Make mental training an off-season priority

Klaus Kroell on a mountain bike ride up the Hahnenkamm. GEPA/Andreas Pranter

Klaus Kroell on a mountain bike ride up the Hahnenkamm. GEPA/Andreas Pranter

No, this article is not a lame attempt at self-promotion. Rather, it is a challenge for you to take an essential, yet often neglected, piece of the ski racing success puzzle and make it a priority during the off-season.

Let me elaborate in three ways. First, I speak to racers, coaches, and parents around North America about the psychology of ski racing. Whenever I get the chance, I ask them how important the mental side of ski racing is compared to the physical and technical side. Though there are always a few who say that the mind is less important than the body and technique, about 99 percent say that the mind is as or more important than the body. I actually don’t think it’s more important because all the mental training in the world won’t help if you’re not physically or technically capable of getting down the hill. But, I think it’s safe to say that, without a well-trained mind, there is no chance of success.

Next, I ask racers how many hours a day they devote to their physical and technical development. Most say from 2-6 hours depending on the season.

Then, I ask, if the mind is so important, does that mean you’re spending 2-6 hours a day on mental training? At this point, there are a lot of shaking heads and nods of recognition. Clearly, the answer is ‘no,’ but the question is mostly rhetorical and meant to open the eyes to the absurdity of not spending time on such an important contributor to our sport.

Second, I work with a number of racers each year, from U14s with big dreams to Olympians who are realizing their career goals. What has become abundantly clear to me is that, once the foundations of fitness, technique, tactics, and equipment are established, it is the mind that separates racers who achieve their goals from those who don’t. This occurs at two levels. Having the right mindset and preparation enables you to get the most out of your training. On race day, being able to stay positive, calm, focused, and withstand the pressure—self-imposed and external—will enable you to ski your best when it really counts.

Third, of the racers who come to me, the number-one reason is because they can ski really fast in training, but they can’t seem to translate that into race day results. And they don’t understand why. To help you understand, think of it this way. There is no objective difference between a training course and a race course. They both have a start, the hill, terrain, snow conditions, and the finish. So, what makes races different from training? It’s obvious: results matter in races! And that difference occurs entirely in your mind. Your challenge is to either ignore the difference or embrace the difference.

You actually do quite a bit of mental training without realizing it. I’m sure that you attempt to motivate yourself, think positively, fire yourself up, and focus in training. Well, that is mental training. Here’s the problem. Do you practice mental training in some sort of organized way? Probably not. Would you perform your physical conditioning or technical work in a haphazard way? Of course not, because trial and error is neither an effective nor efficient way to improve. Rather, you have a systematic program that guides your physical and on-snow training, thus maximizing your efforts. You should approach mental training the same way.

Have I convinced you yet that you should make mental training a priority during this off-season? If so, here’s what you can do:

  • Do some self-analysis and understand your mental strengths and areas in need of improvement.
  • Get feedback from your coaches on where you need to improve mentally.
  • Learn more about the psychology of ski racing by reading my past articles or Prime Ski Racing book (okay, a bit of self-promotion here, but there aren’t any alternatives specific to ski racing that I know of).
  • Find a qualified sport psychologist in your area (I may be able to help you find one).
  • Read my last two articles of the season that will appear here over the next two weeks.

Certainly, you should continue to participate in committed physical conditioning and on-snow programs this off-season. But if you commit to an equally rigorous mental training program, I can say with confidence that you will be even more prepared to achieve your ski racing goals next season.

Jim Taylor, Ph.D., competed internationally while skiing for Burke Mountain 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 several 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, he publishes bi-monthly newsletters on sport, business, and parenting, and also blogs for huffingtonpost.com and psychologytoday.com. To learn more or to contact Jim, visit his website.

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