Let me preface this article with a few observations about ski coaching and mental training. First, I believe that great ski coaches are also great intuitive psychologists. They may not have the fancy degrees, but through experience and self-education (and sometimes formal education), capable coaches develop a deep understanding of the importance of the mind in ski racing and develop ways to train the minds of their athletes to prepare them to ski their fastest and achieve their competitive goals.
Second, having worked with most of the leading ski academies and junior programs in the U.S. and Canada, I have found that 99.9 percent of ski coaches believe in the impact that the mind can have on ski racing performance. There is no doubt in my mind that they do what they can to nurture the mental development of their athletes as much as they can.
Third, despite this interest in the mental side of ski racing, the problem has been that even the best coaches struggle to offer their racers the kinds of opportunities to develop themselves mentally as they do in the other areas that influence performance. A major goal of mine over the years has been to find ways to help coaches provide substantive mental training for their athletes.
Fourth, development programs struggle to provide their racers with mental training that matches the sophistication and quality of their conditioning and on-snow training. Some programs bring in sport psychologists or mental trainers periodically to fill in this gap, but can you imagine having racers do conditioning or on-snow training only once in a while? Of course not. Though there is some value to having occasional exposure to mental training, the benefits are obviously limited. As I noted in a previous article, effective athlete development programs – whether for conditioning, technique/tactics, or mental skills – require them to be comprehensive, structured, and consistent. To their credit, a few programs around the U.S. have hired part-time or full-time mental trainers, but the challenges are many including finding qualified people with experience in and a real understanding of ski racing and, of course, budgetary limitations.
I have found four primary reasons why ski coaches don’t do mental training the way they would like with their athletes.
1. Few Resources From Which to Learn
As we all know, gaining knowledge by trial and error isn’t a very effective or efficient way to learn anything. Coaches certainly wouldn’t use this approach with conditioning or technical work. Yet, that is the way most ski coaches learn about mental training. There have simply not been any structured means by which they could gain clear and understandable information about mental training and, more importantly, useful and practical tools that they could apply with their athletes on and off the hill.
2. No Program to Follow
Compare mental training to physical or technical training. Every national team on down to the development programs that feed them have clearly defined conditioning protocols and technical progressions they use with their athletes. Moreover, these structures are woven into the fabric of their overall athlete development regimens. Additionally, the internet offers a plethora of conditioning programs that can guide coaches in the creation of effective physical training programs.
Though there is also a wealth of information online about mental training, coaches would be hard pressed to take that information and apply it in a practical and beneficial way with their athletes. Information is one thing, useable programs are another. Coaches could watch conditioning videos on YouTube and create a decent conditioning program, but, because the mental side of ski racing lacks the same concreteness, doing the same for mental training is unlikely. I have searched the internet and found no freely available (or even paid) programs that coaches could use to guide their mental training with their athletes.
3. Not a Programmatic Priority
Another major obstacle to implementing an effective mental training regimen is that it just isn’t a priority in many race programs. Running a ski academy or race team takes energy, time, and money. Moreover, all three are in limited supply. Effective mental training requires a commitment from the leadership of a race program to allocate sufficient resources to create and maintain a viable program.
Unfortunately, in the real world of limited budgets, teams have to prioritize what they are going to offer their athletes. And, however important mental training is professed to be, it is always the last thing to be considered and the first thing to be dropped. Without programmatic support, as expressed in professional development education, money, staffing, and scheduling, it’s not surprising that coaches don’t integrate it into their overall training with their athletes.
Time (or lack thereof) is the single biggest obstacle for coaches in making mental training an integral part of athlete development in our sport. Ski coaches are some of the busiest people I know, trying to juggle many responsibilities that include training and race planning and scheduling, travel, equipment, athlete management, and dealing with parents, not to mention the actual coaching of the athletes, both on and off snow. And that doesn’t even include having some semblance of balance in their lives to keep them from going crazy. Without moral and logistical support from their team’s leadership (as previously mentioned), there just doesn’t seem to be enough time in the day for coaches to squeeze in mental training (though there actually is).
Though I can’t provide a comprehensive mental training program in a series of articles, I will devote the next few columns to giving you some simple, practical, and time-efficient tools you can use this fall to get your mental training rolling.