There are a lot of misconceptions about the role of results in achieving your ski racing goals. Of course, you need good results to be successful, but the question is how to go about getting those results. Ironically, the answer is not what parents, coaches, and racers often think.
First, I want to define ‘outcome’ and ‘process.’ An outcome focus involves attention on results, points, rankings, qualifying, and beating others. Notice that this focus is on things outside of you. A process focus involves focusing on what you need to do ski your fastest such as preparation, technique, tactics, or just plain going fast. In contrast to an outcome focus, a process focus is entirely on you.
There is a distinct paradox in an outcome focus. Most people think that in order to get the results you want, you need to focus on those results. But — here’s the paradox — having an outcome focus actually reduces the chance that you will achieve the results you want. Here’s why: First, when does the outcome of a ski race occur? After you cross the finish line, of course. If you’re focused on the outcome, you aren’t focused on the process, namely, what you need to do to get from the start to the finish as fast as you can. Second, what makes you nervous at the start, the process or the outcome? Chances are it’s the outcome, or more specifically, a bad outcome such as a slow time or a DNF, both of which translate into failure. The bottom line is that when you focus on the outcome, you are far less likely to get the outcome you want.
In contrast, when you focus on the process, you increase your chances of getting the results you want. If you focus on the process — that is, what you need to do to ski your best — how are you going to ski? Pretty well, you can assume. And if you ski well, you’re more likely to achieve the result you wanted in the first place.
Here is my wish for you: Never think about results. In an ideal world, I would like you to be entirely process-focused and never have results cross your mind. This approach has definitely worked for Mikaela Shiffrin and Bode Miller. Though very different in their approaches to ski racing, they are both very focused on the process. Mikaela is clearly result-oriented, but she understands that to get the results she wants, she must maintain a process focus.
Miller, in turn, just doesn’t care about results. All he cares about, to paraphrase a line from his autobiography, “is to go as fast as humanly possible.” A former World Cup coach who has been around Bode for years told me recently that, after a race, you couldn’t tell whether he won or was 15th; if he skied his best, he was a happy guy.
Here’s another wish. In that ideal world I mentioned above, I would have parents and coaches never talk about results either. The fact is there is no point. You know when you’ve had a good race and you definitely know when you’ve had a bad race. If you’re like most racers, when your parents and coaches talk about results, you hear their chatter as expectations, pressure, or disappointment.
Parents, whether it’s a good or bad race, give your children a hug, tell them you love them, and ask them if they’re hungry. If you’re too excited about a good race or too disappointed over a bad race, stay the heck away from them because they will sense your emotions no matter how hard you try to mask them.
Coaches, if your racers had a good race, don’t say “good job.” Instead, help them understand why they skied well. If they had a bad race, pat them on the back, tell them you still believe in them, and help them figure out how to ski better the next race.
Here’s where the real world collides with the ideal world that I wish existed. We don’t live in an ideal world and until someone invents a theoretical process pill. It’s not likely that you can expunge results from your mind. In the real world, results do matter. As a ski racer, you are competitive and you probably have some serious outcome goals, for example, getting your points under 100, qualifying for national championships, or even winning an Olympic gold medal some day.
I don’t expect you to not think about results. In fact, I’m going to assume that you are going to think about results a lot. So, knowing that an outcome focus actually hurts your cause, your challenge is what to do when your mind does fixate on results.
First, become aware that you are focusing on the outcome. There’s no magic to this; you just have to monitor your thinking and notice your outcome focus. Once you see that you are thinking about results, you can take steps to get your mind off of them.
Recognize that you can only focus on one thing at a time, so if you can replace your outcome focus with a focus on something else, you have stopped yourself from thinking about results. Ideally, you want to refocus on the process, something specific that will enable you to ski your best, but sometimes, focusing on anything other than results (e.g., music, school, food) will do the trick.
Go through your routine whether in training or a race. The purpose of a routine is to get yourself totally prepared to ski your best and, if well ingrained, to trigger thoughts, emotions, and physiology that will help you ski well. By going through your routine, you are reminded of the process, and this takes your mind off of results.
Do mental imagery. If you are focused on the thoughts, feelings, and images of skiing well, you’re not focused on results. Plus, the imagery will increase your motivation and confidence, help you reach your ideal intensity, and get your body primed to train or race.
If you just can’t shift your mind from outcome to process, the best thing you can do is get out of your mind completely. In other words, distract yourself by talking to others, listening to music, goofing around, or doing anything that will prevent you from thinking about results.
Finally, remind yourself why you ski race. Maybe it’s for the love of competition, going fast, or just plain having fun. This change gets you out of thinking mode and into feeling mode, generating powerful emotions, such as excitement, inspiration, and pride, that will get you fired up about getting out there and just skiing as fast as you can.
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.