaching and learning of snowsports. I will unpack what each bias is all about and then look at each one from the perspective of the instructor/coach and the learner. The biases covered are by no means an exhaustive list, but they are very pertinent to the snowsports environment in which we both work and play.


What do we mean by bias?

The Cambridge Dictionary online defines bias as, "the action of supporting or opposing a particular person or thing in an unfair way, because of allowing personal opinions to influence your judgement".


Biases are often cognitive involving a deviation from objective reality. We create our own subjective reality based on our beliefs, values, upbringing and perception of a situation which can dictate our emotions and behaviour. The further away our subjective reality is from objectivity reality the poorer our judgement and decision making will be.


Six biases unpacked

1) Confirmation bias

This is about trying to find evidence that supports our prior beliefs, values, views and opinions to the exclusion of contrary information. In other words, we tend to avoid and ignore any information that challenges our ideas. Emotionally charged issues (such as Brexit), deeply entrenched beliefs and strongly desired outcomes make us more likely to fall prey to this bias.


Instructor/Coach

An instructor may have deeply entrenched beliefs about technique and progression and be closed minded to other approaches. This is perhaps not surprising given that we are often educated in one national system and influenced by particular individuals as part of that journey. We also tend to become very comfortable working in a particular way because we have had success with this in the past. However, in our modern digital age, where there is so much excellent information available, there is no excuse for not learning from a wide range of sources. And this is where events like Interski are so important as they can break down these national barriers and help 'open' instructors minds to alternate approaches and techniques.


Learner

The learner may not ‘believe’ what is being presented because it does not fit with what they know, and they wish to avoid cognitive dissonance (holding contradictory beliefs). This kind of situation occurs when someone has taken lessons with one instructor/sonwsport school (perhaps on a number of occasions) and then changes to another instructor (with a different background) and feels that the information being presented is very contradictory to what they have previously been told.


2) Negativity bias

This is where unpleasant thoughts, emotions and social interactions have greater impact on our psychological state than pleasant ones. Negative events are more heavily weighted than positive events.


This bias is particularly problematic as it allows the negative to grab and hijack our attention. This, in turn, takes our attention away from where it needs to be - on the task at hand - resulting in not only less effective learning but also eliminating the possibility of entering a flow state and reaping all of its benefits.


Instructor/Coach

An instructor may be unaware that the ratio of positive to negative feedback is not sufficiently stacked towards the positive. Research by Barbara Fredrickson suggests a ratio of 3:1 i.e., 3 positive emotions/experiences for every 1 negative are required to overcome the negativity bias.


Learner

The learner may only hear what they perceive as negative information even though positive information has been provided. This is quite common as learners tend to tune in to the negative information. It is important, therefore, that instructors really emphasise the positive by ensuring that positive feedback includes 'content' about why a performance was good.


3) Self-serving bias

This kind of bias is where we attribute successes to our own efforts and abilities while blaming others for our failures. This may be an attempt to protect our self-esteem or a sign that we have a low opinion of ourselves. While emotions such as pride can be expressed positively, or negatively, someone who is self-serving will tend to overuse this emotion.


Instructor/Coach

With this kind of bias an instructor may be inclined to take the credit for their student’s success while blaming them for any lack of success. The kind of emotions that are negatively expressed, in this situation, are pride (in taking the credit) and resentment (a kind of anger) when blaming the learner.


Learner

Success in a proficiency award, or instructor exam, will be seen as being down to them while failure will be the fault of the examiner, snow, weather etc. In some cases, candidates taking snowsport instructor exams blame a variety of external factors, after failing, even though they were not as well prepared as they could have been. This is often a face-saving exercise in order to protect their ego.


4) Ostrich effect

This is all about avoiding information or situations that we may perceive as being unpleasant which is where the phrase ‘burying your head in the sand’ comes from. The idea here is that if we ignore these things then we can pretend they don’t exist!


Instructor/Coach

In a worst-case scenario, an instructor may ignore obvious warning signs when skiing off piste, with their guests, leading to increased danger and associated risks. These risks could include very difficult snow conditions for the learners resulting in a higher risk of injury, or even worse taking the group into avalanche terrain after very changeable weather, recent snow, temperature changes, wind etc. resulting in the instructor, or members of the group, being avalanched.


