Freeskiing: The Mental Game
“Mind is everything...muscles are just pieces of rubber.
All that I am, I am because of my mind.”
-Paavo Nurmi, 9-time Olympic Gold Medalist
At the end of last ski season, I finally admitted to myself that my greatest weakness is my mental game. I refused to go another season with a weakness than can be corrected. So, I turned on my research-nerd side and read dozens of books and scholarly journals, and spoke to sports psychologists and professional skiers, to help me understand the basics of mental weakness in sports (specifically snow sports) and how I could train myself to become mentally fit. I've compiled the science, as well as some helpful training routines in this essay.
I wrote this research essay on mental fitness for Mountain Athlete. You can find this article on their website - linked here.
The following three characteristics of sport hold true in every competition: (1) we face an unpredictable opponent, (2) fast responses and decisions are pivotal, and (3) the situation is always dynamic (Colvin 2008).
In freeskiing, the mountain is our unpredictable opponent. Unplanned terrain features and dynamic situations (i.e. avalanches) necessitate swift and sound decision making. On the mountain, as opposed to on a field or court, quick decisions can mean the difference between life and death.
These important decisions are potentially the difference between a game winning goal or saving your life, but try making these decisions while panicking, while holding your breath, while focusing your concentration elsewhere.
When your heart rate reaches 120 beats per minute (bpm) due to emotional stress your mind sharpness begins to fail, at 150 bpm your mind shuts down and transitions to survival mode - you breathe, your heart beats, but all of your bodily resources are focused on basic involuntary means of survival (Selk 2009).
Thought, concentration, and strategy are out the window.
Mental fragility is handicapping and downright dangerous for outdoor athletes who strive to compete in the upper echelon of their sport. Though a moderate level of anxiety is actually good for performance, it is necessary to control it and channel it for a successful outcome (Afremow 2014).
Many athletes focus on the wrong things, thoughts like “don’t fall”, “don’t screw up”, “don’t go over there” - “Don’t Thoughts” - increase anxiety and make performing at a high level nearly impossible (Selk 2009). This pin-point focus on the wrong things can lead to “paralysis by analysis” (Beilock 2011).
When your heart rate accelerates it causes you to rush, and when you rush you make mistakes. On competition day, common mental errors include over-emphasizing the outcome, trying too much, and tracking the negatives. The fallout from these mistakes is often dubbed “choking”.
Anxiety and choking, contrary to popular belief, are not one in the same. Choking is actually a biochemical response to stimuli - it causes a hormonal change in your body (Loehr 1994). It is a highly natural occurrence. This reaction stems from a need for psychological safety. However, unlike uncontrolled anxiety, choking does not reflect personal weakness or frailty - rather it means you’re tough enough to face fear head on.
Fear is false evidence appearing real, and the key to conquering that fear is learning to channel your thoughts.
Get Your Head in The Game
Self confidence is the foundation for mental toughness. You can’t out-perform or under-perform your self image. When psychologists talk about self-image they point to the self-consistency theory which holds that we treat ourselves in accordance with the way we think of ourselves (Mack and Casstevens 2001). If your thoughts are filled with things like “I suck at penalty kicks”, or “X is so much better than me, I can’t win”, then you will undoubtedly fail. Toughness requires self awareness and the ability to turn off negative thoughts and replace them with positive ones, regardless of how true they might be. Repeated affirmations are a powerful tool for realigning your thinking.
The thoughts we entertain shape our selves, and our selves are shaped by our thoughts. This brings us to the next aspect of mental toughness: consciousness. Cognitive psychology explains that our minds can only focus on one situation at a time (Selk 2009). As humans we are capable of managing 7 pieces of information pertaining to a similar theme at once. It takes us 1/18th of a second to differentiate between each piece (Csikszentmihalyi 1990). When we allow our focus to shift from the task at hand we’ve sacrificed our ability to commit our senses to quick decision making. If you are in the start gate of a competition and you shift your focus to winning, or not falling, or to who’s watching, then how can you possibly focus on terrain markers or simple mantras to help you flow through your run? The function of consciousness is to relay information about what is happening both inside and outside of ourselves at that moment. If you are thinking of anything but, then you are not present and not reaping the benefits of consciousness.
To remain conscious, organized thought is of primary importance. The act of goal setting clears out mental clutter. Goals are decisions, and the process of setting goals hones in our decision making skills, facilitating quick but steadfast decisions. For example, if your goal is to eat healthy for a period of time, what decisions do you need to make to achieve that goal? You might overhaul your grocery list, you might learn about healthy alternatives, and in a moment of choice you might choose the salad over the pasta dish. This is a light example, but what I’m getting at is akin to the Droste effect - the picture within a picture within a picture. Each ultimate goal has roots in the smallest goals - called process goals (Loehr 1994). To podium in a ski competition you might focus on keeping your hands in front. This focus could result in a top finish (a project goal), and inevitably lead to your ultimate goal of attaining a professional skiing career.
