All posts by Dr. Jim Taylor

The Burden of Expectation: Another Lesson from Mikaela

imagesMikaela has certainly put herself between a rock and a hard place. Let’s start with the rock, which is the expectations she has created from her remarkable successes she has had during her short, though illustrious, career.

Mikaela has, over the years, built a veritable Mt. Everest of expectations for herself by so dominating slalom racing since her early and overwhelming victories at Topolino and Whistler Cup followed by her trifecta of success the last three years with her World Cup, World Championship, and Olympic titles.

Mikaela has set the bar so high in the minds of the ski racing community that anything less than a win is somehow seen as a disappointment by many. Case in point. Following her first World Cup GS victory in Solden, Mikaela ‘struggled’ through the next few races in which she finished 11th, 6th, and 5th. For any other World Cupper, that would be a nice demonstration of consistency and a good collection of points. But for Mikaela, because of her consistently incredible success the last few years, that string of results has been a cause for real concern among many in the ski racing world.

Now to the hard place. I’m talking about the 2015 World Ski Championships that not only is being held on American soil, but will be contested in Mikaela’s home town of Vail, Colorado. All of the expectations that Mikaela has had to carry, and the accompanying media attention, just get ratcheted up.

Yes, I think it is safe to say that the expectations for Mikaela to win championship gold on her home hill can’t get any higher. Of course, the fact is that she’s not the first great ski racer (or athlete in any sport) who had the hopes of a nation or the attention of the world resting on her shoulders. But, another fact is that some of those in the past have soared to the highest heights despite that burden of expectations while others have crumbled and failed under that weight.

I’m not Mr. Spock from Star Trek, so I can’t do a Vulcan mind meld and see what Mikaela is thinking or feeling about all of these expectations on her. I’m also not a psychic, so I can’t predict the future any better than anyone else. At the same time, there is a saying in psychology: “The best predictor of future performance is past performance.” And the reality is that Mikaela has demonstrated over and over again that she can ignore, let go of, or redirect that pressure (I don’t know which) and rise to the occasion under the brightest of spotlights. I have no reason to believe that she won’t do it again. So, if you’re a betting person, bet on Mikaela.

Despite its early focus on Mikaela, this article is really not about her. Instead, the World Championships provide yet another amazing lesson that all ski racers can learn from her, namely, how to deal with that burden of expectation before a big race.

It’s very likely that you may feel those same expectations in your own version of the World Championships, whether the High School Championships, States, Junior Olympics, Junior Nationals, or Junior Worlds. The stage may not be as grand, but it is also no less pressure packed.

Why Expectations are Bad

Expectations aren’t a guarantee of bad skiing and poor results, but it increases the chances dramatically because expectations create pressure on you to fulfill them. No way you can ski well when you’re feeling that weight on your shoulders.

Expectations can hurt you both physically and psychologically. They can have a harmful physical effect on you, causing muscle tension, restricted breathing, a decline in coordination, and a general sense of discomfort. You feel weighed down and you just don’t feel good.

Expectations can redirect your focus away from skiing your fastest and onto the results, most notably, any results that don’t live up to those expectations and the possibility that you will fail to meet them.

They can cause you to question your ability to fulfill those expectations, leading to a loss of confidence, doubt, and uncertainty.

Lastly, expectations can cause a host of unpleasant emotions including fear, frustration, worry, and anxiety, all of which can prevent you from skiing your best.

The bottom line is that, unless something is done to change your perspective on expectations or to help you let go of those expectations, you have very little chance of skiing your best and getting the results you want.

Where Expectations Come From

Expectations can come from outside of you or from within. Typical sources of external expectations come from family, coaches, and friends. Here’s a line I often hear being said to racers by friends and acquaintances that strikes absolute terror into the heart of racers: “I just know you’ll win.” Though such an expression of confidence is well intentioned, it is also painfully misguided because it creates a situation where anything less than victory will mean failure and disappointing others.

You may also create your own expectations. You may be so driven to achieve your goals that this determination causes you to focus too much on results creating self-imposed pressure, for example, “I better win or this will have been a total waste of time.”

