Murmuration of Starlings

I posted this video on fb yesterday of these amazing birds and what they are up to.  According to the RSPB website, they are actually just having fun, just hanging out with their mates and flying about before settling down for the evening.  All along the riviera here, this video was taken in Aubonne, you see this spectacular show in the autumn.

From the RSPB website;

“What’s going on?

It’s basically a mass aerial stunt – thousands of birds all swooping and diving in unison. It’s completely breathtaking to witness.

We think that starlings do it for many reasons. Grouping together offers safety in numbers – predators such as peregrine falcons find it hard to target one bird in the middle of a hypnotising flock of thousands.

They also gather to keep warm at night and to exchange information, such as good feeding areas. 

They gather over their roosting site, and perform their wheeling stunts before they roost for the night. 

When and where?

  • Autumn roosts usually begin to form in November, though this varies from site to site and some can begin as early as September. 
  • More and more birds will flock together as the weeks go on, and the number of starlings in a roost can swell to around 100,000 in some places. 
  • Early evening, just before dusk, is the best time to see them across the UK. You don’t need any special equipment as it’s all visible by just looking to the skies.
  • They roost in places that are sheltered from harsh weather and predators, such as woodlands, but reedbeds, cliffs, buildings and industrial structures are also used. During the day, however, they form daytime roosts at exposed places such as treetops, where the birds have good all-round visibility.”

Summer skills

No doubt that this post will be lost in the general angst of Brexi but I recently had a great experience that I wanted to share with you.

In the ski season I’m often asked what I do in the summer and  apart from some other things that I’m working on and generally planning my diary for the ski season, my main work is coaching football for kids.
For the last 5 or so years I’ve worked for a company called Intersoccer who run after school football all over Switzerland but principally in the French speaking area along the Lake Geneva riviera.  This has lead to me developing loads of great young footballers and it’s fantastic to see them grow up and improve their skills.

I normally first come into contact with them when they are about 5 years of age and I normally keep them within the Intersoccer system until the point at which they need much more competitive football can start to go and play club football with local teams.

Something that I have put in place over the last two seasons with Intersoccer is matches against other Intersoccers to measure our progress.  For example, Intersoccer in Montreux played Intersoccer Lausanne recently in a return match of ones that we held last autumn.

The tournament was originally designed as a fun morning for the kids to show off their skills but after our narrow defeat to Lausanne (by some much bigger boys I might add) my team from Montreux were determined for revenge.
My approach to coaching football is very sequential, much like learning to ski.  I worked on this for a number of years with my colleague and now famous on Indian TV, Stevie Grieve.  It follows that you need to have the basics down before you can move onto the next level.  For example, a very basic model might look like this;

Ball manipulation > moving with ball > turning with ball > passing ball > shooting with ball

Obviously there is much more to it than this but as the weeks go on, I start to build some very competent young footballers who can more than old their own against older boys and are often playing for their school teams.  When they pop out of my system, they often go to play for local clubs and fit in very well due to their skills foundation.

Back to the tournament, we ended up drawing two matches against older boys with my senior group, a result that they were very proud of and my more junior guys smashed their equivalents in Lausanne playing with less players and still winning 8 or 9 -0.

montreux seniors – hard fought draws

Montreux juniors – no mercy


It was amazing to see the lack of fear in these young guys, trying their skills and playing with freedom, trusting their instincts.  When I coach from the sidelines, I try to stay quiet as much as possible and let the kids work out solutions to their own problems.  If I absolutely have to say something, I try to be positive and encouraging.

When setting up the teams, I try to keep it as simple as possible,  My main instructions for this tournament was to hustle the opposition man on the ball and counter attack with speed.  The team set up and decided their own formation based on the weeks of practice before.

Anyway, well done to all of you that might be reading this.  I’m very proud of what you achieved.

Aside from football coaching, we had another group in the hotel last week, not skiing this time but a group from the UK who were here to learn French and do activities in the afternoon.  They had a great week and enjoyed excellent food from our new chef.  I had the beginners group of French learners and they made great progress by the end of the week, going out into the village and interacting with real French speakers.

Summer has started properly here now.  I sit currently in Geneva and it’s 31 degrees.  I really struggle in the heat, especially in the city, so much so that I’m planning a trip back to the UK this weekend in the hope that it is colder. (Assuming that is, they let me back in :))

Xx

This is the start?

