I get several phone calls and emails a week from parents of racers who tell me that their young racer is struggling and it seems to be “mental.” I then ask for more details about what kinds of specific difficulties their kids are having and they usually have a tough time explaining further. The most common response is: “They train great, but don’t compete well.” But the parents can’t usually provide any more useful information.
Additionally, when I ask them what they know about sport psychology or mental training, they typically say, “Not much.” Yet, when I ask racers, coaches, and parents how important the mental side of ski racing is compared to the physical and technical aspects, a few say not as important, many say as important, and almost as many say more important. Though, given what I do for a living, I really appreciate the latter sentiment, even I don’t think the mind is more important because racers can have all of the mental stuff in the world, but if they’re not physically and technically capable of getting down the hill, the mental side doesn’t matter. But don’t get me wrong, it is an essential piece of the athletic success puzzle. I then ask how much time racers devote to their mental preparation and they usually look sheepish and respond always little or no time.
Despite its obvious importance, the mental side of ski racing is most often neglected, at least until a problem arises. The ski racing world seems to hold mental training to a different standard than the physical and technical aspects of our sport. Many people have the impression that mental training can produce miraculous results in a short time. You wouldn’t believe the number of calls I get from parents a week before a U16 Nationals or U14 Championships! Though I consider myself very good at what I do, I am definitely not a magician. You wouldn’t expect increases in strength by lifting weights once or twice or an improvement in technique by working on it for an hour. Why would the ski racing world expect such unrealistic goals from mental training?
The mistake that racers, coaches, and parents make is that they don’t treat the mind the way they treat the physical and technical aspects of our sport. Racers don’t wait to get injured before they do physical conditioning. They don’t develop a technical flaw before they work on their technique. Rather, racers do physical and technical training to prevent problems from arising. They should approach the mind in the same way.
What makes the physical and on-snow training programs that racers are on effective? Well, they are:
The only way to improve any area of ski racing performance, whether physical, technical, or mental, is through commitment, hard work, and patience. I can say with confidence that if racers make the same commitment to their mental training as they do to their physical and technical training, it can play a key role in helping them achieve their goals.
So, to help the ski racing world understand what mental training has to offer and to explain precisely what I do, I thought it would be helpful to describe my work with racers, so everyone in the ski racing community can consider mental training in its proper context and, as a result, maximize its benefits.
Prime Performance System
Let me begin by saying that there are many sport psychology consultants and mental coaches out there, some of whom work with racers, with varying degrees of education, training, and experience. Though I know most of the best ones around the U.S. personally or by reputation, I don’t know what they do or how they work. All I can tell you is how I work with racers.
My mental training with racers relies on my Prime Performance System, a truly unique and comprehensive framework for mental training that I have developed over my decades of work with top junior, collegiate, Olympic racers. It’s comprised of five essential mental- and performance-related areas:
- Five attitudes (ownership, process, challenge, long-term, risk) enable racers to look at performance, competition, success, and failure in the healthiest way possible. By adopting these attitudes, racers lay the foundation to pursue their athletic and life goals from a healthy starting point.
- Five obstacles (over-investment, perfectionism, fear of failure, expectations, emotions) are often erected without racers’ awareness as they develop as athletically and personally. These obstacles sabotage their efforts and performances. My goal is to remove these obstacles so racers can attain a psychological and emotional state that liberates them to pursue their goals with commitment, confidence, and abandon.
- Five keys to training (perspective, train like you race, consistency, experiment, quality) ensure the highest quality and maximum benefit from training off- and on-snow. The culmination of these approaches involves racers getting the most out of their training efforts enabling them to progress as fast as possible toward their athletic goals.
- Five mental “muscles” (motivation, confidence, intensity, focus, and mind state) are essential for racers to ski their fastest. If racers can develop these muscles, they give themselves the means to enter races totally prepared to ski at their highest level possible.
- Five mental exercises and tools (goal-setting, self-talk, breathing, imagery, routines) provide racers with the practical strategies they need to ensure they are comprehensively prepared to ski their fastest when it counts the most. They are aimed at attaining and maintaining an optimal mental and physical state required to achieve success.
How I Work
The first time I meet with a racer, I administer my Mental Assessment of Performance (think of it as “physical testing for the mind”), an evaluation of around 15 essential mental areas drawn from my Prime Performance System. The MAP serves several purposes. First, the racers get to understand the key mental areas that impact their ski racing efforts. Second, both they and I see where they are in relation to the mental areas. Third, the results of the MAP guide the planning and implementation of a personalized mental training program. The racer and I collaborate to determine which mental areas should be addressed first.
