Is it all in the mind?

Our article published in BISS Schools Ski Racing Magazine in September

An article written by OptimizeYou for Schools Ski Racing Magazine

So is it all in the mind?

Ski racing is one of the toughest and most rewarding sports in the world. The combination of technical skills, strength and fitness and emotional and psychological elements are hard to find in any other sport but if approached correctly the rewards are huge - building capable, fully aware and resilient children. All skills that will be lifelong assets.

So how can we make the most of being involved in this fantastic sport?

Firstly, we need to recognise that athletes’ parents and coaches are a TEAM working towards a common goal - helping the athlete get the best from themselves. To achieve that it’s helpful if we can each see things from the other’s point of view.

See how you feel after reading this from the athlete’s perspective:

It’s early, very early. The sun hasn’t shown its face yet and it’s very, very wet. It feels cold enough to snow but the rain is streaming down the car windows and can’t be bothered to turn to snow or even sleet.

I’m still a bit sleepy and am wondering whether I’ve remembered everything for race day. Helmet, gloves, jackets, 2 pairs of skis, poles, lunch, googles, snacks, drinks. Did I put my shin guards in? Hmm I think so but if I’ve forgotten them I’ll be spending the day in the café.

Thank goodness we’ve reached the meeting point. Our coach says it’ll be snowing at the top. Hurrah! The others are sounding a bit miserable as we sit on the lift to the top but I’m trying not to join in.

Turns out that coach was right and the rain has finally decided to transform itself into snow. Big blobs of sticky snow are falling steadily covering everything. Must make sure I don’t lose my skis in all this.

Visibility isn’t great. We start course inspection but I can only see the first 4 gates. Who knows what lays under that new stuff, ice probably. Then there’ll be ruts that appear quickly getting deeper until they’re up to your knees. I hate being bounced out of the ruts so maybe if I ski a very wide line I’ll miss them! I’m a little bit scared but of course won’t admit it!

Johnny and Kate have arrived at the top and dropped their bags off. They said they’d rather be back at the chalet watching videos and catching up with friends on ‘InstaFace’. Maybe I would as well?

Anyway, I'm here now and better make a start on the warm-up routine and get ready to race. I think I’m going to be OK, I’ve trained hard all week but others have had more time out here than me. I usually make a few mistakes on the first run, it’s nerves. I’m starting to think that I’d rather be in the warm as well. What’s the point of racing in this weather? This is really stupid!

My number is called and I’m standing in the start gate in my catsuit; it’s freezing but at least I can see the course now. I hope I finish, my parents are at the bottom watching. What if I don’t do well, I don’t finish, I crash, my friend beats me.

Will my parents be angry, will my coach be disappointed? Will I look stupid in front of all these people, if I do much more of this skiing I won’t fit into skinny jeans (I’ve actually heard this one). If I win my parents will be really proud of me and I can stand on the podium like a champion. Arrrghh!

The start marshal says ‘ready’? I say yes. This is it, why am I doing this again? The beeps count down 5-4-3-2-1 Big push…… GO!!!

I'm at the bottom of the course and the feeling is brilliant. It was a good run and as I look up at the board and the time is pretty good. I'm pleased with that. Time for a hot chocolate!

To the uninitiated this may sound like the worst day EVER but to a ski racer this is just another day and an example of the thoughts and emotions which appear fluctuate anywhere between exhilaration and depression! All of which is normal and manageable under most circumstances.

Of course, not every athlete thinks in this way and not every day is like this. Most people have an off day now and again but unhelpful thinking can ruin a day, a week, season or career if not kept in check.

How about from the parent’s point of view?

So it’s race day and we’ve arrived at the meeting point. Why do these races need to start so early? I hope Amy is in the mood for racing and has all her kit although she should know by now what she needs. It looks like the courses have been set but that slope looks very steep, and tricky and so foggy I can only see the bottom. Still, I’m sure Amy can cope with it….although she hasn’t done as much training as the others.

I hope she can remember that course, there are so many gates and all that new snow means the ruts will get big. I hope she stays safe.

Ok it’s her turn and she’s in the start gate. Oh I hope she gets down ok and doesn’t crash or come out of the course. She’s off…good start….. looking ok so far……half way there. She’ll be so pleased if she does well, and even better if she beats that other girl who’s very good. Come on, PUSH! A couple of mistakes but she’s still in there…….

