The Inner Game of Everything

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As the leaves turn color everywhere, and snow falls in the Rockies, the prospect of getting back on snow finally feels real. One thing we as skiers all learned last year, is that every day on snow and with our people is precious. As we get psyched to reconvene after this extra-long spring/summer/fall break, we’ve still got some time to plot how we’ll make the most of every day we get.

One of my summer highlights was an evening at the Drive In, watching the cinematic masterpiece, Caddyshack. The movie holds a special place in my heart thanks to ski racing, and the fact that we would travel through Europe for an entire season with a few VHS tapes stashed in the cargo van for entertainment. These tapes were essentially the collected works of Bill Murray, with a smattering of Eddie Murphy. Our favorite of them was Caddyshack, and we knew every line.

In our pre-meme, pre-Instagram, pre-Snapchat world, channeling the various characters became our default method of communication. That could be by discouraging picky eaters—”You’ll get nothing and like it!”; by appraising a good run—“She got all a that one!”; or by reminding someone after a bad run that, “The world needs ditch diggers too.”

We frequently counseled each other before a big race to, “Be the ball, Danny,” and in really clutch moments affirmed that, “You can do it, Noonan.” At the time, these bits were just meant to get a laugh and loosen the atmosphere, but I’ve since come to see them as a solid philosophical base.

Shortly after Drive In night, a friend mentioned she was re-reading the “Inner Game of Tennis,” a book I’d heard plenty about, but had never actually read. I figured it was about time to pick up the 1974 classic. It didn’t take more than a few pages to realize that this philosophy was the seed of our much-quoted Caddyshack wisdom.

The book essentially guides you to quiet your judgmental and analytical “Self 1” in order to allow your thinking and feeling “Self 2” to flow naturally. Self 1 fills your mind with words, instructions and outcomes while Self 2 acts on images and feelings of desired performance. An all too common scenario for athletes (and anyone aiming for peak performance), is to let Self 1 take the reins. This leads to overthinking, hesitating, trying too hard, stiffening up, choking and all the other things that then need to be unwound before Self 2 is again free to simply perform.

I thought of this in the context of my own experience, and also the many interviews I did over the summer, while writing an article on development for Ski Racing. (Check out Part 1 and Part 2 here). In the interviews, I asked various top US ski racers through several eras to reflect on “What Went Right” in their climb up the ranks. When I overlayed those interviews with ideas about how to maximize our resources (see “Nailing the Free Stuff,” and many articles and comments on the topic in Ski Racing throughout the summer), some pretty simple concepts emerged.

One of the most common success factors for the athletes I interviewed was having coaches that instilled confidence. Hilary Lindh put it plainly. “Coaches that believed in me were also key, and we had so many that didn’t!” Her comment kind of broke my heart, because that power to bolster or erode confidence is so true, so simple, so available…and yet, as an opportunity to maximize performance, it is so frequently missed.

We’ve all had the experience of being around people who build us up, believing in us, which then allows us to reach new heights. We have also experienced people who strip away our confidence by seeding self-doubt. It’s not just coaches who have this power. I remember, mostly on the good side, the people who made a difference along the way of my athletic career. They were my own coaches but also coaches from other teams, as well as family, service techs, friends —people who were there in those moments (or months) of doubt, effectively saying, “You can do it, Noonan.” They allowed me to believe enough in my own abilities to let Self 2 hit the gas. Nothing feel quite as satisfying as flipping Self 1 the bird in the rearview mirror.

Less often (and less fondly), I think back on the people and coaches, who, no matter what their pedigree, qualifications and even intent, ushered Self 1 into the driver’s seat. It’s not always pretty thinking about this, especially from a parental perspective. As parents we get used to reminding and directing our kids, because teaching them how to survive and thrive is our job. It’s hard to know when that guidance, which comes from a good place, goes beyond what is necessary and healthy, and instills doubt.

If it’s hard for a parent—whose love for a child is boundless, and whose investment is lifelong—then it’s no wonder coaches have a hard time finding the right balance. It helps explain how one athlete can find a coach transformational in a good way, while another athlete can be unmoved, or equally moved but in the opposite direction. Not every coach is going to connect with every athlete, or believe they can succeed at the highest level; but every coach can care, which is the factor that grants parents a lot of slack, and offers anyone a very forgiving margin of error.

I often think back to a story about two young ski racers who, during a college summer, coached kids at a ski camp. One diligently filled the kids with instruction and critique after every run, while the other filled them with positive energy, encouragement and very little technical feedback. You can probably guess which kids made greater gains and had more fun.

There is a balance here. Being supportive doesn’t mean blowing smoke with false praise, or never addressing faults. It does mean separating the judgement out of coaching. The Inner Game brings to mind Bode Miller, and his approach of appraising each performance with clear-eyed, objective perspective, regardless of the result. Considering he grew up at his family’s tennis camp it’s not a stretch to imagine he had some exposure to Inner Game-inspired juju.

Great technical coaches are a treasure, and can make the difference between being good and great. But even the most vaunted technical coach is of no use, and actually becomes a detriment, if he or she doesn’t care about or respect the athlete. I’ve lived this, seen this, and heard this more times—at every age and level of competition—than I can count, which goes back to why Hilary’s comment almost brought a tear.

It also brought me back to my own time on the ski racing tour and our group of underdogs, who, deep down, all hoped to be the next “Cinderella Story.” Even in our lowest moments, that hope kept our fire lit. The people who saw that fire and stoked it, are my heroes to this day. As coaches, parents, fans and supporters of the sport we can fan the flame of inner confidence and empower Self 2, or power trip with Self 1 and snuff it out.

Even in the most supportive environment, very few kids will attain the highest level, but every kid can absolutely get to his or her own highest level, and that should be our goal.

Many people suggest that this forced break from the hamster wheel of off- season training might be a good thing, like rebooting a computer that has become jammed from too much input. Rebooting sounds pretty good right now because, finally, winter is really coming.

So we’ve got that coming to us, which is nice.

12 thoughts on “The Inner Game of Everything”

  1. Thank you Edie! This helps in a couple of ways with my kids (a little late but not completely!) and myself – building up the confidence of the women I work with in my business and for myself. I tend to overthink things. As much as I love and believe in the products, sales is totally out of my comfort zone. I am constantly battling Self 1 and need to get better at quieting Self 1 so Self 2 can be more effective.

  2. Thank you, great article. Olle Larsson, who started Rowmark Ski Academy, based our mental training sessions on The Inner Game of Tennis.

    • I did not know that! Go Olle–figures he was on it. I feel like we all got probably got a bit of it from our best coaches back then, whether we knew it or not.

  3. Come freeski with us this year Edie! We have time for fun this year without a program built around a race schedule. Great article. Let’s enable some serious fun with these kids this year!

  4. Thanks for the article. This was a great reminder for me.
    Inner Skiing by the same authors is also available. It definitely was my go to for college racing. The concept is very applicable across a myriad of situations.
    Nice hat!

    • I have not read the Inner Game of Skiing, but I suspect it was quite a franchise as it is so widely applicable. And I agree…the camo bucket hat really never goes out of style. Thanks for reading!

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