Destinations, May 1998
Mostly, we teach ourselves what we really need to learn. I taught myself to be pretty handy with a chainsaw when September snows threatened and our high-country cabin was still only halfway to a roof. A few years before that, my wife and I taught ourselves to telemark when it turned out that the high Sierra subdivision we called home didn't plow its roads.
But we didn't acquire these skills in a vacuum. A crusty old crop-duster neighbor gave me a rat-tail file and showed me how to keep a sharp edge on my chain. In the Sierra, a friend demonstrated how to burn pine tar into our skis' wooden bases, how the rainbow of wax colors corresponded to snow temperatures, and how on the descent to think of our unruly slats as one long ski, hinged in the middle and adjustable to the shape of any turn. We were eager learners. We soaked up these bits of wisdom like sponges. And we put them into practice immediately and often, along with our own serendipitous discoveries. We were perfect students.
Progress in any strenuous sport or activity follows much this same path: You teach yourself what you can, you practice, you become competent. Then, to leap to a new level, you have to turn to the more adept — for their knowledge, their particular ways of shorthanding a process, and perhaps most important, their ability to inspire. A major component of what's required to become a better athlete is proof that a daunting task is even possible.
Complacency, after all, can be comforting. It's easy to keep carving graceful turns on the blue runs, or riding the small, familiar surf at your home beach, or cruising down smooth, wide fire roads. But to move from novice to expert requires a period of, shall we say, ungainliness and perhaps terror, as well as significant time and effort. We may need a push. We often need a clarion call. We need a coach.
I remember one of my own breakthroughs as a student, in the company of an unlikely mentor, my Uncle Milt. We were in our kayaks on the north fork of California's Stanislaus River at the end of a golden day. Glazed and shivering, I was ready for the take-out. But Uncle Milt, stroking back upstream, suddenly commanded, "Follow me." Then we ferried, from eddy to eddy and rock to rock, in a wide circle, braced against waves, leaned into currents. "Don't think," he yelled over the noise of the water. "Stay close." I matched the angle of his boat, pulling furiously when he pulled, giving in to the rush of gravity as he did when surfing a standing curl.
Uncle Milt had to call off our game. I would have continued into darkness; I would have followed him over Niagara Falls. He'd known instinctively to take over when I could do nothing more, when the struggle had beaten the analytical right out of me. I was an empty vessel into which Uncle Milt had poured, by near-wordless example, the reach of his paddle, the tilt of his hips, his years of reading water and gauging its power. It's what we all want in a teacher, to be understood and taken, shown the way.
But there's a limited supply of Uncle Milts in this world, and far too many eager but inept or tyrannical fathers, fianc‰s, and friends. These are the folks who believe they can coach but who prod and berate when they should encourage — and who wind up driving their disciples away, hangdog and disconsolate. For those who've lived through that, sports camps can be a revelation. The best are staffed with instructors who understand how to cajole and josh, slowly leading the cautious along to confidence. They also understand that the more experienced an athlete is, the more he'll need to be taught via example and action and hands-on work with form. Most of us have the capability to master almost any sport, even those that involve arcane, difficult skills. But to progress we need guiltless time spent practicing, with the necessary tips offered at just the necessary time.
I had a teenage boy in the ski school class I taught at Telluride one time who sulked through the entire lesson. At the morning ski-off, he'd displayed the same rough, skidded turns as the adults in the class. Watching the group, I'd decided on a progression of balancing exercises leading to round, slow, elegant arcs. I would give them the solid underpinnings of good skiing, setting them on the path to carving their turns and ultimately, if they followed through, true self-expression on skis.
The adults ate it up, but the kid didn't even try. On the lift near the end of class, he told me he wanted his money back. This hadn't been what he wanted. He wanted to shred the other side of the mountain, down Telluride's big, steep mogul fields. We made a deal: I'd take him down the bumps after class, and if at the bottom he still felt gypped, I'd arrange for a refund.
I figured a dose of hard reality would open his eyes. But after the first 15 turns, the kid was still with me. Ten more twists through bumps like Brobdingnagian egg cartons, pumping faster and straighter, and he was still there, dogging my tails. Turned out, our untutored friend was a mogul savant. Every once in a while his weight shifted back and a hitherto rhythmic run ended in flames. But that's why he needed a coach. I stepped in then, showed him how to reach downhill with his pole-plants, explained that if the hands were quick, the skis would follow. That was all he needed. The kid beamed at me. Together, we'd moved him a step closer to being a skier.