Inside the Ski Racing Mind: Building Confidence: Part II
Negative thinking that hurts confidence can become a bad habit. Bad confidence habits are just like bad technical habits; the more you practice them, the more ingrained they become and the better you get at being negative. And that negativity is what will come out in a race. Fortunately, like a bad technical habit, negative thinking can be retrained. The goal is to engage in enough positive thinking practice that a new mental habit of positive thinking becomes embedded in your mind and replaces the negative thinking. There are several mental strategies you can use to help yourself get that much-needed positive thinking practice.
The Racer’s Litany is a group of statements used to teach positive thinking and increase confidence. The litany retrains the bad habit of negativity into a good habit of positive thinking. As with any kind of habit, the only way to correct negative thinking is to practice being positive over and over and over again. The litany is like a training drill in which you’re focusing on learning good technical skills. The litany provides the necessary repetition to instill positive thinking skills. Here’s an example of a litany that I use with racers:
* I love to train and compete.
* I’m committed to giving my best effort in everything I do.
* I think and talk positively.
* I give 100% focus and intensity when I train and compete.
* If I focus on skiing my best rather than on winning, I will succeed.
A comment I often get from racers when they start using the litany is that they don’t believe what they’re saying. This is just like the training drill in which you’re trying to make a technical correction. In a sense, your muscles don’t “believe” the new skill either. With sufficient repetition, though, the new skill is learned and your muscles come to “believe” it. The same holds true for the positive self-statements. By repeating the litany enough times, you will start believing it. Just like the improved technique, when you get into a race, the new skill of positive thinking will emerge and it will help you ski your best.
The important thing about the Racer’s Litany is not only to say it, but to say it like you mean it. For example, I could say “I love to train and compete,” but I may not sound very convincing. If I say it like I mean it, with energy and enthusiasm, then I’m more likely to start believing what I’m saying. Saying the litany with conviction also generates positive emotions and physical feelings that will reinforce its positive message.
A great thing about the Racer’s Litany is that you can personalize it to your needs. Create your own litany of positive self-statements that means something to you. Then, say the litany out loud every morning and every night. Also, say the litany before you train and compete.
Another useful way to develop your confidence is to use keywords which remind you to be positive and confident. Make a list of words or phrases that make you feel positive and good, for example, believe, positive, strive, or yes I can. Then, write them on your equipment where they’re visible during training and at races. Also, put keywords in noticeable places such as in your bedroom, on your refrigerator door, or in your locker. When you look at a keyword, say it to yourself. Just like the Racer’s Litany, every time you see it, it will sink in further until you truly believe it.
Use Negative Thinking Positively
Even though I very much emphasize being positive at all times, the fact is, you can’t always be. You don’t always ski as well as you want and there is going to be some negative thinking. This awareness was brought home to me by a group of young racers I worked with not long ago. During a training camp, I was constantly emphasizing being positive and not being negative. One night at dinner, several of the racers came up to me and said that sometimes things do just stink and you can’t be positive. I realized that some negative thinking is normal when you don’t ski well and some negative thinking is healthy. It means you care about skiing poorly and want to do better. Negative thinking can be motivating as well because it’s no fun to ski badly and not achieve your goals. I got to thinking about how racers could use negative thinking in a positive way. I came up with an important distinction that will determine whether negative thinking helps or hurts your skiing.
There are two types of negative thinking: give-up negative thinking and fire-up negative thinking. Give-up negative thinking involves feelings of loss and despair and helplessness, for example, “It’s over. I can’t win this.” You dwell on past mistakes and failures. It lowers your motivation and confidence, and it takes your focus away from skiing your best. Your intensity also drops because basically you’re surrendering and accepting defeat. There is never a place in ski racing for give-up negative thinking.
In contrast, fire-up negative thinking involves feelings of anger and energy, of being psyched up, for example, “I’m doing so badly. I hate skiing this way” (said with anger and intensity). You look to doing better in the future because you hate skiing poorly. Fire-up negative thinking increases your motivation to fight and turn things around. Your physical intensity goes up and you’re bursting with energy. Your focus is on being aggressive and defeating your opponent.
Fire-up negative thinking can be a positive way to turn your skiing around. if you’re going to be negative, make sure you use fire-up negative thinking. But don’t use it too much. Negative thinking and negative emotions expend a lot of energy and that energy should be put in a more positive direction for your training and races. Also, it doesn’t feel very good to be angry all of the time either.
It’s easy to stay confident when you’re skiing well, when the conditions are ideal, and when you’re competing against a field of which you are one of the best. But an inevitable part of ski racing is that you’ll have some down periods and won’t be skiing well. What separates the best from the rest is that the best racers are able to maintain their confidence when they’re not at the top of their game. The real test of confidence, then, is how you respond when things are not going your way. I call this the Confidence Challenge. By staying confident, they continue to work hard rather than give up because you know that, in time, your skiing will come around.
Most racers when they ski poorly lose their confidence and get caught in the vicious cycle of low confidence and bad skiing. Once you slip into that downward spiral, you rarely can get out of it. In contrast, if you have real confidence, you can maintain your confidence and seek out ways to return to your previous good level of skiing. Like all racers, you’ll periodically go through periods where you don’t ski well. The challenge is not getting caught in the vicious cycle and being able to get out of the down periods quickly.
The Confidence Challenge can be thought of as a skill that can be developed. Learning to respond positively to the Confidence Challenge comes from exposing yourself to demanding terrain, difficult conditions, and tough courses in training and races and practicing positive responses.
There are several key aspects of mastering the Confidence Challenge. First, you need to develop the attitude that demanding situations are challenges to be sought out rather than threats to be avoided. When you’re faced with a Confidence Challenge you must see it as an opportunity to become a better racer. You also need to believe that experiencing challenges is a necessary part of becoming the best racer you can be. You have to realize that, at first, these challenges are going to be uncomfortable because they’re difficult and unfamiliar, but, in time, you will gain familiarity and comfort with them and, ultimately, gain confidence.
Here are some simple rules to follow to meet the Confidence Challenge:
* Seek out every possible challenge in training and races.
* Be well-prepared to meet the challenges.
* Stay positive and motivated in the face of the difficulties.
* Focus on what you need to do to overcome the challenges.
* Accept that you’ll make mistakes and may not fully succeed when first faced with a challenge.
* See challenges as experiences you can learn from to improve in the future.
* Never, ever give up!
About Dr. Jim Taylor
Dr. Jim Taylor knows the psychology of ski racing! He competed internationally for Burke Mtn. Academy, Middlebury College, and the University of Colorado. For the past 25 years, Jim has worked with many of America's leading junior race programs as well as World Cup competitors from many countries. He is a clinical associate professor in the Sport&Performance Psychology graduate program at the University of Denver. Jim is the author of Prime Ski Racing: Triumph of the Racer's Mind and his latest parenting book is Your Children are Listening: Nine Messages They Need to Hear From You.
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