When most people in our ski racing community think of sport psychology, they think of mental training; that is, helping racers prepare mentally to ski their fastest when it matters most. Mental muscles that I help racers strengthen include motivation, confidence, intensity, and focus. And mental tools I help racers to put in their mental toolboxes include self-talk, routines, and imagery. This mental training is certainly important for racers on race day. And it is certainly a key part of my work with racers with the emphasis on ensuring that their minds are as prepared as their bodies to ski their fastest.
At the same time, an often-neglected area of sport psychology begins well before racers’ arrival at the mountain. I’m talking about the attitudes that they hold about themselves, competition, and results. Attitudes are so important to ski racing success because they are the filters that guide what racers think, the emotions they feel, how they respond to our sport, and, ultimately, how they ski on race day.
The problem is that attitudes can be healthy and helpful or unhealthy and interfering to racers’ aspirations and efforts. The primary reason parents send their young racers to me is because their attitudes toward racing are acting as anchors that weigh them down rather than wings that lift them up. The focus of much of this work involves helping racers develop attitudes that propel them forward to skiing their fastest.
Having the “right” attitude or a “positive” attitude has become almost cliche in our achievement culture. The real question is what specific attitudes must ski racers have to ski their fastest and accomplish their competitive goals. This post will share with you six attitude “forks in the road” that can either set racers up for inspiring success or disheartening failure.
Life or Death
Let me share a metaphor that, though a bit politically sensitive, is nonetheless very descriptive of this distinction between life or death. Imagine that, just before your young racers slide into the starting gate, a man with a gun approaches them and says, “If you don’t win, I’m going to be at the finish line and I’m going to shoot you dead.” What kind of emotions do you think your racers will experience? Terror! And how will they likely ski? Well, like they were scared to death, that is, slowly. Now, of course there will be no one at the finish who will shoot them physically dead. I’m talking about a different kind of death, namely, a sort of psychological and emotional death that includes racers’ self-identities (who they see themselves as), self-esteem (whether they feel valued), and goals, hopes, and dreams (all they aspire to be). With a life-or-death attitude, every time racers get into the starting gate, they are putting their psychic lives on the line. In this situation, there is someone at the finish who they think will shoot their “soul” dead. Who might that person be? Sadly, it is often their parents, though it can also be coaches or, just as painfully, the racers themselves.
You want your racers to see ski racing as about life, not death, in which our sport is inspiring, exciting, fulfilling, joyful, and fun. These feelings are fuel for their passion for our sport (while fear, frustration, anger, sadness, and despair drain their fuel tank). You also want your children’s ski racing to be an important part of their lives, but not life itself. With this “life” attitude, when your kids experience success, they will feel the energizing power of their efforts. And when they fail (which they inevitably will; that’s just a part of our sport and life), they will feel disappointment, but they will survive. No matter what happens, they will know that they will be okay. If racers can accept this “life” attitude deep down, they will be free to ski with confidence, commitment, and courage rather than with worry, doubt, and anxiety.
Challenge or Threat
I have found that a simple distinction appears to lie at the heart of whether racers are able to rise to the occasion and ski their fastest when it really counts or crumble under the weight of expectations and tough conditions on the day of a race: Do they view the competition as a threat or a challenge?
What happens when racers approach a race as a threat? Physiologically, their muscles tighten up, they breathing gets shallow, their balance goes back, and their center of gravity rises. Psychologically, their motivation is to flee from the threat. Their confidence plummets. Emotionally, they feel fear, helplessness, and despair. In sum, everything both physically and mentally goes against racers, making it virtually impossible for them to overcome the threat and find success in our sport. Where does threat come from? Most powerfully, from a fear of failure (more on that shortly).
A challenge reaction produces an entirely different set of responses. Physiologically, they are fired up, but also relaxed, with just the right amount of adrenaline to make them feel strong, quick, and fast. Muscles are loose, breathing is steady, and balance is centered. Psychologically, racers’ singular motivation is to overcome the challenge. They are confident that they can surmount the challenges of the race. Their focus is like a laser beam on the challenge before them. As for emotions, they feel excitement, inspiration, pride, and courage. In sum, their entire physical and psychological being is directed toward triumphing over the challenge and their chances of finding success are high. The important thing for racers to understand is that threat vs. challenge is all in their minds, about how they perceive it.
Success or Failure
Fear of failure is epidemic among young people in our achievement-obsessed culture. Interestingly though, racers aren’t afraid of failure so much as the consequences they attach to failure, most often, that their parents won’t love them, their friends won’t like them, it will have been a waste of time and money, it will mean an end to their ski racing dreams. Fear of failure preoccupies their minds so much that they actually don’t focus on success, and what it takes to achieve it, at all. Their singular goal is to avoid failure (read my four-part series for more on fear of failure). The irony is that fear of failure causes athletes to experience the very thing that is most scary for them, namely, failure.
