Standing on a steep or icy slope, or facing large unforgiving moguls, skiers can sometimes feel tense. With the wind howling on Jaws of Death on the North Face of Mount Snow, or looking down on hard steep moguls on Slalom Glade at Stratton, folks can feel, well, queasy.
The name “Jaws of Death” itself, while great for a movie, does not instill confidence!
Have you ever felt a knot or sinking feeling in your stomach? Can you recall some moment when you felt uneasy? From feelings of nausea to an urge to scream, many skiers have grappled with a feeling we might call fear.
On the mountain fear can be debilitating.
Still, fear is complex. In fact, for psychologists, the complex nature of fear involves understanding of knowledge bases involving anxiety and stress, as well as crisis and coping theory.
On the other hand, for instructors and coaches, such distinctions lie beyond the scope of a ski article. At the same time, the symptoms associated with fear can sometimes incapacitate even a talented skier. For the purposes of this discussion, we shall group these feelings under the rubric of fear.
Here’s good news: with practice many skiers can learn to reduce their fear. One strategy involves coaches teaching students specific skills from which to ski better. After all, skillful movement patterns grant skiers a solid platform from which to better face varied snow conditions and changes in terrain. In addition, knowledgeable instructors can also work with students around equipment. Well-tuned skis and properly-fit boots help provide tools for handling the mountain. Just as mountain climbers know the importance of mountaineering skills and equipment, so top pros know fearful skiers can benefit from skill development and from thoughtful attention to their equipment.
Still, are there other ways to help skiers cope with fear? Yes! In fact, with repeated exposure and practice many skiers can actually learn to master their fear.
Our focus here shall lie with a number of practical techniques. Honestly now, don’t be fearful of reading these strategies.
Inside the circle of fear
1) Re-imagining and revisualizing fear
One technique for reducing fear involves visualization.
If your anxiety were a piece of fruit what would it resemble? Is it the size of a watermelon or a grape? As you ski, starting on moderate terrain, ask yourself what size of fruit best captures your fear.
For skiers, a visualization model can sometimes help develop coping skills. Some folks I have met have preferred to liken their fear to a knot of rope. Sometimes the knot is very large, as if fastened from the large ropes used on ships. But then, over time, it shrank and became a knot fastened from thread. Indeed, sometimes the process of discussing the kind and size of rope reduced the fear.
Can you visualize the size of your fear as you ski? Can you focus as it changes from a watermelon to a grape? Focusing can help keep our mind occupied and relax our muscle groups.
2) Rebuilding that wall of fear
Anxious situations in skiing can be countered in numerous ways. The skier who fears skiing a steep or icy slope can be instructed to stop five feet short of the critical point of high anxiety. Where is that point? Are you one foot or two feet short of that place which elevates fear?
Do you tend to ski a trail in the same way and on the same side run after run? Try adding diversity. Stop before that lip or bend which marks your fear. Then stop after that spot which escalates fear. By learning to negotiate the trail in new ways you can help tear down that wall of fear. Now that’s success.
3) Master relaxation
One key to handling fear involves relaxation. One useful approach? Deep breathing. Without qualification, learning how to relax can be a very useful strategy for learning to master fear.
Stop for a moment. Practice deep breathing. Tense and relax different muscle groups. Begin with the fingers, add hands, add arms, add toes, add feet, and add legs. Gradually try tensing and relaxing the entire body.
Typically fear incapacitates skiers, creates tension, and reduces muscle flexibility. A series of deep breathing drills, in consort with muscle relaxation exercises, can help skiers begin to modify their bodily reactions to fear.
How well do you breathe if tense and afraid? Are your muscles relaxed and flexible when you are frightened? By learning relaxation, we can learn skills to tackle our fears. It can be, dare we say it, quite powerful.
4) Choose varying conditions
What conditions make you most fearful? If the issue is ice consider practicing on more modest terrain. In this way you eliminate pitch or steepness as a variable and are able to focus solely on the icy condition. So often the one variable which makes us tense is compounded by steepness or moguls. By practicing on more modest terrain you can help build skills while reducing anxiety and fear. Similarly, if moguls amp your fear, practice skiing bumps on a more modest slope.
Consider varying the conditions which amplify your anxiety.
In summation, fear is a complex factor. The reader will appreciate that what is extraordinary is the many ways fear emerges in skiing and the infinite range of possibilities available for coping. What has been provided here is a glimpse into four approaches available to skiers. Clearly there are many approaches.
Whatever your repertoire, as skiers we all have something in common: simply telling someone to relax is not usually an effective way to help cope with fear. In fact, it tends to only make one more conscious of the very behavior we wish to reduce!
As a rule of thumb, instructing someone to try something else which is mutually exclusive of the fear factor may be helpful. Try a new strategy. Try visualizing your fear as a piece of fruit. Enlarge it, then shrink it. Practice using different terrain where you can focus on the element which most challenges your skills.
Left alone, fear reduces muscular flexibility and takes the pleasure out of skiing. Fortunately there are many approaches for handling the feeling but, like any skill, it takes practice. Consider the techniques outlined here. Consider finding a top coach. At the risk of waxing poetic, don’t be afraid to expand your skills. Don’t be afraid to examine your fears. Use each situation as a learning situation.
Tony Crespi is a former ski school supervisor and development team coach. His work has appeared in numerous publications throughout the United States.