Overcoming the FEAR of gliding down the hill

The first time Bella Auricchio of Chicago arrived at Vail Ski School she froze stiff. She clung tight to her nana’s leg and refused to go.

“A long time ago when I first went skiing, I got really scared. I saw the high mountains and at that time I was only 5, and I still liked being close to my mom,” Bella says, who is now 8 and skis every winter. “Later, when I did go to ski school, I thought the instructors were really nice. I had no idea why I was so sad to leave my mom, I had no idea why I didn’t want to ski because it is soooo fun.”

Skiing can be intimidating for kids, especially for those who are from a different part of the world. It’s a brand new environment — the looming mountains, the cold, the snow and the altitude. Throw in moguls, steep runs, speed and being able to stop and there are a lot of factors for little ones to worry about.

There are ways to help children overcome their fears of gliding down the mountain. For some, like Bella, it isn’t actually the skiing that’s scary. It’s being away from mom and dad.

“When they’re dropped off at ski school, it’s not, so much skiing that they fear it’s really being separated from their parents. It’s a very strange environment and some kids deal with that a little differently than others,” says former Vail resident Linda Gay Cotter, who is now a psychotherapist in Boulder. “Number one, I would never, ever make it a huge issue. What’s most important is that it’s a place to have fun.”

When it comes to separation anxiety, parents can do a lot to improve the situation. And like Cotter suggests, parents need to stress not the school part but the fun skiing part.

“Parents need to be supportive, especially if they are trying to get their kids in school,” says Children’s Ski School instructor Mike Evans, who also trains other instructors to teach kids. “You can’t treat it as school, or as a punishment, or as a way to get away from the parents. You need to say it’s exciting, it’s fun, and it’s a way to hang with kids your own age. It’s an adventure.”

The ski instructor’s job, Evans says, is to keep those children who miss their parents active and make them feel as comfortable as possible.

“Kids need to feel safe and secure that they’re with you. You need to be their parent and the best thing is to keep them active,” he says.

Parents can help kids feel comfortable in the snow, too, Cotter says, and it’s really important if they are struggling with being afraid.

“It’s called desensitization and the parents need to play a little on skis in the snow all bundled up — especially if they are from another part of the world where they’ve never had ski clothes on — it’s really different. And some kids aren’t adaptable as others,” Cotter says.

Once on the hill, depending on the kid, fears range from just beginning to glide down the hill to being worried about stopping to moguls or the trees and even the racecourse, Evan Vomacka says, a children’s ski instructor at Beaver Creek.

“Dealing with fears in every child is different,” Vomacka says. “Some you have to take baby steps and progression, lead them up to the point or the part they are afraid of, like the race course. Others, depending on the kid’s personality, you take a different approach and you just throw them into it.”

A child who is afraid of something, but they want to do it, Vomacka says, like dropping a steeper face, and you are confident they have the skill set, you can push them a little bit. But it’s even more important that you convince the kid of their skills and give them confidence.

“It’s a fine line judging when a child is ready for something that they want to do and they might be afraid to do. If the fear is too strong it will inhibit their skiing ability,” Vomacka says. “Kids get afraid, tense and they fall back into old habits, like the wedge.”

Which is why both ski instructors Vomacka and Evans say it’s extremely important not to “over terrain” a kid, something parents are often guilty of doing. When you put a kid on something too hard, it’s really difficult to recover from that, says Evans.

“Parents who wants to take kid on black runs, for example, and the kid has to take a huge wedge the whole way down, bruising the back of their calves, and some will be scared and others will think they can ski on black runs,” Evans says.

Vomacka calls this “defensive skiing,” just being able to survive down the slope, he says, and the child usually regresses in skill instead of actually trying to ski it because they are afraid.

“When your kid gets past the fear of skiing, then it’s all about taking little steps and skiing what they are ready for, making sure not to put a child in a situation above their ability,” Vomacka says. “That’s the biggest thing when helping kids deal with their fears associated with skiing.”