All posts by Dr. Jim Taylor

The Fall Matters: Make it Count

imagesIf you’re at all serious about your ski racing, this past summer should have been devoted to the process of making yourself the best ski racer you can be. There is one thing that you better have done and another thing that you likely will have done this past summer: engage in an intensive physical conditioning program and spend time on snow, respectively. These last several months gave you an essential opportunity to devote large blocks of time to making gains in your fitness and in the technical and tactical aspects of your skiing with no concern for results, quotas, points, or rankings. I also hope you will have heeded my constant message to train your mind and get it into great shape as well!

It’s hard to believe that the summer is over and that I’ll be joining many of you on snow in Colorado over the next three months. With Labor Day just a week away, we have entered a new phase of preparation for the coming race season that is equally as essential as your summer efforts to your achieving your ski racing goals for the upcoming race season.

Think of your skiing this season as a painting of yourself as the ski racer you want to be this coming winter that you began in the spring and must finish before you climb into the starting gate in your first race of the year a few months from now. The summer was about broad strokes in which the “image” of how you want to ski begins to take shape. You use a wide paintbrush and make broad strokes as the basic image of your skiing becomes evident. But the painting lacks detail and is far from a finished product.

The fall is the time to use a fine paintbrush and fill in the details of your self-portrait. As your first race approaches, the clear and precise image that you have of your skiing in your mind should be realized on the canvas. When that first race arrives, you should be able to look at that painting and see an image of precisely the kind of skier you want to be this race season.

So, to continue my artistic metaphor, what should you have on your palette that will enable you to create a masterpiece of fast skiing?

Physical Conditioning

Your physical training should take on richer colors or more detail. There should be a greater emphasis on quality over quantity (though you certainly need to maintain a good degree of volume). This involves getting the most out of your conditioning efforts that will result in your being the most fitness version of you there has ever been. This shift also reduces the chances of burnout or injury at a time when you need to be healthy and rested.

You can increase the quality of your physical training and, at the same time, further develop your mental skills by understanding that mental training starts in the gym. This involves thinking about what enables you to ski your best in on-snow training and applying those same skills and habits to your conditioning:

  • Confidence: Make positive statements about your ability to achieve your training goal for that set (e.g., “I am going to do 10 reps.”).
  • Commitment: Dedicate yourself to giving your fullest effort every rep and to finishing the set strong.
  • Intensity: Match your physical intensity to your exercise. If you’re doing power squats, you want to actively increase your intensity before you step under the bar. If you are doing yoga, you want to actively relax your body.
  • Focus: Narrow your attention onto whatever will help you fully execute the exercise. The focus could be technical (e.g., hips forward) or mental (e.g., explode).
  • Breathing: Match your breathing to your exercise. If you are doing power training, your breathing should be more intense. If you are doing flexibility training, it should be calmer and slower.

Mental Imagery

Mental imagery is another way to add color and depth to your developing masterpiece that is your skiing. By now, you’re probably sick of me bringing this up all the time, but I will say it again. Mental imagery is the most important mental tool available to you. And if you haven’t developed an organized and consistent off-snow mental imagery program, you’re not going to be the best ski racer you can be.

The fall is an ideal time to make a real commitment to mental imagery because it allows you to get a ton of miles on snow and in gates (in your mind) before you actually get back on snow and back into gate training. You can more deeply ingrain technically sound and fast skiing with mental imagery, so, when the snow flies, it will be as if you’ve been skiing all fall and you can continue your skiing development from your first day on snow.

Here’s what you should do with mental imagery:

  1. Choose one or two technical (e.g., wider stance), tactical (e.g., higher line), mental (e.g., relaxing at the start), or performance (e.g., fast skiing) areas you want to focus on in your imagery.
  2. Create a ladder of training and race scenarios, from training courses on your home hill to low-level races to your most important races of the season.
  3. Set aside a specific time each day three times a week.
  4. In each imagery session, get comfortable, close your eyes, take five deep breaths, and then guide yourself through two training or race runs (I also have mp3 audio recordings that can guide you through these scenarios) incorporating your imagery goals (see #1 above) into your imagined skiing.
  5. Stay committed and consistent with your imagery throughout the fall.

The Grind of Winter

The long winter of training and racing is incredibly taxing physically and mentally. Another important goal for the fall is to prepare yourself to stay healthy and rested from your first turns of the season until your last. The habits you establish in the fall will, hopefully, carry you through the winter with strength and stamina.

