Matt Niswonger

A terrain park experience for the whole family

Story by Matt Niswonger • Photos by Cathy Claesson

Family sitting on a ski slope listening to instructor

Burton Academy instructor Matt Majersky details the finer points of our next maneuver—the 180 to a switch landing.

The idea sounded simple enough: hire some instructors from the Burton Snowboard Academy at Northstar to teach our family how to ride the terrain parks. I even had a “code name” for this particular idea — “Family Shred Day” (FSD).

In the past, I have used code names effectively to manipulate my kids into certain behaviors. For example, “Operation Super Athlete” was somewhat successful in increasing the kids’ broccoli intake.

With age, however, the boys have become increasingly wary of code names. Terrain parks look intimidating, and both boys expressed suspicion. Luckily, I was able to negotiate an agreement-in-principle and before anyone could change their mind, we started making phone calls and working out the details.

The logistics were no problem, really. Cathy and I would take our two boys (ages seven and nine) to Northstar, so the four of us could get better at boxes, rails, jibs, jumps, etc. — all the stuff that makes terrain park snowboarding such a graceful and inspiring activity to watch. Our youngest, four-year-old Mia, was still on skis, so she would be taking a separate class on a different part of the mountain.

We checked into our Northstar cabin the day before our big lesson. The plans for an awesome day of snowboarding were coming to fruition. All we had to do was show up at the Ride Academy in the morning, and everything else would be handled.

“We have to bust out the A-game and be ready to dominate,” I told the boys. My sons love that kind of talk, and soon they were doing chest bumps and high-fives, so I decided to take my speech to the next level.

“That’s right! Yeah! I am talking about carving, shredding, jibbing, blasting, ollie-ing, firing, tail-whipping and all the rest! TOTALLY, DUDE!” I yelled.

Binding are checked and adjusted, while our instructor explains the pros and cons of different stances.

Then, both boys got quiet and started looking unsure. Maybe I was overselling it. “The word is RAD, short for RADICAL,” I continued. At this point I was waving my arms to really drive home the point. “My generation invented it. It’s a state of mind, like Yoda using The Force.”

This pearl of wisdom was greeted with silence. “You are the opposite of rad, dad,” Nils finally said. Yep, I definitely oversold it.


We went to bed early, but I couldn’t sleep a wink. Truthfully, I had my doubts about Family Shred Day. My biggest doubts were about pushing our kids too hard on the park features. Sure, all four of us are intermediate or strong-intermediate riders, but that means little in the park. I wasn’t too worried about Cathy; she wasn’t planning on pushing herself very much. The boys, however, had never taken a hard fall in a terrain park. Or, to use plain English, Nils and Lukas had never eaten-it in the park before. That was a potential problem. I knew from personal experience that eating-it in a terrain park can make you never want to ride a snowboard again. For example, backslapping while landing a jump, or riding a rail on your face — more than just humiliating, such events are downright hazardous to your health.

By pushing my kids into FSD, I feared that they might never want to try park riding again. Furthermore, FSD could totally backfire and make me look like Colonel “Bull” Meecham from The Great Santini, like the time we took the kids rock climbing at Castle Rock State Park. I am talking about the kind of dad that makes everyone cringe.

Terrain-Based Education
“Here at Burton Academy, the emphasis is on terrain-based education. Sculpted terrain in the teaching area lets students control their speed naturally. That way your coaches can focus on correcting your body positions and movements.”

The four of us were intently listening to Matt Majersky, our instructor. One hour into the big day, some of my fears had melted away. Our instructors, Matt and Kenji, exuded confidence, and the boys hung on their every word. I looked over at mom, and she was having a good time as well.

Already we had learned that all of our aging snowboards were set up incorrectly for the day’s activities. The first part of the class was spent dialing in our equipment. Our instructors wanted us to have a “neutral stance” that day, meaning legs spread a little wider, with both feet equally “duck-footed.”

Right off the bat I could tell I was going to learn quite a bit.

After this, Matt gave us the run down on basic snowboard shapes i.e., camber vs. rocker. “Until about ten years ago, snowboards were all about camber, meaning the center of the board was raised. This allowed for a nice, solid feel, with an emphasis on edging. More recently, snowboard manufacturers started experimenting with rocker—which is the opposite shape. This means that the waist of the board sits lowest, giving the board a more playful feel.”

Then, Matt wrinkled his nose at my board, which was an old school, highly cambered model. “Great for holding an edge on an icy tree run, but not good for the terrain park,” he explained. He suggested a demo board that was much shorter and more playful feeling.

