Inside the Ski Racing Mind: Four Secrets to Final Start-area Preparation
With March now upon us, the end of the season is in sight and some of the most important races of the season lie just ahead. As you prepare for these big races, whether the State Championships, Junior Olympics, NCAA Championships, U.S. Nationals, Topolino, Whistler Cup, or the World Cup Finals, you’re looking for any edge that will enable you to “raise your game” for when it matters most.
Often racers look for the obvious ways to ski fast such as ensuring your skis are tuned optimally or your technique and tactics are deeply ingrained. But it’s often the little things that can make a world of difference.
The time you spend before the morning of a race is essential for your race preparations. Your course inspection, skiing warm-up, and start-area routine are vital because they lead you progressively toward a state of physical, emotional, and psychological readiness that will allow your best skiing to emerge. But the few minutes in the start area just before you step into the starting gate will also impact how you ski and whether you achieve your competitive goals.
Recently, I discovered four relatively small techniques that, when used in combination, can have a big influence on your mind and body in those final moments before the countdown to your race run. Oddly, I didn’t unearth these strategies while working with ski racers, but rather in my work with the Stanford University wrestling team as they prepared for the Pac-12 and NCAA Championships. Yet, they are as relevant on the hill as they are on the mat.
You can think of these four techniques as the last bit of fine tuning to your mind and body that you do before you leave the starting gate. They should be done with only a few minutes before your number is called.
Those of you who have followed my ski-racing-related writing know I am a huge believer in the power of mental imagery. It’s so valuable because it influences every aspect of your ski-racing performance. Vivid imagery of how you want to ski in the upcoming run helps get your intensity to its ideal state, so you’re physiologically ready. It narrows your focus onto what you want to do in your race run, while simultaneously preventing distractions and negative thoughts. Imagery boosts your confidence and motivation by seeing and feeling yourself ski your best. So, for about 30 seconds, in those few minutes before your start, close your eyes and see and feel yourself skiing fast and aggressively. Let your body feel movements and your mind absorb images.
This strategy seems too obvious to even mention because breathing is such a natural part of living, much less ski racing. Yet often before a race, I see racers’ breathing become short and choppy as they get anxious before their start. Deliberate deep breathing is so powerful because it counteracts the nerves that often arise before a race run. It gets much needed oxygen into your system that will help with your strength, coordination, and endurance during the run. Breathing also increases your feelings of control, which helps you maintain your confidence when it may get a bit shaky. Make several deep breaths a part of your final preparations before every race run.
This is one of the crazier mental tools I discovered some years ago working with a U.S. Ski Team athlete. Simply causing yourself to smile (raise the corners of your mouth) has a profound effect on you physiologically and emotionally. Smiling relaxes you, counteracting the tension you may feel before a race run. It also generates positive emotions, such as happiness, excitement, and joy, at a time when other, less pleasant emotions, including fear and worry, can arise.
How does smiling work? First, as we grow up, we become conditioned to the positive effects of smiling. In other words, we learn that when we smile, it means we’re happy and life is good. Second, there’s been some fascinating research looking at the effects of smiling on our brain chemistry. What this research has found is that when we smile, it releases brain chemicals called endorphins that have an actual physiologically relaxing effect. Just before your start, smile (even if you have to force yourself!) and you will, in just a few seconds, feel much better.
Make Bold Statement
Finally, just before you climb into the start, make a bold statement to yourself that tells you to view your race run as a challenge that you are going to confront and overcome. I personally like “Bring it on!” (said with conviction and intensity), but you can choose whatever statement that works best for you. This statement is the last piece of the performance puzzle that will give you energy, create more positive emotions, and boost your confidence by communicating to yourself (and to the course!) that you’re going to lay one down and leave it all on the hill.
By using these four secret mental techniques, you do the last bit of fine tuning that can make the difference between a good run and a great run.
Jim Taylor, Ph.D., competed internationally while skiing for BurkeMtn. Academy, Middlebury College, and the University of Colorado. Over the last 25 years, he has worked with the U.S. and Japanese Ski Teams, many World Cup and Olympic racers, and many of the leading junior race programs in the U.S. and Canada. Jim is the author of Prime Ski Racing: Triumph of the Racer's Mind, produces the Mental Edge for Alpine Ski Racing Relaxation and Imagery mp3 recordings, and publishes bi-monthly e-newsletters for sport, business, and parenting. You can read Jim's past skiracing.com here. To learn more or to contact Jim, visit his website.
Image by Gepa