Ilka Stuhec: GEPA Photos Harald Steiner
Ski racing is one of the most challenging sports to master because it’s one of the few you can’t do locally all year round. Think of sports like baseball, tennis, or swimming. You could practice these sports daily, thus giving you the reps you need far sooner than ski racing. The simple reality of ski racing is that you can only get a finite number of days on snow, free skiing, or in gates. You probably spend the rest of your time doing conditioning in preparation for getting back on snow.
Imagine if there was a magical tool you could use during those many weeks and months away from snow to get more reps without putting on your boots and clicking into your skis. Well, there is such a tool and it’s not magical; it’s called mental imagery (or visualization).
You may scoff at the idea that picturing yourself skiing in your mind’s eye can benefit your ski racing. Yet, I can assure you, from both personal ski racing experience back in the day (I credit mental imagery for a massive jump in my results and points when I was 18 years old) and my decades of working with World Cuppers, top collegiate skiers, and some of the rising stars in our sport, that it works. And, heck, since you’re just hanging out at home so much now, what’s the harm in seeing for yourself if it works?
World Cuppers Use Mental Imagery
One of the most indelible memories I took away from the 2022 Winter Olympics was from the start area of the alpine events. Time after time, we saw the best ski racers in the world with their heads down and eyes closed, moving their hands and bodies. Whether it was Mikaela, Lucas, Henrik, Sofia, Paula, or Aleksander, they were all doing mental imagery. They were using the power of seeing and feeling themselves race before they raced to prepare themselves mentally and physically to ski their fastest in the biggest races of their lives.
But don’t be fooled into thinking these great ski racers only use mental imagery before races. In fact, they use it all year round, both on and off the hill. Why? Because they know it benefits them in so many ways—mentally, physically, technically, tactically—by taking many more training and race runs without getting on snow simply by imagining how they want to ski in their mind’s eye.
Keys to Quality Mental Imagery
So, with last season now in your rear-view mirror and next season just underway, the prep period is the ideal time to commit to a mental imagery routine to make significant gains in your training and race preparations as you look to next winter.
You should have a structured imagery program that you do consistently. Just like physical conditioning, mental imagery won’t work if you only do it occasionally or inconsistently. You have to approach your imagery the same way you approach your physical conditioning. Try to think of mental imagery as strength training for the mind; you want to strengthen your mental “muscles,” including motivation, confidence, intensity, focus, and emotions. Mental imagery is the most potent mental “exercise” you can do to get your mind as strong as your body.
Five factors impact the quality of mental imagery: perspective, control, multiple senses, speed, and total reproduction. Try to develop each of these areas to get the most out of your imagery.
Imagery perspective refers to where the “imagery camera” is when you see yourself skiing. The internal perspective involves seeing yourself from inside your body, looking out as if you were skiing. The external perspective involves seeing yourself from outside your body, like on video. Research indicates that one view is not better than the other. Most people have a dominant perspective that they’re most comfortable with. Use the perspective that comes naturally to you and experiment with the other perspective to see if it helps you differently.
Have you ever been doing imagery and you keep making mistakes? For example, do you keep getting in the back seat or hipping out? This problem relates to imagery control, which is how well you can imagine what you want to see yourself doing. It’s not uncommon for racers to ski poorly in their imagery. This often reflects a fundamental lack of confidence in your skiing (when I started using imagery as a youth, I couldn’t go three gates in my head without hooking a tip!). If mistakes occur in your imagery, you shouldn’t let them go by. If you do, you’ll further ingrain the negative image and feelings, hurting your skiing. Instead, when you make mistakes in your imagery, immediately rewind the “imagery video”, edit it, and rerun it until you get it right.
Feel your skiing
The most potent part of race imagery is feeling it in your body. That’s how you really ingrain new technical and mental habits. Imagine yourself skiing and moving your body with the imagined skiing, just like the Olympians in Pyeongchang. Combining imagined and real sensations is a helpful way to increase the feeling during your race imagery.
Good imagery is more than just visual; that’s why I don’t like to call it visualization. The best imagery involves the multi-sensory reproduction of the actual ski racing experience. You should duplicate the sights, sounds, sensations, thoughts, and emotions you would experience in a real race.
