7 Unexpected Things Learning to Ski Taught Me About Life

Japan Skiing 2

I love skiing. Looking out at the snow capped mountains, feeling like I’m on top of the world. Sliding off into the forest with all the anticipation of discovering a new trail. And cutting fresh tracks into the untouched snow.

But it wasn’t always this way.

It was with an unhealthy sense of terror that I fumbled out into the snow for the first time. And while I set out to learn how to ski down a mountain, ski lessons taught me so much more. My skiing improved, and what I learnt was reflected in so many other facets of my life.

Here are just a few of the things learning to ski taught me.

1. It’s Not Who You Think You Are That’s Holding You Back . . . It’s Who You Think You’re Not

I pulled my jacket tighter as my boots crunched across the blanket of fresh snow. Feldberg mountain was the highest point in Germany’s Black Forest and it was worth a look. Skiers weaved from left to right, carving wavy lines in the slope and paying no attention to the clueless, ski-less couple, ambling beyond the lift.

Skiing looked like fun . . . but not for me.

Skiing was for well-off middle-class people who grew up in the snow. It was for fit people with co-ordination. And cool people who had no fear.

I was none of these. I was the nerdy ‘type’ whose holidays revolved around galleries, and monuments, and museums. The cultured ‘type’ who might splash out on the theatre or dinner in a fancy restaurant. At a stretch, I might brave a hike. But the idea of skiing was as foreign as a trip to the moon.

What? Wait . . . Why!?!?!

The only reason I dragged my quivering body up a mountain with two planks strapped to my feet was because Colby had wanted to give it a go. And five years on, I love it more than him. I drag myself out of bed at first light and, my body protesting, ski until the last lift. I barely recognise that closed-minded girl, who’d stood, shivering at the bottom of Feldberg.

Why had I even put such ridiculous restrictions on myself?

Learning to ski has shown me that there is no list of pre-requisites for giving something a go. We are never “too anything” to start something new. Only too wrapped up in our own limiting beliefs. Quadriplegics ski. One-legged men ride bikes. Yet I was missing out on something I love because I thought I was too uncoordinated. Too uncool.

What are you missing out on because of who you think you’re not?

2. Success is not defined by a number of falls

My skis slid awkwardly in my arms as I stumbled onto the beginner slope, our instructor leading the way. It was so flat gravity didn’t even scare me. And after six painful hours of being dragged up the same 50 meters, sliding pigeon-toed to the bottom, and queuing among a bunch of kindergarteners to do it again, I was not only heartened, I was filled with pride. I hadn’t fallen over once.

But my fantasy of ‘success’, was soon to come crashing down . . . and so was I.

Brimming with confidence, on day two we took the chair lift and aimed for the sky. Things did not go well.

An angry group of skiers surrounded us before we’d even got off the chair. All speaking at once, in a foreign language, the broken ski pole cutting the air was the only hint we were the ones to have caused this debacle . . . and the day only got worse. Six hours later, a body covered in bruises and a snow-filled pair of ski pants, I finally reached the foot of the mountain. I wished the earth would open up and swallow me whole. I was a failure, and I never wanted to ski again.

Yet while I was obsessed with my inability to stay on my feet, (and the fact I’d broken someone’s ski pole) I’d overlooked so many small wins. I’d faced my fears. I’d learnt from my mistakes (Take your feet off footrest as the lift approaches the top so everyone can lift the safety bar!) . . . and I’d provided no end of entertainment to others.

It was silly of me to think I wouldn’t crash on only my second day. Yet our definition of success in life is often similarly limiting. Inevitably, we fall down in the pursuit of our goals. We make bad decisions, take a pay cuts, or lose money on investments. But when we label ourselves a ‘failure’ with each minor setback, we lose sight of the positives. Perhaps we’ve taken a risk. Conquered a fear. Or Inspired others to be the best they can.

Are you already a bigger success than you realise?

3. Where You Focus is Where You End Up

The instructor flexed into his boots and jabbed a pole at a tiny speck in the distance. “That’s where we’re headed,” he said with a grin.

I dug my skis into the snow, struggling to make out the pitched, snow-covered roofs of the village below.

“Skis pointing down the mountain and off you go!”

He said it as if pointing my skis downhill wasn’t the most terrifying thing in the world. As if launching off the side of a mountain was completely sane. And as if there was no reason to consider my capacity to kill a small child who may happen into my path.

He watched with anticipation as I scanned the snow. I plotted my path, meter by painstaking meter, identifying obstacles, picking my way around them and mentally clawing at the mountain like a nervous cat. Finally, I pointed my skis downwards.

And went nowhere . . . except straight into the trees I’d hoped to avoid. I dragged myself up, only to do it again and again.

While I’d thought focussing on obstacles would give me control to avoid them, all it did was send me straight into them. As terrifying as it was, I needed to shift my focus. To fix my eyes on the village at the bottom of the mountain and point my skis straight toward it.

It’s terrifying to take our eyes off perceived obstacles in life. After all, how do we get around them if we can’t see them? We’re careful not to eat too much, so God forbid, we don’t get too fat. Don’t end up in a dead-end job. Don’t turn out like our mothers. But while we’re focussing on what we don’t want, we’re losing sight of what we do.