These habits you instill in the coming months should include:

  • Sufficient and consistent sleep (young people don’t get enough sleep these days)
  • Healthy eating (food fuels or contaminates your body)
  • Good study habits (stress in school will hurt your skiing)
  • Making your ski racing a priority over other interests (don’t let poor choices hurt your skiing)
  • Balanced use of technology (which threatens sleep and distracts you)

What you do this fall will have a big impact on how you ski this winter. Using what I’ve just described above, as well as advice from your coaches and parents, take the fall to paint a picture of yourself as a ski racer that, at the end of the race season, you can look at pride and awe.

Interview on Endurance Sport Psychology

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I was recently interviewed by TrailRunningNation.com on the psychology of endurance sports, including trail running.  I offer a lot of practical ideas on how to be prepared, feel confident, focus and deal with the pain of an endurance event.

PGA Star Jordan Spieth Didn’t Specialize Early

spiethOn the heels of my recent post in which I explore the risks and benefits of young athletes specializing early in a sport, a recent article in the New York Times reveals that Jordan Spieth, the PGA’s #1 ranked golfer (at age  22) was not born and raised to be a professional golfer.

As the article notes, “[Spieth] cautioned against focusing only on one sport before one’s teenage years. ‘Until I was 12 or 13, I played more baseball than I did golf,’ he said. Spieth mentioned that he had also played football, basketball and soccer. As a result, he said, ‘I learned how to be a teammate, learned how to fall in love with golf as an athlete who plays golf versus being a golfer who tries to be an athlete.'”

 So, further evidence that it’s possible to become a successful professional athlete without early specialization.

When Should Your Young Athlete Specialize?

kids-playing-soccerThis question torments every parent who wants to support their children’s efforts as they pursue their own personal greatness in a sport. It is also one of the most frequently asked questions I get from parents of young athletes.

This question isn’t just one of professional interest to me. Rather, it’s personal for two reasons. First, in my youth, I achieved an international ranking as a ski racer (though I wasn’t even close to being truly world-class) while not specializing until I was 13 years old. Second, I have two daughters (ages 10 and 8) who are aspiring ski racers (perhaps following in their dad’s footsteps?; that is a topic best saved for another time) and want to give them every opportunity to achieve their goals.

Unfortunately, there is no clear answer to this question, but there is some emerging research and the opinions of experts (you’ll get mine later in this article) that should help you in finding an answer that works best for your young athletes and your family.

A recent article in the Huffington Post describes a new initiative by more than three dozen sports organizations, including USOC, USTA, MLB, NFL, NHL, and the NCAA (I’ll assume you’re familiar with the acronyms) that argues against the current trend toward early specialization in one sport (as defined as a singular commitment to a sport to the exclusion of others before the age of 12 years old). Research cited in the article (as well as other studies) indicate that specialization too early results in increases in overuse injuries, burnout, and drop-out rates, and, surprisingly, a decrease in overall athletic development. Conversely, the article describes how multisport participation in children can lead to better long-term performance and, just as importantly, lifelong enjoyment and participation in sports.

This past winter, I did my own informal survey of some of the best alpine ski coaches in America about this very question. The consensus was with the multisport approach. They said that skiing weekends and holidays (and no summers) till kids are 13 years old is sufficient should they decide to commit to the sport then. Only one coach dissented, saying that times have changed and early specialization and high training volume is necessary for later success in ski racing (he used the Olympic gold medalist, Mikaela Shiffrin, as an example).

I should point out that this discussion really only applies to sports that are highly technical, for example, gymnastics, ski racing, tennis, golf, and baseball, just to name a few. There is plenty of evidence and examples that athletes can begin endurance sports, such as running, cycling, and triathlon, as late as their early 20s and reach world-class status. As an example, USA Triathlon, the sport’s governing body, instituted a post-collegiate development program a few years ago. In this program, they identified and trained recent college graduates who were strong swimmers and runners. The result after just a few years is that the top two women in the world came out of the program.

In summary, if you want your kids to stay healthy, stay motivated, and perform better in the long run, the experts and the research say that multisport participation before adolescence is the way to go.

That’s all well and good and very consistent with what my mind is telling me. But it’s wildly out of whack with what the world is telling me and what my heart is screaming at me. Facts and informed opinion may carry weight intellectually, but anecdotal observations, however skewed they might be, weigh far more emotionally.

