Slalom Racing and Peak Performance: To Think or WHAT to Think?

| December 7th, 2017

Stiliani “Ani” Chroni, Ph.D., CMPC: Inland Norway University of Applied Sciences, specializes in Mental Skills Coaching and is a Professor of Sport Psychology in Elverum, Norway. Connect with Stiliani “Ani” on LinkedIn.

To most people 50 seconds pass by inconceivably fast, but not to the slalom racer. Fifty seconds is the average time of a slalom run. In this less than one minute stretch the racer skis down a steep, icy, tight course turning rather rhythmically around red and blue poles aiming to finish the run in the fastest possible time. To capitalize on a run, one needs technique, speed, agility, strength, explosion, equipment, preparation, tactic, and a clear, sharp mind focused on executing in the here and now. Fifty seconds may beinconceivable in everyday life, yet abundant time for the slalom racer to think and ruin the run or to think and pass with flying colors the gates of the course. What makes the difference? The racer’s ability to keep the mind and the bodily sensation in the here and now, on the gliding of each turn executed, while the eyes look ahead opting the race line forthe next couple of gates. Tricky eh? The mind needs to be here, the body too, while the eyes are locked forward.

Too often racer’s eyes catch a glimpse of the finish area and signal this to the mind interpreting the end and the body responds to this signal, the execution in the here and now is destructed, the sensation of the skis on the snow is disrupted, and ski edges get caught, gates are straddled, racers fall and DNF two gates before the finish line. Also often a racer will DNF in the second, third, or fourth gate upon the start; the mind never got in the here and now of the execution, never got off the start hut in sync with the body in the left-right rhythmic sequence of movement. Other times, the exits happen in the middle of the course or at any part of it. Of course there are plenty of technical, tactical errors or course flaws that can explain exits, falls, straddles from a coach’s standpoint, yet the racer’s mind is another muscle that needs to be considered in all cases when a racer is prepared, up to the challenge, and doesn’t capitalize.

When you get these DNF’s and more training in slalom gates doesn’t solve the problem, it is a good time to look at the bigger picture if you haven’t done it already. Of course I start by eliminating the most obvious, such as fitness level of the athlete and ability to hold on for the full course without getting tired or the technical level of the racer and ability to hold the race line at certain speeds or certain terrains (steep, icy, rats, rhythm changes, etc.). These will impact technique, speed, body posture, race-line, and lead to an exit, fall or straddle. Do I look at these on my own? No, I need the coach there to discuss these as I turn our attention to the racer’s mind, to pin down where, when, and how attention getsdistracted and diverts the racer’s focus. I have learned that thoughts do that, the racer starts having split-second thoughts irrelevant to the execution-at-hand (i.e., skiing left-right while trusting the legs to absorb and respond to any changes in the terrain). I have heard many different split-second thoughts from racers I worked with, like “now I got to give all I got, now I need to go faster, now I need to ski more aggressively, now I need to change rhythm, now I need to clutch, mum and dad are here, I suck, coaches are watching, now it’s time, the end is near, I will finish this run, I got it this year.” They all have the same effect, the focus on the here and now is gone, the moment is gone, and the run ends before crossing the finish line. Thoughts pass through the mind with the speed of light all the time which often makes it tricky to become aware of and for the racer and coach to recognize the harm of this split-second thinking on racer focus.

Focus going off can happen to any racer at any level and all racers have the option to train this muscle called mind to stayon the left-right action steadily for 50 seconds but even better to bring it back if it dares to go off, especially for the longer events of SG and DH. Nothing is impossible! The mind is trainable as much as the body is and it’s a key part of the human being and doing that requires consistent and persistent workouts on and off the race course. There are plenty of techniques to strengthen a racer’s mind; in the mental training jargon one will hear us talk about self-talk, key words, breathing, mindfulness, focus-refocus, point of return, and bla, bla, bla. The mind requires technical training on the course and strengthening off the course–isn’t this what ski racers do with their bodies? Why not train the mind likewise?

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