Forget the obstacles between you and your dreams. Where is it you want to end up?

4. When You Trust Yourself You No Longer Need to Control Everything

The trail disappeared. Thick cloud swallowed everything beyond my nose, and the world swirled in a sea of white. Up was down and down was up and even as I came to a stop I struggled to hold myself up . . . or was it down? So this, was the dreaded whiteout.

I couldn’t plot a course. Hazards disappeared. And my worst nightmare was realised; small children were invisible. My hands shook with more than just cold. There was no way I could get down from here.

Or perhaps there was. Perhaps it all rested on my ability to trust myself.

I’d learnt everything I needed to know. I knew the slope. I knew how to stop in an instant. And I knew how to ski the uneven surface, even if I couldn’t see it. ‘Seeing’ wasn’t going to get me down. ‘Feeling’ was.

I let gravity pull my skis valley-ward, gliding over the puffy snow. I leant into the mountain and opened out to the valley repeating every mantra my instructors had ever told me. I let momentum guide me, through the turns and down, out of the cloud. There was no need to analyse every little bump. I had what it took, I only had to trust my own ability.

While our minds are swept up in thought, in analysing options and formulating plans, our intuition is lost. Answers to our most challenging problems often appear when we’re at our most relaxed.

In the words of Louise Hay, you do know exactly what to do.

5. Work Smarter Not Harder

“You’re pretty fit right?” My instructor stared down at me, sprawled in the snow.

Our third ski trip and I still skied like a crab.

“I don’t know too many people who can ski in the kind of sumo squat you just did.” He raised an eyebrow above his glasses as I dragged myself out of the snow.

Now that he mentioned it, I was fit . . . especially in the face of the fifty-year-old, hundred kilo man who’d just bombed down the slope, too close for comfort. Clearly, I was doing it all wrong.

“This shouldn’t be hard work,” he continued. “You should be using your body weight to control your direction, not your muscles.”

But I was good at working harder, not smarter, and not just on the ski slopes. For years I’d worked hard, putting in as much extra effort and as many extra hours as I could. Because hard work paid off. Right? And I was a woman on a mission. I had my sights set somewhere near the top of the corporate ladder and I would give my all to get there.

Only while I was tying my quads in knots, just to keep myself vertical, fat, old men were gliding effortlessly past. And while I had my head down and bum up, waiting for my hard work to pay off, others were building relationships, forming networks and setting themselves up for a much easier path toward my goals. I needed to relax. To use my networks and go with the flow. Because this was the momentum I could use to control my direction, without relying solely on hard work.

What ‘momentum’ can you use to work smarter not harder?

6. Rest . . . For Better Performance

I possibly come from the farthest capital city in the world from the snow. So skiing usually involves a two-day journey and a small fortune just to get to the slopes. And when I finally arrive, I am committed to wringing every second of enjoyment from that snow before it’s time to leave.

Usually however, my body begins to protest by day four. I drag myself out of bed, propping my eyes open with coffee, and refusing to be beaten by mounting fatigue. I’ll ski through the aches and bruises. I’ll ignore the warnings of wavering form. And I’ll ski until I’m shocked into submission.

This usually involves hurtling down a slope, brain screaming panicked instructions but body refusing to respond.

My body does come to the party . . . most of the time. But not before it has shocked me into taking a break . . . even if the lifts have only just opened.

Sadly, this is also the way I live my life. Bouncing out of bed, pouring coffee down my throat and filling every last second with meaningful achievement. Guilt consumes me if I waste so much as 5 minutes on the couch, an endless list of ‘should-dos’ nagging in my mind.

The consequences of getting up and ticking one more ‘should’ off the list, pale in comparison to speeding down a mountain with dodgy brake muscles. But the compounding effects of ignoring the will to rest are equally as damaging. Our bodies are subtle in the way they speak, and with strong, vocal minds, it’s easy for them to go unheard. And while we might not be left teetering precariously on the edge of a mountain, we might be more forgetful than usual. More irritable. More exhausted. Instead of writing these off as further reasons to chastise ourselves, perhaps we should realise, it’s time to take a break.

What subtle messages have you been ignoring?

7. Everything you want is on the other side of your fears

I don’t remember how it feels to stand at the top of a slope, body trembling and heart thumping. To be convinced catastrophe is imminent. And to be so afraid that tears streamed down my cheeks. I don’t remember what it’s like to be paralysed by fear.

Yet that’s exactly what I’d been.

This week I stood on the same slope that had brought me to tears five years earlier, those feelings of dread now so foreign. So primitive. So ridiculous even.

But they’d been so real.

I still have my moments. In challenging terrain or when my head’s not in the game. Visions of injury, and all the things I’d have to give up stop me in my tracks. But I refuse to entertain the fear. Because as soon as I feed it, it only gets stronger.

There are many scary things in life. Big, small, real or perceived. But when we recognise fear, and our responses to it, its easy to see the barriers between us and what we say we really want.

And it’s easy to see that everything we want is on the other side of our fears.

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