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Inside the Ski Racing Mind: Mental Lessons from the World Cup

In my last post, I described the competitive lessons you must learn from World Cup racers to ski your best in Prime Time, which I defined as being the biggest race of your life against the toughest field under the most difficult conditions. This week, I will detail the mental lessons you must also learn to ski your best and achieve your goals. These mental lessons are especially important as you head into the most crucial races of the season this month.

1.  Believe in your ability. One thing that separates the best ski racers in the world from the rest of us is that they have a deep and resilient belief in their ability to ski their best. Even when they’re not skiing well, they never lose faith in themselves.

For everyone else, developing confidence in your ability is one of the biggest challenges you face. Many racers don’t have that deeply ingrained belief in their capabilities. I see this often in races. For example, a racer makes a mistake early in a race run. He then gives less than full effort the rest of the course because he has lost confidence in himself and he figures he has already lost the race.

It’s a mistake for the racer in the last example to give up just because he isn’t skiing his best. The mental lesson you can learn from World Cuppers is that no matter how big a mistake you make, you may still have a chance, but only if you stay positive, keep fighting, and try to ski his best the remainder of the course.

Building confidence in your skiing is no different than for World Cuppers. It takes thousands of training and race runs, a positive attitude, meticulous preparation, support from others, and, of course, success. But, for every racer, from the bottom to the top, it starts with a commitment to believe in yourself no matter how bad it gets.

This belief will serve you especially well in Prime Time. You may believe that you can usually ski well. You probably have had many training and race runs that support that belief. But the question is whether you can ski that well in the most important race of your life against the toughest field of competitors you have ever faced? The lesson you can learn from World Cup racers is to develop such a belief in your skiing that you truly know that you can ski your best when you absolutely need to. This belief in your skiing gives you the confidence to go for it in Prime Time.

2. Expect to be nervous in Prime Time. Prime Time means the race you are competing in matters. The race may be the State Championships or Junior Olympics or the Junior Worlds (which are happening this week). You may start to feel nervous because it’s an important race. This anxiety makes you uncomfortable, which raises doubts in your mind, causes you to feel negative emotions, and, because of all of these, you become more nervous. As a result, the quality of your skiing declines and you have a poor race.

This reaction is common among racers of all levels of ability. It is also one of the most harmful in Prime Time. Much of my work with ski racers is directed toward helping them stay relaxed under pressure. The reality is, though, getting nervous before important races is normal and natural. It happens to club racers and, yes, it happens to the best racers in the world. The difference is that World Cuppers get nervous and know how to overcome their anxiety.

One way to partially alleviate the negative effects of this nervousness is to expect to be nervous in Prime Time. If you anticipate experiencing some anxiety, when it arises, your reaction will be, “This is normal. I knew I would get a little nervous. No big deal,” instead of “Oh no. I can’t believe I’m getting nervous now. How can I ski well feeling this way?” 

Anxiety can also be interpreted in different ways producing very different reactions. If you view anxiety as negative and threatening, it will clearly hurt your skiing  If you see it, instead, as an indication that you’re getting yourself prepared for the big race, that the feeling is not anxiety, but rather excitement, then you will see it much more positively. With a more positive perspective on your nerves, they are less likely to overwhelm you and take you to the “dark side.” As a result, that anxiety will have a less harmful effect on your skiing.

Another important realization is that whatever you’re feeling, your competition is probably feeling the same doubts, anxiety, and emotions. Even if they look cool, calm, and collected on the outside, the chances are they’re equally as nervous on the inside. This perspective offers even more support for the need to win the mental race. Given fairly equal ability, the racer who can keep their nerves in perspective and respond to them in a positive way is most likely going to ski well and have a good result.

3. Recover from mistakes quickly. If you recall, Prime Ski Racing is based on the goal of skiing at a consistently high level under challenging conditions. However, skiing consistently does not mean skiing perfectly; it definitely doesn’t mean you will not make mistakes. One of the things that makes World Cup racers so good is not that they never make mistakes. If you watch World Cup races, you’ll see that even the winners make multiple mistakes during their race runs. Instead, what makes them so good is how quickly they recover from those mistakes.

