Winter has arrived. Resorts across the U.S. are opening and the World Cup is already underway with races in Soelden and Levi. Hopefully, you’ve spent the off season working out in the gym, maybe on-snow training in some part of the world, and hopefully working on your mental training as well. With your first races not far away, I hope you feel you’re ready to ski your fastest this winter.
Those of you who regularly read my posts know that my goal for you is to achieve Prime Ski Racing, which I define as skiing consistently fast under the most challenging conditions. The last month or two leading up to your first races of the season are crucial to achieving your competitive goals. And during that time, I’m sure you will continue to do what you can to hone every part of your skiing. But the area that will probably make the biggest differences in whether you ski your fastest or crash and burn is your attitude toward your ski racing. Your mindset will impact every psychological contributors to your skiing including your motivation, confidence, intensity, focus, and emotions. A healthy attitude will set you up for a psychology and physiology that will allow your fastest skiing to emerge. An unhealthy attitude, by contrast, will only set you up for failure.
A healthy attitude can be summed up in what I call the “Six P’s for Ski Racing Success.”
Ski racing is certainly a really fun sport that is exciting and inspiring, but pursuing your ski racing goals isn’t always easy. In fact, it can be darned hard. What it takes to find your own personal greatness as a ski racer can be tiring, painful, boring, and frustrating. That’s where passion comes in. Passion for me is an internal furnace that burns with your love of ski racing and your desire to be the best ski racer you can be. If you can tap into that passion, through the fast runs and the DNFs, you will stay positive, motivated, and excited from your first run of the season to your last and, though I can’t guarantee that your passion will propel you fully to achieve your goals, I’m confident that good things will happen for you.
It’s easy, as the race season approaches, to lose perspective. When I talk about perspective I mean the importance you place on your ski racing. You may think: “This is a huge year for me. I’ve worked so hard. If I don’t do well, it will kill me! I must do well!” Sure, you really want to do well, but ‘must’ do well? The reality is that, if you don’t ski well, you will be disappointed, but you will certainly survive and be fine in the long run. If you can embrace that attitude you remove the expectations and pressure and have a much better chance of accomplishing those goals that are so important to you.
Think of it this way. Let’s say that before your race, someone comes up to you, shows you a gun, and tells you that if you don’t ski well, he will be in the finish area and will shoot you. Would you be nervous? Yes, terrified, in fact. Would you be able to ski well? Definitely not! Of course, there will be no one at the finish line with a gun to shoot you physically dead, but, when you lose perspective and feel that your life (not your physical life, but your ego life) is on the line, then the same feelings of threat and fear arise. And there is little chance of your being confident, relaxed, or focused enough to ski your best.
If you look too closely at the upcoming season and the big races that lie ahead, it’s easy to think that they are life or death, but if you can step back and put the season in a long-term perspective, namely, the season is just one step in a journey toward your long-term goals, they won’t seem quite so important. The result? You’ll be psychologically and emotionally prepared to ski your best.
One of the most common problems that occurs in racers as the winter, and big races, approach is a shift in their focus away from the process and onto outcomes. Let me explain. A process focus involves paying attention to those things that help you ski your fastest, for example, technique, tactics, and aggressiveness. In contrast, outcome focus involves focusing on the possible results of a race: winning, losing, points, rankings, whether you will qualify for the next level of races, or who you might beat or lose to. Let me make this very clear: An outcome focus is the kiss of death in ski racing. Here’s why.
Many people believe that focusing on the outcome will increase the chances of that outcome occurring, but the opposite is actually true. When does the outcome of a race occur? After you cross the finish line, of course. And if you’re focusing on the finish, what are you not focusing on? Well, the process, obviously. Here’s the irony. By focusing on the process rather than the outcome, you have a much better chance of skiing your best because you are paying attention to things that will help you ski well. And, if you ski well, you’re more likely to achieve the results you wanted in the first place.
Also, why do you get nervous before big races? Because you’re afraid of the outcome, more specifically, you’re afraid of failure. So by focusing on the outcome, you’re more likely to feel anxious (a little anxiety is good, but too much is really bad) and less likely to ski well and achieve the result you want. In contrast, if you focus on the process, you won’t have a fear of failure, you’ll stay relaxed, and you’re more likely to ski your best, the result of which is the outcome you wanted in the first place.
Another shift that can occur at the start of a race season or as big races near is from the present—what you need to do to ski well now—to either a past focus—onto results you had in the past—or a future focus—onto the results you may or may not get in this winter.
Let’s start with a past focus. There’s a saying, “You can’t change the past, but you can ruin a perfectly good future by worrying about it.” The reality is that you can’t change the past, so there’s no point in even thinking about it (except perhaps to learn from your mistakes so you don’t repeat them). If something bad happened in the past, be disappointed, then let it go. If something good happened, revel in it, then let it go. Looking back will interfere with you present.
Now about the future. Thinking about the future also does you no good. It can cause doubt and worry because it often triggers a fear of failure. A future focus can create anxiety because it makes you think about expectations that you might feel from your parents or coaches. Mostly basically, if you’re focusing on the future, you’re not focusing on your skiing in here and now.
If you want to control the future, the only way to do so is to control the present. This means directing your focus on what you need to do to ski your best right now.
Perhaps the worst thing that happens to many young racers before an upcoming season or important races is they start to go negative. The expectations and pressure that you can feel before a season or a big race can cause your confidence, which may have been high from all of your off-season preparations, to plummet as you focus on all of the bad things that can happen this season (mixed in with a bunch of “what ifs”). You may go from being your best ally to your worst enemy. What are the chances of good things happening this winter with this “dark” mindset? Let me answer that question for you: pretty darned low.
Your only chance to achieve your ski racing goals this season is to stay positive and remain your best ally. This doesn’t mean you have to be Stuart Smiley (of Saturday Night Live fame) all the time: “I like myself, I’m a good person, I’m a fast ski racer.” That’s just not realistic. What it does mean is saying positive things that will support your effort: “I can do this. I’m going to attack. I’m leaving all out there on the course.” Just make sure that you remain your best ally and you stay on your own side, particularly when you’re faced during those inevitable down periods that are a normal part of ski racing.
Ski racing is unforgiving in how it judges racers; The clock doesn’t lie. And we also live in a world where it is difficult not to compare yourself to other racers. But when you focus on them, for example, think about how they are skiing, how they will do in races, and whether you will beat them, they win because if you’re focusing on them, not yourself.
The fact is that until you get into your late teens results really don’t matter. Though some racers who have early success go on to be superstars, for example, Mikeala and Lindsey, many who made it to the top didn’t, such as Bode and Ted. In fact, a study conducted by the U.S. Ski Team found that the earliest predictors of success on World Cup was World Juniors. And many racers who were superstars at 13 are either out of our sport or on the front page at 17. It just doesn’t matter how you stack up against your competitors when you’re young. And worrying about them, as I just indicated, does you absolutely no good.
The only thing you should really focus on is yourself and the progress you’re making toward your goals. You will always have crashes and DNFs, but the key is to see that you are heading in the right direction. Are you improving your technique and tactics? Are you skiing faster? As long as you are focused on improving and moving toward your goals, you will continue to get better and everyone else, who you have no control over, will take care of themselves.
So, if you really want to ski your fastest this season, remember the 6 Ps and you can be pretty confident that you’ll have the right attitude that will set you up for success this winter.