With April Coble Eller, Mike Frankenbush, Mike McCormick, Chet Raley and Ron Scarpa
If you’re anything like the majority of people who water ski, the closest you’ve probably come to a skiing lesson has been advice from a buddy who knows (or thinks he knows) more than you do. And there’s a good chance you’ve been skiing for many years with little or no improvement. But there’s no better time to decide to take your skiing to the next level. Professional lessons are the key. After all, anyone who loves to ski as much as you do deserves to improve the easy way.
Of course, signing up for lessons, let alone taking them, can be intimidating. Ski schools are as different as the people who run them and the folks who attend them and they’re located all over the country. Simply figuring out where to start can be overwhelming enough to make some people give up. Well, that isn’t going to be you. Why? Because on the page below, all of your ski-school questions are answered. So curl up next to the fireplace, sift through this information and then break out your day planner. Your water-ski instructional getaway is sooner than you think.
THE SELECTION CRITERIA
* Identify your needs
Water-ski lessons are easy enough to find, and there are plenty of places to choose from. But choosing the right place for you will maximize your ski-school experience. As a prospective student, the first thing you need to identify is why you are going to ski school: Are you or family members going to learn to water ski for the first time? Are you looking to do all three events — slalom, tricks and jump — but you want more emphasis on tricks? Are you looking for a ski school that also provides a safe, fun environment for your children? Are you traveling on business and want to find a ski school close to your conference? Are you trying to combine ski school with a real vacation? Finding a ski school that will meet your personal needs should be your primary concern.
Ron Scarpa, head coach at Ron Scarpa Watersports, says, “People attend ski schools for several different reasons. Some people have very specific goals they are trying to achieve. Others just want to take a few ski rides. Maybe they live up north and they’re going somewhere warm for a convention or vacation and they want to include some skiing. And finally, you get those who are going to catch a couple days of skiing and a couple days of vacation. When I’m trying to book somebody or help them out, I try to assess what their needs are. I’m trying to help them weigh what’s important so that when they get here, they accomplish everything they were looking to do.”
* Start communication
Once you’ve determined your specific ski school needs, the next step is to identify the schools that meet your needs. You might want to begin by looking online, checking out the ski schools advertised in this publication, and asking friends and the local club or ski shop.
Next, it’s time to get in touch. Call or e-mail the school. Ask who will be coaching you at each school, especially in the area of expertise you’re looking for. Find out if there’s one specific coach on staff or if the coaching job is shared among multiple coaches. Chet Raley, head coach at the Palm Beach Training Center, explains a coaching rule of thumb: “If you are getting results with one particular coach, I suggest you stick with that coach. That is unless the particular ski school has really done a great job of solidifying their coaches and putting them all on the same page. Otherwise, you could get four different ideas from four different instructors. If you have one coach and you have successful gains with that one coach, either mentally or physically, if you feel like you’ve made progress, you have no reason to change.”
While researching the ski-school coaches, you may want to know how old the coaches are. Age doesn’t necessarily indicate expertise, but you will want to make sure the coach is at a level of maturity that suits your style, whether younger or older. Whether your coach is male or female may also affect your learning and your comfort level.
Once you’ve scoped out the coaching situation, Mike Frankenbush, head coach at Walkin on Water, says your next step is to check on space availability. “Find out how many students are usually booked during the week you’re inquiring about,” Frankenbush says. “You might not want to go on a week that is really overloaded, but you might not want to be the only one there, either. You’ll want the one-on-one attention, but you’ll also learn a lot from watching others. Also ask if the coach you’re seeking to work with will be there when you are. Many of the pros who also coach travel a lot. You don’t want to show up just to find they’re out of town.”
Remember, you’re looking for the best possible coaching available for you and your needs. If you’re going to ski school for an entry-level lesson, you’ll probably learn plenty from whatever coach the school provides. However, if you’re going to learn a specific trick or to pick up another pass in slalom, you’ll probably want the school’s specialist in that particular event.
