As is the case with all previous additions where we focus on a particular sport we highly recommend that even if you’ve never even seen snow before that you make your way through the below article as you will be surprised at how many ideas might be applicable for your particular sport or performance area.
In the realm of Snow Sports, we see what can only be described as some of the most extreme, dangerous and downright fantastic sports of the modern era. From snowboarding and skiing, figure skating to luge and everything in between, Snow Sports athletes are the pros at defying gravity, making the ‘impossible’ look like a piece of cake and leaving us as spectators speechless.
Of course, with any sport comes a cocktail of physical and mental challenges. But in sports where sticking the landing is in some cases a matter of “life or extreme physical injury”, the mental barriers to performance are on a whole other level. On another note, some snow sports test a very broad range of physical capabilities under one event, requiring athletes to both master and be able to shift back and forth between contrasting physical skill sets.
In this article, we’ll explore three popular Snow Sports in detail, and explore their unique mental demands. I’ll also run you through how you might be able to overcome a few of these performance barriers through evidence-based mental skills, starting with an event that sits on the extreme end of the Snow Sports spectrum. My last article was on Figure Skating which you can read here which when combined with the below hopefully provides a reasonable conceptualisation of Sport Psychology for Winter Sports.
In addition to being one of the fastest sports on the planet, Skeleton is also considered the world’s first sliding sport. Riders travel at speeds of up to 130km/hour head-first on a small sled (known as a skeleton bobsled) with their face only centimetres off the ice. It is the job of the rider to steer using their entire body, which involves careful manoeuvring of the shoulders, legs and toes. It’s pretty obvious from the nature of this sport that the margin for error is extremely small, and fair to say that one wrong move could potentially result in disaster.
So in order to succeed in the Skeleton event, one must be able to execute precise movements whilst travelling at incredible speeds, and you could argue that in order to do this the rider needs to be completely focused and present. A lot of staying focused and present boils down to the athlete’s ability to manage their thoughts, in particular overthinking (e.g. planning, problem-solving) or what we might call “difficult” thoughts (e.g. thinking about the worst-case scenario, “what if” thinking). In terms of overcoming this mental barrier to performance, the first thing to acknowledge is that in any situation perceived as important or threatening our mind is always going to look for a way out of it. Our mind is likely to perceive travelling headfirst on ice at 130km/hour as extremely threatening, so you can imagine all the things it’ll try and say to us to talk us out of doing it.
“I can’t afford a single mistake?”
“What if I crash and all that hard work goes to waste?”
“This is too risky, I don’t want to be here?”.
So the question here is how do we go about changing this – how do we go about making our thinking more positive so that it doesn’t stop us from doing what we want to do? Well if you read my previous article on thoughts you’d know by now that the answer to this is “we don’t, because we can’t.”
If you think that elite athletes are the experts at thinking positive, we’re here to tell you that’s not really the case. It’s likely that the minds of the most elite Skeleton athletes are also trying to talk them out of doing what they love to do. Why? Because they’re human, just like you. And as humans, we have very limited influence over the things our mind tells us purely due to the fact that there is always some biological reason or survival instinct at play. The most elite athletes in the world don’t necessarily think the most positively, they’re just masters at not letting what they think impact what they do. Our job as Sport Psychologists and Performance Psychologists is therefore not to change the way athletes think, but to change the relationship athletes have with their thoughts and minimise the power their thoughts have over their actions. Please note that this might not be the approach of other sport psychologists but is certainly the case for our current team.
Noticing Thoughts, Making Room For Them And Coming Back To The Here And Now
So how exactly do we reduce the power thoughts have over our actions? Or in terms of Skeleton, how do commit to the slide when everything in our mind is telling us not to? At Condor Performance we take a mindfulness approach to this question, starting with the simple practice of bringing awareness to our mind and the way it speaks to us. One of the ways we can practice this is through a skill known as The Noticing-Self. When we tap into our noticing-self we ultimately ‘take a step back and observe’ what we are thinking and feeling in that moment. But the key here is to try to do this without judgement. That is, once we notice what our mind is telling us, the aim isn’t to argue whether or not the thought is true, false, right, wrong, positive or negative. All we want to do is notice the presence of this thought. For example, “I notice my mind is asking me what will happen if I crash.”
Once we have noticed our thought(s) without judgment, the next step is to make room for these thoughts in the sporting experience. Basically, we need to accept that this is what our mind is telling us. Part of this is appreciating the fact that our mind can have a mind of its own, and is hardwired to talk us out of engaging in dangerous or threatening behaviour. If we can learn to accept the way our mind speaks to us and acknowledge that it’s coming from a place of protection, we then have the power to choose whether or not we want to listen to it. To choose whether or not to let it influence what we then do next.
Last but not least, it is our job to redirect our focus back to the present. After bringing awareness to and accepting our thoughts, it’s useful we bring our attention back to what we need to be doing at this moment, right here, right now. If the Skeleton rider is getting ready to start then try to notice where their hands, arms and legs are, and where do they need to be. Bring awareness to what can you see, smell, hear, taste and feel in that moment, and remind yourself of what processes you need to be thinking about. Mindful (deep) breathing or action-based cues (e.g. adjusting equipment) can be used here to aid us in bringing our focus back to the present.
On the topic of sliding events, I’ll now bring your attention to the 4-Person Bobsleigh, the fastest snow event with riders reaching speeds of up to 150km/hour. You can imagine it’d share some of the same mental challenges as Skeleton, but there is a whole other dynamic at play in this event. Throw in the fact that it’s you plus three other riders, and now you have the added pressure of not messing up because doing so doesn’t just affect you.
