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Skiing – how to handle those difficult moments

How to handle those difficult moments

In the blog I posted prior to this one, I said I would address handling difficult moments during your skiing. We all get them; we encounter times when our self-belief falters. We all encounter times when we become fearful of what might happen, none more so than currently as we flounder in the face of the corona virus not knowing where it will lead. But let's stick to skiing.

Issues around skiing self-confidence, apprehension, or fear are part of a “system” that includes matters of skill/technique, and circumstance. Let me explain what I mean by that. If you find yourself in a 45 degree couloir, on your own, seven kilometres from the nearest help, at 4:30 pm in January, and you have only ever skied a blue run before, and you are not feeling any fear, you are an insensate idiot. Fear is what you should be feeling.

Now consider a ski run you've done before, and which you found perfectly do-able with your present level of technical ability – your current level of skiing skill. Imagine yourself doing it again but the conditions have changed, and the snow is less easy to ski; perhaps the temperature has fallen and the surface is now more crisp. All of a sudden you find yourself getting scared.

The most likely reason for this is that you are now finding that your level of skill isn't quite up to enabling you to feel confident you have total control of your skis. In the longer term it is clear that what will make a real contribution to your self confidence, will be improving your level of skiing skill – and possibly your ability to judge what to ski, and when. You could do with a higher level of delivered skill. Right now though you are not certain you will able to “handle” the situation.

The reason I put it that way “ a higher level of delivered skill” takes account of the possible fact that you may have exercised the requisite level of skill – of technical ability – on previous occasions but are not finding it possible just now. Something is stopping it happening. That something will be emotion – apprehension or fear or self-doubt. The snag with such occasions is that if we're not careful they can “wind up” into a downward spiral, and we may find we can no longer even apply the level of skill to our technique that we have developed. It's there: we can't summon it up.

Shouting “Be Confident”, won't work. Having someone else shout “Just do it” also won't work. “Go on, you'll be ok” won't work, unless you find it immediately believable. Being able to ski better is the single thing that would give you more confidence – but it is not available to you in the immediate short term; right now, when you really need it. You will need a few self control techniques, rather then self-confidence techniques, to help you get down safely in control of the situation.

I have a series of “self-coaching papers” in PDF format. They are available free, all you have to do is email me for the list and you can have any you want. One of them is called “My Performance Review”. It comprises a written form you can use for yourself, which was not designed by me but by three sport psychologists who gave me permission to modify and employ it. You can use it any time before or after performance, but not on the slope, obviously.

The PDF also includes how to use it, and a description of an occasion when I had a really tough time while skiing a big back country route in the Chamonix valley and almost failed. I'll try to attach it to this blog, but if I fail, email me if you want it. It's good.

That Chamonix experience of mine was a combination of not realising beforehand what a big route it was, insufficient technique, insufficient fitness to overcome the added physical demands which that lack of technique led to, and fear that developed. I had a horrible time. And felt belittled.

I used this “Performance Review” form that evening, and as a result of that found myself, the very following day, to my complete surprise, skiing an even steeper off-piste route with neither difficulty nor fear. Now, I can't give you a written guarantee that using the form really was the cause of the change, but I'd put money on it. It is psychologically very powerful. If you want it I'll happily email it to you. I have long-term pupils who won't go to the Alps without multiple copies of it – they find that repeatedly using it makes a big difference for them.

Some aspects of fear

An American psychologist called Susan Jeffers wrote a now famous book called “Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway” you can get it second hand from Amazon for about £3.50. It doesn't suit everyone, some folk think it's a bit trite; I don't agree I think it is worth reading.

In it she concludes that there is only ever one kind of fear. It doesn't matter she says, whether it wears a mask of physical fear, or psychological fear, they can be equally destructive. It is no easier for Roger Federer if things are going badly, to contemplate failing in front of 20,000 people, with no physical danger, than for us to have difficulty deciding to set off skiing again when we think we might fall and get hurt. (As in the French Open recently when he got thrashed by Nadal – imagine being the best in the world and not getting a single game in the first set, in front of thousands)

Jeffers maintains the one fear is - “I may not be able to handle this”. At heart, she says, all fears resolve themselves into this one.

In some ways the most damaging aspect of experiencing fear, or its more shadowy cousin apprehension, is what it can do to how we view our selves – witness my feelings of belittlement above. It is all too easy to think that we ought not to feel fear. That is rubbish, the most dangerous people I have been with have been people who didn't appear to recognise fear; they could lead you into all kinds of trouble.

