Hint: It’s about thinking smaller, not bigger
A few days ago I was on the hill as a race was wrapping up, chatting with a coach. He was cheery and loose, as were his athletes, who had all had a remarkably good day. We talked about the fun of racing in the spring. “It’s so easy to score,” the coach noted. He’s right, and not right. It’s a chicken and egg situation. Were the coach and the athletes cheery and loose because they did well, or did they perform well because they were loose and cheery? You know where I’m going with this.
As with any sport, when you are skiing free, that is, without the burden of expectations, you are more likely to perform your best. This often happens after the pressure of making or performing at big championships like the States, the Regionals the Nationals or the brass ring of your world. These races for titles, or podiums or qualifications can feel like a “one and done” situation—one chance to get in the record books, or on the podium, or on the radar. But that pressure doesn’t always let up just because it’s spring. The sunshine and relaxed schedule can feel like freedom to some, but to others the ever-shrinking number of races to get that big score feel like a shortened runway, even more loaded with anxiety and expectation.
Whether it’s before, during or after the big championships, how do you help athletes find the freedom that allows their best performance, even when the stakes are high?
I recently listened to a Way of Champions podcast on exactly this topic. In this conversation between John O’Sullivan and Jerry Lynch they refer to famed Yankees closer Mariano Rivera. A little stat on Rivera’s ability in high stakes games: more people have walked on the moon (12) than men who have scored against him in the post season (11). To keep his cool, Rivera focused only on the next pitch. As for his approach in really high stakes moments he said, “There are no big moments. It’s all in your mind.“ Rivera’s point is that you can choose to load a moment with more meaning, or to pay it the same attention as you would to any other moment. This is to say, you can choose to hold your breath and hope you don’t mess up in big moments, or you can breathe easily and focus on one regular moment at a time.
Lynch refers to an acronym that helps remind athletes of keeping that small focus on their actions, the things they can control, rather than the outcomes which they can’t control: WIN, stands for What’s Important Now. You WIN the day by executing the little things brilliantly vs the big things marginally. Conversely, when you’re focused on winning the event vs winning the day, you are tight and your reaction to adversity is “oh no I messed up” vs simply making the next best move. We see that all too often in ski racing, when a skier makes a mistake and it blows his/her concentration, vs jumping right back in and recovering.
HOW TO HELP
By this point in the season, we’ve all gotten the memo: as parents our job is to back off and let the kids live their lives. And as coaches, well, the hay is in the barn. That said, there are some things we can do to help our kids get the most enjoyment and (because we’re greedy and because…why not?) their best performances, out of their remaining days on snow.
CALL OUT FEAR: Fear is the biggest hindrance to performance. It zaps your confidence and your energy, leaving you with nothing but long odds. What’s the stuff we fear? Mistakes, under-performance, letting people down, blowing opportunities. As Lynch points out, the things we are afraid of are, a: in the future and, b: things we can’t control. So, we can ask athletes what they are afraid of, and then make friends with mistakes and failure. Figure out how mistakes make us better, stronger, wiser, better prepared for the next race. “There are two kinds of athletes,” says Lynch. “Those who fail and those who will.”
EVERY MOMENT IS A CHOICE: A race can be a huge deal or it can be another day of getting better at what you do. You can choose to focus on the things you fear or the things you can control.
INSTILL BELIEF: One line that has stuck with me is this: “Any opponent’s greatest advantage is your lack of belief.” Belief comes from preparation, which, unlike the outcome, is something every athlete can control. It’s not enough to say “I know you can win,” and it’s certainly not helpful to say, “My money’s on you.” It’s better to remind them athletes that they are ready and worthy, that they’ve got the moves and have done the work. Even though it was a lifetime ago, I clearly remember being in the start of the final training run of my first World Championships . Six of us were competing for four DH spots. The team doctor, who had rebuilt my knee less than two years earlier, put his arm around my shoulder and said, “I always knew you belonged here.“ That day I qualified for my first World Championships race.
KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON: Cramming in extra training before an important event is subtly telling an athlete or a team “you’re not ready.” Especially at the end of the season, when managing energy is at a premium, nothing says “you’re ready” more convincingly than letting an athlete listen to his or her instincts. Whether it’s the end of a long season, or on the eve of a big event, sometimes less is more.
ENCOURAGE COMPETITIVENESS: We can’t forget the reason athletes are athletes. The purpose is about the great things we learn and build through sport, but the goal is winning! Being in the moment means competing your heart out. I love watching parallel races, like the one that just happened at the US Nationals in Waterville Valley, because they are all about living in the moment. It’s fast and unpredictable. Your opponents change, the course conditions change. With less time to think, and so many unpredictable elements, you have to go with what you know. The great lesson in duals is learning to narrow focus on yourself, rather than on your opponent, to be loose and scrappy and ready for anything. The most exciting, athletic moves happen in duals, and to win you have to ski free and ski your heart out.
DON’T POINT OUT THE OBVIOUS: We don’t need to remind kids (big or little) of the gravity of any competition, of their string of DNF’s or of the dwindling chances to score. On the contrary, shrinking focus to the little things that they can control—the preparation, the approach, the mindset of the next best move—rather than the perfect run or an extraordinary effort, is more helpful. To make this point, O’Sullivan and Lynch refer to the movie Free Solo, that chronicles climber Alex Honnold’s free climb of El Capitan. The “event” in this case had truly high stakes, as in—you fail, you die. Honnold overcame his fear by preparation. His only path to success was to focus on the little spaces in front of him, stay completely in the moment and keep making the next best move.
PUT ON A HAPPY FACE: Studies prove it, pictures prove it, our friends prove it. When you smile, your mood improves, and everything just seems better. No matter what you just saw on livetiming, lead with a smile. A smile tells yourself and your kids that whatever happened on the hill is not the pinnacle of the journey or the end of the world. It’s just a day at the races, which is pretty excellent.