When I initially thought about writing this blog it was going to be titled 'Teaching practice: why is it so important for snowsport instructors?', but then the bigger question came to the fore, which is whether we as an industry are producing the kind of snowsport instructors that employers want or that the industry needs? And I am referring more to the customer base in the UK and Ireland, although in the course of this article I will refer to other parts of the world as well.
To put things in context, I have been involved with three national training organisations of snowsport instructors over the last 30+ years: BASI, Snowsport Scotland (SSS) and IASI. I have been a student on courses run by all of these organisations and worked as a trainer, tutor and educator/examiner for all three and I still fulfil these roles for SSS and IASI. I guess I had slight reservations about writing this piece, not least because it raises important questions, which are vital for the future success (or not) of our industry and because this post could be interpreted as a comparison of the respective organisations strengths and weaknesses. However, that is certainly NOT the intention. This post is my perception on the future challenges our industry faces and whether we are 'ready' to meet those challenges. Also, I do not see these aforementioned organisations, necessarily, competing with each other, anymore than different snowsport schools, located in the same resort, do, because our 'competition' comes, primarily, from other leisure industries who are vying for people's limited free time. If one is of the mindset that the snowsport industry pie is limited in size then there is only so much to go around. But, if one sees the possibility of making the pie larger, then there will be a bigger slice available for each training/certification organisation and for each snowsport school. Therefore, the goal for our industry must be to increase participation at all levels and in all disciplines within snowsports.
Coming back to the title of this post and in particular teaching vs. technical, I am, of course, referring to the emphasis placed on these two areas within the training and certification pathways for snowsport instructors, part of which includes the teaching experience and practice that instructors get as they move through the levels.
What do employers want?
I recently read an excellent article on the European Snowsport (ES) school's website about 'the top five qualities your ski instructor must have' and interestingly none of these mentioned 'technical'. They were, personable, prepared, punctual & polite, passionate and perceptive. Julian Griffiths, who heads up ES, talks more about this in a recent interview with Dave Burrows of the very informative Ski Instructor Podcast. So it seems that what employers want is more to do with the so called soft skills (a somewhat condescending way of describing very important aspects/skills of the job) rather than the technical skiing/riding ability of the instructor? This is not to say that technical ability in not important but simply questions whether the systems are placing adequate emphasis on the teaching side of the job?
It is worth clarifying, at this point, that when referring to 'teaching' I am talking more about facilitating learning, understanding the learner, the connection between the instructor and the learner and last but not least creating fantastic guest experiences.
When I took my BASI Grade 3 (now level 2) exam back in 1987, on Cairngorm, I distinctly remember one of my examiners disappearing (to go to the toilet) during my teaching session only to return, as I concluded my lesson, saying to me "that it was a great lesson!!" Perhaps that is an extreme example but my perception, over the years, is that the teaching element has never had the same level of importance placed on it as the technical.
Having now attended four World Interski Congresses, including the last three in St. Anton, Ushuaia and Pamporovo, my experience is that the likes of the USA and Canada have been consistently at the forefront of training and producing snowsport instructors who are very well versed in teaching/learning and customer care skills. This is not to say that other nations do not see these areas as important, but there is certainly a degree of catch up going on. In Pamporovo it was pleasing to see the messages and content coming from nations such as Australia, GB and Ireland and interestingly the likes of Croatia (featured in Shona's recent blog) were much more customer focused. Indeed, Ireland's contribution to Interski very much focused on the well-being side of both the instructor and guest and how creating the right learning conditions can lead to greater enjoyment. And the new IASI manual has an excellent chapter titled, 'The Guest Experience' by Pete Gillespie who heads up the snowsport operations at The Snow Centre, Hemel Hempstead.
So, why (in terms of the UK and Ireland) is the balance more focused on the technical if what employers want is instructors who have the necessary skills to create fantastic guest experiences? Perhaps it is a cultural thing? After all the North Americans are renowned for their great customer care across many industries. But, more likely, it is because in Europe the UK and Ireland are connected and influenced by the more traditional Alpine nations who place a great deal of emphasis and importance on the technical performance of the snowsport instructor! And this is not for a moment suggesting that they do not value the teaching or guest experience side of things. Indeed, Switzerland's message in Pamporovo was all about creating magic moments for the guest. But one of the external factors driving our emphasis on technical are modules within the system like the Euro Speed Test, which we all know have little to do with being a good instructor. However, as they exist and are part of the new delegated act and common training tests (CTT) instructors moving through the certification levels need to find a way of balancing technical training with teaching practice. And national training organisations need to ensure that the teaching element produces the kind of snowsport instructors that the industry needs and that employers want.
So, returning to my original idea for a blog title, Teaching practice: why is it so important for snowsport instructors? My answer is, it makes no difference what skill we are talking about (teaching or technical), if you do not get sufficient quality practice then you cannot expect to be highly competent or expert in that area. There is NO shortcut to expertise. And the clue is in the word quality. Simply doing loads of hours of teaching is not enough. Instructors need to have the skills to reflect and review their teaching practice (an excellent message that came from GB/BASI in Pamporovo). In essence, the practice needs to be purposeful (Ericsson & Pool, 2016, Tate, 2017). In addition, instructors should make sure that they cover a wide range of experiences including levels, ages, group make up etc.
The associations that I have worked with all stipulate how much teaching practice should be done between certification levels. This has always been a minimum requirement but it seems that some instructors progressing through their levels are only doing the minimum when, in fact, they should look to try and double that number. There is no doubt that different training/working environments provide varying opportunities for instructors to gain work experience, so there is certainly an onus on training providers (e.g., for gap years) and employers/centres to ensure that the quality (as described earlier) is available to the student instructors. Interestingly, Snowsport Scotland's recent alignment with Snowsport England and Snowsport Wales in terms of the United Kingdom Snowsport Awards (UKSS) places a big emphasis on the completion of a log book on the journey from foundation to instructor level. If managed well this is certainly a positive move in relation to ensuring that the quality of teaching experience gained is of a high standard.
In summary, while there are encouraging signs from all the organisations that I have been involved with, I believe we can do a better job at producing snowsport instructors that the employers want and that our industry needs. We have many challenges facing our industry, not least global warming, but training and producing instructors that are experts in facilitating learning and creating fantastic and unforgettable experiences for our guests is completely in our control. We want to increase the size of the snowsport industry pie by ensuring that our guests Learn it, Love it, Live it.
Ericsson, K. A., & Pool, R. (2016). Peak : secrets from the new science of expertise. London: The Bodley Head.
Tate, D. (2017, July). Lesson 2: Purposeful practice. Flowing with Mindfulness, 1–5. Retrieved from https://www.flowingwithmindfulness.com/articles
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