The Ski Shrink Is In ...

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
The Downhill Report, December 1996

The Ski Shrink Is In ...

"I was a world-ranked skier," says Jim Taylor, "and I was a head case." Then Taylor discovered the miracle of sports psychology, became a top-20 U.S. slalomer, went back to school, and set up a performance-psychology practice of his own in (where else) Aspen. In addition to office sessions, Taylor joins jittery clients on the hill for "a private mental lesson," helping them shoo away their demons and gain on-slope bravado. His suggestions to quell some common ski-day neuroses:

Q: Dr. Taylor, every time I approach a mogul field, a small voice inside me cries out, "Mommy, Mommy!" How can I gain more confidence?

A: People tend to engage in what I call extreme thinking: "This trail's like a cliff; I'm gonna fall. These moguls must be ten feet tall." What you need to do is objectively evaluate the challenge. And do some positive thinking: "Come on, I can do this. I can have fun. I'm going to give it my best effort." Then engage in mental imagery; before you shove off, close your eyes and see and feel yourself successfully skiing those bumps. This takes your mind off negative thoughts.

Q: Whenever I see a trail sign with a black diamond on it, I feel like Jimmy Stewart in the bell tower in Vertigo. How can I relax on the steeps?

A: The fundamental concern with steeper hills is speed, which can lead to falls, loss of control, and possible injury. Remember, the best way to control speed is to get the skis pointing across the hill. Again, assess the run realistically. Clearly, it's not a cliff. Look at the skiers below you, especially those with the same ability level as you. If it was a cliff, would any of them be standing up?

Q: When I take a lesson, I seem to ski worse in front of my instructor than I normally do. What gives?

A: It all comes down to a distinction between what I call outcome focus and process focus. Outcome focus means focusing on what will happen after the performance. For a skier this may be, "I'm gonna look like an ass. My instructor will think I'm spastic. The other students will laugh at me." This interferes with the performance. They should focus totally on the process, either on technical aspects--stay forward, make short turns--or on more psychological ones: "I need to be aggressive." If you maintain the process focus, you'll achieve the desired outcome.

Q: How can I cope with the frustration of constantly having to stop and wait for friends who can't ski as fast as I do?

A: I get asked that question a lot--the doubles tennis syndrome. First, you made the decision to ski with this person, and you need to recognize the consequences. Hopefully, you made that decision for a good reason: You love them, say, or if it's the boss, you want to get that raise. Now, you need to look for situations while skiing with this person where you can get some quality skiing in. For instance, ski hard and fast at the beginning of the run, then wait. Or take a slight detour to a better trail that meets in the same place. Or ski with that person in the morning, have lunch together, then split up. Just think practically.

Q: Ski-town locals can instantly tell I'm a tourist and seem to despise me for it: Lifties scowl; waiters smirk at my friendly chitchat. How can I temper my feelings of inadequacy?

A: Where'd you get that one? I have no great psychological answer to that question. All I can think of is, screw 'em and do your own thing. I would say to locals, chill out. We're all here to have fun. You shouldn't bite the hand that feeds you.

Filed To: Snow Sports

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