As I noted in my previous article as part of SRM’s important conversation about how to drive U.S. ski racing toward its mission of “Best in the World,” I believe that mental training can be an essential piece of the athlete-development puzzle in our country. Unfortunately, as I also noted, training the mind holds second-class citizenship compared to other contributors to the puzzle such as on-snow training, physical conditioning, nutrition, and equipment. Given that no country has the market cornered on special strategies in these above areas (everyone does mostly the same things), mental training provides the U.S. with an opportunity to leverage and innovate and, in doing so, gain a competitive advantage in a sport where going ½ of 1% faster is the difference between being good and great.
My own mission over the decades that I’ve been involved in ski racing has been to do just that, namely, to fully integrate mental training into long-term athlete development and use it to elevate the level of U.S. ski racing on the world stage. So far, admittedly, I have not been successful. Over the years, I have asked myself what prevents mental training from taking what I believe is its rightful place next to the other, well-accepted areas of ski-racing performance. I have come up with the following perceptions about mental training that I believe holds it back.
Is mental training really necessary?
The reality is that the best athletes in the world have done pretty darned well without formal mental training over the years. They simply developed mental strength through their training and competitive experiences. In contrast, I don’t think there has ever been a successful athlete who didn’t have a rigorous conditioning or technical program (at least not in the last 40 years). As a result, the need for structured mental training may not seem great. I would suggest, however, that for every successful ski racer who develops mental toughness on their own, there are many more who are equally talented and motivated to become successful, but need help in developing their mental capabilities. Also, we are seeing more and more of the world’s best athletes in every sport actively seek out and utilize mental training to give them the competitive advantage that will separate them from their competitors.
Not a traditional part of sport training
Though mental training has been a field of study for more than 100 years, it has not been a traditional part of training for most sports. Old attitudes, habits, and methods die hard and new approaches to improving athletic performance are not easily accepted. Also, because there is no comprehensive coaches’ education system in place in U.S. ski racing, new coaches learn on the job with what amount to apprenticeships under experienced coaches. Because few experienced coaches have formal education and training in mental training, they tend to focus on the traditional aspects of training including physical conditioning, technique, and tactics. The result is a perpetuation of what has been done in the past and the lack of opportunity to evolve our sport into the future. Perhaps it will take a new generation of coaches who have been exposed to mental training as competitors and then in their coaches’ education for the tide to turn toward wider acceptance and use of mental training with their athletes.
Mental training isn’t that tangible
Psychology lacks the concreteness of conditioning and on-snow training. You can readily see the areas in need of improvement physically, technically, and tactically, for example, amount of weight lifted in the gym or technical problems revealed on video. The mental side of sport is not so easily seen, measured, or quantified. You can’t, for instance, directly or accurately observe or assess motivation, confidence, intensity, focus, or emotions. As a result, it’s harder to gauge where athletes are in different aspects of their mental preparation, what areas they need to work on, and any improvement that is made mentally. Also, the mind is both incredibly complex and a real mystery even to experts, much less laypeople, so it can seem both confusing and downright intimidating. As a result, it’s difficult for coaches to create a structured mental training program similar to those programs and progressions that exist for conditioning and on-snow development (more on this in my next article).
Guilt by association
Mental training, traditionally called sport psychology, can suffer from ‘guilt by association’ with the broader field of clinical psychology that still carries the stigma that only screwed-up people seek professional help. This perception, however inaccurate it is, can prevent athletes, coaches, and parents from seeing mental preparation for what it is, namely, an essential contributor to sports performance that must be developed proactively. This fear can also scare them away from getting mental training help when it is needed. This is one reason why I call it mental training; it removes bad feelings associated with the word “psychology.” Also, mental training is a more accurate description; it is about training the mind, just like we train the body.
Hope springs eternal
I predict that it will take some time before mental training receives the same attention as its physical and technical counterparts. But, as the stakes get higher and the competition gets tougher, from the development level to the World Cup, athletes, coaches, and team leaders will look for every opportunity to gain the competitive edge that separates success from failure. As the limits of physical conditioning and technique are reached, it will be both natural and necessary to leverage all that mental training has to offer ski racers. Only then will mental training, at long last, stand as equal partners with physical conditioning and on-snow training as racers strive to take advantage of every opportunity to achieve success in pursuit of their goals.
I’m certainly going to continue to pursue my mission because I love this sport so much and see such promise in the U.S. becoming a true leader in ski racing. I encourage the powers that be in our sport to see its essential value and to throw their support behind an organized national effort to develop a comprehensive mental training program that drives development from the junior ranks toward the “Best in the World.”