The word of the day:  CONSISTENTLY!

What is it that allows athletes to become elite–to excel at their sport–to rise to the top? Among the many factors, success and consistency stands out.  That is that they find a road to success and CONSISTENTLY follow that path. What does that mean?

Path to Olympic Gold

Consitency leads to success.

Barbara Ann and her victory at the 1972 Sapporo, Japan Olympics after years of consistently having fun!

Let me share my path to Olympic gold.  I started skiing when I was about 3 years old.  It was something our family did together.  Dad was coaching the high school ski team at the time, so every weekend, we piled into the family car and drove to Mt. Ascutney in Brownsville, Vermont and skied CONSISTENTLY throughout the winter.  That by itself, didn’t guarantee an Olympic gold medal in my future, but it began the foundation.
The next consistent concept was that skiing was fun!  At the beginning, it was just play.  It was fun.  I enjoyed skiing with other kids. It was fun being outside, feeling the cold, fresh air on my cheeks, challenging myself to go faster, to ski from top to bottom in complete control, to race in the Lollipop Races.  Above all, skiing was CONSISTENTLY fun!

By the time I was nine, we had moved to northern Vermont and started skiing and racing out of Smuggler’s Notch.  Dad was instrumental in organizing the Northern Vermont Council which meant my races included competitors from other ski clubs.  During the winter, I CONSISTENTLY competed against racers from northern Vermont.

Beginning to Train Consistently

By this time, Dad also realized that to just ski and train on the weekends was not enough.  He wanted to buy property in the country with a hill facing northwest (to retain snow) so he could build a rope-tow in the back yard.  He wanted my siblings and I to be able to train CONSISTENTLY during the week, rather than just on the weekends.  He also put lights on the back of the house and a couple of light poles on the hill, since daylight in Vermont in the winter was limited to about 5 pm.  By the time I was 11, we began training CONSISTENTLY Tuesday and Thursday nights with friends from all the nearby clubs.

At the age of 13, Dad introduced a conditioning program.  My brother, 2 sisters, and I did calisthenics (push-ups, sit-ups, ankle lifts, knee-bends), isometrics, cardiovascular exercises (running, swimming, biking, soccer, hiking), and stretches.  Our goal was to work out  for 2 days and then take the 3rd day off (to allow our muscles to heal) CONSISTENTLY week after week, month after month.

Hopeful and U.S. Ski Team Bound

By the time I was 15, I made the Eastern team for Junior Nationals which was held in Winter Park, Colorado.  I won the giant slalom which qualified me for a new U.S. Ski Team program called the “Hopefuls”.  This meant I was now invited to the U.S. Ski Team camps.  That summer, I attended my first summer ski camp.  From that point on, I CONSISTENTLY trained on snow in the off-season, as well.

By the next year, I made the “A” team and joined the U.S. Ski Team’s regimen.  After the season ended in April, U.S. Ski Team athletes worked out at home on their own until June when we met at an on-snow training camp somewhere out West (Mt. Hood, Bend, Mammoth) where we skied in the morning and did dry-land conditioning in the afternoon.  At the end of July or early August, we flew to Chile or Argentina (which was their winter), to train for about 3 weeks.  Our season then started around Thanksgiving with another training camp to get ready for the first World Cup races in Val d’Isere, France the first weekend in December.  The U.S. Ski Team’s goal was always to prepare CONSISTENTLY to become the best in the world.

I won my gold medal when I was 21.  It took me years of CONSISTENTLY skiing, conditioning, training, and having fun to build a foundation to get there!


Doing the Best You Can!

Doing the best you can! What does that mean? How important is it? Is doing your best good enough? Or is BEING the best what it’s all about?

When I was in the second grade, I brought my report card home. In Social Studies, I had gotten a “C”. (Back in the fifties, teachers graded all students, from first grade to twelfth grade by the traditional letters.) I was mortified. I had never gotten a “C” before, and I was worried about what my Mom would say.

I do remember that we had been studying the Plains Indians, and I just couldn’t grasp the concept that there were groups of Indians that were part of different tribes and they all lived out West on the plains. I’m not so sure what I found so hard, but I really just didn’t get it. I had never been much further west than the state of Vermont, so I didn’t understand how the topography of the United States could be much different than what I knew in Vermont.

So I didn’t do well—I got answers wrong on the worksheets as well as on the test at the end of the unit. I was used to getting B’s and some A’s. I thought a “C” was the end of the world as I knew it.

