Qualifying: The season of excitement…and dread
‘Tis the season for qualifying. You may want to make the cut for the state championships, U16, U18, or U.S. nationals, or the NCAA championships. You may even have been one of the athletes hoping to qualify for the Sochi Olympic Games which get underway this week. I can assure you that you are not alone whatever your situation or whatever you are feeling.
This midpoint in the race season is a time of great anticipation and excitement as you do your best to get to the next level, and of the potential rapture if you achieve your goal. It is also a time of worry and dread as the qualifying deadline approaches, and potential devastation if you didn’t—or don’t—qualify. I know this experience personally, having been there many times during my racing days. I also know it professionally, as I have a number of clients who either hope to make it, made it, or didn’t make it, right up to the Sochi Olympics.
You Want to Qualify
So what do you do if qualifying still lies ahead for you? It’s easy to focus on an outcome goal when it is staring you in the face (“I have to qualify!”). You want to achieve that goal so badly that you can’t take your mind off of it. I assure you though that a focus on results will, in all likelihood, be the end of your qualifying dreams.
As I have talked about in many previous articles, concentrating on results triggers a number of destructive reactions including fear of failure, expectations, and pressure. Not only are you not focusing on what you need to do to ski your best (the only way you’ll have a chance of qualifying, I might add), but you are also placing a burden on your shoulders that pretty much guarantees failure and disappointment.
All of these issues create a performance storm that is usually perceived by racers as a massive threat. In this “protection mode,” you become more concerned with avoiding failure than pursuing success. The end result is cautious skiing that, paradoxically, leads to the very thing that is most threatening to you, namely, failing to ski fast enough to qualify for the next level of races.
As you enter the qualifying races, your best chance of success is to refocus on what will enable you to ski fast, whether it is technical, tactical, or mental. Also, put qualifying into perspective. The chances are that the next level of races is not the end-all, be-all of your ski racing career (unless it was your last chance to make the Olympics), but rather just one step in a long journey toward your ski racing goals. You might also realize that there are many other racers in the same situation as you who feel much the same. If you can view qualifying as a challenge to pursue rather than a threat to avoid, you have put yourself at a huge advantage over many of your competitors. Remind yourself why you ski race, hopefully because you just love it, not only for the results.
Finally, regardless of what happens at the end of the qualifying races, commit yourself to being able to say, without any regrets, “I left it all out on the hill.” Ultimately, that’s all you can do. In sum, your best chance of qualifying is to focus on skiing fast and having fun, not on the results you need to qualify.
Your hard work has paid off and you can take a few minutes to revel in achieving your goal of qualifying for the next level of racing. My next piece of advice? Forget about your recently attained goal. Yes, my advice to you now is to put that objective behind you and set your sights on the races for which you have just qualified.
There can be a tendency after qualification for an important series of races to take a deep breath, say to yourself, “I’ve made it!” and then send an unconscious message to your mind and body that they can kick back and relax. This reaction will almost certainly lead to both disappointing skiing and results in that new level you coveted so much.
My recommendation, after a brief period of reverie, is to immediately establish a new set of goals for the upcoming races that you worked so hard to get to. Directing your attention to these races has several important effects. First, it refocuses you onto the present rather than basking in the glow of your past accomplishment. Second, it reinspires your drive again to continue your progress up the competitive ladder. Finally, this shift reignites your intensity, getting you fired up to ski your best and show yourself that qualifying was something you earned.
You Didn’t Qualify
If you didn’t qualify for that coveted spot you wanted so badly, well, let’s be honest, it hurts. You’re going to feel bad, maybe really, really bad. But, realize that feelings of disappointment are normal; you set high goals for yourself and didn’t achieve them. And recognize that you are not alone. For example, the 2010 Olympic super G gold medalist, Andrea Fischbacher, didn’t even qualify for Sochi. As much pain as you feel now, in time, it will subside.
After the disappointment begins to ease, you are faced with a fork in the road. You can wallow in self-pity and maybe give up on your dreams. Or, you can, as they say, “get back on the horse” and start riding toward your goals again. Yes, failure feels bad. But you can use the experience to fuel your motivation for future success. See this failure as a challenge to pursue, not a threat to avoid; “I’m not going to let that happen again!”
Failing to qualify can also provide you with some powerful lessons that will help you ultimately achieve your goals. Do a detailed analysis of why you didn’t qualify; there has to be a reason. It could be physical, technical, tactical, or mental. You may not have been adequately prepared. You may just not have been ready yet to go to the next level. Once you understand why you didn’t qualify, you can take steps in your training and life to remove those obstacles and better prepare you for success next season.
Finally, let go of the past and refocus your attention on the present and the future. What do I need to do now? What’s my plan to reach my goals? At the end of a successful season next winter, you want to be able to look back at on this painful period and be able to say, “That sure sucked, but I wouldn’t be where I am today without it!”
Jim Taylor, Ph.D., competed internationally while skiing for Burke Mountain Academy, Middlebury College, and the University of Colorado. Over the last 25 years, he has worked with the U.S. and Japanese Ski Teams, many World Cup and Olympic racers, and several of the leading junior race programs in the U.S. and Canada. Jim is the author of Prime Ski Racing: Triumph of the Racer’s Mind, he publishes bi-monthly newsletters on sport, business, and parenting, and also blogs for huffingtonpost.com and psychologytoday.com. To learn more or to contact Jim, visit his website.