Goal making isn’t a once a year or even a once a month task, it is constant - daily even. Professional athletes who work with sports psychologists keep daily training logs to help track their progress and keep them focused. Each day, before and after practice they will write down something from the day before to improve upon as well as a goal for that day. After practice they will evaluate whether they reached that goal, and what their next plan of action is. Many sports psychologists and athletes share a similar mantra pertaining to goal setting. Olympic gold medalist in speed skating, Dan Jansen, said, “I don’t think there’s anything as setting your goals too high. The higher you set them, the more you’re going to work.” With that in mind, goals should be specific, measurable, positive, inspiring, and displayed (Afremow 2014). Make your goals known to others to help you stay on track.
Once you’ve organized your mental clutter through goal setting and begun to pay conscious attention to your thoughts, you can begin to exercise your mind. If the mental aspect of sport is so important, then shouldn’t we work our minds the same way we work our muscles?
Mental Fitness and Strategy
There are many variations on mental focus techniques though most involve some sort of meditation. In yoga this process is called Pratyahara - the withdrawal from extraneous stimuli in order to consciously direct the input of specific senses (Csikszentmihalyi 1990). In this practice you learn concentration and focus by only allowing a very select group of thoughts to pass through your mind, if you plan to allow any thought at all. Studies have shown that it doesn’t take long to see the benefits of meditation. In a 2012 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science of the United States, Tang and Posner found that 11 hours of integrative body-mind training over one month boosted participants brain connectivity and efficiency. In a 2011 study published in Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, Britta Holzel found that 30 minutes of meditation a day for 8 weeks dramatically improved the framework of participants’ brains. Her results showed an increase in gray matter in the hippocampus (the area associated with learning and memory), as well as a reduction of gray matter in the amygdala (the area responsible for anxiety and stress). Bottom line, meditation works.
Meditation can be practiced in many forms and under different situations. It can be done in a quiet room away from distraction as well as under stress in practice. In fact, practicing meditation and calming breathing techniques while under stress in practice, still correlates to the ability to perform under considerably higher stress in competition. However, this only works if you put deliberate thought into maintaining consciousness and control over your thoughts while practicing.
Though mental training programs vary, the three common themes in all meditations pertaining to sport and mental toughness involve (1) positive POV visualization; (2) positive self-talk; and (3) breath control. Researchers have found that visualization directly correlates to performance. By visualizing yourself hitting a cliff and stomping it, or carving the perfect turn, or standing calmly in the start gate you are training an emotional as well as muscle memory response. Deliberate and repeated visualization is an important aspect of quick decision making. Quick decisions are a competitive advantage.
Professional skier, Griffin Post, uses repeated visualization before his competition runs. “I visualize my ideal run and then a scenario of runs that might happen should I get off my line or miss a feature,” says Post, “This way, when I’m skiing my run, it’s as though I’m skiing it for my tenth time and not my first. Plus, if I do need to change my line mid run I don’t end up getting all flustered.” In one study, a research team separated the U.S. Alpine Ski Team into two groups. One group received visualization coaching and meditation practice, the other group did not. Half-way through the study the psychologists scrapped it because the group engaged in visualization training was significantly out-performing the group that was not receiving any training. This resulted in mandatory visualization training for the whole team.
The brain is an incredible tool. It can be trained and tapped similar to strong muscles. Positive thought, sometimes called ‘positive brainwashing’, can be incorporated and used as a competitive tool (Loehr 1994). This involves two parts. First, you must catch your negative thoughts in the act. For example, in a competition you might find yourself thinking, “there is no way to get through any of that terrain,” instead of letting it slide and allowing the negativity to consume your thoughts, rephrase it to say, “this is tough but I am a great skier, I can ski a smooth line through it.” As cheesy as it might sound, this is the type of thought catching strategy that pros use to keep from falling into a negative slump. The next part involves the use of a performance statement, or a personal affirmation tailored to you and your goal. It might be a simple reminder that puts you in the zone like, “eyes open, hands forward, smooth and fast”. It can be followed with a self affirming statement like, “I am strong, I’m an amazing skier.” Remember, practiced deliberate thought leads to doing, and in effect achieving.
The foundation for the two aforementioned practices is a solid breathing technique. Breathing is the simplest way to bring your focus to the present. When we become anxious or scared our breaths are shallow. The result is less oxygen intake and greater muscle tension. It is impossible to think clearly without oxygen or to make the correct movements when our muscles are tight. World Cup Alpine Ski Racer, Resi Steigler, agrees that attention to breath is key, “it is very important to be calm and be using your energy in the right way.” A proper relaxing breath should last about 15 seconds and be composed of an out-breath longer than the in-breath with about a two second hold in between.
Try this: expel all the air from your lungs. Breathe in slowly for 1-2-3-4-5-6, now hold your breath for 1-2, and release slowly for 7-6-5-4-3-2-1. Repeat that 4 times. Whether you feel more relaxed or not, your focus was on counting your breaths, correct? You thought about nothing else except the task at hand, otherwise counting while allowing your mind to wander would be impossible. Attention to breath is the easiest way to redirect your focus away from distracting thoughts and “what-ifs”, which are completely out of your control, and towards a specific objective.
