Whenever I speak to racers and coaches, I ask them how important the mind is to ski racing success. With few exceptions, the response is that the mind is as or even more important than the physical and technical side of our sport. I am obviously biased given what I do for a living, so I won’t take a position on which I believe is more important. OK, they’re all important. And the mind is an essential piece of the ski racing performance puzzle that is often neglected.
Yet, when I ask these same racers and coaches how much time and energy they devoted to mental preparation, they indicate not very much and certainly not as much as it deserves. Moreover, any attempts at doing mental training is typically scattershot and inconsistent.
Herein lies my question: Why isn’t mental training treated the same as physical and technical training in ski racing? When compared to its physical and technical counterparts, sport psychology clearly has second-class status. While the U.S. Ski Team and every academy and club have full-time technical and conditioning coaches, few have full-time mental coaches. Moreover, when sport psychology is offered, its presence is vastly different from the physical conditioning and technical regimens that racers benefit from.
Let’s consider what makes physical conditioning and technical development effective and then compare it to the use of mental training in ski racing today. Three key elements come to mind.
First, physical and technical training programs don’t just touch on a few areas that impact ski racing performance. Rather, they are comprehensive in design, aimed at ensuring that every contributor to ski racing success is addressed and developed maximally. For example, conditioning programs include strength, agility, stamina, and flexibility. Technical progressions include stance, balance, upper-body position, and much more.
Second, when racers work out, they don’t just walk into the gym and do random strength or agility exercises. Instead, they engage in organized workouts based on a structured program that coaches believe will result in optimal physical preparedness for ski racing. Similarly, when racers get on snow, they don’t just ski around and hope to improve. Rather, they follow a technical progression based on their level of skiing. In sum, both the physical and technical components of ski racing development have an organized program comprised of a framework and process that guides athletes systematically toward their goals.
Third, racers wouldn’t get more fit if they only worked out every few weeks, and their skiing wouldn’t improve if they only skied once a month. What enables racers to get stronger and ski better is that they engage in physical and technical training consistently. Day in and day out, week in and week out, and month in and month out, racers regularly put time and effort into their conditioning and technical work.
Using these three criteria — a comprehensive, structured, and consistently applied program — it’s pretty obvious that the mental side of ski racing isn’t getting the attention it is due. Based on my own experience and feedback I have gotten from racers, coaches, and parents around the country, this exposure, for almost all U.S. racers, lacks those three criteria that are essential for maximizing its value to racers’ development.
I predict that it will take some time before mental preparation receives the same attention as its physical and technical counterparts. But, as the stakes get higher and the competition gets tougher in our sport, from the development level to the world stage, racers and coaches will look for every opportunity to gain the precious fractions of a second that separate success from failure in ski racing. As the limits of physical conditioning and ski technique are reached, it will be both natural and necessary to leverage all that sport psychology has to offer racers. Only then will sport psychology, at long last, stand as equal partners with physical conditioning and technical training as ski racers strive to take advantage of every opportunity to achieve success in pursuit of their goals.