I’ve been working with a world-ranked junior athlete over the last few months and, in exploring why she doesn’t take more chances when she competes, she told me that a big goal of hers recently has been to “risk it for the biscuit.” I had never heard this expression and I laughed hysterically for almost a minute. Though pretty self-evident, it basically means you need to take a risk to get a reward. And this notion is particularly relevant in ski racing because, as we all know, you can’t get “the biscuit” by being conservative or tentative in races.
Let me preface this discussion of risk taking by saying that, when I talk about taking risks, I don’t mean taking stupid risks such as texting while driving, jumping off the roof of your house, or taking drugs. I also don’t mean taking ski-racing-related risks for which you are unprepared, you have little chance of success, or where the consequences of failure are dire. That’s not taking risks, that’s being stupid. Instead, risk taking in ski racing involves weighing the rewards and costs of a particular course of action, evaluating the chances of success and failure, determining your preparedness to take the risk, and deciding on your willingness to accept the consequences of failure. At a practical level, risk taking means getting out of your comfort zone, pushing your limits, and doing things on the hill that may lead to greater success, but may also lead to greater failure.
“Yes, risk-taking is inherently failure-prone. Otherwise, it would be called ‘sure-thing-taking.’” —Jim McMahon, Super Bowl-winning quarterback.
Now, before we dive in more deeply, I would you to take a little assessment. Please rate yourself on the following 1-10 scale:
Your ability to take appropriate risks to ski your fastest rather than skiing cautiously. (1-always cautious; 10-always willing to take a risk to ski my fastest)
What is Risk?
The dictionary defines risk as a situation in which you expose yourself to danger. Though physical risk is an inevitable part of ski racing, the risks I’m talking about are more psychological and emotional in nature. Clearly, risk is essential for success not only in ski racing, but also in every aspect of life, whether winning an Olympic gold medal, starting a tech company, or telling someone “I love you.” If you don’t take risks, you won’t improve, grow, or achieve your ski racing or lift goals. And, importantly, you will never find out what you are truly capable of or how far you can go.
This kind of risk comes when you face a test of your ability, effort, and preparation. You are putting your self-identity, self-esteem, goals, hopes, and dreams on the line. After the race, you will learn whether you succeed or not at the test. The risk then becomes clear: failure!
Given the risks of taking risks, there are obvious upsides to not taking risks. You stay safe. You never get uncomfortable. And you minimize the risk of failure. Of course, there are far more significant downsides to not taking risks. You will be perpetually stuck where you are. You will never be truly successful. You will feel really frustrated. And you will never be completely satisfied with your efforts.
“He who is not courageous enough to take risks will accomplish nothing in life” —boxing legend Muhammad Ali
To Risk or Not to Risk, That is the Question
Hopefully, I have convinced you of the necessity of risk in ski racing. But taking risks in our sport is a simple, but not easy, choice. It’s a simple choice because would you rather take risks and give yourself a strong chance of real success or play it safe and guarantee failure? The answer is obvious. At the same time, it’s not an easy choice because no one likes to fail and, when you take risks, failure is a distinct possibility (that’s the nature of risks!). Also, there are a variety of powerful psychological and emotional forces that hold you back from taking risks:
- Fear of failure (no way you’ll take a risk if you’re afraid to fail).
- Perfectionism (the bar is set so high anything less than perfection is failure).
- Need for control (taking a risk requires that you give up control).
- Lack of confidence in your abilities or preparation (you’re not going to take a risk if you don’t think you can succeed).
At the heart of risk taking is the willingness to accept that, when you take risks, you might fail and, if you do fail, you may feel bad, but, in the end, you’ll be okay. By their very nature, you are more likely to fail when you take risks. But, paradoxically, when you take risks, your chances of success also increase. If you can truly accept failure, it is no longer a threat and, without that threat of failure, there’s no reason not to take risks because all you see are the upsides.
I’m not saying that you should take risks indiscriminately all the time; that’s a recipe for disaster. You shouldn’t pin gates, ski too straight a line, or stay in your tuck too long. Your goal should be to increase your willingness to take appropriate risks when the time and situation is right and the chances of the risk paying are higher than not. For example, during inspection, you see that you can straighten out a section or attack a pitch. Or, if you had a great first run, you’re willing to risk a DNF to have great second run.