At a deeper level, expectations arise from forces within you that you may not even be aware of. The most common source of expectations is fear of failure in which you absolutely must meet those expectations or else something terrible will happen. What are those awful things that might happen? The most common ones include your parents won’t love you, your friends won’t like you, you’ll be a total loser, all of your efforts will have been wasted, and your ski racing dreams will die. Now that is pressure!

How to Deal with Expectations

If the expectations are coming from others, you have several options. First, you can avoid those people like the plague. If you’re not near them, you won’t be able to hear those well-intentioned, though misguided, expressions of confidence in you (“You’re going to win for sure!”). Second, you can tell those people to just “Shut up!” (in a nicer way, of course). Third, you can change the way you think about their expectations. For example, you can say “I really appreciate their support and encouragement.” The key is to distance yourself from those expectations because they don’t do you any good.

If the expectations are coming from within, there are several steps you can take. In an ideal world, you would simply let go of any and all outcome expectations. That, however, isn’t an easy thing to do because the causes of the expectations are often unconscious and it usually requires some pretty intense work with a sport psychologist to exorcise them from your mind.

So, what can you do right now to lift that burden of expectation before the big race? Here are a few ideas:

  • Focus on the 5 Ps: Perspective, process, present, positive, and progress. If you focus on them, you won’t be focusing on the expectations.
  • Change your physiology. Expectations inevitably create anxiety and tension. By actively taking steps to relax, for example, with deep breathing and muscle relaxation, you remove the physical symptoms of the expectations.
  • Distract yourself. Talk to other people, listen to music, anything that will keep your mind off of the expectations.
  • Create good emotions. Expectations can cause you to feel frustration, worry, and fear. To counteract those, do things that are fun and that will inspire good emotions such as excitement, pride, and joy.
  • Do mental imagery. See and feel yourself focusing on skiing your best. This will redirect your attention onto what you need to do to achieve your race goals.
  • Shift your view of the expectations away from being a threat to avoid and onto a challenge to be pursued.

Ultimately, the degree to which expectations impact how you ski in big races will depend on how you finish this statement: “If I don’t do well, ________.” If you say, “If I don’t meet my expectations, it’s the end of the world,” you’re pretty much doomed to a poor result. But, if you say, “If I don’t meet my expectations, I’ll be disappointed, but I’ll be okay,” you have relieved yourself of that burden of those expectations and freed yourself to ski your very best when it matters most.

The High Cost of Youth Sports (and the Poor ROI!)

An eye-opening article in The New York Times about the high cost of youth sports these days. The biggest news of the article is the poor financial return on investment (e.g., college scholarship, professional or Olympic career) that comes from pouring $$$ into your children’s athletic experiences. Plus, the self-serving and corrupt “youth sport industrial complex.”

Of course, the article doesn’t discuss the other more meaningful ROI that kids get from committing to youth sports including great experiences, camaraderie, and essential life lessons.

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Give Your Children Roots and Wings

A wonderful article in The New York Times about the importance of allowing your children to explore, risk, and fail. A must-read in today’s world of over-involved and fearful parents who try to protect their children from dangers that don’t exist and experiences that will actually make them more confident, capable and resilient people.

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Lindsey Vonn’s Starting Gate Intensity

You want to see an aggressive mindset and intensity? Watch the first 10 seconds of this video of Lindsey’s World Cup SG victory (scroll down). Notice the pole clicking, breathing, constant movement, pole-strap-adjustment “twitch”, and attacking out of the start to the first gate.

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Compete Like You Practice or Practice Like You Compete?

you-play-the-way-you-practice-vinyl-wall-sayingOne of the first questions that I ask athletes and coaches I work with is: Should you compete like you practice or practice like you compete? By far, the most frequent response is: You should compete like you practice. This answer seems perfectly reasonable if you think about it. When you practice, you’re relaxed, feel no pressure, and are only focused on performing your best. Why wouldn’t you want to do that in a competition?

And, in an ideal world, I would agree. But we don’t live (or compete) in an ideal world. The reality is that there is one huge difference between practice and competition: competition matters! How well you perform in practice , for example, whether you win, in practice don’t matter. And the fact that competitions matters brings with it all sorts of baggage related to expectations, focusing on results, comparing yourself with other athletes, and fear of failure. That’s why so many athletes practice much better than they compete. And, as we all know, one of the great challenges for athletes is translating their practice performances into competitive results. This barrier is also one of the top-3 reasons why athletes come to me for help.