Good call. Right away, I noticed that the rocker shape, combined with a neutral stance, was less prone to randomly catching an edge while practicing maneuvers, resulting in fewer falls.

Form is everything! Nils on a box.

Body Position is Everything
After warming up in the instruction area, we were ready for some actual park riding. As we rode the lift, I watched riders hitting the features in the area right below us. These were advanced features, and I could tell that both boys were feeling intimidated. “Are we doing that?” Lukas finally asked Kenji. “Only if you want to, Lukas!,” came the reply.

A massive jump was launching riders 30 feet into the air. “Where is the beginner’s area?” I said to no one in particular.

When we arrived at the Burton Progression Park, I was totally relieved. This seemed a great place to learn terrain riding! The box slides were very wide and not very high. There was one intimidating “rainbow” slide, but that was it. Down below, I could see riders hitting some launches, but these appeared to be tame.

Before we committed to the first box, Matt had some advice: “Keep your lower body loose and springy, with bent knees acting like shock absorbers. Your upper body should be standing up tall. Keep your back straight, and look ahead, not down. Confidence and body position are everything.” Nils was first, and I could tell the whole day was going to boil down to this one moment. If everyone could just hit this first feature without eating it, then FSD would be a success. On the other hand, a hard fall right now would erode the crucial confidence we were building.

Parks are for Families
It wasn’t always pretty, but we all cruised the first few slides, and mom and dad even hit the skinny rail. Kenji and Matt were able to instill in us that negotiating slide features is all about squaring up and staying off the board’s edges. I tested this theory twice, and learned the hard way that putting any weight on my heel-side edge invariably resulted in pain.

Since we were looking pretty solid on the boxes, Matt suggested that we try some jumps. “The trick to getting air on a snowboard is to first transfer all of your weight to your tail until the board begins to flex. As you approach the lip of the jump, lean forward and then retract your knees into your chest at the right instant. No matter what, keep a straight back.” Then, Matt put his words into action. Everyone was impressed and inspired. Matt flew through the air and stuck the switch landing while maintaining perfect body position.

For our part, we all got some air, but needless to say we lacked the grace of our instructors. Our learning curve was fairly steep, however, and the timing rapidly became intuitive. Cathy, in particular, busted a graceful looking air that was captured on video.

The shadows were getting long across the snow as we finished our last run. I could tell my family was exhausted and a little cold, but very happy with their newfound park skills. Family Shred Day was a hit, but I couldn’t take any credit. Burton Snowboard Academy instructors Matt Majersky and Kenji Lim made a wonderful day possible.

Burton Snowboard Academy

The Burton Snowboard Academy located at Northstar is dedicated to the idea that “Progression Never Ends.” This unpretentious approach helps students realize that skill development is the road map to fun and inspiration.

Miles away from the “no guts, no glory” attitude of some within the boarding community, the idea is to take a step-by-step approach to becoming a snowboarder for life. Park features are introduced into the curriculum at an early stage in the learning curve.

In addition, instructors emphasize five basic movements:

  • Stance. Students find their “neutral stance.” This means both feet slightly “duck-footed,” and slightly wider than the shoulders. This symmetrical stance is the starting point; adjustments are made with experience as they become intuitive. This differs from other schools of thought that encourage beginners to adopt unnatural stances.
  • Rotation. Using the spine and legs to rotate the head, shoulders, hips, and board clockwise and counter-clockwise.
  • Retraction/Extension. Getting low and getting tall using your legs.
  • Foot to Foot. Shifting the core to weight the tail or nose.
  • Toe to Heel. Tipping the board from the toe edge to the heel edge.

Too many people learn the hard way that a boarding apprenticeship can be long and unforgiving. Expert instruction may be just the ticket to propel you beyond a frustrating plateau.

The idea that “only beginners need lessons” has been replaced by the notion that an occasional investment in lessons will pay huge dividends in continued development. Intermediate riders looking to take it to the next level should strongly consider checking out the Academy.

For Northstar, the Academy has helped keep beginners coming back.

“Those who have experienced the Burton Snowboard Academy have had tremendous success,” says resort spokesperson Jessica VanPerniss. “While there isn’t typically a high return rate among those who are first learning to ride at other resorts, the Burton Academy has experienced a 98% return rate. “

Another good tip for learning: Go with a friend or spouse and take turns with a video camera. The video can help you pick up on subtle mistakes in form and posture, and you might even get some hero footage — or at least a good laugh.