I woke up this morning for the first time to the magical sound of beeping and scraping snowploughs and the man downstairs at the Creperie, hard at work with his shovel, cleaning the snow from his terrace. This can only mean one thing, the big snow has arrived.

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Big snow?

I don’t particularly want to jinx the big snow as I know that it has snowed all the way down to Lac Leman which is never a good sign but it is forecast to stay cold, so at least the guys who look after the mountain can start making some more snow and generally get on with making a ski resort happen.

In this respect, it’s been a pretty disastrous start for some of the Portes du Soleil, with places like Morzine looking like summer up until today and my home resort of Morgins only able to open the top area for beginner lessons. Pretty much the whole of the Portes du Soleil was invading Chatel, Linderets, Mossettes and Avoriaz, resulting in Avoriaz having to impose quotas on lift ticket sales to preserve the pistes and ensure safety.

I managed to ski much of the French side this week in a desperate attempt to look like I can still actually ski for when our ski school formation weekend (skiing part anyway) finally happens. Personally, I’m skiing pretty well actually and I’m taking on board some of the lessons that I learned on my failed BASI (British Association of Snowsports Instructors) level 4 tech exam last year.

Personally this year, I’m taking a break from BASI and ski instructor exams. I came to the realisation last year that endless focus on exams and progressing through ‘the system’ was killing my enjoyment of skiing and so I’m having a year off with specific goals of finding enjoyment and pleasure in skiing again and skiing socially with friends.

It’s not all been sitting indoors looking out of the window looking for snow though. I’ve have a few trips to Saas Fee in the Autumn which were excellent as usual and I even got to finally visit Nesti’s Ski Bar which was on my list of things to do in Saas since I first went there in the summer of 2010. It didn’t disappoint and is well worth a visit if you are in the area. Loads of Appenzeller shots, no wifi and great music.  Say I sent you.

Remember I was telling you about my goal to ski with friends more? Well, for my birthday, I got a bunch of people together and went to ski in Cervina. The snow there at the start of December was amazing and everything was open, right from the top at about 3300m, down to village level at 1800m.

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Some high quality rental skis

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Beautiful Italy. Cervina.

Despite being on rental skis and very hungover (a long story for another time to do with getting a chef fired and a house party till 3am), I had an amazing day, skiing with my bosses, my friends, ex-Swiss team skiers and the coolest guy in Morgins, JD.

That day was all about social skiing and to see 8 Morginois, skiing with total freedom, tearing up the Italian pistes was a sight to remember.

Bring on winter.

-x-

Don’t blog for ages and then all of a sudden it’s the end of the season blog

It’s been an incredibly long time since I last blogged, if you don’t count a week of exams, I’ve had about 5 days off from ski teaching this season and those days were spent catching up with paperwork, resting or being hungover.

I suppose the biggest news of the last month or so is that aside from remorseless ski teaching, in mid-March I went to take my BASI level 4 technical skiing exam in Verbier. Unfortunately, it didn’t go nearly as well as I had planned for it to.

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the lonely lift ride back down to Le Chable after i threw in the towel on the L4 tech exam.

This season, I seem to have gone up in the world a little bit at the ski school and I’m now getting to teach some really interesting work. The downside to all of this (and believe me, I’m NOT complaining) is that I arrived at the exam already tired and unprepared. The first run on the first morning of the exam was a casual ski down the Tortin bumps field in Verbier, as a warm up. By the end of that, my legs were already shot and if I am honest, I knew at that point that I wasn’t anywhere near the standard of the rest of my group or the level of the exam.

I ploughed on for 3 more days though, trying to get to grips with what the examiners were looking for. What I tend to bring in terms of my own skiing is neat and tidy skiing and the level 4 is not really about that, it’s about ski performance, agility and speed. So I struggled in the bumps, I struggled with my short and long turns (not in terms of doing them, just doing them the way they wanted them),in the variable snow off piste and my own personal speed threshold. In short, a complete disaster.

Disillusioned and tired, I had a chat with my trainer at the end of the third day, thanked him for his time and checked out of the course. I didn’t see the value in attending the last two days as they were assessment based and not skiing development. As soon as I had made that decision, I felt a huge weight lift off my shoulders. I hadn’t quite realised that I had been building up in my mind to this exam week all season and perhaps I was more stressed about it than I realised. I know where the level is now and I plan to take a season off of the exams next year and get back in touch with skiing for pleasure. Instructor exams are interesting but they grind you down in the end.

