One of the questions I’m asked most frequently from racers, coaches, and parents is: What does it take to be a successful ski racer? For any racer who wants to be their best, this is no easy question, yet one that is worth asking and worth even more to answer.
First, let me address how I define “successful racer.” Contrary to many people in the ski racing world, I don’t define the phrase in terms of objective criteria such as a college ski racing scholarship, being selected to the U.S. Ski Team, or being named to an Olympic team. These standards are so statistically unlikely that becoming a successful racer would be absolutely meaningless to every young racer except the very rare few. I define a successful racer as being someone who fully realizes their abilities. That is, whatever inborn talent they have, they max it out through committed and consistent effort.
With that said, being well trained is, as the scientific axiom goes, “a necessary, but sufficient condition” for ski racing success. What that means is that you need to be well trained to be a successful racer, but being well trained alone is not enough to be a successful racer.
What do I mean by well trained? Well, consider the areas of ski racing performance that must be optimized to fully maximize your abilities:
- Technical and tactical skills
You have to ask yourself a question: Am I doing everything I can to fully develop these areas? If not, you need to make a real commitment to do the challenging work so you are well trained. If you are already well trained, you can go quite far in your ski racing development. But I don’t believe you will become the best racer you can be. If you believe you can be more successful than you currently are, you need to take the next step.
So, what’s missing? One thing that I’ve always appreciated about the World Cup racers I’ve worked with is that, yes, of course, they are very well trained. But they are more than just physically fit, technically and tactically sound, and mentally prepared to ski their fastest. They are also “well educated.” By well educated, I don’t mean that they attend Dartmouth, Harvard, or even Middlebury.
When I refer to well-educated racers, I mean that they have a deep understanding of what it takes to be the most successful racer they can be. Whether Marcel, Mikaela, Viktoria, or Henrik, the list goes on, they are all not only participants in ski racing, but they are also “scholars” of our sport. They study it, analyze it, critique it, and evolve it.
Well-educated racers do the training that is required of them, in other words, they know the what, when, where, and how of their training program. For example, they know what they will be doing for a strength workout today, when and where the workout will occur, and how to execute the various exercises that comprise the workout.
But, more importantly, they know the why of their efforts. That is, if you ask them the purpose of their training, whether physical, technical/tactical, or mental, they can explain why it’s important, the value it brings to their ski racing development, and how it fits into their overall training program. For example, in committing to a mental imagery program, well-educated racers not only know how to do imagery and how to create a structured imagery program, but they also understand why it works, how it works, and the specific benefits it offers them.
Unfortunately, the typical ski academy or club doesn’t offer many opportunities to become both well trained and well educated in their training. I actually believe that schools and teams should offer a course on “What it Takes to be a Successful Racer” that provides the foundation of knowledge for racer development in a comprehensive and structured way. But, until that happens, it’s up to you to go beyond being a well-trained racer and educate yourself on the different aspects of your ski racing development.
You start off becoming a well-educated racer by not just accepting whatever your coaches tell you to do. Instead, tell your coaches that you want to know more about what you do in your sport training and why you do it. Ask them questions about the rationale and science behind the different components of your training program. Question more experienced racers in your sport to gain their insights into the why of your training. And ask your coaches for resources so you can learn more about your development away from your sport.
Coaches, if you want to encourage your racers to become well educated, prepare a reading or video list of resources from which they can learn more about their development. Also, when you introduce something new to their training regimen, devote a few minutes to describing the why of it. And be open to your racers’ curiosity and questions; the more they actively engage in their ski racing lives, the more invested and committed they will be.
There are many benefits to becoming a well-educated racer. First, a problem with being an uneducated racer is that you don’t know what you don’t know. So, you won’t be able to see what might be missing from your training regimen. With an extensive knowledge of what is required to be a successful racer, you’ll be able to identify what you’re doing right, what gaps exist, and ways you can improve your training. You will also be able to ask informed questions of your coaches to ensure that what they want you to do is right for you.
Second, a well-educated racer is also a sophisticated consumer, meaning that you don’t just accept different aspects of your training program at face value. Instead, you understand the reasoning behind your training and, as a result, can be sure that it is the best fit for your needs and goals. This refined approach to your development will enable you to match the training that is offered by your coaches with what you know about yourself as a racer.
Third, the more you know about your training, the deeper the connection you will have with your efforts and the more ownership you will feel. This ownership will result in greater commitment and motivation to your goals and more sustained effort in your dryland and on-snow training.
Finally, when you’re a well-educated racer, you not only see the particular parts of your training in isolation, but also are able to synthesize and integrate them into a comprehensive program. This broad perspective enables you to see the trajectory of your ski racing development in its overarching totality and make adjustments in the present and are better plan for your long-term future in our sport.
Want help becoming a well-educated racer in your mental training and get your mind in the best shape of your ski racing life? Take a look at my latest book, Train Your Mind for Athletic Success: Mental Preparation to Achieve Your Sports Goals and my online courses for racers and coaches.