Learner

With this type of bias, a learner may avoid dealing with their weaknesses and areas of development necessary to move towards their goals. For example, an instructor preparing for a technical module/exam may not put sufficient time into practicing a particular strand e.g., bumps, variable snow, piste performance short turns on icy snow conditions, or skiing in poor visibility.


5) Fundamental attribution error

This is where we tend to believe that what people say or do - their behaviour - reflects their personality rather than the situation or context. In other words, we over-attribute their behaviour and under-attribute the context.


Instructor/Coach

An instructor may jump to conclusions about a student based on their behaviour, during a session, because they are unaware of issues that occurred prior to the session. They then form an inaccurate impression about their personality.


Let's imagine the scenario where a parent of a young child is getting them ready for ski school and they do not want to go! A tantrum follows and eventually they manage to get their child to their lesson but not before there are lots of tears! By the time the parent arrives for their lesson they are stressed and worried about whether their child will enjoy their lesson. They are then distracted during their lesson perhaps giving the impression of being disinterested. One way to avoid falling foul of this bias is to show genuine interest in each student and ask them plenty of questions during lift riding time.


Learner

A learner may also form an incorrect opinion about the instructor, or fellow group member, for the same type of reason noted above i.e., being unaware of what has occurred in the build-up to the lesson.


6) Halo & horn effect

This is where our first impression of someone - such as their appearance or character - leads to us forming a biased opinion about their skills and abilities either positively (halo) or negatively (horn).

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Instructor/Coach

An instructor may be unaware that they unconsciously favour some people over others and therefore give them special treatment. In a snowsport instructor exam scenario this could even lead to biased performance rating based on those initial impressions.


Learner

A learner may warm to some peers more than others based on social stereotypes relating to culture, race, gender, athleticism, physical appearance etc. Therefore, the learner assigns positive qualities to certain people because they are, for example, slim and athletic looking, or negative qualities because they are overweight and scruffy. Of course, all of the aforementioned could equally apply to the instructor/coach's impression of their learners.


Antidote

There are a number of ways in which we can mitigate the potential of falling prey to our biases some of which have already been mentioned both in the introduction to this article and while unpacking each of the biases. However, let's discuss the antidote a little more so that we can really set about dismantling our biases for our future learning and teaching in snowsports.


The first part of the antidote is to understand the existence of different types of biases, and this involves education and discussion. Articles like this are a good starting point, but discussion needs to happen during snowsport instructor training courses and through continued professional development (CPD) sessions.


Individuals need to be open minded and prepared to accept that we are all biased to some extent. But the real change comes from developing our own self-awareness, knowing who we are, what our beliefs are, and how our upbringing has influenced us. We need to be aware of our own story and prepared to question our beliefs and examine other points of view. One of the best ways of cultivating this kind of attitude and presence is through meditation and mindfulness. This kind of practice helps us become less judgemental giving ourselves the space to respond and make better decisions, rather than being quick to judge and react.


Emotional intelligence

So, what does emotional intelligence have to do with our biases? And what is emotional intelligence?


Let me begin by answering the latter. Emotional intelligence is about expressing our emotions in a way that is appropriate to the context. This means the right amount (or intensity), at the right time and in the right way. It is also about being able to effortlessly shift from one emotion to another as the situation dictates. All emotions are useful - whether perceived as positive or negative - but what is crucial is that emotions lead to constructive, rather than destructive, behaviours and outcomes.


In answering the first question posed, about the relationship between emotional intelligence and our biases, I would say that when biases cloud our judgement our emotions can become destructive. The good news, however, is that we can begin to dismantle our biases through their 'identification' as discussed in the earlier section about 'antidote'. This means that by becoming more aware of who we are we can overcome our biases and learn to express our emotions in a constructive way. We should think about our emotions in the same way as we think about hygiene i.e., we need to constantly maintain our personal physical hygiene and we need to do the same with our emotional hygiene. And part of that process involves dismantling our unconscious biases, by bringing them into focus and making them conscious, thus allowing us to cultivate emotional balance.


My hope is that this blog will prompt some healthy discussion thereby bringing this important subject to the fore and perhaps encouraging others, be it individuals or organisations, to make this a topic covered in snowsport instructor education programs and at international events like Interski 2023 in Levi, Finland. If we, in the snowsports community, are serious about wellbeing for all then dismantling unconscious biases is an important part of achieving this goal.


This blog was inspired, in part, by my attendance at the recent Science & Wisdom of Emotions Summit organised by the Awake Network and the