Defining success in ski racing is a difficult task. When I ask most racers and coaches how they define success, it is usually in terms of results, whether placing, points, rankings, or qualifying quotas. Though, admittedly, results are the ultimate determinant of success, I have found that a preoccupation with them can both interfere with achieving those results and can produce feelings of disappointment and frustration (or worse).
One problem is that focusing on results can actually prevent you from getting the results you want for two reasons. First, if you’re focusing on results before a race, you’re not focusing on what you need to do to get those results. Second, focusing on results, specifically, the possibility of bad results, is what causes you to get nervous before races which will only hurt your skiing.
Another problem with ski racing is that your efforts don’t always lead directly to the results you want because you can’t control everything in a race. In other words, “S&%# happens” in ski racing that can derail your best efforts.
To help demonstrate this point, let’s compare success and failure in our sport to success and failure in school. Let’s say you have an exam coming up. If you study hard and are well prepared, assuming the test is fair, the chances of your doing well are very high, say, over 95 percent. Why? Because there are few external variables that can prevent you from doing well.
Ski racing, however, is very different. You can be completely ready to have a great race, but things don’t work out in your favor. For example, you experience bad weather, such as fog or high wind, or make a mistake due to rough course conditions. Those odds of doing well in a race are, assuming if you are really prepared, somewhere around 80 percent I would say.
Given the uncertainty of ski racing, basing how you feel about your skiing (and yourself) solely on your results is a recipe for experiencing the very thing you want to avoid – failure – and some pretty bad feelings.
I prefer to define success in terms that are controllable.
Goal #1: In the Gate – Total Preparation
On race day, all you can control is yourself, which means your preparation. When I work with racers, I tell them that when they’re in the gate, I want them to be able to say, “I’m totally prepared to achieve my goals today.” Ultimately, that’s all you can do.
I have two thoughts about preparation. First, being totally prepared is the only chance you have to get the results you want. If you aren’t completely prepared, you have zero chance because there are going to be many other racers in the field who are just as good as you or better and who are really prepared. If you are totally prepared, you don’t even have a 100 percent chance of success, but your chances are pretty darned good.
Second, if you aren’t totally prepared to ski your best, I have no sympathy for you because, as I just noted, you can control your preparations. If you’re not completely ready to ski your best, you have nobody to blame but yourself. On the other hand, a tough break while on course, like rough conditions, is worthy of some sympathy (though not too much because that’s the unpredictable nature of our sport).
Total preparation involves looking at everything within your control that can impact your skiing and taking steps to maximize all of those areas. These areas include your sleep, nutrition, equipment, skiing warm-up, and inspection. In the start area, they include a comprehensive pre-race routine that is comprised of final equipment preparations (e.g., edges, bases, bindings, armor) and getting physically (e.g., warm-up, breathing, and reaching your ideal intensity) and mentally (e.g., imagery, mindset) ready. So, when you get into the starting gate, you feel totally prepared and confident you can ski your fastest.
Goal #2: On Course – Bring It!
In my post from a few weeks ago, I made the distinction between good skiing and fast skiing. Though I received some pushback from this difference, I stand by my statement that solid technical and tactical skiing isn’t enough to get the results you want. If your outcome goals are at all high, your only chance of skiing fast and achieving those goals is to “bring it” meaning attack the course and push your limits.
This goal seems pretty obvious given that we all know that holding back just doesn’t work (more on this in Goal #3 below). So, what prevents you from bringing it every run? Well, an inherent danger of bringing it is that the risks you take in the process may not pay off; bringing it may lead to a costly mistake or not finishing. In other words, bringing it may result in failure. And, for most racers, failure is the worst possible thing to experience and it is to be avoided at all cost. Yet, by not bringing it, you guarantee failure (or, at least, mediocrity).
Goal #3: In the Finish – No Regrets
Have you ever been in the start area and really wanted to finish? Maybe you’ve had a string of DNFs and were afraid of not finishing again? So, you skied cautiously. When you crossed the finish line, you were relieved at finally having completed a course.
But then you looked at your time; you were really slow. What was your immediate emotional reaction? Regret. What’s regret? Wishing that you had done something differently, in other words, you wish you had gone for it (even risking another DNF) rather than skiing so tentatively. You look back up the hill at the course you just ran and wish you had charged more rather than holding back.
Regret is a huge value for me both in my personal life (I want to look back on my life and have as few regrets as possible) and my professional work with racers. I want you to look back on a race day, season, career, whether a result or not, success of failure, and be able to say, “I left it all out there. I may not have achieved my greatest goals. But I did everything humanly possible to be the best I could be.” You will certainly be disappointed in not fully achieving your goals, but you will get over that feeling and will likely feel great pride and inspiration in knowing that you did everything you could to accomplish your goals. Regret, by contract, can gnaw at you forever.
The Bottom Line
You want to give yourself every opportunity to achieve your outcome goals. Yet, when you fail to achieve these three goals, you have nearly a zero percent chance that you’ll get the results you want. By contrast, I can’t guarantee success today or tomorrow, no matter what you do. But if you commit to and consistently strive toward these goals, I’m willing to bet that good things will happen, in your ski racing and your life.
Jim Taylor, Ph.D., competed internationally while skiing for Burke Mountain Academy, Middlebury College, and the University of Colorado. Over the last 25 years, he has worked with the U.S. and Japanese Ski Teams, many World Cup and Olympic racers, and several of the leading junior race programs in the U.S. and Canada. Jim is the author of Prime Ski Racing: Triumph of the Racer’s Mind, he publishes bi-monthly newsletters on sport, business, and parenting, and also blogs for huffingtonpost.com and psychologytoday.com. To learn more or to contact Jim, visit drjimtaylor.com. To ready more of his columns on ski racing, visit SkiRacing.com.