Picture yourself on your way home from your ski vacation. Smiling, you are experiencing satisfaction in knowing you skied better than you ever have. You are still sensing the sliding sensations and feeling the wind on your face. Instead, how often have you left being overly tired with a sore back and stiff legs, and perhaps even a bit disappointed? As a ski instructor for many years I have often had clients who report some version of this story. My hope is to change this story for improved skiing experiences as well as more vacations to the slopes. In addition to being a ski instructor I am also a personal leadership coach. Performing at your peak on your skis has many parallels (pun intended) to peak performance in our life. I often use skiing as a metaphor in my leadership coaching. In this article, I make the direct connection between skiing and our broader lives. Skiing is life, and life is skiing. Who would have thought that you could be practicing your skiing while at work or at home? Yes, you can practice while at home, work, or while on the slopes. It’s not exactly skiing, yet you can practice directly transferable skills wherever you happen to be.
Peak performance is a term that has been used in a variety of ways over the last few decades. What is often common in both the presentation and the underlying studies of peak performance is a peak performance curve. The following figure shows the typical relationship between performance (vertical axis) vs. arousal (horizontal axis). Arousal in this context is a broad term that includes energy level, attention, and engagement. At a certain point of arousal we meet our peak in performance. Arousal levels that are too low result in lower performance. Imagine any performance you have had with low energy and a lack of attention and interest. It is unlikely that this was a strong performance. Arousal levels that are too high also result in lower performance. Imagine a time when you were overly excited, anxious, perhaps even tense or worried. The tension level with high arousal is often constricting and lowers our ability to perform. Ski instructors often talk about “functional tension”. This is where we have an appropriate amount of engagement and relaxation at the same time. How is it that we achieve operating at or near this peak?
Making the connection between peak performance in our life and with skiing can be seen through the lens of functional tension. As you go through your day (with work, raising kids, etc..) consider where you are on this curve. If you are uninterested, you are probably on the left hand side of the curve. If you are anxious and stressed, you are likely on the right hand side of the curve. In my experience, the process of becoming aware is often enough to shift you towards the peak. Sometimes it takes more than awareness. If you are on the left hand side, you can choose to do something to move yourself up the curve towards your peak. Something like focusing on your task at hand or asking yourself the question: “why is this important to me?” will cause you to become more engaged. If you are on the right hand side, you can choose to do something to relax and release tension. Stopping and breathing is often helpful to release excess tension. These practices of shifting our arousal to move towards our peak are directly transferable to skiing. When you are skiing, notice where you are on the curve. If you are on the left, doing something more challenging might just do the trick. If you are on the right, it might be appropriate to slow down, or choose a run that lowers your anxiety.
Start practicing now and build your ability to notice where you are and shift towards your peak. Have a peak performing winter!
In the next post I’ll talk about the three methods to achieve peak performance so, stay tuned!
By Roger Henderson
Level 3 Ski Instructor – Professional Ski Instructors of America
Personal Coach – Coaching for Life, Teams, and Leadership
Henderson Personal Coaching – Boulder, Colorado – USA