I was recently contacted by an ELITEAMer who was having a tough time finishing courses. He was feeling confused and frustrated and couldn’t understand why he was having such a hard time reaching the finish line, in both training and during races. After talking it through, we figured out that he was positive in the start and attacked right out of the gate, but as soon as he make a little mistake, it got into his head and things would spiral out of control from there… a DNF was usually not far behind. Once we identified this as the issue, we talked about a variety of strategies he could use to stay focused when on-course. After 30 minutes, we had a plan. Twenty-four hours later, he was on the podium!
I wanted to share this story because it’s a common problem for athletes – letting a small mistake distract you and disrupt your focus during your run. So, how can you stop this from happening? Below are a few suggestions.
The Goal is Speed, not Perfection!
The first thing you have to do is realize that EVERY racer will make a mistake (or 2, or 3 or 4!) at some point during their run. Even Mikaela Shiffrin in the Lienz Slalom two weeks ago (photo above) where she won by .61 seconds made a couple of errors each run, but kept the hammer down all the way to the finish. In all sports, but especially ski racing where you need to make 70-120 dynamic turns on a surface that is ever changing in conditions, that you can barely see, you are never going to have a perfect run. So, first thing you need to do is accept that you will make mistakes, and second, you need to have a plan for when those mistakes happen.
An easy plan to ski through mistakes is to have a cue word (or cue words) that you think and say immediately after something happens. It may be something like “Keep Pushing” or “Fight” or “Attack”. With practice, these words/thoughts will instantly help you refocus and do whatever is necessary to recover and keep pushing. The force of these words will snap you back to reality and help you move forward instead of getting mentally stuck 2 gates behind you.
Practice During Training
The only way to make something automatic is to practice. So, during training, do two things.
- Use your pre-race routine in the start of EVERY training run. The visualization, breathing and focus should be rehearsed every run, every day. With practice, it will become natural and the starting gate will soon become comfortable instead of frightening.
- Use your cue words every time you make a mistake and fight through to the finish. Pretty soon it will become something you do without thinking. Finding the grit and determination to fight through your mistakes all the way to the finish line will be the norm, not the exception.
Write it Down
Spend some time after every training weekend to write down what you learned in your Journal – whether it was technical, physical or mental. That way, if you ever go through a tough time or develop a bad habit, you can look back and find the tools and/or answers right in your Journal. Your cue word(s) will change every now and then, but their job – to help you refocus immediately – will always be necessary and critical to success in the race course.