That's how I felt that day on the Pas de Chevre, I came away thinking I was a total failure – that somehow I should have been “better”. (No good reason for thinking so, and “The Performance Review” form changed this). I've experienced the same thing in climbing situations and they can take you by surprise – one day you just seem to float up, to the sound of Tchaikovsky coursing through your head, next day it's a struggle. Funny old thing, the brain."

Just a few ideas for crisis situations

Here are just a few “emergency situation” tricks that may help you get out of a bit of trouble, so you can get down safely, without too much psychological damage, and begin a plan of action to improve your skiing and the number of situations you can conquer.

Spend some time sitting and imagining situations in which you may use them. Those imagination sessions will serve you well next time you need one of these, in earnest. When you are imagining, get deeply into it, “see” more than you normally see, make slopes steeper than they really are, imagine the slope more polished, hear snow-boarders scraping the snow right behind you … enlarge the whole situation. See the colours brighter. Hear the sound around you louder. Imagine yourself lifting one ski off the ground and sense what it feels like. You are completely safe, it's only imagination and you might even be in the bath!

• When things begin to “go pear-shaped” we need to stop thinking “expansively”.

• First of all, even if there seems to be a shortage of time, nevertheless STOP. Stop and reassess. Don't be afraid to actually shout STOP! Your brain can readily go into “flapsy hapsy” mode and you need to get your brain waves smoothed out again. Stopping still, will help. Be prepared to do it repeatedly as you descend – it's likely not to be a one-off job.

• Ask yourself – and take care answering - “Is this the end of the world, or something less?

What single small thing can I do that will help? “Remember, whatever that is, it doesn't have to be a complete cure – it only has to get you through the next few seconds. They will in turn lead you to the following few seconds.

• The general rule of thumb is – the more dire the situation seems to you, the shorter should be your attention span.

• Don't think big; think small. Don't think “long distance”, think “the next ten yards”.

• Don't think long term – think the next ten seconds or even less. “Can I get through and survive the next two minutes / ten seconds / the next one second? What do I have to do to hang on?

• Don't think “skiing down to the bottom” - think the next single arc. Only one. Then stop again. Pull that one off, and it will give you confidence for the next one. (Successes lead to successes) Give yourself a few seconds at least, to take your single-arc success on board. Recognise it.

• Stop after each one, until something in your head says “Hey, we could link a couple together now”.

• Finally, for now, do not blame yourself. Resist the temptation to call yourself names. Avoid belittling your self. Being scared is natural, commonplace, and surmountable. It is a strong emotion, and your best defence is anything at all that helps you not to be emotional. Do your best to be rational, and content with that “best”.

A quick re-cap

Anytime we feel fear or apprehension, is no more than an occasion when our perceptions are telling us that “we may not be able to handle it”. So STOP and define what “it” is.

If for example “handling it” involves skiing with linked arcs down something you don't like the look of – then how about redefining “it”. Call “it” “getting down the next 20 mtrs safely” and the picture will look different, because you have now taken skis out of the equation – you could take them off, carry them, and walk.

Or you might perhaps side-skid if you know how. (If you don't, then learning to do that well, could be profitable. - here's a key point, when you do it face your torso straight down the slope) When you have taken control, you will have done it by defining the problem. No one would blame you or call you names (except you, if you let yourself) – in fact probably no one would even notice; most folk on ski slopes, especially tricky bits, don't notice anything, except their own situation. And sometimes not even that.

Never be ashamed of being apprehensive or scared; as I said before people who claim never to be, are either lying, or people you need to avoid; sooner or later they'll kill themselves and possibly you!

Let's say that you have had an experience like this. Let's say you survived it and are now in the restaurant having a coffee. What to do now? I would suggest, calmly reviewing as best you can what it was about your technique that failed you. Close your eyes and quietly do that whole run again in your head. If you have read my books, and watched my YouTube channel you should be able to identify some elements of technique that perhaps failed you, when you were under pressure.

I'd suggest taking your analysis to an easy slope – even the beginner slope if it's not too crowded – and try them out. I would further suggest that what you do not want to do, is to go hard on yourself and conclude that you need to go to a hard slope and keep on doing it. Choose that option and you'll embed the technical limitations that let you down before, and embed bad feelings and bad emotions.

These are techniques. They work. You can be either skilful or not in their application. What will make you skilful, and ensure they work when you need them is – practice, practice, practice. You don't need to be on a snow slope to do it. All you need is application, and persistence.

Do your best to be coolly rational. It's not easy to do, it's hard, so we need to practice it. A lot.

Good luck.

Always feel free to get back to me if you think there's any way I can help you. I'd love to know if any of these suggestions help you: let me know?

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