Can a mental skills coach help you be more brave on the mountain?

Being able to switch off or overcome fear is essential to learning a new move, or skiing something out of your comfort zone, says Eric Kendall. Can a mental skills coach make a difference?

What’s the difference between most of us and Aksel, Lindsey or any top freerider you care to mention? Thigh girth? Speed of reaction? Yes to allof those and more. But what if the biggest difference is not physical, but what goes on inside your head?

That idea is nearly as old as skiing. There’s a gulf in sheer bravery between them and us. A cynic may say the difference is a simple one: that of having, versus not having, a brain. You could leave it there – let those über-sportspeople carry on – except that we naturally try to emulate the best.

For many of the speediest racers and freeriders, summoning up the courage is one bit they don’t have to train for, as their natural aptitude for the head-stuff is probably what divides them from
the also-rans. So it might be more useful to find someone with as much ‘normal’ sense of self-preservation as you, but who has overcome this limitation, preferably having done so in a conscious fashion that they can coherently express, providing a template for you to follow.
No-one springing to mind? I thought not.

Introducing our guinea pig

Time to bring in someone who knows their way round the inside of minds, like sports psychologist Matthew Cunliffe, who has worked across various sports, including skiing. Matthew is a mental skills coach, helping you develop, among other things, mental toughness.

Now all we need is a guinea pig. As it happens, I have just the person: we’ll call her Penny. She didn’t begin to ski until her late 20s but fell for it in a big way, gaining a taste not just for skiing powder but for mountaineering – and bringing a dose of caution to it all. When one of the best skiers she’s met, mountain guide and triple freeride world champ Manu Gaidet, described a straight-line couloir project he was working on, her question: “What if you find yourself going too fast?” said as much about her attitude as his answer did about him: “What is ‘too fast’?”

You’ll be skiing in much the same mental state as if running down a long flight of stairs |K2/David Carlier, davidcarlierphotography.com

You’ll be skiing in much the same mental state as if running down a long flight of stairs |K2/David Carlier, davidcarlierphotography.com

She has become a strong skier but even now her head gets in the way of her performance. This confirms accepted wisdom that learning to cope with risky, scary situations might be child’s play, but is hard as an adult. It’s said to be worse for women because with most blokes you can solve the problem by putting them in a group. Then the bigger fear (of looking scared) trumps the real fear (of death by botched turn sending them off a cliff). Women tend to be more sensible: if they don’t like the look of something, they won’t do it, regardless of who’s watching.

Given that progressing in skiing involves performing manoeuvres (many of which are not intuitive) in the face of apparent danger (at speed on steep slippery slopes), the ability to overcome fear is fundamental. Not summoning up sufficient courage often means failure, which reinforces itself on two important levels: it didn’t work and it hurt!

Although some lucky people up their game under pressure, others fall apart. Penny is down the middle, able “to ski my worst, regardless of the conditions, knowing I can do better”.

It’s not that she’s kidding herself about her abilities: two standout occasions have proven she really can ski well if pushed hard enough. Both times she was stricken by altitude sickness, but skied at speed and with perfect form, pausing only to vomit. With just one thought in her mind – to get down ASAP to stop the pain – she had no room for any other thoughts. And while the effect on her skiing was amazing, the obvious way of replicating it – making herself feel unwell in the extreme – is not an option. Maybe psychologist Matthew can do better by unlocking her thought processes and putting her in control?

He starts by explaining the process – normally a series of six consultations, face to face or on Skype if you happen to be in the Alps and he’s in Kent – where he takes you through a range of ideas. He tries to understand the way you feel about various aspects of your sport, and helps you develop strategies to cope with certain situations, as well as techniques to work with when skiing – like a mental equivalent of drills you might do on skis.

It soon becomes clear that even if you think you know the problem, he’s more interested in looking at the whole picture and dealing with all aspects of your mental approach. Whether simply a side-effect or a cunning ruse, this has the happy effect of making ‘your’ issue less dominant.

