All posts by Dr. Jim Taylor

A Ski Racing Dad’s Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Great Day

Thankfully, not me and not that bad!

Thankfully, not me and not that bad!

What you are about to read is based on a true story. And apologies in advance for its length.

I had a feeling that the other weekend wasn’t going to go as planned. My wife, Sarah,

had just left for ten days in Cambodia, so I was on full-time parenting duty. When I picked my daughters, Catie (age 10) and Gracie (age 8), up from school at lunchtime on Friday to head up to Sugar Bowl (where they are on the ski team), it was pouring rain in Mill Valley. And it was still pouring when we arrived at our cabin in Serene Lakes later that afternoon and well into the night.

Saturday didn’t go much better. Catie’s race at Alpine Meadows was postponed due to the weather. Plus, two lifts at Sugar Bowl were out of commission because of the rain, meaning that I spent most of the day standing in a lift line.

Part I: Going Deep

The next day was Gracie’s race at Alpine and the morning started off well. We were up early, dressed, and out the door by 6:45 am, the girls in good spirits, and our trusted Aussie, Tule, was riding shotgun and ready to roll.

About five minutes later, my terrible, horrible, no good, very great day began. There’s only one way out of Serene Lakes and, as we descended the hill near Soda Springs ski area, we saw several cars stopped and a pay loader in the street. The road out of Serene Lakes had flooded and was under an undetermined amount of water. We asked the driver of the pay loader if it was passable and he said, “You can take your chances.” Two big pick-ups with a lot of ground clearance made it through just fine. I was driving our Toyota Highlander Hybrid which I thought had pretty good ground clearance.

At that moment, I was faced with a very difficult decision. Should we go back to our house in the hope that the accumulated water would recede or do we take our chances and attempt to traverse the uncertain waters. My immediate thought was: there’s no way my kid is going to miss her race! So, given that I am of the school that espouses the “go big or go home” philosophy of life (also known as, “it’s better to make errors of commission than errors of omission”), I told my girls we were going for it. Though they were a bit scared, they started cheering us on. As we entered the flooded area, I knew I was entering that the gray area between heroic bravery (in the , first-world, suburban sense) and impulsive folly. A friend of ours said after that wherever risk taking goes, stupidity is often only a step or two behind.

We were about half way through and things were looking good. Then the water seemed to get deeper, a lot deeper. As we continued to push through, the water was gushing over the hood of the car and we were shooting up rooster tails on both sides. At that point my biggest fear was that we were going to get stranded in the middle of the torrent. A second later, the warning lights on the dashboard lit up big time. Right then, I was slowly making the shift from hero to idiot. But the end was in sight and we slowly climbed out of the quagmire. I thought we were home free.

We were not home free.

We headed toward I-80 and, though the warning lights were still on, we were moving forward. I figured that the car just needed a few miles to drain the water and we would be fine. I was wrong. With the ramp to the interstate in sight, we were still moving, though more and more slowly. Within a half mile of entering I-80, I pulled to the shoulder as the car sputtered and died.

Part II: Saved by the Cell

Thankfully, our friends the Zemkes who were also going to the race, had a condo on the good side of the flood. I called Laura, explained the situation, and she and her daughter, Hannah, picked up my girls and took them to Alpine while I stayed with the lifeless car. I called AAA and, 1 ½ hours later, Albert, the AAA guy, pulled up in his flatbed tow truck. Being the optimist that I am and Albert telling me that he has a lot of experience towing Highlander Hybrids (didn’t inspire confidence in my choice of SUVs, to be sure), I was hopeful that he could resuscitate my comatose car. But no, once again, the almighty winter gods were punishing me for my hubristic belief that I could exert dominion over their elements.

In any case, Albert pulled the car onto flatbed and off he, Tule, and I headed to Truckee. During the drive, during which Albert and I developed a deep, though short-lived, relationship, I considered my options. As it was Sunday, there were no auto repair shops open. An Enterprise rental car office was supposed to be open, but no one answered the phone. Four important problems came to mind as I pondered the situation I put myself in:

  1. How was I going to get to Alpine to rejoin my girls and watch Gracie race?
  2. How were we going to get home so my girls didn’t miss school and I didn’t miss work?
  3. How was I going to get the car fixed and running again?
  4. How was I going to pick up the car once it was road worthy again?

I had no solutions to any of these problems.

Part III: From Helpless to Hopeful

We arrived at the auto repair shop that would open Monday morning. I had hoped that, somehow, the car would fix itself and it would start right up after Albert lowered it to the ground (did I mention that I’m an eternal optimist?). Again, my hopes were dashed as the winter gods found pleasure in my suffering. I asked Albert if he could give me a ride into Truckee, but he said he had to respond to another distressed motorist in the opposite direction. I was feeling more than a bit overwhelmed, helpless, and alone at that moment. Then a text message exchange renewed my hope in the day. They were from Kate Krebhiel (nee Davenport), a former U.S. Ski Team athlete and the mother of three kids on the Sugar Bowl ski team whom I’ve known for years. They read:

KK: Heard your car got towed you ok? 9:14 AM

Me: OK. Still trying to figure out transport home. Do you have room for us? Laura might be able to take us home. Or I’m looking into renting a car. 9:29 AM

KK: I actually have two cars up here so it’s your lucky day you can drive our Audi wagon home 9:30 AM

KK: Do you have AAA Premier? They offer 200 mile towing free… 9:32 AM

Me: No, just classic, only 5 miles. 😥 9:33 AM

KK: Well my car is yours. I have the key. It’s in the SB garage 9:46 AM

Me: You mean I can drive it to MV? 9:51 AM

KK: Yes 9:51 AM

Me: Wow! 9:52 AM

I felt the weight of the day begin to lift as I now had solutions to problems #2-#4. I still had to solve problem #1, but, with renewed vigor, I was now a man with a plan and I was on the move.

