Michael Sinnot races for the Saab Salomon Factory Team and Sun Valley ODT. This article was first published in a Ski Post newsletter.
Call me a head case, but I believe that the single most overlooked aspect of skiing is the mental aspect. To preface, I did spend a lot of time studying the brain in my past (psychology major and neuroscience minor, I’m a head geek), so I may be biased towards the things I like. That said, my studies gave me a firsthand appreciation for the untapped potential of the human mind.
You should never enter a race in an unready state of mind. Period (for emphasis). End of story. It’s like starting a race without boots or with red klister the length of your glide zone on a cold day. If you slide up to the line, and in your head you are repeating, “Oh, this is miserable. What am I doing? I’m not ready. These guys look fast. Maybe I’ll just ski the first half and see how I feel,” or anything along these lines, then you have knocked yourself out before the race has begun. Take a step back. Breathe deep. Re-assess and focus, because a mind set up for failure will be ready to jump on the failure bandwagon. A mind will make your thoughts reality. Rather than have your mental state fight against you from the get-go, use the brain as a tool, and set your sights high. Think about all the mental hoopla quotes you’ve heard over the years, from “reach for the stars,” to “90% of this game is half mental” (as said by the great Yogi Berra). These things are not coincidences, and as much as you may rue the idea of meditation or breathing rituals or whatever “sports psychology” means to you, the truth is that these things are real.
There is no "right" way to mentally prepare. I can’t tell you how to find the right mental state for yourself. It’s an individual assessment of mental strengths and beliefs. I once heard Michael Phelps say that the only thing he thinks about in a race is “I have to touch the wall first.” Then there is the stereotypical football player who is yelling and pounding his head and finding his mental (?) adjustment. Phil Jackson believes it's best to clear the head and play in a Zen state, conscious of everything around you. Of course there is also the Prefontaine way of life, trying to win at everything and making winning, or losing, a disease. The point is that there are many ways to create a successful mental aura, but it’s all up to you to discover what that entails. One common denominator to all these success stories is that these people didn’t just create their mental tact overnight. They developed them.
A racer does not jump into a race, usually, without training. I propose the same thing for your new found mental attitude. Find it. Develop it. Hone it. Make it infallible to the obstacles you may encounter. Start today. Winter is coming and you may be preparing to be physically fit, but prepare to be mentally fit too. This could mean that you embark on a long run, and don’t bring any music. Just clear your head and focus for as long as you can. Find your rhythm and embrace the flow of ideas, or the consistent pounding of your feet. Mental exercises strengthen your resolve and ability to keep the “game plan” on par. Try the Pre method and practice competitiveness in unimportant things. It may not help you make any friends, but it will make you ready for success when it counts and the pressure is on. Kris Freeman is known for taking every race seriously, and it shows when the heat is on. Don’t be discouraged at first if your brain fights back. That’s the point of practicing now, to strengthen your synaptic connections and make you ready for race day.
Today, with snow still a month away, mental practice may be less time consuming and strenuous. Just find the right frame of mind. As the season nears and your big race is on the horizon, focus longer and harder. Practice day in and day out, even for a little bit at a time. Eventually it no longer becomes a decision, but an instinct. This way, when the gun fires and people are scrambling around, flailing, hoping the kick wax works, hoping their energy holds, waiting for the finish to come, you’ll have an advantage. You’ll be ready; you’ll be focused; you’ll have a game plan; and this will be second nature to you.
Good luck and I’ll see you on the race trails.