What I found most interesting about the week was that for the first time in the BASI system, I was by far and away bottom of the group that I was in. This was a new experience for me and it was interesting to see how certain members of my group behaved towards the one that they regarded as weak. When you are in this position, you tend to catch a lot of lifts alone, people don’t talk to you and you are playing catch up a lot where the group skis off just as you arrive.

Back in the real world of ski teaching, I’ve done some absolutely lovely work this ski season. I’ve been running race coaching for an international school we look after, weeks of collective lessons in French, some really interesting adult beginner lessons, women who have had their (ski) confidence destroyed and some collective kids groups from Africa. All very diverse and very testing mentally.

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perhaps my favourite image of this season, Victoria using my 130cm poles for the afternoon 🙂

The Portes du Soleil has a very end of season feeling about it right now. High temperatures and melting snow are making for slushy conditions and snow free villages. In a new innovation however, myself and my colleague Ben have started going skiing for fun instead of sitting in bars drinking. It’s amazing! Today we headed out into the Portes du Soleil, skied some of our favourite runs and even messed about in the stash in Les Linderets, jumping off stuff and generally messing about. Skiing is fun, not just work! Who knew?

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Happy new year etc blog

A belated happy Christmas and New Year to you all.  The festive season here tends to descend into a cycle of teaching, partying and alcoholism and the massive attack of cramp a couple of days ago I took as a sign from my body that it was time to calm down a bit.  I didn’t actually realise that it’s late January so 2 months of the season have flown by already.

So today is probably the second day off that I’ve had since Christmas eve which, whilst I am certainly not complaining in a year where the snow has been awkward at best, is a very welcome pause to catch up with a few things.

Highlights of the Christmas season for me were;

1.  Teaching the President of the Parliament of a Mediterranean country , who was in Morgins on a short break with some friends, no doubt de-stressing from the strain of getting her country’s economic situation sorted.  Anyway, we got her up and skiing and for her, the fresh clean air of the mountains and learning a new skill were a really good way to unwind from her day to day life.  She was a super interesting person too.

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Doesn’t matter who you are, the mountains dwarf you.

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the Prez et moi

2.  Another guy new to skiing, a Dutchman called Florian.  He turned out to be one of the fastest learners I’ve ever seen.  He would take one look at anything you showed him and replicated and understood it perfectly.  After just two hours, he was skiing perfect parallel turns and when I saw him yesterday, he said he had been to Avoriaz twice that week (a good 2 hours skiing away) and was loving life.  Good times.

In amongst all of this, this season the ski school seems to be using me in a different way and I’ve ended up coaching and helping out the race team for one of the International Schools that we look after.  This is certainly really interesting work and I get a real buzz out of improving young skiers.

Also on the weekends, the boarding school kids from another International school aka ‘The Russians’ are back this year for super Sundays and we spent a really pleasant day yesterday bombing about the Portes du Soleil, skiing powder and hanging out in the snowpark.  The highlight of the day for me was when they told me that they didn’t know what a ‘snowtrain’ was.  It’s not every day you get to teach the snowtrain. 🙂

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I’ve been waiting a long time to teach this..

From a personal perspective, the last blog I wrote was a bit of a rant about the Eurotest but last week I was back in the catsuit to ski some more Giant Slalom with BASS Chatel.  I had a good day and thought I made some really good changes but it reiterated the conclusion that I have come to about where I’m going this season with what I am focusing on.

I was so far away from where I wanted to be with the Eurotest that I’ve decided to shelve any further Eurotests for this season and defer it to next year.  I’m now focusing only on my Level 4 technical exam in March.  This means I really have to look at my all round skiing and make sure that I can take my skiing to the next level in terms of precision.  I also need to spend the next 2 months of my life skiing as many moguls as I possibly can.  Moguls are trying to form here in the Portes du Soleil but everytime they get to a decent size, it snows again!  Annoying.

Anyway, if you need me, I’ll be in the Renard bumps field in Chatel, the Swiss Wall in Les Crosets or under the Bochasse lift line in Morgins.  If you see someone looking really confused, that’ll be me.

