by John Arnold
This is the story about a journey from hills to mountains and how, 40 years ago, a handful of teenagers made the journey from their local dry ski slope to the European Alps. In the 1970’s there were no performance pathways, sports institutes or athlete support services. Instead there was an abundance of passion, single mindedness, sense of purpose and dreams and the support of some brilliant home coaches, pals and transit vans, all of which contributed to the journey being made from hill to mountains. It’s my hope that this story of my journey will be interesting, inform and inspire.
I was introduced to skiing by my Sports Teacher, Max Horton, who, in the heart of Welsh rugby land, had the courage to include skiing into the school’s sports programme. One afternoon each week was spent at the local dry ski slope in Pontypool. Very quickly I had the sliding bug and found a sport and environment which was exciting, reinforcing and physical. The role which the school and in particular our sports teacher Max played introducing young teenagers to skiing was huge; he got on well with the Ski Centre staff and took some on his first school skiing trip to help supervise.
The school’s sessions soon gave way to skiing on club nights where Torfaen Ski Club was thriving and beginning to establish a core group of young skiers who would go onto represent the club and Wales in ski racing events around Britain’s dry ski slopes and on snow in Scotland. It cannot be over-stated the immense role which the Ski Club played in fostering the young talent and the efforts of Club Chairman, Terry Sculley, in creating opportunities to compete in events up, down and across the United Kingdom.
There was a very special, unique dynamic unfolding at Pontypool Ski Centre in the 1970’s which was orchestrated by the manager and coach, Colin Whiteside. Colin was way ahead of his time and compatriots in creating the conditions where young skiers could playfully participate in skiing under his watchful eye. His aura of kindness, fairness and skilful observation was continually felt by these youngsters who engaged in ‘experiential ski-play’ for hours on end.
From my perspective now reflecting on this five years of dry slope skiing I recognise the coaching elements which Colin was applying. We experienced a learning process which was fundamentally experiential, playful, reinforcing and very supportive, we were encouraged to be curious, to experiment, be inquisitive and to seek solutions through practice rather than expect explanations and descriptions from Colin. He was a real ‘master’ at this and I will be forever grateful and thankful for his coaching, support and the opportunities he provided.
Colin continued to be there for us at club and National level organising racing evets, training courses and inviting other role model coaches to support him. One such coach was Alan Hughes who was based in North Wales. Alan would make the long journey to South Wales on many weekends to assist Colin with an ever-increasing group of youngsters who fancied themselves as the next Ingemar Stenmark or Phil & Steve Mahre.
It is also very evident that the skiing skills which Colin was helping us learn were, and still are, the fundamental skills required for whole mountain skiing. Through play we acquired the underpinning skills of tilting the skis, controlling pressure and rotary / pivoting and learnt how to blend these three broad fundamental skill elements to meet the requirements of the situation and our objective. We were being shaped to become all mountain skiers, ski racers and skiers whom could ski anywhere and do anything.
I feel extremely privileged to of been in this initial group of youngsters who were guided and coached by a Coach who possessed such mastery of his game.
One final thing which has occurred to me about Colin Whiteside; he never tried to own or hold onto any of us. When we were ready to make that journey to the Alps he facilitated the transitions and was always there when we came home. Of course, like many journeys the ‘coming home’ periods diminished and from Pontypool I moved to training and ski racing based in Northern Italy, Val Senales, where on the summer glacier we trained alongside Ingemar Stenmark and the Mahre brothers! We were in our element and soaking in the learning and life experience.
The transition from ‘mat’ to ‘snow’ was seem-less (excuse the pun!). The groomed training runs of the Val Senales glacier was a stark contrast to the conditions we experienced on our ski club weekend trips to Cairngorm, however in the summer the large temperature variation of glacier skiing and its effect on the snow, proved also challenging. Youngsters pursuing sporting goals need (amongst other things) good coaching and broader guidance and we were no exceptions, ours was found in Dave Stanley. He was there for us, grooving our technical skills, teaching us tactics, motivating and guiding us always.
Eventually our transit van gave up on us and dreams of Winter Olympics evaded all but two of our small group. My next chapter was to be in Edinburgh, Scotland, where I returned to education to study coaching and sports psychology at Dunfermline College of Physical Education, which at the time was Scotland’s leading PE College (along with Jordon Hill College in the West). This was one of the most rewarding academic learning experiences I’ve ever had. Two years of being a sponge! Taught by the most knowledgeable sports academics in the United Kingdom; John Lyle, Richard Cox, Pat Squires to name a few. I was especially grateful for the ever-gentle presence of John Cheesmond the Head of Outdoor Education at the College and a great skier and mountain outdoor advocate.