Techniques to Get You Started
This first routine is adapted from 10-Minute Toughness by Jason Selk:
1. Begin with a Centering Breath - This is the 15-second breath mentioned earlier. Breathe in for 6 seconds, hold your breath for 2, then breathe out for 7 seconds. For this to work your out-breath must be longer than your in-breath.
2. Performance Statement - Self specific statement regarding one or two skills or themes you want to keep in mind. Keep it positive. For example, “Eyes open, I’m ready”. No “Don’t” statements, i.e. “Don’t fall”.
3. Personal Highlight Reel - This step is broken down into 3 parts and will take some time for you to sort out. Writing this section down helps. Pick a camera angle that works for you (i.e. 1st POV, 2nd POV etc). Try to use 1st POV if you can as studies have shown this is the most effective visualization angle for muscle and emotional response. Use the same angle throughout your highlight reel. Your first minute of highlights should focus on your past successes and times when you’ve found the most enjoyment (i.e. A successful competition run, a successful huck, a neck deep powder day), pick 3-5 of these clips to string together. Your second minute of highlights will focus on an ultimate future goal (i.e. A Freeride World Tour run from start to finish - visualize everything). Finally, your last minute should focus on an immediate goal situation (i.e. FWQ - how you will ski your perfect run, start to finish.)
4. Identity Statement - This is a concrete self statement to enhance your self image. Remember, self-image training is not mental trickery, it is a proven agent of self-control. This is a two part statement with both parts beginning with “I am”. The first part is focused on a strength you have or want to have. The second part is focused on what you want to accomplish. For example, “I am confident; I am the best skier in the world.”
5. Centering Breath- It is important to close this mental practice with the same centering breath we used in step 1. The serves as a reminder for presence, focus, and intention.
This practice should be done daily for effectiveness. It only takes ten minutes. If you find your mind wandering at any point, go back to the beginning and start again. Aim for one successful repetition per day.
Pre-competition routines are unique to each person, however, the over-arching theme is simplicity. A surefire way to increase your anxiety is to introduce a new routine on competition day. “It doesn’t make sense to me to change my routine a couple days a year because it’s a competition,” says Griffin Post, “I feel making adjustments like that are more likely to mess you up than help you.” Competitions are not a time to “get serious”. “Serious” should be about how hard and how often you work - it should drive your work ethic. When you switch on “serious” for a competition, you will most likely stress yourself out.
Test out your “competition routines” on practice days to not only see if they work, but to become familiar with them. An effective routine should help you focus and bring your arousal level up for competition. It should not increase your anxiety or make you feel rushed. Resi Steigler has a routine that works for her, “I know what foods I need to have the right energy, eggs, yogurt, fruit. I always bike in the morning when I wake up and do core and agility to wake my body up! On snow I make sure I get enough free ski runs to warm up.” Through trial and error, Professional Skier Hadley Hammer created a routine that works for her. “I think what I found this year was that there is a perfect frame of mind that's not too calm or not too worried,” says Hadley, “I had a routine that worked for me during the qualifying circuit and when I brought it to the FWT it wasn't until Snowbird that I realized I needed to switch it up and it was actually making me too calm.” Hadley utilizes her routine daily to train her mental game and keep it familiar and effective.
In contrast, Pro Snowboarder Matt Annetts doesn’t prescribe to a pre-competition routine, “There has never been a routine that I follow every comp. I tried at the beginning, but found it was detrimental. Traveling around all the time it is hard to find a constant, and it takes too much effort to force a routine. It is much better for my mental state to flow with each event as something new.” The one common pre-competition component shared by the athletes quoted above is visualization. This should serve as an indication that visualization not only works, but is crucial.
Again, simplicity is key when it comes to pre-competition routines. Here is a SIMPLE pre-competition meditation you might use:
1. Positive Self-Talk (PST) - Use your Performance and Self- Identity statements from above. Repeat them. They are your mantra.
2. Body Language- Carry yourself the way you picture a winner carrying themselves. Act like a champion. Actions are an incredibly effective way to change your mental state.
3. BREATHING - Use the same centering breath. Repeat as many rounds as you need until you feel relaxed.
The mental aspect of sport is paramount, yet highly undertrained. Our performance is what defines us as athletes, and I believe that because of this we tend to get distracted by the physical aspect of preparedness. While practice does boost confidence and ability, you can unlock so much of your potential as an athlete through training your mental game. I’ve experienced the nerves, the irrelevant what-ifs, the shortness of breath, and the tunnel vision associated with an untrained mental game. Time and again I’ve walked away disappointed, knowing that I was only defeated by the space between my ears. Through measurable goals, practiced breathing, visualization, and affirmations, these thoughts can be controlled and channeled for a positive outcome.
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