Note to Readers: The middle of race season is approaching and the biggest races are looming ahead. As the pressure mounts, I figured that all kinds of psychological issues are coming up for racers and parents alike. So, I thought I would devote the next few weeks to answering questions from you. If you have a psychologically oriented question that I can help you find an answer for, please post it in the comments section at the end of this article. I’ll choose a few each week.
Let me begin this article with a simple reality: we live in a world where results matter. Your children don’t get ahead in their ski racing—or their education or other extracurricular activities—because they are hard workers or good kids. Rather, they advance in life because they get results.
Of course, you can’t ensure your children’s results for one simple reason: you can’t control everything that contributes to the results your children get. Contrary to the arguments presented by Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers and Dan Coyle in The Talent Code, genetics play a huge role in athletic success and you just can’t control the genes you give your children. All you can do is help them to create an environment that will encourage their best efforts. And the best you can hope for is for those efforts to result in your children fully realizing whatever ability you endowed them with genetically.
One key contributor to this complicated calculus involves what your racers should focus on to produce the results they want. Unfortunately, many parents and coaches have some misconceptions about this very issue. Many believe that for children to get the results they want they need to focus on those results. This approach makes intuitive sense because, as the saying goes, “you want to keep your eye on the prize.” So, parents and coaches talk to their racers about race results, check point profiles, and follow qualification procedures, all in the name of making sure their racers are focused on the results they want to achieve.
Paradoxically though, this “outcome focus” actually interferes with children getting the results they want for two reasons. First, when does the outcome of a ski race occur? When they cross the finish line, naturally. So, if racers are focused on the finish area, what are they not focusing on? That essential segment that begins at the starting gate, continues down the entire course, and concludes at the finish line. In other words, if racers are focused on the result, they’re not focused on the process, that is, what they need to do to ski as fast as they can from the start to the finish. Quite simply, without this “process focus,” there is no possible way for racers to achieve their desired results.
Second, if racers are focused on the result, it is likely to cause worry about whether they will achieve that result and the potential consequences of failure. And if this worry is powerful enough, which it is for many of the young athletes I work with, it will trigger their fear of failure, a reaction that I have found is epidemic in our succeed-or-you-are-a-loser culture. This fearful response causes a variety of psychological and physical reactions that make it even less likely that racers will ski their best and produce the result they want. For example, a preoccupation with worry and fear acts as a major distraction for racers trying to focus on skiing their best. It also hurts their confidence because they’re focused on bad things that might happen in the race. This worry also does them no favors physically where they experience anxiety and its symptoms including restricted breathing, muscle tension, and a loss of motor coordination.
So, a refresher: talking about and having your children focus on results will prevent them from achieving the results they (and you) want. What to do then?
Here’s another paradox. By focusing on the process and not thinking about results at all, your children are more likely to get the results they want. How is that possible?, you might ask. It’s pretty obvious once you think about. If your children are focused on the process, that is, what they need to do to ski their best (e.g., focus on their equipment, skiing and physical warm-up, inspection, mental preparation), they’re more likely to ski their best. And if they ski their best, they’re more likely to get the results they want.
So, what lesson can we draw from this perspective? Four words: Don’t talk about results… ever (okay, that was five words)! Don’t talk about results the week before, the night before, the day of, or the day after races. You just don’t need to. When your kids have a great result, they know it’s a good thing; you don’t need to tell them. If they have a lousy result, they don’t need to dwell on it by your talking about it. Your children need your support and encouragement and, perhaps, the message that it’s no big deal. Then, they need to get that bad result out of their head (after exploring why they didn’t ski well) and look to what they need to do to ski better next race.
If you really want to help your children ski their best and achieve the results they want, I encourage you to focus on what I call the Five P’s:
Perspective involves not being worried about your children’s short-term results and focusing on their long-term personal and athletic development.
Positive means focusing on maintaining a positive attitude and high motivation even when the results are not what your children want.
Process relates to the theme of this article, namely, that you should focus only on what your children need to do to ski their best and not think about results.
Present involves always focusing on the here-and-now, rather than past failures (there is a saying that “you can’t change the past, but you can ruin a perfectly good future worrying about it”) or future possibilities (the only way to control the future is to control the present).
Progress means not comparing your children to other racers, but rather focusing on how they are developing physically, technically, tactically, and mentally toward their goals.
If you can maintain this focus and avoid falling into an outcome focus, you give your children a wonderful gift that will help them to keep a healthy focus too, even in this world where results matter.
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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