Inside the Ski Racing Mind: Slumpbusting
Performance slumps are one of the most common, yet mysterious, phenomena in ski racing. Typically viewed as unexplained drops in performances, slumps are a source of concern for racers, coaches, and parents. Despite its visible place in the collective psyche of the ski racing community, little is known about the causes of or cures for performance slumps.
What is a Slump?
I define a slump as: An unexplained drop in performance that extends longer than would be expected from normal ups and downs of competition.
An inherent part of ski racing is that performance will vary naturally during the course of a season. In other words, it is rare for racers to maintain a consistently high level of performance for an entire season. As a result, most performance declines are simply a typical part of the ups and downs of ski racing. So, the question is whether a decline is a slump or just a natural drop in the performance cycle that will shortly turn back upward?
The first step in determining whether a decline is a slump is to evaluate the racer's average level of performance. That is, how does the racer usually perform? For statistically-oriented sports like ski racing, this can be measured by plotting performance, in the form of results at the same level of competition or USSA or FIS points on a graph. Then, normal variation can be determined by seeing the ups and downs that commonly occur during the season. Next, recent performance can be compared to the normal variation. If the current decrease is unusually low or long in duration, it may be a slump. Finally, a superficial look at the causes of the decline should be done. If there is no obvious cause of the drop in performance, it is likely that the racer is in a slump.
Causes of Slumps
The causes of performance slumps can be grouped into four general categories.:
1. Perhaps the most common cause of slumps is a physical problem. These difficulties include fatigue, minor injuries, and lingering illness.
2. Slumps may be due to subtle changes in technique that occur during the course of a season. These changes may be in the execution of the skill or in its timing.
3. Slumps may begin with changes in a racer's equipment, for example, a change in boot alignment. Particularly in a sport such as ski racing that involves a lot of equipment, there is a precise balance between equipment, technique, and performance. As a result, a slight change in equipment may alter technique, thereby hurting performance.
4. Slumps can be caused by psychological factors. For example, a particularly poor race may reduce confidence and increase anxiety, which could lead to a prolonged drop in performance. Additionally, issues away from competition, such as family or social conflict or school struggles, may distract focus, increase stress, and decrease motivation, thus resulting in a performance decline.
Recommendations for Preventing Slumps
The best way to deal with slumps is to prevent them from happening. Slumps can be prevented by understanding the causes of slumps and taking steps to avoid those causes.
Physical. Slumps are often caused by the normal physical wear-and-tear of the race season. As a result, performance slumps may be prevented by paying attention to various factors that influence a racer's physical state.
One important area that can be addressed is physical condition. Quite simply, racers who are well-conditioned will be less susceptible to fatigue, injury, and illness. Consequently, a rigorous off-season physical training program and a race season physical maintenance program will help minimize slumps due to physical breakdown. Second, a significant part of slump prevention is rest. In other words, physical deterioration can be lessened by actively incorporating rest into racers' training and competitive regimens. Adequate rest can be assured in several ways. Days off can be built into the weekly training schedule, for example, every Monday off is a good rule to follow.
Racers can reduce the quantity and increase the quality of training as the season progresses. This approach will allow racers to maintain a high level of health and energy right through the end of the season. This is especially important in ski racing which involves race seasons that can last up to five months and where the important races are typically late in the season.
Planning a responsible race schedule can also prevent slumps. Competing in too many races is both physically and mentally draining and may be counterproductive for racers. As a result, racers and coaches need to select the races that are most important and avoid scheduling events that serve no specified purpose in racers' accomplishing their season-long goals.
Scheduling 3-5 days off several weeks before a big race series can help to ensure a high level of performance. This strategy allows racers to recover from previous races, overcome nagging injuries or illness, focus attention on the upcoming races, and prepare for the final push toward those races.
Most fundamentally, the best way to reduce the likelihood of a slump due to physical causes is for racers to listen to their bodies. They need to acknowledge fatigue, injury, and illness and when any are evident, they should be dealt with immediately. Simply put, racers must learn to work hard and rest hard.
Technical. Slumps that are caused by technical changes can also be prevented by taking steps to maintain sound technique which results in strong performance. First, technique is best developed during the off-season when the primary focus is on technical improvement and there is adequate time to fully acquire the skills. As a result, technically-induced performance slumps may be prevented by minimizing technical work during the race season. Working on technique may not only disturb the technique that is producing good performance, it may also hurt performance by reducing confidence and distracting concentration. In addition, maintaining a video library of good technique and performances can be used by racers and coaches to remind them of proper technique and to compare current with past technique.
Equipment. The best way to prevent equipment-related performance slumps is to maintain gear at its high level. Keeping skis tuned regularly for both training and races and checking boot fit, for example, ensures consistency of equipment which will prevent slumps due to changes in equipment.
Psychological. Performance slumps that are caused by psychological factors can be addressed at two levels. First, it's important for racers to engage in a regular mental training program. This approach will allow racers to create a mental "toolbox" from which they can draw to develop and maintain their motivation, self-confidence, intensity, and focus , thereby making them more resilient to the negative psychological effects of periodic poor performance. In addition, following poor performance, racers can actively combat these negative psychological effects by employing these mental tools. This will prevent them from getting caught in a vicious cycle of low self-confidence and poor performance that ends in a persistent slump.
Second, for those difficulties that occur away from the hill, such as family conflict or school problems, racers should do their best to work them out quickly and effectively. In addition, the previously-learned mental skills can used to leave those difficulties off the hill, so that, at least during races, racers can maintain their focus and intensity, thus preventing a drop in performance.
Sport Psychology Work
I also recommend that, for racers in severe slumps, to meet with a sport psychologist. A significant part of a performance slump is the negative emotions and thoughts that develop. Work with a sport psychologist can help racers air their thoughts and feelings to an objective observer and allows the sport psychologist to provide effective coping skills that will help the racer better deal with the disappointment, loss of confidence, and anxiety that usually accompany slumps.
By following these recommendations, racers can minimize the number of slumps they fall into during the race season. In addition, for those slumps that do arise, they will have the knowledge and skills to get out them in the shortest, most effective way and return to and surpass their previous level of performance.
Dr. Jim Taylor drjimtaylor.com,
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, Dr. Jim has worked with many of America's leading
junior race programs as well as World Cup competitors from many
countries. He is the author of Prime Ski Racing Triumph of the Racer's Mind. Dr. Jim is also the author of two parenting books and speaks regularly to parents, students, and educators around the U.S..