Tuesday, January 03, 2006

the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man, etc.

First race day was today — slalom on Picabo's, a race hill that was cut specifically for slalom but named after a famous downhiller. In my class, Tyler won the race with a nearly flawless second run, I took second place, and Ronny was third. (Full race results should be posted here eventually.) In a way it was a result I really needed, not so much for my own self-confidence (I know that what I'm capable of these days), but to show other people (e.g. my coaches and my competitors) the way I've been skiing in training isn't a fluke. One of the hardest parts about a race day as opposed to a training day is the increased expectations; this morning, two of our coaches made sure I overheard them saying that their money was on me to race well today. I guess they meant it to inspire confidence, but really it's tough to live up to something like that in a sport that's so unequivocally about individual performance.

Up in the start before each run, unconstructive thoughts inevitably pop into your head, like: You really have to beat so-and-so today. Don't screw up that one section you looked at in inspection. Will you really be able to hold an edge on that icy spot? Even stupid stuff like: Did I bring the hat with sponsor logo on it in case I make it onto the podium today? All of these things are worthless to think about before your run because they have to do with results, not actions. All you can control is your skiing — not how well anyone else skis — and whether the thoughts floating through your head are positive and specific or negative and vague. My coaches' comments were just another vague, outcome-based worry to distract me from the task at hand.

It's a little like that scene in Ghostbusters where they have to keep their minds blank and anything they think about will actually occur, and one of them accidentally conjures up a giant Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man. Except that in athletics, there are no guarantees about which thoughts — negative or positive — will materialize. But once you identify which thoughts are unhelpful to you, you develop strategies for banishing them. As an uncontructive thought materializes, you just kind of briefly acknowledge it and then let your mind drift on to something else, like an observation or a conversation or, most often, the race course. Rarely do I find that thinking too much about the course negatively affects my run — the better you lay out your plan for the race, the better prepared you are to ski it.

Anyway, today I did a pretty good job of keeping my thoughts focused on the task at hand, even when I was in second place after the first run. Rather than worrying to much about whether I'd be able to hold onto a spot on the podium, I just thought about what I had to do to ski well again the next run and went into it relaxed and ready. As it happened, I made a few big mistakes in the first half of that second run, but I was able to put them behind me and have a great second half. Slalom in particular is often more about recovering well from mistakes than about skiing flawlessly (one of my coaches describes slalom as "a series of linked recoveries"), and I did that well today. I'm happy.

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