After you’ve asked about the coaching, April Coble Eller, head coach at Coble Ski School, recommends researching the nitty-gritty facts that may be important to you. “First, you’ll want to ask about on-site accommodations or hotels and meals. Secondly, are there nightly activities when skiing is finished? Is there supervision for minors? Does the ski school demo equipment? Is ski tuning included in the price or is it extra? How many days and ski sets does the package include? Are alcohol or smoking allowed on the site? How close is the airport? Does the ski school provide pickup and drop-off or do you need a rental car? And finally, how does the payment plan work? Will you be paying for the week or by the day? Some ski schools let you pay for lessons ‘a la carte.’”
* Get referrals
Don’t just take the ski school’s word for how super it is — get a referral. Raley makes a great point: “I wouldn’t expect any ski-school owner to say anything else but that their ski school is the best. Look for referrals. You want to know what another student got out of that particular ski school and what he or she liked so much about it. If you don’t know anyone who has ever been to the ski school you’re considering, I would call the local pro shop in that area, WaterSki magazine or USA Water Ski. Find out what they have to say about the school and ask if it is appropriate for your level and your needs.”
* Don’t worry about …
There are obviously plenty of “to-do’s” when selecting a ski school, so here’s a list of things you can stop worrying about now. Raley says, “Most ski schools are relatively close in price, so don’t base your decision merely on money. Secondly, don’t worry about location either, because most ski schools have a good enough location to be successful at what they’re doing already.
Micheal McCormick, head coach at McCormick’s Water Ski School, points out that “the particular brand of boats a ski school has isn’t really important. You’re going there to learn, not specifically to ski behind a certain boat. Of course, the boats should be appropriate for your needs, but the specific brand shouldn’t be an issue.”
Another big misconception lots of people have is the perception that more skiing is more value. As Scarpa says, “That perception is totally untrue. It is more important to balance the right amount of skiing. You’re looking for quality and not quantity. If you ski too many sets the first few days, you’re going to be one sore dude and you certainly won’t be maximizing your week.”
WHAT TO DO
Prior to your arrival …
1. Get in shape.
Of course, it is always best if you can be skiing before arriving at ski school. But depending on the time of year, you may not have the opportunity to be out on the water. In this case, prepare yourself with some kind of strengthening program. Cardiovascular training is critical as well. If you’re looking for a specific set of exercises to do, Scarpa suggests “sit-ups, push-ups, pull-ups and squats, because these, like skiing and barefooting, are using all your body parts. Dry land practice is also great. Put a handle in your hand, close your eyes and go through the movements.”
Don’t overdue the strength training in the few days leading up to ski school. Frankenbush says, “You shouldn’t be lifting for two or three days before your arrival at ski school. Otherwise, you’ll be too fatigued from the lifting to maximize your on-water lessons.”
2. See skiing as a thinking game, not just a physical game.
Raley recommends “doing skills that enhance your memory, attention to detail and attention to task. Activities such as plyometrics, chess, reading (especially articles about skiing), concentration drills, and skills that cause you to put your mind in the game instead of just your body are the best. When you go to ski school, someone is going to ask you to do something different than you’ve ever done before. You must be ready, willing and able to do that mentally.”
3. Write down a list of goals.
The goals should be specific and relative to how long you are staying at the ski school. Your list could include tricks you want to learn, or whether you want to work on technique or push the limits of shortline slalom or learn to three-quarter cut in jump. After you set your specific goals, relay this goals list to the coach. Allow the coach to look over this list and help you decide if it’s realistic. Finally, readjust it so you can maximize your plan.
4. Gather all pertinent ski school information.
Know where you’re going before you get there. Monday morning is usually pretty hectic at ski schools. If you don’t have directions, and show up 30 minutes late needing everything, it’s not a good way to start off your week. Pin down the directions and accommodations before showing up, and get a copy of the school’s daily schedule.
5. Kids going to ski school? Prepare them.
As a parent, there are some special things you can do to help your kids get ready for ski school. Here’s a helpful list put together by Coble Eller: 1. Pack like you’d be going to the lake yourself. Remember all your ski gear if you have it, sunscreen, towels, toiletries, clothes for all kinds of weather, money, phone cards and bedsheets if needed. 2. Remind your kids to be on their best behavior; after all, this is a school. The better they behave, the better their learning experience will be. 3. Be aware of drop-off and pickup times. Arrive a little early the last day and you may be able to watch them ski. 4. Take the kids skiing a time or two before sending them to ski school.