Risk Taking is a Lifestyle Choice
Risk taking is not so much a skill as a lifestyle choice. The chances are that if you’re not a risk taker in your broader life, you’re probably not one in ski racing. So, to become a risk taker on the on the hill, you should embrace risk in all aspects of your life. If you can make taking risks a part of who you are, then risk taking in in ski racing will simply be what you do.
Two great places that I have been challenging athletes I work with to take risks is socially and academically. For example, if you can ask someone you like out on a date, they may say no. But just taking that risk is a lot less scary to take than a risk in in a race. And, if you can speak up in class when your teacher or professor asks a question, taking a risk on snow will seem like a piece of cake.
Additionally, risk taking isn’t just something that you do; rather, it is something that must be planned for and worked on. Like making a technical or tactical change without careful thought and planning, a spontaneous approach to risk taking will most likely result in failure for most racers. Sure, the world’s best skiers can sometimes get away with “throw caution to the wind” risk taking because they are talented, experienced, and confident. But for everyone else, it’s not an approach to risk taking that I would recommend.
No Time Like the Present to Take Risks
It never feels like the right time to take risks because, well, there are risks to taking risks. First, when you start taking risks as you learn to push your limits, those risks won’t be rewarded right away. In other words, you’ll likely make mistakes and experience failure more than usual because you’re skiing at a level that you are not accustomed to.
Risk taking is, in a sense, a skill that takes time, commitment, and persistence to develop. Just like any skill, however, when you first start taking risks in training, your mind and body aren’t going to be used to it, so your skiing may take a step or two backwards in your training and races. Because you haven’t ingrained the skills fully, it won’t immediately translate into consistently fast skiing.
This initial inconsistency happened to a World Cup racer I worked with who had a history of skiing conservatively. In the first races of the season, he had some periods of great skiing, but also made mistakes that cost him. But after about a half dozen races, his risk taking started to click and he had a series of outstanding World Cup races that resulted in a big leap in his world ranking.
Second, because you will struggle at first, your confidence may also suffer and you may question whether risk taking is the right path to be on. You might say to yourself, “Gosh, my past, safer approach worked pretty well, certainly much better than the way this is going now, so maybe I should just stick with what has worked.”
But what may have worked in the past and gotten you to where you currently are won’t work in the future or get you where you want to go. As an old Texas saying goes, “If all you ever do is all you’ve ever done, then all you’ll ever get is all you’ve ever got.” Your efforts shouldn’t be devoted to where you are now, but where you want to be next month, next year, or in five years in your ski racing. You need to prepare yourself for performing at the next level. And performing safe just won’t cut it.
In an ideal world, the off-season is the best time to start taking risks because you have no concern about results and you have the time to practice the skill of risk taking. But I would argue that there is no time like the present to start taking risks, regardless of the time of season. If you’re going to make a real commitment to risk taking to get your skiing to the next level, you might as well start now because the sooner you start, the sooner you’ll reap the benefits.
“You’ll always miss 100% of the shots you don’t take” —hockey legend Wayne Gretzky
Threat vs. Challenge with Risk
As I’ve discussed, the real risk of taking risks is that you might fail. And if you are overly focused on the costs of risk taking, usually driven by fear of failure or feeling pressure to get results, the chances are that you will shift into a threat attitude in which you’re driven to protect yourself from that threat. As a result, you become risk averse (because risk that leads to failure is a threat to your self-identity, self-esteem, and goals) and you’re not likely to take the risks necessary to ski your fastest. Moreover, even if you do get yourself to take a risk, it will probably not pay off because, in threat mode, bad changes in your physiology and psychology (e.g., doubt, worry, anxiety) will probably cause the risk to go unrewarded.
You want to see risk taking as a challenge to pursue, not a threat to avoid. With this challenge attitude, physiology and psychology will shift in a way that will increase the chances of the risk being rewarded. You will feel energized, committed, confident, and focused, all of which will help you make those risks pay off in great competitive performances.
Finally, you may think that taking risks is, well, risky for your ski racing. But the reality is that not taking risks is far more risky to your ski racing goals because skiing safe will not get you where you want to go. If you take risks, you will certainly have some setbacks in the short run. But, in the long run, you give yourself a lot better chance of skiing your fastest and achieving your ski racing goals when you take risks. So, when you look at it that way, taking risks in your ski racing isn’t risky at all!
So, my advice to you is simple: Risk it for the biscuit!
This article is excerpted and revised from my latest mental training book, Train Your Mind for Athletic Success: Mental Preparation to Achieve Your Sports Goals.