Mind over matter: The psychology of winter athletes

cross country skiing mountains

Cross country skiing

Like me, you might have already caught yourself wondering what’s going through the minds of the world’s top competitors and how they manage to keep their heads screwed on during race day.

The anticipation on race day, the cold sweat at the starting gate, the spine tingling high octane speed and the prospect of either perpetual glory or sinking defeat: For the average spectator, these are concerns that seldom register a blip on the consciousness, but for the elite members of the Olympic community these are some of the thoughts that only a handful of people experience and few have the constitution for.

Even the most accomplished of skiers can occasionally find themselves crippled from the hangover of the all too familiar choke and for many; the prospect of injury followed by lengthy rehabilitation or going home empty handed can weigh heavily on the mind.

Fortunately there are some people who dedicate their lives to supporting some of the world’s top athletes during times of great stress and personal hardship.

To offer the humble spectator a little insight and the next Bode Miller a chance to gain some wisdom on how to keep the pre-race nerves at bay, the Ski Club of Great Britain team has gone behind the scenes to speak to one of the UK’s most respected sports psychologists Phil Johnson, who has worked closely with British Olympic snowboarder Jenny Jones during slope style at the winter Olympics in Sochi.

skier mid jump spinning

Spinning in super pipe skiing

Being a sports psychologist is quite a specialist field. How did you get involved in this?

You might think I’m ancient but I actually used to play for the Bolton Wanderers. For a period, I also used to have a ski tech shop in Cambridge, where I was the biggest distributor of Laneg ski gear. I taught mental health law in London then went to Bristol to do sports psychology and coaching. Jenny Jones and I started working together after this. Oh I’m also a ski instructor!

Gosh – you’ve been keeping busy! So what’s the trick to keeping an athlete feeling like a Zen Buddhist master on the slopes? Would you recommend a hot bath with candles or is it slightly more complex?

It’s funny you should say that because we do encourage athletes to try hot yoga which can really help with relaxation and flexibility as well as shaping the mind of the winter athlete.

What exactly does a sports psychologist help with?

People approach me if they lose performance. What we do is try to help people recover from injury and sports trauma so when they come in, a lot of the time they’ve hit a brick wall.

Does sports psychology vary depending on the sport?

Skiing often has a very gung-ho attitude. If you’ve broken your leg the mentality is ‘so what?!’ and you get up and keep going. Its high adrenaline so there’s a lot of pressure compared to other sports. It’s also highly focused on the individual. You have to anticipate certain situations that might cause injury bearing in mind snow conditions, fear of failure, fear of injury and even fear of success, so there are many problems that we have to tackle.

What can you tell me about the latest science in sports psychology?

Currently, we use something called brain spotting. When people are traumatized, it blocks certain areas of the brain. Using triangulation of physical cognitive and negative emotion, we can use an MRI scan to locate a point in the brain that lights up. That, and monitoring eye positioning, allows us to then desensitize the traumatic event. Also, many athletes don’t have the vocabulary, so this can really help to solve problems without knowing their background or medical history.

Does healthy living and a good balanced diet play a role in an athlete’s mental well-being?

I’ve actually previously taught nutrition and what I find surprising is how many athletes don’t fully understand hydration and the balance of nutrition where there exists a direct link between energy, mood and performance. Weather conditions and cold temperate as well as intense sweating all come into play meaning the skier loses important electrolytes like potassium and sodium. So yes, it’s extremely important.

I’ll never forget getting a rather sweaty brow when my mum used to watch me in the egg and spoon race at school. How does it affect a skier physiologically when he’s faced with a couple of thousand people, his coach and parents all cheering away at the finishing line?

During my time working with Jenny Jones she famously had her parents hidden while she won her bronze medal as this was beneficial for maintaining her focus.

Is this the advice you personally gave?

[Smiles] No comment.

Okay moving on. The possibility of injury is a big part of being an athlete, not to mention the potential for a lot of time in rehabilitation. What’s the right way of keeping a skier focused and not thinking about the next injury?

When we think about the future or the past we’re not in the moment so we try to sustain focus which is what we call “attention control training”. Embarrassment, injury or trauma can create a negative experience so with skiing, trauma can be triggered by an environment or place which can then signal a fight or flight response in the brain which consequently blocks communications to important areas of the brain.

I see a lot of freestyle skiers ready to drop in the super pipe listening to their favourite music in order to pump them up for the run. Is this something you would advise as a way to calm the nerves?

The use of music in sport is widely known and has been used for a long time to reduce stress and, more importantly, to generate rhythm for the athlete. It helps you to move more fluidly which avoids tension and overall helps with your edging, balance and head position.

Do you have a particular preference when choosing your music genre?

Bit of rock music usually does the trick for me!

I hear the word mindfulness thrown about a lot in the world of psychology can you tell me a bit about that and what it means, exactly?

It’s a state of reflection when you become consciously aware, as well as referring to your ability to connect with the subconscious which in that moment, you’re able to create a sense of calmness. It’s all about observing our own feelings without judging them so we become much more self-aware and able to make sense of our problems.

Now, I hope you don’t mind but this is a bit of a personal question. Have you ever experienced the crushing feeling of defeat?

When I played as the captain of the Bolton Wanderers in the cup final, I was asked to take the penalty and I hit it over the bar.

swiss country skiing winner on podium

2011 Swiss Country Skiing Championships

So there you have it. Many thanks to Phil Johnson for shedding light on some Freudian psychoanalysis. If you hunger for medal winning glory whilst popping crisp cool bubbly into the faces of your losing competitors then sports psychologists Phil can start paving the way for you…


Written by Hugh Brazier, Visual Effects Artist and Keen Skier


Categories: Advice

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