The ability to adjust the speed of your imagery will allow you to improve different aspects of your skiing. “Slow-mo” imagery is effective for focusing on technique. When you start to work on technique in your imagery, slow the imagery video down, frame by frame, if necessary, to see yourself executing the skill correctly. “Fast-forward” imagery is beneficial because it prevents you from overthinking and helps you learn to trust your body to do what you’ve trained it to do. “Real-time imagery can be used as races approach to prepare your mind and body to race at a realistic speed.
To get the most out of your imagery, you want to do everything possible to create a complete reproduction of your skiing experience. Everything that you think and feel (both physically and emotionally), every sensation you experience, you want to reproduce in your imagery. In other words, you want to make your imagery as authentic as possible.
Be Realistic in Your Imagery
Imagine realistic conditions
Imagine yourself performing under realistic conditions; in other words, always do imagery under those conditions in which you usually train and compete. Visualize racing under ideal conditions if you typically start in the early seeds and can expect “hero” snow. If you’re seeded farther back and the courses are commonly chewed up, imagine yourself on rough courses.
Imagine realistic skiing
If you’re a junior racer, don’t imagine yourself skiing like a World Cupper. Instead, imagine yourself skiing the way you usually ski, but incorporate positive changes into your skiing that you are working on.
Develop an Off-Snow Imagery Routine
The key to effective mental imagery is consistency. You can’t expect to get stronger by lifting weights once every few weeks. You can’t expect to get better technically by skiing occasionally. The same holds true for mental imagery. The only way to benefit from mental imagery is to use it frequently.
Set imagery goals
Set specific goals for areas you want to work on in the off-season. For example, you might focus on some technical change, being more relaxed and focused, or just skiing exceptionally fast and finishing.
Climb an imagery ladder
Create a ladder of training and race scenarios you will be skiing in the upcoming season. The ladder should start with training on easy hills and progress to more demanding training situations, timed training runs, and less critical races and increase through more important races up to the most important race you’ll compete in next year.
Then, begin your imagery on the lowest level of the imagery ladder. Stay at that rung until you reach your imagery goal. When that is achieved, stay at that step for several imagery sessions to reinforce and ingrain the positive images, thoughts, and feelings. Then work your way up the ladder until you’re skiing the way you want at the very top of your imagery ladder in the season’s biggest race.
Training- and race-specific imagery
Pick training and race situations that are appropriate for your level of development. In other words, if you’re a U16, don’t imagine yourself racing in a World Cup at Wengen. Imagine yourself racing on a specific hill in a particular event in a specific race with a precise start number, for example, an Eastern Cup slalom at Stowe running 47th. Then select a different hill, event, and race for each imagery session, thus reaching your imagery goals on various hills and in varying events and conditions.
Imagery sessions should be done 3-4 times per week. Set aside a specific time of the day when you’ll do your imagery (just like you do for your physical training) and set up reminder alerts on your smartphone. Find a quiet, comfortable place where you won’t be disturbed. Each session should last about 10 minutes.
One challenge with imagery is that the results are not tangible, unlike physical training. An effective way to make the imagery more concrete is to keep an imagery log. An imagery log lets you to see progress in your imagery, making it more rewarding and motivating for you to continue using it. A log should record key aspects of every imagery session, including the quality of the imagined performance, any thoughts and feelings that arise, (positive or negative), problems that emerged, and what you need to work on for the next session. I include an imagery log in my mental imagery workbook that you can download and print.
Accept the Challenge
So, here’s the deal. I can’t guarantee that you’ll be winning World Cups in the future by committing to a consistent off-snow imagery routine or that your efforts will launch your ski racing, as it did for me when I was a racer so many years ago. But I will say that if you commit to a serious mental imagery routine, there’s a good chance that you will be much better prepared mentally than you were last winter. Try to combine the imagery routine with an intensive physical conditioning regimen and quality on-snow training. Then, when you slide into the starting gate at your first race next winter, you’ll be able to say, “I’m as prepared as I can be to ski fast and achieve my goals.”
I have three free downloadable mp3 audio files that guide you through relaxation and race imagery scenarios for training, SL/GS and SG/DH. I also have a free mental imagery workbook that you can download and print to help you create a structured imagery routine.
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