One of the most indelible memories I took away from the 2018 Winter Olympics was from the start area of the alpine events (and, in fact, every ski and snowboard event). Time after time, we saw the best ski racers in the world with their head down and eyes closed, moving their hands and their bodies. Whether it was Mikaela, Marcel, Henrik, Lindsey, Sofia, Frida, Aksel, the list goes on, they were all doing it. What were they doing? Well, mental imagery, of course. They were using the power of seeing and feeling themselves race before they actually raced to help them get as prepared as they could be mentally to ski their fastest in the biggest races of their lives.
In a nutshell, if you’re not on a consistent mental imagery program during this prep period, you’re not going to be the best ski racer you can be next winter. I say this with such conviction not only because I’ve studied it as a researcher or have used it with racers from top juniors to World Cup racers. I say this because I’ve lived it! It had the same effect on me when I was a young racer at Burke Mountain Academy. One summer I took a course at a local college that introduced me to the power of mental imagery. I applied it to ski racing as part of my final project for the class and then continued to use it throughout the following fall and into race season. The results were nothing less than spectacular. From doubt came confidence. From distraction came focus. From anxiety came intensity. From caution came aggressiveness. From DNFs came consistency. And from decent results to top-10 NorAm finishes. And I attribute my quantum leap in performance almost entirely to mental imagery.
But don’t be fooled into thinking that these remarkable ski racers just do mental imagery before races. In fact, they use it all year round, both on and off the hill. Why? Because they know they can benefit in so many ways — mentally, technically, and tactically — from taking thousands more training and race runs without having to get on snow, simply by reproducing how they want to ski in their mind’s eye.
So, with last season now in your rear-view mirror and next season’s prep period just underway, the summer is the ideal time to commit to a mental imagery program and make big gains in your training and race preparations.
But mental imagery won’t work if you only do it every once in a while or inconsistently. You have to approach your imagery the same way you approach your conditioning; you should have a structured imagery program that you do consistently. Think of mental imagery as strength training for the mind; you want to strengthen your mental “muscles” including motivation, confidence, intensity, focus, and emotions. And mental imagery is the most powerful mental “exercise” you can do to get your mind as strong as your body.
Keys to Quality Mental Imagery
There are four factors that impact the quality of mental imagery: perspective, control, multiple sense, and speed. You can develop each of these areas so you can get the most out of your imagery.
Imagery perspective. Imagery perspective refers to where the “imagery camera” is when you do imagery. The internal perspective involves seeing yourself from inside your body looking out, as if you were actually skiing. The external perspective involves seeing yourself from outside your body like on video. Research indicates that one perspective is not better than the other. Most people have a dominant perspective with which they’re most comfortable. Use the perspective that’s most natural for you and then experiment with the other perspective to see if it helps you in a different way.
Control. Have you ever been doing imagery and you keep making mistakes, for example, you keep getting in the back seat or hipping out? This problem relates to imagery control, which is how well you’re able to imagine what you want to imagine. It’s not uncommon for racers to ski poorly in their imagery and it often reflects a fundamental lack of confidence in your skiing (when I started using imagery as a young racer at Burke, I couldn’t go three gates in my head without hooking a tip!). If mistakes occur in your imagery, you shouldn’t just let them go by. If you do, you’ll further ingrain the negative image and feeling which will hurt your skiing. Instead, when you make mistakes in your imagery, immediately rewind the “imagery video” and edit it and rerun the imagery video until you get it right.
Multiple senses. Good imagery is more than just visual; that’s why I don’t like to call it visualization. The best imagery involves the multi-sensory reproduction of the actual ski racing experience. You should duplicate the sights, sounds, physical sensations, thoughts, and emotions that you would experience in an actual race. Visual imagery involves how clearly you see yourself skiing. Vivid auditory images are important because the sound of the skis on the snow, for example, tells you about the snow conditions. If you get nervous before a real race, you should get nervous in your imagery.
The most powerful part of race imagery is feeling it in your body. That’s how you really ingrain new technical and mental skills and habits. A useful way to increase the feeling in your race imagery is to combine imagined and real sensations. Imagine yourself skiing and move your body with the imagined skiing, just like the Olympians in Pyeongchang.
