Tuesday, 14 August 2007

How To Be A Ski Instructor. Part 2 - Individual Courses

Continuing the series on how to be a ski instructor, I am going to discuss the pros and cons of taking the courses by themselves, rather than as part of a longer gap programme. This is the route I took to being a ski instructor, via the BASI (British) system.

The advantages are cost, and the chance to dip your toes in the water to find out if instructing is for you. You can also combine the courses with working a season in another role. The downside is that it can often take longer, you might not make as many contacts for when you are looking for a job, and you might find it harder to get the needed work experience.

All of the English speaking instructor qualifications follow a similar pattern (at least in the first stages). You take a first level instructor course which is basically a week long introduction, after which (if you pass) you can teach beginners in a controlled environment in the country whose course you have taken. After some work experience you can take the second instructor course which is one to two weeks long. This requires a very competent level of skiing. Some of the criteria include: skiing all pisted runs in control at an appropriate speed, high speed carving on reds (both skis carving cleanly), short radius turns on steeps, controlled turns in bumps, short and long radius off piste in variable conditions, near perfect demonstrations from plough to skidded parallels. All of the above are to be performed with recognised techniques. Your teaching ability will also be assessed, although it is much more common to fail on ski technique than teaching. If you pass the second instructor course you are able to teach in many ski areas around the world.

BASI courses are run in many locations throughout Europe. Canadian courses are obviously run in Canada and also, less obviously, in Andorra. New Zealand and US qualifications are run in their respective countries. Courses are often run in late November, before the season starts, and in April/May after it finishes. These courses may well be an option for those who have other plans during the season proper. There are also courses at this level run in the summer on glaciers, so there are plenty of options.

So to start with, get in touch with BASI, the CSIA, NZSIA etc. and ask for a copy of the course directory (a lot of information may be in the website, but the directory will be more comprehensive and also have useful adverts). Book that first course and get started - you will be likely to improve your skiing, have a good time and most importantly discover whether or not instructing is for you. Personally, taking the BASI Trainee Instructor course (as it was then) was the best thing I ever did.

Sunday, 12 August 2007

Gap courses, a note

In the article on Gap year courses you may have noticed that I didn't actually name any courses or tell you where to book on one. This was because there are many courses out there - some good, some less good, and I don't want to appear to endorse any particular course provider. Having said that, it is probably worth giving you a few pointers to where you can find information, but without any specific links - you can all use Google yourselves.

There are two types of Gap course providers - the official instructor organisations (e.g. BASI) and private companies or ski schools. There is no particular advantage to one or the other, as both put you through the same examination courses at the end of the day. It is worth considering where you want to work at the end of the course, as qualifications will be more readily accepted in the country where they are accredited. If you hope to work in France eventually, then BASI or another Eurogroup qualification (French, Austrian or Italian - all very difficult) will be best.

Look into as many gap courses as you can find. Try the instructing bodies' websites (BASI, CSIA, CASI, NZSIA, PSIA etc.) and also phone them and ask for the course directory - this will have lots of adverts for courses and is usually free. See winter/season workers websites like Natives, snowsport websites and ski school websites. Look at ski/snowboard magazines like Fall Line, Document and so on. As I say, there are lots of options so don't rush into booking the first course you see. Do your research thoroughly and bear in mind that the gap course is not the only way to become an instructor.

Tuesday, 7 August 2007


This is just a quick note to point out that all the posts relating to becoming a ski instructor are equally applicable to snowboard instructing. The only reason I use the term ski instructing is that I personally am a skier and ski instructor. I have never taught snowboarding (and it is probably safer for novice snowboarders if it stays that way).

Snowboard instructor courses offered by BASI and other organisations follow a very similar format to the ski qualifications (and the S in the name changed from 'Ski' to 'Snowsport' some years ago).

The only exception to this is regarding the right to work in France. At present, only those skiers who have passed the Eurotest or Test Technique (or have gained an exemption through having 80 FIS points or lower) can work in France as snowsport instructors. These tests only apply to skiers and there are no snowboard equivalents. Until recently, France simply did not recognise any snowboard qualifications. However, following pressure from other nations a few Snowboard instructors have been allowed to work in France legally. The current situation is quite complicated and still changing, as for skiers, qualifying to work in France is difficult and likely to remain so.

Why to be a Ski Instructor

Before continuing the series on how to become a ski instructor, I thought I would take a moment to discuss why you might want to, and why you might not. Many people start on the road to ski instructing because they enjoy skiing and think getting paid to ski every day sounds like a pretty good deal. Well, there are days when it is like that, but you can easily spend a week teaching without leaving the beginner slope. This is particularly when you are starting out, but almost all instructors spend a considerable amount of their time teaching beginners.

Bad reasons for becoming a ski instructor then - to ski a lot, or to make money. If these are your sole motivation then you may want to reconsider. Perhaps you could get an evening job in resort (there are always plenty of bars and restaurants), or look for a well paid job in a city near the mountains (Geneva, Milan, Vancouver etc.) and ski at weekends. If you are good enough, especially at freestyle you could try and get sponsored - then you really do get paid to ski, but are also expected to work hard and promote the sponsors properly.

Enjoying skiing and being outdoors are obviously important, but for me the biggest reason for doing the job is the reward of teaching someone else to do the sport I love, especially if they are surprised by their own progress. Those hours on the beginnger slope are well spent if at the end of it the pupil has improved their skiing and their confidence. If you do not get anything out of the teaching side of the job you will not last long as an instructor. Expect to spend a lot of time in a snowplough (or wedge) on the instructor courses, and if you cannot see why this is necessary, again you might want to consider other options.