I locked the car in the auto repair parking lot and left Tule there. Before you call the ASPCA with charges of animal cruelty against me, let me tell you that he loves hanging out in our car. At home, while I’m in my home office, he will spend the entire day in our car. When we go skiing, he would rather be in the car in the Sugar Bowl parking lot than be at our house in Serene Lakes.

I took a taxi to downtown Truckee and went into the local supermarket to warm up and strategize. I called AAA and upgraded my membership that includes the 200-mile free tow, so I could get the car home. The only caveat is that I had to wait 48 hours before the upgrade would go into effect, meaning I had to wait till Tuesday to have the car towed home.

Now I needed to find a solution to problem #1, getting to Alpine Meadows to be with my girls. Renting a car for a few hours seemed like a waste of money. I checked into taking a bus, but I couldn’t figure out the bus schedule. So, I did something I hadn’t done in more than 35 years: I walked to the side of the road to Alpine and stuck out my thumb. It took me longer than I expected to get my first ride given that I don’t think I’m a particularly menacing-looking fellow, but, after three rides through bumper-to-bumper traffic (it was a powder day in Tahoe!), I arrived at Alpine tired, but relieved.

I rushed into the base lodge and was surprised to learn that my adventures had already reached near-mythic proportions among the Sugar Bowl parents. One of the moms told me that I could still catch Gracie’s first run if I hurried. After all I had been through that morning (and it was still only 11 am), I was near tears watching her ski the course. When Gracie came through the finish line, she had a big smile on her face and when she saw me, that smile exploded. A long hug and a big kiss ensued. Catie, who had watched Gracie’s run the side of the course, came down and, with more hugs and kisses, our reunion was complete.

The middle part of the day was relatively uneventful with a lot of storytelling about my adventures, hand shaking from the dads for my gutsiness, and comforting hugging and hard looks from the moms questioning my judgment, followed by a successful second run for Gracie.

Part IV: Homeward Bound…Very Slowly

Laura had continued her immense generosity of spirit by agreeing to drive us back to our car to pick up Tule and then to Kate’s car in the Sugar Bowl garage. With the race completed, we rushed to get on the road only to experience more bumper-to-bumper traffic and a 1:40 hour drive to Truckee (usually takes 20 mins.). My girls and Hannah passed the time happily listening to a Harry Potter audiobook and making origami boxes. I kept checking Waze for traffic updates (did I mention that I have a bit of a masochistic streak in me?).

We picked up Tule (just another day in the car for him) and headed up to Sugar Bowl. When we passed Soda Springs Road at around 5 pm, there were a bunch of cars and a TV news crew. We learned that the road had only opened 30 minutes earlier, having stranded many people including a number of Sugar Bowl ski team families with kids who missed the race.

We packed up Kate’s car and spent the next 3 ½ hours on the surprisingly uneventful drive home. Catie and Gracie played happily part of the way, fought bitterly for seat space part of the way, and slept peacefully part of the way, while Tule gnawing contentedly on a bone he found under one of the seats. We arrived home around 9:15 pm and my girls went straight to bed in their long johns. I emptied the car, fed Tule, cleared my desk, and dropped off to sleep, happy and relieved that my horrible, terrible, no good, very great day was over.

Part V: Some Bad News and Some Good News

My car was towed 187 miles to the local Toyota dealership two days later and I anxiously awaited word from their service department about the extent of the damage that my decision had incurred. I felt that the cost of getting the Highlander fixed would weigh heavily in whether my decision was intrepid or foolhardy.

I received a call from the Toyota dealer and the news was not good. Being the optimist that I am, I truly believed that the repair would be relatively minor. I was wrong again as I shook my fist at the winter gods who would not let me off easy for my impudence. The engine was completely water logged and would need to be rebuilt. I was absolutely dumbstruck when I heard the price for replacing an engine with a used one (I’m even too embarrassed to share it with you). Suffice it to say, if you’re not familiar with auto repairs, it is known as a ‘big-ticket item.’ Gosh, aren’t cars supposed to be built to take a pounding? Perhaps so, but apparently not a drowning.

But there were two pieces of good news that substantially eased my pain. First, our insurance company is going to pick up the cost of the repair minus our deductible. Second, the replacement engine has only 13,000 miles on it (our old one had 75,000), so, instead of this experience being our Highlander’s death knell, it actually gave it a new lease on life.

Part VI: The Price You Pay

Of course, the ultimate cost of this self-induced fiasco was a concern of mine. Here’s a breakdown (pun intended):

AAA: $20 (unsolicited tip for Albert)
Taxi: $20
AAA upgrade: $97
Insurance deductible: $1000
Experience: Priceless

Given the potential costs that could have been incurred, I feel pretty fortunate that this was all it will cost us. Though certainly not chump change, the total cost makes having made my decision a bit more palatable.

Part VII: Reflections

It’s easy to look in the rearview mirror and pass judgment on a decision that has been made when the consequences are known. In retrospect, was it a good decision? Clearly not. Would I do it again? Of course not. Do I feel embarrassed by my decision? A little, but I also feel a bit of pride (however immature or macho) for taking my shot for my children in an uncertain situation. The consequences may have been somewhat costly in terms of dollars, but the experience was full of life lessons about decision making, risk taking, staying calm under stress, and the importance of community for my daughters and for myself. And I’m not so embarrassed that I’m unwilling to share my story with others who may judge me kindly or harshly.