So, my initial reaction to the seemingly obvious answer that you should compete like you practice is that you can’t…unless. What’s the unless? Unless you practice like you compete!

As I’ve noted in a previous post, one of your most significant goals on when you compete is to be as prepared as you can be to perform your best. Think about everything you do to get prepared for a competition:

  • Good night’s sleep
  • Nutritious pre-competitive meal
  • Physical warm-up
  • Sports warm-up
  • Review technique, tactics, and game plan
  • Pre-competitive routine: equipment, physical, mental

Now, let me introduce you to two essential rules for sports success that makes it an absolute requirement for you to practice  like you compete so you can compete like you train.

First, whatever you do in competitions, you must first do in practice. This too seems obvious, yet is often neglected by athletes. Have you ever tried something new on the day of a competition that you’ve never done in practice ? Hopefully not, but if you had, it probably didn’t work very well for you because if you haven’t practice d it in practice , there’s no way that it will work in a competition. If you want to perform technically and tactically well in competitions, you better get that technique and those tactics down in practice first. The same holds true for every other aspect of your competitive preparations, whether physical or mental readiness.

Second, whatever you do in practice is what you will do in a competition. Ideally, the purpose of practice  is to develop effective skills and habits that will translate into great performances in competitions. But here’s the problem: athletes often rehearse bad skills and habits in practice. For example, if you use bad technique in practice (not intentionally, of course), that’s what you become good at (you get good at being bad!) and that’s what comes out in the competition.

Whether you practice good or bad skills and habits doesn’t just apply to technique and tactics. It has a huge impact on your mental preparation as well. Here’s a common example that drives me absolutely crazy when I work with athletes. As I described above, on the day of a competition, you go to elaborate lengths to prepare for your competitive performances. Yet, in practice, I see athletes sitting around and chatting it up with their teammates right up until they begin practicing and during breaks in practice as well. What these athletes are doing is developing the skills and habits of performing at about 70% focus and intensity. So, in competitions, what happens? Either they compete at 70% focus and intensity or they try to kick it up to 100% focus and intensity, but their mind and body explode because they’re not used to performing at that level of focus and intensity.

So, think about what you do in competitions to get ready and do the same things in practice . For example, do a good physical warm-up, review your tactics, get your body moving, and do mental imagery. Of course, you don’t have to go through a lengthy routine, but you should shrink it down to a 1-2 minute version of your pre-competitive routine.

With all that said, let us return to my original question: Should you compete like you practice or practice like you compete? My answer is a resounding “YES!” You should practice like you compete so you can compete like you practice. The more you can make practice like a competition, the more you will ingrain in your mind and body the skills and habits to perform your best in competition.

The ultimate goal of which is that when you get to a competition, your mind and body automatically do what you do in practice and you will perform at your highest level in the competition just like you do in practice.

Sliding Down That Slippery Slope Toward Ski Racing

Taylor family at the 2014 Sugar Bowl Tiki Race

Taylor family at the 2014 Sugar Bowl Tiki Race

Back in 2011, I wrote an article titled “Mama, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Ski Racers, in which I described my internal conflict about whether I wanted my two daughters (then ages 5 and 3, now 9 and 7) to become ski racers.

Well, now as four-year veterans of the Sugar Bowl Ski Team, our family continues to slide down that slippery slope I mentioned (pun intended) in that earlier article. What are some of the indications? Let me count the ways. We have a winter ski lease within a five-minute drive of Sugar Bowl. I just bought Swix ski vises and a diamond stone to tune their skis. We have sacrificed a variety of winter activities (e.g., Girl Scouts, basketball) to get up to the mountains more weekends than we had planned.

Further propelling us down that slippery slope, my daughters participated in their first Tahoe League race last week at Boreal ski area. Like many others like it around the U.S., the Tahoe League is an entry-level race series in Northern California that exposes racers (and their parents) to organized alpine ski racing. There were around 200 kids ages 7-12 and that accounted for only half the young racers in the area because it was a split event, suggesting that our sport is doing just fine at the entrance to the pipeline.

