Relaxation: A Key to Winning

My guess is that over 99% of the athletes with whom I work, train better than they compete. (See for more information). Relaxation is such an important part of being able to perform to the best of your ability.

I’ve been thinking about how different athletes make that happen. Some athletes find that listening to music—specific music they’ve chosen—helps calm them down. Some athletes use humor and jokes to loosen up. Some athletes find a quiet, meditative place. I always had a routine—warm-up exercises, stretching, visualizing, and deep breaths—that helped me get into the zone.

But there was one experience I had where I was so focused, so in the moment, so much “in the zone”, that I did far better than I ever was able to achieve before or after in downhill, an event I feared and dreaded. I did not appreciate the significance of it or really what happened until long after I had retired from ski racing. I had started teaching in high school and coaching field hockey when I began to think about why some athletes shine in clutch situations and why others fall apart.

When I competed in the sixties and early seventies, I raced in three events – the only three events in alpine racing at the time – slalom, giant slalom, and downhill. Slalom was my favorite by far. Giant slalom was challenging, but fun. Downhill was terrifying. I did not like the speed, the turns, or the bumps. Every time I ran it, I prayed that I wouldn’t get hurt.

Yet, in Jackson Hole, Wyoming one year, I ran a downhill better than anyone by a large margin – six seconds to be exact. That would be even better than Roger Bannister breaking the four-minute mile barrier. How did I do it? Here’s my story:

Because downhills are too dangerous without training, every downhill event has two or three days of practice on the course (unlike slalom and giant slalom, which cannot be skied before the race. A competitor can look at the slalom or giant slalom course and study it, but no one can ski the actual gates until the race itself).

Today’s downhills are much more structured than they used to be. Now there are a set number of training runs. Every racer is expected to ski the course from top to bottom. But in my era, every one got as many training runs as they could fit in. Racers started when they got to the start—there was no special order. A competitor could run part of the course, stop, and ski another section.

In the sixties and seventies, the day before the competition, officials ran a “non-stop” to be sure every athlete had at least one complete run from start to finish. It was exactly like the race itself – competitors wore their starting bibs and ran in race order. The racers left at minute intervals and the non-stop was timed. Racers prepared their skis as if they were competing. Everything happened as if it were a race day. The only difference was that it was the last official training run.

That year, my teammates and I were put up with families throughout the town of Jackson. On the morning of the non-stop, our coach drove the rental station wagon throughout town and picked up six of us at the various homes where we were staying. It was early morning (about 6:00 am). After picking up the last two girls, we headed to the mountain, about 30 minutes away.

I was sitting in the middle in the front. The windshield was completely frosted over with the exception of two small circles where the defroster had managed to warm the glass and clear the frost. Because we were in the residential part of town, we had to cross several streets before we got on the highway. The snowbanks were huge, so in order to see into the street, you had to nose the car out slowly until you could see around the wall of snow.

I noticed that at our first intersection, our coach drove through the stop sign. I don’t know if he didn’t see it, or just figured that no one would be on the streets that early. But again at the next intersection, he failed to stop.

We weren’t going very fast, but in the second intersection, there was a car coming that had the right of way. The driver couldn’t stop and hit us broadside behind the passenger seats. No one was seriously hurt, but two girls went to the hospital. One girl had stitches over her eye. The other one was checked out for a bump on her head. The rest of us were picked up by another vehicle and taken to the mountain.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but I went into shock. In the starting gate, I felt nothing. I wasn’t afraid. I wasn’t anxious about the speed. I wasn’t scared of the bump. I wasn’t terrified of going into the air. Nothing. It was as if all my emotions and beliefs about downhill had been lifted from my body.

I just skied the course. I didn’t fight it at all. When I flew off the bump higher than I had ever been in my life, I didn’t react. I just landed softly and finished the course. My sister, Marilyn, looked at the scoreboard and told me, “Boy! Did they mess up your time! They have you winning by six seconds!!!”

When she told me that, I knew there was no mistake – that really was my time. Then she added, “Well. We’ll just have to see what you do tomorrow!” The next day I was back to my normal self – afraid, anxious, nervous, scared. I knew I hated downhill and wasn’t very good at it. Race day I finished six seconds behind the winner.

That was a twelve second spread!! (In ski racing, if you can cut your time by half a second, you’ve made a major improvement). Essentially I had skied the course on race day the same as I had on the non-stop. The only difference was that my emotions were in full control. I was terrified all the way down. I dreaded the bump from the time I left the start. My body fought back with tense muscles, out-of-control thoughts, a pessimistic attitude, and a belief that knew this was one place I didn’t want to be.

The result? A race that was twelve seconds slower. I can’t say I recommend going into shock to relax, but what I do know is that in order to create that focus, that ability to get into “the zone”, gaining control of an athlete’s emotions, thoughts, and beliefs is essential.