We recently caught up with Jon Heddou who is currently working as a snowboard instructor at Niseko Go Snow.
The idea of riding Japanese powder every day was what initially led Jon to do a snowboard instructor gap year program with EA. However, what’s he’s gotten out of it is so much more than that.
Keep reading to see how Jon is finding his winter gap year and what he’s gotten out of his snowboard instructor course.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself?
Hi, I’m Jon. I’m originally from Sydney, Australia and I’m currently working full-time as a snowboard instructor for Go Snow at Grand Hirafu in Niseko, Japan.
What were you doing before you moved to Japan?
I was finishing up high school figuring out what I wanted to do next.
I’ve been a competitive snowboarder for a while now and I was captain of the snow sports team at high school so spending a season on the snow had been in the back of my mind for a while. I went to my mum and dad and told them I wanted to take a gap year and become a snowboard instructor. They were supportive and here I am. I guess you could say this is my schoolies week (laughs).
How did you pay for your course?
I had a part-time job in hospitality while I was at school. I used my savings from that to pay for my EA course.
Why did you choose Japan?
There were a couple of reasons. I had spoken to a friend who was heading over to work as an instructor for Go Snow the same season. He suggested I come along, which planted the idea in my head.
I had also spent some time riding in Japan already. The snow here is insane, and I knew it was a place I wanted to go back to and spend a decent amount of time in.
Also, I’ve also only just turned 18 and the Japanese working holiday visa is much easier to get. I only had 14 days between finishing my exams and the instructor course starting. Canadian visas can take upwards of six weeks to get, while Japan is pretty quick. That was a factor too.
Was it scary to take a leap of faith and become a snowboard instructor instead of going straight to university and following that trajectory?
For sure! Most of my friends at home decided to study straight after high school. Right now they’re living it up enjoying orientation week while I’m here working in Japan (laughs). I plan on studying when I get back to Australia, but I’m definitely glad I made this decision to come here first - it’s such a fun lifestyle.
Becoming a snowboard instructor has also opened up new opportunities for me. My old school snow sports team have said they will employ me to help with training back in Australia, and I’m going to work at Perisher Ski Resort part-time during the southern hemisphere winter while I study.
Tell me about Niseko Go Snow?
I know there are ski schools that can treat their staff like a number rather than a person, but Go Snow isn’t like that. They go above and beyond for us. For example, their pay rate is one of the highest in Japan and they have incentives in place for returning staff.
Tell me about living in Japan?
Living in Japan has been really easy. The first few weeks here were a little full on, but it’s been easy since then. Grand Hirafu resort is well placed and there’s a staff shuttle bus that runs every half hour so going to town is a breeze.
Can you tell me a little bit more about your snowboard instructor training?
We had an EA Ski & Snowboard pre-course for five days with Adam Rigby which was awesome. He’s a really cool guy who knows his stuff. His movement analysis is so fine-tuned that he picked up on every little bad habit we had and helped us address it. All the trainers we worked with gave us pretty straight-up feedback, which I like.
After our pre-course training, we dived into exam training with a larger group. On a standard day, we’d get up early and ride in the morning when the snow was fresh. After lunch, we’d head out for another two hours or so and then at about 3pm we’d head inside for some whiteboard work and theory lessons.
The training block was broken up into three segments. We had a week of snowboard training, a week off for paperwork and self-training, and then we had a week of ski instructor training. The ski cross-over was pretty fun. It means I can work as a ski instructor if necessary.
As someone who had a background in snowboarding, did you still find the on-snow training valuable?
100%. The training portion was probably the best part of the entire course. There’s nothing better than getting active feedback. There’s a difference between sitting in a classroom discussing snowboard theory and technique versus getting critiqued on the snow and being able to feel the changes in your riding.
How did you find the exam?
We sat our exam over a four-day period. I really like the APSI certification model. The first two days felt more like training days, which was great as it took the pressure off and meant our exam result didn’t come down to how we performed on the final two days. If the examiner saw us do something on the first day that we couldn’t master on the examination day, you still had the opportunity to pass.
How was the transition from training to work?
Quick! We qualified one day and literally the next day we were out teaching.
It was quite a challenging learning process. What you learn during your training and the mock lesson you give during your exam is very different from what happens in real life. In real life you need to quickly ascertain if your clients are visual or active learners and then figure out how to adjust your lesson so you can cater to everyone.
It took about a week before I became comfortable teaching. It didn’t take long to realise a lot of beginner snowboarders have the same fundamental struggles. I learned a couple of techniques and tools I could use in a variety of ways to teach and correct clients.
In snowboarding, most learners are in the habit of leaning on their back foot. So I play a teapot game in my kids' lessons to help them get their weight onto their front foot.
When I think back to my first lesson and compare it to where I am now, I can’t believe how far I’ve come.
What have you learned about the culture that exists in the snow sports industry?
Everyone in the industry is super chill and friendly. The lifestyle attracts people who just want to have a good time and do what they love. There is a pretty fun après ski culture in the ski industry in general.
What have you learned about the snowboard and ski instructor now that you’re in it?
I didn’t even know the Australian Professional Snowsport Instructors Association (APSI) existed before I started training so that was new (laughs).
I’ve also learned that this industry is all about who you know and making connections with people. One of the best things about doing my snowboard instructor course with EA is that I’ve made so many valuable connections. I don’t think I would have the same industry relationships I have today without doing a course. Whether it’s for a reference, tips or feedback, I now have a good group of people in the industry I can turn to for support.
What is the most rewarding part of being a snowboard instructor?
For me, the most rewarding part of my job is seeing the energy and smiles on my clients' faces when we do a victory lap at the end of a lesson.
Not all instructors do this, but I like to call our last lap of the lesson a victory lap. I basically tell the kids they’ve got one last chance to go into full send-mode. For some reason, they love this and it’s the best snowboarding I see from them all day.
The smiles kids have on their faces as they come down the hill linking turns is the ultimate job satisfaction for me.
What are your plans next?
I’m about to start my APSI Level 2 training and avalanche training course next week. Then, my contract finishes at the end of February. I’ll stick around in Japan for a couple of weeks and ride some pow before I head back to Australia.
I’ve enrolled to study Law at university and the plan is to work part-time at Perisher Ski Resort over the winter. I’ll be back in Japan next season though.
Would you recommend doing a ski season in Japan and becoming a snowboard instructor?
100%. Taking a gap year is a great thing to do, but doing something worthwhile that adds value to your life and gives you experience is the way to do it. If you want to do something that’s going to give you a wide range of transferrable skills and help you reach your potential, I’d definitely recommend becoming a ski or snowboard instructor.
What have you learned on your gap year?
The biggest lesson I’ve learned so far is to accept others. Working and living with people from different cultures and backgrounds has reminded me of how important it is to accept people for who they are. This is something I will take with me through life.
Another lesson I’ve learned from my training and the APSI system is to just be humble. Being humble will get you far in the snowboard industry and it’ll teach you patience and tolerance. Patience is a key value you need if you want to be a successful snowboard instructor.
Do you have any advice for someone considering becoming a ski or snowboard instructor?
Do it! It’s an experience that will set you up for success in life, whatever that might look like. Also, learn how to ski or snowboard to a high level before you do your course. It’ll help a lot.