Do I regret my decision? If my feelings are based solely on the cost of my decision, I have big regrets, to be sure. At the same time, again in retrospect, if I consider the totality of the experience, I’m not so sure. The fact is that no one was hurt, the car will be repaired, we can manage the financial hit, and life will go on. And we now have a great story to tell people.

But we don’t live life in retrospect. If we could look into the future and know how our decisions will turn out, life would be easy…and quite uninteresting. I made a decision, I took a risk. It didn’t work out the way I had hoped, though without dire consequences. I’m human. I sometimes make poor decisions. I can live with that. Plus, my girls are safe and happy. I am back to work. My wife is home. And our Highlander will be back in our garage soon, with a rebuilt engine, ready for another trip to Tahoe.

Time to get on with life.

Finally, as I have chronicled over the last five years (here and here), I have decidedly mixed feelings about whether I want Catie and Gracie to become ski racers. Well, on that day, in the stressed and weary state I was in, I decided with absolute certainty that I didn’t want them to get into ski racing if we were going to endure days like this. I also thought of the early morning drives to races, the more frequent trips to the mountains, the opportunity costs of being a ski racing family, the tough choices on how we would commit our time, energy, and money, and the divergent race schedules requiring our family to be separated often. The scales tipped heavily toward just being a skiing family.

Then, as we drove home, I began to relax and settle down. Catie and Gracie started recounting the excitement of the day. They couldn’t wait to tell their class at school about the craziness. I began to focus on the good things that came from the day. The girls were confronted with a pretty challenging experience, yet responded to the drama with a few tears, but mostly with resilience and good cheer. With my wife away, I was alone in a very difficult situation (only myself to blame, of course), yet I stayed positive and calm throughout the day. I actually felt just a little bit heroic for being able to untangle myself from the spider’s web I caught myself in. And I was a pretty darned good dad to Catie and Gracie through it all, to boot.

So, I decided that I would set aside my rather impulsive decision about my girls’ future in ski racing and table it for another time.

My daughter, Catie, exhausted, but smiling, summed it up nicely when I was tucking her into bed back at our home in Mill Valley with the difficult day behind us: “Daddy, we had a very great day today!” Yes, my dear, we did. Sweet dreams…

Every Day Can Be a Good Day of Sports Training

Training-camp_0One of the most frequent comments I hear from the athletes I work with is: “I had a lousy day of training.” This statement was almost always accompanied by a variety of emotions that are neither pleasant nor helpful including frustration, anger, worry, doubt, and disappointment, and, occasionally, despair. Moreover, I saw that this assertion hurt athletes’ motivation, confidence, and focus, and, as a result, their subsequent training and competitive efforts often suffered.

Given the frequency with which I heard this sort of judgment and how much harm it does to athletes, I wanted to explore it further in the hopes of finding a way to lessen its impact and even change how athletes evaluate their daily training experiences.

To be sure, a good training day is not hard to miss and certainly always welcome. You perform technically and tactically well. You learn something new that makes you better. You perform consistently with few mistakes. You are mentally there; motivated, confident, intense, and focused. Most importantly, you perform your best. It helps when the weather and conditions are good. It also helps when you are healthy, rested, and life away from your sport is going well for you. After training, you’re super psyched and happy. As the saying goes, “It’s all good.”

Equally sure, a bad training day is also hard to miss and most certainly not welcome. When I asked athletes why they would make such a pessimistic assessment of their training days, several themes emerged from their most common responses:

  • Bad technique: “My form was terrible today.”
  • Difficulty learning a new skill: “I tried all day, but just couldn’t get it.”
  • Mistakes: “I was screwing up constantly.”
  • Slow: “I felt like I was in slow motion.”
  • Mental: “My head just wasn’t in it today.”
  • Not fun: “It was a slog getting through the day.”

All of these statements seem to give good cause to conclude that “I had a lousy day of training.” At the same time, I would argue that such a discouraging conclusion is both inaccurate and decidedly unhelpful as you pursue your sports goals. The problem is that this perception of the quality of the training day is defined too narrowly and actually prevents you from seeing the many benefits you get from a day that you might ordinarily decide was awful.

I believe that every day can be a good day of training. Some days, the benefits are clear: you make technical, tactical, or speed gains. But other days, you or the conditions conspire to ensure that no matter what you do, good skiing just isn’t going to happen. Those days certainly suck, but they are also inevitable. So what matters is how you respond to them. Let’s start with my one definition of a bad day of training: When you turn against and give up on yourself. That is the worst kind of training day and can only hurt your performances. The great thing about this definition of a bad training day is that it is completely within your control because it is all about how you think about and react to the challenges you are faced with.

Those are the days that you need to broaden your definition of what constitutes a good day of training beyond good technique, tactics, or good play. This narrow definition of a good day ignores another piece of the “success” puzzle that is essential to ultimately achieving your sports goals, namely, training your mind. On those so-called bad days, you have an incredible opportunity to become a better athlete by strengthening your mind while everything else may be going to hell. You can do this in several ways.

First, I’m not asking you to say “I’m lovin’ it!” That’s just plain unrealistic given that there are plenty of good reasons why you don’t love it. At the same time, you can’t hate it because, if you do, you will probably give up and your training day will have been a waste. You need to find a middle ground between the extremes of love and hate. That happy medium to just “accept and deal” meaning acknowledge that it’s going to be a tough day and decide that you’re going to get the most out of it you can.

