Over the last few decades, I have worked with many ski racers from juniors to World Cuppers. One thing I have noticed is that the most powerful work I do with racers isn’t your typical mental training where I teach them about positive thinking, mental imagery, routines, and how to stay intense and focused (though these mental tools are important).
Instead, the most valuable work I do involves the attitudes that racers have toward their ski racing. No matter how strong your mental muscles are and no matter how filled your mental toolbox is, if you don’t have the right attitudes, you aren’t going to ski your fastest.
This article is going to focus on several key attitudes you should develop about your ski racing to not only ski your best, but, just as importantly, to enjoy your racing and gain the most benefits from your competitive experiences.
I see racers express many different emotions after races. After a good result, I see joy, excitement, pride, and inspiration. But, after less successful races, I see frustration, anger, and sadness. Yet, the one emotion that I consider to be perhaps the worst of all emotions for ski racers to experience is regret.
What is regret? That you wish you had done something differently. The sad reality is that there are no dress rehearsals in life. There is no “Way Back” machine (can anyone give me that cultural reference?) for do-overs. You get one shot in a race, so you might as well take it. Otherwise there will be a whole lot of “woulda, coulda, shoulda” when you look in the rearview mirror of your race day.
When have you felt regret in your ski racing? If you’re like most racers, it’s when you didn’t go for it in a race, when you held back and skied tentatively so you could just finish and get a result. When you cross the finish line and see your time, you want to kick yourself because you wished you had gone for it. When I speak to racers, I always ask whether they would rather ski safely and finish or go all out and DNF. With almost complete unanimity, the answer is “I would rather attack the course and see what happens.” But when I ask them what they typically do, many racers say rather sheepishly, “I usually ski cautiously.”
The irony is that when you ski to finish, you have little to no chance of having a good race because ski racing is a sport that requires that you ski on the edge of disaster to ski fast. And therein lies the regret. Before you leave the starting gate, you just want to finish. But when you finish slow, you wish you had laid one down, even if you didn’t finish. For you to ski your fastest, you must make the commitment to go for it before you leave the starting gate.
What prevents racers from laying it on the line in races when they know consciously that they should? The most common reason: fear of failure (read my four-part series about fear of failure). This unconscious, yet potent, force causes a mindset that goes against just about everything that you need to think, feel, and do to ski your fastest and achieve your ski racing goals. Most basically, to ski your very best, you must take risks, whether attacking the course or taking a straighter line through a difficult section of the course. At the same time, when you take risks, your chances of DNFing increase as well; the nature of risks is that they are uncertain. If you have a fear of failure, you’re not likely to take those risks because you are more concerned with avoiding failure than you are about pursuing success.
I don’t know many racers who have regrets for when they went for it in a race even if it didn’t work out (though there is certainly disappointment if you DNF). I do know many racers who have immense regret for what they didn’t do, for when they failed to “leave it all out on the hill” when the opportunity arose. Yet, when you play it safe in your racing, regret is what you will surely feel.
I think you should go for it in every race. Of course, many of those opportunities won’t end well; that’s the uncertainty of ski racing. You will naturally feel disappointment that things didn’t turn out the way you wanted. But that feeling of disappointment will be mild and short lived compared to the intense and long-lasting feeling of regret you may feel if you don’t ski all out. Also, with that sadness at the failed opportunity, there is an upside. You will feel a certain pride in knowing that at least you went for it and gave it your all because that’s all you have within your control. As the saying goes, “If you don’t take the shot, you can’t score.”
Along with regret is a question that may gnaw at you for every missed opportunity to leave it all out there that passes you by: “I wonder what could have been?” You don’t have a crystal ball in which you can gaze into the past to see what would have happened if you had let go of your fears and gone for it. Of course, good things don’t always happen when you put yourself out there, but I’m going to argue that more good things will happen when you go for it than when you play it safe. There’s another old saying that “It’s better to make errors of commission than errors of omission.” Even if things don’t work out as planned, at least you tried and know what happened and, with that knowledge, you don’t spend your days wondering what could have been.
At the end of a race day, season, career, or when you are lying on your death bed, I want you to look back on your ski racing, whether you won Olympic gold, raced in college, or just had a ton of fun, and be able to say “I left it all out there.” You can only do that when you aren’t afraid to fail. And one important way to not fear failure is to believe that regret is far worse than failure. And, based on my experience as a ski racer, a person, and a sport psychologist, I can assure you that it is.
By the way, there might just be an important life lesson beyond ski racing here as well!