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Geir Olsen/EPA

How freestyle skiers and snowboarders learn to pace their fear

Imagine a sport that involves the grace of a ballerina, the skills of a gymnast and carries some genuine danger. This is freeskiing and snowboarding, which form a central part of the Winter Olympics. There is slopestyle – think a skate park on snow with rails and jumps. And half pipe – a deep trench along which athletes do tumbling tricks in a sequence. And new to the PyeongChang games is big air, in which snowboarders take a run at a take-off ramp, then fly through the air, tumbling as they go.

All these events are scored by a judging panel who look for style as much as difficulty. But most of the moves these athletes perform are highly dangerous. And they have to do them over and over in practice, as well as in the high-pressure environment of competition, where looking smooth and in control are part of the judging criteria.

At the PyeongChang Olympics, I have the pleasure of working with New Zealand Ski and Snowboard as a psychologist. Working with any athlete to prepare for a competition is a fascinating challenge. Lots of this work uses conventional mental skills such as imagery or mentally rehearsing the jump, training how to stop negative thoughts and setting goals.

But there are a few extra psychological tools which are particularly relevant to freesking and snowboarding – and one in particular, which I call “emotional periodisation”.

Peaking at the right moment

Periodisation has traditionally been used by physiologists and conditioners when designing training. The workload for an athlete is deliberately varied, or “periodised”, in an attempt to ensure the athlete peaks at specific events. For example, Usain Bolt might start his year with a high volume of training on endurance and strength. As the season approaches, he would then cut down the volume and up the intensity – moving towards shorter bursts of training at higher workload and power. During the season, or just before he needs to reach his peak, Bolt would do relatively few sessions at 100% intensity. Quantity has progressed to quality.

The idea of “emotional periodisation” is doing the same thing – but focusing on the intense emotional effort invested in planning, acquiring and executing new ski or snowboard tricks, which may be dangerous. The effort needed to do this contrasts with the comparatively straightforward need to focus on simpler, well-rehearsed skills.

For physical training, the concept has come in for some recent criticism. Some researchers have questioned whether the same training programme can really generate predictable outcomes in a range of different athletes. But my ongoing research is showing that emotional periodisation has all sorts of applications to psychological pressures – so long as individual differences between athletes are addressed in designing the programme.

Downtime is important, offering recuperation and ensuring enjoyment. Reflecting this, plans are built around the amount of mental energy an athlete needs across each day, week or month in order to try tricks that could result in serious injury. Knowing yourself and auditing this with others is another important factor. This is because extreme challenge sports carry the risk of what researchers have called “costly perseverance” – keeping on keeping on when you aren’t on top form can have very serious consequences.

Push – drill – play

But the athlete must also know when to push themselves to do a new trick. However scary and challenging that push is, without it there is no progress. Working out how to pace yourself helps to boost returns from the high challenge moments.

The New Zealand coaches have developed a structure of “push – drill – play” which offers a simple but powerful way of planning, interacting and monitoring the emotional load.

US snowboarder Julia Marino wins bronze at the 2017 X-Games. Geir Olsen/EPA

On push days the skier or snowboarder works at maximum intensity to build the skills they need to perform a new trick. Drill days offer a lower intensity but essential phase of what’s called “embedding”. This makes skills more automatic, builds confidence and elaborates the trick with extra “showy bits”, such as grabbing the ski or board with their hands. The play day is a low-level session, maybe just sliding on powder snow, but an activity that offers a mental rest while re-energising the soul.

The emotional challenge of these events can be very high, especially when athletes are taking new tricks onto the snow for the first time. So ensuring sufficient mental recovery time is a big feature of life for these athletes. On a daily basis, for example, coaches and support staff will ensure time away from structured practice and offer activities for athletes to decompress. “Vegging out in the hotel room” is an important element of maintaining quality on the slopes, not a mark of idleness. Regular “anchor sleep” – the big block of sleep a person gets in a 24-hour period – is also important.

Athletes live in a close proximity bubble when training or preparing for a competition, so getting away from the venue – and each other – for a day trip just makes good sense and helps them keep a good balance. It can also help them to refocus on high-risk days.

So, as you watch the amazing performances of the skiers and snowboarders at the Olympics, take time to appreciate the levels of work, physical but largely mental, that have got them there.

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