Second, on bad days, it’s easy to go to the “dark side,” meaning you get negative, discouraged, and maybe even quit. Instead, you could stay positive and motivated, and choose to keep fighting through the challenges. Training and ingraining this more constructive reaction is so important because you’re going to have a lot of those “bad days” in your sports career. And you can decide whether the Force is going to be with you or against you (apologies for the Star Wars reference).

Third, those bad days are really uncomfortable and they don’t feel good in any way. These days are great opportunities for you to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. These experiences are so valuable because there is a lot of discomfort in sports. Plus, the only way you’re going to continue to progress toward athletic goals is to get out of your comfort zone. So, on those uncomfortable training days, you want to embrace, rather than give in to, the discomfort until the discomfort becomes comfortable.

Fourth, sports are rife with adversity including weather, conditions, and tough competitors. Moreover, everyone in the field has to perform in many of the same conditions. So, it’s not the conditions that matter, but rather how you perceive (threat or challenge) and react to them (fight or give up). Bad days are a great way to figure out how to perform your best (or just survive) in those tough conditions, so when you get to game day with similar bad conditions, you have the attitude and tools necessary to respond positively to them and perform as well as you can.

Fifth, as I noted above, so-called bad days can trigger in you a number of unpleasant emotions such as frustration and disappointment, all of which can make your bad days even worse. You have the opportunity to turn those emotions around and generate more positive emotions, such as pride and inspiration, that will keep you positive and motivated during the rough times. Clearly, this “emotional mastery” will serve you well on race day.

Finally, reinterpreted so-called bad days will make you a more resilient and adaptable athlete. Resilience means you’ll be better able to react positively the always-present adversity of sports. You will have a stronger mind for everything that sports (and life) throws at you every day.

The end result is simple, yet powerful. When you make every day a good day of training, you have fewer ups and downs, you have more fun, you perform better, and you progress toward your sports goals faster.

How to Raise a Creative Child

CaptureI just read an eye-opening article titled How to Raise a Creative Child. The ideas and research discussed in the article challenge the conventional wisdom on how to raise children who will be creative and successful.

The article argues that the ‘drill and kill’ and early specialization approaches to child development are counterproductive to innovative and original thinking.
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The Gift of Raising Ski Racers: A Must-Read

web-Talia-Bodle-u12-ladiesJust read a wonderful commentary about having ski racing children by former Burkie, Jesse James.

If you have kids in ski racing, you’ll nod knowingly and perhaps even shed a tear (as I did). If you’re not a ski racing parent, but rather a parent of an athlete in another sport, you’ll still relate to the wonderful benefits of sports participation.

Every Day Can Be a Good Day of Training

Mitchell Gunn, with permission

One of the most frequent comments I hear from the racers I work with is: “I had a lousy day of training.” This statement was almost always accompanied by a variety of emotions that are neither pleasant nor helpful including frustration, anger, worry, doubt, and disappointment, and, occasionally, despair. Moreover, I saw that this assertion hurt racers’ motivation, confidence, and focus, and, as a result, their subsequent training and competitive efforts often suffered.

Given the frequency with which I heard this sort of judgment and how much harm it does to racers, I wanted to explore it further in the hopes of finding a way to lessen its impact and even change how racers evaluate their daily training experiences.

To be sure, a good training day is not hard to miss and certainly always welcome. You ski technically and tactically well. You learn something new that makes you better. You ski consistently with few mistakes. You are mentally there; motivated, confident, intense, and focused. Most importantly, you ski fast. It helps when the weather is good (30 degrees and sunny), the snow is hard, and you’re training your best event on your favorite hill. It also helps when you are healthy, rested, and life off snow is going well for you. After training, you’re super psyched and happy. As the saying goes, “It’s all good.”

Equally sure, a bad training day is also hard to miss and most certainly not welcome. When I asked racers why they would make such a pessimistic assessment of their training days, several themes emerged from their most common responses:

  • Bad technique: “I skied like crap today.”
  • Difficulty learning a new skill: “I tried all day, but just couldn’t get it.”
  • Poor tactics: “I couldn’t hold my line.”
  • Mistakes: “I didn’t have a clean run all day.”
  • DNFs: “I couldn’t finish a course if my life depended on it.”
  • Slow: “I couldn’t figure out why I was two seconds out.”
  • Mental: “My head just wasn’t in it today.”
  • Not fun: “It was a slog getting through the day.”

All of these statements seem to give good cause to conclude that “I had a lousy day of training.” At the same time, I would argue that such a discouraging conclusion is both inaccurate and decidedly unhelpful as you pursue your ski racing goals. The problem is that this perception of the quality of the training day is defined too narrowly and actually prevents you from seeing the many benefits you get from a day that you might ordinarily decide was awful.

I believe that every day can be a good day of training. Some days, the benefits are clear: you make technical, tactical, or speed gains. But other days, you or the conditions conspire to ensure that no matter what you do, good skiing just isn’t going to happen. Those days certainly suck, but they are also inevitable. So what matters is how you respond to them. Let’s start with my one definition of a bad day of training: When you turn against and give up on yourself. That is the worst kind of training day and can only hurt your skiing. The great thing about this definition of a bad training day is that it is completely within your control because it is all about how you think about and react to the challenges you are faced with.

Those are the days that you need to broaden your definition of what constitutes a good day of training beyond good technique, tactics, or speed. This narrow definition of a good day ignores another piece of the “skiing fast” puzzle that is essential to ultimately achieving your ski racing goals, namely, training your mind. On those so-called bad days, you have an incredible opportunity to become a better ski racer by strengthening your mind while everything else may be going to hell. You can do this in several ways.

