Inside the Ski Racing Mind: Intensity in Sports
Intensity may be the most important contributor to ski racing performance once the race begins. It’s so important because all of the motivation, confidence, focus, and emotions in the world won’t help you if your body is not physiologically capable of doing what it needs to do for you to ski your best.
Simply put, intensity is the amount of physiological activity you experience in your body including heart rate, respiration, and adrenaline. Intensity is a continuum that ranges from sleep (very relaxed) to terror (very anxious). Somewhere in between those two extremes is the level of intensity at which you ski your best.
The challenge with intensity is that there is not one ideal intensity for all racers. Depending on your physical and psychological make-up, you may ski best very relaxed, moderately intense, or bouncing off the walls with intensity. And you can easily point out World Cuppers who fit each of these categories.
The nature of ski racing also impacts intensity. Ski racing requires a combination of explosive power, a degree of endurance, and a lot of fine-motor skill. So intensity that is too high or too low won’t help your skiing. If too high, you’ll lose your coordination and feel for the snow. If too relaxed, you won’t be able to generate the power you need to resist the forces you experience on course.
Intensity is made up of two components. First, there’s the physical experience of intensity, that is, what you actually feel in your body when you’re skiing. Are you calm or filled with energy? Are you relaxed or tense? Second, there is your perception of the intensity. In other words, do you perceive the intensity positively or negatively? Two racers can feel the exact same thing physiologically, but interpret those physical feelings in very different ways. One may view the intensity as excitement and it will help his skiing. Another may see the intensity as anxiety and it will hurt his skiing.
The physical experience and the perception of intensity are affected by several mental factors. For example, if you’re not confident, feeling frustrated and angry, and focusing on winning rather than on skiing your best, you’ll probably see the intensity as negative. In contrast, if you’re confident and positive, happy and excited, and focused on skiing well, you’ll perceive the intensity as positive.
Signs of Over- and Under-intensity
Intensity produces a wide variety of physical and mental symptoms that can help you recognize when your intensity is too high or too low. By being aware of these signs, you’ll be able to know when you’re not skiing at prime intensity and can take steps to reach that ideal level.
Overintensity. Muscle tension and breathing difficulties are the most common signs of overintensity. Most racers tell me that when they’re too intense, they feel tension in their shoulders and their legs, which happen to be the two most important physical areas for ski racing. If your shoulders are tense, your upper body will be stiff and you won’t feel balanced. When your legs are tense, you lose the ability to be explosive and feel the snow.
Many racers also report that their breathing becomes short and choppy when they get nervous. This restriction in breathing means that you’re not getting enough oxygen into your system so you’ll tire quickly. I’ve also found that the smoothness of racers’ movements tends to mirror their breathing. If your breathing is long and smooth, so is your movement. If your breathing is abrupt and uneven, your movements are jerky and uncomfortable.
Racers who are overly intense often exhibit poor posture and a stiff gait. Muscle tension causes your shoulders to rise and your body to seem to close up. You make more mistakes when you’re overly intense because anxiety disrupts coordination. Overintensity interferes with motor control that affects technical skills and movement. Racers who are anxious also increase the pace of their pre-race preparations, often rushing through and not getting totally prepared.
Overintensity negatively influences you mentally as well. Anxiety lowers confidence and causes doubts in your ability. The physical and mental discomfort produces negative emotions such as frustration, anger, and depression. The anxiety, doubts, and negative emotions hurt focus by drawing your attention away from skiing your best and onto how badly you feel.
Underintensity. Though not as common, you can also experience underintensity before and during races. The most common symptoms of underintensity are low energy and lethargy. You lack the adrenaline you need to give your best effort. Though not as discomforting as overintensity, underintensity hurts your skiing equally because you lack the physical requisites, such as strength, stamina, and agility, to meet the demands of ski racing.
Mentally, underintensity undermines motivation. You just don’t feel like being out there. The lack of interest caused by too low intensity also impairs your focus because you’re easily distracted and have difficulty staying focused on your skiing.
Line Between Intensity and Tensity
The ultimate goal of prime intensity is to find the precise line between intensity and tensity (yes, that is actually a word). The closer you can get to that line, the more your body will work for you in achieving Prime Ski Racing. If you cross the line to tensity, your body will no longer be physically capable of attaining such a high level of ski racing performance. Great racers have the ability to do two things related to this line. First, they have a better understanding of where that line is, so they can “tightrope walk” on it, thereby maximizing what their bodies can give them. Second, they’re able to stay on that line longer than other racers, which enables them to ski at a consistently higher level for longer periods of time.
Key Competitive Situations
There are common race situations in which you can expect that your intensity will shift away from prime intensity. If you can identify these situations when they occur, you can more quickly take steps to prevent a change in intensity that may hurt your skiing. These race situations usually relate to when you’re either ahead or behind in a race, or the race is on the line.
Overintensity is most common in pressure situations such as in qualifying races or a championship. Anytime you believe that you must have a great race, your intensity will probably rise beyond your prime intensity. Underintensity is seen most often in races where you’re overconfident and believe that you have the race won, for example, you have the best points in a race or have a big lead after the first run.
There is not, however, a consistent pattern in how intensity will change for all racers. Racers in the same situation can experience different changes in intensity. For example, one racer may have an increase in intensity and feel very nervous because she’s never won the first run of a race before and doesn’t totally believe that she can win the race. While another racer in the same situation might have a decrease in intensity and feel a letdown because she’s already mentally in the lodge picking up her trophy. You have to figure out how you typically react and then use the psych-up and psych-down techniques that I will describe in future articles to achieve and maintain prime intensity.
Note: I will be conducting a webinar on Positive Pushing: How to Raise a Successful and Happy Child on Wednesday, November 16th, at 7 pm Mountain time. 20% of the proceeds will be donated to your USSA club. To learn more, contact Kevin Ward at firstname.lastname@example.org or 800-839-9976.
About Dr. Jim Taylor
Dr. Jim Taylor knows the psychology of ski racing! He competed internationally for Burke Mtn. Academy, Middlebury College, and the University of Colorado. For the past 25 years, Jim has worked with many of America's leading junior race programs as well as World Cup competitors from many countries. He is a clinical associate professor in the Sport&Performance Psychology graduate program at the University of Denver. Jim is the author of Prime Ski Racing: Triumph of the Racer's Mind and his latest parenting book is Your Children are Listening: Nine Messages They Need to Hear From You.