During your stay …
1. Make each set count.
As McCormick likes to say, “Don’t just ski to ski! Try to maximize each set by being strong. Spread your sets out so you have plenty of rest between each lesson. However, if you’re too tired to go out and implement the skills you’re working to learn, it’s better to stay on the dock.”
2. Ride in the boat while other students are taking lessons.
Most skiers and coaches find that this is second only to skiing yourself for learning. Many people are more visual learners than listening learners. Because riding in the boat forces you to listen to what the coach is saying while simultaneously seeing someone doing it on the water, you can relate to it more than when it is spoken to you.
3. Pay attention to your coach.
They are usually experienced and they recognize when fatigue has set in. Raley points out that you should trust your coach. “Don’t worry about whether or not you get your full eight passes, or 10 passes, or whether you take three rides a day, or five, or whatever you think you came to ski school for. Instead, focus on getting as much quality out of it as you can. Take as much absolute learning home with you as possible.”
4. Leave something on the table after the first day.
Scarpa explains that “most people come down to ski school and get too fired up the first day. The weather is warm, the conditions are pristine and you’re receiving coaching. Your brain is telling you to ski more and learn more. The problem is that your body is probably not ready for this. You don’t want to be so exhausted and sore after the first day that your week is over.”
5. Protect yourself from the sun.
Even though you probably want to catch some sun, protect yourself from it. In Florida, Scarpa has had “people down at my ski school so sunburned they could hardly put on their wetsuit. Even worse, the water feels cold and stings when your skin is burned.”
6. Exercise during ski school.
Get up in the morning and go for a swim, a brisk walk or a jog before skiing. You are invigorated! Your performance and focus tend to be better after you’ve gotten your blood flowing and increased your circulation.
7. Take video.
Frankenbush encourages his students to bring a video camera along with them. “The perks,” he says, “of being able to watch the video each night after ski school and analyze what you’ve learned and what you’re still doing right and wrong will help you learn at a quicker rate. The coach’s words should also be recorded to remind you of what specific things you should be focusing on.”
8. Keep a journal.
At the end of each set, write down your keys. While video can be a productive learning tool, Raley makes an interesting argument against video: “I don’t encourage video. Of course, video is a good record, it helps you remember the coach’s words, but as we all know, when we see it, hear it and write it, we tend to remember it better. I would suggest seeing something through your own eyes, hearing it from the coach’s perspective and then writing it down. Write it in your own words and in the coach’s words. Sitting down with paper and pen really forces you to regurgitate the information you’ve come up with it.”
9. Do dry land practice.
Between your sets on the water, practice and visualize your keys. Go through your trick run on shore. Tie your slalom rope to a tree and go through the specific moves and motions you’re trying to implement on the water. See yourself doing it just as you would want to do it on the water. Take the boat and water out of the picture and really work on the fundamentals of what you’re being asked to do.
10. Set a realistic schedule.
When people go to ski school, they tend just to show up and go with no real plan in mind. Many coaches recommend breaking up the week. “We have our students arrive on a Wednesday,” Scarpa says. “They ski Thursday and Friday and have the weekend off. Then they’ll ski Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. This has multiple benefits: First, the students get a Saturday night stay, which usually means cheaper airfare. Secondly, they get the weekend to rest, go sightseeing or hang with the family. Finally, the extra rest time keeps them fresh and focused and they end up getting more quality time on the water. Most ski schools will work with you on scheduling to help meet your needs and maximize your experience.”
At home sweet home …
1. Go back to the basics.
Obviously, the coach was trying to teach you new skills while you were attending ski school. However, there’s a good chance that you did
n’t leave ski school with the level of mastery you were taught. Raley suggests “breaking down what you worked on step by step. Focus on individual skills one at a time. The goal is to elicit some level of mastery with each skill. Remember that you are now the trainer and the master. Once you’ve got the mastery, it is time to go back to ski school.”