It’s not uncommon for young racers to take up to five gates to recover from a mistake on course such as sliding off line or hooking an arm on a gate. It takes them that long to regain their composure and get their mind back in the race. Often, they never recover at all. This occurs because racers lose confidence, focus, and intensity, and they become frustrated, angry, or depressed due to of their mistakes. Unfortunately, by the time they recover mentally and get their skiing back on track, a good result is out of reach.

Recovering from mistakes quickly begins with a forgiving attitude that you establish before you even get out on the hill. You accept that, if the best racers in the world make mistakes, then it’s normal that you will make mistakes too. It also involves understanding that the loss of confidence, motivation, focus, and intensity will hurt your skiing far more than the mistakes themselves. This attitude makes it so that mistakes aren’t crushing blows when they occur. Rather, mistakes are just a part of ski racing. When you accept that mistakes are part of ski racing, you give yourself permission to let go of the mistakes when they occur instead of feeling like it is the end of the world.

With the negative impact of mistakes reduced, you can then direct your attention to getting yourself back into the run mentally and emotionally. Immediately after a mistake, go into attack mode, rather than surrender mode, in which you immediately forget about the mistake and focus on finishing the course as fast as you can. In training, create a keyword that you can think to yourself when you make a mistake that will help you do this, for example, attack, charge, or go. When you ingrain this keyword in training, you’re conditioning your mind to grab onto that keyword when you make a mistake in a race, triggering a aggressive mindset and a refocusing on the course ahead of you rather than the mistake behind you. 

4. Accept the challenge. The biggest obstacle to skiing your best in Prime Time is fear, more specifically, fear of failure. Fear produces a cautious attitude and tentative skiing. On a practical level, this means that your main goal in your race is to not fail. Yet, paradoxically, with this fear-driven attitude, you’re actually more likely to fail because
there’s no way you can ski your fastest if you’re afraid of failure. You don’t attack the course, you don’t ski the most aggressive line, and you don’t give it your all from start to finish.

Bode Miller is my role model for accepting the challenge. He doesn’t care about where he finishes as long as he skies as fast as humanly possible. Bode isn’t afraid to fail, and with this attitude, he skis with abandonment. The result? He’s the best male ski racer in American history.

Accepting the challenge means that you give it everything you have. You direct your fullest energy and effort into skiing as fast as you possibly can. Accepting the challenge also means accepting that you may fail, but you’d rather fail giving it everything you’ve got than standing at the finish wishing you hadn’t skied so cautiously. I’m sure you feel terrible when you ski just to finish and look at your time and kick yourself for not having gone for it. Here’s a question for you: Would you rather be skiing fast and DNF or finish and be slow? Most racers say the former, but that’s not the way they ski, particularly in Prime Time.

Why accept the challenge? Because there is one emotion you never want to experience in your life: regret. Regret means that you wish you had done something differently, in this case, go as fast as you can. And there is one question you never want to ask yourself: I wonder what could have been? After a race, whether good or bad, you want to look back and be able to say to yourself that you “left it all out on the hill.” If that effort didn’t result in a good finish, you’ll be disappointed, but you’ll also feel pride in knowing that you couldn’t have done anything more that day. And, of course, the only way to be truly successful in ski racing is to go all out and risk failure. If you keep putting yourself out there, those results that you really want are likely going to be realized at some point.

Four simple, yet powerful, lessons. The world’s best ski racers learned these lessons and that’s one reason they’re on the World Cup. I can’t guarantee that if you embrace these lessons you’ll get there too. But I can promise you that if you do, you’ll find out how good you can be. And, at the end of the day, whether you find yourself at the top of the Olympic podium or on the second page of a local race, you’ll feel good knowing that you left it all out on the hill.

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About Dr. Jim Taylor:

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, Jim has worked with many of America’s leading junior race programs as well as World Cup competitors from many countries. He is a clinical associate professor in the Sport and Performance Psychology graduate program at the University of Denver. Jim is the author of Prime Ski Racing: Triumph of the Racer’s Mind and his latest parenting book is Your Children are Listening: Nine Messages They Need to Hear From You.

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Susie Theis

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