Inside the Ski Racing Mind: Frustration, Aaarrgghh!Tweet
Frustration may be your most significant obstacle to achieving your goals. Every ski racer, from juniors to Olympians, has experienced the feeling of frustration when you’re not able to do something as you pursue your goals; you feel stuck, get uptight, lose focus, and get discouraged. The best way I can describe the feeling is: AAARRGGHH!! It is a truly infuriating feeling.
But what is frustration precisely and what causes it? Simply put, frustration arises when the path toward your goal is blocked, whether the goal is skiing a straighter line or getting a good result. Most people think of frustration as a bad emotion, but it is actually more complex than that. The fact is that frustration is hard wired into us and has tremendous adaptive value. Frustration starts as a good emotion because when you get frustrated, you’re motivated to remove the obstacle that is blocking the path toward your goals. You try harder and that extra effort can result in clearing that path enabling you to continue to pursue of your goals.
Negative Emotional Chain
Unfortunately, if, despite your best efforts, you can’t overcome those roadblocks, frustration can become a destructive emotion. In fact, if frustration isn’t dealt with quickly and positively, it can trigger what I can the “negative emotional chain” in which the frustration leads to a descent into a series of truly unhealthy emotions and a serious decline in performance.
If the frustration isn’t relieved, it can morph into anger. Most people also believe that anger is a bad emotion, but, like frustration, it too has both positive and negative sides. Anger starts out as being helpful because it too is motivating. When you’re angry, you want to go after the thing that is causing your anger. I remember one race I was in while skiing for Middlebury in which I was absolutely livid because the officials changed my time in the race the day before and I lost out on a trophy. I was so angry I attacked that day’s courses like a madman and I won!
Unfortunately, more often than not, angry can turn into an emotion that hurts your skiing. The feelings of anger are like those of frustration, but with the volume turned way up. Your body becomes tense you lose your coordination and the quality of your efforts decline. Your focus narrows so much that you miss important cues on the course, such as terrain changes. And your ability to think becomes clouded by the anger, so you aren’t able to make good pre-race or tactical decisions.
If you aren’t able to clear the obstacles from your path at this point, your emotions shift to the final stage of the negative emotional chain; you experience despair. You have tried and tried and tried and still can’t remove the barriers, so the natural thing to do is quit. What’s the point of continuing to try if nothing you do works? The unfortunate outcome of the conclusion of the negative emotional chain is immediate failure to achieve your goals.
It has been my experience that if you move from frustration to anger to despair, continued efforts that day usually fail. And if you experience the negative emotional chain on a regular basis—sinking repeatedly into despair—you will likely lose your motivation and be unwilling to make a sustained effort in the future. With each descent down the negative emotional chain, you come to believe that your actions have little effect and you will progressively lose confidence in your ability to achieve your goals.
What Parents Can Do
How your children deal with frustration is influenced by how you react to frustration in two ways. First, if you model an unhealthy reaction to the frustration you experience in your life, for example, with impatience or anger at work, your children may learn that this is an appropriate way to deal with frustration. But, if you are calm, positive, and look for solutions when you get frustrated, your children are more likely to adopt this approach to frustration.
Second, how you respond to your children’s frustration will also affect how they learn to deal with their frustration. If you become impatient and angry with them, their frustration may escalate and more quickly turn into anger and despair, further preventing them from resolving the source of their frustration. Plus, they may feel ashamed for letting you down which can morph into fear of failure if it happens often. But, if you respond to your children’s frustration by asking them calmly what they are frustrated about and discuss how you want to help them deal with it, then they will probably calm down and follow your lead in looking for a solution to their frustration.
Learning Frustration Mastery
Despite the fundamental role that frustration plays in your efforts to be your best, you probably never were taught how to deal with your frustration in a constructive way. Your goal is to learn to stop the negative emotional chain at frustration by responding positively to the frustration when it first arises.
The first mistake that many people make—and that parents often encourage—when faced with frustration is to just increase your effort, in other words, do whatever you are doing more and harder. But then you are violating the Law of Insanity: doing the same thing and expecting different results.
When frustration first arises, rather than plowing ahead, you should do just the opposite, in other words, step back from the situation that is causing the frustration. For example, if you repeatedly miss a tough gate over a knoll in training, you should first take a break. The break creates emotional distance from the frustration, thus easing its grip on you.
Next, you should do something that creates emotions that are the opposite of frustration, for example, have a snack (hunger is a significant cause of frustration, particularly among children), listen to music, or take a free run). This step lessens the uncomfortable physical symptoms that accompany frustration and generates emotions, such as happiness or fun, that can counteract the feelings of frustration. A powerful way to counter the feelings of frustration when you take a break from training is to do something at which you can succeed, for instance, section the course below the knoll, thus feeding your feelings of confidence and generating positive emotions such as pride and hope.
Once the negative emotional chain has been broken, you should return to training with a focus on finding a solution that will relieve the frustration. This process starts with understanding the problem. If you know what the specific problem is, then you have a better chance at finding a solution and removing any more chances of experiencing frustration. Returning to the example of the tough gate below the knoll, you can ask your coach what is causing your problems (e.g., going to straight at the gate on the knoll) and how you can remedy the problem (e.g., set up high and cut under the gate on the knoll). Here’s a helpful hint: sometimes it’s useful to break down the bigger problem into smaller, more manageable problems.
The reality is, though, that you can’t always immediately clear the obstacles to your goals, so continued efforts in pursuit of those goals might be futile. The barriers may be just too great to surmount on that day. In this case, you have two options. First, you can change your goals to ones that can be achieved in the short term. For example, let’s say you are getting frustrated because you had a poor first race run and you’re too far out to have a good result. If your goal remains to have a good result, you are sure to continue being frustrated. In that situation, it would be easy for you to despair and just blow off the second run. But if you c
an come up with a new goal for the second run, say, to “attack from the back” and see how fast you can go because you have nothing to lose, you may have a good second run and end the day feeling more upbeat (as well as learning a lesson about how to deal with frustration).
Second, there are going to be days when you just aren’t going to make any progress toward your goals and continuing to try without success will just discourage you more and actually hurt your efforts in the long run. In this case, it may be wise to deliberately “give up” and choose to fight another day.
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 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 ofPrime 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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