Learning to snowboard
RTM are the first all British board instruction operation in Europe. Based in Courchevel and with hundreds of British boarders sliding away as satisfied customers, we at WSG thought it a good place to seek some advice on lessons.
So, you’re heading off snowboarding. May be you’ve never done it before or perhaps you can rip up the slopes. So why take lessons?
For first timers it’s pretty obvious why you need a lesson. You haven’t got a clue how to do it but for intermediates or advanced boarders it might not be so clear. In reality a lesson for the intermediate is highly beneficial as it could be the difference from taking on steep terrain with confidence, stomping landings or riding off piste with ease.
Some people hear how easy it is to snowboard, and think “it can’t be too hard, can it?” Maybe you’ve skied before and think it’s the same thing. After all, it’s all about sliding down a slope, isn’t it?
It can be easy to pick up, especially if there is good snow and no ice. There are other factors to also consider like how sporty you are, and whether you have done any other board sports (skating, wakeboarding, surfing, kitesurfing or windsurfing), which all rely on balance. Even if you have all these skills, you still need to know how to actually make a snowboard turn and how to control your speed and most importantly: stop.
Anybody can learn to snowboard. How well you pick it up depends to some extent on the above but also on your motivation for being there, your attitude and how good your instructor is.
The classic beginner’s lessons are in a group and normally run for a week. These should get you to the point where you are happy riding down green, possibly blue, or even red runs. Group lessons provide the best value for money but you are sharing that instructor’s time with everyone else in the group so you don’t always get their full attention.
If you are finding it hard to keep balance, for example, while others in the group are moving along by themselves it can feel frustrating. Don’t get too disheartened. Everyone learns at different rates and at some point it will ‘click’. An alternative is to take a private lesson, where you have the full attention of the instructor. You’ll get the hands-on help needed to get you through these difficult stages but of course this will cost more cash.
Questions you need to ask yourself before booking are: Are you looking forward to the experience? Are you of a sporty disposition? Do you have good balance? Do you have a get up and go attitude? If the answers are ‘yes’, then group lessons should work well.
If you feel nervous and apprehensive, are you just doing this to please a friend, aren’t really sport, or don’t think your balance is too great, then maybe private lessons would be more beneficial. That is not to say that you won’t learn in a group but this private lesson would give you the best possible chance for success.
What to expect in those first few days
To start with, your instructor should give you a lot of help, both technically and with encouragement. It is true that you will fall over a lot but lessons will minimise this. It is normally during the time away from the instructor when you fall more. Many past beginners will tell you they felt like they had been run over. To help get around this think about protecting yourself. Impact shorts are especially padded to help reduce the pain of falls on the derriere and aren’t too expensive. Cheaper alternatives are a rolled up hand towel stuffed down the trousers, a piece of foam or even a cushion / pillow. Just remember to take it out when you’re having that post boarding pint in the bar. Knee pads and wrist guards can also help. Nowadays more people, especially kids, are wearing helmets too and they can be hired from most rental shops.
Getting the right equipment
The correct equipment and set-up tailored for you will also aid the learning process. Many hire shops will try to palm you off with any size of board and binding position, so hire your kit from a snowboard specialist.
Boots must fit your feet! Your heels shouldn’t lift inside the boot. If they do, the boots are either not laced up properly, are too big or are the wrong width for your foot shape. People who’ve skied before will find more movement than in a pair of ski boots. That is normal and part of the joy of boarding! Try boots on that are your actual shoe size or even try a half size smaller. Do not take boots a size bigger because your snowboard socks are thicker - they are not that thick!
When lacing them up make sure all of your trousers are out of the boots. The inner snow gaiter should be outside the boot as well as the outer section of the trousers. If not then you may get pressure points on your legs along with snow melting down your leg into the boot.
Just as important are bindings. Your booted foot should be held snugly in the binding and there should be no heel lift of the boot. Make sure you can do up the bindings with ease, ensuring they fit right over the boots. Quite often rental bindings need adjusting to fit smaller or larger feet, so get them to do this in the hire shop. It’s a right pain to realise your kit doesn’t fit when you’re standing on the top of a mountain.
For all levels of rider the traditional strap binding system is still the best. For beginners they allow you to bend at the ankle joint easily when doing manoeuvres on the toe edge. Other systems can block this movement. You will also feel more from the board so movements you are making to try to turn the board actually have an effect, rather than the foot moving and the board not.
The correct angles and stance width for the bindings are equally important. Everyone is different, so their set up needs to be individually tailored. If set incorrectly movements made by the body will feel hindered and uncomfortable, thus reducing the effectiveness of your riding. Seek advice in the hire shop if you think this is happening.
Choosing the right board is also important. Decide what kind of riding you are going to be doing and be honest about your ability and body weight. All boards have a weight range which you should fall in to. At the lower end of the scale the board may feel stiffer when riding and softer if you are at the higher end of the scale. For example, the same board ridden by a 9 stone person will feel stiffer compared to someone of the same riding ability
whilst developing your turns, speed and control. As you get more proficient, you learn to deal with the steeper blue runs. By the end of the week you’ll hopefully be happy cruising around the same slopes that initially felt intimidating and taking in the scenery from the chairlifts, rather than feeling knackered and worrying about the next run down. You are now a snowboarder.
Yeh but, I can board already
For those of you who can already ride around the mountain the question often asked is “why do I need lessons? I can do it”.
Well, do you want to feel more relaxed and in control riding steep slopes? Can you carve? Do you want to learn techniques for riding off-piste? What about learning some tricks in the park or how to ride a pipe? Lessons are still going to help you achieve these goals.
When choosing a group be honest about your ability: what pistes are you turning on? Green, blue, red or black? Doing falling leaf (swinging side to side when coming down a slope on one edge) is not turning! Also, your confidence when coming down these slopes is important. Being a little slow or nervous on the decent can alter which group you should aim to join.
Once signed up, things to expect in the lesson are: working on improving edge grip to reducing skidding in a turn which works towards carve turns on easier slopes and control speed on steep slopes. Other techniques covered are how to improve the steering of the board on steeps, and how to develop the techniques originally learnt to ride confidently down harder pistes. If you only do one week a year you will never develop these skills properly without a lesson.
You may also want to look at the changes needed to ride off piste, in powder or chopped up snow. These skills will enable you to get away from the crowds and truly explore the mountains. Those of you looking for the perfect holiday photo may want to try freestyle. Learning how to make those first grabs and hold them for longer, how to start spinning, or get air out of a pipe or do rails will vary your whole outlook. Of course you can try and work it out for yourself but with guidance it is often an easier, quicker and less painful process.
Another alternative for freestylers is to book into a specialist camp (see Summer Boarding). A lot of these have pro-riders on hand to help with the coaching. Their competition background provides a massive repertoire of tricks for you to aim towards. These camps are often run in the summer months so allow you to keep getting your snowboard fix and reduce the wait for next season’s first snowfall.
If you do decide to have lessons please do a little homework. Check out the different schools in the resort, see what they have to offer and try and get some recommendations.
Get out on the mountain and take the falls with the good turns. If you’re not falling you’re not trying hard enough! Most of all - enjoy it.
The RTM team.