And she’s through the finish but will it be smiles or tears? Whichever it is I'll buy her a hot chocolate and give her a hug.

Having been a parent in that situation that certainly got my pulse going! Standing on the sidelines while your child performs and tries their best can be hugely rewarding but you’ll also have to cope with disappointment, anger and frustration, and that’s just the parent!

And then there’s the coach:

Have I got all my kit, radio charged and ready, phone and numbers for the parents in case anything gets changed, food, drink, spare gloves just in case anyone forgets them. 6:00 is a silly hour to be getting up but we need to get breakfast done, the guys kitted up and going and the courses set before they arrive.

So who have we got? Sam, ah yes he needs calming down before he races or he’ll crash out and the opposite for George as he’s not very comfortable in these conditions so needs his confidence building and keeping there. Amy is doing great at the moment providing she doesn’t start to doubt herself in the start gate which she has a tendency to do and Grace is skiing really well and likes to have a full course report before she leaves the gate. That’s 4 of them, now what about the other 5.

I hope they do well today, they’ve all worked so hard over the last week and they really deserve a good result. If they don’t have a good day we’ll just have to pick them (and their parents) up off the floor and start all over. Looking forward to a great day on the hill!

Coaches have a crucial role to play in the team scenario and search inside the mind of a coach and you’ll find a myriad of thoughts, emotions and images of athletes reaching goals or needing to be consoled. The nurturing of potential in their charges is as important to them as it is to you and it’s what they love doing.

As you can see from those perspectives each of us sees the same situation from a different point of view and each one is affected by their own thoughts and emotions. The emotions around children and nurturing invoke some of the most powerful feelings enabling us to do superhuman things to protect our offspring but can also make us behave in ways that we sometimes later think we could have done better – if only we’d thought!

That’s not to say that these thoughts and emotions are wrong, we just need to learn how to manage them better.

These emotions come from somewhere but where?

Our brains were initially designed for a specific purpose - to keep us alive, ensure the continuation of the species and keep us safe. It is only fairly recently in human evolutionary terms that we acquired the part of the brain which provides us with conscious thought, self-awareness and the ability to decide what we want to do.

Our ancient, emotional brains have the habit of taking over when we least expect or want it and give us thoughts and feelings that, in the ancient world would be totally acceptable but in the modern world that we now inhabit can be most unwelcome and unhelpful.

The emotional brain however is not all bad! It can save our lives and give us the lightening quick responses we need when something goes wrong and those same responses can also be harnessed to give us the super-fast reaction speeds we need when we are competing. It can also be a great motivator if we learn to work with it and manage it properly.

So what does this mean for us and how can we do better?

The key to improving performance is to have an AWARENESS of our thoughts and behaviours and we especially need to be aware when unhelpful emotions are taking over. For the racer this may be when they are in the start gate of a race and may feel fearful or as a parent when we watch from the side of the piste and we are anxious for our children’s safety and happiness.

So how do we become more aware?

Awareness is all about being alert to what your body is telling you and so the first step is to NOTICE that you are feeling something. This will manifest itself differently in each individual so you need to get to know what makes you tick (and feel uncomfortable!)

The next step is to figure out if the emotion you are getting is helpful or not. To do this ask yourself one simple question. ‘Do I want to feel or behave in this way’?

If the answer is NO then you are being hijacked by unhelpful thoughts given to you by your ancient brain. This is of course normal as it’s just our brain trying to keep us alive!

Once you’ve recognised you’re being hijacked by these thoughts you can PAUSE THE THOUGHT and give yourself some time and space to think what the course of action is that YOU want to take.

It sounds simple but it takes practice and time to know why and how you are thinking and to take the appropriate action for the given situation.

So, is it all in the mind?

Well not all of it, but if we can learn to be more aware of the power of our minds and be more in control our emotions we will be better able to put in great performances that we know we are capable of.

Of course this doesn't only apply to sport. These same emotions have an effect on us daily and becoming more skilled in managing them can make us more productive, happier and better able to cope with sport, education, work and everyday life.

Having worked with athletes, parents and coaches on the Mind Skills programme for Snowsport Wales the whole TEAM now recognise the importance of building these skills so that we have a common language and the ability to manage our thoughts and emotions better.

Happy Skiing


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