The race gave me my first direct experience as a ski racing parent. It was also the first real test of whether I could practice what I preach in all of my writing and speaking about being a ski racing parent. It’s easy to tell other parents what to do; it’s a whole other thing to do the right thing myself!

The experience was, not surprisingly, filled with more internal conflict. Based on my daughters’ results from intrasquad races at Sugar Bowl, my expectations for results were very low. I just wanted them to have a good time and feel good about their first race experience. Yet, was I nervous? Absolutely! As it turns out, one daughter fell (quite a few tears and a great life lesson) and the other finished, got a medal, and had fun. So far so good. They plan to race in several more Tahoe League races this winter.

Am I ready to surrender myself to that slippery slope yet? Not by a long shot. Our girls don’t have speed suits (which many kids down to six years old have these days!), race skis, armor, or bent poles despite immense cultural pressure and begging from my kids for at least a speed suit. We’re not skipping school (yet?) to train, we haven’t joined USSA (yet?), and they aren’t skiing during the summer (yet?).

Our girls say they love to ski race and want to go to the Olympics. But, given my passion for the sport, my past racing experience (okay, I do regale them now and then with tales of my triumphs and travails), and my current work in the sport, their interest in ski racing is inevitable. Ultimately, it will be up to them to decide whether they actually want to make a commitment to our sport. And only time will tell if their efforts build toward their aspirations. Will I support them if they want to go down that slope? Like any parent, how can I not.

There is a part of me that experiences that possibility with trepidation because of the time, money, and opportunity costs that come with such a family commitment to ski racing. There is that part of me that hopes my daughters choose otherwise. For example, there is an awesome program at Sugar Bowl called the Snow Rangers in which kids ski backcountry and do winter camping; how cool is that!

When my wife and I began this journey as a skiing family I told people that all I ever wanted was for our daughters to become competent skiers, share family time that can only be experienced in skiing, and to develop a love of our sport. But, I have to admit that another part of me would really love our girls to become ski racers. Why? Because our sport gave me so much. Because ski racing is one brutal sport that will challenge them constantly and prepare them for the many challenges that lie ahead of them in life. And because of the fun, excitement, joy, and fulfillment that they will surely experience in our sport.

But, my question is not whether they can handle the challenges. The more appropriate question is whether I can. I’ll report back in another four years.

Help Choose the Cover for My Next Book

My next book, Dance Psychology for Artistic and Performance Excellence, will be published in a few months. My publisher has provided two wonderful choices for the cover design. We just can’t choose, so we decided to ‘crowdsource’ the decision.

Cover #1                                                                         Cover #2

Taylor-cover2 Taylor-cover1

 

Would you help us choose? Please post your vote in a comment on my Facebook page or email me directly (at [email protected]) which cover you like best and why.

Many thanks!

8 Ways to Nurture Your Children’s Love of Nature

girl hugging treeChildren love the Earth. They really do hug trees. Kids care in the purest and sweetest way for birds, flowers, plants, and animals. To see children smell a flower, marvel at a bee buzzing around them, and jump with joy at seeing a deer are just a few of the ways that children express their connection, love, and awe for Mother Nature. They wouldn’t want to do anything to harm it. And they would be really mad at their parents if they learned what was being done to their Earth.

Regardless of where you stand on the issue of climate change, I hope there is no argument that, environmentally speaking, we simply can’t sustain our current path for much longer. Air pollution caused by the growing number of automobiles on the road and coal-burning power plants worldwide. Our oceans and seas being fished out. Massive deforestation. Billions of people globally who are rising to the middle classes demanding more of everything. The list goes on.

And who will suffer from our disregard for the health of Planet Earth? The answer is our children. And my next series of posts is about our children and the Earth that they will inherit. My plea is to hand the keys to our planet over to our children in reasonable condition so that Earth will have many more miles around the sun ahead of it and our children and their children can enjoy its many wonders as we have.

The sad reality is that our children will be inheriting an environmental mess. Even more sadly, by the time they grow up, most of them will become a part of the problem rather than a part of the solution. In our voraciously consumptive culture, many if not most children are being sent messages that will continue the environmentally destructive legacy of their parents.