You look at just about any sport these days and the messages are very different than those of the experts. In my hometown of Mill Valley, California, the soccer fields are packed daily with kids as young as eight years old playing on traveling teams. In ski racing, I see kids that young, with speed suits, armor, and race skis, putting in weeks of on-snow training during the summer at places like Mt. Hood, Oregon and Whistler, British Columbia, not to mention skiing five to six days a week during the winter. As I travel the country working with young athletes and sports programs, I see this same early specialization in just about every sport out there.

Plus, in so many sports these days, you hear about superstars who were raised almost from day one to be champions: Serena Williams, LeBron James, Mikaela Shiffrin, Tiger Woods, Gabby Douglas, Michael Phelps, and Michelle Wie. These remarkable athletes are in the news constantly, so we are constantly being bombarded with the “If your children don’t specialize early, they’ll never become superstars” mentality.

Truly, the messages that we as parents get is that if we don’t get our kids on the ‘athletic-achievement train’ early, they will be left behind at the station with no chance of catching up. And doing this disservice to our children makes us REALLY BAD PARENTS!!

As the Huffington Post article points out, youth sports are no longer for children these days. The ‘youth-sport-development industrial complex’ is big business that seems to cater to parents with big dreams for their children than to what is in the best interests of the children. So, there are a lot of people out there (e.g., private coaches, athletic development programs) sending the message that early specialization is necessary, but they’re more interested in making a buck than your children’s athletic or personal development.

Before I share my opinion (for what it’s worth) on this issue, it would probably be helpful to define what “success” means. Though it could mean many things (e.g., win an Olympic medal, having a career as a professional athlete), I am going to suggest the following. Athletic success, in the context of looking for an answer to this question, involves competing at a national level as a junior and being able to earn a college athletic scholarship. Anything above that, such as making a national team or competing internationally, is not only statistically a near impossibility, but also has, in my opinion, more to do with inborn talent, opportunity, and luck (e.g., no injuries) as it does with early specialization. And don’t believe that “10 years, 10,000 hours” gobbledygook that Malcolm Gladwell has made millions off of (here’s an amazing article that rips his argument to pieces).

Now for my opinion. A question I ask myself is whether times really have changed in the last few decades such that an early start is important to later success. Few athletes in any sport specialized at such a young age 20 or more years ago, yet they achieved remarkable levels of performance. There have certainly been advances in conditioning, technique, and equipment that can account for the improvements we see now compared to “back in the day.” But is it also due to athletes in the last two decades starting earlier and gaining greater mastery in comparison to previous generations? Only time will tell as we’re only now seeing the first wave of athletes who have specialized early reach athletic maturity.

One thing that is clear is that there is a critical period between the ages of seven and twelve during which time young bodies are best able to learn and master new skills. This fact raises the question of how much volume do young athletes need during that period to master the fundamentals that will allow them to reach a high level competitively (and avoid injury and burnout). As far as I can tell, there isn’t any definitive evidence of what that number is, for example, swings of a bat, club, or racquet. I do know that, in ski racing, some of the top junior programs in the country are counting the number of gates run at certain ages.

There are examples of so-called late bloomers who didn’t specialize early or show early promise in their sport. In ski racing, Ted Ligety and Bode Miller come to mind. There are examples in other sports, though I can’t think of any in tennis, golf, or gymnastics which may mean that they tend to be inspirational exceptions rather than the rule to follow. Plus, we don’t hear about the athletes who specialize in their early teens and get a college scholarship or even compete at an international level because we don’t hear about them in the media.

One bit of information that is potentially telling as we explore this question is that, at least in some sports, early success doesn’t guarantee success later in children’s athletic lives. For example, fewer than 30 Major Baseball players played in the Little League World Series. And a 2013 study conducted by the U.S. Ski Team found that success before 15 years old wasn’t predictive of who made the national team when the racers matured. What this means is that early specialization doesn’t appear to give kids a leg up in their athletic development in the long run.

So, which road should you go down? It’s a big decision because it could, in theory, determine whether your children become superstars or benchwarmers (now that is pressure!). Or, it could mean a youth filled with fun participating in many sports or burdened by injuries or busted dreams. Because there is no clear answer to this question, your decision will be more personal, based not on what will ensure your children’s future athletic success (because we just don’t know for sure), but rather on your young athlete and your family.

