“Supersonic Lessons Demand A Plan” 32 Degrees (Premier Issue), Fall 2008.

There you are, skimming the treetops at 500 miles per hour. You sense the enemy surface-to-air missiles trying to find you and shoot you down. Only a few more miles until the target area. Uh-oh. Looks like some enemy fighter planes on the radar. This is going to be a rough day. No, you didn’t pick up the wrong magazine. Training pilots to fly behind enemy lines and giving ski lessons have more in common than you might think.

Training for aerial combat is a complex task that takes long-term commitment and discipline. I’ve been an Instructor Pilot in the F-16 Fighting Falcon since 1996. I also happen to be a cross-country ski racer and volunteer coach. There are striking parallels between the American Teaching System (ATS) used by the Professional Ski Instructors of America (PSIA) and the way that I train my fellow fighter pilots. The most important part of a pilot’s training mission is the Debriefing where you build Lessons Learned. I’ll show how Lessons Learned are equally important in the Teaching Model used in the PSIA.

As an instructor pilot, I use a circular process to build mission success. It’s a cyclical process much like the Teaching Model of the ATS. Figure 1 describes what I call the Mission Planning Cycle. Replace the word “Flight” with “Lesson” and you’ll start to see the similarities. Flights in Air Force training tend to be more driven by external Objectives than student-centered ski lessons are, but the overall process is very similar. See Figure 2 for a comparison. I’ve used this process thousands of times, on thousands of flights. Much like the Teaching Model, this process can be used for tackling both big picture, long term segments of a lesson and very small scale, short term skill issues.

Figure 1: Mission Planning Cycle

Figure 1

Figure 2: ATS Teaching Method (Instructor Behavior) Compared to Mission Planning Cycle

Figure 2

First, you determine your Objectives. These must be clearly defined and measurable. “Do your best!” is a good philosophy, but it’s not a good objective. “Defend the airport from attack for one hour” or “Improve weight transfer and commitment to each ski during diagonal stride” are good examples. Every time I fly, I stand in front of the room and write my objectives on a dry-erase board. Ski lessons tend to be more fluid and less academic than that, but the importance of the objectives is the same.

This is equivalent to the Instructor Behavior of “Determining Goals and Planning Objectives” in the ATS Teaching Model.

Next, conduct Flight Planning to meet your objectives. For a combat pilot, it might mean planning what path you take to the target to avoid enemy aircraft and surface-to-air missiles. For a ski instructor, it means understanding the student’s goals and motivation for the lesson and tailoring the ski lesson to them. For example, maybe the student appears tired and less motivated, so maybe today would be a better day to work on the diagonal striding in a flat area instead of a hilly area. This is the same as the “Introducing the Lesson/Learning Segment” and “Assessing the Student” steps in the Teaching Model.

Third, you need to do a Flight Briefing. Before a flight, I stand and deliver an hour-long briefing to the pilots I’m leading. For a ski instructor, this is the “Presenting and Sharing Information” step of the Teaching Model. This may mean a clear, concise verbal description of the general flow of the day’s lesson including a specific discussion of how to properly transfer weight to each ski during the diagonal stride.

Fourth, take Flight. As an Instructor Pilot, leading a practice mission, I need to do exactly what I planned to do to achieve good training for my new, young wingman. For a ski instructor, you are “Guiding Practice” and “Checking for Understanding” throughout the lesson. You can provide instant feedback to your students on how well they are striding on their classic skis and ask them if they are feeling an improvement in glide and kick. In many ways, ski instructing during the lesson is easier than flight instructing: You can talk face-to-face instead of through a radio and you aren’t traveling at insanely high rates of speed!

So you fly. Or you spend the day outside with your diagonal-striding student on the trails. Your muscles are tired and your student wants to rest. This is true for both flight and ski instruction. You’re at a crucial point. Whether you just pulled 9 G’s in a dogfight or just finished a ski lesson, you’re pooped. Buck up, little camper. Start the Debriefing. This is the same as “Summarizing the Learning Segment” in the ATS Teaching Method. Interestingly, the PSIA Internet Learning Center uses the same word as the Air Force and calls this step “Debrief and Closure.” In my opinion, this is the most important part of any flight or ski lesson. It’s also the part that’s easiest to skip.

Use the Debriefing Process (Figure 3) to remind everyone of the Objectives, Reconstruct events, figure out Execution Errors, derive Lessons Learned and end by assessing how well you met your Objectives. Pull out your list of Objectives and remind yourself what you wanted to do. Without being judgmental with your student, simply reconstruct what happened during the lesson. If you have video of a lesson, it may be very clear what took place and what Execution Errors were made in learning diagonal stride technique. Next, the most important step is to pull out Lessons Learned.

Figure 3: Debriefing Process for Ski Instructors

Figure 3

So what exactly is a Lesson Learned? A Lesson Learned is a declarative statement that tells you specifically how to correct an Execution Error. Poor instructors think Execution Errors and Lessons Learned are the same thing. Any chimpanzee can list what the student screwed up. You make your money as a coach or instructor when you find the root cause of an Execution Error and make a Lesson Learned that fixes it.

For example, let’s say you reconstruct your ski lesson with your student and you determine that they were diagonal striding well every time they warmed up first by skiing without poles. When they didn’t practice without poles before doing an exercise, they skied poorly when they used their poles. The Execution Error is: Didn’t transfer weight properly from ski to ski when skiing with poles. Some instructors stop here, review their Objectives, and call it a day: “You didn’t commit your weight to your skis. See you next lesson!” Good job, chimp. (See Figure 4)

Figure 4: Debriefing Process for Chimps

Figure 4

You’re not a monkey. You’re a professional ski instructor! The hard work comes in finding root causes and fixing them. (Figure 3) In this classic technique example, when the student warmed up without poles, they performed better when using poles. A good Lesson Learned might be: “Warm up without poles in a flat area before diagonal striding with poles.”

An easy trick to make sure you’re creating valid Lessons Learned is to say, “Next time I will… (Fill in the blank).” The part where you filled in the blank should go down as one of your Lessons Learned. When your student reviews the lesson he can think, “Next time I will…warm up without poles in a flat area before diagonal striding with poles.” You want your student’s lasting impression to be his instructor’s voice giving him concrete ways to improve. They can take these directive Lesson Learned statements with them wherever they go: to another lesson or to a practice session on the trails.

You aren’t deriving Lessons Learned when your student says things like “weight between skis” or “dragging trail foot.” It will be obvious that you’re only listing Execution Errors when you use this trick. For example, this sounds silly: “Next time I will… weight between skis.”

The Teaching Method of the American Teaching System is a useful way to develop Instructor Behavior. In my experience as an Air Force Instructor Pilot, I use a process very similar to that used by snow sports professionals throughout the land. I feel the most important part of any method is the creation of Lessons Learned for your students. Whether you’re developing mission-ready pilots who are ready to defend the nation in high-performance jet aircraft or giving a ski lesson, the same method can be used to create successful lessons for your students. You too can become a fighter pilot of the trails!


About Eric Chandler

Husband. Father. Pilot. Cross Country Skier. Writer. Author of Outside Duluth and Down In It.
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