First, I’m not asking you to say “I’m lovin’ it!” That’s just plain unrealistic given that there are plenty of good reasons why you aren’t loving it. At the same time, you can’t hate it because, if you do, you will probably give up and your training day will have been a waste. You need to find a middle ground between the extremes of love and hate. That happy medium to just “accept and deal” meaning acknowledge that it’s going to be a tough day and decide that you’re going to get the most out of it you can.

Second, on bad days, it’s easy to go to the “dark side,” meaning you get negative, discouraged, and maybe even quit. Instead, you could stay positive and motivated, and choose to keep fighting through the challenges. Training and ingraining this more constructive reaction is so important because you’re going to have a lot of those “bad days” in your ski racing career. And you can decide whether the Force is going to be with you or against you (apologies for the Star Wars reference).

Third, those bad days are really uncomfortable and they don’t feel good in any way. These days are great opportunities for you to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. These experiences are so valuable because there is a lot of discomfort in ski racing. Plus, the only way you’re going to continue to progress toward ski racing goals is to get out of your comfort zone. So, on those uncomfortable training days, you want to embrace, rather than give in to, the discomfort until the discomfort becomes comfortable.

Fourth, ski racing is a sport that is rife with difficult conditions including courses, weather, terrain, and snow conditions. Moreover, because everyone in the field has to ski in many of the same conditions (though start number impacts snow conditions). So, it’s not the conditions that matter, but rather how you perceive (threat or challenge) and react to them (fight or give up). Bad days are a great way to figure out how to ski your best (or just survive) in those tough conditions, so when you get to a race with similar bad conditions, you have the attitude and tools necessary to respond positively to them and ski as well as you can.

Fifth, as I noted above, so-called bad days can trigger in you a number of unpleasant emotions such as frustration and disappointment, all of which can make your bad days even worse. You have the opportunity to turn those emotions around and generate more positive emotions, such as pride and inspiration, that will keep you positive and motivated during the rough times. Clearly, this “emotional mastery” will serve you well on race day.

Finally, reinterpreted so-called bad days will make you a more resilient and adaptable ski racer. Resilience means you’ll be better able to react positively the always-present adversity of our sport. You will have a stronger mind for everything that ski racing (and life) throws at you every day.

The end result is simple, yet powerful. When you make every day a good day of training, you have fewer ups and downs, you have more fun, you ski faster, and you progress toward your ski racing goals faster.

5 Things I Hate to See Racers Do in Training

Mitchell Gunn with permissionI’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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Take Risks for Ski Racing Success

Mitchell Gunn by permission

In the last article in my series on the gifts that Mikaela Shiffrin gave to ski racers for the holidays, I described how I have seen her evolve from consistent and rock-solid racer (and, of course, incredibly fast) into a risk taker on skis (who is now freakishly fast) as evidenced by her improvements in GS over the last year and her dramatic margins of victory in her last two SLs in Aspen. In that article, I assert that taking appropriate risks is essential for every racer to push their limits and find out how fast they can ski.

This article will continue this discussion of risk taking and focus on why it never feels like the right time to start taking risks, how to become a risk taker on skis, and how to build risk taking into your training and your life.

No Time Like the Present to Take Risks

It never feels like the right time to take risks because, well, there are risks to taking risks. First, when you start taking risks as you learn to push your limits, those risks won’t be rewarded right away. In other words, you’ll likely make mistakes and DNF more than usual because you’re going faster than you are accustomed.

Risk taking is, in a sense, a skill that take time, commitment, and persistence to develop. Just like any skill, however, when you first start taking risks in your skiing, your mind and body aren’t going to be used to it, so your skiing may take a step or two backwards in your training and races. Because you haven’t ingrained the skills fully, it won’t immediately translate into fast and consistent skiing.

This inconsistency happened to a World Cupper I’ve been working with. In the first races of the year, he had great first or second runs, but made mistakes on the other runs. But after about a half dozen starts, his risk taking stared to click and he has had some fast and consistent races in both Nor-Ams and World Cups.

Second, because you will struggle at first, your confidence may also suffer and you may question whether risk taking is the right path to be on. You might say to yourself, “Gosh, my past, safer approach worked pretty well, certainly much better than the way this is going, so maybe I should just stick with what has worked.”

But what may have worked in the past and gotten you to where you currently are won’t work in the future or get you where you want to go. Your efforts shouldn’t be devoted to where you are now, but where you want to be next month, next year, or in five years in your ski racing. You need to prepare yourself for skiing at the next level. And skiing safe just won’t cut.

In an ideal world, the off-season is the best time to start taking risks because you have no concern about results and you have the time to retrain your risk-taking ‘muscle.’ But I would argue that there is no time like the present to start taking risks, regardless of the time of year. If you’re going to make a real commitment to risk taking to get your skiing to the next level, you might as well start now because the sooner you start, the sooner you’ll reap the benefits.

Risk Taking is a Lifestyle Choice

As I write this article, I realize that risk taking is not so much a skill as a lifestyle choice. The chances are that if you’re not a risk taker in your broader life, you’re probably not one in your ski racing. So, to become a risk taker on snow, you should embrace risk in all aspects of our life. If you can make taking risks a part of who you are, then risk taking in your skiing won’t be a stretch.

