Inside the Ski Racing Mind: Getting Ready for Your Big Race

The World Junior Championships have just concluded in Switzerland and the World Alpine Skiing Championships are underway in Germany. And then there’s you. You’ve worked hard all winter in pursuit of your goals and, hopefully, you’ve qualified for the races that you set as a goal in the fall: the States, Junior Olympics, Topolino, J2 Nationals, or the U.S. Nationals, and you can see them approaching quickly. You may not be in the “Big Show” yet, but that doesn’t mean that your upcoming big races are any less important.

But getting there isn’t enough; you want to ski your best in the “Big One!” Continuing to improve your technique and sticking with that winter physical conditioning maintenance program will have helped. But whether you succeed or fail to achieve your goals at these all-important races ultimately depends on what happens between your ears as these events near. Approaching these races with the right attitude is your key to skiing your best.

The problem is that important races can play mind games with your head. Instead of just wanting to do your best, you REALLY want to do your best or, even worse, you MUST do your best. Your focus can shift from “What do I have to do to ski well?” to “What kind of result do I want to get?” or “What will happen if I don’t ski well?” What had been goals turn into pressure-laden expectations. What is supposed to be a challenge to enjoy becomes a threat to fear. If you go the “dark side” of big races, you have lost before you even get in the starting gate.

There are two schools of thought on how to prepare for a big race. One approach is to try to ignore the fact that it’s a big race and simply say, “It’s no big deal so there’s nothing to get worked up about.” In big events, such as the World Championships or the Olympics, some athletes will train in isolation, keep away from the media so that they don’t get distracted or buy into the expectations that the outside forces, such as their ski federation or the press, can often impose on them before big events. They want to treat important events like just another race and to ignore the hype surrounding this event.

The risk of this approach is that big races like the World Championships are hard to ignore even if athletes keep isolated. By ignoring the reality of the situation, you are not preparing yourself for the magnitude of the event, even if it is a JO or Nationals, that will inevitably hit you sooner or later. You will have to face the hyped expectations—usually from family, friends, and coaches—at some point, but you won’t be mentally prepared to handle the inescapable pressure that comes with the big race.

The other school of thought argues that big events can’t be avoided, ignored, or downplayed. Rather, athletes must face the reality of these races and do what they can to respond positively to the unavoidable expectations and pressures. The Austrians often assume this approach as, given the popularity of ski racing in their country, there is nowhere for them to hide. This approach has athletes say, “This race is a big deal, so let’s figure out how to deal with it positively.” With this tactic, you must acknowledge that your upcoming race is a huge event and is not to be taken lightly. You must establish an attitude that will enable you to achieve your goals (“I am going to believe in myself, stay grounded, and focus on what I need to do to ski my best.”). This attitude helps you deflect the external and self-imposed pressures and enables you to maintain a positive and healthy perspective and focus as you approach the big races. The risk of this approach is that, despite your best efforts, you won’t be able to deflect the expectations and pressure. Instead of inoculating yourself against the pressure, you actually succumb to it.

With either approach, you need to figure out what you need to do to be totally prepared to ski your best (e.g., on-hill training, physical conditioning, mental preparation, social activities). You also should recognize what and who might interfere with your preparations (e.g., too much time with family and friends). Finally, you must take deliberate steps to ensure that you maintain the attitude and do the things that you have learned will lead you to success.

What we can learn from this is that there is no one ideal approach. You must look at how you have handled big races in the past. If you skied well using one approach, then stick with it (“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!”). But if it didn’t work before, don’t expect it to work next time. In this case, you will want to do something different. Regardless of the approach you take, the goal is to enter a big race feeling motivated, confident, relaxed, and focused. If you feel that way, you have a better chance of skiing your best and achieving the goals you have set for yourself.

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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