The only hope our planet has is if parents choose to send very different messages that will result in raising “green children.” Parents can connect that wonderful feeling that children have for nature while they are young with a sensitivity to the impact they can have on the Earth and a sense of environmental stewardship for how they can help protect it in the future. We all love our children and want them to have a bright future. A part of that bright future should be the condition of our planet that we pass on to them. If parents can send the right “green” messages to their children, then perhaps they will care enough about Mother Earth to work to undo the damage their parents caused to it.

A wonderful book, Teaching Green, offers parents the first four ideas below (the rest come from me) on how to help children develop a deep connection to nature that can result is a commitment to and sense of stewardship for the future health of our planet.

Develop a Personal Relationship with Nature

At the heart of this connection with nature is the love that I just discussed. The fact is that children will want to take care of Mother Earth because they care for it. And children will care more about nature if they have a relationship with it. And the only way to develop such a relationship is for children to experience nature fully; they must walk in, play, explore, see, touch, and smell it. Experiences that are rich with sensory stimulation, engage intellectually and emotionally, and directly relate to the natural world act as the “hook” that makes children feel not only connected to, but also an integral part of nature.

Emphasize Connection Between People and Nature

Because children don’t have much life experience, they can’t readily see the connections that we have with nature and other peoples. We are far more connected than children (and many adults) realize through what we eat, what we wear, and what we use in our daily lives, and how we move about. Recognition of this interdependence between ourselves, nature, and others shows children how their everyday actions impact Earth and its inhabitants.

From Awareness to Action

Understanding and stewardship of Mother Earth begins when children gain an awareness of the natural world in which they live through hands-on experience. That awareness hopefully will then pique their curiosity and inspire them to gain knowledge about how nature works. This knowledge then bestows on children the desire and capacity to act to protect Earth.

Past, Present, and Future

Because children have little experience, they tend to view the world in the present. When children study nature, they are able to expand their perspective to include the past, present, and future. They can learn about how the Earth used to be and how nature has evolved over the eons. Children can see how the evolution of both nature and humanity has resulted in our current state of the environment. They can then project Earth into the future and consider possible futures based on where we are now and if we made beneficial environmental changes. Then, as children gain both a love and understanding for nature, they can project themselves into the future and contemplate how their actions might help foster the future that they most envision.

Nature’s Impact on Families

You can have such a powerful influence on your children in their attitudes toward the Mother Earth because just about everything you do has an impact on the environment. From the moment you wake up, you use water and electricity (e.g., heat house, turn on lights, brush your teeth, wash your face, flush toilet). When you eat breakfast, you store, select, and prepare certain foods and drink (e.g., appliance energy use, carbon footprint of food, water use for cleaning dishes). The means by which you get to work and your children get to school (e.g., walk, bike, car, public transportation). Where you shop for groceries (e.g., supermarket, farmers’ market). This use of our natural resources continues until you turn off your light and go to sleep (and, even then, it continues to a lesser extent all through the night).

Walk the Walk on Being Green

The best messages you send are through role modeling and action. But I should point out that the messages you send will depend to some extent on where you live and the kind of life you lead. For example, in the city, you can send messages about taking the bus or subway rather than driving your car. In the suburbs, your messages might emphasize shopping at farmers’ markets and recycling. For those who live in the country, green messages might include growing your own food and heating your house with solar energy instead of oil, natural gas, or electricity.

Make Being Green Tangible

Regardless of the specific messages you send your children, the initiation into becoming green children involves allowing them to connect directly with Mother Earth and gain a real love for nature. As that feeling develops, you can teach them practical steps they can take, such as turning off lights and recycling, to honor and protect their planet. In doing so, you give your children several essential gifts. You connect them deeply with the most basic source of their lives. You educate them about the impact that they have on the Earth. And, importantly, you give them the power to ensure that Mother Earth continues to live a long and healthy life.

Be a Green Family

To help you figure out how you can model a green life for your children, a useful exercise is to look at your life and see all of the ways that you impact our planet. Questions to consider include where you live in, what and how much you drive, the types of food you eat and where you shop for groceries, what kind of waste do you generate and where does it go, and how much time you spend in nature. How you answer these questions will clarify the messages that you send your children about the environment. They can also provide you with direction on changes you might want to make in your family life to convey more green messages to your children.