Unity in Bobsleigh
We can’t ignore the role cohesion plays in this sport. Team members have to work together to execute a seamless start (where they essentially run with the sled, jump in and sit down within only a few seconds) as well as the entire run itself despite the fact that most of the steering is done by the driver (the person in the front). What a lot of us don’t realise is that a lot of planning goes into preparing for a run. Teams will walk, slide, re-walk and re-slide, to familiarise themselves with the twists and turns of the course and plan the details of steering.
Sticking To The Processes
Again, for those of you who have read my previous article on Unity, you will know that team cohesion goes beyond having a shared vision. To increase the chances of success the team needs to be on the same page in terms of A) how they set expectations or ‘goals’ for their performances and B) the way they evaluate (judge) their performances afterwards. Part of creating a winning culture is placing less emphasis on ‘winning’ itself, and instead placing a higher emphasis on processes and how to increase the chances of getting those things right both at the individual and group level. In a sport like Bobsleigh where Team Unity is so integral to success, it is important for team members to acknowledge the amount of influence they have over the outcome (and how little this actually is). If we were to breakdown the amount each factor in the Bobsleigh event contributes to the outcome, it might look something like this:
- The Team – 40%
- The Sled – 20%
- The Ice – 15%
- The Course – 15%
So we’re talking about an event where teams have less than 50% influence over the outcome as a result of all the other external factors at play (the sled, the ice, the course). If we break that down to the individual level, each team member is likely to contribute to about 10% to the outcome. That’s not a whole lot.
Processes, on the other hand, are all the actions that are performed out there on the ice that increase the chances of achieving that desired outcome (e.g. starting sprint, getting seated, steering, etc). It’s important for teams to not only have a shared vision but to share an understanding of the importance of setting process-based goals and essentially leaving the results to take care of themselves.
Note: In an attempt to get this article out before the Winter Olympics is over and forgotten we did not have time to consult bobsled contacts/athletes or coaches on whether the above breakdown of influence is correct. So if you are involved in the sport at any level and would like to share your thoughts on the accuracy of these numbers please do so by using the comment section at the bottom of this article.
Moving away from the sliding sports and onto something a little bit different. The Biathlon event is both unique and incredibly fascinating; a combination of Cross Country Skiing and Rifle Shooting. The cross-country ski of up to 20km for men and 15km for women are interspersed with shooting ranges in which biathletes have 5 targets and 5 attempts, with time penalties added for missed shots. The very nature of the event in that athletes are required to shift back and forth between contrasting physical capabilities creates some pretty significant mental barriers to overcome, the most obvious being the need to go from one physical extreme to another with efficiency. More specifically, to be still enough in the shooting section coming off the back of intensive cross country skiing that’ll inevitably elevate the heart rate.
Replicating Competition Stressors at Training
Only through physical conditioning can we increase the rate at which our heart rate returns to resting after intensive physical activity, but other than this we don’t have a whole lot of influence over this kind of thing as it’s physiological. However, this doesn’t mean we can’t use mental hacks to increase the likelihood we’ll be able to cope with this stressor come competition day. In order to cope with the stressor of an elevated heart rate during a time where stillness is required for accuracy, we need to practice doing so under exact or similar conditions. Replicating the competition environment (e.g. shooting practice with an elevated heart rate) or increasing the difficulty of practice through other means (e.g. increasing the shooting range, reducing the shooting target at resting heart rate) are some of the ways athletes can train to be more comfortable with these physiological and psychological stressors.
One Common Challenge…The Snow Itself
But although these sports have a series of unique mental barriers that separate them from one another, there is one thing they all have in common that separates Snow from non-Snow sports. That is – access to the right conditions. Snow is typically seasonal, and therefore present for only a portion of the year – and that’s just in the places where it does snow. One of the biggest barriers to Snow Sports preparation is snow itself. Its relative unreliability and short-lived lifespan often produce a whole bunch of challenges that we hear back from athletes of these sports during sessions. So how do Snow Sports athletes train and prepare all year round, even in places where there is little to no access to the good stuff?
Organic Versus Synthetic Practice
The concepts of Organic and Synthetic Practice become particularly important here. When we talk about Organic Practice, we’re referring to training that takes place in competition form (or as close as possible). For Skeleton and Bobsleigh, this would be sliding a course, and for Biathlon this would be sprint skiing interspersed with shooting practice. Synthetic Practice on the other hand includes all the practice that takes place in a modified competition environment (e.g. smaller/larger game environments, smaller/larger teams, artificial rules that raise the margin for success), any drills that are aimed at specific competitive techniques or tactics or any other training that takes place outside of Organic Practice.
It’s quite common for Snow Sports athletes to train without snow, during the warmer months of the year or for some pretty much all year round (in places without much snow). Synthetic practice is therefore a huge part of their preparation as access to organic practice in some cases is very limited. A lot of this takes place in the form of strength and conditioning training targeted to the specific demands of the sport, track and fieldwork, and using non-snow equipment replicas to get as close to organic practice as possible (as seen in the below videos). The same rules apply to Mental Training as per Physical Training. In other words in the absence of the ability to work on mindset in an organic fashion – in winter conditions – rather than throwing up your hands in frustration and not bothering try and see how you might be able to replicate some of the mental demands away from the conditions. If you have no idea where to start, get in touch as we can help.
However, one of the greatest things about the world of Sport and Performance Psychology is the fact that in order to enhance performance, all you need is your mind. One way Snow Sports athletes can rehearse their competition-day processes is through Visualisation or ‘Mental Rehearsal’. This type of practice can take place in various forms (with equipment, without equipment, video-assisted or pure mental rehearsal), and it works through firing the same kinds of neurons that would fire if we were to physically perform those actions leading to practice effects. In other words, no snow is needed!
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