Racer Next: Who’s Got the Look?
Why confidence really counts at the World Championships — and at the junior level
On the eve of the World Championships, we put a lot of energy into predicting who’ll medal. We analyze past results, equipment, training, course conditions, physical condition, weather and of course luck to consider.
But the one thing that can trump them all is confidence.
“Sex appeal is 50 percent what you’ve got,” said Sophia Loren, “and 50 percent what people think you’ve got.”
Confidence is a lot like sex appeal — you’ve got it or you don’t, and to really have it, you’ve got to own it.
If you’re in the business of picking winners, your best bet is to follow the confidence. This isn’t the same as tracking the best results. Confidence is less about where any athlete is in the standings as it is about trajectory. Who’s been building momentum, putting in solid runs or really fast sections, steadily closing the gap each race? Who’s exuding the vibe that his or her time has come? In Zoolanderese, who has “the look”?
The look of confidence is unmistakable. It’s a look that can stop you in your tracks and silently assert, “Today, it’s my turn.” You can see it in the eyes, in the posture, in the authority a racer brings to the first three gates. You can hear it in the voice, in the laugh, in the breathing.
This plays out on the world stage the same as it does at the junior level. Confidence, when it’s on your side, is part super power and part silver bullet, a force that brings performance to new heights while protecting the bearer from the hazards, obstacles and mistakes that would derail others. An athlete fueled by confidence seems invincible. Until he or she isn’t. Confidence is a slippery friend that seems to sneak away as soon as you start to depend on it being there for good.
As with confidence, a lack of confidence is pretty easy to detect. It shows up in all kinds of body language — the drop of the shoulders, the less-bright eyes, the less-sure voice. Ski racers lacking confidence give up before the finish; let little tactical mistakes or technical glitches become big problems; are pessimistic and overly critical of themselves; are bothered by what people say; or fret about things that are out of their control.
As frustrating as it is for parents, coaches or peers to see a kid spiraling into the red zone and giving up on himself, it’s even more frustrating for the athlete who is struggling and is told: “Just have confidence.” Well yeah — duh! Confidence isn’t something that magically appears. You don’t just wake up one day and have it, or hear an inspirational speech and flip the switch.
Confidence may be (OK definitely is) sexy, but building confidence is anything but. It’s the unhurried reward from the pedantic process of doing your homework and eating your veggies and doing your sit-ups. It’s the unglamorous business of putting one foot in front of the other regardless of the day’s circumstances or your mood, without giving in to emotion, fatigue, peer influence or doubts. It’s using your energy to think positively toward the next run rather than wasting it on a negative rant. It comes from showing up at training with a positive attitude (real or well-projected), ready to give your full effort every day, every run through every last gate. It is embracing that the only way out of tough times is to keep on keeping on, rather than giving up or waiting for someone to save you.
Perfectionism is the enemy of building confidence. Just as getting stuck on little mistakes makes them bigger, focusing on little successes will make them bigger, too. These are the tiny but relentless steps in the right direction that will one day lead you around a corner into Confidenceville, where suddenly everything feels easy and right. When a dark horse or an unknown “comes from nowhere” to win, that “nowhere” is a collection of unremarkable training hills, courses, gyms, ski rooms, video sessions, contemplative chairlift rides and so many places where little successes are not heralded or even noticed. That “nowhere” is where confidence is bred.
I was on the hill recently with a coach who reminded his athletes about confidence. “There are so many unknowns in this sport,” he said, “that you absolutely must take charge of every single thing you can.” Confidence, as fickle as it might seem, is in large part one of those things.
Mistakes, illness, injury, equipment problems, bad luck, horrendous conditions and slumps that feel terminal are all part of this fabulous sport. When they tip you down a slippery slope you can either grant them the momentum to become a runaway train or learn how to self-arrest. Let a bad turn or a bad run or a bad day be just that, and focus on the next step forward rather than the last step back.
And sometimes, as Ms. Loren advises, you might even have to pretend a little, to lead with attitude. Walk tall, put your shoulders back, literally lift your chin up and stand in a way that says, “Yes, I am all that!”