As I noted in an article I wrote last winter, Ski Racing is One Brutal Sport, our sport throws so much at racers, it can be more than a bit overwhelming. Just a few of the challenges that racers must confront include the course set, terrain, snow conditions, and weather. And don’t forget the unforgiving nature of ski racing in which races are won or lost by hundredths of a second, and just a slight mistake can mean the difference between the podium and the second page.
There is, however, a saving grace to these brutal conditions. Rarely are these difficulties present for only one or a few racers; instead, everyone must face most of the challenges on race day. Admittedly, there can be some variation as those with different start positions can have better course conditions depending on snow deterioration or if, in the case of a speed race, the track gets faster with subsequent racers. Also, weather can be pretty fluky with high winds, snow, or fog for some and calm, clear skies for others. But, over all, on any given race day, tough conditions are tough for everyone and easy conditions are easy for everyone.
What this means is that it isn’t the conditions that really matter because everyone must face them. Rather, what matters is how you interpret and respond to those conditions. The recent women’s World Cup slalom in Bormio illustrates my point. The conditions were miserable with snow at the top, rain at the bottom, and sleet in between with snow conditions soft and sloppy. It would be easy to arrive at a race with these conditions and think, “This is terrible. There’s no way I can ski well in this stuff.” Yet, that attitude will almost certainly lead to doubt, worry, fear, and, ultimately, failure and disappointment.
One thing is very clear about Mikaela Shiffrin: She doesn’t go down that road of ruin. Instead, Shiffrin embodies an attitude that has made her a World Cup slalom title holder and world champion at the tender age of 18.
“The weather reminds me of Vermont, the Northeast Kingdom. I got out here this morning, and I was like, ‘Yes! Here we go. I’m going to be soaking wet,’” noted Shiffrin in Bormio. ”The gates hit the snow, and the slush comes off and hits you in the goggles, so by the end of the course you can’t really see but you can see just enough to finish. You have to keep going and embrace it, because it’s happening to everyone — might as well embrace it.”
There are several essential lessons that you can learn as you experience adversity in your racing this winter.
Train for Adversity
First, the best way to learn to respond positively to adversity is to train for adversity. As a fellow alumnus of Burke Mountain Academy, I can attest to the often-times brutal conditions that Mikaela trained in while she was a student at Burke. I recall my first race as a J2 at Jay Peak where it was 42 degrees below zero (without wind chill!). More recently, I was at Burke in December where the temperature was a relatively mild -17 degrees. Then the following week, it was raining.
The more you train in adverse conditions, the better your chances are of rising to the challenge of tough conditions in a race. Young racers often rush to be the first one on the training course because, honestly, who doesn’t love hero snow? The problem is that most young racers aren’t starting in the first group in races. Instead, they are starting far back when the course gets rough. If you train on smooth courses but have to race on rough courses, what are the chances that you will ski well in races? Not very good, I would argue, because you haven’t trained under similar adverse conditions in which you race.
I also often hear racers tell their coaches that it’s time to reset when the training course gets a little chewed up, and these comments irritate coaches too. Same problem here of not training under the conditions you’ll be racing in. In the first case, you should get to the back of the line and wait for the course to get rough. In the second case, you should be jonesing for the course to get rough to better prepare you for those conditions in races.
One of my pet peeves with young racers during training is when they complain about the conditions. While at Burke last month, I heard one racer say, “One and done,” in the warming hut before he headed out to train. What that means is that he was going to take one run and he was finished. Well, he might as well have not even taken that one run because he had already given up on the conditions and, more importantly, on himself.
Training for adversity has several important benefits. First, it makes adversity familiar and comfortable for you, so when you arrive at a race with difficult conditions, you can say, “Been there, done that, no big deal.” Second, training for adversity provides you with the technical, tactical, and mental skills you need to overcome tough conditions. Finally, adversity builds your confidence, so you can say before a race, “I’ve trained under worse conditions. I’m going to bring it!”
Shiffrin’s comment that the Bormio slalom reminded her of Burke suggests that she was both familiar and comfortable with the adversity she was confronted with there, however horrendous conditions were, because they were no worse than what she experienced regularly at Burke.
It’s easy to fall into the “woe is me” mode when faced with adversity. Your focus on how difficult the conditions are and how they may hurt your chances in the race can set you up for failure. But if you can keep perspective, namely, that everyone has to face the adversity and everyone will struggle to varying degrees, you take the focus off of how bad it is for you and place it on the fact that someone has to have a good result in these conditions, so it may as well be you.
Another perspective to have is that it’s not the adversity that matters — because everyone has it on race day — but rather your attitude toward the tough conditions (e.g., “This sucks!” vs. “Bring it!”) and how you react to them (e.g., ski cautiously vs. leave it all out on the hill).
You have a simple, but not easy, choice. You can view the adversity as a threat to avoid or a challenge to pursue. There is no doubt that, ability being equal, the racers who see the adversity as a challenge will out-ski those who view it as a threat.
Shiffrin clearly had a healthy perspective based on her comment that it’s “happening to everyone.”
An number of years ago, I was working with some racers at Mt. Hood during a week of miserable weather that included snow, rain, dense fog, and really soft snow. There was another sport psych person there working with another group of racers with whom we were sharing a training lane. At the top of the training course, he said that “you have to love these conditions!” My first thought was that he doesn’t know much about ski racing because, let’s be honest, it’s hard to love such lousy conditions. I would argue that it’s nearly impossible to have good feelings about such adversity. Even Shiffrin never said that she loved racing under those conditions in Bormio.
At the same time, you can’t hate the adversity because if you feel that badly about the conditions, the chances are that you will just give up. What I would suggest is that you neither love nor hate the adversity, but just accept it for what it is, namely, an inevitable part of ski racing. By not hating it, you are able to wrap your arms around the reality of the adversity and deal with it the best you can. As Shiffrin noted, you “might as well embrace it.” When you accept and embrace the adversity, you can direct your energy toward how to confront it head on and overcome it.
On any given race day, you are actually competing in three races. If you can embrace the adversity in training and on race day, you will win the first two races, specifically, the race against the conditions and, more importantly, the race against yourself. And if you win those two races, you’ve given yourself a darned good chance of winning (or at least have a great result in) the actual race against other athletes.
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.