Inside the Ski Racing Mind: Emotions in Ski Racing
At the top of the Prime Ski Racing Pyramid sits emotions. It’s closest to the top of the pyramid because emotions will ultimately dictate how you ski on race day and throughout the competitive season. Emotions before, during, and after a race can cover the spectrum from excitement and elation to frustration, anger, and disappointment. Emotions are often strong and, most troublesome, they can linger and hurt your skiing long after you first experience them.
Negative emotions can hurt your skiing both physically and mentally. They first cause you to lose your prime intensity. With frustration and anger, your intensity goes up and leads to muscle tension, breathing difficulties, and a loss of coordination. It also saps your energy and causes you to tire quickly. When you experience despair and helplessness, your intensity drops sharply and you no longer have the physical capabilities to ski well.
Negative emotions can also hurt you mentally. Your emotions are telling you that, deep down, you’re not confident in your ability to ski well and achieve your competitive goals. Your confidence will decline and you will have negative thoughts to go along with your negative emotions. Also, since your negative emotions are so strong, you will likely have difficulty focusing on what will help you to ski well; the negative emotions draw your attention onto all of the negative aspects of your skiing. Finally, negative emotions can hurt your motivation to ski because you just don’t feel good and it’s no longer fun.
Emotions come from past experiences in similar training and race situations in the form of beliefs and attitudes you hold about skiing and racing. Your perceptions from the past impact your present even though the emotions may not be appropriate or useful in the present situation. One of the most difficult aspects of emotions is that they become habits that can cause you to automatically respond with a certain emotional reaction to a particular circumstance even when that emotional response does more harm than good. When you see World Cup racers on TV, for example, totally “lose it” after a bad run, you are likely seeing emotions that are self-destructive.
Negative emotions can be provoked by many occurrences during a race including a bad mistake, a slow run, or even seeing one of your rivals have a good race. All of these events share two common elements that lie at the heart of what causes the negative emotions: You feel that the path to a goal is being blocked and you don’t seem to have control over removing the obstacle. For example, you have a bad first run in an important qualifying race and your frustration and anger hurts your confidence and focus (and skiing) for the second run.
Let the Punishment Fit the Crime
I have seen extremely negative emotional reactions to the smallest failures in my work with ski racers. Skiing out in training or a wobble in a race produced negative emotions that seemed to be out of proportion to the magnitude of the failure. In both cases, the punishment did not fit the crime.
Be sure that your emotions are proportional to what causes them. Ask yourself whether a few mistakes are worth the ill feelings you might experience. Are you being fair to yourself? When the severity of the punishment exceeds the seriousness of the crime, you have lost perspective on how important ski racing is in your life. It might be worth getting really upset if you didn’t get into the college of your choice, but are these strong negative emotions worth feeling over some relatively unimportant mistakes?
You should also consider whether these emotions help or hurt your skiing. Negative emotions can raise the level of your skiing at first because they increase your intensity and get you to fight harder. After a short time though, your performance will likely decline and it usually spirals downward into a vicious cycle from there. Negative emotions usually hurt your skiing and keep you from reaching your goals. Why would you allow yourself to experience emotions (e.g., frustration, anger, depression) and act in ways (throwing a tantrum, choking, giving up) that ensure failure rather than help you achieve success?
It’s okay to be disappointed when you make mistakes or ski poorly. In fact, you should feel that way. It means that you care about your ski racing and want to do better. But when your negative emotions are strong and self-defeating, particularly for how minor the crime is (you will make a lot of mistakes during your ski racing career), then you need to look at why your punishment far exceeds the crime you committed.
Consider the best ski racers in the world. Our sport is very important to them because it is their life and livelihood. How upset do they get when they ski poorly and have a bad race? Considering how important ski racing is to them, most great racers handle mistakes and bad skiing pretty well. In fact, one reason why World Cuppers are at the top is because they have the ability to control their emotions rather than their emotions controlling them.
Emotional Threat vs. Emotional Challenge
In recent years, I have found that a simple distinction appears to lie at the heart of the emotional reactions racers have to our sport: threat vs. challenge. At the heart of emotional threat is the perception that winning is all-important and failure is unacceptable. Emotional threat is most often associated with too great an emphasis on winning, results, and rankings. Pressure to win from parents, coaches, and athletes themselves is also common. With these beliefs, it’s easy to see why ski racing would be emotionally threatening.
Emotional threat manifests itself in a “negative emotional chain” in which each psychological link separately and cumulatively causes you to feel badly and hurts your skiing. The most common reaction to a threat is the desire to avoid the threat. There is often a loss of motivation to ski and compete, especially when the threat of a poor result is immediate, for example, when you are behind after the first run (think of giving up as a major loss of motivation). Emotional threat also suggests to you that you’re incapable of overcoming the situation that is causing the threat, so your confidence is hurt and you’re overwhelmed with negative and defeatist thoughts. The threat produces strong negative emotions such as fear, anger, frustration, despair, and helplessness.
The emotional threat also causes anxiety and all sorts of the negative physical symptoms. The previous links in the emotional chain make it nearly impossible to focus effectively because there are so many negative things pulling your focus away from a useful process focus. All of the previous links in the chain ultimately result in a poor race result and little enjoyment in your skiing.
In contrast, emotional challenge is associated with your enjoying the process of ski racing regardless of whether you achieve your goals. The emphasis is on having fun and seeing a race as exciting and enriching. Ski racing, when seen as an emotional challenge, is an experience that is relished and sought out at every opportunity. Thus, emotional challenge is highly motivating, to the point where you love being in pressure situations.
Emotional challenge communicates to you that you have the ability to meet the demands of ski racing, so you’re confident and filled with positive thoughts. Emotional challenge generates many positive emotions such as excitement, joy, and satisfaction. It also stimulates your body to achieve prime intensity, where your body is relaxed, energized, and physically capable of skiing your best. You also have the ability to attain prime focus, in which you’re totally focused on what enables you to ski fast. All of these links in the emotional challenge chain lead you to Prime Ski racing, great enjoyment in your skiing, and achieving your ski racing goals.
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.
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