In contrast, racers without a fear of failure are solely driven to ski their fastest to pursue the successful achievement of their goals. To experience success, these racers are focused on:
- Giving their best effort.
- Going all out.
- Having fun.
- Making progress toward their goals.
Not surprisingly, when racers focus on pursuing success rather than avoiding failure, they are more likely to ski fast and get the results they want.
Process or Outcome
One of the worst attitudes for racers to have involves the belief that they should focus on the outcome of a race. Many racers (and coaches and parents) seem to think that having an outcome focus will increase their chances of getting the results they want. To the contrary, though, being preoccupied with results actually reduces those chances for two reasons. First, if racers are focused on results (which occur at the end of the race), they aren’t focused on what they need to do to get those results. Second, being obsessed with results creates expectations, pressure, and anxiety, none of which are friends to fast skiing.
In an ideal world, racers would have a process attitude, meaning they would only focus on what they need to do to ski their fastest. This process attitude focuses on what is controllable on race day, ensures that racers are totally prepared, builds confidence, and reduces doubt, worry, and anxiety. When focused on the process, they are more likely to ski fast and get the results they want.
The problem is that results do matter. And your racer is likely a competitive person who is in a competitive sport that resides in a competitive culture. So, you can’t expect racers to not think about results any more than you can get them to not think about a pink elephant (the more you tell them not to, the more they can’t get that pink elephant out of their heads). At first, instead of resisting the outcome attitude (the pink elephant), racers should acknowledge and accept it (“I want to make the top 10”), but then shift focus to a blue hippo, that is a process attitude in which racers ask themselves, “What do I need to do now?” In time, the blue hippo will become deeply ingrained in racers’ minds and the pink elephant will recede into memory.
Goals or Expectations
Expectations sound like pretty good things for racers to have. In theory, expectations can push them to work hard and ski their fastest. In reality, though, expectations can feel like a 50-pound weight vest. Before races, they create pressure to meet the expectations, trigger fear of failure if they don’t, and cause negativity and anxiety. After races, if racers do well, the best emotion they can muster is relief at avoiding failure. If they didn’t do well, racers feel devastated. You know you are communicating expectations or your racers are feeling them when they use phrases such as:
- “I must…”
- “I need to…”
- “I should…”
- “I have to…”
- “I gotta…”
- “I better…”
After every one of theses phrases is a threat (an “…or else”) if the expectations aren’t met. That “…or else” continues with “…something bad will happen.”
Goals are very different animals. They are uplifting and propel racers forward. Goals inspire motivation, confidence, and focus. Before races, racers feel excited and determined. After races, if they achieve their goals, they are happy, inspired, and proud. If they didn’t, they are disappointed, but more determined than ever to achieve their goals. Phrases reflective of a goal attitude include:
- “I would like to…”
- “It is my goal to…”
- “I am working hard to…”
- “I am directing all of my energy to…”
- “I am excited to…”
Fight or Flight
Survival is humans’ most powerful instinct. When we are in life-of-death situations and when we perceive a situation as a threat to our lives, this instinct triggers our “fight or flight” reaction. When were cavepeople 250,000 years ago on the Serengeti, our best chance of survival when threatened by a rival tribesperson or a saber-toothed tiger was to flee (as long as we kept distance between ourselves and the threat, we would survive). So, for eons, we learned that the best thing to do was run away.
Unfortunately, what worked for our primitive ancestors doesn’t work in 2019 ski racing for two reasons. First, survival in ski racing doesn’t mean physical survival, but rather skiing fast and getting the necessary results to climb the competitive ladder and keep their ski racing goals alive. Second, when I say that racers would flee from a race, I don’t mean that they would pop off their skis and run away from the start. Instead, I mean that they would get scared and ski cautiously and tentatively. And we all know that skiing slowly won’t help racers survive in our sport.
So, a lot of my work with racers is getting them to fight, not flee, in races. A big part of this change in attitude occurs when they come to realize that ski racing isn’t life or death or a threat, failure isn’t worth fearing, and that a focus on results and creating expectations and pressure are more likely to ensure failure than success. Fight can also be triggered by having racers use imagery to see and feel themselves skiing aggressively, using aggressive breathing, grabbing an aggressive mindset, and establishing one simple goal on race day: Bring it!
If you can prevent your young racers from going to the “dark side” of these attitudes and instill the six positive attitudes I’ve just described, you will be giving your children powerful tools that they can use to pursue their ski racing dreams. Even more importantly though, these attitudes are wonderful gifts you give them that will serve them well in school and in all of their future achievement efforts.
Want to be the best ski racing parent you can be? Take a look at my online course, Prime Sport Parenting 505: Raise Successful and Happy Athletes or read my latest book, Raising Young Athletes: Parenting Your Children to Victory in Sports and Life.