After Thomas Biesemeyer finished 13th in super G at the 2013 World Championships, he articulated the benefits of training basic mental skills before reaching the elite level.
“For the longest time, your goal is to make the national team,” he said. “When you get there, you’re like, now what? Transitioning to World Cup is like starting all over again. There’s a lot more pressure to perform on race day and it’s very easy to under-perform. You have to believe in yourself and believe you’re talented enough. I focus more time on living in the here and now.”
Most racers would agree that a large percentage of skiing is a mental game, but most of their training time is dedicated to technical pieces, unless major mental blocks become obvious.
Certainly, athletes can develop mental skills organically through physical practice and actual competition. But racers can gain an advantage through intentional incorporation of mental skills training at an early age.
Sport psychology principles have been available through USSA since as early as the mid 70s, when orthopaedic surgeon J.R. Steadman advocated that athletes attend to psychological aspects of physiological recovery, and then with sport psychologist Dr. Jerry May’s involvement with the U.S. Ski Team from 1979 to 1992.
Benefits of psychological skills have become recognized for performance enhancement — not just performance restoration. Skills such as goal-setting, mindful attention, cultivating self-talk, energy management, and mental imagery are all applicable to optimal skiing performances at recreational or elite levels. Learning to employ these techniques can have lifelong impacts, transferable to school or work, play, and general well-being.
Recently, USSA’s Dr. Lester Keller, indicated that the organization does not have a formal recommendation for when skiers should be introduced to mental skills training, but he shared anecdotes of teaching breathing skills (energy management) to even the youngest of racers. He suggested introducing any of these skills as early as you can, with the understanding that instruction should be developmentally appropriate. Young children do not come into skiing with robust abstract verbal reasoning skills. They do think creatively, with pictures, often using senses in absentia of language.
We could instantly relate to Keller’s insights. One of us has a 4-year-old who is learning to ski. As Robbie was told to hold out his (imaginary) “stomp rockets” in each hand, his form improved tenfold. But then there was the 13-year-old client who was told by another mental skills coach to pretend she was a “bunny” jumping between the gates. She rolled her eyes, expressing that she neither understood the point of this mental imagery, nor thought it was the least bit “cool.”
So here are some tips for weaving mental skills training into everyday practice when coaching younger kids.
Goal setting: Ask, “What are you working on today?” It’s totally fine if answer No. 1 is “having fun;” and answer No. 2 might take a little digging until you get something like, “Becoming more aware of my lower body through the turn.”
Mindful Attention: Get your kids to develop routines. Think “set it and forget it.” They don’t need to become obsessed with details, but adhering to a checklist can help skiers ultimately feel at ease, tuning into the most relevant details in the here and now (rather than regretting a missing glove or an unbuckled boot).
Cultivating Self-Talk: Your style of coaching will likely be “replayed” in your skier’s head. Model how you want them to think. Focus feedback on the positive aspects of what the athlete did correctly. If she makes three good turns of 10, show why the three were good. Focusing on the poor turns only reinforces what not to do.
Energy Management: As Keller pointed out, breathing has big impacts. You can get creative — try “science experiments” such as timing kids while they hold their breath and hold their muscles tight, versus when they have long exhales and let go of tension.
Mental Imagery: Use images everywhere. Ask racers to incorporate body sensations. And make sure they are meaningful to the child using them. Neither stomp rockets nor bunnies are for everyone.
Interestingly, while Biesemeyer agreed that mental skills should be taught early on, he did not seem to think that specializing in only skiing was the secret to success. “Compete in as many sports as you can,” he said as advice for juniors. After all, sports are supposed to be about FUN, and mental skills learned in one sport can carry over to other sports. Incorporation of mental skills training into sports can be made to feel seamless, especially for our youngest skiers.
Written by Kevin Putman and Tim Herzog and first published in Ski Racing Magazine, September 22, 2013 Volume 46(1).