How to Become a Snowboard Instructor
Snowboard Expert and instructor James C. talks about his journey to becoming a snowboard instructor and details the steps you can take to do the same!
There I was: fresh out of college, broke, living with my parents, and working as a bartender in Boston. November rolled around, and suddenly with winter in sight, I panicked because I knew I couldn’t afford a season pass to even the most humble ski resort without a student discount. I did a Google search, perhaps the same search that brought you here: “How can I get paid to snowboard??” Then lightning struck…
I could win the X-Games!!
That delusion of grandeur was shorter than the nano-seconds of the Google search. Almost immediately, I had flashbacks to my first competitive event where I flew wildly off the slalom course, earning a searing Did Not Finish that shook me so bad that “DNF” may as well have been carved into every board I touched. Realistically, I was not going to win the X-Games or even $100 from a local rail jam. However, I also saw ads to become a snowboard instructor, and that was absolutely in my wheelhouse! Later that season I landed a full-time position and became a “professional snowboarder” and the biggest perk is that my riding progressed so much more in the seasons that I worked as an instructor than ever before!
Let me reiterate… the BIGGEST perk is that my riding progressed more than ever before. I did not get rich, I did not earn big, and the pay ultimately did not cover rent, health insurance, groceries, or gas money. The vast majority of instructors today are retirees and college students because it is generally a low paying, seasonal gig. Even though the client might shell out upwards of $200 for a private lesson (close to $1,000 at Breckenridge at the time of this writing), a ski or snowboard instructor is generally paid minimum wage (or less) plus “perks”, which can range from a season pass and unlimited mountain access to just a couple bucks off food at the café. Sometimes if you are lucky, there might be a tip for $10 or $20, but I found that to be the exception, not the rule. It is not a glamorous job, but if you are a dedicated rider, the trade-off is worth it! You get to enjoy a fun lifestyle, riding all the time and enjoying lift ticket discounts to resorts all across the USA. Strap in and follow along, it’s more attainable than you think.
In this article, I will cover how to become an instructor, what to expect from the day-to-day of being an instructor, and best of all, how your progression as a rider will blast off on a rocket-speed trajectory.
How Did It Happen for Me?
Let’s take it back to that fateful online search. The idea was hatched that I would become a snowboard instructor, and at the time, my on-snow abilities were mediocre at best (reminder: I flew wildly off the slalom course). I could ride—or more appropriately, I could survive—the whole mountain so I knew it was possible, but I would need to improve as a rider. My secret power and the fundamental strength of my job application was a prior experience as an instructor. I taught swimming lessons, CPR, and First Aid. I went to UMass Amherst to become a Physics teacher. I knew about lesson planning and I could manage a group. Simple to translate that onto the snow, right? Right!
After being accepted to interview and passing a very basic skills test at Wachusett Mountain in Princeton, MA, I registered for the Instructor Training Course; Wachusett’s own ski and snowboard instructor course. The ITC was graded with six instructor qualifications: 1. Potential and Attitude 2. Recreational Skiing and Boarding 3. Demonstrations 4. Teaching and Class Handling 5. Detection and Correcting 6. Written Exam
When the dust of final scores settled, I tied with a classmate (and now fellow Curated Expert! I see you Andrew Bouffard!!) for the highest scores ever in the program. What was very interesting was that my own ability to ride was secondary to my ability to teach and connect with students. I found that the most important thing was to simply show up with a positive attitude!
After my first season as an instructor, I went on to achieve a Level 1 Instructor Certification from the American Association of Snowboard Instructors (AASI). The AASI certification separated the pros from the hobbyists. The instructor qualifications were more in-depth and the evaluation more rigorous. I became certified by the governing body of a national organization, not just my local hill. The three-day PSIA-AASI course culminated in a final certification exam focusing on these groups and skillsets:
- Instructor Decisions and Behavior
- Professionalism: Self-management and behavior management
- Teaching Methods: Assess and plan, implement, and review learning experiences
- People Skills: Verbal and non-verbal communication, actionable feedback, and connection with motivations/emotions of students
- Movement Analysis: Cause and effect between body and board, equipment, stance, and evaluation
- Riding: Versatility, speed and tactics, and demonstrating fundamentals
- Technical Understanding: Performance, utilizing PSIA/AASI Resources
Many of my friends went on to achieve their AASI Level 2, some to their AASI Level 3, then onwards and upwards to professional coaching (shout out again to Bouf!). I topped out at Level 1 but made connections and built a foundation to continue in the industry, working with all age groups and snowboard abilities for Curated today! By focusing on continued education, you can progress your skills both as a rider and as an instructor! So let’s take it to the bunny hill and get started.
How Can You Become a Snowboard Instructor?
Know the Basics
Your riding skill is one small but important part of being an instructor. Get familiar with your gear. Learn what it feels like to make little changes to angles, straps, stance, setback, and focus on the fundamentals of your riding (great answers in this article on stance). You can be the best rider in the world but be an absolutely rubbish instructor if you don't know how to relate to someone else’s experience.
In fact, if you lacked natural ability as a new student, you might make a great instructor because you figured out how to overcome habits that held you back. Now that you’re thinking of becoming a snowboard instructor, focus on developing teaching skills to prime yourself for success! Check with your local mountain to find out if there is an instructor training course or an apprentice instructor position to get started.
