I fell into the latter scenario this February. At the ripe old age of 29 (three months away from the big 3-0), I had never found myself sliding down a hill (or a mountain) in anything other than a sled or a giant rubber tube. I had also been living in Colorado for over a month at that time, so things needed to change. The idea of snowboarding had been with me since the age of 14, but I never had the opportunity to learn. Now, there I was, facing infinite possibilities everywhere I looked. The time had come: it was time to learn how to snowboard.
Relate to similar activities
Regardless of what your chosen new sport may be, chances are likely that you've done something similar in the past. For me, slaloming, wakeboarding, and riding trick skis behind a boat seemed very relevant to snowboarding in one way or another.
If you're kayaking, maybe you've already canoed or rowed a boat. It's definitely not kayaking, but at least you've been in a boat before and you probably understand how to turn at the very least. It's a start...
Talk to those that came before you
I have more than several friends that are really great at snowboarding. Obviously I asked for their advice. They simply said, "it's like wakeboarding, but instead of putting your weight on your back foot put it on your front, no matter how scary that sounds. Turning is almost the same, by putting weight on your heels and toes." Then they went on to explain more advanced techniques that I knew I wouldn't be using my first time out. Nonetheless, it was enough advice to for me to figure it out.
Talking to people that have done it before gives confidence in your ability to achieve the same prowess. It also gives you a starting point when you finally decide to get out there and try it yourself.
Watch YouTube. Watch "how-to" videos. Watch pro's. Watch amateurs that think they're pros. Watch people failing all over the place. Again, this goes back to learning before you try, remembering tips and tricks you may not have thought of yourself, and deciding if this is really for you (depending on how severe the fail videos were).
As I mentioned in the previous section, watching a pro doesn't do much for your learning, but it is very inspiring. I watched very few of those prior to actually learning how to snowboard. What I did watch was instructional videos. Rather than just listening to my buddies' generic advice of "turn by shifting your weight from heel to toes," I watched videos of instructors that broke down each micro movement involved with initiating a turn, and the order they each needed to be performed.
Since I watch a lot of climbing videos, I happen to know there are TONS of "how-to" clips out there ranging from climbing technique, safety, gear, training, etc. etc. I'm sure there are equal amounts involved with mountain biking, whitewater rafting, and even planning your first backpacking trip.
After going through all of the steps above, I finally got to the ski slopes. Armed with ambition, stories from my friends, and instruction from internet superstars, it was finally time to put them to the test. But I didn't just hop on a lift and scream down the mountain. I'm not that stupid [all the time]. I knew that no matter how many stories I listened to, no matter how many YouTube videos I watched, they could not replace the instruction given by a live human being, whom has presumably been doing this for a very long time. They are also likely to be someone that loves teaching and loves getting new people involved with their sport. I just so happen to learn really well by mimicking the demonstration so watching someone move on a snowboard, in person, was invaluable.
I think this will be true with most outdoor sports. Sure, some may be less risky or more easily scaled to fit your noobishness level, like mountain biking (if it looks too scary, just get off and 'hike-a-bike'), but some would really benefit by the instruction of a certified...instructor...like whitewater kayaking. Yes, you could watch a video on how to perform a roll, but chances are an instructor will be able to find a way to explain to you and make you go "AH-HA!" (Not to mention they can save you from drowning just in case you can't get back over.)
Practice makes perfect, and that goes for everything. Just because I could "falling leaf" down the run doesn't mean I was ready to tear off a black diamond. I spent a couple of trips to the hills on nothing more than greens. Maybe by the end of my third day I attempted a blue, but it probably wasn't pretty.
The same can be said for other sports too. No need to do a class 3 or 4 on day two. Try a couple 1's and 2's to see how well you can maneuver. You may also want to practice your rolls in standing water. Just a thought. If you see a technical downhill with a 3 ft. drop followed by a 3 ft. log pile on your mountain bike loop, you may want to consider going around to the smooth section, free of obstacles.
So there you go: find something related to your new sport that you've done before, talk to your friends that are currently doing it, watch some YouTube videos, take a lesson or two from a certified individual, and practice before you start running chutes on 13,000 ft. mountains. If you follow these simple steps, I've no doubt that you will gain the confidence along the way as well as progress faster towards ripping down a mountain in 3 ft. of soft, fresh powder. Skipping any one of these and risk multiple falls on your face on hard, icy ski slopes.
-David Sandel is an avid outdoorsman, Evolv Grassroots Sponsored Climber, and is the man behind Low Gravity Ascents, where he likes to write about rock climbing, mountaineering, gear reviews, and athletic training. He holds a "Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist" certification from the National Strength and Conditioning Association on top of being a full time engineer. Visit his site and discover many ways to connect through social media!