January—No matter how dark and cold and hopeless you may seem, we can see the light at the end of you. This time of year, when the disruption of the holidays is over and the grayness of winter closes around us, can be tough. In ski racing, lack of daylight and frigid temps conspire to make good days feel rare and bad days feel like a chronic condition. This is when stress hits its stride and things can get squirrely.
January’s been kicking my butt a fair bit, enough to get me seeking any beacon of enlightenment. It’s a good time to talk about something positive and solution-oriented. Today, that something is meditation.
THE POWER OF A QUIET MIND
Not a day goes by, it seems, when we don’t see or hear some connection between meditation and good health. Meditation, or mindfulness, is credited with positively affecting everything from mood and sleep habits, to weight loss and cardiac health. It is used to combat ADHD, depression and autism as well as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases. It’s connected with success in marriage and in business and—a marketers dream—with looking and feeling younger.
A bonus to upwardly mobile ski racers is the link between meditation and peak athletic performance. Whether that means figuring out how to finish two consecutive race runs or achieving personal bests, meditation and mindfulness can recast “the zone” from a mysterious land you hope to someday visit, to a scheduled stop on your itinerary. Even novice meditators can see positive, near immediate changes. It can be practiced anywhere, any time and, by the way, it’s free.
Despite being fully in the mainstream, meditation’s mystical feel, solo pursuit and highly individualized approach can make it hard to know where, when and how to start. That’s where the desperation of January comes in handy. When I got a forlorn email from a mother seeking “any suggestions at all to help my daughter finish a race,” I assured her she was not alone, and knew it was time to give a quiet shout out to meditation.
OLD WORLD SOLUTION
When I think of meditation, I think of Otto Tschudi, who I first interviewed several years ago for Skiing History Magazine. At age 17, Tschudi was a talented young ski racer on the Norwegian national team who could not finish a second run. “It was kind of a joke,” Tschudi recalls. At the time, a sports psychologist gave him a small book on “autogenics” a simple mediation practice based on progressive muscle relaxation. Developed by German doctor Johannes Schultz, and first published in 1932, autogenic training allows you to summon feelings of relaxation throughout your body. This takes you from the parasympathetic—fight or flight—state, where life is a mad dash, to the sympathetic—rest and digest—state, where calm and control preside.
Tschudi mastered the technique in three months, adding visualization to the relaxation exercises. He went on to a successful skiing career on both the World Cup and World Pro Skiing Tours. When he launched into a fast-paced and high-pressure career in investment banking, Tschudi took autogenics with him, and still meditates daily. “I buy three hours of sleep by meditating throughout the day, in short 15-minute spurts,” he explains.
I got the blessedly slim book Tschudi recommended, and quickly realized that I had already encountered this form of meditation. When I was age 12 or so our Argentinian ski coach, Ruben Macaya, led our team through progressive relaxation at the end of our dryland training sessions. He didn’t call it meditation (at the time the term lived in the realm of hookahs and ashrams), but nonetheless Ruben was taking a leap of faith with a bunch of rambunctious kids. Sadly, I never worked it into my daily routine, but I did use it through the years to cope with jet lag and insomnia.
Tschudi, who resurrected the DU ski team in 1992, works with collegiate athletes regularly. He shares his experiences with meditation but finds that most of the athletes, by the time they are racing at the D1 level, have their own mindfulness and stress management routines. Sports psychology is no longer seen as something that remedies a problem, but rather as an integral part of reaching your potential.
THE POWER OF VISION
The most visible and universally practiced piece of meditation among high level ski racers is visual imagery. Who hasn’t seen ski racers at the top and bottom of a course, eyes closed, pre-playing their runs? The downside of visualization, however, is when it plays an unwanted movie in your head. Recently, as a guest on Lance Armstrong’s podcast, Bode Miller spoke about the common but rarely discussed consequences of visual imagery gone wrong, of getting stuck in your own bad movie when you mind replays disaster. Visual imagery is most powerful when used in concert with, and guided by, a calm mind.
Before the ski season I heard an interview with Jerry Lynch, where he talked about the power of meditation for kids of all ages and walked through a simple breathing routine that takes just a few minutes before practice. He maintains that the heightened focus that follows such a ritual allows you to accomplish more things, better, in less time. “You can’t afford not to take the time in training,” says Lynch. For ski racers, who get limited time on snow, daily and seasonally, maximizing each session is key. At an early season clinic I asked a group of coaches from several programs about meditation. Most of them had some experience, with either doing it themselves or introducing it into their training routine.
Ruben’s bold example, and this encouragement from the field, inspired me to incorporate simple mindfulness—breathing awareness and positive visualization—into my ski training sessions with high school aged kids. These small attempts have required very low investment, with zero downside and some immediate improvement. It can be a way to switch gears before training starts, to focus before the last run, or to stay calm before stepping in to the gate on race day. It gives kids who are ready to work permission to focus, and nudges others towards a productive goal. So far, the kids are surprisingly receptive, cooperative and uncomplaining, testament that meditation isn’t so wacky sounding anymore AND that I get to coach some great kids.
If you want to give meditation a whirl it’s as easy as calling up an app like calm (free) or headspace ($8/month). As ever on the interwebs, one thing leads to another, and suddenly you will have a dizzying array of choices. For an intro to some guided autogenic training check out this site, or, for a guided three-month training schedule try this routine. If you have good recommendations, please share the love. Now, let’s take some deep breaths and get on with winter!