Speed. The ability to adjust the speed of your imagery will enable you to use imagery to improve different aspects of your skiing. Slow motion is effective for focusing on technique. When you first start to work on technique in your imagery, slow the imagery video down, frame by frame if necessary, to see yourself executing the skill correctly. Then, as you see and feel yourself skiing well in slow motion, increase the speed of your imagery until you can ski well at “real-time” speed.
Be Realistic in Your Imagery
Imagine realistic conditions. Imagine yourself performing under realistic conditions, in other words, always do imagery under those conditions in which you normally train and compete. That is, if you’re usually seeded farther back and the courses are usually chewed up, imagine yourself on rough courses. Only imagine yourself racing under ideal conditions if you typically start in the early seeds and can expect “hero” snow.
Imagine realistic skiing. If you’re a junior racer, don’t imagine yourself skiing like a World Cup racer. Instead, imagine yourself skiing the way you normally ski, but incorporate positive changes into your skiing that you are working on.
Develop An Off-Snow Imagery Program
The key to an effective mental imagery program is consistency. You wouldn’t expect to get stronger by lifting weights once every few weeks. You wouldn’t expect to get better technically by skiing once in a while. The same holds true for mental imagery. The only way to gain the benefits of mental imagery is to use it frequently.
Set imagery goals. Set specific goals for what areas you want to work on in each imagery session just like you would set goals for your on-snow training. The goals could be technical, mental, or overall performance. For example, you might focus on some technical change, being more relaxed and focused, or just skiing really fast.
Climb imagery ladder. Create a ladder of training and races scenarios in which you will be skiing in the upcoming season. The ladder should start with training on easy hills and progress to more demanding training situations, timed training run, less important races, and increase through more important races up to the most important race in which you’ll compete next year.
Then, begin your imagery on the lowest level of the imagery ladder. Stay at that rung until you reach your imagery goal. When that is achieved, stay at that step for several imagery sessions to really reinforce and ingrain the positive images, thoughts, and feelings. Then work your way up the ladder until you’re skiing the way you want in your imagery at the very top of the imagery ladder in the biggest race of the season.
Training- and race-specific imagery. Select training and race situations that are appropriate for your level of development. In other words, if you’re a U16, don’t imagine yourself racing in a World Cup at Wengen. Imagine yourself racing on a specific hill in a particular event in a specific race with a precise start number, for example, an Eastern Cup slalom at Stowe running bib 47. Then select a different hill, event, and race for each imagery session, thus reaching their imagery goals on different hills and in varying events and conditions.
Imagery sessions. Imagery sessions should be done 3-4 times per week. Set aside a specific time of the day when you’ll do your imagery (just like you do for your physical training). Also, because your imagery sessions will be new and not a part of your usual routines, program alerts in your smartphone as reminders until the imagery sessions become as much of a habit as going to conditioning. Find a quiet, comfortable place where you won’t be disturbed. Each session should last about 10 minutes.
Imagery log. One difficulty with imagery is that, unlike physical training, the results aren’t tangible. An effective way to deal with this problem is to keep an imagery log. A log should record key aspects of every imagery session including the quality of the imagined performance, any thoughts and feelings that occur (positive or negative), problems that emerged, and what you need to work on for the next session. Imagery log enable you to see progress in your imagery, thereby making it more rewarding and motivating you to want to continue to do it. I include an imagery log in my mental imagery workbook that you can download and print out.
Accept the Challenge
So, here’s the deal. I can’t guarantee that an off season filled with mental imagery is going to result in a quantum leap in your ski racing like it did for me so many years ago. But I will say that if you commit to a serious mental imagery program, there’s a darned good chance that you will be much better prepared mentally than you were this past winter. And if you combine the imagery program with an intensive physical conditioning regimen and quality on-snow training, then I can say with confidence that when you slide into the starting gate at your first race next winter, you’ll be able to say, “I’m as prepared as I can be to ski fast and achieve my goals.”
I have three free downloadable mp3 audio files that guide you through relaxation and race imagery scenarios for training, SL/GS and SG/DH. I also have a free mental imagery workbook that you can download and print out to help you create a structured imagery program.
Do you want to take the next step in training your mind to ski your fastest next winter? Take a look at my online mental training courses designed just for ski racers.
Note: This article is updated presentation of a previously published article that never gets old.