In the final article in my series on the gifts that Mikaela Shiffrin gave to ski racers for the holidays, I described how I have seen her evolve from consistent and rock-solid (and, of course, incredibly fast) racer into a risk taker on skis (who is now freakishly fast) as evidenced by her improvements in GS over the last year and her dramatic margins of victory in the Aspen slaloms. In that article, I assert that taking appropriate risks is essential for every racer to push their limits and find out how fast they can ski.

This article will continue the discussion of risk taking and focus on why it never feels like the right time to start taking risks, how to become a risk taker on skis, and how to build risk taking into your training and your life.


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 DNF more than usual because you’re going faster than you are accustomed.

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 your skiing, 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 both fast and consistent skiing.

This inconsistency happened to a World Cupper with whom I’ve been working. In the first races of the year, he had great first or second runs, but made mistakes on the other runs. But after about a half dozen starts, his risk taking stared to click and he has had some fast and consistent races in both NorAms and World Cups.

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. 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. 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 skiing at the next level. And skiing safe just won’t cut.

In an ideal world, the offseason is the best time to start taking risks because you have no concern about results and you have the time to retrain your risk-taking ‘muscle.’ But I would argue that there is no time like the present to start taking risks, regardless of the time of year. 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.

Risk Taking is a Lifestyle Choice

As I write this article, I realize that 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 your ski racing. So, to become a risk taker on snow, you should embrace risk in all aspects of our life. If you can make taking risks a part of who you are, then risk taking in your skiing won’t be a stretch.

Before I continue, I think it would be a good idea to clarify what I mean by risk taking. I’m not talking about irresponsible risks such as jumping off the roof of your house or texting while driving. That’s not risk taking, that’s being stupid. When I talk about risks, I mean those that, when they pay off, will lead to improvement, growth, and success in your ski racing and life.

One great place 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 (but haven’t been willing to take the risk of rejection), you’ll find it’s a lot less scary to straighten out a flush or charge onto a pitch. And if you can speak up in class when your teacher or professor asks a question, staying in your tuck a second longer or charging down a rutty course will seem like a piece of cake.

Threat vs. Challenge with Risk

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 threat mode in which your survival instinct is triggered and you’re driven to protect yourself. As a result, you become risk averse (because risk is a threat to your survival), and you’re not likely to take the risks necessary to ski your fastest.

You want to see risk taking as a challenge to pursue, not a threat to avoid. With this challenge response, you will be energized, motivated, confidence, and focused, all of which will help you make those risks pay off in fast and consistent skiing.

Risk Analysis

Every time you run a course, whether in training or a race, you are, without realizing it, conducting a risk/reward analysis in which you weigh the benefits and costs of taking a risk, whether skiing a straighter line, charging down a rough course, or attacking a steep pitch.

You, of course, don’t want to take risks every turn; there is a place for risk and a place to ski clean and a bit safer. You have to decide your chances of staying in the course when you take a risk and whether the risk will result in time gained.

Risk-Taking Plan

You don’t want to decide, all of a sudden, to take more risks in your skiing. Like making a technical or tactical change without careful thought and planning, that approach probably won’t work very well. Instead, you want to create a risk-taking plan in collaboration with your coaches to ensure that taking risks at this point makes sense (for example, you wouldn’t want to make this change before an important race series) and that they feel you are technically and tactically ready to move to this next level of skiing. The fact is that you can’t use risk taking to your advantage unless you have a solid foundation of technique and tactics that prepares you to ski your fastest.

  1. Talk with your coaches about your desire to start taking more risks to ski faster. Figure out with them how to incorporate risk taking into your current progression and training schedule. For example, you might decide to focus on taking risks on your first two and last two training runs and focus on technique or tactics on the training runs in between.
  2. Remind yourself of the benefits of risk taking so you enter your training runs with a positive attitude. This attitude will help you stay confident and optimistic as you gain comfort with taking risks.
  3. Acknowledge and accept that the risks you take may not pay off every run and that you may experience more mistakes and DNFs that before. You can even see the mistakes and DNFs as positive experiences because they are evidence that you are, in fact, taking more risks.
  4. On the training runs in which you decide to take risks, make a conscious commitment to focus exclusively on pushing your limits and skiing on the edge. When you’re in the starting gate of every training run, taking risks should be your only focus.
  5. Make sure you’re totally prepared, physically and mentally, to take risks. This high state of readiness will increase the chances that your risks will pay off.
  6. Take a leap of faith. Trust your plan for taking risks. Be consistent and persistent in your efforts to take your skiing to the next level by taking more risks. And be patient, knowing that it will take some time for your body, mind, technique, and tactics to get accustomed to skiing on the edge.
  7. 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 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.

So, when you look at it that way, taking risks in your ski racing isn’t risky at all!