A while back, in a different job, I had the opportunity to use personal radios. I liked the technology, particularly the instant feedback and reaction response. I started looking at options to enhance ski instruction by incorporating instant feedback as well using group communication. My search led me to discover Cardo Packtalk. This awesome gadget changed the way I instruct forever.
Some in the industry subscribe to a misconception that in helmet communication is only to be used in adaptive snow sports when instructing or guiding visually impaired participants.
I would like to challenge that. Instant feedback is valuable to everyone. The right advice at the right time will make a crucial difference in learning or improving new skills, particularly in skiing. Skiing is a fast sport and, because of this, feedback at the right time is even more important. Without it, due to the speed and distance travelled by the participant, giving and receiving feedback is reliant on the instructor’s ability to memorise a particular action, at a particular time and relay meaningful feedback to the guest. at the same time the guest must be able to reference and integrate the feedback post action and, just like the instructor, to recall that particular action, at a particular time. I am not talking about a full after-action review here, such as in-depth video analysis, but about small cues that can make a big impact on one’s skiing. I would like to offer the following as an example of how in helmet communication is relevant. Balance is the first skill thought in skiing, and arguably the foundation of skiing. Let’s analyse one common fault: head position and how the right advice at the right time can make a difference.
The human head weighs about 5 kg. Invariably a lot of skiers have a tendency to look down whilst skiing. Looking down by tilting your head shifts weight distribution and alters the athletic position. Forward and downwards weight shift is causing the spine to arch, which in turn is pushing the hips back, the feet forward, placing increased weight on the heels and ultimately changing the skiing position from an athletic stance to one that looks more like sitting on a chair.
During a lesson without in helmet communication the instructor will pass on feedback only after the action takes place and reminds the guest to maintain an athletic position, by not looking down. Ski instructors use various analogies to achieve great outcomes however, it all comes down to the guest’s ability to understand their skiing position and what can be done better to experience the difference between a good athletic position and an incorrect one. You don’t know what you don’t know. As a guest, you are doing your best to perform a particular drill, or to free ski. There is the speed, the activity around you, the focus on turning, the thrill of skiing, the variable terrain and snow conditions and, amongst all this you are to think about your head’s position. Now imagine having your instructor’s voice in your ear telling you to correct your head’s position. You will act upon it instinctively and feel the change brought to your skiing. The guessing of “what am I meant to do, and when am I meant to do it is gone” and the timing of when to perform the action is improved.
By experiencing an instant and positive impact on skiing, the guest stands a better chance to develop muscle memory and recognise how an athletic position feels.
I was challenged on the participant’s privacy, as others in the group might be able to hear constructive feedback directed to other guests.
Participating in sport assumes a level of socialisation. There is no need to deconstruct this and wrap it in a shroud of fake privacy. During all the trials I conducted in utilising in helmet communication, I have not had one guest expressing concerns about their privacy. Constructive feedback increases the group’s ability to visualise and recognise errors and provides them a real time cues on corrective mechanisms. Looking at the example above, in a group setting there is a high likelihood that others would experience this common mistake. When drills are performed individually and feedback is provided, the group would benefit from common information sharing through observation. The group will be able to hear the instructor’s advice: “raise your head” or “don’t look down”. They will see the change in posture and impact of this change on skiing.
The benefit derived has a multiplying effect for the collective and grows exponentially, with most participants having an increased awareness of the importance of head position.
In any lesson where there is more than one participant, regardless of in helmet comms or not, the privacy is impacted by the need to receive feedback. Starting with early education and continuing all the way to university and throughout working life the learning is undertaken mostly in a group setting we learn and develop by learning and observing others, as well as in other ways.
There is some level of inherent resistance to technological change in every one of us. I had my share of (mild) anxiety, when using Cardo Packtalk for the first few times. Other than the occasional user error, the units behaved well, without any technical issues. I used them in wind, rain, sun, and anything in between, without faults, on both kids and adults.
Communication etiquette is paramount in any lesson. Once group etiquette is established and maintained, having group communication makes a world of difference to the overall experience. Part of overcoming technology resistance is ensuring there is no auditory overload for the guest.
Beside the already discussed right advice at the right time, the in-helmet communication delivers many more benefits.
Often, not all participants will be on the same chairlift. Even if they are all on the same chairlift, they might not be able to hear the ski instructor’s feedback due to the positioning on the larger chairlifts.
Maintaining communication whilst riding chairlifts enables the group to conduct movement analysis on other skiers in resort, thus raising the educational value of the lesson when not skiing. The instructor can point out skiers with good technique, as well as skiers who could improve or ski similarly to the guests. The guest may be challenged to observe common faults in other skiers and discuss their experience with correcting the common fault. A simple chairlift turns into a continuation of the lesson and pushes the guests to analyse and evolve into a feedback provider, rather than remaining a feedback recipient.
In helmet communication increases the group’s ability to provide warning about potential hazards, may it be ice or rocks on the slope, or high traffic in bottleneck areas. Also, in low visibility conditions, the group can stay closer together and navigate the mountain easier.
Then there are also times when the terrain might be too difficult, due to psychological or physical barriers for some to navigate. In helmet communication alleviates these pressures by allowing an open flow of communication and relevant advice on how to navigate a particular terrain.
Then there is shouting, or lack of. How many times have you attended a ski lesson and missed half of what was being communicated to you due to distance, wind, or the low voice of your instructor?
Talking to others is always fun and cracking a joke during a lesson is a guaranteed way to lighten up the atmosphere and bring an extra smile to one’s face. Not every single minute in a lesson needs to be focused on feedback or development. As I mentioned above, I believe lessons are very much a social interaction and most skiers would happily partake in friendly banter or share a joke in between runs.
It looks cool. Having the headset attached to your helmet looks cool and certainly sets you apart from the other skiers. A grown up one thinks that, now try to imagine how important a child would feel.
From an instructor’s perspective there is a lot more work involved when using in helmet communication: more feedback, increased learning time, more group management and “enforcing” group etiquette. There is also a level of financial investment in the devices, extra time and resources allocated towards managing the fleet and so on. However, at Boomerang on Snow we believe the effort is worth it because it helps us to achieve our mission – to transform your skiing.