Before I continue, I think it would be a good idea to clarify what I mean by risk taking. I’m not talking about irresponsible risks such as jumping off the roof of your house or texting while driving. That’s not risk taking, that’s being stupid. When I talk about risks, I mean those that, when they pay off, will lead to improvement, growth, and success in your ski racing and life.

One great place that I have been challenging athletes I work with to take risks is socially and academically. For example, if you can ask someone you like out on a date (but haven’t been willing to take the risk of rejection), you’ll find it’s a lot less scary to straighten out a flush or charge onto a pitch. And if you can speak up in class when your teacher or professor asks a question, staying in your tuck a second longer or charging down a rutty course will seem like a piece of cake.

Threat vs. Challenge with Risk

The real risk of taking risks is that you might fail. And if you are overly focused on the costs of risk taking, usually driven by fear of failure or feeling pressure to get results, the chances are that you will shift into ‘threat’ mode in which your survival instinct is triggered and you’re driven to protect yourself from that threat. As a result, you become risk averse (because risk is a threat to your survival) and you’re not likely to take the risks necessary to ski your fastest.

You want to see risk taking as a challenge to pursue, not a threat to avoid. With this challenge response, you will be energized, motivated, confidence, and focused, all of which will help you make those risks pay off in fast and consistent skiing.

Risk Analysis

Every time you run a course, whether in training or a race, you are, without realizing it, doing a risk/reward analysis in which you weigh the benefits and costs of taking a risk, whether skiing a straighter line, charging down a rough course, or attacking a steep pitch.

You, of course, don’t want to take risks every turn; there is a place for risk and a place to ski clean and a bit safer. You have to decide your chances of staying in the course when you take a risk and whether the risk will result in time gained.

Risk-Taking Plan

You don’t want to just, all of a sudden, decide to take more risks in your skiing. Like making a technical or tactical change without careful thought and planning, that approach probably won’t work very well. Instead, you want to create a risk-taking plan in collaboration with your coaches to ensure that taking risks at this point makes sense (for example, you wouldn’t want to make this change before an important race series) and that they feel you are technically and tactically ready to move to this next level of skiing. The fact is that you can’t use risk taking to your advantage unless you have a solid foundation of technique and tactics that prepares you to ski your fastest.

First, talk to your coaches about your desire to start taking more risks to ski faster. Figure out with them how to incorporate risk taking into your current progression and training schedule. For example, you might decide to focus on taking risks on your first two and last two training runs and focus on technique or tactics on the training runs in between.

Second, remind yourself of the benefits of risk taking so you enter your training runs with a positive attitude. This attitude will help you stay confident and optimistic as you gain comfort with taking risks.

Third, acknowledge and accept that the risks you take may not pay off every run and that you may experience more mistakes and DNFs that before. You can even see the mistakes and DNFs as positive experiences because they are evidence that you are, in fact, taking more risks.

Fourth, on the training runs in which you decide to take risks, make a conscious commitment to focus exclusively on pushing your limits and skiing on the edge. When you’re in the starting gate of every training run, taking risks should be your only focus.

Fifth, make sure you’re totally prepared, physically and mentally, to take risks. This high state of readiness will increase the chances that your risks will pay off.

Sixth, take a leap of faith. Trust your plan for taking risks. Be consistent and persistent in your efforts to take your skiing to the next level by taking more risks. And be patient, knowing that it will take some time for your body, mind, technique, and tactics to get accustomed to skiing on the edge.

Finally, you may think that taking risks is, well, risky for your ski racing. But the reality is that not taking risks is far more risky because skiing safe will not get you where you want to go. If you take risks, you will certainly have some setbacks in the short run, but, in the long run, you give yourself a lot better chance of skiing your fastest and achieving your ski racing goals. So, when you look at it that way, taking risks in your ski racing isn’t risky at all!

Mikaela’s Holiday Gift #3: Risk

SEMMERING, AUSTRIA - DECEMBER 28: Mikaela Shiffrin of the USA reacts in the finish area after competing in the Audi FIS Alpine Ski World Cup Giant Slalom Race in Semmering, Austria, on 28 December 2012 (Photo by Mitchell Gunn/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Mikaela Shiffrin

SEMMERING, AUSTRIA – DECEMBER 28: Mikaela Shiffrin of the USA reacts in the finish area after competing in the Audi FIS Alpine Ski World Cup Giant Slalom Race in Semmering, Austria, on 28 December 2012 (Photo by Mitchell Gunn/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Mikaela Shiffrin

My first two articles in this three-part series on the gifts that Mikaela has given ski racers for the holidays from her World Cup lows and highs in Aspen in November focused on how to react to disappointment and the importance of fight to ski your fastest. In this last article in my series, I want to share with you the final gift that Mikaela has given racers from Aspen: risk.

I have been a keen observer of Mikaela since I first saw her train at Burke Mountain Academy when she was 13. There were two things that always struck me about her skiing. First, she was always rock solid; always stable, well balanced, and rarely out of control. Second, she was remarkably consistent; I don’t remember ever seeing her DNF on a training course. And here’s a freakish statistic: Mikaela has only DNF’d or DQ’d in a race THREE TIMES out of 50 starts since the start of the 2013-14 race season.

Oddly though, as fast as Mikaela has been and as many races and titles as she has won, I have always felt that she was skiing well within herself and actually leaving time on the course, in other words, even at her incredible level of skiing, she was really just skiing good, but not as fast as she could because she wasn’t taking the risks necessary to truly push the limits of which she is capable.

