Inside the Ski Racing Mind: Five Ps for Big Races
The biggest races of the season are rapidly approaching: State Championships, the Junior Olympics, J1 Nationals, U.S. Nationals, Topolino, and others. You’ve been aiming for these big races all season, working hard in training and doing your best in qualifying races. Hopefully, you feel you’re ready to ski as fast as you can.
Those of you who regularly read my posts know that my goal for you is to achieve Prime Ski Racing, which I define as skiing at your highest level under the most challenging conditions. There is no more important time to achieve Prime Ski Racing than in the most important races of the year.
The days leading up to these big races are crucial to achieving your competitive goals. You have to get your equipment dialed in, you need to get some rest, and you might do a little fine tuning on your technique and tactics. But the area that will probably make the biggest differences in whether you ski your best or crash and burn is your attitude toward the big races. Your mindset will impact every psychological contributors to your skiing including your motivation, confidence, intensity, focus, and emotions. A healthy attitude will set you up for a psychology and physiology that will allow your best skiing to emerge. An unhealthy attitude, by contrast, will only set you up for failure.
A healthy attitude can be summed up in what I call the “5 Ps for Big Races:” Perspective, Process, Present, Positive, and Progress.
It’s easy as the big races approach to lose perspective. When I talk about perspective I mean the importance you place on them. You may think: “They are the BIGGEST races of the season for me and I’ve worked so hard. If I don’t do well, it will kill me!! I MUST do well!” It is just that attitude that may prevent you from getting the results you want. The reality is that, though these races may be important to you and, if you don’t ski well, you will be disappointed, they most certainly will not kill you.
Think of it this way. Let’s say that before your race, someone comes up to you, shows you a gun, and tells you that if you don’t ski well, he will be in the finish area and will shoot you. Would you be nervous? Yes, terrified, in fact. Would you be able to ski well? Definitely not! Of course, there will be no one at the finish line with a gun, but, when you lose perspective and feel that your life (not your physical life, but your ego life) is on the line, then the same feelings of threat and fear arise. And there is little chance of your being confident, relaxed, or focused enough to ski your best.
If you look too closely at these races, it’s easy to think that they are life or death. But if you can step back and put the races in a long-term perspective, namely, they are just a few small steps in a journey toward your long-term goals, they won’t seem quite so important. The result? You’ll be psychologically and emotionally prepared to ski your best.
One of the most common problems that occurs in racers as big competitions approach is a shift in their focus away from process and onto outcomes. Let me explain. A process focus involves paying attention to those things that help you ski your best, for example, technique, tactics, and aggressiveness. In contrast, Outcome focus involves focusing on the possible results of a race: winning, losing, points, rankings, whether you will qualify for the next level of races, or who you might beat or lose to. Let me make this very clear: An outcome focus is the kiss of death in ski racing. Here's why.
Many people believe that focusing on the outcome will increase the chances of that outcome occurring, but the opposite is actually true. When does the outcome of a race occur? After you cross the finish line, of course. And if you're focusing on the finish, what are you not focusing on? Well, the process, obviously. Here’s the irony. By focusing on the process rather than the outcome, you have a much better chance of skiing your best because you are paying attention to things that will help you ski well. And, if you ski well, you're more likely to achieve the results you wanted in the first place.
Also, why do you get nervous before big races? Because you're afraid of the outcome, more specifically, you're afraid of failure. So by focusing on the outcome, you're more likely to feel anxious (a little anxiety is good, but too much is really bad) and less likely to ski well and achieve the result you want. In contrast, if you focus on the process, you won’t have a fear of failure, you’ll stay relaxed, and you’re more likely to ski your best, the result of which is the outcome you wanted in the first place.
Another shift that can occur before big races is a focus from the present—what you need to do to ski well now—to either a past focus—onto results you had in the past—or a future focus—onto the results you may or may not get in the big races.
Let’s start with a past focus. There’s a saying that you can’t change the past, but you can ruin a perfectly good future by worrying about it. The reality is that you can’t change the past, so there’s no point in even thinking about it (except perhaps to learn from your mistakes so you don’t repeat them). If something bad happened in the past, be disappointed, then let it go. If something good happened, revel in it, then let it go. Looking back has no value to your present.
Now about the future. Thinking about the future also does you no good. It can cause doubt and worry because it often triggers a fear of failure. A future focus can create anxiety because it makes you think about expectations that you might feel from your parents or coaches. Mostly basically, if you’re focusing on the future, you’re not focusing on your skiing in here and now.
If you want to control the future, the only way to do so is to control the present. This means directing your focus on what you need to do to ski your best right now.
Perhaps the worst thing that happens to many young racers before a big event is they start to go negative. The expectations and pressure that you can feel before a big race can cause your confidence, which may have been high from all of your training and racing up to this point in the season, to plummet as you focus on all of the bad things that can happen in the upcoming races. You may go from being your best ally to your worst enemy. What are the chances of good things happening in those races with this “dark” mindset? Let’s me answer that question for you: pretty darn low.
Your only chance to achieve your goals for the big races is to stay positive and remain your best ally. This doesn’t mean you have to be Stuart Smiley (of Saturday Night Live fame) all the time; feeling some doubt is natural. Just make sure that most of what you think about your upcoming races is positive and hopeful.
Ski racing is unforgiving in how it judges racers; The clock doesn’t lie. And we also live in a world where it is difficult not to compare yourself to your teammates and other competitors. But when you focus on them, for example, think about how they are skiing, how they will do in the races, and whether you will beat them, they win because if you’re focusing on them, you’re not focusing on you.
The fact is that until you get into your late teens results really don’t matter. Bode Miller never went to Topolino and never medaled at the Junior Worlds. And many racers who were superstars at 13 weren’t on the front page at 17. It just doesn’t matter how you stack up against your competitors when you’re young. And worrying about them, as I just indicated, does you absolutely no good.
The only thing you should really focus on is yourself and the progress you’re making toward your goals. You will always have ups and downs, but the key is to see that you are heading in the right direction. Are you improving your technique and tactics? Are your points getting better? As long as you are moving toward your goals and staying focused on improving, you continue to get better and everyone else will take care of themselves.
So, if you really want to ski your best in the upcoming big races, remember the 5 Ps and you can be pretty confident that your mind will help you, rather than hurt you, achieve your 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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