Here are a few other reasons given by instructors I know (most tongue in cheek):

  • Working outdoors, living in the mountains
  • Keeping fit walking up and down the beginner slope
  • Being paid to talk rubbish all day
  • Being second only to God
  • Altitude is the best hangover cure*
  • Apres-ski drinking is mandatory
  • The neck up goggles down tan line
  • The oh so flattering uniform and the chance to appear in the photo above...

*I have paraphrased this from a long story about getting very drunk in Austria, the hangover melting away in the cable car, the moment of revelation about future career choice - I won't repeat it here as I won't do it justice

Sunday, 5 August 2007

How To Be A Ski Instructor. Part 1 - The Gap Course

A question I've been asked several times is how do you actually become a ski instructor? So I thought I'd answer it here. There is quite a lot to be said on the subject though, so I'll deal with it in several parts. Firstly though, I should dispell some myths, in particular the money. I have heard it said that ski instructors can make 25k in a winter, and this may be true for a select few instructors with an outstanding reputation and a client base built up over years. But nobody is in this business for the money, and a newly qualified instructor will do well to break even over a season.

I will begin this series of posts by considering the gap year courses offered by a number of organisations around the world. For those unfamiliar with the term, I am referring to those courses where you spend several months of a winter training to gain a ski (or snowboard) instructor qualification. This isn't the only, nor necessarily the best, route to an instructor qualification, but it is a very popular option. The biggest downside is the cost - around 5000 uk pounds as a rough figure. This gets you a winter's training with accomodation etc. and hopefully an instructor qualification at the end of it. I say hopefully since it is by no means guaranteed - you still have to pass the exam which means hard work. I have heard of several gap course candidates expecting to have a three month holiday and then being surprised to fail the end of course exam. So the moral is: expect to work hard if you want to pass. See this post for an explanation of the qualifications and acronyms mentioned below.

A typical course begins with a foundation level instructor course e.g. BASI Level 1 Instructor (previously Trainee Instructor) or CSIA 1. This will be followed by several weeks training and work experience with a local ski school. The course will finish with an instructor level course e.g. BASI Level 2 Instructor (previously Alpine Ski Instructor) or CSIA 2. Most courses last around ten weeks in total.

When shopping around for a gap course there are several questions you need to ask. You are writing them a sizable cheque after all. It pays to shop around and do your research thoroughly in order to ensure you get your money's worth.

Firstly, ask the company their average pass rate - for the real qualification at the end of the course not the foundation course at the start. Typical pass rates for an instructor course are about 75%, and with ten weeks to get you there, a gap course should have a significantly higher pass rate than this. There are three reasons why it might not however. Firstly, the selection criteria need to be stringent enough. You need to be a competent skier already to reach instructor level in a season, so a course taking on low intermediate skiers to boost the proffits will inevitably have a low pass rate. Secondly, as already mentioned, candidates may turn up expecting a ten week holiday and not put in the work (particularly if their parents are paying). Thirdly, the standard of training needs to be high enough to take you from foundation to instructor level (I'm deliberately using the old terminology for these courses as I find it clearer).

Secondly, ask how much work experience you will get. I would expect a ten week course to provide around 70 hours of ski school shadowing or supervised teaching. To gain the BASI Level 2 Instructor award 70 hours is a minimum (35 for Level 1 + 35 more for Level 2), but other countries may not have the same requirements. Regardless of whether shadowing is needed for your particular examination course, it will help you hugely in passing the teaching part of the exam. It will also be great preparatio for when you come to teach skiing for real.

Thirdly, to aid your budgeting, check exactly what is included and what you might have to pay extra for: food (including lunches), lift pass, transport etc. can all add to the cost, and don't forget to factor in beer money.

Lastly, you may want to look at the target market for the course - some will be filled with 18 - 21 year olds taking a year out before or after university, others with older people seeking a career change. Some will be a diverse mixture. If you don't mind being twice the age of your course mates then go along and enjoy the experience. If you think it could be a problem, look into the course demographics more carefully.

If you have the money, a gap course can be a great way into ski instructing. You will gain experience and contacts that other routes may miss out on, have a good introduction to the lifestyle, and possibly get a job offer from the school you are working with. You may also be able to get qualified in more than one country's sytem, which is an added bonus for your CV.

In the next post of this series I will look at the alternate approach of taking the courses separately. This is how I started, and is a cheaper option than a gap course.

Foot and mouth returns?

So, foot and mouth is back (maybe). The first new cases in the UK since 2001 have been discovered and farmers are waiting anxiously to see if it has spread. People are thinking back to the last outbreak and pictures of thousands of animals being incinerated.

Now this may seem to have little relevance to winter sports, but it does have a lot to do with outdoor tourism, which skiing is a part of. During the last outbreak for example, off-piste skiing was prohibited in the Scottish resorts, despite it being the best season in years, snow-wise. Irrespective of this, I think that everybody working in tourism needs to pay attention to what is happening in other parts of the industry.

I don't want to belittle the struggles of farmers, who will undoubtedly be hit hard if the disease spreads like last time. However, the plight of the farmers in 2001 was well publicised, and government compensation was given to help them re-establish their businesses. On the other hand, British tourism was also hit hard. Hardest hit was rural, outdoor and adventure tourism. Many businesses struggled or closed down that year, including hotels, B&Bs, outdoor centres, campsites, climbing instructors etc. These ventures lost out due to the British countryside being practically shut down in order to protect the farmers, yet no compensation and little publicity was given in this direction. For various reasons, farming is seen as a nationally important occupation, whereas tourism is not. In a lot of rural areas though, tourism is the growing industry, and the big employer, whereas in many places farming is in decline.

I don't want to see any further decline in rural agriculture, but lets hope that if there is another foot and mouth epidemic on the way, the powers that be will pay some attention to our rural tourism industry as well as to the farmers.