Instructor-to-skier radio makes a lesson more efficient

You're standing at the top of the hill, all dressed like a skier: down parka and pants, skis, boots, poles, goggles, and headphones. Headphones? Yes, headphones.

Copper Mountain, located about 70 miles west of Denver, is one of the few ski resorts doing booming business in this almost snowless Colorado winter. Snowmaking equipment keeps enough of its more than 50 miles of trails open to satisfy pretty nearly every caliber of skier. And for those still new to skiing , there is a ski school that offers an innovative teaching technique involving the use of headphones. It's called the FM Communicator.

The FM Communicator is not a radio in the usual sense, and skiers using it won't be bounding over moguls to a country-western beat. Instead, they'ill be listening to an instructor explain when to bend knees or pointing out the precise moment at which to "unweight" for the next turn.

In fact, using the FM Communicator, an instructor can guide the skier through each segment of a turn, even if the two are skiing 300 yards apart. He can give commands such as "more pressure on your left ski" or "plant your right pole now,m " and the skier can respond immediately.

It's this immediacy that appeals to Peter Siegel, the man who came up with the concept for the device. "Its purpose is to teach a more effective lesson," he says. "And it is instantaneous action and reaction that makes that possible."

Mr. Siegel, who is a Copper Mountain Ski School supervisor, has been skiing for some 20 years; he has been teaching since 1972. In that time he has formed some opinions about teaching -- and students.

"Skiing is a moving sport, and moving sports should be taught while moving," Siegel says. "You can understand concepts while standing, watching someone demonstrate them, but you can't learn skiing. Your body can maintain positions moving that it just can't maintain when you're not."

This is where Mr. Siegel's small, compact, and very mobile communications system comes in: The instructor wears a lightweight handyman-style belt which holds a battery-operated FM transmitter. He talks to the student through a microphone that attaches to his head rather as a telephone operator's does. The student wears an FM receiver strapped to his chest and listens through a pair of stereo headphones.

"There is a lot of inneficient time in a regular ski lesson," Mr. Siegel says. Not so in one using his Communicator. Strapped into it, both instructor and student can be active: "The student can follow the instructor, watching how his body moves and acting on his spoken instructions. Or the instructor can follow the student, seeing mistakes and suggesting corrections. The instructor can watch the student from below or above, yet still be a constant contact. Or they can ski side by side, watching each other."

The two agree on some "key words" before they take to the slopes. "Pressure, " maybe, or "slide." These signify specific movements the student skier is to make; that way the teacher makes his point with no unnecessary chatter.

Mr. Siegel's invention does not allow for back talk on the part of the student. There is a purpose in this:

"In conversations," he says, "often neither party listens to the other. Since the student has no microphone, he has to take in what the instructor is telling him. Too, he can't say, 'I can't.'"

An insensitive instructor could abuse the latter, Mr. siegel feels. "But," he says, "our instructors know what they are doing. They don't push a student beyond his capabilities, therefore the student generally finds that because he is expected to, he can."

Mr. Siegel developed the FM Communicator in 1978, while he was an engineering student at Antioch University. He took his idea to a REno, Nev.-based manufacturer, Astraltune, who is making and marketing the device. "In 1978, they were the only company making portable, skiing-oriented electronic equipment -- they were the first to manufacture the mini-cassette decks many skiers wear today, for instance. They are young and progressive; I thought if anyone could see the implications of the FM Communicator, they would," he says.

The units at present cost around $400 apiece. Copper Mountain has 10 instructors trained in their use.

The device is used by skiers taking private lessons, mainly. And, according to Mr. Siegel, while there has been success with it in teaching skiers at all levels of ability, it works best with students who have already begun to move on their own.

Copper Mountain's ski instructors say that the FM Communicator makes their jobs easier. The students say that since the earphones block outside distractions and make them concentrate on what the instructor tells them, they learn faster. And Mr. Siegel is busy finding new applications for the device: "It's excellent for coaching racing, for instance. And we have begun tuning it into the video system," he says. "Now the student skier can see himself and hear again what the instructor was suggesting at that precise moment. It brings home the lesson doubly."

Since the supply of FM Communicators will be limited during the winter of 1980-81, the Copper Mountain Ski School plans to use them only for those skiers who reserve them ahead of time when booking lessons. For reservations and information, talk with your travel agent or write: Copper Mountain Ski School, PO Box 1, Copper Mountain, Colo. 80443.

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