Inside the Ski Racing Mind: Demystifying Sport Psychology

Whenever I talk to racers and coaches, I ask them what aspect of ski racing seems to have the greatest impact on how they perform. Almost unanimously they say the mental part. I then ask how much time they devote to their mental preparation and their answer is almost always little or no time.

Despite its obvious importance, the mental side of sport is most often neglected, at least until a problem arises. The mistake racers and coaches make is that they don’t treat their mental game the way they treat the physical and technical aspects of their sport. Racers don’t wait to get injured before they do physical conditioning. They don’t develop a technical flaw before they work on their technique. Rather, racers do physical and technical training to prevent problems from arising. They should approach the mental game in the same way.

Also, racers, coaches, and especially parents seem to hold sport psychology to a different standard than the physical and technical aspects of ski racing. Many in our sport seem to have the impression that sport psychology can produce miraculous results in a short time. For example, I frequently get calls from parents two weeks before the JOs asking me to get their child racer ready for the big races. Though I consider myself very good at what I do, I am definitely not a magician. Racers don’t expect increases in strength by lifting weights a few times or an improvement in technique by working on it for a few hours. The only way to improve any area, whether physical, technical, or mental, is through commitment, hard work, and patience. But if racers make the same commitment to their mental training as they do to their physical and technical training, sport psychology can play a key role in helping them achieve their goals.

So, to help demystify sport psychology and what it can offer, I thought it would be helpful to describe what I do in my work with ski racers, so everyone in the ski racing community can consider sport psychology in its proper context and, as a result, maximize its benefits.

What I Do

Let me begin by saying that there are many sport psychology consultants out there, some of whom work with ski racers; I don’t know what they do or how they work. All I can tell you is how I work with racers. I follow two paths in my consulting work with racers. The first path emphasizes the development of the five psychological areas in my Prime Performance Pyramid (motivation, confidence, intensity, focus, and emotions) through the teaching and use of mental-training strategies, for example, goal setting, positive-thinking skills, intensity-control techniques, focusing techniques, mental imagery, and routines. This mental training occurs in two settings.

First, I introduce these concepts in either an indoor group setting to a team or an office setting to an individual racer in which I describe their meaning and value to ski racing performance, assess racers’ relationship to the five factors, and describe the best strategies for developing these areas.

Second, and most powerfully, I then work with racers on-snow and show them how to use the mental skills while they are actually free skiing and training. I have found that this “real time” experience with mental training enables racers to ask questions, experiment, get feedback from me, and see the direct connection between doing the mental skills, being more mentally prepared, and, most importantly, skiing better and faster. If racers see that connection between doing mental training and seeing improvement, I know that I will get buy in from them. My goal on this path is to strengthen the five Prime Performance Pyramid factors and give racers a “toolbox” of mental skills that they can use so that they can gain the most benefit from their training and be maximally prepared to ski their best in races.

The second path explores any obstacles that may have been put into place that prevent racers from skiing their best, for example, habitual negativity, perfectionism, and fear of failure. I help racers understand why these obstacles interfere with their ski racing efforts, how they developed, and provide insights and tools to remove the obstacles and allow racers to continue on the path toward their goals. This work occurs generally in an office setting, but I have also been productive in exploring these issues while skiing. For example, racers can be very receptive to this exploration while, for example, riding a chairlift or talking on the side of trail. I believe that this openness occurs because, on the hill, racers are in a setting in which they are comfortable and confident, and they feel less pressure  to “figure things out.”

I also want to note that if I recognize that these obstacles are grounded in more serious psychological issues, I will make a referral to an appropriately trained mental health professional and may or may not continue to work with the racer depending the how those issues impact the pursuit of the athlete’s goals.

Getting Results

I’m often asked how quickly racers can expect results from a commitment to sport psychology. Positive change varies widely depending on the individual racers and the issues that are present. For example, issues related to mental-skills training, such as relaxation or focusing, can be improved relatively quickly. I have found that racers can expect to see improvements in their mental skills and skiing within six to eight weeks. In contrast, issues related to the obstacles I described above, such as perfectionism and fear of failure, take more time. Racers can expect to see positive changes in these deeper issues within three to six months.

Getting buy-in on psychological side of ski racing is the first and most challenging step in my work. A question I often ask racers to help create that essential commitment is how much faster I would need to guarantee they would go for them to really commit to the mental side of ski racing. Without doing the math, they’ll toss out, say, 30 percent or 10 percent. So, now let’s do the math. Let’s say you have a two-run GS totally 100 seconds. Thirty percent of 100 seconds is 30 seconds, obviously an impossible amount of improvement. Even a 10 percent improvement, ten seconds, isn’t going to happen. I then ask them if they would make a commitment to sport psychology if I would promise that they would go just one percent faster. That number seems so small that racers are often skeptical. But, again, when we do the math, one percent on a 100-second course is one second, an eternity in ski racing and, racers usually agree, well worth the commitment of time and energy given the rewards.

So there you have it; what sport psychology entails and what I do in my work with racers. I hope this article takes some of the mystery out of sport psychology and helps readers to better understand what sport psychology can and cannot do, and how it can help ski racers, whether J5s or Olympians, achieve their goals.

Follow me on Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube. Watch my 2010 Winter Olympics Discovery Channel interview on fear in high-risk winter sports here.

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, 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..

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