Inside the Ski Racing Mind: Threat vs. Challenge

I have found that a simple distinction appears to lie at the heart of whether racers are able to ski their best or crumble under the weight of expectations and tough conditions on race day: Do they view the race as a threat or a challenge.

What happens when you are threatened by something (think mountain lion). First, what direction do you want to go? Of course, you want to run away from the threat as fast as you can. Physiologically, your muscles tighten up, you hold your breath, your balance goes back, and your center of gravity rises. Psychologically, your motivation is to flee from the threat. Your confidence plummets because you don’t feel capable of confronting the situation (that’s one reason it’s a threat to you). You are focused only on protecting yourself from the threat. And, naturally, you feel fear, helplessness, and despair (because the mountain lion will eat you). In sum, everything both physically and mentally goes against you, making it virtually impossible for you to overcome the threat.

Where does threat come from? Most powerfully, from a fear of failure. That is the mountain lion that you see lying in the path toward your ski racing goals. The threat is what will happen if you fail. Obviously you won’t die physically. But at a deep level, you feel as if some part of you will die, usually your self-esteem. The threat arises when you believe that there will be serious consequences for not achieving your goals, for example, you will embarrass yourself,  let down your parents, feel that your ski racing has been a waste of time, or be devastated because you didn’t fulfill your ski racing dreams. The irony is that by responding with a threat reaction because of these worries, you actually cause the very thing that is most threatening to you, namely, failure.

A challenge reaction produces an entirely different set of responses. When challenged by something, you want to go at it and you want to conquer it. Physiologically, you feel fired up, but also relaxed, with just the right amount of adrenaline to make you feel strong, quick, and fast. Your muscles are loose, you take steady breaths, your balance is on the balls of your feet, and your center of gravity lowers. Psychologically, your singular motivation is to go at that thing that is challenging you. You are confident that you have the capabilities to surmount the challenging situation.  Your focus is like a laser beam on the challenge in front of you. As for emotions, you feel excitement, inspiration, pride, and courage. In sum, your entire physical and psychological being is directed toward triumphing over the challenge.

Where then does challenge come from? It starts with a focus on achieving success rather than avoiding failure. With challenge, there is no fear of failure, but rather a profound desire to pursue your ski racing goals with complete vigor and without hesitation. Challenge is associated with your enjoying the process of ski racing regardless of whether you succeed or fail. The emphasis is on having fun and seeing races as exciting and enriching. Ski racing, when seen as a challenge, is an experience that is relished and sought out at every opportunity. Thus, challenge is highly motivating, to the point where you love being in pressure race situations.  When you develop a challenge reaction, you put yourself in your best possible position to ski your best and find success because everything that impacts your skiing is on your side.

The strange thing about threat vs. challenge is that it’s all in your mind, it’s rarely about the reality of a situation, but rather in how you perceive it. Think about it this way. I’ve never been in a race where it was only 20 degrees below zero for me. I’ve never been in a race where the hill was only steep for me. I’ve never been in a race where it was only snowing on me (admittedly, snow and weather conditions can change during the course of a race). My point is that everyone has, more or less, the same conditions (affected by start number, of course). So, what determines whether you see those conditions as a threat or challenge all boils down to how you look at them.

Look at it like this. Two racers, Racer A and Racer B are of equal ability and equally well prepared for an upcoming race. Upon arrival at the hill, they encounter snow conditions that can best be described as bulletproof  and weather that is brutally cold and windy (in other words, a typical Vermont day!). Racer A sees the conditions and thinks “This is awful. I hate these conditions. How am I going to ski well today.” In contrast, Racer B thinks, “These are tough conditions, but I’ve been training under these conditions and everyone has them anyway. I’m going to crush it!” Clearly, Racer A sees the race as a threat, while Racer B sees it as a challenge. Who do you think will have a better race? Racer B, obviously.

So, next time you’re faced with a really tough race situation, whether a hard course, demanding terrain, rough snow conditions, bad weather, or a very important race, ask yourself whether you see it as a threat or a challenge. Then, embrace the challenge and tell yourself, “Bring it on!”

Jim Taylor, Ph.D., competed internationally while skiing for Burke Mtn. Academy, Middlebury College, and the University of Colorado. Over the last 25 years, he has worked with the U.S. and Japanese Ski Teams, many World Cup and Olympic racers, and many of the leading junior race programs in the U.S. and Canada. Jim is the author of Prime Ski Racing: Triumph of the Racer’s Mind, produces the Mental Edge for Alpine Ski Racing Relaxation and Imagery mp3 recordings, and publishes bi-monthly e-newsletters for sport, business, and parenting. You can read Jim’s past skiracing.com here. To learn more or to contact Jim, visit his website.

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