Relate to Others
It’s no coincidence that the top category of the Snowboard Instructor Course is attitude. Whether it is June or January, you can learn a key factor of instructing by making notes about customer service. After all, as instructors, we want to create and maintain a positive learning environment, so customer service is key! Consider these questions as you move through the world:
- How does eye contact make you feel?
- How does it feel when someone listens to your questions and takes time to respond thoughtfully?
- When you visit a board shop, how do you feel when they greet you?
- When they help you try on boots and ask questions about the fit, do you feel welcome to participate?
All of these are customer service pointers that can make you a successful snowboard instructor. Be genuinely curious about another person’s experience, and listen at Starbucks when they use your name instead of just your drink order! This is a job about connection.
Learn how to Teach
Great instructors learn to think like their students. Learn what signs to look for. Sometimes they need to try something new a couple of times before the skills sink in. Sometimes they are nervous about this new element and need a cheerleader to pump them up! Keep customer service in mind and develop an awareness for reading people. What do they need? What could they be feeling? Are you speaking to them with the sun blasting into their eyes? Have they been sitting and listening to your lecture for 25 minutes and now they're bored and their butt is cold?
Watch Their Riding
As you prepare to apply as an instructor, watch online tutorials to develop an eye for efficient riding vs. less efficient riding. Notice the movements of other riders and watch their mechanics.
- Bottom-Up: evaluate their board, feet, ankles, legs, hips
- Top-Down: Head, shoulders, arms, core
- Inside-Out: Core, shoulders and hips, hands and feet
Figure out how to demonstrate the shifts that will improve your students’ maneuvers. There are three major groups of learning styles: Seeing/Visual, Hearing/Auditory, and Doing/Kinesthetic (I left out “reading/writing” because that is not a practical method for snowboard instruction on the mountain).
You can tell someone to lean forward and squash a bug with their front big toe. You can even show them how to execute a J-turn by leaning forward on your board and pressing your big toe. Lo and behold, they stand up, lean back, and rocket to the bottom of the bunny slope. It doesn't mean they'll never get it and it doesn't mean you're bad at teaching. Use your hands to demonstrate what you want them to do with their feet. Have them demonstrate the positions and maneuvers on flat land before you take it to the hill. Practice in your own life communicating in these different styles!
Get Comfortable with Public Speaking
A repeating theme in becoming a snowboard instructor is effective communication. Public speaking is CRUCIAL! If this makes you nervous, practice! Go to a basketball court and have a conversation with a friend at the hoop. Step back and try from the free throw line. Step back further to the three-point line and feel what it’s like to project your voice from your belly. Teaching and class handling can be tricky when you’re down the mountain and trying to coach your student through a technical section uphill. You will need to project your voice over a chair lift or a snow gun. If your class is all wearing helmets, they will have a hard time hearing you with their ears partially covered. Now imagine using that big, clear, outdoor voice for four different hour-and-a-half-long lessons in a day.
Which is then a great segue to answer the question:
“What Is it like to Be a Snowboard Instructor?”
I underestimated the effect of long days on my feet, especially when the weather wasn’t friendly. This is an outdoor job, so get your gear dialed in to be reliable and comfortable. Sometimes you will be asked to shovel out the ski school areas. Sometimes you will be outside corralling groups coming off of school buses. Sleep well. Eat a good breakfast. Drink plenty of water on breaks. You are now a professional athlete so take care of your body for the physical demands of 100+ days on snow! It was not uncommon to have single-digit temps and wind-blown conditions.
In my experience, instructors managed a ski school group of around 10 entry-level participants, starting with the fundamentals of snowboarding technique: how to strap into a snowboard, how to skate, how to J-turn, how to load on and off of the rope tow or magic carpet, and eventually built up to linked turns and advanced maneuvers on intermediate terrain. Week after week the crew progressed and started taking on new challenges, like smiling big when they were riding or making silly noises when they started sliding. I was super proud of my school groups and always enjoyed seeing them cruising around on the mountain at the end of a 6-week course.
As a full-time instructor, my focus was less on school groups and more on regular lineups, trying to secure the coveted recurring private lessons. We usually had one group lesson in the morning, one around noon, and one or two more in the afternoon. We'd all suit up in our instructor jackets and cruise out to lineup like the coolest crew on the resort. The students were all huddled around grouped by skill level and age. We’d each be assigned a class by the supervisor, then off we went for an hour and fifteen minutes of developing skills—sometimes with stone-cold beginner snowboarders, sometimes with seasoned riders looking to improve their tree runs or trick progression.
Coming back full circle to the biggest perk: in between lessons we had time to ride! We got to know every single inch of the mountain. Beyond just recreation, this was crucial for knowing the daily conditions and identifying the best spots to bring classes. We would give each other tips or pick up on the styles we admired. We showed each other new lines and followed in each other's tracks. The season that started with mediocre skills ended in strong riding both regular and switch, confidence everywhere from greens to double blacks, and boosting rowdy laps through the park (remembering to remove our instructor gear, of course).
At the end of the day, we’d hang out in the instructor locker room or around the fireplace in the lodge sharing the highs and lows of the day, waiting in line for the boot dryer and tuning up our equipment. I learned how to wax a board, how to repair a ding, and then the next day we’d do it all again. By the end of that season, I was still broke, but it was life on the mountain and I was in heaven. If this sounds like heaven to you too, come on up!
Want to talk more about becoming a snowboard instructor? About to start a new job as a snowboard instructor and want to make sure your gear is dialed in? Just have some general gear questions? No problem! Hit up a Snowboard Expert on Curated, and we can talk through all your questions!