Grand Traverse Ski Club

5 Reasons Ski Racers Don’t Embrace Mental Training

by Jim Taylor, republished courtesy of

Over the many years that I’ve been working in the field of sport psychology, I have championed the benefits of mental training for our sport to thousands of ski racers. This work has ranged from talks to junior programs to ongoing consulting with individual athletes and teams.

As many of you know from my dozens of articles on this subject, I emphasize a practical approach that likens mental preparation to the physical conditioning and technical and tactical work that is also required for ski racing success. This focus stresses that, like the physical and on-snow aspects of our sport, the only way racers can benefit from mental training is when it is used in an organized and consistent way.

My work offers ski racers easy-to-understand and practical tools, such as mental imagery, breathing, routines, and keywords, that can be incorporated readily into every part of an overall training program.

These tools don’t seem like a very hard sell considering that when I ask racers how important the mind is compared to the physical and technical sides of our sport, the vast majority say that it is as or even more important. Given that so many of the racers I speak to or work with have big goals, it seems only natural that they would take my ideas to heart and incorporate them into their training regimen.

Yet, if I had to guess how many racers actually make mental training an integral part of their preparations, even after learning all about it from me, I would put the number at less than 10 percent (and I’m probably being generous here). The question I have been asking is: Why? I have concluded that there are five reasons that explain racers’ lack of investment of time and energy into the mental side of our sport.

1. They Don’t Think Mental Training Works

As much as I like to think that I make a convincing case for the value of mental training in ski racing, I’m going to assume that there are plenty of racers who just don’t think it matters that much. Rather, they believe that if they work on the physical and on-snow aspects of their ski racing, that will be enough to reach their goals.

One of the big challenges of persuading racers of the value of mental training is that, unlike the physical and technical aspects of our sport, the benefits aren’t tangible. If you want to see improvements in your strength, you can see how much weight you lifted before and after you begin a weight training program. If you want to see your technical progress, you can watch old and new video of yourself skiing. But, you can’t measure confidence, intensity, or focus directly and you can’t know that improvements in those areas translate into faster skiing.

You can’t be sure that mental training helps at all and, without clear proof, it’s difficult to commit the time and energy necessary to gain its benefits. Buying into mental training is a leap of faith you have to make on your own if you want it to be a part of your ski racing efforts.

2. They Don’t Care Enough

Talk, as they say, is cheap. It’s easy to say that you have big goals in your ski racing. It’s an entirely different thing to translate those goals into motivation and action. So, one reason why some racers don’t make mental training a part of their efforts is that, despite the lip service, they just don’t care enough to do the work necessary to develop themselves mentally.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this lack of motivation. If you don’t want to be the best ski racer you can be, that’s fine. Whether you achieve your ski racing goals or not, you will likely do just fine in life. And, I admit that it is possible you will develop the mental side of your ski racing just by chance or trial and error. But, as you know, chance or trial and error are not the best ways to develop any aspect of your ski racing.

3. It’s Not a Part of Your Usual Program

Another reason is that mental training is simply not a part of what most racers usually do in their training, so they just forget. I find this often occurs at the top of a training run. I will have, for example, described the importance of a training routine and how to implement one. But, minutes later, racers still just lean on their poles and chat it up with their friends before they get into the gate. Until mental skills become ingrained, they will usually slip your mind unless you focus on them constantly just like any technical skill.

4. Lack of Support by Coaches and Parents

It’s difficult for racers to make a commitment to mental training if they aren’t supported by their coaches and parents. Two reasons. First, racers base their judgments on the value of different aspects of ski racing partly on the messages they get from those around them. If their coaches and parents aren’t sending them messages of the importance of the mental side of ski racing, they’re not likely to buy into it themselves.

It is up to coaches and parents to send messages to their racers that say, “Mental training is really important,” by talking about it and making it a part of the team culture and family discussions, respectively.

Second, racers these days don’t have a lot of free time on their hands. Between school, physical conditioning, on-snow training, ski tuning, and video analysis, not to mention sleep, meals, and socializing, there just isn’t much time in which to slot mental training.

It’s the coaches’ responsibility to carve out time in their athletes’ daily schedules into which they can fit mental training such as goal setting and mental imagery. Coaches must also help mental training become a habit on-snow by including mental tools into their feedback and reminding their racers to use those mental tools in their training efforts and race preparations.

5. Mental Training is Weird

I’ll be honest; some of the things I ask racers to do in training and before races can seem pretty weird. For example, running around and jumping up and down to raise intensity, moving their bodies while doing mental imagery, and talking themselves into an aggressive mindset may appear a bit strange to onlookers.

And one thing I’ve learned over the years is that most young people don’t want to stand out (in an odd sort of way anyhow) because being accepted by their peers is one of their most important needs. Imagine this scenario. You’re at the start of a training course and all of your friends are goofing around and talking to each other. But I’ve asked you to not talk so you can focus, be very physically active in your warm-up, and to really move your body while doing mental imagery. Wouldn’t you feel a little self-conscious? And might you actually be reluctant to do that stuff, even if you know it will help you ski better?

But here’s my argument against that need to fit in. If you want to ski like everyone else, be like everyone else. The surest path to acceptance by your peers is to do what everyone else does. And the surest path to ski racing mediocrity is to do what everyone else does.

It has been my experience, both personally and professionally, that to be great at something, you have to be different than others and, yes, that sometimes means being weird or, at least, doing what others perceive as weird things. And it also means that you won’t necessarily be accepted by everyone. Do you think Bode Miller or Tina Maze or Ted Ligety or Julia Mancuso or Lindsey Vonn or Marcel Hirscher are normal people? Do you think they worry about being accepted? In both cases, no way! Be average (and normal) or be fast (and a little weird). The choice is yours.

The Bottom Line

Ultimately, just like with other aspects of your ski racing, you have to decide how important the mind is to achieving your goals. If you truly believe that it is essential to your ski racing success, then you must do what is necessary to weave mental training into the very fabric of your ski racing efforts.  You want to get to the point where it is simply what you do to be the best ski racer you can be, just like physical conditioning, ski tuning, and on-snow training. So, when you’re skiing fast, other racers may see you as weird, but they will want to know what your secret is and be weird (and fast) like you. But don’t tell them.




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