Till next time.

-x-

On the road

This is quite a long one so strap yourself in.

Good news is that finally it’s snowed here in the Portes du Soleil.  The rain on the skylight stopped hammering at about 1.30am this morning, replaced by the pat pat sound of snow.  It’s been snowing ever since and hopefully we can all stop panicking that it was going to be a man-made snow Christmas.

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The snowploughs have been working overtime and the avalanche bombing has been going off big time so next time I’m up the mountain, I’m expecting loads of snow.  To be fair, I was teaching yesterday and the snow covering wasn’t bad at all, so a quick refresh just before the masses get here is a bonus.

I feel like the entire autumn was spent anywhere else except in my own house.  I’ve already blogged about the race camp in Austria and I then had about 5 days at home before having to go off to Zermatt for the BASI ISTD teaching exam.  This is the highest level of teaching exam in the system (unless I guess you get invited to be a trainer of instructors) and to be absolutely honest with you dear reader, I thought the level was crap. 

I’m not sure if it was because I prepped too well (I did read the textbook through), or because I coach year round but I was really disappointed with the level of some of the sessions that were delivered by my peers on the course.  It’s not up to me who passes or fails of course but there were plenty of confused, dull and over complicated sessions that seemed to go down well with everyone that I thought were appalling. 

I always apply the €50 test.  ‘Would I have paid €50 for that?’  A resounding no in a lot of cases.

An added complication at this level is what I would call the pyramid effect.  The further you go up the ski instructor ladder, the stronger skiers you get.  With stronger skiers, you tend to get bigger egos, personalities and knowledge levels.  A lot of the week focused on different teaching styles and some of these involve giving students free reign to go away and discuss ideas. Ski instructors tend to procrastinate and discuss small concepts in fine detail and it takes a strong hand to keep these groups in check.

I also noticed a sort of Darwinism at work too on one of the members of the group who clearly was nowhere near the level required.  By midweek the rest of the group more or less turned on him and cut him adrift with harsh feedback and a lack of participation in his rubbish sessions.  It was fascinating to watch and sense the change of atmosphere in the group towards him, as if he was a cat who had used up all his lives.  An incredibly interesting thing to see from a group dynamic perspective.

Once that week was done and we finally got out of Zermatt (a massive faff by the way with the car free set up, train down to Tasch etc etc, everything there is designed to extract money from you) I had a couple of days at home before a day training Giant Slalom in Verbier with the Guru and then straight off to Alpe D’Huez for a weekend of Eurotest training before the main event the following Tuesday.

The weekend went pretty well insofar as it was really good to be able to do training on the stade where the actual Eurotest would be run and to get an idea of how difficult it would actually be.

The advice and feedback from the ESF guys who were running the training was pretty rubbish (pearls of wisdom like – ‘you know it is really icey so er, try to grip more…’  and ‘do more’) but I know my skiing well enough to figure out where I was going wrong.  That said, the whole set up of the weekend, gates, course setting etc  was excellent, so thanks to ESF in Alpe D’Huez for a good job well done.

Anyway, a quick dash home to prep skis and then back to Alpe D’Huez (3hrs 30 each way) for the Eurotest on Tuesday.  I could and probably will write a whole other blog on the actual events of the day but here is a short summary of how it went for me;

  1. Up at 5.45am with insomnia and Ben snoring in the next room.
  2. At the tourist office at 8pm to listen to speeches and wait to collect bib number 90.
  3. Inspect the course.  Find out it is even more icey than when you last trained on it.  Worry about going down it 90th.
  4. Do 3 warm up runs on different pistes whilst trying to memorise what you saw in the inspection
  5. Go to start.  Have man inspect your passport to make sure it’s you skiing it.
  6. Ski it like a muppet and get bounced out of the course by the massive ruts and holes caused by 90 people previous to you.
  7. Wait for course reset and go inspect again.  Add pressure to yourself because order is reversed and starting 12th is a good opportunity.
  8. Do 3 warm up runs on different pistes trying to remember new course.
  9. Go to gate.  Try to be angrier.
  10. Ski it like a muppet in some sections but good in others.
  11. Look at time at bottom, realise it’s nowhere near, congratulate friend who passed.
  12. Go home.

