Nigel’s Q&A with Dr. Ken

Back in the day, if you were looking to interview a ski instructor, the best place to find a suitable specimen would have been in the deepest, darkest, smokiest recesses of an Austrian bar. Nowadays, just like the rest of us, ski instructors have matured.  This interview was conducted remotely; I was on my deck, and Ken was in his private jet.

Once a part time job of young party people, ski instruction has grown up, settled down, and become (more or less) respectable. Becoming a ski instructor these days requires the candidate to do much more than cram their peachy butt into a really, really tight pair of neoprene pants and make a few nice turns.

The modern  instructor is likely to speak a few languages,  to have worked in numerous countries, and have attended dozens of training and certification courses in subjects spanning not just skiing’s various disciplines, but also the theory of how people learn, sports mechanics, avalanche awareness, and first aid. Modern skis demand more from the skier in terms of skill and fitness; gone are the Marlboros and epic daily apres parties and in their place have come gyms, jogging and kale smoothies. If you want to become a ski instructor these days you have to be prepared to knuckle down – a month without a day off skis is not uncommon.

Section 8’s latest Cameo Coach is Ken Paynter. A long time Whistler Blackcomb resident, dedicated to skiing and the teaching of skiing, Ken is not just a level 4 Instructor, but also one of the level 4 examiners who get to decide whether other people can finally have a level 4 badge of their very own…….. Mostly, he says “no”!

In this interview I wanted to find out what processes he goes through in his own skiing and teaching to make sure he gives himself every opportunity to be the best he can possibly be,  so I can steal all his ideas and thus pass my own level 4. There were a million questions that were begging to be asked, but I managed to keep it to a very modest 8; curiously enough, the number of times I have failed my level 4.

Ken is going to be working with Tobin and myself on Section 8’s pre season performance camp in Hintertux in October of 2017. If you have any questions you want to ask him, you’ll find him in the bar.

The Interview:

Nigel: Not a very original question but an important one: Why, when and how did you get into teaching skiing?

Ken: I got into skiing as a child. My whole family skied and taking lessons was always a part of the experience. It seemed like a logical progression to go from taking lessons into giving lessons. I always had great respect for my instructors. I was 18 years old when I got my CSIA level 2. Teaching on weekends helped pay for my university studies. I hadn’t planned for making a career of skiing. I was working on completing a business degree.

Nigel: What’s the first thing you think when you wake up on a ski day (apart from “where’s the coffee?”).

Ken: I must admit that my perspective is somewhat selfish. The first thing I think about on a ski (teaching) day is how much I will personally enjoy the skiing experience. It’s good news ‘all round ‘ however as I pride myself on transferring that passion for positive skiing sensations over to my students. If I can teach my students how (and when) to make specific moves on certain terrain and snow conditions to produce a positive outcome (and sensations), then I have done my job…and that is very satisfying.

Nigel:  How long does it take at the start of a season until you feel like you are skiing like a god? Is there anything you do to speed the process up?

Ken: The start of the season is never the time to push the limits of speed and terrain. I always start my season working on the basics of how I’m standing and where the turning effort is coming from. This may mean wedge type turns and side slipping for the first few days. From there, intermediate parallel with a focus on appropriate timing becomes the strategy. Timing of moves is just not quite there early in the season. If I do any carving, it’s on green, groomed terrain where mistakes have minimal consequences.

Nigel: Can you describe the process of setting goals when working with knowledgeable skiers?

Ken: Goal setting with knowledgeable skiers begins by first defining the desired outcome of a specific run. An example of this would be…”on this steep terrain, controlling your speed while prescribing round, consistent turns is the desired outcome. Our turn size will be small and the ski needs to be steered versus carved.” This process of establishing the goal of a specific run leads logically into “here are the moves you (the individual) needs to make in order to achieve this goal.” This connects the “why’s” to the “how’s”.

Nigel:  If you know you have a week to work with a skier rather than just a half day session, how do you alter your teaching approach and goal setting?

Ken: Having a full week to work with a skier (versus just a day) allows me to develop the implications and applications of an action (body movement) relative to the various desired outcomes in different situations. For example, if I teach a skier how to turn effectively from the lower body (legs and feet) a full week lesson allows me to explore with that student how that action applies to carving perfect arcs down a groomed run, or how that action applies to playfully conquering a steep mogul run. Same skill, different application.

Nigel: Besides the technical goals you agree with your student, what over-arching goal do you work towards?

Ken: The technical goals make no sense unless connected to desired outcomes and specific body moves and feelings. No move (action) should ever be taught without a connection to how this action will change (improve) how the ski will interact with the snow. An example of this would be…”the over riding goal of your skiing is to establish a smooth arc through the top part of your turn leading into the fall line. To achieve this you need to develop a stronger leg turning effort early in the turn. You will feel like your balance point is further back and the top part of the turn happens slowly. Ultimately, you will feel like you’re riding the ski into the fall line versus displacing the tail.” This is just one example of how complete the goal setting effort has to be.

Nigel: What one thing do you keep in mind above all else when teaching?

Ken: Developing in my students how to think about the skiing experience is the over riding thing I’m ultimately trying to teach. When you watch an individual’s behaviour on the ski hill you are really looking inside the brain of that individual. For example if a beginner skier stops underneath a knoll (where they can be hit) my job is not only to move that skier but also to explain how that action (stopping under a knoll) is dangerous and should be avoided. This way I am developing in that entry level skier proper thinkIng. Likewise, with an experienced skier, watching that individual struggle down a difficult bump run, my job becomes one of showing that person all the ways in which the bumps themselves present easy turning opportunities. “It’s not that you haven’t got the skill, it’s just that you haven’t learned to read (the bumps) yet.” If I’ve done my job well, than the skier thinks differently (seeing opportunity) in the bumps than he or she did prior to the lesson.

Nigel: If you weren’t a professional ski teacher, what would you do, and why?

Ken: If I wasn’t a ski instructor, I would like to be the captain of a tug boat. This is simply because the specific individual who I most admire (and aspire to be like) happens to be the captain of a tug boat. He is calm, respectful, unassuming, confident, reflective. He knows how to party and has great love for the women in his life. He has no time for the more primal human emotions of envy, jealousy, or greed. He makes no excuses. He is the individual you want to be around in times of joy and in times of struggle. He is unshakable and his persona is exactly that of the vessel he pilots. Everything about this person says…”don’t worry, I’ve got you.”