That good skiing seemed to end in Aspen as I saw a very different Mikaela in both the GS and the two SLs. In those races, it was clear to me that she was pushing hard right out of the start, making small mistakes (because she was seeking more speed), and was off balance frequently. In other words, Mikaela was stretching the limits of how fast she could go by taking risks. Though one could argue that her DNF three gates from the finish of a near-certain victory in the GS in Aspen was just a fluke or a tactical error, I see it as her taking a risk by straightening out her line in search of more speed. As for her two SL victories there, yes, she has won many World Cup SLs before, but never by such large margins, which means that she’s reached a new threshold of speed.

I see these three races as further evidence that her skiing—and her mentality—continue to evolve as she seeks to define the limits of how fast she can ski. Yes, she can get physically stronger, tweak her equipment, and fine tune her technique and tactics. But the final piece of this puzzle is the willingness to take risks. She seemed to support this development by saying, “…you don’t deserve to win races if you’re not taking some risk. So that’s what I did today, and it did pay off.”

To be sure, particularly for a sport such as ski racing, risk is essential for success. You just can’t ski safe or comfortably and expect to ski your fastest. There are too many racers pushing their limits at every level of racing and it’s the milliseconds that come from risk that make the difference between goals achieved and hopes dashed.

But taking appropriate risks in ski racing isn’t easy to do because taking risks is, well, risky. So, let’s explore risk and see how you can make it a part of your ski racing (and your life) to help you reach your ski racing (and your life) goals.

What is Risk?

The dictionary defines risk as a situation in which you expose yourself to danger. Though physical risk is an inevitable part of ski racing, the risk I’m talking about involves more psychological and emotional risk. Clearly, risk is essential for success not only in ski racing, but also in every aspect of life, whether starting a tech company, telling someone ‘I love you,’ or trying to finish an Ironman triathlon. If you don’t take risks, you won’t improve, progress, or grow. And you will never find out what you are truly capable of or how far you can go.

This kind of risk comes when you slide into the starting gate of a race and face a test of your ability, efforts, and preparation. You are putting your self-identity, self-esteem, and goals on the line. At the finish line—or on course if you DNF—you will learn whether you succeed or fail at the test. The risk then becomes clear: failure!

Given the risks of taking risks, there are obvious upsides to not taking risks. You stay safe. You never get uncomfortable. And you avoid total failure which I define as giving it your all and not achieving your goals (as long as you play it safe and don’t take risks, you will always have an excuse to protect yourself).

Of course, there are far more significant downsides to not taking risks. You will be perpetually stuck where you are. You will never be truly successful. You will feel really frustrated. And you will never be completely satisfied with your efforts.

To Risk or Not to Risk, That is the Question

Hopefully, I have convinced you of the necessity of risk in ski racing. But taking risks in ski racing is a simple, but not easy, choice. It’s a simple choice because would you rather take risks and succeed or play it safe and fail? The answer is obvious. At the same time, it’s not an easy choice because no one likes to fail and, when you take risks, failure is a distinct possibility (that’s the nature of risks). Also, there are a variety of powerful psychological and emotional forces that hold you back from taking risks:

  • Fear of failure (no way you’ll take a risk if you are afraid to fail).
  • Perfectionism (the bar is set so high anything less than perfection is failure).
  • Need for control (taking a risk requires that you give up control).
  • Lack of confidence in your abilities or preparation (you’re not going to take a risk if you don’t think you can succeed).

At the heart of risk taking is the willingness to accept that, when you take risks, you might fail. By its very nature, you are more likely to fail when you take risks. But, paradoxically, when you take risks, your chances of success also increase. If you can truly accept failure, failure is no longer a danger and, without that danger of failure, there’s no reason not to take risks because all you see are the upsides.

I’m not saying that you should take risks indiscriminately all the time; that’s a recipe for disaster. Your goal should be to increase your willingness to take appropriate risks.

STOP! I’m only about half way finished with what I want to say about risk and this article is already too long. So, you’ll have to wait until after Christmas to learn more about risk taking in ski racing.

Until then, I wish you all a wonderful and snowy holiday season (though things aren’t looking good back East!).

Psychological Rehab of Ski Racing Injury

Mitchell Gunn with permission

Mitchell Gunn with permission

The U.S. ski racing community was saddened to hear that Mikaela Shiffrin had injured her knee while free skiing before the World Cup in Are, Sweden and that the injury, a torn MCL of her right knee, might keep her out for the entire season.

With this injury, and the many others that have sidelined racers on the World Cup on down in the early stages of this race season, it thought it timely to return to a topic that is near and dear to me, namely, the role of the mind in responding to an injury and its impact on a quality rehabilitation and a timely and effective return to snow.

Though I don’t know the statistics on knee injuries in ski racing, I’m going to figure that a substantial portion of ski racers sustain a serious injury at some point in their careers. Also, as the author of two books on the psychology of injury, I regularly work with athletes of all sorts, including ski racers, helping them recover and return to their sport better than ever. Finally, having avoided serious injury during my own career (just a partially torn ACL and two broken wrists), I tore up and had surgery on my shoulder a few years ago while working with a group of racers in Chile and finally learned first hand how difficult recovering from a serious injury is.

The sad reality of ski racing is that many young racers either have so far or will this winter hurt themselves so seriously that it will end their seasons. The good news is that surgical and rehabilitative technology has become so advanced that a full physical recovery from an injury that a few decades ago might have been career-ending is now commonplace.

But another reality of physical injuries is that the mind gets damaged too, but little attention is paid to how the absence of “mental rehab” can prevent racers from returning to or improving on their pre-injury level of performance. As a result, I thought I would share some ideas I have about how injured athletes can ensure that their minds recover as fully as do their bodies.