And frankly, there was nothing I wanted more at that point than to be at home after Hintertux, Zermatt, Verbier and Alpe D’Huez.  It’s a pretty high bar and I’m doing some serious thinking at the moment about if it is achievable for me.  It would be fair to say I wasn’t prepared having done minimal training but I know the 3 people that did pass and they spent the best part of 6 weeks in a race camp in Tignes for this one thing.  Is that realistic for a 37 year old guy with a wife, dog and an annual job?

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clockwise from top. tension in start area, race track, start hut

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Photos courtesy of Scott Pleva at Inside Out Skiing.

This is really the thing I cannot square with our ski system as it stands right now.  We are ski instructors/coaches but the amount of time spent actually learning how to teach and the process of learning is minimal, as is the volume of hours taught between levels that you need to build up.

The time spent on technical skiing is much higher and there is the prospect of trying to finish off the system with a speed test that even French guys who have been in ski race clubs for much of their youth are failing.   

It’s an interesting debate and one that I don’t have an answer to right now.  In fact I have to concentrate on healing myself sufficiently after the exertions of this one weekend to go do yet more technical skiing exams later in the season…

Till next time.

-x-

The pre-season blog

I write to you in this blog with the great news that I’ve actually been skiing!

Unless you count the day I spent in Saas Fee in October, which now seems so long ago as to not matter at all, I’ve just returned from a week in Hintertux ,Austria.  I was in Hintertux to spend some time training Giant Slalom (GS) with a view to going for the Eurotest at some point this season.

If you’ve never heard of the Eurotest (which will be loads of you because the Eurotest is very small in its relevance to anyone other than a small number of ski instructors bitching their way through the British ski system), it’s basically a European-wide test of your ability to race GS adjusted to the time of the best guy in the world at it.  If you’ve never heard of GS I don’t blame you, but it’s the stuff they show on the TV with the catsuits and the gates.

Anyway, at some point in the British system you have to suck it up and do the Eurotest if you want to go on and finish the system.  I’m in that space now so I’ve got to learn how to ski GS.  Growing up in London with no mountains, no local ski club as a yoof and no interest in skiing until age 14, it’s all new and interesting.

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Not me but Bromance in the fog. I was crying somewhere.

So there I was on the Hintertux glacier fighting with 25-meter radius skis that only work above a certain speed, bombing about the glacier.  The first couple of days were pretty hateful.  Not only was I getting used to being back on skis but also these new mental fast skis and it was all a little bit too much for me at one point, especially in the fog where I couldn’t see shit.  For me, flat light is kryptonite and that combined with an unfamiliar place and equipment was enough to make me want to quit.

Help was at hand though as I was with the Bromance, who suggested that we get involved in the après ski before our day off.  I thought I had seen après ski but clearly Austria is on another level.  We stepped into what appeared to be a nightclub at midnight before realising it was only 5pm in the afternoon on a Tuesday.  Anyway, 10 beers, a load of laughs, some bitching and some questionable DJ choices later, all the stresses were gone…

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day off.

Back on the big skis later that week, I started to work out how they worked and started to love them. For the last 3 days we were in the gates and I have to say that I LOVE gates.  I love the concept of being in a race track, with the challenge of the course making you turn where you don’t necessarily want to turn, the whack of the gates against the body and the lack of subjectiveness of the clock.  You’re either fast or you aren’t.

We will see where this goes this season but for sure, you won’t find me bitching about the Eurotest.  If I get there, I’ll be able to look the local instructors in the eye and say I’ve got it and take the respect that comes with that.   Thanks to Sean Langmuir for a great week.

On a slightly more snowploughy note, bookings are starting to arrive for the winter and I’ve already got some really nice work lined up for December with potential for much more.  I’m looking forward to skiing with some of the kids that I teach football to (and their parents!).  The good thing about this is that it reduces the time that you are unfamiliar to the kids and you can get so much more done if that student-teacher bond is already there.

Next week I’m off to Zermatt for the level 4 teaching exam.  I’m really looking forward to this one but I’m also apprehensive at the same time.  This will be the first snow based module of level 4 (highest in the BASI system) that I will have attended and I’m anxious about my level of skiing.  I’ve been with my head in the textbook for a while now and have written down a bunch of ideas, but I’m not that academic so I’ll be really challenged if the examiner is one that wants all the right ‘words’.

We will see.  See you in a week or so.

-x-