It’s that time of year— as deep as we can get in January. These are the times that try ski racers’ souls. These are the times that do a number on ski racers’ parents’ souls as well. Not surprisingly, this is when a lot of parents start avoiding livetiming, stand further from the finish area, and find quiet moments to sidle up and inquire quietly about sports psychologists.
Quite simply, this is when the wheels may be falling off the bus. Or maybe not. But for everyone who is skating merrily through January, it feels like there are twenty who are struggling to see some light through the murk. What’s worse for those among the 95 percent, is their deep inner conviction that they are alone in struggling. They feel alone in wondering where “it” (that intangible confluence of talent, preparation, luck and timing that ski racing demands) went, or when it will all come together.
YOU ARE NOT ALONE—NOT BY A LONG SHOT!
To be sure, each person’s version of ski racing Purgatory is unique, but all the major and minor things that can tip off and accelerate the downward spiral are remarkably similar: a run of DNF’s; equipment failures; illnesses; injuries large and small; bad starts; bad surface; flat light; breakthrough runs followed by heartbreak; dropped poles; exhaustion; overthinking and the vexingly recurrent “forgetting how to ski GS.” Regardless of the fact that nobody but nobody sails through the ranks, the perception is that everyone else somehow has figured out how to deal with all this. Let me assure you that you are not alone.
What do you do when you are deep in the struggle? Sometimes the best thing you can do is step back and take a breath. Go freeskiing or powder skiing or something else entirely, or just accept and enjoy a homemade cookie. Yes, nutritionists be damned, a cookie, a smile and a little perspective may be the best immediate solution, and the start of getting back on track.
Certainly, sports psychologists are earning their keep now, as they should be doing throughout the year. We’ll all be better off when mental training is as integral to a training program as physical training, nutrition, sleep, equipment, etc. It isn’t just the sports psychologists who can help. Sometimes, advice is most helpful when delivered by peers, athlete to athlete and parent to parent. When a teammate or a fellow competitor takes the time to connect, empathize, encourage, or simply acknowledge, that can be really powerful. Parents experiencing the maxim that “you’re only as happy as your unhappiest child” can also use some mutual support in January.
STAYING THE COURSE
When things aren’t going well, we presume that something needs to change for fortunes to turn. For sure, it’s healthy to be pragmatic and proactive in the quest for continuous improvement, by taking an honest look at what needs to be improved or changed. But the grasping at straws approach to dealing with slumps has pitfalls. Just because it worked once to arrive at the start with one racer to go, doesn’t mean that’s the secret to success. Racing with a clear mind, however, may be key.
Similarly, what works best for one skier, will not work for another. According to legend, when the Mahre brothers were on a roll, the great Ingemar Stenmark noticed that they did not go for a morning run. Trying to emulate them, Stenmark decided to abandon his morning run, with disastrous results. At a mortal level, ski racing is rife with stories of athletes trying to change their routine, particularly when they move up to a higher level of competition. That can include all manner of changes in their training and pre-race routines— from sleep, nutrition and musical choices, to warm up, inspection and starting gate rituals.
We look for things we need to change when often all we need to do is to keep on going. As you get better in sport, the margin between success and failure is razor thin. One thing that never changes is that you just have to keep showing up, being positive and being ready for the stars (and every other detail) to align, and conditions to be in your favor. As one sage ski racer recently put it, “Keep throwing darts, until they stick.”
DID I MENTION COOKIES?
In the meantime, let’s not discount the power of a good cookie. These first came to me from Lila Lapana and I make them more times than I can count in a season. Lila’s a warrior in the sport by now, and knows the deal. Cookies will not solve anything but they can help remind you that there’s a sweet spot to every day out there, however challenging. Keep your head up, keep going and savor the journey.