Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Defining Your Level

If you ever need to define your skiing level then the best way is probably in terms of "awareness". It takes a great deal of practice at anything to develop awareness - not just any practice but targeted and focused practice.

The word "consciousness" has an almost mythical signification in many circles. In psychology people usually even avoid discussing it because nobody can get close to defining it. Religions stake their claim to it and try to define it as a fundamental property of the universe, often through pseudo-science and misinterpretations of quantum physics. Well, I'd like to state my position rather differently on this subject: Consciousness is nothing more than a "learning tool". Most animals have their behaviour almost completely hardwired by instinct. Humans and a few other creatures can re-program a great deal of their behaviour. Consciousness is just a simple feedback loop that permits us to "correct" unwanted behaviour by ourselves. It makes us adaptable and helps us to survive. Basic instincts can only get us so far - to go farther we need to be able to learn. Once we re-program ourselves the aim is to be able to carry out the new task fluently and unconsciously - like driving a car while thinking of something else. Once the new programming is assimilated and unconscious it is called a skill. Skillful skiing is not a conscious activity and that's partly what makes it fun. The French don't have a word for skill, surprisingly. They don't have a word for "awareness" either; they only have the word "consciousness" in their vocabulary. To the French there is no distinction between the two - and I think they are right.

Skill is never achieved without passing through many levels of awareness and it is not maintained without being able to call upon that awareness when required. Adults generally improve rapidly when their awareness is developed by practice targeted and focused though a clear and accurate understanding. Children have slightly more forgiving physical parameters to deal with (they accelerate less and have a better power to weight ratio etc.) so they can develop awareness more easily through exposure to physical constraints such as slalom poles and competition; another form of target and focus. Unfortunately most children are destroyed by this form of training and only a few adapt - with natural selection playing a key role. For those who succeed the key still remains awareness - though they may not be able to articulate this awareness as they don't have an intellectual understanding.

Regardless of how a skier develops skill there will always be a counter intuitive process involved. This process has to overcome basic instincts and drives. Racing forces a few people to do this correctly - but most fail - there are few "winners". Instruction on the other hand tends to fail less drastically but nevertheless it fails because teaching systems normally avoid the difficulty of helping people to bypass their instincts. It's very difficult for a student to face fears, suppress drives and instincts and to alter all the perceptions that go along with them – especially for someone whose idea of a skiing holiday is “effortless fun”. Developing awareness is a process of progressively overcoming all of those obstacles and the extent to which that is achieved is the real measure of a skier's level. The extent to which an instructor can orient students in that direction is a measure of the instructor’s level.

Ultimately, not all students can be oriented in the appropriate direction. Awareness, shifting perceptions, counter intuition, dealing with fear and instinctive drives all come together under the heading of "personal development" and not everyone either can nor wants to go in that direction with their lives. The popular xfactor talent competition provides a fitting analogy. Yes the music on that show is cultural garbage - but put that aside for a moment. The point is that during the auditions many "artists" present performances that are absolutely terrible - but they are unaware that they are terrible. They have basically not practiced in an appropriate, targeted and focussed manner with appropriate feedback. They perceive themselves as wonderful and their performances as being exceptional. Their lack of awareness is simply shocking to anyone observing objectively from the exterior. When such people are criticised the normal response is to reject the criticism, to take offense and react emotionally - all at the level of basic defensive instincts. It's up to the person then to choose to either learn from all this feedback or to sink even further into self delusion. Those people have their self-esteem, their egos, their definition of themselves all tied up in this and even the most constructive criticism can be impossible for them to take on board. Personal development only happens when people make the choice to deal with those delusions - which we are all susceptible to as part of basic human nature. Skiing is a "performance" every bit as much as a musician playing piano or singing and so it suffers from the same psychological issues. Many skiers have a completely delusional perspective of their own level and are very difficult to help. Those are the xfactor skiers. My solution is to send them to an appropriate "xfactor" type of ski school happy to take their money and even flatter them because I don't have the time, energy or desire necessary to change them. Some things we have to do for ourselves. In the actual talent competition they are simply kicked out at the start. The smart ones get the message and adapt.

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