My focus was directed towards competition performance coaching where I found the process of applying generic sports principles to Alpine Skiing an all-absorbing pursuit. During my time in Scotland, at Hillend and Cairngorm I coached club skiers from the Lothians and Scottish Ski Club before moving to the National Coach role for Scotland. Here I was introduced to the politics of Governing Bodies alongside the privileged position of coaching many talented skiers and ski racers.
During the Northern Hemispheres summers, I headed for New Zealand South Island and Mt Hutt where I continued in competition coaching and Directing the Race Department of Mt Hutt Ski Company. I was very fortunate to spend six winter seasons here, plying my trade and developing the craft of coaching and art of skiing. Working with some very talented coaches from the USA, Canada, Japan, Australia, Sweden I gained so much in trading views and coaching practices which I benefit from to this day.
Scotland called once again and I took up the full-time position of Coaching Director of Snowsport Scotland, responsible for growing the coaching scheme in Scotland and developing the coach education programmes. It was in this role that I found my true vocation as the coaches’ educator and brought my then 15 years of performance competition club and National Squad coaching to good use. It’s always inspired me to investigate how coaches in other sports approach their challenges and learnt that the core challenges are the same, what differs is the context and specific sport. We developed a strong ever-increasing group of race coaches from all over Scotland who led club and regional level skiers through coaching programmes in the five Scottish ski resorts. It was a time of growth in the club coaching and competition programmes in Scotland and a most rewarding time for me.
In a top Governing Body role, such as the one I held, there is always a political agenda at play and many Governing Bodies are excellent at going beyond this and really working for needs of the athlete and coach. With the unswerving support and kind insights from our Chairman Andrew Maile, I learnt to recognise the varying agendas at play and tried to attend to the athletes and coaches and their sporting and professional needs. Sometimes this approach did not always endear myself to the power holders. After five rewarding years I let go of the Scottish role and turned freelance coach and coach / instructor trainer.
The British Association of Snowsport Instructors employed me extensively to train instructors and to write new training modules on the teaching of skiing. Again, I was in my element, pioneering new ground and bringing generic sport training practices into Alpine Skiing coach and instructor education. At this time, I also worked extensively for Snowsport England, Snowsport Wales, Snowsport Scotland and the Irish Ski Instructors Association within their education programmes. This work was all absorbing, rewarding and enjoyable. I met many fantastic people, some of whom are friends today, and I continued to learn about skiing and coaching from them. At this time, I realised that as an educator I am always learning but only if I remain ‘open’ to learning the lessons. I endeavoured to foster in me an attitude of open mindedness, curiosity and inquisitiveness to my training and coaching as this I recognised helped me to learn in and from my work and from my students themselves.
I was becoming increasingly interested in the process of learning and began informal study into learning and taking qualifications in Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) and Life Coaching. My client profile now included life and small business people as well as sports and Skiing coaches. The field of how we learn, retain skills, create and dismantle habits and personal growth exploded right in front of me and I submerged myself in reading Stephen Covey, Jack Black, Antony Robins and any other leading coaches and personal growth guru I could lay my hands on. I do believe that my skiing clients at that time did wonder whether it was a skiing lesson or some sort of personal development programme they were attending!
For me the progression to delving into Eastern practices was a natural extension of seeking knowledge and methods to use the mind to grow one’s capacity for learning and skilful living. I embarked on an extensive programme of learning about the power of the mind through the Buddhist traditions of mental training, mindfulness, compassion and insight. In my research thesis I investigated what it means to teach and learn mindfully and submitted this substantial piece of writing for my Masters degree in Mindfulness Studies.
The journey from ‘Happy Hills’ to ‘Mindful Mountains’ has spanned 40 years and moved through the skiing mountains of Europe, America, Japan and New Zealand. Along the way some of the lessons I’ve learnt have stuck; the people we meet and the person we are is everything. I have learnt that passion alone is not enough to achieve goals and transform dreams to reality however much one possesses this energy - purpose is required to. I’ve learnt that passion is what we have and purpose is what we give and its by having and living both our passion and purpose we can achieve goals and transform dreams into reality.