If the primary focus of our work is on strengthening racers’ mental muscles and teaching them mental exercises and tools, I will, in my office, describe why they’re important, how they impact athletic performance, and where the racer is in relation to them. I’ll also show racers how to use them both away from and in their on-snow training. The single most important mental tools I teach racers are mental imagery and routines.
Then, if the opportunity arises, I then work with racers in on-snow and show them how to use the mental exercises and tools while they are actually free skiing and running gates. I have found that this “real time” experience with mental training enables racers to ask questions, experiment, get feedback from me and their coach, and see the direct connection between doing mental training, being more mentally prepared, and, most importantly, skiing better. I also demonstrate the Training component of my Prime Performance System to show them how to maximize the value of their training efforts. If racers get that connection between doing mental training and seeing improvement, I know that I will get buy in from them. My goal with this work, both in my office and on-snow, is to strengthen racers’ mental muscles and give them a “toolbox” of mental tools they can use so that they can gain the most benefit from their training and be maximally prepared to ski their fastest in races.
If my work focuses on the deeper issues of attitudes and obstacles from my Prime Performance System, for example, habitual negativity, perfectionism, and fear of failure, I help racers understand why these obstacles interfere with their racing efforts, how they developed, and provide insights and tools to remove the obstacles and allow racers to continue on the path toward their goals. This work occurs generally in an office setting. Exploring attitudes and obstacles is a slower and less certain aspect of mental training because changing deeply ingrained ways of thinking can be difficult. At the same time, when racers are able to let go of their “baggage,” they are liberated to race free from doubt, worry, and fear.
I also want to note that if I recognize that these obstacles are grounded in more serious psychological issues (e.g., depression, anxiety), I will make a referral to an appropriately trained mental health professional (I don’t do clinical work) and may or may not continue to work with the racer depending the how those issues impact the pursuit of their goals.
I’m often asked how quickly racers can expect results from a commitment to mental training. Positive change varies widely depending on the individual racers and the issues that are presented. For example, issues related to strengthening mental muscles and gaining mental tools training, such as increasing confidence and improving focus, can be improved relatively quickly. I have found that racers can expect to see improvements in their mental muscles and related race performance within six to eight weeks, if not sooner. In contrast, issues related to the obstacles I described above, such as perfectionism and fear of failure, take more time. Racers can expect to see positive changes in these deeper issues within three to six months.
Admittedly, mental training doesn’t always work as intended. The fact is that the sport of ski racing is complex, unpredictable, and, in many ways, uncontrollable. Many factors, both within and outside of ski racing, can impact performance and lead to or prevent success, including physical, technique and tactics, equipment, coaches and teammates, and, of course, mental, as well as family life and school. Just as with the other contributors to athletic performance, there are no guarantees that mental training will result in improved performance and results during the course of my work with racers. In some cases, improvement is immediate and startling. In other cases, racers show steady improvement in the months and years during and following the conclusion of our work as they continue to apply what they learn from our work. And, on rare occasions, racers’ work with me doesn’t translate into improved results at all.
I can’t guarantee that my work with racers will result in accomplishing their ski racing goals. At the same time, there are perhaps more important goals that I am confident that I can achieve with them:
- Increase their awareness and understanding of ‘what makes them tick’ as racers and people.
- Provide information and insights that will instill in racers healthy attitudes toward competition, success, failure, and the role that ski racing and achievement play in their lives.
- Identify and mitigate obstacles (e.g., fear of failure, risk aversion) that may be holding them back from their ski racing and life goals.
- Strengthen their mental “muscles” to enable them to be mentally prepared to ski their fastest in races and other aspects of their lives.
- Provide racers with a mental toolbox they can use in their ski racing and lives.
- Do everything I can to help racers to fully realize their abilities and achieve their ski racing goals.
- Instill all of the above to not only assist racers in their ski racing lives, but also to help them to find success and happiness in their future educations, relationships, and careers, and lives.
So there you have it; what mental training means to me and what I do in my work with ski racers. I hope this article takes some of the mystery out of mental training and helps readers to better understand what it can and cannot do, and how it can help racers, whether juniors, college racers, and Olympians, to achieve their goals.