When I teach a ski lesson, I always like to incorporate some element of Adventure that will expand the comfort zone of the skier and help them grow. In this exercise of trust it is important to have a syntax in which the skier and I can communicate, and I call this the Zones of Comfort and Fear.
I first shared this with my students in 1992 and since then incorporated lessons from many people and genres, most notably from John Phillips at Aspen Mountain in the mid-90s, and breathing techniques from Hatha Yoga I learned at Yoga Teacher Training in Bali.
Having this common language
1) Allows the skier to identify their own thresholds and notice their progression through the Zones,
2) Allows the skier to feel more comfortable describing to me their mental and emotional states, and
3) Allows me to communicate a gameplan for the lesson and provide clear feedback.
The Zones are unique to each individual.
They are not directly correlated to ski run labels of green, blue, and black – there are many more factors influencing the Zones including skier ability, past experience, crowds, effects of altitude, sleep quality, mental state, terrain (powder, ice, moguls), and time of day (visibility, fatigue).
These Zones are not fixed nor precisely measurable. For example, an intermediate mogul run that is identified as a Yellow Zone activity eventually becomes a Green Zone activity after the skier gets comfortable with it. Also, when a student is standing above a run and looking in, the “fear of the unknown” can be quite strong. Once the skier “takes action”, there will usually be a 0.5 to 1 Zone increase in comfort level.
Zone 1: The Green Zone
The student will feel very comfortable this Zone. Internal and external threats are perceived to be at a minimum.
This is the point to add to the student’s knowledge base. Combine “learned” and “activity” knowledge by explaining and demonstrating new movements then running exercises & drills in this Zone. Remember that “a sailing ship is safe in a harbor, but that is not where sailing ships were meant to be sailed.” Bring your students to the next Zone to work on expanding their Green Zone.
Zone 2: Optimal Performance Zone
The OP Zone. The student will naturally have a heightened level of awareness and mental acuity due to adrenaline and endorphins, and might express joy and happiness and some hoots and hollers.
The Optimal Performance Zone is created when the student experiences the stress/arousal of applying their knowledge and developed skill in a new and slightly more challenging environment.
I enjoy spending time with my student in this Zone. It offers the potential to make the most progress toward their goals and we can ski in terrain which is interesting to them. When we pace the lesson properly we can stay in the OP Zone for an extended period of time and the Green-OP Zone and OP-Yellow Zone thresholds expand as the student’s skills develop.
In this Zone, I coach to “anchor” feelings, emotional states, and performance cues, e.g.,“What are you seeing?” “Which muscles are firing?” “What thoughts do you have?”, etc.
Zone 3: The Yellow Zone
The Thrill Zone. Some of my students refer to this as the “I Might Pee My Pants” Zone (the *other* reason it is called the Yellow Zone).
In their Yellow Zone, the student will experience a heightened state of stimulation perhaps described as shortness of breath, feeling a bit scared or nervous, or show a tendency to speed up speech and movements or to become quiet.
Different responses in this Zone can be generally classified as either fight or flight.
Fighters either will perform well in this Zone, or they might be mentally committed to being there yet show limited proficiency of skills that they were able to perform well in the OP/Green Zones.
Flighters would prefer to finish the lesson segment and go back to their Green Zone.
As an instructor, it is important to notice both types of response as well as how the skier performs in this Zone. Applaud ALL results in this Zone and do not criticize at this moment. Sharing what I observed in their performance is generally well received (E.g., “When we ski in to this terrain I saw there is an up-unweighting/extension movement at the beginning of the turn rather than the absorption/flexion movement we have been developing.”)
A skilled instructor will determine whether to eventually move back to the Green or OP Zone to work on skills or to coach the student to perform in this Zone by encouragement, focus on the activity, and/or anchoring of the experience. This applies to both fighters and flighters.
Both the student and instructor would be best served not to spend an extended length of time in the Thrill Zone all at once. Much like the driver who keeps their car in 2nd gear at high RPM for an extended period time, excessive wear can occur.
Zone 4: The Orange Zone
Some exposure to this Zone is important for the skier to grow. An instructor or coach can help manage the student’s heightened anxiety level, which is inherent within this Zone. The instructor’s presence, words of encouragement, tactical advice, and reminder of goals/incentives can all be beneficial to the learner. In fact, this is an important reason top athletes hire coaches - they help the athlete focus when their world is “spinning”.
A skier can be here for a little time, but extended exposure to this mental state will start to see significant performance deterioration. Think of this as the beginning of the Red Line in a car, or an anaerobic in workout. Make sure to choose terrain where the skier may decompress back to a “safer” Zone quickly, if necessary.
A skilled coach can move the skier between the OP-Yellow-Orange Zones several times throughout a lesson which will expand these Zones outward. A guided tour into this Orange Zone can aid the student in developing a better understanding of movements and tactics, and their relevance on other areas of the mountain. The terrain or situation which was once Orange, can become Yellow, or even Green with a few guided journeys into that environment.
Celebrate the effort and the completion of the task no matter the performance in this Zone. This can be the peak of an Adventure lesson. Most skiers are not training for the Olympics nor a major performance. However, wisely guiding a student in to the Orange Zone can help a skier rapidly expand their vision, ability, and application of skills. This Zone often provides fantastic stories for student to share with friends and family during après-ski!
Zone 5: The Red Zone
The Danger Zone. This is a No-Go Zone.
Performance will decline rapidly as levels of anxiety and discomfort rise. Sometimes lessons go here without the intent of the student or instructor. We call this “Over Terraining”. The student may have an intense flight or freeze reaction. It is important to realize this Red Zone may be encountered on the beginner hill, intermediate, or advanced slopes. The Red Zone is a reflection of the student’s mind-space, not merely a trail designation.
If you do find yourself in a Red Zone experience, go to a Green Zone run or the lodge to decompress as soon as possible. Then you can build back toward the OP Zone.
Even though this article is specifically related to performance skiing, our surfing friends in Bali can immediately apply the terminology when they read it before we paddle out together. I applied this Zones model to my own sports of Motorcycle Racing, Surfing, Track, and Cross-Country growing up and I invite you to adapt it to any sport or activity you are learning or teaching.
About the Co-Author:
Jonathan Lawson, aka Jonnie Law, has taught more than 30,000 hours of lessons to skiers and instructors. In the 22 years since becoming a Level 3 Certified Professional, he has learned from some of the best minds in the ski teaching world and integrated their lessons into his own skiing and teaching. Jon has been recognized as one of the Top 100 Ski Instructors in North America and in 2011 he was a finalist for Colorado Ski Instructor of the Year. He and his partner live in Bali and Colorado running their Adventure Travel & Lifestyle Coaching business called Zelement Club. To book a lesson with Jon visit www.ZelementClub.com.
About the Authors: Sharon and Jon combine their passion for coaching and teaching with their love of adventure. Jon has been a professional ski instructor for nearly three decades so they spend their winters in the Colorado Rockies and the summers in Bali, coaching driven individuals to go for it when it comes to following their dreams. Change can be fun! Surf, Ski, Yoga, Meditation, and new experiences build confidence and inspiration.
Sharon and Jon live the life of their dreams. Zelement Club is their way of inviting others to join them in this adventure.