Several questions come to mind as you ponder this decision. First, what do your children want? I have seen many young athletes who had an unquenchable passion for a sport and were driven to specialize out of their sheer love of the sport. In these cases, the parents’ responsibility is often to guide their enthusiasm and energy in ways that will sate their burning desire to eat, sleep, and drink their sport while also ensuring their health and well-being in the long term. You can do this by creating athletic and personal balance in your children’s lives to ensure that their passion doesn’t inadvertently turn into injury and burnout.

Second, what is best for your family? Children’s specializing early in a sport impacts not only them, but their entire family, including their parents and siblings. There are three resources that must be considered.  First, how do you want your family to spend its time? Early specialization requires an immense family commitment of time and any use of time involves opportunity costs (time spent doing one thing is time not spent doing other things).

Another resource that is usually in limited supply is money for families. So, how do you want to spend your hard-earned money (again, except for affluent families, there are significant opportunity costs).

An additional resource that is also limited in parents is their energy. Do you want to expend considerable energy in your young athlete’s early specialization? This energy can include finding and organizing teams and coaches, travel to and from competitions and training camps, maintaining equipment, plus the volunteering that is required in most youth sports.

Lastly, what will the impact of early specialization by one child have on your other children? Will the time, money, and energy devoted to one of your children negatively impact the attention you give your other children as well as the opportunities and experiences they have to succeed (and just live their own lives).

A final thought about this oh-so-difficult decision. As I ponder this discussion as it relates to my own family, I keep returning to one word: ‘values.” Ultimately, you must do what is consistent with your family’s values. If you value a single-minded focus on one sport at an early age for your children and are willing to make choices led by that early specialization, more power to you. At the same time, if you don’t see the value of early specialization and have other priorities for your children and family, more power to you as well.

So, where does all this leave us in deciding whether to follow the path of early specialization (which is being pushed these days at every level of athletic development) or that of the experts and research who say it is better long term to have multisport participation until age 12 or so and then make the decision on whether to specialize?

Even after this lengthy discussion, I don’t have a clear answer to whether young athletes should specialize early. Both paths hold potential risks and benefits, both short-term and in the future, athletically, personally, and for the family. It all seems like such a roll of the dice.

As for the path our family is taking with ski racing, my wife and I have decided to maintain a balanced approach to our daughters’ participation in the sport. We are giving them the best opportunities to develop the requisite skills they will need should they choose to commit themselves to ski racing, while maintaining a degree of balance and freedom about what path they can take in the next few years. Is this the right decision for us now? Definitely. Will it turn out to be the right decision in the future? Check back with me in about 10 years and I’ll let you know.

Swimmer Ledecky’s Parents are My Heroes

downloadKatie Ledecky made history when she won the four freestyle swimming event between 200 and 1500 meters at the recently concluded 2015 World Swimming Championships in Kazan, Russia. Her athletic feat was singularly remarkable to be sure. However, I’m more interested in what led her to this place, particularly the role that her parents played in her amazing mental strength.

The thoughts I am about to share from Ledecky’s coach, her parents, and herself speak to issues that I see frequently in my work with athletes: expectations, pressure, and, most importantly, fear of failure.

A recent article in the New York Times offered some insights into Ledecky’s psychology that has led to her success.

From her coach, Bruce Gemmell, “Most children, start out carefree only to be tripped up by fear as they venture deeper into their pursuit. Sometimes we’re not kind to them, the sport’s not kind to them, and they sort of become that way. It could be classmates, it could be media, it could be teammates, it can be various people who are trying to be very helpful and sort of cast this net of creating failure as something to be afraid of.”

About her parents, “Ledecky is the way she is partly because of a combination of her mental toughness and the unconditional love of her inner circle. Ledecky’s parents, Mary Gen and Dave, dispense hugs, not technical advice, leaving the postrace analysis to Ledecky’s coaches. They support her swimming but do not smother her with expectations. Their view is that whatever she accomplishes in the water is but one strand in a rich life tapestry that includes academics and service and family.”

More from Gemmel, “It’s such a safe environment to go out and do something that you love and try your hardest. At the end of the day, Mom and Dad are still going to love you, your coach is still going to coach you, your friends are still going to be your friends. To get kids to grasp that, that’s sometimes difficult.”

Finally, Katie Ledecky summed it up briefly, yet so profoundly, “I wasn’t afraid to fail. I had nothing to lose.”

If every young athlete could embrace that attitude, everyone would find success and achieve their own personal athletic greatness.