Keep Perspective

Accept that getting hurt sucks and you will feel bad at times, especially early in your recovery when you’re more disabled than recovering. You will not be able to do the normal things to which you are accustomed. You will be in pain. You’ll feel frustrated, angry, and depressed. You’ll want to curl up in a ball and withdraw from life. These reactions are normal and, to some degree, healthy, as you have to allow yourself to grieve for your loss.

At the same time, if you allow yourself to stay in that funk for too long, you will surely slow your recovery. So, after a short time, get over your “pity party” and get your mind on your recovery; keep focused on the present (“What can I do now to get healthy?”) and the future (“I will heal and get back better than ever!”).

Another part of keeping perspective is that your injury seems like a big deal now, but, when you look back on it in a few years, it will probably be just a blip in your ski racing career and life. I’m working with a European racer who missed two years with a back injury, but he never gave up his dream and is now healthier and faster than ever.

Stick with Your Rehab Program

A simple reality I learned in recovering from my shoulder injury was that if you follow your rehab program, you will get better (and if you don’t you won’t). The problem is that rehab hurts (a lot!), is boring, tiring, monotonous, in other words, it gets old fast. That’s why so many injured athletes end up either shortening or skipping rehab sessions, or not putting in their best effort. The result: slowed or incomplete recovery.

There is also a subset of injured athletes who have the belief that more is better, so they do more sets and reps on more days than recommended by their rehab team. Unfortunately, this “more is better” mentality often results in overuse injuries and other complications, and a slowed rather than accelerated recovery. My recommendation here is very straightforward: Do exactly what your rehab people tell you to do, no more and no less.

Become a Better Athlete

I have seen careers saved by serious injuries. How’s that possible, you might ask. Getting injured can teach you to be tough, endure hardship, and really find your motivation for ski racing. Injuries can also enable you to focus on areas of our sport that have been weaknesses, but you simply haven’t had time to work on them. Yes, a knee injury, for example, can prevent you from doing a lot. But it’s also an opportunity to figure out ways you can improve as an athlete working around your knee, for instance, strengthen your core and upper body, improve your flexibility, and increase your stamina. The goal is for you to return to skiing a physically better athlete than you were before.

Redirect Your Energies

One of the most difficult aspects of an injury is that you can’t do what you normally do and are often at a loss how to expend that energy that builds up in you every day. Another downside is that you have lost something that has been a source of self-esteem, validation, meaning, satisfaction, and joy in your life.

Your best path is to find something toward which you can direct your energy and that will provide you with what ski racing used to for you. It can be anything, for example, learning a musical instrument, cooking, reading, school, whatever. The important thing is to find something you can care about and throw yourself into it just the way you threw yourself into your ski racing. Not only will it bolster how you feel about yourself, but it will also take your mind off of the disappointment of your injury and the difficulty of the recovery.

Stay Involved in Ski Racing

The chances are that much of your life revolves around ski racing and, being injured can cause you to feel isolated and at a distance from the sport you love. This separation from ski racing can also hurt your motivation because you aren’t experiencing many of the good things that you get from ski racing.

So, look for ways to stay connected with ski racing. For example, become an apprentice coach (this will help you learn more about technique) or help out at training and races. I realize that this might be difficult because you may be “jonesing” to be out there and you may not like seeing your competitors moving ahead of you. At the same time, both the connection and seeing others having fun and getting results will further motivate you to rehab and get back on snow.

Watch Ski-racing Video

Imagine if, while sidelined with an injury, you just sat on the sofa all day. Obviously, your muscles would atrophy and you’d get really out of shape. The same applies to your mind. If you don’t keep it sharp, it too will get soft and out of shape.

One way to keep your mind in shape is to watch video of World Cuppers and yourself. You can use video to “rehab” your mind and keep it focused and “in the game” during your recovery. Watch video of World Cuppers you admire three time a week for 10 minutes. You will learn about technique and feel inspired watching them (while recognizing that many of them have had serious injuries as well).

Develop a Mental Imagery Program

There is nothing more important to your mental recovery than mental imagery. Imagery is not just something that goes on in your head. In fact, it connects your mind and your body and, amazingly, activates muscles in the same way as when you are actually skiing (though not with the same intensity). Mental imagery, in a way, fools your body into thinking that you are really skiing.

Imagery has huge benefits to recovery from injury. Research has shown that you can improve your skills without actual training by engaging in regular mental imagery. So, by doing imagery regularly, you can maintain or maybe even better your skiing skills. Seeing and feeling yourself continuing to train and race (in your mind’s eye) will keep your motivation up (because you’ll be inspired to get back on snow and actually ski), your confidence high (because you’ll regularly see and feel yourself skiing fast), and your mind focused (because you’ll be exercising your mental muscles and, as a result, they will stay in shape for your return to snow). Importantly, imagery will make you feel like you’re still progressing as a ski racer.

Here is an article I wrote about mental imagery that will help you create your own mental imagery program.

Bottom Line

When you get seriously injured, it is a real bummer. But what is an even bigger bummer is not returning fully or as quickly as possible to ski racing. For you to return to snow as good or better than you were before your injury, you need to do everything possible to facilitate your recovery. That means, of course, following your physical rehab program to the letter. But it also means developing and following a mental rehab program as well, so that your body and your mind are fully recovered and prepared for the rigors of ski racing from the very first turn you make when you get back on snow.

Taylor Interview about Fear of Failure

trailrunnerI was recently interviewed by TrailRunnerNation on the topic of my  three-part series on Fear of Failure.

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