By the time you’ve had a few chats, you might almost have forgotten about the thing you thought needed to be fixed. There’s nothing like a bit of introspection to give you six other things to worry about when you thought there was just one.

Put more positively, the parallel processes involved in thinking need to be in balance. Faced with a narrow ridge and a big drop, it’s expected that an emotional response (fear of falling) comes to the fore, but vital it doesn’t dominate your thinking to the exclusion of all else.  

Examining your expectations as well as appraising the environment you’re operating in, allowing you to ‘control the controllable’, are vital. Establishing where you want to get to, in your head, is fundamental, and the concept of ‘flow’ seems particularly relevant to skiing. This state
of concentration, time passing unnoticed during the performance of a task undertaken without conscious thought, could have been coined with skiing in mind. Not only is being ‘in the zone’ the 
point at which you are performing to your best, but it’s also satisfying enough to be an end in itself.

Imagine you’re in A favourite couloir

Getting there is not one size fits all, but a personal process. Matthew works with visualisation, getting skiers to construct (there is homework) real-time scenarios of real-life on-snow situations – turn-by-turn down a favourite (or dreaded) couloir, or blue run (it works at every level).

Working with ‘self talk’ and dealing with ‘NATS’ (negative automatic thoughts) is in part about rationalising your situation and making sure that rather than avoid, there are powerful positive images to influence your reactions. It’s a process neither of denial nor of ignoring reality, but achieving mental balance to allow you to do what should come naturally. Get it right and you will be skiing in much the same mental state (but having more fun) as if running down a long flight of stairs: the step-by-step, or turn-by-turn, mechanics of it couldn’t be further from your mind.

So does it work? Observing the process from the sidelines, it’s clear that if you’re looking for a quick-fix, this isn’t it. You have to work at it and accept that it will involve – and influence – more aspects of yourself than you set out to tackle. It is bound to reach beyond skiing and it certainly shouldn’t be reserved for professional sportsmen.

To a skier, in terms of the time, effort and money swallowed by your passion, this is at the lower end of the scale – the price of a decent ski jacket rather than a week in the Alps. As Penny says: “For anyone with a problem that’s holding them back it’s as essential as replacing a broken binding.” I think she just left the cage for good.

Freeride World Tour competitors Reine Barkered and Sam Smoothy on fear

RB: Being nervous is really important. If you don’t feel anything when you’re standing above something hard you won’t perform 100%. But if you fear for your life it’s time to back off. Being able
to separate these feelings is really important, yet hard to do.

SS: Fear can be what keeps you alive in the mountains for a lifetime.

FL: Do you face fear most ski days?

RB: I take it pretty easy when I’m not competing or filming, and save the risks for when it’s rewarded.

SS: I like to vary my days to lessen inherent risk. I don’t need to be constantly wearing my gnarly boots; I pick the days I put them on by listening to the conditions and my inner voice.

FL: Was fear a big factor when learning to ski?

RB: I never thought about it that way – I was too young.

SS: Initially I was just there for enjoyment, having a laugh with the lads. Since then I’ve been conscious of taking small steps and trying not to progress too fast, which can be dangerous in freeride.

FL: Do you have any favourite mental techniques to deal with fear?

RB: Calculating the risks compared to the reward: if the maths
pan out it’s go-time.

SS: Research: knowing what the rational risks are and what’s irrational fear; what you can do to control things and what you need to let go. If I’m committed I take a few deep breaths and say f*** it, time to let go.

FL: Ever seen fear stop someone who’d make a great skier?

RB: Yes, and it’s a shame as it’s usually a fear that’s uncalled for. Some skiers heavily underestimate their level – usually the best ones.

SS: I have seen good skiers held back, but that’s OK too. Skiing doesn’t
have to be about endless progression, it can be so many different things
to so many people – they might be perfectly happy enjoying the level they are on. If someone really wants to progress they can work on it and it will happen; it just takes time.
ENDS

Matthew Cunliffe has worked with elite skiers, including the GB Disabled Ski Team, and sportsmen and women at all levels. Visit sportpsychologykent.co.uk or bps.org.uk

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