Unfortunately, young athletes can only adopt this wonderful attitude if their parents, coaches, and the greater sports culture also embrace that attitude. Sadly, this attitude is in short supply these days.

As a parent or coach, are you willing to resist the pressure from the ‘youth sports industrial complex’ and do what’s best for the children?

Summer is a Great Time to Watch Ski Racing Video

video analysisWatching videos of yourself and World Cup racers is a valuable tool for improving technique and tactics, getting inspired, and increasing motivation, confidence, and focus. If you’re like most racers,  you use it a lot during the winter as part of your training. Video enables you to more clearly understand and see what you need to work on and you can learn a great deal by seeing fast skiing demonstrated by your favorite World Cuppers. Video is also a form of mental imagery that can help you generate the image and feeling of skiing your best.

The use of video tends to decline during the summer when racers are focused on other activities. But its use should actually increase for the very same reason. Why? Because you aren’t on snow as much or at all which means you can lose the feeling of fast skiing. Video can keep you mentally sharp and allow you to develop your ski racing skills when you’re not on snow.

But just watching video isn’t going to maximize its benefits during the off-season. Instead, you can use video in specific ways to help you gain the most benefits.

Common Mistakes

If you’re like most ski racers, you are probably not watching video in the most effective way. For example, there is a tendency among racers and coaches alike to focus on your mistakes. This emphasis seems to make sense because if you watch your mistakes, you can learn from and correct them. But watching only mistakes ingrains a negative image and feeling into your mind and body much like physically practicing bad technique or tactics will instill bad skiing into your mind and muscles.

You may focus also too much on the details of the video, for example, stance or hand position. Video is used mostly for analysis, so it’s easy to obsess about every little detail rather than absorbing the whole image. Just like with actual skiing, if you focus too much on the minutiae, you lose sight of just skiing fast.

Watching World Cup videos is fun and motivating. I’m sure you have your favorites and you like to watch and fantasize about skiing like them one day. But watching too of them and not enough of yourself may cause you to imagine yourself skiing like one of them rather than the way you ski. That sounds good in theory, but the reality is that you can’t ski like the top guys and gals (at least not yet!).

You may also watch World Cuppers that you have no chance of emulating because they are so physically different from you. For example, if you’re tall and thin, you shouldn’t imagine yourself skiing like Marcel Hirscher (who is short and stocky) or Anna Fenninger (who is short and petite).

Rules of Video Watching

When you watch video follow these rules:

  • Take in the whole image rather than paying too much attention to details. Allow the over-all image of good skiing sink into your mind rather than getting obsessed with every little detail.
  • Though you learn about what you need to work on by watching your mistakes, I recommend watching at least 75% “highlight” videos of yourself skiing well.
  • To maximize the benefits of watching World Cup footage, identify racers who are physically and technically similar to you so you can more easily incorporate their technique into your style.
  • Rather than imagining yourself skiing like your favorite World Cuppers, take what they do so well technically and tactically and incorporate those into your own skiing.

Video as Mental Imagery

As you may know, I’m a huge believer in the power of mental imagery. And video, though not often thought of this way, is a powerful type of mental imagery. You can incorporate mental imagery into your use of video by including it in your video sessions. Here’s how:

  • Watch a run of yourself on video identifying what you did well and where you need to improve.
  • Immediately close your eyes and see and feel yourself skiing just the way you want. Ingrain the positive images and feelings from the video into your imagery.
  • If you made mistakes in your video run, “rewind and edit” the video in your mind’s eye by redoing the videoed run and making the necessary corrections.

I encourage you to commit to a consistent program of video (and mental imagery) this summer. If you do, I can assure you that you will be mentally and physically better prepared to ski your fastest and achieve your ski racing goals next winter.

 

Children Become the Messages They Get the Most

CaptureI was recently interviewed by the Naples Herald (FL) on my third parenting book, Your Children are Listening: Nine Messages They Need to Hear from You.

The interview focuses on one of my most basic ideas in parenting: Your children become the messages they get the most. In other words, the messages they get from you (most powerfully), peers, other adults, and popular culture shape who the people they become, the values they adopt, and the direction their lives take.

So, it is essential that you are aware of the messages you send your children and ensure that most of the messages are positive ones. Additionally, you want to cognizant of the messages they are getting from other places and be sure that those messages support, rather than undermine, yours.

Is Coding Camp a Good Thing? Answer: Not to Me

KidsCoding04One of the booming trends in the ‘youth-achievement-industrial complex’ is computer coding camps (and after-school coding programs). Here is an article in which I was interviewed that discusses this new, and to me, troubling development.

