Letters from Whistler – Part 2

I left off in my last letter with the news that I was promoted to Level Two. I was rather pleased with myself. I had no bones broken and no tendons or muscles torn; I can now stop and turn on slopes (very mild ones) at will; I finished the three lessons that Su had signed me up for; and I had a good time towards the end. Technically, I can now retire my skiing career.

Before I go on, let me say that skiing actually has a long history and that archaeologists have dated the activity to 2500 to 4000 BC in Sweden. It is now a standard fare in Winter Olympics and many industries have developed from the sport. Skiing is sometimes linked with mountain biking and trail-walking which are sports taking place in the same or adjacent grounds, but in different seasons. Whistler, for example, first became famous for its hiking and biking trails in the summer months before skiing was developed. The 2010 Winter Olympics considerably enhanced and modernized the skiing facilities there, which makes Whistler a must go for skiers.

Whistler now has a resident population of just over 10,000, but there is a daily mobile workforce of 2,800 and visitors of 15,000. During the Winter Olympics, the city was mobilized to cope with 50,000 visitors. This was made possible by requiring many residents to make available parts or the whole of their houses to accommodate the visitors. The week beginning on 13th February is President Week in the United States. It is also term break for many colleges in North America. Most hotels have reported full or near full occupancies, including the one we stay in.

There are about 1,200 ski coaches in Whistler. They operate under a strict regime which requires them to report for work every morning around 9:30am and again at 1pm. On certain days of the week, they are required to turn up at 7am for training. There are senior coaches whose task is to allocate students of similar skill levels to the appropriate coaches. A typical class comprises four students, but when there are insufficient students, a coach could be released to work with fewer numbers, sometimes even one or two students, or none at all, in the latter case of which he or she would not be remunerated for that particular session. Such pairing very often depends on the chemistry between coaches and students; and it does not require too much imagination to realize that young and pretty lady coaches are in great demand. I understand though that recruitment and selection of coaches can be a rather competitive and demanding process. Young men and women applicants from UK, Europe and North America would be selected for a 4-week training and observation, before they would be offered a job for six months, which is the normal length of a season beginning from November, with no guarantee of tenure. Typically, these young coaches are motivated to seek work because of the unemployment situation at home, but more often because they love skiing and are not desperate for more permanent jobs of careers. In other words, they come from reasonably well-to do families.

On the other hand, the more elderly and often more experienced coaches are either around or past retirement age. Some have taken the job as a second or third career, but nearly all have been motivated by the unique nature of the work and the often interesting and extraordinary people they tend to come across along the way.

Back to my own situation, Su suggested and nearly all the coaches we had met agreed that I should take a day off after the three lessons, and I had no problem with that. Meanwhile, Su signed herself up for another three lessons and suggested I do the same after the day of rest, adding that it would be a pity if I do not take advantage of the circumstances to refine and improve my newly acquired skills to a level that I would enjoy. She went on to cite learning to ride a bicycle as an example, where once one allows the skill to sink in sufficiently, one would remember it for life. I can hardly dispute such a well argued theoretical framework, having had some recent studies on education in general and the psychology of the learners in particular.

So I signed up for another three classes, which I completed today, to the satisfaction of both the trainers and the learner.

I had a different coach each day. They were all in their mid twenties. Dan comes from Surrey UK, Ali from Manchester UK and David from Cork Ireland. Both Dan and Ali are working on their first season while David, his third. My fellow students were mostly different from day to day, as were the numbers on each day. Each coach operated somewhat differently in terms of methodologies and approaches, but they were all generally and genuinely sympathetic with the learners. I learned something different from each of them and from my cohorts.

After the first day, or the fourth lesson, I was advised that I could be promoted to Level Three, which is a rather stretched out level involving wide ranging skill sets beginning with sharpening the skills on Level Two. I ended up staying in Level Two refining the various skills, but at the end of each of the following two lessons, I was assured that I was ready for Level Three if I wanted it.

The last rider “if I wanted it” is interesting and can itself be expanded into a few thesis proposals for a doctorate programme in education. Do I want it? Why would I want it? What added value would I get with it? What are the threats and opportunities that would entail? These are but the obvious questions that come to the mind, and there are others.

At least one of the young coaches had asked me whether I was happy with what I had achieved during the week, to which I replied that I was neither happy nor unhappy, but simply mindful of what had been going on. Such was my state of mind as I did the last run to board the gondola down to the village in drizzling snow. I had enjoyed the process, the exceptional tranquility at times, the changing scenes in the mountains, the children’s laughter, the different snowing patterns and ever changing weather and landscape, the forces of nature, the seemingly effortless skills displayed by the coaches and other skiers, and above all, the sudden and almost unexplainable transition in me from being consciously incompetent to consciously competent and even unconsciously competent. Such indeed is the joy of learning a new skill and I would like to believe that the more mindful coaches and for that matter teachers and trainers all over the world would experience even greater joy as they act as change agents imparting new knowledge and skills to people brought before them.

Tomorrow, I move onto Toronto and I hope to talk to you again soon.

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