2. Read the journal you kept while at ski school.
If you kept the journal we suggested, this could become a valuable reference tool now that you’re at home. McCormick says, “It is smart to have the coach write in the journal what you worked on, the highlights of your week and the goals you and the coach set.”
3. Keep in touch with the coach.
When you hit a brick wall at home, it might help you to talk through it with the coach you worked with at ski school. You can call or just shoot them an e-mail. McCormick explains, “Hearing the coach’s words may remind you of what was working for you. Nowadays, you can even send the ski school a video clip of your skiing by e-mail and the coach can watch it, see what you’re doing and then discuss it or send you an e-mail with advice.”
4. Adhere to similar principles.
Scarpa leads his students in a stretching program before they hit the water every day. He also tries to teach them how to think for themselves by helping them monitor their own sets while at ski school. They learn how many times a day they should ski, how long the sets should be, and so on. Scarpa says, “Most smart people adopt the program or technique that I teach while they are here and then they duplicate it once they’re back at home. The ding-dongs don’t.”
5. Don’t beat a dead horse.
Everyone eventually ends up in a slump or a rut. As Frankenbush points out, “Because skiing is so mental, it can be tough to regain a trick or something you learned at ski school after repeatedly taking hard falls. Instead of failing over and over again, go back to the basics you were initially taught at ski school to master that trick or pass in the first place. Work on the very fundamental basics and build back up to relearning the trick you lost for that short while.”
The Coaches’ Ski School Don’ts
* Don’t mention gators.
In Florida, people expect to see alligators. Though most gators avoid people, we love to give students what they expect, so we “gator” them. “Gatoring” involves the coach getting up to talk to the skier while the boat rider, who is also a culprit in the crime, slips out over the side of the boat while the skier is intently watching the coach. The driver shuts the engine off and the boat rider swims under the boat and grabs the student by the leg. Even those who live in Florida regularly give a good shout and scream. – Chet Raley
* Don’t try to be the coach.
Typically, you will ride in the boat and watch other students ski. You’re probably all excited to be at ski school and it becomes so tempting to yell suggestions to the student, especially when you think you can help. Try to resist helping and let the coach do his job. Your words of wisdom can confuse the skier, may not even be correct and, even if you are correct, you probably aren’t explaining it the way the coach wants the student to think about it. – Mike Frankenbush
* Don’t turn the boat into your office.
Asking the driver or coach to stop the boat or speak softly so you can talk on your cell phone and conduct business from the boat isn’t appreciated. You aren’t at ski school to kill two birds with one stone. Limit your cell phone calls from the boat to emergencies only. – Mike Frankenbush
* Don’t go looking for romance.
Even though a week of lovin’ may sound appealing, you won’t be thinking that when your ski school significant other is stalking you with endless phone calls, e-mails and letters once you’re back at home. – Mike McCormicck
* Don’t bring your pets.
Whether you’ve opted to stay on-site in a bunkhouse, in a hotel or in an RV, most ski school sites don’t want your animals as guests. Unfortunately, you need to leave them at home. – Mike McCormick
* Don’t buy stock in fast food.
Eating fast foods and drinking sodas all day long may be convenient, but it won’t help you maximize your training. Keep your body well fueled so you can focus on your lessons and have sufficient strength. – Mike McCormick
* Don’t pee in your suit.
This one is especially applicable for the barefoot and wakeboard
students because this group loads up in the boat together and
goes out for hours on end. Trust us, by the end of the week, the
combination of urine and heat isn’t a good one. – Ron Scarpa
* Don’t wet the boat driver.
A crabby boat driver in wet clothes guarantees you won’t learn that next trick or run that next pass. – Ron Scarpa
* Don’t become the uneducated buyer.
Spending two grand on equipment before you know what you like won’t make you a better skier. Demo as much gear as possible before slapping down the plastic. – April Coble Eller
* Don’t be the last one to pick up your kid.
While you may be enjoying a quiet, romantic week with your significant other, your kid won’t be happy if he or she is the last child to be picked up. Most parents are going to show up early enough to watch their kid’s last ski set. Additionally, not all camps are five days long, so be sure you know what day and time you’re scheduled to pick up your kid. – April Coble Eller