I think this trend is driven by two unhealthy forces. First, economic uncertainty that has created immense anxiety in parents for their children’s futures. The financial upheavals of the past two decades and data showing that the current generation of children may be the first in which it will be worse off economically than their parents have left parents terrified that their children will not ‘make it’ and will move back in with them (‘boomerang kids!).

There is no doubt that many future jobs will be in the technology industry. My question is whether exposure to coding at an early age will best prepare them for the STEM world. Consider Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and Marissa Mayer. They have become wildly successful and wealthy, but not because they learned how to code at a young age. Rather, they reached such lofty heights because they learned to think creatively, innovatively, and expansively. And that type of thinking won’t develop from coding. Ironically enough, it will arise from free play at an early age.

Second, we live in a hyper-achievement culture that has been driven by both the economic uncertainty that I just discussed and the rise in values such as materialism, consumption, and enough is never enough. This distorted culture has been fostered by a world dominated by financial interests (a topic best saved for another time) and the Internet which provides a conduit for those interests to be ever-present in people’s lives. No longer do we compare ourselves to our neighbors, but rather to all of the ‘haves’ of the world. This culture in which good is no longer good enough has caused parents to feel as if they must ‘keep up with the Joneses’ or they will bad parents who are setting their children up for failure.

Proponents argue that this tech-dominated world is the one in which children are growing up and, if they don’t get on the tech train early, they will be left back at the station. I, however, argue that coding has far less value at a young age than, say, good, old-fashioned play. Unless children plan to have careers in the computer sciences, coding at such a young age is not only not useful, but also costly to other more important aspects of their development.

As with most things related to technology, I think there is a place for it in children’s lives. They certainly need to learn relevant tech skills to find success as adults. But they are going to learn how to navigate the tech world simply because that is the world they are growing up in; they don’t need to go to coding camp or taking coding classes to develop those skills.

A fundamental question that has not been answered yet is: How early do children need to be exposed to technology, such as coding, for it to have a real impact on their lives? Too many answers to this question are driven by greed and fear rather than reason and evidence.

If you compare coding to other professions, this contrast stark and just plain absurd. I don’t see parents sending their children to physician camp or lawyer camp or astrophysicist camp (though there are math camps; don’t even get me started on those!) when they are eight years old. Yet children somehow grow up prepared to be successful in these professions. Shockingly (note the irony in my use of that word), specialized training doesn’t begin in these fields until college or even graduate school and somehow people gain the necessary competence to do things like brain surgery, argue in front of the Supreme Court, and travel into space without starting in elementary school.

There are many reasons for parents to be wary of early and excessive exposure to technology, but my biggest concern is perhaps the simplest: opportunity costs. Time spent in front of a screen coding is time not spent engaging in other, developmentally more important activities such as free play, interacting with other kids, running around, playing sports, learning a musical instrument, or participating in cultural activities that will be far more enriching to them in the long run.

Look, if your child develops a passion for coding at eight years old, far be it from me to tell you not to encourage that interest. At the same time, what kids are into when they’re young rarely ever becomes their life’s passion or career path. And coding at a young age is not likely to have much impact on their career choices when they grow up.

My advice to you is to step back, take a deep breath, gain some perspective, and send your children to camps that involve being outdoors, playing with other kids, swimming, sports, arts and crafts, and all the things that I (and perhaps you) did at summer camp when I was a kid. I can assure you that your children will have plenty of time when they get older to sit at a desk and stare at a computer screen. Now isn’t that a pretty grim view of the future for them.

Interview on Tackling College Sports-Psychology of Sport

I was recently interviewed by Tackling College Sports on a wide range of topics related to sport psychology. You can listen to it here (scroll to bottom)

TCS Nation logo.

5 Things I Hate to See Racers Do in Training

marcel-hirscher-giant-slalom-mèribel-(fra)I’ve been in the ski racing world since I was six years old. The first 20 years, I was a racer learning the ups and downs of ski racing the hard way, mostly through trial and error, and sometimes painful failure. That, I can say with 20/20 hindsight and absolute certainty, is no way to figure out what it takes to be the best ski racer you can be. Sure, even the best racers in the world have to make a lot of mistakes and fail on the way to success. But it is a whole lot easier if you have at least some sense of what works and what doesn’t.