I brought my report card home and showed it to my Mom. She asked me, “Barbara Ann, was that the best you could do?” I assured her it was. What she said next was a lesson I’ve carried with me for the rest of my life. It was a lesson I’ve used in all walks of life—as a student, as an athlete, as a parent, as a teacher, as a coach—indeed, in whatever endeavors I’ve undertaken. What she said to me was, “Barbara Ann, I don’t care if you get all “F’s” on your report card, as long as that’s the best you can do!”

Wow! What a relief that was! All I had to do was give it my best shot and whatever that turned out to be, that was good enough. That released a ton of pressure! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve told myself, “Just do the best you can because doing your best is all you can do and all you can do is enough!”

As an elite athlete, racing against the best skiers throughout the world, sometimes, the pressure would get to me. I would start to worry about how I was going to do. But anytime I caught myself straying from this lesson and was able to get back on track, racing was a lot easier. Whenever I gave myself permission to do my best, ski racing was fun. When my last thought before leaving the start was, “I’m just going to do my best!”, the results came much easier.

Thank you Mom, for teaching me this lesson! (Years later, Mom told me that when she gave me that advice, she thought I was “slow”! No matter, it’s still a lesson I carry with me today.)

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.

How Not to Choke

(I apologize for not getting this post out yesterday. This part of Vermont has been hit by a snowstorm. The power has been on and off for the last two days. Unfortunately, I couldn’t post it yesterday when the power was out).

Monday (before the snow hit), I watched Mt. Abraham’s baseball team play against Harwood. When Harwood’s pitcher was warming up, the fans on the sidelines thought he looked good and wondered whether our batters might have a tough time against him. He had a good fast ball and seemed to have good control.

Things changed once the game started. Harwood was up first. Mt. Abraham got the first three batters out. Then Harwood’s pitcher took the mound. With his first pitch, he struck Mt. Abe’s batter in the back; he walked the second batter; and then struck the third batter in the head. Bases loaded. Had the fourth batter not moved out of the way on several pitches, he would have been hit as well. At that point Harwood’s #22 was moved to center field. Another pitcher took his place.

Where did the control go? What changed for that pitcher when the game started? Did he not have the ability—the control—to throw strikes over the plate, when during the warm-up it appeared as if he did? Or did he simply lose his ability once the game started?

It appeared that he was a victim of choking. I would love to talk to that player to find out what was happening when he was warming up. What was he thinking? What was his mood? How relaxed was he? What was he feeling? Once a batter stood next to the plate, what changed? Thoughts? Mood? Relaxation? Emotions? Often a coach will tell his athlete, “Relax! You’re trying too hard!” Good advice, but not easy to do.

When I was nineteen, I competed in the FIS World Championships in Val Gardena, Italy. Slalom was my best event. After the first run, I was in sixth place. Not bad, but I wanted to do better. I wanted to podium. I wanted to win—at the very least win a medal. As I memorized the course for the second run, that’s what I thought about—moving up and winning a medal. How to do that? The more I thought about winning a medal, the more nervous I got. At that point, ski racing wasn’t as much fun as it had been.

When I got to the top, I looked for my Dad in the crowd of spectators. He saw me and came to me. I shared my thoughts and nervousness with him. He was so calming! He had a little grin on his face and a glint in his eye, when he said, “I always thought you were the cool cucumber in the family!”

I just broke into a smile and said to myself, “Yeah, I am!” I stopped thinking about how I was going to do. I was confident that I could ski with the best of them. I did my best and ended up with the silver medal.

Two years later, I competed in the Olympics in Sapporo, Japan. This time I won the first run—not by much—three hundredths of a second. As I was memorizing the course for the second run, I could feel myself start to choke. I kept thinking, “I could win today! I could win an Olympic gold medal!!!” But the more I let myself think those thoughts, the more nervous I got. Finally, I told myself, “B.A. (that was my nickname), get a grip on yourself! You’ve got to calm down!”

I continued on my way. I fought to stay calm. I reminded myself, “I can only do my best.” I built up my confidence, “If the French girls can win, I can, too!” I prepared myself for defeat,” Even if I don’t win, I’ve won the first run and not very many people have done that. So no matter what happens now, I can always be proud of what I’ve already achieved!” I thought of my father and the World Championships in Val Gardena. Finally I was calm.

Second run, I ran fifteenth—after everyone who had a chance to overtake me. But I was able to stick to my game plan. I didn’t watch anyone ahead of me. I closed my eyes and visualized the course. I stretched and did my warm-ups. And then I slid into the tent.

Danielle Debernard had finished second on the first run. Before my second run, she was leading by about a second. That’s huge in ski racing. I didn’t know she had skied that well. I’m glad I didn’t because I could have easily choked thinking she was so much better than the rest of us on that run. I could have easily choked just thinking that all I needed to do was beat Danielle. Thinking about who you need to beat does not work. It just adds more pressure and increases the chance of choking.

