Zones of Comfort and Fear – Performance Skiing

The contents of this post have been incredibly important to my ski and golf teaching.  I have also used the concepts here for other types of athletes and performers. I labelled zones of comfort, performance, and fear in my own sports growing up IMG_1111.JPG(Motorcycle racing 1978-82, Surfing 1981-1992, Track 1986-92, and Cross-Country) I have found that several others have moved in parallel with these ideas.  I first shared this with my students around 1992.  In the mid 90’s I started meshing some of the terminology and ideas of John Phillips from Aspen Mtn. I honestly don’t know where my original ideas end and others began.  And for the learner’s sake, it doesn’t really matter.  What does matter is that these ideas are simple and work well if used during a learning process and the student stretches their personal comfort zones.  When I have the opportunity to have an “Adventure Lesson” with a skier I like to create a syntax in which the skier and teacher can communicate.  I call this the Zones of Comfort and Fear.  

All Zones are relative to the individual.  They are not necessarily Green, Blue, and Black runs.  They are influence by skier/rider ability, experience, and mental state at the time of assessment.  They can also be influenced by terrain conditions (powder, ice, moguls, etc), Traffic on the run,  and Time day (visibility, fatigue).  Furthermore, these zones are not fixed.  For example, a blue mogul run at some point may have been a yellow zone activity, however when the student gets comfortable with blue bumps it eventually turns green. It is also important to note when a participant is standing above a run and looking in, the “fear of the unknown” can be quite strong.  Once the skier/rider “takes action”, there will usually be a 1/2 to 1 zone drop in anxiety.

I remember a few times I’ve told myself, “Mind you can tell me how scared I was when we get to the bottom of this run.  I will listen to you.  Until then, body… do what I have trained you to do”.

Green Zone – Comfort/familiar  This is the point to add to the participants knowledge base.
An instructor can share and develop new movements, and exercises/drill in this zone.  Learned and Activity knowledge can be co-developed in this range. This can be considered to shallow end of the pool.  Remember that “a sailing ship is safe in a harbor, but that is not where sailing ships were meant to be sailed.”
Optimal Performance Zone – OP Zone- Knowledge and developed skill in conjunction with stress/arousal creates an optimal performance zone for the athlete/performer. I monitor this zone in my golf game with an optimal heart beat. (My golf Zone Hb is 85-98).  It is higher with skiing.  I enjoy spending time with my student in this area.  If I can pace the lesson properly we can stay here for an extended period of time.  I will also try to “Anchor” feelings, emotional states, and performance queues while we are in the OP Zone.  “What are you seeing?”  “What muscles are firing?”  “What thoughts do you have?”, etc.

Yellow/Thrill Zone- High State of arousal.  Some of my students talk about this zone as the “Yellow – wanna pee my pants” zone. Depending on the performer this range may see an elevated “fight” performance throughout the thrill zone. They perform well. They thrive in this zone.  Others may encounter a “flight” response as they move through this zone.  These “flight” skiers would prefer to finish the lesson segment and go back to their green zone.  A skilled instructor may be able to keep their student performing in this zone by encouragement, focus on the activity, and/or anchoring of the experience.
An important part about this zone is to realize that either response should be noted, as well as performance.  All results should be applauded NOT criticized at that moment. Some feedback can be given and should be given as an observation. i.e. There is an up-unweighting/extension movement at the beginning of the turn, rather than the absorption/flexion movement we have been developing.  The instructor can move back to the “green” or OP zone to work on skills that need enhancing/correcting.
In a learning environment the student/instructor would be best served not to spend an extended length of time in the Thrill zone.  Much like the driver who keeps their car in 2nd gear at High RPM for extended period time, excessive wear can be created.  Balance learning among Green-OP-Yellow-Orange zones.
Orange Zone – Think of this as the beginning of the Red Line in a car, or anaerobic in workout.  An instructor or coach can help manage the anxiety which is inherent within this level. An instructor/coach’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 play here for a little time, but extended exposure to this mental state will start to see significant performance deterioration. A skilled coach can move the skier between the OP Zone-Yellow-Orange which will expand these zones outward.  The terrain or situation which was once orange, can become yellow, or even green with a few journey’s into that environment. This can also be viewed as the peak of an Adventure lesson.  Celebrate the effort and the experience rather than just the performance.  Most of our skiers are not peaking for the olympics or a major performance. They wish to move beyond what they have previously accomplished. Instructors and coaches can help a skier rapidly expand their skier’s vision and ability by venturing into the OrangeZone.  However, skill must be taken to select environments in which the skier may decompress back to a “safer” zone quickly if necessary. In most cases it is best to celebrate it without critique, but exposure to this zone is important for the skier to grow.  This zone also provides fantastic stories for student to share with friends and family during apres-ski!
Red Zone –  If a person steps beyond the optimum performance and thrill zones they enter a “danger zone”. 
Performance will decline rapidly as higher levels of anxiety or discomfort occur.  Sometimes lessons go here without the intent of student or instructor.  We sometimes call this “TF’ing” the student.  If at all possible, it is to be avoided.
After a Red Zone experience, it is often advised to go to a “GreenZone” run to decompress. Then you can build back toward the OP Zone.
I like to introduce these concepts to my students.  If I am planning an adventure lesson with a student either today or in an upcoming lesson
The reasons are three-fold:
1) Allow them to experience what is going on and identify these states
2) Allow us to have common language to describe the mental state of the skier/rider
3) Set a gameplan for understanding my feedback, and the reasons we are moving from zone to zone.

2 thoughts on “Zones of Comfort and Fear – Performance Skiing”

  1. Hi Jonathan,
    I have a question: When grouping your students do you ever group them based on their initial “comfort” level? In other words if you have a class of never-ever skiers ,assuming most of them are already out of their comfort zone, have you ever asked them and then separated them based on that alone? I would guess that as an instructor it would be important in the greeting process to make them as comfortable as possible, but you would still have some who are already in the “danger” zone in which they can only be brought down to being outside their “comfort” zone. Another way of explaining this (for my sake as well as yours) would be. Let’s say their are two students one who is used to sports and another is not. Let’s also say that the one that is used to sports is already in a comfort zone and the one that is not used to sports is already out of their comfort zone. I would say they are going to learn a bit differently because of the initial levels of fear. (disregard that someone who is used to sports could be completely scared for other reasons.) My point is that splitting these students based on the comfort zone they are beginning in would be a viable split. What are your thoughts? Oh and would you ask them out right or just judge them based on other questions like “have you ever seen snow?”, etc…?

  2. Billy,
    very good and appropriate question. Using your example of a first time skier. If there are enough students to warrant a split, I would create the split primarily on that criteria. My guess is that the ability split would happen at some point during the morning session anyway.
    I may split it as a “cautious learner” and the “gung ho group”.
    The cautious learner group may spend more time on out-of-ski “Bootwork” or on one ski that the gung ho group. I would be looking for a queue for the cautious group to start gaining confidence before moving them on. Also, your initial teaching terrain would play a role with how fast you move the cautious group ahead.
    As for the gung ho group, I would be working off the premise of “do no harm” to in slowing their learning. Coach them, but let them progress quickly and find their own “yellow zone”, and establish your game plan for incorporating the zones from that point.

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