This blog post is excerpted from my third parenting book, Your Children are Listening: Nine Messages They Need to Hear from You (The Experiment Publishing, 2011).

Race Like You Train or Train Like You Race?

alpine-skier-marcel-hirscher-at-world-cup-alta-badiaOne of the first questions that I ask racers and coaches I work with is: Should you race like you train or train like you race? By far, the most frequent response is: You should race like you train. This answer seems perfectly reasonable if you think about it. When you train, you’re relaxed, feel no pressure, and are only focused on skiing your best. Why wouldn’t you want to do that in a race?

And, in an ideal world, I would agree. But we don’t live (or ski race) in an ideal world. The reality is that there is one huge difference between training and races: races matters! How fast you ski and your times and results in training don’t matter. And the fact that racing matters brings with it all sorts of baggage related to expectations, focusing on results, comparing yourself with other racers, and fear of failure. That’s why so many racers train much faster than they race. And, as we all know, one of the great challenges for racers is translating their training speed into race results. This barrier is also one of the top-3 reasons why racers come to me for help.

So, my initial reaction to the seemingly obvious answer that you should race like you train is that you can’t…unless. What’s the unless? Unless you train like you race!

As I’ve noted in a previous post, one of your most significant goals on race day is to be as prepared as you can be to ski your fastest. Think about everything you do to get prepared for a race:

  • Good night’s sleep
  • Nutritious breakfast
  • Physical warm-up
  • Skiing warm-up
  • Inspection
  • Start area routine: equipment, physical, mental

Now, let me introduce you to two essential rules for ski racing success that makes it an absolute requirement for you to train like you race so you can race like you train.

First, whatever you do in races, you must first do in training. This too seems obvious, yet is often neglected by racers. Have you ever tried something new on race day that you’ve never done in training? Hopefully not, but if you had, it probably didn’t work very well for you because if you haven’t practiced it in training, there’s no way that it will work in a race. If you want to ski technically and tactically well in races, you better get that technique and those tactics down in training first. The same holds true for every other aspect of your race preparations, whether ski tune, physical readiness, or mental preparation.

Second, whatever you do in training is what you will do in a race. Ideally, the purpose of training is to develop effective skills and habits that will translate into fast skiing on race day. But here’s the problem: racers often practice bad skills and habits in training. For example, if you practice being in the backseat or dropping your hands in training (not intentionally, of course), that’s what you become good at and that’s what comes out in the race.

Whether you practice good or bad skills and habits doesn’t just apply to technique and tactics. It has a huge impact on your mental preparation as well. Here’s a common example that drives me absolutely crazy when I work with racers. As I described above, on race day, you go to elaborate lengths to prepare for each race run. But, I see racers at the start of training courses leaning on their poles and chatting it up with their friends right up until they take their run. What these racers are doing is developing the skills and habits of skiing at about 70% focus and intensity. So, on race day, what happens? Either they race at 70% focus and intensity or they try to kick it up to 100% focus and intensity, but their mind and body explodes because they’re not used to skiing at that level of focus and intensity.

So think about what you do on race day to get ready and do the same things in training. For example, do a good skiing warm-up, inspect the course (don’t just slip it), get your body moving at the start, and do mental imagery. Of course, you don’t have to go through a lengthy pre-training-run routine, but you should shrink it down to a 1-2 minute version of your pre-race routine.

With all that said, let us return to my original question: Should you race like you train or train like you race? My answer is a resounding “YES!” You should train like you race so you can race like you train. The more you can make training like a race, the more you will ingrain in your body and mind the skills and habits to ski fast in a race.

The ultimate goal of which is that when you get to a race your body and mind automatically do what you do in training and you will ski fast in the race just like you do in training.

Today Show Segment on the Recent Deaths of 2 Ski Racers

If you haven’t already seen it, watch this Today Show segment about the recent deaths of 2 young ski racers, Ronnie Berlack and Bryce Astle. Powerful, touching, inspiring, painful…Get ready to cry.

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