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Playing Head Games


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It’s the Nineties: People aren’t afraid of a little help for the head anymore. And that’s a good thing when it comes to sports. Ski coaches, instructors and sports psychologists all agree that mental conditioning can go a long way toward making you the skier you want to be. “Physical and mental training go hand in hand,” says Dan Gould, Ph.D., a former mental training consultant to the U.S. Freestyle Team. “Everybody knows you can train your body to be stronger, but you can do the same thing with your mind.”

Skeptical? So was Jonny Moseley before working with Gould to prepare for the Nagano Olympics. “At first I didn’t want to talk to him,” remembers the mogul gold medalist. “I didn’t want anyone getting into my head to change things around. But we talked about things like organizing goals, and what I thought about on a good day as opposed to a bad day. We actually wrote it all down, everything I did and thought before a run. It turned out that the way I was thinking was really affecting my skiing.”

Gould helped Moseley shut out the mental distractions in his life¿both on and off the hill¿so he could focus solely on his goals. “For me it took getting into a daily routine that I became sort of manic about. But once I figured out what worked and what made me ski my best, I didn’t want to do anything to mess with that.”

While the U.S. Ski Team and many collegiate squads believe enough in mental training to hire staff psychologists, you certainly don’t have to be an Olympic athlete to reap the benefits. No matter who you are, your level of performance has a direct correlation to what’s called your “level of arousal.”

Your emotions on the slopes¿whether fear, anger, elation or excitement¿are what determine this phenomenon. “In order to get great performance, we need a perfect level of physiological arousal,” explains Ken Singer, Ph.D., ski instructor, psychotherapist and co-author of Skiing Out of Your Mind. “Too much arousal can be even worse than too little. That’s why some athletes have great practice runs but can’t perform for the real thing. They’re over-aroused.” The trick, then, is finding the peak level to suit the moment. Moseley attests that “the times when I did well were when I centered, took breaths into my stomach, got my heart rate down and relaxed a little bit.”

You might find that looking down a steep pitch gets your heart pumping. How can you relax so that fear doesn’t prevent you from skiing to your potential? One of the most important techniques to use is visualization. Whether you’re on the lift or at the top of a pitch, close your eyes and imagine yourself skiing the perfect run¿what the movements feel like, what your body looks like. Another technique, called modeling, is done by observing other skiers. You can follow your partner’s line through the bumps, or just pay attention to what another good skier is doing. Also, the use of metaphors can help the brain understand correct body positions. Instead of thinking “I need to keep my hands up,” think “I need to hold my hands like I’m holding a tray of drinks.”

There are also techniques that can be done off the hill. They vary from something as simple as a deep, cleansing breath to the intricacies of meditation. But the goal, according to Richard M. Suinn, Ph.D., a sports psychologist for several U.S. Olympic teams and the current president of the American Psychological Association, is “to get centered and in a state of active awareness.”

In short, it comes down to controlling your mind. “In thought management,” Suinn explains, “we operate on the principle that the mind can’t think of two things at the same time. For example, if, before your run, you concentrate on finding the tallest tree in sight, it’s impossible to also focus on being scared.”

Remaining actively aware while you’re skiing, however, can be difficult. Like any skill, it needs to be practiced. “You can’t just tell yourself, ‘pole plant here, turn now, bend your knees’ because language is slower than skiing and you won’t be able to keep up,” explains Suinn. “Many people find that singing a song or repeating a sound to themselves helps to set up a series of movement patterns that have been stored in the brain. It becomes almost Pavlovian¿instead of an instinctive defensive reaction, the body reacts in the way you’ve conditioned it to.”

Conditioning begins with instruction, and, according to Singer, “most instructors, in one way or another, address both the physical and mental aspects of skiing.” When the mind and body are working well together, it feels good. “That’s why we ski,” continues Singer. “The natural high you get from a great run is your brain saying, ‘Good job.’ It’s a feeling you’ll always be striving to repeat.” In the end, the difference between a good day and a bad day is often a simple case of mind over matter.