The last 30 years of my ski racing life have been devoted to helping ski racers (and coaches and parents) figure things out before they have problems, so when those problems arise, rather than flailing around, they have some plan for finding solutions.

One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned over these many years in our sport, and one that many young racers don’t seem to get, is that training really does matter. Too often, I see racers pretty much wasting their time in training; all the things that are necessary for quality training just aren’t there very often. I can’t tell you how much it irritates me when I’m on the hill working with young racers and see them do things that so obviously prevent them from getting the most out of their training.

With that said, let me present to you my 5 Things I Hate to See Racers Do in Training:

  1. Talking to other racers just before they leave the start gate. Focus is the most important mental contributor to quality training. Yet, what do I see more often than not before racers leave the start gate of a training course? Racers chatting it up before their turn in the gate, continuing to talk while in the gate, and, amazingly enough, racers who are still talking to their pals as they leave the gate. What’s missing here? Focus, of course. They are focusing on their conversations and what is behind them. What they should be focusing on is what they are working on and what lies ahead in the course.

Tip: About two minutes before your training run, stop talking to the racers around you. Narrow your focus, do some mental imagery of your upcoming run, and focus on what you’ll be working on.

  1. Cruising to the first gate in training. Back when I was racing, the clock started at the starting gate; I’m pretty sure that’s still the case! But you wouldn’t know it by the way many racers approach the first few gates of a training course. I regularly see young racers ease into the course by cruising to the first gate or two before settling in and going for it. This habit of working their way into training courses is related to intensity. Ski racing is a high-energy sport that requires power, quickness, and agility, as well as an aggressive mindset. If you don’t have both intensity and aggressiveness from the moment you kick out of the start, you are losing time.

Tip: Get your intensity up (“rev your engine”) before you get into the start gate by jumping up and down. Fire your mind up with thoughts of attacking. And explode out of the training-course gate. Coaches, makes sure you have a clearly identified starting gate, ideally with two poles (and a wand would be even better), so your racers get used to leaving a start gate in training.

  1. Giving up without a fight in training. This is my number-one pet peeve when it comes to training. So many racers I see will get in a little trouble on course and just ski out. What a truly terrible habit to get into! If you get used to giving up at the smallest problem in training, that’s what you’re training your mind and body to do in a race. There are usually some deeper psychological issues at play here that cause racers to bail out of a course at the slightest mistake, notably perfectionism and fear of failure. But the bottom line is that when you ski out of a course, one thing happens 100 percent of the time: you lose, whether not improving in training or DNFing in a race.

Tip: Fight for your life to stay in every course. Of course, there will be some training runs where you ski out because you were on the edge skiing so fast and just couldn’t hang on. Those “ski outs” are the good kind because you were pushing yourself beyond your comfort zone. Learning to never give up after a mistake will serve you well in races where even the top racers make mistakes, but get it right back and fight to the finish.

  1. Letting up at the last gate in training. I see so many young racers ease up at the last gate and cruise across the finish line in training. This is another habit that drives me crazy. Just like with cruising to the first gate, racers are ingraining letting up before the finish line. How often have you seen a racer having a good run and then, with only a few gates to the finish, hook a tip or make a mistake? This frustrating experience usually occurs because racers think their run is over and lose focus and intensity. But, just as the clock starts at the starting gate, it stops when racers cross the finish line, so you need to make sure that you are focused and intense all the way to the finish.

Tip: In training, always ski hard past the last gate and through the finish. Coaches, always have a finish line for your training courses so they can get used to skiing training courses all the way to the finish.

  1. Asking coaches to reset when the training course gets a bit rough. Young racers love to be one of the first on a newly set training course. It has “hero snow” and it’s much easier to ski well. But how often do racers race under those ideal conditions? Unless you’re in the top seed, not at all often. Yet, I constantly hear, “Hey coach, the course is too hard. When are you gonna reset?” If you are starting back in the pack when the course is chewed up, you shouldn’t even begin to run training courses until they get rough. The fact is the only way to ski well in tough race conditions is train under those conditions. By doing so, you learn what you need to do to make it down a tough course and you build confidence that can still ski well even if it is rough.

Tip: Rather than trying to be the first on the course, go at the end to simulate realistic race conditions. When the course is good and chewed up, say “Bring it on,” attack it, and ski your fastest (while realizing that it isn’t likely to be pretty or perfect). Coaches, have racers who will be in the first group in races go first and have racers who will be in the later seeds go last on training course.

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