Inside the Ski Racing Mind: Pre-Race Management
On race day, the time you spend before your race is the most crucial period of race preparation. All of the hours of training you spend in the gym and on the hill may go for naught if you do not use your pre-race time wisely. What you think, feel, and do before a race will dictate how well you ski in the race. This pre-race period should ensure that you are physically and mentally ready to ski your best.
When To Arrive At The Start
An important part of racers’ pre-race preparation is deciding how far before their run they want to arrive at the start. You can arrive well in advance of your run or shortly before it. There are two start arrival approaches you can use: methodical and spontaneous. Which approach you choose depends on several factors.
The methodical approach involves arriving at the start 15-30 minutes before your run. This time enables you to slowly go through your pre-race routine. It allows you to progressively prepare your equipment, then get yourself physically and mentally ready. The methodical approach provides structure and time to complete your pre-race routine and offers a strong sense of control over your race preparation and performance. It also allows you to feel more calm and relaxed.
This approach is recommended if you need to keep a narrow focus on your race preparation, have a high need for structure and control, and perform best at a lower level of intensity. Lindsay Vonn and Benny Reich are two World Cuppers who prefer the methodical approach in which they must go through a thoughtful and deliberate process in his race preparation to ski his best.
The spontaneous approach consists of arriving less than 15 minutes before your start and quickly going through a brief pre-race routine. The spontaneous approach allows little time to think, increases intensity, keeps your focus off the race until the last minute, and allows your body to do what it has been trained to do without interference from your mind. This approach is suggested if you think too much about results before the race, need a sense of “letting it happen,” and perform best at a higher level of intensity. Julia Mancuso and Manfred Pranger are racers who are most comfortable with the spontaneous approach, in which they think little before their races and can ski their fastest relying on her emotions, energy, and instincts.
Start Area Space
Where you do your pre-race preparation can have an significant impact on your race readiness, particularly in how it affects your race focus. Some racers are easily distracted by all of the activity in and around the start area. The competitors, officials, and coaches can draw your focus away from your preparation and keep you from putting on your “race face,” resulting in inadequate readiness and poor skiing. If this describes you, it’s important for you to get away from this hub of activity in the start area and be by yourself. This isolation will enable you to keep your focus narrow and ensure no distractions to physical and mental preparation.
Other racers are focused too inwardly, too aware of their thoughts, emotions, and how their body feels. This self-absorption usually results in negative thinking, increased anxiety, poor race focus, and subpar skiing. If this describes you, it’s best for you to stay around the start area activity. Talk to people around you. Keep it light and fun. This draws your narrow focus outside yourself preventing you from going to the “dark side” of negativity and anxiety.
Who to Interact With
Another critical influence on your pre-race readiness is who you interact with prior to the start. You should only be around people who will assist you in your preparation, for example, coaches or teammates/competitors who help you become race ready. You should actively avoid anyone who interferes with this process including chatty or negative competitors or coaches giving unwanted course reports. In sum, specify what you need to do to be totally prepared to ski your best, decide where you can best accomplish your preparation, and identify who can assist and who will interfere with your preparation.
Focus on What You Can Control
There are a lot of things on race day that you have little control over, for example, the weather, snow conditions, and other competitors. At the same time, there are some things that you have total control over such as your equipment and your mental and physical preparation. Yet, I often see racers worrying about the things they can’t control. This focus can only lead to negativity, stress, and bad skiing. Take a look at your race day and identify everything you can’t control and then forget about them. Then, identify everything you can control and direct your focus entirely onto those things. By ignoring what you can’t control and paying attention to what you can, you’ll put yourself in a position to be the most confident, relaxed, and focused you can be. The result of which will be the best skiing you’re capable of.
One of the first lessons that emerged from my work with World Cup racers was that they could not afford to work their way into a race run. Yet, many young racers I have seen believe that they can take the first few gates to settle into their race runs. But these racers seem to forget that the clock starts when they leave the starting gate. If racers are not going for it from the moment they trip the wand, they are falling behind and having to play catch up the rest of the run. In ski racing, where races are won and lost by hundredths of a second, you can’t afford to warm up on the race course.
Having a “prime start” depends on being totally prepared to ski your best from the very start of the race. Your ability to experience a prime start is based on whether you’re physically and mentally ready to ski your best from the split second you leave the starting gate.
At the heart of this readiness is your pre-race routine. The first step is inspection where you learn the course well enough to have no surprises during your race run. The second step is your skiing warm-up that is organized and comprehensive, and include both free skiing and training course warm-up. Your skiing warm-up should begin relaxed and comfortable allowing your body to warm up and then increase in energy and effort until your final turns are at race focus and intensity.
The third step is to have a good physical warm-up in the start area which should include everything necessary to ensure total physical readiness. Common physical warm-up activities in ski racing include stretching and agility drills.
The final step of your pre-race routine -up is mental. You should check and adjust your focus and intensity. You should think positively. You can also preview your race run using mental imagery, seeing and feeling yourself skiing fast. With a prime start, you can ski to your fullest ability and ensure that you will be competitive from start to finish.
Note: This article will be last before a season-ending article in mid-April.
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 and 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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