SKIING - It really is a mind game
Some things we can learn from special forces training
My books on skiing - “Ski In Control”, and “Skiing from Greens to Reds and beyond”, and very much the videos on my Bobski YouTube channel, necessarily address issues of skiing technique. But perhaps surprisingly for many, skiing technique is in many ways a secondary issue. Or at best only one half of a psycho physical system.
So long as things are going well, there are no perceived dangers (real or not), skiing is simply fun. But one of the aspects of skiing – indeed anything done in the outdoors; mountaineering, sailing... - is that you can come round a corner and things change very quickly. That's when we are thrown back on our own resources.
Because ski schools don't have the luxury of spending much time with skiing pupils, and don't offer them opportunities in other ways, they necessarily must omit the key mental issues.
I am a sports coach specialised in the development coaching of recreational skiers. I have plenty of critics, teachers of skiing who are of the opinion that I put too much emphasis on skiing's mental aspects. They believe that all they need to do to serve you well, is to show you how good their skiing is by demonstrating it, and have you watch them. Supposedly you can then emulate their performances. I couldn't.
When I started skiing – I was 47 years old the first time I ever went – that's how they tried to teach me. When I found it difficult I was told to “try again” or “try harder”, as if I wasn't already trying. All I could do was to repeat the behaviours that were not working , and thereby get better at doing them! It is a testament to how glorious skiing is, that I didn't give up; in fact when later I myself began learning to be a skiing teacher I almost did give up, because of how discouraging my then trainers were.
Trying to learn a physical technique by watching somebody else – especially somebody else who can do it but not explain it – is just hopeless. It is the default mode for just about every ski school in the world. It inevitably leads either to failure, or to some distorted awkward unskilful way of somehow getting down the slope; or of instilling the (wrong) belief that it must be you who is no good and perhaps never will be.
My first book - “Ski In Control” has more pages devoted to the mental aspects of skiing - those mental blocks and inhibitors – that get in the way of applying the movements we need to make to control our motion., than it has to “things to do”.
Our level of skill in generating the movements whilst in motion which constitute the requisite techniques, and their timings, is only the facilitator of what our minds have decided we would like to do. They are merely the physical movements that get us the outcomes we want.
The movements are simple but doing them, correctly, is certainly not easy. The question is why?
Most ski teaching is done by ski school ski instructors. I suspect that most attempted ski learning is done by skiers trying to teach themselves; not only un-coached, but not even under instruction. They hope that somehow watching others and then repeatedly “having a go” will enable them to become expert skiers: or even to be safe. There is ample evidence visible available on any ski slope that neither of these works terribly well. I know this because after giving up on ski schools myself when I was 50, this is what I tried. It is not what worked.
The difference lies in how you think. Does the military perhaps have anything to teach us?
Even more than what you think, how you think is the key. Not just about skiing – the key is how you think about you, your situations, your value systems, your resilience and how to enhance it. How to go about handling situations that look to you to be getting out of hand. How, if you like, to handle apprehension or fear. We all experience them like it or not. In addition you need to know precisely what to do and better still to understand why it is so.
“Special” military forces' training can tell us a lot about these things. The mainstream media highlight what's seen as the exciting and aggressive aspects of special units' activities. Much of it is not exciting, and the more aggression you can avoid, the better. The question then arises, as to what is the difference between “special” forces, and “ordinary” forces? Why are the training processes for one more prolonged and intense. than for the other? Why is the selection process so demanding? What strengths are they looking to develop?
Certainly levels of fitness and stamina are different. Certainly you can't expect an old geezer like me to yomp an 60lb Bergen more than a couple of yards now. Certainly different too are the specialised technical specialities – we don't need thousands of Forward Observers or Forward Air Controllers for example. But most important of all is the psychological training that makes for self reliance, and resilience. What they are looking to do is to build on a man's strengths and to help him change his character, as expressed in how he behaves in challenging circumstances.
The military is very well supplied with psychologists, and for good reason. What is now clear is that the thinking processes trained in to special forces, are very little different indeed – if at all – from the processes that help create top performers in all sports. Top car drivers. Top skiers. Top runners. Top performers in business.
The great news is that you don't have to be a God to do it. Those top performers are not magical, they are not Gods, they are ordinary people trained to do extra-ordinary things.
And so can you be!
You can become pretty much anything you want to become. In our case it's being a good skier, but it could be anything else – it could be to become the world's greatest lounge lizard if you like. Do what you like, but do it well; that is where the satisfaction and personal growth come from – doing it well, not just doing it. Slopping down a blue run, standing vertical, making no arcs, virtually with your hands in your pockets may enable you to boast in the bar that you “skied X number of kilometres today”, but did you? Depends on what how you define “skiing”.
Your skiing outcomes
There are certain outcomes that you will desire for your skiing. Doesn't matter what they are, the key thing is that they are yours. Things you want to achieve. Those are your dreams – but like “hope” while dreams are essential they are not good strategies; not effective tactical plans. Dreaming doesn't get us anywhere, doing does; dreaming sets the
I'd like you to take this short list on board (it's explained more fully in my book “Ski In Control” chapter 5)
• You have a desired “outcome”, let's say to execute continuous arcs down the next 100 metres of a red run. (But it can be anything)
• To achieve that outcome you will need “behaviours” - actions you will take or things you will do.
• And those behaviours can only be made in the context of your “thinking” - your brain sends out messages to your body.
• What is more, your thinking – how you think, and its quality – is constrained by your “beliefs”. If tucked away in the folds of your brain is a belief that only “special” people (Gods) or extra-ordinary people, can do extra-ordinary things, that belief will limit you.
So the best place to start improving your skiing, or achieving what you want to achieve – say for example overcoming occasions when you get scared – the place to start is inside your head examining your beliefs about the world / your capabilities / and why things happen. Specifically skiing.
Let me go back to the beginning. On my Ski In Control YouTube channel you will find plenty of practical games to play. But before my pupils got anywhere near a ski slope we first addressed what they understood about skiing. What were their beliefs about it? How did they believe it comes about? (I should add that the universal answer to this is “Skiing is sliding about on snow” - or some such. That is totally incorrect by the way.)
Only then did we address things to do. Within that new understanding – and this is the “biggy” - their confidence grew. Their self-belief burgeoned: it took time, but once it was rolling nothing was going to stop it. Every single time they executed a movement whilst in motion, and it worked, their confidence ratcheted up one more notch. And the key thing about ratchets is that they only go one way.
My mentor and guru John Shedden put me right one time when I said “success leads to success”, he said, “No, successes lead to successes”. There is a massive difference, and a key learning point which is related to my earlier comment about ski instructors just telling you to try harder, or watching you fail. What works is adjusting your goal so that it is a bit of a stretch but achievable. Repeatedly failing destroys you.
The other truly significant aspect of this is that when you think you have made an appropriate movement, in an appropriate way, at the appropriate time and it doesn't work well, then by investigating your beliefs, you will no longer blame yourself and importantly no longer think that it's because you're no good, and have no potential.
It's simple – you can stop and without emotion consider -
• did I actually make the movement I intended? (You might need an outside observer to help you with this).
• did I do it the way I intended?
• did I do it at the right time?
• What did I feel? (Not, how did you feel – precisely what)
This is the way that developing better technique feeds back into a stronger mind set.
In my next post I'll take a look at handling fear situations – having had a lot of them, I'm a bit of an expert! In the meantime I hope you may give the above some thought.
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If you have specific questions related to your own skiing, don't hesitate to email me – email@example.com - it won't cost you anything.