Three Methods for Achieving Peak Performance on Your Skis, and in your life

Peak-Performance-Alpine-InfusionAs mentioned in part 1 of this article, we can practice being at our peak in a variety of settings. The practices themselves are applicable to multiple aspects of our lives. Therefore, we can improve in one area of our life while practicing in another.

My experiences as both an instructor and as a coach have led me to identify three foundational methods of achieving peak performance in skiing as well as the rest of our lives. Below I am presenting these three methods or practices independently as it makes it easier to isolate and practice. However, I have also found that the three methods are highly interrelated and the chances of achieving a peak are greatly increased when all three are considered.

Have a Single Focus

Having a single focus means that we are using our mind to focus on some aspect of our activity that we believe when focused on will improve our performance. Often in my personal skiing I focus my attention on where I am looking. We know that skiing with our eyes looking downward hurts performance. Part of the reason for this is that looking down has an effect on our balance. Looking at the complete whiteness of snow with intermittent ski tips does not provide our senses the necessary information to stay balanced nor anticipate terrain changes or obstacles. Imagine most any sporting event you have seen on TV, the athletes generally have their eyes up and forward. What comes to my mind is a gymnast running towards a vault or a soccer player dribbling. Both use their lower peripheral vision to see the vault or ball and their eyes are directed up and forward.

In my experience with my clients I have repeatedly seen that either having no focus or having too much to focus on hurts performance. Students who have little focus are often operating on the left hand side of the curve. I call this “being out for a joy ride”. It might be somewhat fun, yet the lack of discipline results in performance drops as well as an increased chance of an accident.

On the other extreme most people have experienced some version of “paralysis through analysis” which is what happens when we are on overload. I’ve seen some instructors overload their students to the point their capacity to absorb all that is being offered is greatly diminished and students become overwhelmed. This is an example of operating on the right hand side of the curve.

graphA possible exception to the single focus idea is what I call “go blank”. Higher level skiers who have had a significant amount of practice may work to clear their mind and rely and trust their skills and training. However, I could say that their single focus is on keeping their mind blank. So even these highly accomplished athletes have a single focus.

Being at the peak then becomes a practice of working to keep our focus. In my personal practice, when I notice I have lost focus, I gently remind myself of my intent and thank myself for noticing. It is quite easy to come up with examples of how being focused in our daily lives can help our performance. Just as I am writing this article I have been distracted several times with a text message, outside noise, and a few random thoughts that took me away. In each case I brought my focus back to my writing and thanked myself for noticing. You may have any number of other focus areas for your skiing. Pick one and stay with it. If you don’t know what a valuable focus would be, take a lesson and have your instructor name a focus for you. Your lesson may try several different activities. In the end, be sure to leave with a single focus that you know helps you ski better. Bet on that focus to help you and commit to it.

What focus would help you in your life for the rest of today?

Create an Appropriate Challenge

Humans are naturally engaged when they are challenged in something that is interesting to them. On the left hand side of the curve we are bored. On the right had side of the curve we are overly tense and perhaps fearful. An example of how both of these extremes are often generated is when an experienced skier (but not an experienced instructor) takes a friend or family member skiing and says something like “it’s easy, your athletic, I’ll teach you!!”. Very quickly the “instructor” is bored as he/she would much rather be on tougher terrain. At the same time, the student is completely overloaded dealing with being in a completely foreign land of strange equipment, trees, snow, steep terrain, cold, wet, etc…. Instructors are routinely working with skiers who were taught in some version of the above scenario. I wonder how many never come back?

Imagine a time when you were doing something at a challenge level that was significantly greater than the skill you possessed. Examples may come from a variety of areas in our lives. For myself I’m imagining taking on an assignment at work where I didn’t have the requisite knowledge or experience. This resulted in a great deal of anxiety, a lot of trial and error, as well as a degree of guilt and shame. As a parent I have been guilty of engaging my children in activities that were “over their heads’”. Reflecting on these parenting mishaps I can see that my kids started on the right hand of the curve (anxious and overly aroused) and after too much failing then ended up left hand side of the curve (disinterested). In my coaching I often see clients that are bored with their careers and operating on the left hand side of the curve. They are looking for a challenge and engagement that is appropriate for where their lives and experiences have taken them.

As we are skiing it is important to choose terrain and tasks that are appropriate for our skill and just the right amount of challenge. As an example, let’s assume that you have skied a few years and have typically skied beginner terrain (“green” trail signs in the US). If you are completely comfortable with your terrain, you may want to engage an instructor to find the next best place to ski. Often people with inside knowledge may be able to point to great terrain that is the logical next step in difficulty and doesn’t put you into a predicament for failure. Students are often interested in challenging themselves in the moguls. Some areas have mogul runs that have a very gentle slope and smallish bumps. Others may have one half of the slope bumpy while leaving the other side groomed. These are great places for to give yourself a challenge and allow yourself an easy escape. In lessons I will routinely alternate a student’s experience between an increased challenge and more familiar terrain. This process allows guests to find comfort and confidence, and at the same time stay challenged with something more difficult. These strategies apply at all levels of skiing including intermediate and advanced. Even the most advanced skiers practice on less difficult terrain and then challenge themselves in steep bumps, off-piste, steeps, etc..

Center and Breathe

Here’s a quick exercise. Read the following two questions and then give yourself a few movements to evaluate yourself and generate answers for yourself. Question 1: At this moment, how would you describe your breathing? (Is it flowing in and out and using most of the capacity of your lungs? Or is it labored and shallow? etc..). Question 2: Wherever you are right now (standing, sitting, or leaning), how centered are you? (if you are sitting, is the weight on your sit bones equally distributed? If you are standing, are you leaning more forward or backward, and how about side to side? In any of these, is your spine somewhat upward or is it overly stiff or overly bent?)

The physical practices of centering and breathing work together to give us a physical foundation for peak performance in all wakes of life. All humans have conditioned tendencies that are off center. In leadership coaching I am often working with executives to center and breathe. Leaders on the right hand side of the peak performance curve are often overly aroused and may have labored breathing, and a variety of off center positions in their body. The tension associated with the right hand side of the curve can then translate to the people we are trying to lead by communicating that there is something to be worried about or perhaps that the leader is unsure and trying to act as if he/she has it all together. A more appropriate stance might be upright, centered, and breathing and engaging employees in solving problems.

In skiing and in all athletics, the need for being centered and to breathe is obvious. Even with these obvious needs, a large amount of time is spent in ski instructing working with students to actively center and continuously breathe. Centered is a state that is continually searched for as we work to stay in balance. Breathing continually is necessary for us to get the necessary oxygen to our body. The opposite, off center and shallow breath, creates the state of being off balance and out of breath. Thinking of our gymnast in the earlier example: imagine running towards the vault off center holding your breath. I’m betting this would not end with a graceful landing.

As you plan your ski vacation, now is the time to start performing more at your peak. In your day to day life ask yourself the following questions: What is my focus? Am I engaged and challenged to an appropriate level?, and Am I centered and breathing? The practices you put into your life will translate to your skiing. When you arrive for you ski vacation make sure that you are answering these questions appropriately as you work to enjoy your skiing experience. If you need assistance answering these questions during your vacation, find a certified instructor. If you need assistance answering these questions in your life, consider finding a coach! Following these peak performance guidelines will have you leaving your vacation significantly more satisfied with your vacation investment.

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