When I slid into the start, I was just going to do the best I could. When I finished, Danielle had won that run by a hundredth ahead of me. But overall, I won by two hundredths.

The trick to not choking? Control your thoughts. Believe in your ability. Enjoy yourself. When you concentrate on the skills, the results will take care of themselves.

Do Goals Count?

After my son read my first post, “Getting the Results You Want”, he said, “So what you’re saying is that you shouldn’t set goals?”

Wow! That is not even close to what I meant. So if anyone else out there thought that was what I was saying, I apologize. Goals are important. They help you figure out where you want to go. They help you stay on a clearer path. Goals help you get things done. And best of all, when you complete a goal, you feel so good about yourself.

A goal is something for which to strive – something you’d like to accomplish. Yes, things would get done, even without goals. But goals are like the title in a recipe – goals describe what you want to accomplish, just as the title tells you what the recipe makes. You could follow the recipe and make a good product. But without the title, you’re guessing what the product might be. The title helps to prepare you mentally for what you will be making. Goals help focus your efforts.

For years now, Cochran’s Ski Club has prepared for the upcoming season with fall training. Often one of those days is spent on a hike. Fourteen years ago the hike was up Camel’s Hump, a favorite of our family. Among the group was my four-year-old son, Ryan, my six-year-old daughter, Caitlin, my sister, Lindy, her six-year-old son Robby, and myself.

After hiking 1.3 miles, we stopped for our second rest and snack. It was obvious we weren’t going to hike another 2.1 miles to the top or even to the meadow which was three tenths of a mile from the top. That was okay because we were outside on a beautiful day getting some exercise and having fun. (My goal).

The kids started talking about how cool it was going to be at the top and maybe they’d see the airplane wing. (Wreckage from an airplane crash in the forties is still visible). Lindy and I warned them that we probably wouldn’t make it to the top, but they could get started while we packed up. We’d catch up.

Lindy eventually overtook the boys and hiked with them to the top. I lagged behind, but finally caught up with Caitlin. We hiked until we got tired and cold before we turned around. I never dreamt Ryan could hike to the top of Camel’s Hump. He told me, “I knew I could do it and I did!”

When we had suggested that we probably wouldn’t make it all the way, Ryan and Robby both had set a goal that they would. They knew they had to hike faster; they were determined they were going to do it.

Without setting that goal, the boys would have continued to play, climbing boulders, picking up treasures, hiding and jumping out. Those goals would have been fine, except they really wanted to get to the top. Once they decided that, they began to truck! They were focused.

What impressed me more than anything, was how much achieving that goal meant to them. They bubbled with pride that they had hiked to the top of Camel’s Hump! Reaching a goal does indeed increase your self-worth.

Getting the Results You Want

Dad was a young man when he fought in WWII. Although he didn’t talk much about his experiences when I was growing up, I do remember him telling me about one of his early encounters of the horrors of war. After his first battle, he witnessed a wagon filled with dead bodies being pulled through a village where his battalion was then recovering. But the most shocking thing, was that he recognized two of the bodies on top—they were two of his buddies.

At that point, what went through his mind? Did he begin to form a plan to survive? Did he experience the hopelessness of war? Did he believe in the Allied cause? Did he ever think about the young men like himself he was trying to kill? Did he want to live? Did he believe he could survive? What thoughts filled his brain as he went about the business of war?

I’ll never know much of what he was thinking, but he did share one idea with my brother and sister. What he told them decades later when he began to talk a little about the war, was that for him, WWII got a lot easier when he realized he wasn’t coming home.

What did he mean? What’s the lesson here? Because I know he wanted to survive more than anything in the world. He had his whole life ahead of him. He wanted to meet the woman of his dreams, to have children, to play baseball. He wanted to raise a family, to finish college, to start a career. He wanted to see his mom again. He had so much for which to live.

When he told my brother and sister this experience from WWII, he wanted them to apply this lesson as athletes. What he realized was that there’s a lot of pressure when you focus intently on the result you want. The more you want that result, the more intense the pressure. The more intense the pressure, the more the result becomes stifled, and the less likely you will be able to create that outcome. He wanted my brother, sisters, and myself to understand that the more we focused on winning ski races, or beating a certain competitor, or qualifying for a particular team, or racing to lower our points, or winning an Olympic gold medal, the less likely we would be able to do what we so much desired. He wanted us to concentrate on the skills. Only then would the results take care of themselves.