It’s that time of the race season when results really start to matter. For many racers in the U.S., the really important races of the year—States, Regionals and Nationals—are coming up and it’s really important that they ski their best.
Yet, this is also the time of year when many racers aren’t skiing fast at all. In fact, in the last few weeks, I’ve been getting emails and calls from parents and coaches who are desperate for help in getting their racers back on track. Here’s the consistent message I’m getting: “My kid is skiing really fast in training, but, in races, he/she is a totally different skier. He/she seems scared before race runs. On course, he/she skis really cautiously. And, in the finish, he/she kicks him/herself for skiing really tentatively.”
So, what happens to racers as the big races approach that causes them to go from fast to slow in such a short time? And what can you do about it so you can set yourself up for success in the really important races that are fast approaching?
Why the Change?
Results matter. Let’s be realistic: results matter! You don’t get ahead in your ski racing because you’re a nice kid or because you try hard (though effort helps). Rather, you move up the competitive ladder because you get the results in the form of placings, points, and qualifying for higher race series.
The problem is that when you focus on results, you are actually less likely to get those results for two reasons. First, if you are focusing on results, you’re not focusing on the process, namely, what you need to do to ski your fastest to get those results. Plus, this result focus can cause you to get really nervous before races which makes it nearly impossible for you to ski fast.
“Too” zone. With this emphasis on results, you enter the “too” zone in which you care too much about results and your results become too important to you. In other words, failure to get the results you want is perceived as a direct threat to your self-esteem and goals.
Expectations and pressure. You create expectations which leads to pressure that cause a threat reaction in which you are nervous and tight before races. If you are saying any of the following about your upcoming races, you know you have gone to the “dark side:” I must…, I have to…, I need to…, I should…, I better…, I gotta…. Each of these is always followed by an implicit threat: “…or else something bad will happen.”
Overthink. In response to this downward spiral, you start to overthink, try too hard, and attempt to control every aspect of your skiing. These reactions only cause you to dig yourself into a deeper mental and emotional hole.
This quadruple whammy pretty much ensures that you will ski scared, tight, and cautiously. The paradox here is that this shift almost guarantees that you don’t get the results you want.
How to Reverse the Spiral?
Think less, feel more. The first step in getting back on track involves realizing that thinking more about your skiing or putting more effort in won’t work. To the contrary, you actually need to do just the opposite, namely, less thinking, less trying, more feeling, and more letting go.
It starts by recognizing that skiing fast is about feeling, not thinking. Two types of feelings are involved. First, the physical feelings you like to have before races. You want feel strong, comfortable, and at your ideal intensity. Second, the emotional feelings you like to have before races. Some racers like to feel happy and relaxed. Others like to feel inspired and excited.
Ski like a kid. One very consistent feeling racers often lose this time of year is why they ski race in the first place. Remember that feeling of freedom and joy you used to feel before ski racing started to REALLY matter. For example, one athlete I work with who is racing at the Junior World Championships in Are, Sweden, this week said that he skis his best when he feels the way he felt when he was a kid. He just loved (and still loves) bombing around a mountain, “hucking” big air, and being a little crazy. My advice to him? Get back to that feeling and do a lot of bombing, hucking, and craziness in the coming week leading up the event.
Express yourself. You need to get out of “protective mode” in reaction to seeing the upcoming races as threats to avoid and get into “expressive mode” in response to seeing the upcoming races as challenges and opportunities to pursue your love of our sport. Ski racing is like creating a painting on a canvas. You don’t think through every stroke of paint you put on the canvas. Rather, you get in front of the canvas, see and feel the image you want to create, and then you simply turn off your mind and trust your creativity to express that internal image on the canvas. The same holds true for ski racing. You slide into the starting gate, see and feel how you want to ski, and then trust that your body will express itself on course the way you’ve trained it to.
Nothing to lose. You have to ski as if you have nothing to lose (because, in the big picture, you have nothing to lose). You will surely ski your worst if you feel as if every run is life or death. Now that is pressure! You ski your best when you let go of expectations, pressure, and fear of failure. You ski your best when you are totally focused on the process and the present. You ski your best when you turn off your mind and just let your body do what it knows how to do. You ski your best when you take risks and just go for it. And you ski your best when you are having fun and racing because of your deepest feelings for our sport.
“F&%# it!” (apologies for the bad language). For you to ski your fastest, you have to get in the starting gate and just say “F&%# it!” This attitude, so well exemplified by Bode (in his autobiography, he said that all he ever cared about was skiing as fast as humanly possible) doesn’t mean not caring about your ski racing, but rather not caring about the consequences of your ski racing. It means being able to accept whatever happens as long as you take your shot and ski your fastest. When you adopt the “F&%# it!” attitude, you liberate yourself to ski without doubt, worry, or fear, and with confidence, commitment, and courage.
Three Goals on Race Day
When you are able to clear out the mental and emotional clutter from your mind that’s holding you back, you can then free your mind to focus on three simple goals on race day.
Getting Prepared. In the start area, you want to be able to say, “I’m as prepared as I can be to ski my fastest.” Ultimately, that’s all you can do. Being well prepared doesn’t guarantee success (because you can’t control everything in ski racing), but not being prepared certainly ensures failure.
Bring it! On course, your singular goal is to “bring it,” meaning being fully commit to and completely focused on skiing as fast as you can from start to finish. Bringing it doesn’t guarantee success (because S&%# happens in ski racing), but not bringing it certainly ensures failure.
No regrets. After the race, whether you won, made a big mistake, or DNF’d, you want to look back and have no regrets because you left it all out on the course. Of course, if things don’t work out the way you had hoped, you’ll be disappointed. But knowing you accomplished these three goals will minimize the regrets and inspire you to pursue these three goals in the next race. And I truly believe that if you continue down this road, at some point, good things will happen.